Tips to select the best bookshelf speakers for your stereo system

The value and quality of the ELAC Debut B6 speaker comes as no surprise. It’s veteran speaker designer Andrew Jones’s first project since leaving Pioneer for ELAC, and Jones has clearly brought along his knack for successfully applying the lessons he learned from making $30,000 speakers to affordable ones. For the Debut B6, Jones paired a 1-inch cloth dome tweeter with a 6½-inch aramid-fiber cone efficient enough for any standard receiver to drive. Binding posts (as opposed to cheaper spring clip attachments) make it easy to connect to your receiver or amplifier with the cables of your choice, whether they terminate in bare wire, banana plugs, or spades. The B6s are larger than some other bookshelves and the finish isn’t attractive, but they are a terrific value. And if you want to upgrade later to a surround-sound system, you can add a matching center channel, towers, or even Atmos modules.

To select the best bookshelf speakers for your stereo system, we considered hundreds of models, narrowed the field to 19 finalists, and then had a three-person listening panel put each through their paces with a wide variety of music. After 90 hours of work, the ELAC Debut B6 speakers came out as our top choice because they sound more like a live performance than anything in this price range.

They’re also much more compact and come in a selection of much nicer finishes than the ELAC. However, you’re paying 50 percent more for what amounts to cosmetic improvements.If the ELAC B6 set is unavailable, the DALI ZENSOR 1 is a close runner-up (and our previous pick). The sound quality of this pair is virtually the same as the ELAC and we couldn’t pick one over the other in a direct A/B comparison.

If you want to go for an upgrade, the KEF Q100 costs nearly twice the price of our main pick, but this set was the clear favorite of our listening panel. We found the sound to be more detailed and clear than what we heard from the other speakers. Like the ELAC B6, the Q100 set has an available matching center channel for home theater. It also comes in four different finishes, and you can even choose larger versions if you want more bass.

Finally, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR is our budget pick. These speakers were part of Andrew Jones’ last series at Pioneer and sounded better than any of the other under-$200 speakers we tried. But our listening panel said they sounded less detailed compared to speakers in the $300+ range. They’re good for the money, but we recommend you upgrade if you can afford to.

Table of contents

  • Why you should trust us
  • Who should get this?
  • What makes a good bookshelf speaker
  • What we listen for
  • How we picked what to test
  • How we tested
  • Our pick
  • Who else likes it?
  • Flaws but not dealbreakers
  • The (better looking) runner-up
  • The upgrade pick
  • The budget pick
  • What do you get if you spend more?
  • Getting the most from your speakers
  • What to look forward to
  • The competition

Why you should trust us

I’ve been a die-hard audiophile since my teenage years and a professional audio reviewer since 2008. I’ve heard hundreds of speakers, reviewed dozens, and spent hundreds of hours listening. I’ve also taken training courses from Audio Precision and talked to speaker designers on the best ways to objectively measure speakers to supplement my subjective opinions with data.

We used a multi-listener panel to determine our winner. In addition to myself, we had Stephen Hornbrook, an audio reviewer for Secrets of Home Theater and Reference Home Theater for over five years, and Wirecutter editor and audiophile Michael Zhao.

Who should get this?

Bookshelf speakers are great for anyone who wants to enjoy listening to music who is willing to tolerate a bit more complexity in setup to get better sound and better value than other options provide. For example, Bluetooth speakers offer an easy way to listen to music but can’t produce a real stereo effect and use a compressed signal. Whole-home audio systems like Sonos’s products can give you true CD-quality streaming but also have a limited number of speaker options and often cost more, especially if you want to listen in stereo.

Used with a receiver, bookshelf speakers let you listen to your audio sources in full resolution. Unlike most wireless products, they aren’t limited to CD resolution, since you can connect any device to your receiver’s inputs. You can enjoy analog playback from vinyl, high-resolution digital audio from a computer or a media server, lossless Blu-ray soundtracks, and streaming content, of course—just hook up the source of your choice.

Even if you listen exclusively to streaming audio sources such as Spotify, bookshelf speakers might still be the correct pick. Due to the wires, they aren’t as easy to place and hook up as a wireless speaker like the Sonos, but they offer more flexibility. For instance, you can choose a stereo receiver that provides integrated Spotify or Bluetooth support, like the NAD D 3020 or Yamaha R-N301. Or you can integrate them into a Sonos setup with a CONNECT:AMP or use them in a home theater system.

Although wireless standards will certainly change a lot over the next decade, a pair of passive bookshelf speakers will never become antiquated or useless.

Although wireless standards will certainly change a lot over the next decade, as they have during the past decade, a pair of passive bookshelf speakers will never become antiquated or useless. A pair of speakers from 30 years ago still work today, after all, and you’ll find many people still using speakers from over 50 years ago, with modern electronics to power them. Modern speakers are typically better than older speakers due to advances in driver and crossover design, but an older speaker will usually still work and will probably last longer than any other piece of gear you could buy today.

What makes a good bookshelf speaker

Designing speakers requires choices and compromises in configuration and materials, all of which influence the resulting sound. Some choices reflect personal preference on the part of the designer (or the intended audience), while others are due to cost.

Most of the speakers we tested had “two-way” designs. A two-way speaker includes two drivers: a tweeter and a midrange/bass driver (also called a woofer). This is the most common design for bookshelf speakers because of the relatively small space required for the two drivers. This type of design also uses a simpler crossover that has to separate the incoming signal into only two paths: one for the tweeter and one for the midrange/bass driver.

You will also find 2½-way and three-way designs. A 2½-way speaker retains a single tweeter but has two woofers, one that does everything the tweeter doesn’t (as in a two-way design) and an additional woofer that helps out only in the low bass. A three-way design has completely separate tweeter, midrange, and bass drivers.

Moving to multiple drivers can create better sound. As each driver has to reproduce only a limited frequency range, a speaker designer can choose a driver better optimized for those specific frequencies. Such a design also avoids intermodular distortion—artifacts resulting from a single driver that’s trying to produce two different tones at once.

The trade-off with a three-way design is a more complicated crossover (that link is to the Audioholics explanation, in case you want an alternative to Wikipedia’s). And the more complicated the crossover, the more expensive it is to make, and the more small differences in part variances can add up to a noticeable difference in sound. A three-way design also poses a more difficult challenge for the designer, since creating seamless integration between multiple drivers (so music sounds like it’s coming from one speaker) is harder than doing so for just two drivers in a two-way design. All of this complexity means a more expensive speaker.

Speaker manufacturers can make the drivers, especially the tweeter, out of many different materials, and again, these choices can affect the sound. Each material offers its own distinct benefits and drawbacks, but the overall voicing of the speaker plays more of a role than the technology does. Tweeters are most often available as soft domes, using a silk or other cloth material, or metal, using a material such as aluminum. Each of these options presents tradeoffs that speaker designers work around.

Some people believe that metallic tweeters can sound harsh compared with the soft-dome kind, but this impression is largely a byproduct of the speaker’s overall design and not so much the result of a specific material choice. A metal dome is stiffer than a silk or paper dome (and should be able to reproduce high-frequency sounds more effectively), but that stiffness can cause it to resonate more—and thus distort—when pushed too far. Although a soft dome might distort even more easily, its sonic artifacts are different than a metal dome’s and often sound less harsh to the ears.

You can also find tweeters using more exotic materials, such as titanium, beryllium, or even diamond-based materials. These exotic materials get closer to the ideal for a tweeter: especially stiff, to best reproduce high-frequency sounds, but also especially light, to reduce resonant frequencies and thus distort less easily. But such components are usually present only in expensive speakers.

One of the speakers we tested uses a totally different tweeter design called an air motion transformer. AMTs, which resemble a small, compressed accordion, offer some benefits over traditional tweeters, namely a wider frequency range and very flat frequency response. But they’re also more sensitive to off-axis listening. In other words, they can sound very good at the primary listening seat but somewhat worse as you move to the side.

Cabinet construction also plays a role in the sound quality of a speaker. The most noticeable physical difference between the sub-$125 speakers and the more expensive ones is in their weight: The pricier speakers are significantly heavier. Cheaper speakers use thinner materials that are more prone to resonance. The ideal cabinet should be as inert as possible to prevent that resonance from getting into the drivers, where it can produce distortion—or even worse, become audible itself as the whole cabinet rattles.

Speakers also come in three main cabinet designs: sealed, rear-ported, and front-ported. A sealed cabinet has no openings. Ported designs have a port for added bass response on the front or rear of the cabinet. When the bass driver on a speaker moves, it displaces air that then comes out of this port to produce more bass. The feature lets you get higher output at lower octaves from a speaker without adding a larger, and more expensive, driver. The tradeoff is that you need a larger cabinet size compared with a sealed design, and the bass from a port is higher in distortion than that from a driver. You also need to keep the port away from walls, which can be difficult—especially with a rear port—in some situations.

What we listen for

Research from scientists such as Dr. Floyd Toole over the past several decades has shown that when judging solely on sound, the vast majority of people prefer a flat frequency response.

The most important thing to listen for in a speaker is a balanced, neutral sound. Research from scientists such as Dr. Floyd Toole over the past several decades has shown that when judging solely on sound, the vast majority of people prefer a flat frequency response. Many speakers are designed that way, but many others have tweaks intended to produce a sound that the designer prefers.

A common tweak is to boost the high frequencies, or treble. When you first listen, this peaked treble produces the illusion of extra detail when compared with a speaker that is more neutral. But the longer you listen to such speakers, the more that peaked treble will grate on your ears and cause fatigue. When doing our comparisons between speakers, we would notice quickly that one sounded more detailed, but if we pushed the volume up or listened for extended periods, we always wound up disliking the excess treble.

Low frequencies, or bass, represent a challenge for bookshelf speakers. On one hand, you want bass that goes low enough so you can hear almost everything in the music. On the other hand, pushing a five-inch woofer to produce such low tones can be too difficult, and most of those woofers generate poor, flabby bass that you really don’t want to hear. Since a larger cabinet helps create more bass, the larger the bookshelf speaker, the more bass we heard. During our selection process, we wanted to find a speaker that could reproduce bass deep enough to provide a nearly full-range listening experience but didn’t have to strain to reproduce those lowest notes and thus sound flabby or uncontrolled.

One of our most critical elements during testing was the soundstage, or the perceived size of the sound the speaker can produce. When set up in a stereo pair, speakers produce an image that varies in width, depth, and even apparent height. Our ideal soundstage takes up the front of the room, extends beyond the width of the speakers, and has some depth. Some speakers in our tests produced a narrow soundstage that sounded stuck in a small area between the two speakers. Others created a soundstage that seemed to come from inside the walls instead of inside the room. Others produced sound that seemed two-dimensional, with no depth at all. What we were after was a large soundstage in which we felt as if we could hear the positions of the instruments.

How we picked what to test

You can find hundreds of bookshelf speakers out there. Companies have been making them for decades, and every year hundreds of new models arrive. Testing every speaker on the market is impossible because of the number that exist. So the first thing we did was narrow the field down to two price ranges.

First we looked at speakers priced at $125 a pair or less. This type of speaker occupies a much smaller segment of the speaker market, one that many traditional vendors avoid (and on which many Internet direct vendors thrive).

The biggest issue with the models in this price range is that they’ve gotten virtually zero professional reviews. You’ll find some good amateur reviews out there, but other than the Andrew Jones–designed Pioneer models, mainstream reviewers have ignored products in this category. To whittle these choices down, we had to rely on Amazon user reviews and ratings.

bookshelf speakers, home audio

The 19 pairs of bookshelf speakers, and their boxes, in the listening room.

In our other category, the $250-to-$400 price range (we discuss more expensive options below), we found models from almost all the major speaker manufacturers—and far more professional reviews. This price range gave us options from almost every major speaker manufacturer. With the exception of a Sound & Vision piece from Wirecutter contributor Brent Butterworth two years ago, however, almost all of the reviews discuss individual speaker sets, not comparisons with other models.

We looked at all of the reviews we could find (and trust), plus customer reviews, to eliminate models that might have problems in real-world use. With so many models on the market, we kept our focus only on the ones that received excellent scores across the board.

How we tested

Once we selected our finalists, we assembled them in my listening room for evaluation. We had a lot of them. Seriously. 19 pairs. We left them with music playing for several days to ensure they were properly “burned in” (even though we believe that the need to burn speakers in is mostly a matter of placebo effect sprinkled with magical nonsense). Driver suspensions can loosen a bit initially, but not to the huge degree some reviewers would have you believe. What’s likely happening is that your brain is adjusting to the sound. But we did this step anyway, just to be thorough.

bookshelf speakers, home audio

Listening to three pairs of speakers.

To properly compare the speakers against one another, we set them on 30-inch shelves so that the tweeters all stood as close to ear height as possible. We placed the shelves at least one foot away from all walls for sound-quality reasons; positioning a shelf too close to a wall causes excessive bass and removes the balance between highs and lows. We borrowed an ATI AT6012 amplifier to power multiple speakers at a time (though we tested only three pairs per round). A custom active switcher built by our own Brent Butterworth let us switch easily between speaker pairs. We used pink noise to make sure the speakers’ output levels were within 0.5 dB of one another when tested.

For the source we used a Sonos CONNECT playing TIDAL and lossless local files through an AURALiC VEGA DAC. All wires were from Monoprice, including our pick for best speaker wire.

bookshelf speakers, Sonos CONNECT, home audio

From top: the AURALiC VEGA DAC, the ATI AT6012 amplifier, our custom speaker switch box, and the Sonos CONNECT.

We compared speakers in each price range head-to-head-to-head, using however many tracks it took to determine which one sounded best. If the results in a single listening round were too close for us to determine a winner, we rotated other models in and came back to those speakers later until we could make a choice.

To make sure that placement was not a factor in comparing models, we rotated speaker positions each round.

We tested the new ELAC B6 against our prior picks—the DALI ZENSOR 1 and Pioneer SP BS-22—and the much pricier KEF R300 bookshelf. We switched between these speakers two at a time to compare them to the ELAC Debut B6.

Our pick

bookshelf speakers, elac debut b6

After directly comparing the ELAC Debut B6 to our previous champ, the DALI ZENSOR 1, the ELAC won us over with impressive detail, terrific soundstaging, and tight bass. Out of the 18 speakers we tested, a few surpassed the ELAC in certain aspects, but among those priced under $400, nothing else we heard offered the overall balance and performance of the ELAC Debut B6 for the same price. Basically, you won’t get closer to the feeling of a live performance without spending a lot more money. With optional matching center channel, tower, and Atmos modules, the ELAC speakers will work in both two-channel and multi-channel systems.

The ELAC Debut B6 is the first line of speakers designed for ELAC by renowned speaker designer Andrew Jones. With a background that includes designing widely acclaimed $130-a-pair speakers for Pioneer (including our budget pick) and $30,000-a-pair models for boutique brands, he has shown the ability to create winning products at any price range.

The Debut B6 speakers sound very clear and detailed. During our tests, in “Just the Way You Are” from Diana Krall’s Live in Paris, her vocals and the piano sounded more natural through the ELAC pair than through most of the competition. Other speakers did a good job of capturing the sound of her voice, but the ELAC better distinguished small details such as the sound of her mouth opening and closing. You get no peaked treble here—just a very detailed, smooth sound.

The soundstage on the ELAC speakers is both wider and deeper than that of other similarly priced speakers, allowing you to locate where instruments are in the stereo mix.

The soundstage on the ELAC speakers is both wider and deeper than that of other similarly priced speakers, allowing you to locate where instruments are in the stereo mix. As a result, the Debut B6 pair gives music much more depth and realism than speakers with a flatter soundstage do, and in our tests we could easily hear the difference between the ELAC speakers and the other models.

Bass on the ELAC has a nice balance between low-frequency extension and output. The ELAC speakers reach lower than almost any other model we tested thanks to their larger woofer but never sound as if they are straining to reach notes they shouldn’t. In our testing, they communicated the opening to “Teardrop” from Massive Attack and the bassline on The White Stripes’s “Seven Nation Army” quite well.

They’re also versatile when it comes to setup. Secure binding posts make them easy to install with any kind of speaker cable. And at a claimed 6 ohms nominal, with a rated sensitivity of 87 decibels, they’re efficient enough for any standard receiver to drive.

bookshelf speakers, elac debut b6, home audio

We also like that ELAC offers matching speakers for a full 7.1.4 channel home theater system. With bookshelf speakers that don’t have an available matching center channel, either you need to use another bookshelf speaker for the center (which tends to be physically awkward to place below or above a TV), or you need to use a center speaker from another brand, which will make voices sound different depending on which speaker they’re coming from. Using a matching center channel avoids those problems and gives you seamless, cohesive performance. Although most people will use the ELAC speakers only as a stereo pair, the ability to use them in a home theater gives everyone an easy upgrade path to full 5.1 and beyond.

Who else likes it?

Steve Guttenberg from CNET gives the ELAC Debut B6 a full five stars in his review. He gives it a perfect 10 for value and says “The ELAC Debut B6 bookshelf speakers offer stellar, best-in-class sound quality that no other speakers can match at this low price.” He does knock the lightweight feeling of the build quality but never feels that it interferes with the sound quality. He prefers the ELAC overall to the more than twice as expensive B&W 685 S2. More importantly he compares them directly to the smaller B5 from ELAC and feels the B6 is worth the extra $50.

Scot Hull from Part Time Audiophile compares the Debut B6 to the same Pioneer BS22 and KEF R300 speakers that we did in his review and calls the ELAC B6 “the best that I’ve heard at anything like their price.”

Flaws but not dealbreakers

If you are putting the ELAC on full display in your living room, it isn’t the most attractive speaker. It is large and boxy, and its vinyl wrap finish that doesn’t look great up close. ELAC chose to save money here and put it towards sound quality. We think that’s the right decision for most people. If you want the same sound quality in a better looking box, the Dali ZENSOR 1 sounds almost identical to the ELAC but is more compact and comes in a variety of more attractive finishes.

The (better looking) runner-up

The DALI ZENSOR 1 was our previous bookshelf speaker pick and is still our recommendation if the ELAC Debut B6 is unavailable or you want something that’s better finished (or at least a little less boxy and black). It offers almost identical sound quality in a box that is more compact and with a nicer selection of finishes. When doing A/B comparisons with the ELAC Debut B6, it was almost impossible to distinguish the two speakers from each other; the lower price of the ELAC gave it the nod over the DALI.

Compared to all the other speakers we originally tested against it, the ZENSOR 1 offers a better sense of space with a larger soundstage, plus more detail in recordings. Music sounds more realistic through them than through other sub-$400 bookshelves. With an available matching center channel speaker and towers, the ZENSOR 1 can also work well in a home theater environment. Many of the other bookshelves we tested didn’t have a matching center channel option.

If you want a nicer finish or more compact bookshelf speaker, or the ELAC Debut B6 isn’t available, the DALI ZENSOR 1 is the way to go.

The upgrade pick

If you can afford to spend more than $400, take a look at the KEF Q100, which our panel universally preferred. The Q100 speakers sound superior in every respect, from soundstage and detail to bass response and vocal clarity. Music sounds more refined and defined through the Q100 set. During complex test tracks like Beck’s “Lost Cause,” the Q100 made it easy for us to pick out individual instruments, while on other speakers they were more jumbled together.

The KEF Q100 pair sounds relaxed and comfortable, while still presenting lots of detail. You could easily listen to these speakers for hours without your ears growing fatigued.

KEF uses its own Uni-Q layout, which positions the tweeter inside the midrange driver. This arrangement is more expensive to build, which is why most other speakers don’t use it. What it offers is an increase in timing and coherence, as most of the sounds from the speaker originate from a single point. The timing difference between the separate tweeter and midrange drivers on other speakers might be a fraction of a millisecond, but it’s a difference the brain can pick up. In real life, voices and instruments originate from a single point, and the KEF driver better mimics this effect than a conventional two-driver system does.

All of the panelists agreed that we would pay the extra $150 for the KEF Q100 speakers ourselves over the prior DALI ZENSOR 1, because we’re serious about sound and willing to pay more for something that will last us a decade or longer. However, the KEF Q100 are twice the price of the ELAC Debut B6. We’ve seen the Q100s drop to $300 a pair, and at that price, we certainly would get the KEF over the B6. At their normal price, it’s a tougher call. The Q100s are better, but we think most people would be plenty happy with the far cheaper B6s. If you’re sure you want something a bit better and don’t mind paying for it, the Q100s are great.

It also comes in a number of finishes and has a matching $500 center-channel speaker.

The budget pick

If you don’t want to spend $400 on a pair of bookshelf speakers, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR is your best choice. Also designed by Andrew Jones (when he was at Pioneer), the SP-BS22-LR speakers sound very good for the price. Next to other speakers in the same price range, this pair offers much better bass response, clarity, and build quality. Pioneer also sells a matching $100 center-channel speaker if you wish to build a home theater system around this set.

Compared with the ELAC Debut B6 and other more expensive speakers, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR speakers sound darker. This means voices and other instruments can sound muted, as if they were coming from behind a screen. The finish of the Pioneer looks nicer than the ELAC, with a better faux wood grain and curved sides, but both feel lightweight and hollow compared to the DALI.

The Pioneer set is the best option for the price, but stepping up provides easily noticeable benefits.

What do you get if you spend more?

When you’re shopping for bookshelf speakers, you’ll find a huge range of prices. A pair from Dayton Audio, for example, costs $40, while a pair of Magico Q1 bookshelf speakers costs $25,000, as much as a new car. Testing every single bookshelf speaker in every price range would be impossible, so instead we brought in a few well-reviewed expensive speakers (though not stratospherically expensive ones) to compare against our pick. We selected three models ranging in price from $750 to $1,500 a pair to see if you do get a noticeable increase in performance for the money.

The Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73 bookshelf speakers, also designed by Andrew Jones, are very different from the company’s budget SP-BS22-LR set. Each one features a concentric driver like the KEF Q100 and is also designed to support Dolby Atmos. In our tests, the coherent driver produced impressive results on the Diana Krall track, as everything sounded natural and cohesive. The Elite SP-EBS73 set also offered better bass than the Q100 pair, despite similar drivers. Though the sound quality of the Pioneer versus that of the cheaper KEF is a bit of a toss-up,the pricier Pioneer set offers Dolby Atmos at home and good audio quality.

In our tests, the SVS Ultra Bookshelf speakers produced room-filling bass that the other speakers simply could not touch. The 6½-inch woofer of each SVS speaker is larger than those in the other speakers we tested, plus the cabinet itself is larger. When playing Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, or anything else that demanded to be turned up, the SVS pair responded and filled the room, without any of the strain at louder volumes that the other bookshelf speakers exhibited. The opening bassline to Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” was in a different realm. The SVS pair’s bass went deeper, had better definition, and helped the speakers create a larger soundstage than their rivals mustered.

Next to the KEF Q100 and Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73, the Ultra Bookshelf doesn’t sound as perfectly coherent; in our tests, Diana Krall’s voice lacked detail and transparency compared with how she sounded on those other models. Her piano, however, carried more weight and authority on the SVS. The SVS Ultra Bookshelf pair sounded better than the DALI ZENSOR 1 set in all regards and filled the room better than any other bookshelf speakers we listened to, but couldn’t quite match the detail of the unified midrange/tweeter drivers in the KEF and Pioneer speakers. If your tastes run toward rock or hip-hop, and less toward jazz or other acoustic music, or if you want impact from movie soundtracks without a subwoofer, the SVS might be your best option.

No bookshelf speaker model in the past decade has been as highly praised as the KEF LS50. Comparing this model against every other speaker set in our test group showed why: The KEF LS50 speakers produced a perfectly smooth, effortless sound that outclassed the audio from every competitor. The soundstage was larger and more detailed on the LS50, and the bass was deeper and better defined than on any rival speakers other than the SVS pair.

Each LS50 includes a Uni-Q driver, like the KEF Q100, but uses a higher-end version. The Uni-Q driver here is made of a magnesium/aluminum alloy instead of standard aluminum like that of the Q100. In general, the LS50 model ranks far beyond the other speakers in build quality, as it’s very heavy, more solid than the others, with virtually no resonance when you knock on the cabinet. The LS50 pair is the best bookshelf speaker set we listened to. It’s expensive, but it does offer an audible difference.

Getting the most from your speakers

No matter what bookshelf speakers you pick, you can make them sound better by setting them up correctly. You could just place a pair of speakers anywhere and listen to the music, but proper placement (and some attention to a couple of other tips) can help you get the most from your gear.

First, even though they are called bookshelf speakers, don’t put them on an actual bookshelf. The result might look nice but won’t sound as good. Most bookshelf speakers are rear-ported, so some of the bass fires out the back. Putting such a speaker in a bookcase traps that bass, amplifying it and changing its tone. Sure, your little bookshelf speaker will be emitting more bass, but at the expense of everything else. Bookcase shelves are usually adjustable, too, and therefore unstable and prone to vibration. Placing a speaker on these can transfer the vibrations and make for a subpar listening experience.

Try to put each speaker farther out in the open, with a bit of space between it and the walls if possible. Most people don’t want a speaker in the middle of the room, but even placing it on top of a table or a stand eight to 12 inches from the wall will make a big improvement. You should strive to get the tweeters at roughly ear level, because that’s the way almost all speakers are designed to be used.

An ideal position for bookshelf speakers is on a pair of speaker stands.

An ideal position for bookshelf speakers is on a pair of speaker stands. The stands will put the speakers at the correct height for most people when they’re seated, and will keep the speakers away from the floor (and perhaps the walls) to prevent any impact on the sound.

Stands will include carpet spikes to better anchor them to the floor, giving the speakers a sturdier perch. You can fill many stands with sand or shot, adding weight and further reducing vibrations. Stands made of steel will last nearly forever. I splurged on $300 stands almost 20 years ago that are still perfect today. You can spend far less and still get great results.

The front grill on a speaker is designed to keep the drivers safe from children and pets. Although the grill material is as acoustically transparent as possible, having it in place is not as good as leaving it off. So if you don’t have kids or pets around to damage the grill, don’t feel you have to use it.

If you’re running tiny, solid-strand speaker cables, you can upgrade those as well. Good speaker cable doesn’t cost much at all and might make an improvement depending on what you’re using now.

If you want to go all the way, you might be able to improve the sound by changing the location of not only your speakers but also your furniture. Do you have bare walls or floors in your listening room? Mounting bookcases on the walls will help improve things by scattering the first reflection of the sound coming from your speakers rather than just letting it bounce off the wall. Heavy blinds or a tapestry will produce a similar effect by absorbing some sound, as will adding a carpet or rug to the floor. Putting something on the wall behind the speakers or behind your listening chair will produce improvements, too. You don’t need to install giant, ugly acoustic panels (as I did in my listening room) to improve the sound. Following any of these tips will enhance the sound quality of whatever speakers you have.

What to look forward to

The ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers blew people away when the company previewed them at CES 2016. The bookshelf speakers are available now on Amazon. In a review, CNET writes that they sound “much better than you have any right to expect from a speaker of this size and price.” We’re looking forward to testing them ourselves shortly.

Q Acoustics, a well-reviewed brand in the UK, launched a website offering a full line of home speakers in mid-July, including five two-way bookshelf speaker models. The 2010i Compact, 2020i, 3010 Compact, 3020, and Concept 20 bookshelf speakers are all now available from Amazon or the Q Acoustics website, and we’ll test them soon to see how they may fit into our picks.

The competition

The Music Hall Marimba two-way bookshelf speaker set took first place in Brent Butterworth’s testing panel for Sound & Vision and was our previous runner-up. In our original tests, the main failing of the Marimba speakers was that they had a very flat soundstage while the ZENSOR 1 speakers offered more depth, creating a better illusion of instruments coming from different distances and points in space. On jazz and other vocal recordings, the ZENSOR 1 separated itself a little more, while on rock and hip-hop the choice was much harder. The Marimba model comes in only a black vinyl finish and offers no matching center channel speaker, so it might not work quite as well as the ZENSOR 1 in as many situations. The Marimbas are good-sounding speakers, but they come up just short of the ZENSOR 1, and, by extension, our new winners, the B6 Debut.

The PSB Alpha B1 was our upgrade choice last time, but this model doesn’t offer everything that its competitors do. The soundstage of the PSB speakers is more recessed than that of rivals, with sounds seeming to come from back in the wall instead of from within the room, and in our tests the woofer started to sound strained during passages with heavy bass. Instead of remaining clear and tight, bass notes started to sound prolonged and fatigued when we really pushed it.

Polk Audio’s RTI A1 speakers have a large soundstage and lots of detail, but a particularly bright, forward treble. That brightness, or excessive treble, sounds clear and detailed at first listen but over time becomes hard to tolerate. In our tests, piano music was overly resonant on the Polk Audio pair compared with the DALI set.

The brand-new Monitor Audio Bronze 1 set offers good bass response and a large soundstage, but the treble is muted next to that of other speakers. Instead of having too much treble, this set has too little compared with its midrange and bass, and it can make recordings sound dull as a result. In our tests, the guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” sounded dry on the Monitor Audio pair, whereas it jangled on the DALI and the Music Hall.

During our testing, Wharfedale’s Diamond 220 speakers had good detail and nice bass but sounded boxed in when compared with other speakers in the lineup. These speakers produced a soundstage that was narrow and confined to the center of the room, while other speakers created a more expansive stereo image. Aside from the soundstage, the quality of the sound was good, and we liked the build of the speakers, but we all preferred a sound that was more open.

Aperion’s Intimus 5B speakers are part of our pick for the best 5.1 surround system, but in a stereo setup, we didn’t like them as much as the DALI set. Vocals sounded as if they were coming from someone in a tunnel instead of inside the room.
The Cambridge Audio Aero 2 speakers were more compact than the other speakers we tried and sounded like it. The bass was quieter than the treble and midrange, and this pair was simply not as clear and defined as the larger bookshelf units were.

Definitive Technology’s SM45 speakers had the best bass of any bookshelf speakers we listened to under $1,000. The treble and the overall sound were a bit more exaggerated, and this pair just wasn’t as relaxing to listen to as the other speakers. Although the SM45 speakers did well with rock, they weren’t as good across a wide variety of music; they lacked the clarity of other speakers on jazz and piano, and the soundstage wasn’t as defined as with other models. This pair did the best job of reproducing the opening notes from “Teardrop” and the bassline in “Seven Nation Army,” but the SVS Ultra Bookshelf set still dug deeper with less strain.

The Fluance XL7S set offers a good soundstage but lacks bass compared with the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR. The treble is a bit more open, but it might also be too bright for some listeners.

Monoprice’s 10532 speakers have a balanced sound but are dark and overly bassy even when compared with the already dark Pioneer budget set.

The Dayton Audio B652-AIR model has good upper-octave clarity, thanks to its ribbon tweeter, but offers virtually no bass. Listening to the opening of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” we almost couldn’t hear the bassline. This is also the only speaker model we reviewed that uses the cheaper spring clips that don’t accept banana-plug connectors.

Micca’s MB42X set is small and compact, but the pair sounded poor next to all of the other contenders. The bass was lacking with the small woofer, and the treble had a harsh, metallic sound. Beck’s voice during “Lost Cause” sounded different here than on everything else, as if the tonal balance of the speakers was wrong.

The Polk Audio TSi100 would be our clear pick for an affordable speaker set, but the company has discontinued this model. In our tests this pair’s soundstage was more open than that of the Pioneer budget pick, with more clarity and very good bass. If you can find the TSi100 set, it’s a very good choice.

Other speaker models failed to make the cut early on:

Audio Engine’s P4 is attractive and based on the company’s popular A5 model, but reviews say this pair works better for near-field listening (such as at a computer) than in the living room as bookshelf speakers. People recommend the active A5 instead.

The Bose 301-V model has a rear-facing driver that creates a large but diffuse sound. Reviews say that this set has a large soundstage but produces muddy results because of that design, so we weren’t interested. Furthermore, professional reviews of the speakers overall are poor.

Cambridge Audio’s SX-50 has good customer reviews, but professional reviews describe this set as “more functional than special.” In a category crowded with well-reviewed products, that assessment wasn’t enough to make us want to evaluate this model.

We thought that the Dayton Audio B652, which has no ribbon tweeter, was worse than the more recent version with the ribbon tweeter, so we excluded it.

We cut the Energy CB-10 from the running because of generally poor reviews.

JBL’s ES20, next to the other speaker sets, was too pronounced in the treble.

The KEF C1 and C3 have poor overall reviews compared with the speakers we brought in, so we tested the more expensive Q100 instead.

The Klipsch RB-41 II is now discontinued, and we did not bring it in.

We chose not to bring in the Paradigm Cinema 100, as reviews indicate that this set sounds good but needs a subwoofer to reproduce the full range of music. We wanted speakers that could produce better bass than that.

CNET and other outlets give only fair reviews to the Sony SS-B1000, so we concluded that the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR pair was a better choice.

Reviews note that Sony’s SS-CS5 is better than the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR but not up to the level of the Music Hall Marimba and other models. This set was too expensive relative to the Pioneer to compete as a budget pick, and the reviews we saw were not good enough for us to include it as a finalist.

Finally, Teac’s LS-H70A has poor overall reviews compared with other speaker sets that sell for the same price.

(Photos by Chris Heinonen.)