Best Bookshelf Speaker of 2020
The Klipsch R-51PM Bluetooth is our favorite bookshelf speaker. First and foremost, the sound quality from this system is incredible. It boasts excellent low-end bass without compromising the clarity of higher pitches, producing a well-rounded sound that feels like the band is right there in the room. It has a wide variety of input options and can connect via Bluetooth, making it extremely versatile. It is relatively easy to set up and switch between inputs and includes a remote control. It also has a sophisticated and minimalist aesthetic that looks good in any interior space.
One minor downside is that these speakers do not have manual bass and treble equalizer adjustments. Some listeners prefer this adjustability, but the sound from these speakers is so good that our testers never felt the urge to change anything. The Klipsch R-51PM Bluetooth comes at a high price for consumer-level speakers, but compared to professional monitors, these are inexpensive and deliver near-studio quality sound.
The Edifier S1000DB Audiophile is a premier powered bookshelf speaker system that sounds almost as good as the best speaker in our review. It features many input options, Bluetooth connectivity, and plenty of volume and equalizer adjustability. It is also relatively easy to use, thanks to a front volume knob and remote control. We like this speaker a lot and had to dig deep to find the small differences between this speaker and the Klipsch R-51PM Bluetooth.
In the end, the S1000DB sounds almost exactly like the Klipsch. It features a bolder look that might work great in some spaces but could be an eyesore in others. However, if you like the aesthetics of the Edifier S1000DB Audiophile, then we'd recommend it.
The Edifier R1700BT Bluetooth provides a high-end listening experience at a great price. This unit's sound quality nearly matches that of speakers that cost twice or three times as much. Furthermore, it accommodates a wide range of devices and can connect via Bluetooth. It features bass, treble, and volume adjustments on the speaker cabinet and is easy to set up and navigate between inputs. It also looks great in most interiors. Overall, these speakers perform well above their price tag.
If we had to find a flaw in these speakers, it is that they are a bit smaller than most high-end bookshelf speakers and lack the low-end bass power that larger speakers can deliver — but the difference is almost negligible. Generally speaking, you can get slightly better sound quality in a consumer-level set of speakers, but you'll have to shell out thousands of dollars to get a major improvement in sound quality over these. They come with a wooden cabinet design that works well in most spaces, but the aesthetics might clash with certain interiors.
The Sonos One SL Smart Speaker is a slightly different bookshelf speaker than others in our review. It comes as a stand-alone unit that plays music in 360 degrees, making it a great choice for small rooms or slightly larger rooms with a central location. It can also be paired with additional Sonos smart speakers to create a surround-sound experience. The sound quality from this small speaker is very good for its size and digital-only compatibility.
The obvious downside to the Sonos One SL is that it cannot connect to any wired device, making it incompatible with turntables, many home theaters, and advanced digital studio equipment. It is best suited for those who do most of their listening through a smartphone. Furthermore, the app needed to play music through the speakers seems superfluous compared to other Bluetooth speaker systems that we have tested. We experienced a few glitches and wish the speakers were easier to set up and connect. This speaker also loses some clarity at higher volumes, which is why we think it is best suited for smaller spaces.
Related: Best Bluetooth Speaker of 2020
The Polk Audio T15 Home Theater is a good pair of passive speakers for audiophiles and those hoping to add to a home theater system. Most modern bookshelf speakers have a built-in power system to provide amplification and volume adjustment to the signal provided by the music playing device. Passive speakers like these rely on an external amplifier to supply a strong signal that is translated directly through the speakers. As a result, these are not ready to play sound right out of the box. That said, they have good sound quality, making them an excellent addition to a home theater system or for audiophiles who prefer using a separate, higher quality amplifier than found in most powered speakers.
The Polk Audio T15 has a neutral design and blends into most interior spaces with ease. However, since these speakers are just a component of a more complex audio system, those seeking a complete package should look elsewhere. But for the discerning audiophile, these are a good option at a very reasonable price.
The Audioengine A5+ Plus Wireless is a decent set of bookshelf speakers that excel when lower frequencies are important. They are easy to set up and to use, with a volume control knob on the front of the right speaker. All sorts of input signals are supported, and the speakers are Bluetooth-enabled. They also look cool.
Unfortunately, for most music genres, our testers found that the sound quality is rather boomy, and the bass washes out higher frequencies, resulting in a distinct lack of clarity compared to other high-end speakers. The difference is noticeable to music lovers, and as a result, we'd point audiophiles and acoustic music fans towards other options. If digital formats and pop music are your go-to entertainment, however, this speaker system will perform well — though it's not cheap. Other speakers in this price range come with bass and treble adjustment, but these speakers don't come with that option.
The Micca PB42X is an affordable bookshelf speaker system that delivers decent sound at a great price. It is easy to set up and use, with an on/off switch and simple volume control knob. The sound is clear and crisp, delivering a good audio experience, especially given the cost.
We wish these speakers had more low-frequency power, as our favorite songs often felt underpowered and stagnant without more bass to round out the clear treble frequencies. The result is a sound that seems good at first but quickly loses excitement. The Micca does not come with any bass or treble adjustability, and its looks are just so-so. In general, we think there are better options in the affordable price range, but this could be a good fit for some.
The Vanatoo Transparent Zero is a small-room powered speaker system with a hefty price tag for the relatively mediocre sound quality it produces. These small speakers' biggest advantage is their built-in subwoofer that packs a low-end punch comparable to much larger speakers. The downside is that mid-range and high frequencies aren't prioritized. Clarity and a well-rounded sound suffer accordingly. There are many options to connect wired devices, and the system is easy to set up and use, thanks to a well-placed volume knob on the top of the right-hand speaker.
In addition to the boomy sound, we don't love the aesthetics of this unit. Other options are minimalist, sleek, and refined, while the Transparent Zero stands out with its prominent mounting rack and explosive angles. There is also no way to manually adjust the bass and treble frequencies, which is a feature that other speakers in this price range include. In general, there are much better speakers for much less money.
The Micca COVO-S Compact is a small set of passive speakers that are best suited for tight quarters and low volumes. These speakers require a separate amplifier and receiver, as there is no way to connect a device to them directly. As such, they should be used by those building a small home theater, surround-sound desktop theater setup, or for audiophiles with a particular sound design in mind. For the average consumer, there are plenty of other speakers with stand-alone simplicity and better sound quality.
As with most small speakers, these lack the low-end frequency definition that brings many music genres to life. A well-rounded sound requires both low and high-frequency ranges, so these are best for those engineering a sound environment for gaming and other digital formats. They have average looks.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our test team was led by TechGearLab review editor, audiophile, and musician Jeff Dobronyi. A lifetime of playing and recording behind the drums and other percussion instruments has given Jeff key insights into what to look for in sound amplification systems. From delving deep into jazz records as a high-school big band drummer to listening to loops of his own playing as an adult, or just spinning classic vinyl in his home theater, Jeff has spent thousands of hours listening to music and spoken word through speakers and monitors.
For this comprehensive review, we started by sorting through the available options, comparing manufacturer specs, and talking to friends and colleagues' about their experiences. We then selected the top 9 products across a wide variety of uses, available features, and price ranges to compile a diverse and complete selection of bookshelf speakers. From there, we listened to hundreds of hours of rock, jazz, soul, classical, and pop music, in addition to podcasts and audiobooks. We also chose iconic songs from each genre and played small loops of those songs through every speaker system, comparing the results side-by-side to learn the intricacies of each product's sound. We note the different wired inputs that each speaker accommodates, the locations and ergonomics of on/off switches and volume knobs, and the amount of frequency equalization that each speaker offers. Finally, we asked around for many opinions on the aesthetics of each speaker system.
Analysis and Test Results
To differentiate between products, we ranked each bookshelf speaker system on sound quality, versatility, ease of use, adjustability, and aesthetics.
For most consumers, sound quality is the single most important factor when choosing a set of speakers. If the sound isn't good, then the product is a failure. The best speakers have a good balance of bass and treble frequencies and sound clear and crisp. In short, they should sound like the band is right there in the room with the listener. The sound of each instrument or voice should sound distinct and clear.
Traditionally, speakers have been simple devices that physically vibrate when a signal is passed through them. The stronger the signal, the harder the vibration and the louder the speaker plays the music. These "passive" speakers require no power connection because the signal has already been "received" from the original source and then "amplified" to the desired listening volume. Passive speakers require a receiver and an amplifier to produce a complete sound system."Active" speakers include the receiver and amplifier in the body of the speaker itself and, as such, need a power connection. Active speakers are what most modern speakers look like. They have a power cable, a cable to connect the two speaker units, and a cable to connect to a device like a smartphone or turntable. Most users will want an active speaker, while audiophiles and those who want to select their individual receiver and amplifier units should opt for passive speakers.
The best sound quality in our review comes from the Klipsch R-51PM Bluetooth. Across a variety of genres, these speakers sound warm, balanced, and crisp. We found ourselves entranced by the deep and clear sounds that these speakers produce. The Edifier S1000DB Audiophile and Edifier R1700BT aren't far behind, with great sounds that are almost indistinguishable from the Klipsch, with just a hair of lost clarity. The Audioengine A5+ Plus Wireless has the most powerful bass sound, perfect for modern pop and electronic music that doesn't need as much clarity in the higher frequencies because acoustic instruments are often absent.
Modern users source their listening material from a variety of devices. We use our smartphones for audiobooks and podcasts and often store our music there as well. These devices connect to speakers via auxiliary wired inputs, and increasingly, Bluetooth wireless technology. Music lovers that lament the loss of data from digital formats are increasingly turning back to vinyl records for their favorite music, and turntables connect to speakers via 2-pronged stereo wired inputs. Speakers must be designed to accommodate these types of inputs, in addition to other esoteric and dated wired inputs.
The most versatile speaker in our review is the Klipsch R-51PM Bluetooth. In addition to Bluetooth, it also accommodates 3.5mm aux cords and stereo (red and white plug) inputs. It has a built-in amplifier for classic turntables that simply relay the sound of a needle on a vinyl record. Additionally, it offers an option to accept a signal that has already been amplified by either built-in modern turntable amplifiers or by aftermarket amplifiers like those preferred by hardcore music fans customizing their audio theaters. The Klipsch speakers can also accept digital USB audio from a computer and send a signal to a separate subwoofer for mega bass amplification. The Edifier speakers have similar versatility, and the Audioengine A5+ Plus Wireless also has a wide variety of input options.
Ease of Use
This metric judges how easily a speaker system can be set up, turned on and off, and switched between input sources. It also scores the ease of access to volume control knobs and other adjustment features. Most speakers feature an on/off switch on the volume control knob, where the user has to turn the volume up to initially turn the unit on, and then turn the volume all the way down to turn the power off. Some units feature a separate binary on/off switch. We prefer the switches that are incorporated into the volume knobs, which saves a step. We also prefer volume knobs that are cleverly incorporated into the front or top of the speaker cabinet versus being placed on the rear of the unit.
The easiest speakers in our test to use are the Edifier speakers, both the S1000DB Audiophile and the R1700BT Bluetooth. They feature adjustment knobs in convenient locations and large on/off switches on the rear control panels. The S1000DB and Klipsch R-51 PM also come with remote controls so you don't have to get up to change the volume or turn the unit on or off. Once the Sonos One SL Smart Speaker is set up, the power, volume, and equalization can all be controlled via Bluetooth.
All of the active speakers in our review feature manual volume adjustments. Some, but not all, include manual bass (low frequency) and treble (high frequency) adjustment knobs to customize the sound beyond what the recording artist engineered when the recording was produced. Vinyl and other high-data formats are usually meticulously engineered by the recording artist and don't require manual frequency adjustment to sound good. Modern digital formats often benefit from a small amount of adjustment to achieve the desired sound. So for users who listen to primarily digital formats on smartphones, frequency equalization adjustment knobs are a plus. For vinyl fans, frequency adjustment likely won't be used that often.
The Edifier S1000DB Audiophile and Edifier R1700BT Bluetooth both feature manual bass and treble adjustment knobs. The Sonos One SL Smart Speaker can be adjusted via the Sonos App, through which the speaker is controlled. Otherwise, all the other speakers in our review do not have manual frequency equalization options. This isn't necessarily a problem, depending on what the user plans on listening to most.
While this category isn't all that important from a sonic perspective, bookshelf speakers are often prominent in a listening space, be it a home office, theater, or living room. As such, we assigned some weight to how each speaker looks because aesthetics can impact the overall ambiance of a listening atmosphere. This metric is inherently subjective, and we recommend that you take a look at each product before making your final decision and visualize what it will look like in your listening environment.
Our testers preferred a classic, dark, boxy, and non-descript speaker look. Units like the Klipsch R-51PM Bluetooth, Polk Audio T15 Home Theater, and Micca PB42X fit this description and will fit into any home theater or room with ease. We also like the wooden cabinet looks of the Edifier models, which stand out as a feature in the room, like a wooden sculpture, more than blending in as the "black box" speakers do. While we like the wooden cabinet look, it might not fit in every listening space.
After sorting through a packed field of bookshelf speakers, we tested our top choices extensively. We ranked them in key performance metrics to provide top-notch recommendations for any consumer preference. Our expert testers put their experience to use to make key distinctions between products, and the result is an intricate comparison of otherwise excellent bookshelf speaker options. We hope that our review is helpful to you, and happy listening!
— Jeff Dobronyi