There will always be a market for bookshelf speakers. Why? Because stereo sound is special. Music that was recorded in stereo, needs to be listened to in that format unless we are content with listening to single loudspeakers again that attempt to simulate stereo or even surround sound with multiple drivers packed into an enclosure the size of a coffee can.
Bookshelf speakers do a rather convincing job recreating the soundstage; the physical space (studio, garage, music hall) where the recording was made and that illusion of being there with your favorite artist is a big part of the experience. They also reproduce the scale of the recording in a far more convincing way; crank Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” through an Apple HomePod and you will discover just how poorly smart speakers reproduce the dynamics of a challenging track.
Passive or Active?
If you really care about sound quality, there are plenty of passive (which require amplification) and active (with built-in amplification) loudspeakers to select from. Passive loudspeakers are more flexible as you can experiment with different types of amplifiers, DACs, and placement options. Active loudspeakers are a better option for listeners who don’t want the added expense of multiple components, and an equipment rack filled with cables.
The trade-off with any active loudspeaker is that you are committed to how the final product sounds. There is no way to try another amplifier or DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) to alter the sound. Active loudspeakers also require at least one of the loudspeakers to be plugged into the wall; limiting how you set the speaker up in your space.
One thing is for certain, there is no shortage of affordable passive or active bookshelf loudspeakers for all types of spaces. However, because active loudspeakers are an entirely different breed — they have numerous wired and wireless connectivity options, and demand a significantly higher price tag — we've omitted them from the below list. (For our picks of the best active speakers, check out our guide.)
Below, we've rounded up our favorite passive bookshelf speakers of 2021.
Wharfedale is one of the oldest loudspeaker manufacturers in the world and one of the best at designing affordable loudspeakers that can really reproduce a full-range sound. Its EVO4.2 bookshelf speakers sound positively like floor-standing loudspeakers when positioned on solid stands (which cost an extra $300-$500) — no subwoofer required. The midrange sounds clean with a warm tonal balance that makes them ideal for a lot of solid-state and tube amplifiers. Additionally, these are not very hard loudspeakers to drive and they can play very loudly without losing any sense of control or focus.
The Wharfedale EVO4.2 is available in three different finishes: walnut, black oak or white oak.
KEF LS50 Meta
The KEF LS50 quickly became regarded as some of the best-sounding passive speakers when they were released in 2012. Fast forward to nearly a decade later and the KEF LS50 Meta are true successors to those original loudspeakers. They're still based around the company's proprietary Uni-Q driver, which housed a 1-inch tweeter inside a 5.25-inch woofer resulting in excellent and accurate sound, but KEF refined them a number of key ways. They integrated them new proprietary Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT), which KEF claims has the ability to "absorb 99% of the unwanted sound radiating from the rear of the driver." KEF also gave them a more refined cabinet, a new rear recessed port, and a new cone neck decoupler and motor system. Basically, if you though KEF's previous speakers sounded good — the new LS50 Collection takes that sound to the next level.
The KEF LS50 Meta is available in four colors: carbon black, titanium gray, mineral white and a special edition crimson red.
PSB Alpha P5
PSB have been manufacturing award-winning loudspeakers for over 40 years. The Alpha P5 have a lot of competition below $600 but they manage to win the day with an impressive level of transparency, detail and dynamic punch that works with almost every recording you try. The midrange is superb and the bass response from such a small two-way pair of loudspeakers is resoundingly taut and agile even with electronica and hip-hop and driven with entry-level integrated amplifiers. Also the build quality is very high for the price. You can drive these with 35-50 watts and wipe the floor with any wireless loudspeaker for many years to come.
The PSB Alpha P5 is available in two finishes: walnut or black ash.
Q Acoustics Concept 300
Q Acoustics is now pushing hard into the high-end with the Concept 300 stand-mounted full-range bookshelf loudspeakers. They deliver unrivaled levels of coherency, clarity and presence in a stand-mounted design that can compete with significantly more expensive loudspeakers. Low-end performance is surprisingly deep and taut making them adept with all kinds of music and they will never be the weak link in your system. The slightly scary-looking Tensegrity tripod stand utilizes cutting edge acoustic isolation and plays a significant role in the sound of the Concept 300 – image solidity and soundstage depth are first-rate. Paired with the right amplifier, these are end-game loudspeakers that also look the part.
The Q Acoustics Concept 300 is available in two different finishes: white oak or black rosewood. Also, the Tensegrity stands don't come with the speakers and add a significant ($999) price bump.
JBL L82 Classic
Released in 2020, the JBL L82 Classic is effectively a smaller, more affordable version of the L100 Classic (which were released in 2018). Each speaker has the same tweeter found in the L100 Classic and a smaller 8-inch woofer, but the pair still delivers the accurate, dynamic and powerful sound you'd expect from a legendary speaker. That said, it the looks that seal the deal — the L82 Classic is a dead ringer for the L-100 Classic with the same vintage design, wooden cabinets and what are arguably the most conspicuous speaker grills ever made (available in blue, black or orange). The JBL L82 Classic won't be for everybody. Each speaker weighs almost 14 pounds and is 18 inches tall — much bigger than traditional bookshelf speakers — and they require a big room and a powerful amplifier. But if those aren't deal breakers and you're looking for loudspeakers with unmatched retro flair, the JBL L82 Classic is about as cool as it gets.
B&W 606 S2 Anniversary Edition
In the past few years, Bowers & Wilkins decided to update its famed 600 range of speakers (which is now over 25 years old). In 2018, it introduced the 606 bookshelf speakers and then just two years later, in 2020, it replaced those speakers with these 606 S2 Anniversary Edition speakers. The only real upgrade is that B&W upgraded the crossover in the speakers as everything else remained the same. The updated speakers feature B&W's Continuum cone driver technology, which has been a signature feature of the company's higher-end speakers for years, and both speakers have a rear-firing port that helps the speakers deliver surprisingly punchy bass. If you're a true music lover and you have a bigger room to set up your system (these get loud), the B&W 606 are fantastic compact speakers.
The B&W 606 S2 Anniversary Edition is available in three finishes: black, white or oak.
Polk Audio L100
Polk Audio is best known for making hi-fi speakers that push way behind their affordable price tag, but in 2020 it stepped into true audiophile territory with its Legend Series, comprised of the L100 and L200 speakers. The L100 speakers have a finely tuned 1-inch pinnacle tweeter and a proprietary 5.25-inch Turbine Cone midrange/bass driver, the combination of which results in an ultra-detailed sound. The frequency range is wide, too, as You're getting lows in the 50Hz range and highs up near 50kHz. If you're willing to take the jump from the sub-$500 price range to the sub-$100 price range, these bookshelf speakers are about as good as you can get. (Note: the L200 are effectively bigger, better-sounding and more expensive versions of the L100.)
The Polk Audio L100 is available in two finishes: brown walnut or black ash.