When building a home hi-fi system or a home theater system, one of the most important choices you have to make is the size and type of speakers to start with: are you going to get bookshelf speakers or floorstanding speakers? So, what are the differences? And how are they similar?
Let's break it down.
How Are They Different?
Floor standing speakers are bigger.
It's all in the name, really. Bookshelf speakers are designed to be placed on a bookshelf at around your ear height, while floorstanding (or "tower) speakers are designed to stand on the floor. You don't need any kind of stand, shelf or mount with floorstanding speakers like you'd need with bookshelf speakers.
There's not a definite standard when it comes to the size of either bookshelf speakers or floorstanding speakers — so there is room for discrepancy — but, generally, bookshelf speakers stand at most one-foot fall and floorstanding speakers stand three-feet tall.
Floorstanding speakers can have more drivers (but don't necessarily).
Both bookshelf speakers and floorstanding speakers can come in a wide-variety of designs and configurations. It's pretty typical for bookshelf speakers to have two drivers, a tweeter on the top and a woofer on the bottom, while floorstanding speakers add additional drivers in between for the midrange.
That said, you can have bookshelf speakers with more than two drivers; it's pretty common for some bookshelf speakers to add a dedicated driver(s) for the midrange. Because floorstanding speakers are larger, manufacturers have the ability to make a wider variety of them and have the ability to give them more drivers. You can find floorstanding speakers with many more drivers — with additional woofers, midrange drivers and tweeters — which is what helps them deliver a fuller and more accurate sound.
Floorstanding speakers get louder and have more bass.
When it comes to speakers, size really does matter. Bigger speakers have bigger cabinets and produce a louder sound. Because floorstanding speakers have a larger cabinet, they can deliver a louder, more room-filling sound. The larger size of floorstanding speakers (not to mention that they typically have more woofers) also helps them deliver deeper sound as well. In fact, if you use floorstanding speakers in a home theater system, you might not even need a separate subwoofer.
While bigger does mean louder and generally more bass when it comes to speakers, bigger doesn't always mean better. There are many other factors — such as the quality of the drives, materials and design of the cabinet — that contribute to a speaker's end sound quality. So a high quality pair of bookshelf speakers can most definitely can sound better than a set of floorstanding speakers. They just might not be able to fill a room as effectively.
Bookshelf speakers are the cheaper, more space-conscious option.
The most obvious upsides to getting bookshelf speakers instead of floorstanding speakers is the cost and their size. Bookshelf speakers are generally more affordable (although there definitely are some really pricey models) and you don't have to rearrange an entire room around them because you can kind of hide them. Floorstanding speakers are so big that they kind of act as a piece of furniture. And some people might find them an eye-sore.
How Are They similar?
Both are optimized for stereo sound.
Bookshelf speakers and floorstanding speakers are more similar than they are different, admittedly. Both are designed to play stereo sound — they come in pairs, with each speaker handling either the left or right channel — which is the way most audio was recorded.
Both can be integrated in larger, multi-channel systems.
It's true that both bookshelf speakers and floorstanding speakers are optimized for stereo sound, but they can be integrated in a larger (like 5.1, 7.1 or greater) home theater system, as well. All you need is the supported AV receiver that's also capable of driving them. While rear-channel speakers are typically bookshelf-sized or smaller, you can use floorstanding speakers as rear-channel speakers as well.
Both tend to be passive, but you can get active models, too.
When people are talking about either bookshelf or floorstanding speakers, the general assumption is that they're talking about passive speakers that need a separate amplifier (or receiver) to drive them. However, in this modern wireless age it's more and more common to see "active" bookshelf speakers, which have a built-in amplifier and wireless connectivity (for easy streaming).
And while not as common, there is a growing number of active floorstanding speakers you can buy as well. Two examples are the Fluance Ai81 and the KEF LS60 Wireless. Because these are all-in-one — or plug-and-play — music systems, active speaker systems are substantially more expensive than passive speakers.