Often confused with home theater speakers, studio monitors, or stereo systems, bookshelf speakers are compact, user-friendly, and affordable solutions for those seeking high-fidelity audio and a professional look and feel in a smaller enclosure. Bookshelf speakers share many qualities with the above speakers and are used across various applications.
There isn’t any official source to determine where the name ‘bookshelf speakers’ originated. However, we can assume that this is due to their compact nature, which allows them to be placed on a bookshelf, desk, coffee table, or TV cabinet, to list a few options.
We curate a list of our favorite bookshelf speakers– check it out if you’re interested in getting a pair for your home.
How did bookshelf speakers come about?
It is said that bookshelf speakers as we know them today first hit the market sometime in the mid-1960s. Around this time, nearly every home had a vinyl record player, often accompanied by large, floor-standing speakers. While the sound quality of commonly used models was nothing short of excellent, some users needed smaller speakers that could be used in smaller homes to obtain optimal sound quality without pumping the volume too far.
By the 1990s, bookshelf speakers were seen in most homes nationwide since those without the space or volume level allowance could now invest in playback systems.
So, are bookshelf speakers just compact reference monitors?
In a way, you could think of them as simply smaller and more affordable studio monitors. While they share many qualities, they have some differences.
Studio monitors generally contain a woofer and tweeter combo, which, depending on the model, typically ranges between 5 and 8 inches in diameter. However, there are smaller models out there for more restrictive listening environments. Bookshelf speakers are mostly the same, as you won’t often find one with more than one woofer inside the cabinet.
When looking at the input and output options, studio monitors are geared towards professional use, thus having XLR or TRS inputs and rarely RCA connections. In contrast, bookshelf speakers can often be found with RCA inputs, Auxiliary connections, or even Bluetooth pairing capabilities.
Bookshelf speaker applications
Bookshelf speakers are incredibly versatile and can be used across various applications. They are mostly rather smart-looking, making them suitable options for home stereo systems, home theater speakers, or for use at your desk or home studio.
Because of their classy design and relatively flat frequency response, bookshelf speakers are great for casual listening with your vinyl record player, home stereo system, or computer. Bookshelf speakers aren’t quite as accurate as far-field monitors, so critical listeners/audiophiles might need to tune them a little to ring out their natural characteristics. Still, if you’re looking for something compact that sounds great, bookshelf speakers are the way to go.
Bookshelf speakers are pretty user-friendly when it comes to connectivity, too. The input options vary between models, but they generally have one or more of the following: XLR inputs, TRS inputs, RCA inputs, 3.5mm or 1/8-inch auxiliary inputs, and sometimes Bluetooth options.
Some Bookshelf speakers can also be controlled using an app. In contrast, others might have an onboard 2-band equalizer at the speakers’ rear for tonal shaping, allowing you to find the ultimate balance for your listening environment and music preference.
While no engineer should rely on anything other than accurate studio monitors for any tracking, mixing, or mastering session, bookshelf speakers can be a great entry-level option for those wanting to try their hand at music production without breaking the bank for a decent pair of monitors.
Bookshelf speakers generally have a much flatter frequency response than Hi-Fi or stereo systems and home theater speakers but still often add their own flavor to any musical content. Because of this, they are incredibly versatile. They’re also normally active (self-powered speakers) and come with a wide range of connectivity options, so if you want to fiddle around with a DAW to get a feel for things, you don’t have to spend money on an interface/soundcard either.
Home Theater Applications
Bookshelf speakers make excellent home theater speaker systems because of their flatter response and slick design. You’ll only find bookshelf speakers available in pairs or as single units. However, if you want to build, say, a 5.1 surround sound system, for example, you could always purchase two pairs and a single unit and work from there. It may be a little more expensive than buying a 5.1 system straight as it comes, but the sound quality can sometimes be a considerable improvement.
Use In Hi-Fi Or Stereo Systems
Bookshelf speakers are more than suitable for Hi-Fi or stereo system use like home theater and casual listening applications. If you’re looking for a Hi-Fi tonal signature, you must do some equalizing. However, bookshelf speakers will undoubtedly work for you if you prefer a flatter response.
As a gamer, you might want a good pair of speakers that can immerse you in the world of your games. While most users resort to gaming headphones for this, a quality pair of bookshelf speakers can bring the action right to you in your living room, bedroom, or desk. Again, the sonic qualities of bookshelf speakers are ideal for an immersive gaming experience, as the subtleties by the game’s engineers and sound designers are more faithfully reproduced.
Bookshelf speakers can be connected to your console using an RCA or auxiliary connector, depending on what is available on the speaker. If your console only had an HDMI output, you must invest in a converter or run cables between your TV and bookshelf speakers.
Choosing A Pair of Bookshelf Speakers
If you’re interested in getting a pair of bookshelf speakers, there are a few simple questions to ask yourself to find the perfect pair for your needs.
Wired vs Wireless
Bookshelf speakers come as wired and wireless options, with wireless models connecting to your source device via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Wireless bookshelf speakers are great for casual use at home or building a home Wi-Fi speaker network. However, the sound quality isn’t always as good as a wired connection, and there can be some latency if you’re using these speakers for movies or gaming.
Driver Size (Near Field vs Far Field Listening)
This depends on how/where you plan on using your bookshelf speakers and, more importantly, at what distance you’ll be listening. If you’re looking for bookshelf speakers for your TV, I’d recommend a larger driver, while closer to your ears (such as at your desk) would only require a small speaker. Depending on your needs, a pair of floor-standing or tower speakers may be better suited to you.
Suppose you’re running bookshelf speakers with your TV, computer, AV receiver, or stereo system. In that case, you’ll need to ensure they are compatible with the outputs of your source device and the impedance options. Most bookshelf speakers accommodate an RCA or auxiliary input, common on the above devices. However, if you want to use them with more professional equipment, XLR or TRS connections may be necessary.
While bookshelf speakers are generally much cheaper than studio reference monitors or high-end tower speakers, they can still cost a fair bit. There are affordable options on the market, some as low as $100.00, that don’t sound terrible, but if you want quality sound, you’ll need to be prepared to invest some money.
With a rich history and modernization, bookshelf speakers continue to fill a niche in the speaker market that is not likely to change any day soon. These versatile and affordable speaker systems bring high-quality audio options into any room and are well worth considering when planning your home audio setup.