The Book on Bookshelf Speakers

Bookshelf Speakers

Modest price and compact size make bookshelf speakers a great option for your home theater or stereo setup.


May. 21, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The reproduction of sound will make or break your stereo or home theater system. For better or worse, we listen to sound through loudspeakers which come in all shapes and sizes and ages. Like other stereo or A/V components, speakers are critical to your optimum enjoyment of the experience. Speakers will sing to you! They are the voice of your system, but they also have to wear many hats. They have to be able to make music sound sweet like the velvety voices of Celtic Woman, and, at the same time, make armies clashing in “300” sound realistic and believable.

What are They?
While there are several different types of speakers in the marketplace today, we’ll focus primarily on bookshelf type speakers. Bookshelf speakers get their name obviously from the fact that they are small enough to be placed on a bookshelf. Although, with the advent of home theater, this may now be misnomer. Under the category of bookshelf speakers, they can be front left and right main speakers, center channel speakers or even rear/side/surround speakers. Bookshelf speakers are housed in smaller and more compact cabinets than say floor-standing variants. The majority of bookshelf speakers are no taller than 15-in. to 20-inches. At the other end of the spectrum, the smallest bookshelf speakers may only be 2-in. 3-in. high. 

Because of their compact cabinets, bookshelf speakers can be placed where towers or floor-standing speakers cannot. According to Polk Audio, “the name ‘bookshelf’ is unfortunate, since most such designs perform best when placed upon rigid stands, rather than tucked inside pieces of furniture. While bookshelf-type speakers are more placement-friendly than larger speakers, the small enclosures are more rigid and produce less sonically degrading ‘box resonance’ than all but the best towers.” While they can certainly be placed on a bookshelf (as the name implies), in many instances they are now placed on stands today. 

A clear advantage to bookshelf-type speakers are their modest price and size. Bookshelf speakers fit rooms and budgets that cannot accommodate a pair of towers. The small, solid cabinets are both versatile-able to excel in bookcases, atop shelves or hung on walls-and provide excellent midrange clarity. It should be noted that many speakers use air tunnels or “ports” to improve efficiency and bass output. However, if you plan to place your speakers against a wall or inside a cabinet, choose a model whose port is located on the front panel, with the drivers. 

On the other hand, an argument can be made that reduced cabinet volume and driver surface area limit the dynamic and bass frequency range of bookshelf speakers. This can also compromise power handling and efficiency. Are you measuring the prowess of your system by the size of your speakers? However, with smaller speakers come smaller drivers especially woofers. To overcome this potential handicap, a subwoofer may be needed to add additional oomph to the sound. 

Types – Cubes, Satellites, Box-type, etc.
Since bookshelf speakers are smaller than their larger brethren, most are either full-range or two-way. Some models will only include a mid-range driver purportedly offering full-range sound. A two-way speaker means that it has two drivers: one woofer and one tweeter. Of course, there are also a handful of three-way variants (and a bit larger also). A three-way speaker has three drivers: a woofer, mid-range, and a tweeter. Many manufacturers offer a family of bookshelf speakers that gradually get larger with the increased size of their woofer and tweeter. As you go up in driver size, the price of the speaker normally goes up also. Many bookshelf type speakers have tweeters up to 1-in. in size, and woofers ranging between 4-in. and 6.5-in.

Depending on their use, many bookshelf speakers are also magnetically shielded (for home theater) so that the speaker drivers will not interfere with the TV’s picture. These can be placed right next to (or on top/bottom) the television itself. Speakers that are non-shielded will interfere with the TV’s picture. If your speakers are not shielded, keep them several feet away from the set. 

Many really tiny or cube-like speakers can only include one driver to produce a full-range of sound. This type of speaker was originally conceived and made quite popular by BOSE. The next size up in the bookshelf speaker line would be satellite speakers. These diminutive speakers, which are larger than cubes, may only be the size of your palm or slightly larger. Satellites are very popular with home theater speaker systems. The next size up is the small bookshelf or box-type, which may be either in a box or rectangular configuration.  Flat-panel speakers may also fit into this category as well.  This type of bookshelf speaker features a reduced depth, and can easily be placed next to a flat-panel TV so that it seamlessly blends with the television’s cabinetry.

Besides being used for front or rear speakers, bookshelf speakers may also be used as the center channel as well. For several manufacturers, they simply alter the layout of the drivers to a horizontal position instead of vertical one for center channel versions. Most home theater speaker systems today are made-up of smaller bookshelf-type speakers that are identical in driver layout. And, many produce sounds equal to or greater than large behemoth-sized floor-standing models. Wireless is a speaker category that has been around for a several years that offers the delusion of not having to run speaker wires around your living/family room. Several companies (such as JVC, Panasonic, or Samsung) offer wireless rear speaker or subwoofer solutions. 

Finishes
Bookshelf speakers can be finished in white or black. Many also come in various types of wood finishes. As well, many come in aluminum or metal cabinetry with a silvery finish to match many flat-panel TVs. Today, bookshelf speakers are designed to fit unobtrusively in many living/family room environments. 

How to Buy
If you are replacing your old stereo speakers, you probably are buying into home theater. If so, might want to consider several from the same manufacturer. By choosing the same manufacturer, all of the speakers are balanced and matched together with the same timbre. Today, many brands bundle together speakers in various configurations, e.g. the front three speakers, or center + surrounds into packages, for example, as well as a pair.  They also put together five-, six-, and seven- or eight-piece systems including subwoofers as well. Check your needs. Major brands include Atlantic Technology, B & W, Boston Acoustics, JBL, Infinity, Meridian, Snell, and Polk among others. There are hundreds of loudspeaker companies to choose from.

Home theater speakers can be somewhat smaller than regular speakers and clearly fall into the bookshelf category. Manufacturers have taken care to design their products to fit well into living room or family room settings without the end user feeling overwhelmed by speaker madness. It was one thing to have your spouse getting used to the tower speakers of your HiFi System, now they have five or six smaller speakers that have to fit into your environment. The beauty of smaller speakers is that they can sit on shelves, be next to the TV, or be attached to the wall. They are even ascetically pleasing, as they have been designed to function in living areas, which was one of the reasons that BOSE speaker cubes have become so popular. There are now bookshelf-type speakers now for every taste or living room situation. Speakers are no longer just function, but clearly about form as well. Ah, I’m reminded of the musical Chicago because bookshelf speakers can both “razzle” and “dazzle” you through their aural brilliance. I think I’m ready for some razzle-dazzle now.



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