The Best Bookshelf Speakers
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best bookshelf speakers? Really? Is there any such thing as the best in high-end audio? Isn’t it really just “different flavors of ice cream?” Let’s clear this up: these are the best bookshelf speakers that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
Google Home MAX ($299 ea USD)
Finally, smart-home bookshelf speakers that sounds pretty darned good. The Google MAX goes loud, sounds clear and is far more musical than we expected. Plus, it talks back to you—something that probably won’t happen with your Wilson Audio Master Chronosonics. You can buy just one for a pleasing mono sound, or pair them up vertically for stereo.
EgglestonWorks Hotel Speakers (price per night varies)
The “Hotel Speakers,” as we shall call them, are part of a larger exhibition of custom EgglestonWorks speakers that grace the lobby, bar, terrace, and guest rooms of the Central Station Hotel located in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. The EgglestonWorks speakers installed at the hotel range from the minuscule “guest room speakers” to the gargantuan speakers that sit above the hotel bar, ones we hope to one day cover more in depth. An audiophile hotel is something we should all visit.
Klipsch RP600-M (from $549 pr USD)
We just can’t get over how much the RP600-Ms get right, and for so little money—”a sound that captures many of the attributes we expect from high-end audio products such as a gorgeously open soundstage, pinpoint imaging, and deep bass that makes you say silly things like ‘they certainly punch above their weight class.’”
Triangle Borea BR 03 ($550 pr USD)
Based on our extended audition with very knowledgeable friends, we decided that these modest little two-way bookshelf speakers might be the best-sounding $550/pair monitors since the Spica TC-50. Superb imaging, soundstaging and, of course, surprising low frequency extension. So good for the money that you might be tempted to take them apart just to find the source of the magic.
MartinLogan Motion 35XTi ($1,400 pr USD)
When you think of MartinLogan, you usually think of their big electrostatic panels. But have you heard their affordable, dynamic bookshelf speakers? The 35XTi impressed us with its fast presentation, which reminded us of the ESLs, and with the Dynamo 800X subwoofer these small two-ways sounded like very accomplished full-range speakers for just $2200.
KEF LS50W ($2,499.95 pr USD)
The wireless version of perhaps the most successful speaker design in the last decade, the LS50W contains a 30wpc Class A/B amp for the tweeter and a 200wpc Class D amp for the mid/woofer and a DAC for each driver. “The bass on these suckers is downright alarming,” we concluded, “and the super-fine detail was exemplary.”
Studio Electric M4 (from $2,600 pr USD)
This sealed two-way monitor may look unassuming, but its sound is marked by “grace and poise,” not to mention its ability to shock people once music starts flowing into the room. We felt the M4s checked off a lot of boxes for us, especially when compared to more expensive floor-standers—especially its clean and uncluttered sound and its ability to project real bass without resorting to ports, transmission lines and passive radiators.
Amphion Argon 3S ($2,690 pr USD)
Involving sound, ease of placement and versatility when it comes to amplification, the Argon 3S really impressed us when it came to tonal vividness. These small bookshelf speakers are made for music lovers–they’re not overtly lush and romantic but they do engage on such an emotional level that you might think they’re “living, breathing entities.”
Dynaudio Special Forty ($2,999 pr USD)
The Special Forty looks like a typical well-made two-way monitor, but the classic façade hides some impressive new technology from this Danish speaker company. The Forty uses a proprietary magnesium silicate polymer material for its woofer cone, and a new Esotar tweeter creates a unique airflow that exits through an aero-coupled pressure release system. This results in 2-way bookshelf speakers that possess an incredibly extended frequency range.
Vandersteen VLR CT (from $3,125 pr USD)
A compact bookshelf or stand-mount loudspeaker that features the same technology tweeter as in the top of the line system NINE, at only 2% of the price. Coaxial drivers, fully time and phase correct, it’s a Vandersteen sound through and through. The difference here is, how much of the Vandersteen sound is present? A lot. Typically paired with an accompanying subwoofer like the SUB THREE (additional $2,490 USD) the combination will give most anything a decent run for its money.
Trenner & Friedl Sun ($3,450 pr USD)
So tiny your grandmother can pick one up in one hand, the Austrian-built Suns might be one of the toughest sells in high-end audio—until you sit down and listen. This might be the reigning king of “little speakers that sound big,” and the secret to this gem is exquisite build quality, the finest materials and a passion for great engineering. This may be the ultimate speaker for small spaces.
Fritz Speakers Carrera Be ($3,500 pr USD)
John “Fritz” Heiler loves making two-way bookshelf speakers, especially ones that are cost-effective and sound completely enjoyable. The Carrera Bes are his flagship speaker, and yet they are modest in appearance (they are beautifully built, by the way). Don’t let that fool you—these will compete with far more expensive designs and may be all the speaker you need, even in fairly large rooms. While the use of the excellent ScanSpeak Revelator woofer may be an obvious choice, the beryllium tweeter from Transducer Labs isn’t—it’s fast and detailed, yet incredibly natural.
Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo ($4,000 pr USD)
This new, “modern” active loudspeaker from B&W will remind you of a pair of 705s or 805s–the drivers are very similar, except they’re wireless. B7W partnered up with new owners Eva Automation for the powered Duos, threw in some features such as DSP and a crossover in the digital realm (so your speakers can receive updates!), and the result is somewhat dependent upon your preferred media formats. Still, this is a fun and exciting new product.
Sonner Audio Legato Unum ($4,750 pr USD w/optional matching stands +$1,120 USD)
Here is where things get serious. Several bookshelf speakers in and around the $5K+ range of the market have the gift of detail. Special is the clean and sophisticated way in which the Sonner Audio Legato Unum’s present each region of detail across the frequency spectrum. They grab your mind, your attention, your heart; something several speakers in this price range and well above—even the most detail laden ones—often can’t and won’t do. The Sonner Audio Legato Unum speakers breathe honesty and life into the music. They are not on your shortlist, they are your shortlist.
Fern and Roby Raven II ($5,750 pr USD)
Similar to the Fern and Roby Ravens–it has same full-range SEAS Exotic driver, same cabinet structure, albeit in a smaller enclosure–the Raven IIs will work well on stands, in actual bookshelves or on the nifty new Klipsch Heritage-like wedges that are now included. Like the Ravens, these heirloom quality loudspeakers are all about long-term relationships, and how these unique and beautiful creations become a part of your life and an extension of your personality.
Trenner & Friedl ART ($6,000 pr USD)
These deceptively small 2-way bookshelf speakers have been recently redesigned with new drivers, a new bamboo baffle, premium Mundorf caps and a more substantial enclosure, and yet they still have the same identical “heart of a lion” as their beloved predecessors. The new ART is even more convincing when it comes to sounding like a much bigger speaker, although they can be finicky about amplification. Is the new ART better than the old? “Both Arts are the same person,” we suggested, “separated by a few years of experience. The new version is older and wiser, with a few more stories to tell.”
Sonus faber Olympica Nova I ($6,500 pr USD)
The new Olympica Nova line from this Italian speaker manufacturer signals a new era in Sonus faber sound, one that aims to “recapture the magic” of the earlier designs while upping the technology and innovation with features such as the Damped Apex Dome tweeter and the Stealth Ultraflex porting system. The Nova I is the entry level model, a 2-way monitor (with exceptional stands for an extra $1000). We wrote: “If you’re a music lover who just wants to add a measure of beauty to your home, Sonus faber has always been a smart choice. With the Olympica Nova I, however, you can be both people, an aesthete and an audiophile.”
Marten Oscar Duo ($6,999 pr USD)
An understated little beauty with custom ceramic drivers, the Marten Oscar Duo throws out an amazing soundstage for its size. Even more noteworthy is the speed and precision of these two-way bookshelf speakers–they might just remind you of your favorite big panel. There’s only one small difference: the Martens are also superb when it comes to disappearing in a room, just like a small monitor should, and they are unusually holographic as well.
Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphene ($8,995 pr USD)
Part-Time Audiophile has been crushing on Jeff Joseph’s premium two-way bookshelf speakers for quite some time, but the latest version with the Graphene driver has propelled the Pulsars into legendary status. The Pulsar2s have deep, textured bass and a beguiling warmth that makes us feel like we don’t need bigger speakers than this. The audiophile term “it sounds like a much larger speaker!” was invented for the Pulsar line, and this is by far the finest one yet. An Editor’s Choice winner, of course.
Stenheim Alumine 2 ($12,490 pr USD)
We’ve been waiting to get our hands on Stenheim speakers from Switzerland for many years based upon their incredible performances at high-end audio shows. Now we’ve spent time with the small Alumine 2–and those exquisite aluminum enclosures–we found a 2-way monitor with extraordinary balance and precision while still forging emotional bonds with the listener. And it’s high-efficiency, too! An Editor’s Choice winner.
Vimberg Amea (from $15,000 pr USD)
If you close your eyes while listening to the Vimberg Amea, you will no longer think you’re listening to a small speaker, or a two-way, or even a stand-mount monitor that “punches above this weight.” This is, for all intents and purposes, a state-of-the-art design with very few limitations other than the fact the Amea only goes down to 35Hz (it sounds a lot lower to us). Incredible detail, resolution and speed will allow you to heard deep into your favorite recordings, but there’s a well-defined connection to a humanist approach to sound. Diamond tweeters cost an extra $10K, so we’re all obsessed with how it gets any better than the stock pair. An Editor’s Choice winner.
Harbeth 40.3 XD ($18,990 pr USD)
Not quite bookshelf speakers and not quite floorstanders, this classic BBC monitor looks like a rather conventional big box. It doesn’t sound like one. The 40.3 XD has such a distinctive way of rendering musical cues in a relaxed, natural manner—so much so that its unique warmth does not come at the cost of inner detail. The 40.3 is one of those great designs that remains timeless. Preliminary buzz is that the new XD version is slightly better across the board, but true to the line.
TAD Compact Evolution One ($24,000-26,000 pr USD with stands)
It’s almost crazy that TAD is a division of commercial electronics Pioneer since these designs are so thoroughly aligned with audiophile tastes. The Compact Evolution One is a medium-sized three-way bookshelf speaker, but it throws out such a big, authoritative sound that you won’t be surprised when you see its rather lofty price. This speaker is expensive because the enclosure is so inert and the in-house drivers are expensive to make, but the music that comes out of these babies is unfettered by its dimensions.
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.