Welcome to the Bookshelf Speakers section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2023.
The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank].” This collection represents our enthusiasm. Every bookshelf speaker listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — this is it.
Focal Chora 806 ($799 pr USD w/optional stands $290 USD)
The Focal Chora 806 are the embodiment of upstream technology trickling downstream; few bookshelf speakers in this price range have as smooth of a treble that is also this detailed. Side-to-side imaging from these little wonders is enormous. Tuning is “true audiophile” throughout the frequency range, and still they do well for dialog in a two-channel theater. Heavily discounted if you know where to look.
Technics SB-C600 ($1,099 pr USD)
If you had asked us a few years ago to check out the latest $1.1K monitors from Technics, we might not have rushed out the door to frantically score a pair. But let’s be honest–the audiophile division of Panasonic has been on a roll since introducing the SL-1200G a few years ago and these small monitors have a natural tonality and a whole lotta bass when needed. Designed to mate with the SA-C600 CD Network Receiver, the SB-C600s prove that you can have a great sound system and incredible flexibility for just a couple of grand.
LSA Signature 80 Monitors ($1,499 pr USD)
We found that these value-oriented monitors offered a pleasing tonality that drew our reviewer “into a holistic listening experience and evaluation process.” An ideal monitor that does well with a variety of music genres, the Signature 80s feature a planar magnetic tweeter that is both airy and smooth. It’s a small, affordable bookshelf speaker that excels at dynamics and high SPLs. “The mite (or rather ‘mite-y’) Signature 80s just refused to sound like a small monitor.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
GoldenEar BRX ($1,900 pr USD)
The BRX (Bookshelf Reference X) delivers a huge soundstage and impressive bass thanks to its side-mounted passive radiators. The BRX is also one of a handful of the best bookshelf speakers in this price range that is neutral enough to let the other components add their flavor unimpeded–it’s a real chameleon with different types of systems. The BRX is currently being evaluated with the GoldenEar SuperSub X and the Forcefield 30.
Usher Audio SD-500 ($1,950 pr USD)
The star of the show is indeed the high quality DMD tweeter, there’s no avoiding that. Heck, it’s the reason that most audiophiles will purchase any speakers from the SD Series. “What comes as a surprise is how well the DMD tweeter and 0538 mid-woofer balance each other’s dynamic performance,” we concluded. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition ($1,995 pr USD)
MoFi distributes Falcon Acoustics in the US, and they decided to bring out this version of the legendary LS3/5a, in basic black and at a fantastic price, so audiophiles would be re-introduced to its sheer magic. Is it still competitive with so-called modern bookshelf speakers? Sure, they only go down to 70 Hz, but that becomes more and more irrelevant when you discover their purpose as near-field monitors. “There is no small monitor we would rather have right now manning an intimate audio system than these ‘uns right here,” we declared, awarding them a Reviewer’s Choice.
NEAT Acoustics Ministra ($2,849 pr USD)
This longtime British speaker manufacturer has come up with a small monitor that achieves tight, solid bass through a familiar design–the isobaric woofer, where a second woofer is hidden in the enclosure directly behind the first. The Ministra isn’t a tiny box with unbelievable bass as much as it’s a highly refined LS3/5a with satisfying and realistic bass. Tonality is superb and manages to capture a lot of BBC magic without actually being a BBC speaker.
Studio Electric M4 (from $3,290 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 Studio Electric 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.
High Moon Loudspeaker Co. High Desert ($3,500 pr USD)
This isn’t your normal two-way bookshelf speaker, despite its boxy appearance. One look at the exquisite, rustic cabinet, made from a rare cypress tree in Texas that spends most of its life underwater, and you’ll understand why we’re so infatuated with solid wood enclosures and their effect on the overall sound. Warm, relaxing and ultimately a lifestyle product, but it’s one that is exclusive due to the small batches that are made in this Texas company’s factory.
Sonner Audio Legato Unum ($4,750 pr USD, w/optional stands $1,120 USD)
Several of the best bookshelf speakers in and around the $5K+ range of the market have the gift of detail, but the Legato Unum is special in the clean and sophisticated way in which these bookshelf speakers 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.
Rosso Fiorentino Pienza S2 ($4,900 pr USD)
These small yet opulent monitors have that classic Italian sound, with a tonal balance to die for and an expressive and emotionally rich demeanor overall. With carefully-matched amplification, the Pienzas will simply disappear in a room and create vivid and dynamic sonic portraits right there in front of your listening chair. An intriguing design from a company relatively new to US audiophiles, and an incredible match with Norma electronics, also from Italy.
While the Audio Note UK AN-E gets all the glory in the press and among the AN faithful, the middle-of-the-line AN-J/D Hemp quietly asserted itself as one of the biggest-sounding two-way monitors you can buy for less than $5K. It requires the recommended Peter Qvortrup room placement–close to the back wall and closer to the side walls–which transforms the AN-J from a competent and likeable two-way to a monster when it comes to low frequencies, soundstage and tonality. A Reviewers Choice winner. Dedicated stands cost an additional $935/pr.
Harbeth C7ES-3 XD ($4,990 pr USD)
The XD version of the venerable Harbeth Compact 7 line is warm, engaging and still very much Alan Shaw’s most personal achievement–it was never a so-called BBC design and was always designed to be heard in the home. “The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD remains, after all these years, as a top recommendation thanks to Alan Shaw’s continuing efforts to improve further on his now legendary designs.” A Reviewers Choice Award recipient.
Fern & Roby Raven II ($6,750 pr USD)
Similar to the Fern & 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.
Qln Prestige One ($6,800 pr USD)
These two-way stand-mounted bookshelf speakers from the extraordinary Swedish company competes with many of the finest monitors we’ve heard, and it comes at a price that makes us wonder why haven’t we purchased a pair for ourselves yet. Outstanding, balanced low frequencies in all but the largest rooms. “If you’ve heard the larger Prestige Threes playing at an audio show and you’ve fallen under their spell, you’ll be thrilled to know that much of that magic is present in the Prestige One.” Reviewer’s Choice winner.
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, as they are unusually holographic.
Credo EV 350 Reference ($7,000 pr USD)
This small Swiss monitor is remarkable for its ability to fill large rooms with a balanced and natural sound. We were “enchanted with the Credo EV 350 Reference because its flaws are so few.” Killer imaging, and deep layers of detail earned the Credo EV 350 Ultimate our Reviewers Choice award, as it is truly a premier bookshelf speaker in every way. Matching stands offer incredible isolation between the speakers and the floor thanks to its pliant foot design.
SoundKAOS Vox 3A (starting at $7,250 pr USD)
These small Swiss monitors veer somewhat from neutrality: “The top end is sparkly and slightly forward, the lower mids slightly scooped, and the bass a little elevated in the 70hz range to compensate for the small size and less than stygian extension,” our reviewer discovered. When coupled with the right music and gear, the Vox 3a sings. “A lot of refinement and detail for the money.”
JBL 4349 Studio Monitors ($8,250 pr USD)
Most of the PTA staff was curious about the latest round of JBL re-imagined classics and how they would compare with contemporary high-end audio designs. While the 4349 is a “crank it up, party speaker” on the surface, it also made instruments sound like real instruments. But the 4349 is not just a vintage money grab product like many currently on the market. “JBL has invested considerable time, talent, and energy into the 4349 and it shows.” Reviewers Choice winner.
Bowers and Wilkins 805 D4 ($8,500 pr USD)
Exceedingly neutral and detailed, the 805 D4s are still capable of reproducing the feeling and emotion hiding in your favorite music. This stunning and curvy monitor is one of the rare stand-mounts that sounds just like a very big speaker, save for the bottom octave, perhaps, even though the low-frequencies blend well into medium-sized rooms with ease.
Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphene ($9,995 pr USD)
Part-Time Audiophile has been crushing on Joseph Audio’s premium two-way bookshelf speakers for quite some time, but the current 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 any 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.
Sonner Audio Allegro Unum (starts at $12,000 pr USD)
Gunawan Surya’s flagship speaker for Sonner Audio is also an elegant two-way monitor, with a stunning piano black finish and seductive curves and, of course, surprising low-end definition and weight. This is a music lover’s monitor though, full of passion and excitement and the uncanny ability to focus on the emotional depth of the music. A Reviewers Choice winner.
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 two-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.
Fink Team KIM ($12,990 pr USD)
For years we’ve suspected these German speakers, with their fixed stands and gorgeous finishes, would sound quite special. Now that we’ve heard them, we’re officially announcing ourselves as audio psychics. “A full and coherent balance between the ample bass response and the delicate and detailed highs from the AMT tweeter,” we decided, feeling that the touch of warmth did not intrude on its fundamental neutrality. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
Borresen Z1 Cryo ($14,500 pr USD)
You won’t find a more effective demonstration on the effects of cryogenic treatment on audio gear than with the Z1s. Compared to the unfrozen version ($12,000 pr USD), the Cryo simply adds more colors and textures to an already well-planned and executed sonic landscape. You get extraordinary bass response for such a small speaker, and the new level of detail extracted from your favorite music will make everything sound wondrous once again. Dedicated stands are an additional $2,860 pr USD. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
The “entry-level” two-way granite speakers from Acora Acoustics in Canada look small with their 5.9″ woofers and 11″ by 9″ by 13″ dimensions, but when paired with the massive Acora Acoustics SRS-G stands they weigh as much as a grown man. The SRBs offer an incredibly large, see-through soundstage and a tremendous amount of inner detail–plus, they’re made with tremendous care by “people who might cry when they play music for you.” A Reviewer’s Choice Award winner.
Vimberg Amea (starting at $19,000 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 its 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 standard pair. An Editor’s Choice winner and our 2020 Product of the Year.
Qln Signature (starting at $22,000/pr USD, dedicated stands $2,000/pr)
It’s no secret that the PTA staff adores Qln speakers from Sweden–some of us own them–so we had high expectations for the new flagship, which turned out to be a two-way monitor. The Signature is big and heavy (stands are an important choice here) and perhaps one of the most beautiful monitors ever made, which goes for both the looks and the sound. “The Qln Signatures make no apologies. They sound big and full and detailed and warm and once again I’m not so sure I need anything more to be happy,” our reviewer proclaimed. An obvious Reviewers Choice award winner and our pick for 2022 Product of the Year.
Borresen M1 ($100,000 pr USD)
The very idea of a $100,000 pair of small bookshelf speakers perplexes many audiophiles, but there is a cure–closing your eyes and listening to them. You’ll scratch your head and question everything you think you know about physics and speaker design, but the magic here is simply a focus on the elimination of inductance from the signal path through the use of exotic materials and noise reduction technologies, not to mention the freedom to pursue better performance through any means available. We’ve heard the M1s a few times now, and no other two-way monitor accomplishes what these do.