The bookshelf speaker is the longtime preeminent product in the audio world, and now there are more of them to choose from than ever. So much so that it’s become quite intimidating, especially for a non-audiophile layperson – how do you choose the “best” speaker among hundreds of apparent choices?
That’s what we’re going to try to help you do here. We’ve reviewed, analyzed, or otherwise looked at just about every viable product currently on the market, and while there’s no single “best” speaker, what we can do is narrow it down to a handful of pretty clear winners based on common user preferences and budgetary ceilings (i.e. I’m willing to spend up to $100, $200, etc.).
First, let’s explain what a powered/active speaker is, and why many will find it to be the best choice.
Table of Contents Navigation
- What Are Powered/Active Speakers? And Why Might You Want Them?
- What We Mainly Look For In Powered Bookshelf Speakers
- A Preliminary Word About Prices
- The Best Budget Powered Bookshelf Speakers (Around $125 or Less)
- The Best Value Tier Powered Bookshelf Speakers (Around $350 or Less)
- The Best Premium Powered Speakers (Anything More Than Around $350, But Not Exorbitant)
- Conclusion, and Relevant Links/Resources
What Are Powered/Active Speakers? And Why Might You Want Them?
Traditionally, speakers have been passive, and most still are these days. A passive speaker doesn’t generate the power it needs, which is significantly more than could come from a device or a standard wall socket. So, a separate amplifier or a receiver (basically an amplifier with extra features) is required as an intermediary conduit to generate the power required for a speaker to function.
Active speakers on the other hand, also called powered speakers, are still technically passive but have an amplifier built in. So, you can instead just plug them right into the wall and they’ll be ready to go.
Powered speakers pose an obvious advantage of convenience, and are understandably more appealing to the newly initiated who might be intimidated by wiring speakers to a separate receiver (which isn’t actually that hard, but still). Not having to buy said amp/receiver is also money saved, or money invested back into better speakers. More space and less clutter too.
The traditional disadvantage of powered speakers is that they generally brought less power, sound quality, and overall value to the table for the same amount of money, and that they’d often be prohibitively quiet. This was mostly due to the fact that there were just far less of them produced, but that’s changed a lot in recent years: more and more companies are producing high quality powered speakers that are just as good if not actually better than their passive counterparts.
Besides the obvious benefit of convenience and savings from not having to buy an amp or receiver, a lot of powered bookshelf speakers are studio monitors, meaning they’re really designed to sound their best at close range, like on a computer desktop for example, whereas passive speakers generally sound best at “full” range, like in a home theater system for example.
So, to summarize:
- Powered speakers have amps built in, so you don’t need to buy one separately and worry about setting it up.
- Powered speakers are more convenient and have less clutter than passive speakers.
- Powered speakers are often designed to sound best at near-field range.
If those three factors sound appealing to you, then chances are a pair of powered speakers is the way to go.
So how much money should one reasonably expect to spend on a good pair of powered speakers? We’d say $100 is around the minimum, else you venture into rinkydink computer speakers that you’re better off just not getting at all. However, once you crack three figures you’ll start to see a few really solid choices. Going up to around $500 will open up highly performant industry leading choices, and that still isn’t exorbitantly expensive. Beyond that is where we’d say the diminishing returns kick in. You can get some really nice and fancy products for significantly more money, but the marginal improvement in quality and probable overkill won’t be worth the extra cost for 99% of people (citation needed).
So, roughly speaking, around $100 minimum gets a decent entry level pair of powered desktop speakers, and up to around $500 gets a premium studio monitor caliber pair.
What We Mainly Look For In Powered Bookshelf Speakers
Sales pages in the audio world get glammed up to the point of being near incomprehensible, not to mention making it difficult to actually compare different choices, but there are a few industry standard specs that are important and that we look for:
Power Handling/Output – expressed in Watts, or sometimes SPL for powered speakers. Basically determines how loud a speaker can get. You want a powered speaker to have a good amp obviously. But keep in mind you might only need a speaker to get yay loud at close range.
Frequency Response Range/Differential – expressed in Hz and Db. Basically determines the low/high range of the speaker, and how evenly it reproduces sound across that range. Of utmost importance, yet also the hardest spec to achieve well.
Warranty – particularly important for powered speakers since companies often will shorten coverage for electronic components. Three years is the best we’ve seen, two years is decent, one year is pretty standard for budget/entry level stuff.
Inputs/Features – the big one is a line-out for a subwoofer if you want to add one, which many powered speakers don’t have. Beyond that, you want it to have any input you’ll think you’ll want/need. Extra EQ controls are good too to balance things at close range. Maybe you want Bluetooth or a remote, the list can go on.
Good Design/Components – ideally we want a nice 1 inch tweeter and a driver with a nice material. We also want a nice sturdy cabinet that ideally looks decent enough. But that will come with a trade-off of the speaker being large and heavy.
And that’s pretty much it. Other stuff is likely just bells and whistles that aren’t worth mentioning.
A Preliminary Word About Prices
Before we get to discussing our top picks, it’s really important to understand something:
Prices fluctuate in the audio world, often by a lot.
Which means: if you see something mentioned here suddenly selling for 25+% cheaper – and that absolutely does happen, regularly – then in all likelihood that’s going to be the best choice while the gettin’s good. It also means the price *ranges* discussed below are not definitive nor guaranteed, so keep that in mind.
And that’s pretty much what you need to preliminary know. Now lets get to the picks:
The Best Budget Powered Bookshelf Speakers (Around $125 or Less)
If we had to recommend one pair of budget bookshelf speakers that we think would appeal to the most people, it would be these, and unsurprisingly this speaker also tops our overall best budget bookshelf speakers list. The 1280Ts look nice, have a good build and design, have decent specs, have an array of nice features, and have a solid two year warranty, all for a very competitive price. Just really a great all around entry level bookshelf speaker, and not suprisingly it’s topped multiple best-sellers lists for quite a while now. These speakers won’t get as loud as things further down the list, but at close desktop range the power handling is plenty. The 1280T is actually a legacy model of the newest release of this speaker, the 1280DB, but we don’t see why not save money on this older version that’s essentially as good, for as long as it stays in production at least.
These speakers come very close to the 1280Ts, and many might find they actually sound better. The consensus seems to be that people are surprised at how amazing such a small and inexpensive powered speaker actually sounds. They tend to run slightly more expensive than the 1280Ts, look kind of plain, and have a pretty bare minimum of inputs/features. They also have a lesser one year warranty. But if your willing to concede there to get maximum sound quality for a minimum price, these speakers are likely going to be the best choice. But the Edifiers sound good too. Like we said it’s close. Honestly the best choice between the two will probably come down to what’s going for the cheapest at the time. Keep in mind the power handling is limited with these as well – plenty for desktop/near-field listening, but might fall short beyond that.
The other significant limitation of both of these speakers besides the power/volume ceiling is that neither has an input to add a subwoofer. So you really get no upgrade scope and would have to start over if you eventually wanted to add to/upgrade your overall system. Something to be aware of.
The Best Value Tier Powered Bookshelf Speakers (Around $350 or Less)
If we bump to budget up to around $300, it opens up a lot of studio quality options that, while not the cheapest, are arguable the greatest value overall. The speakers you’ll find here are the kind that are good enough to be mainstays for several years, and not something you might find you immediately want to upgrade. Some have better strengths than others, or they focus on different factors, but all sound great. The best choice, said again, will probably come down to what’s going for the best deal. Here you’ll find far more volume than you’d ever need at close range, but of course you then have the option of “for the whole room” speakers.
A tiny two man company that has pretty much entirely focused on making powered desktop speakers really well. Excellent specs and sound, all housed in a unique and compact design that opens up a variety of placement options. Industry leading three year warranty. Probably currently the best performing compact powered desktop speaker.
JBL’s LSR is widely regarded as one the best studio monitors of all time, and the MkII is an improved version upon it. Industry leading range and power/volume, and a real propensity to fill a room with their iconic horn loaded tweeter. These things are big and heavy though, and most definitely do not look subtle, totally in contrast to the Vanatoos above. They’ll also need space in the back for the port to breathe, so you’ll need to plan accordingly. These and other standalone studio monitors are often sold as singles so you might need to get two separately for a complete pair.
KRK’s Rokit is yet another highly regarded albeit lesser known studio monitor, and the latest G3 series is the 3rd generation improvement of this speaker. It’s really close between these and JBLs. The Rokit has slightly better and industry leading range, in particular an outstanding floor and great bass that you just don’t normally associate with a two way bookshelf speaker. While the JBL is out and proud, the Rokit is really designed to sound optimal at near-field range, though it almost has the same volume capacity as the JBL. The Rokit has additional EQ knobs as well, to really help you optimize things. These things are also big and even heavier than the JBLs. However the front firing slot port means you don’t have to worry about them having room in the back. Other then that they look kind of… eh, juvenile? Also these don’t come with covers or an easy way to cover them. Keep in mind once again these are often sold as singles and you might have to get two.
Like we said, its real close between these and the JBLs, and they each come in multiple bigger sizes too (for more money of course). Once again? The best discount of the time will probably ultimately decide what’s the best choice, though you really can’t go wrong with any of these.
The Best Premium Powered Speakers (Anything More Than Around $350, But Not Exorbitant)
Once you get here the diminishing returns really start to kick in, and the sound quality essentially maxes out for non-professionals. You’ve also now got competitors which should really be competing with the above speakers but for whatever reason run more expensive.
We’re just going to kind of list off remaining honorable mentions at this point, because most people we think are going to choose something above.
Yamaha’s HS powered speakers are still strong competitors here, though they’re a bit dated now. They’re well known for having an extremely flat and unbiased response curve, which is primarily important for people who are doing actual sound production and not just listening. If you watch videos of people doing music on Youtube you’ll see these speakers in the background all the time. The HS5 (our review | on Amazon) is a little more expensive than the JBL or Rokit 5 inch monitors, but still a very metionworthy competitor.
Next up is the Audioengine A5+ (our review | on Amazon), which for a long while was probably the recommendation for a high quality compact powered speaker. They’re great speakers still, but haven’t gotten cheaper despite being dated, and the Transparent Zeros discussed above are pretty much better all around and slightly cheaper. But if you can thriftily snag to A5+ for cheap, then by all means do. We also wouldn’t be surprised if these started to get discounted from the MSRP sooner than later.
Also worth honorable mention, still, is the now discontinued Vanatoo Transparent One, which
is was their premium flagship speaker, and regarded by many as the best powered speaker they’ve ever heard. So why was it discontinued? Well, to make way for the next generation Vanatoo Transparent One Encore, a new generation version that’s slotted to be released in mid 2019. We’re excited for this one, and it will almost certainly end up on this list. The now legacy Transparent One might be hard to find now, but you could maybe get a good thrifty deal on it if you’re lucky.
Beyond that? The MKii, Rokit G3, and Yamaha HS all have larger 6 and 8 inch woofer versions that are accordingly more expensive, for those who think they need it. KRK even has a 10 inch three way version of the Rokit Monitor that is big and weighs a whopping 47 pounds, but buy a pair of those and you’re now cracking the four figure range.
Conclusion, and Relevant Links/Resources
Hopefully this article helps you at least narrow it down to a few solid choices, and from there the best option will usually present itself by being the best deal at the time. Said for the umpteenth time: prices fluctuate! Remember that.
While the bass on a pair of some of these speakers is really outstanding, nothing will ever truly replace a full sized dedicated subwoofer. It can do things that a two way bookshelf speaker just can’t. The good news is most home theater subwoofers are powered, even the really cheap ones, so adding one on is not only a great idea for most people, but really easy to do as long as you have a compatible input. You can check out our best budget subwoofers article here.
Keep in mind we routinely update our best of articles, so if anything changes or comes about, all you have to do is check back here to see our current recommendations.