By Chris Heinonen
To find the best bookshelf speakers for your stereo system, we considered hundreds of models, narrowed the field to 19 finalists, and then had a three-person listening panel put each through its paces with a wide variety of music. After 90 hours of work, the ELAC Debut B6 speakers came out as our top choice because they sound more like a live performance than anything in this price range.
Who these are for
Bookshelf speakers are great for anyone willing to tolerate a bit more complexity in setup to get better sound and better value than other options provide. For example, Bluetooth speakers offer an easy way to listen to music but can't produce a real stereo effect and use a compressed signal, but whole-home audio systems can give you true CD-quality streaming but have a limited number of speaker options and often cost more.
Used with a receiver, bookshelf speakers let you listen to your audio sources in full resolution, and because you can connect any device to your receiver's inputs, you aren't limited to CD resolution. Although wireless standards will certainly change a lot over the next decade, you can rest assured a pair of passive bookshelf speakers will never become antiquated or useless.
How we picked and tested
Companies have been making bookshelf speakers for decades, and every year hundreds of new models arrive. Testing every speaker on the market is impossible because of the number that exist. The first thing we did was narrow the field down to two price ranges: speakers priced at $125 a pair or less, and between $250 to $400 a pair. We then looked at all of the reviews we could find (and trust), plus customer reviews, to eliminate models that might have problems in real-world use.
Once we selected our finalists, we assembled them in a listening room for evaluation. To properly compare the speakers with one another, we set them on 30-inch-tall shelves so that the tweeters all stood as close to ear height (seated) as possible, placed the shelves at least one foot away from all walls for sound-quality reasons, and borrowed an ATI AT6012 amplifier to power multiple speakers at a time (though all our picks will work with pretty much all receivers).
We compared speakers in each price range head to head, using however many tracks it took to determine which one sounded best. If the results in a single listening round were too close for us to determine a winner, we rotated other models in and came back to those speakers later until we could make a choice.
Out of the 18 speakers we tested, the ELAC Debut B6 won us over with impressive detail, terrific soundstaging, and tight bass. A few of its competitors surpassed the ELAC in certain aspects, but among those priced under $400, nothing else we heard offered the overall balance and performance of the ELAC Debut B6 for the same price.
During our tests, in "Just the Way You Are" from Diana Krall's Live in Paris, her vocals sounded more natural through the ELAC pair than through most of the competition. It better distinguished small details such as the sound of her mouth opening and closing, and you get no peaked treble here. It also gives music much more depth and realism, thanks to its wide and deep soundstage. Basically, you won't get closer to the feeling of a live performance without spending a lot more money. These speakers sounded great no matter what we played on them. The openings to "Teardrop" from Massive Attack and The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" show off the extended bass response the ELAC Debut B6 pair offers over the competition.
With optional matching center channel, tower, and Atmos modules, the ELAC speakers will work in both two-channel and multichannel systems. Plus, they're versatile to set up; secure binding posts make them easy to install with any kind of speaker cable.
The (better-looking) runner-up
If the ELAC Debut B6 set is unavailable, the DALI Zensor 1 is a close runner-up. The sound quality of this pair is virtually the same as the ELAC, and we couldn't pick one over the other in a direct A-to-B comparison. They're also much more compact and come in a selection of much nicer finishes than the ELAC pair. However, you're paying 50 percent more for what amounts to cosmetic improvements.
An upgrade in sound quality
If you want to go for an upgrade, the KEF Q100 speakers cost nearly twice the price of our main pick, but this pair was the clear favorite of our listening panel. We found the sound to be more detailed and clear than what we heard from the other speakers. Like the ELAC Debut B6, the Q100 set has an available matching center channel for home theater. It also comes in four different finishes, and you can even choose larger versions if you want more bass.
Great sound at a bargain price
Finally, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR set is our budget pick. These speakers were part of Andrew Jones' last series at Pioneer and sounded better than any of the other under-$200 speakers we tried. But our listening panel said they sounded less detailed compared with speakers in the $300+ range. They're good for the money, but we recommend you upgrade if you can afford to.
Getting the most from your speakers
Even though they're called bookshelf speakers, don't put your speakers on an actual bookshelf—because most bookshelf speakers are rear-ported, some of the bass fires out of the back, and it won't sound as good. A bookcase amplifies some of the bass and changes its tone.
Instead, try putting each speaker farther out into the open; placing it on top of a table or a stand eight to 12 inches from the wall will make a big improvement. Strive to get the tweeters at roughly ear level when you're sitting, because that's the way most speakers are designed to be used.
An ideal position for bookshelf speakers is on a pair of speaker stands. The stands will put the speakers at the correct height for most people when they're seated—plus, they have carpet spikes to better anchor them to the floor.
It's important to note that the front grill on a speaker is designed to keep the drivers safe from children and pets, but having it in place is not as good as leaving it off, soundwise. So if you don't have kids or pets around to damage the grill, don't feel you have to use it. For more tips on how to get the most from your speakers, check out our full review here.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.