Why you should trust us
I've been reviewing audio gear professionally since 1990, currently as an editor for the SoundStage Network and previously as an editor or writer for Sound & Vision, Home Theater Review, Home Theater Magazine, and numerous other publications. In that time, I've conducted and published more blind tests of audio products than any other journalist in the world. Over the past 28 years, I've tested and measured countless traditional stereo speakers and have evaluated more than 300 wireless speakers.
Three additional listeners helped me on this guide; all have served as panelists on many of my tests for Wirecutter and Sound & Vision: Lauren Dragan, Wirecutter's headphone editor; Geoffrey Morrison, Wirecutter editor at large and columnist for CNET and Forbes.com; and John Higgins, a professional musician and composer who has also written for Wirecutter and Home Theater Magazine.
Who should get this
Wireless powered bookshelf speakers are for those who want the convenience of all-in-one Bluetooth or Wi-Fi speakers, with the sound quality of a traditional stereo system. Also called active speakers, these speaker systems have built-in amplifiers and wireless receivers, so all you need to add is a source device, such as a smartphone, a computer, a TV, or a record player. In general, these systems sound better than all-in-one speakers because the two speakers can be spread apart to create an enveloping, natural stereo effect—and because many are large enough to accommodate larger woofers that produce deeper, more powerful bass.
When done right, these systems can actually sound better than comparably priced traditional stereo bookshelf systems. Because the speakers are designed and built as a system, all of the components are chosen to work together to deliver the best sound. Most of them have digital signal processors that permit the design engineers to tune them much more precisely than traditional analog audio circuitry allows. That digital processing includes a limiter that, if properly configured by the design engineers, prevents the speaker from being played loud enough to the point where it sounds bad or might suffer damage.
The design of these speakers varies, but most have a separate woofer (for bass) and tweeter (for treble) in each speaker; this design is generally considered to deliver the best possible sound from a small speaker. The electronics and amplification are built into one of the speakers (which needs to be plugged into a power outlet), and a standard speaker cable connects that speaker to the other one—so it's not a truly wireless setup.
All of the wireless stereo speaker systems we've found incorporate Bluetooth, and some incorporate Wi-Fi, in the form of Apple AirPlay, DTS Play-Fi, or Google Chromecast. All have at least one analog audio input; many also offer digital inputs, and some include an input for a record player. (Any speaker system with an analog input can be used with a record player, as long as the record player has a built-in phono preamp (as most of our turntable picks do), or an outboard phono preamp is added.) Most have controls for only volume and input, although a few of the models we found have tone controls, and some include remote controls. Some have an output for a subwoofer, which is important if you want lots of bass; adding a subwoofer to a system without a subwoofer output is impractical or impossible.
For most listeners, the only disadvantage of these systems is that they include two separate speakers that are connected with a wire, so they're not as tidy or unobtrusive as all-in-one speakers. For audio enthusiasts, a potential disadvantage is that the system can't be expanded or upgraded by, for example, substituting in a more powerful amplifier.
How we picked
Here you can see how the sizes of the individual speakers compare. From left: the Edifier S1000DB, Klipsch R-51PM, and Audioengine HD3. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald
Going into this article, I'd already heard many of these systems (or at least prototype versions of them) at various audio shows, including CES and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. We decided to include only speakers that offer at least Bluetooth connectivity, although several of them also include Wi-Fi and/or an input for a record player. After I searched Amazon, Best Buy, Crutchfield, and other sites, I put together a list of the various models available. We set a price range of $250 to $800; if you're interested in a less-expensive option, check out our best computer speakers guide.
I contacted manufacturers to request testing samples, and to make sure the models on my list were all current. We ended up with 10 models, including the brands Audioengine, Edifier, Kanto, Klipsch, SVS, and Vanatoo.
How we tested
Upon receiving the systems, I broke them in by playing at least 10 hours of music through each one at a moderately loud volume. I then gave each system a long listen to make sure none were obviously poor performers that wouldn't stand a chance of being chosen by our blind listening panel. For these sessions, I used music streamed from my Samsung Galaxy S9 smartphone. I also used my Music Hall Ikura turntable, which is equipped with an Ortofon Blue moving-magnet cartridge, to connect to systems that had phono inputs.
For our blind testing sessions, I used the speakers' analog inputs fed by my custom-built audio testing switcher, and I let the panelists use their smartphones as their music source, so they could play any tunes they wanted. I placed the speakers at equal heights on stands I built specifically for blind speaker testing, and I draped a thin piece of black fabric in front of the speakers so that the panelists couldn't see which ones were playing.
All speakers were played at matched levels, which I did by feeding the Dolby test noise recorded from a Denon receiver through all the systems and measuring the levels using an NTi Minilyzer audio analyzer and Mini SPL measurement microphone set for flat response (i.e., no A- or C-weighting) because the shaped noise from the Dolby test noise provided the optimal weighting.
After I had the panelists' initial results, I offered to let them listen again to any of the speakers we'd tested and compare them with any other models. I then revealed the identities of the speakers and solicited the panelists' comments about each system's design and features.
Note that we didn't give extra points for fancier Bluetooth technologies, such as the aptX and AAC codecs, although we will point out below which ones each product includes. In the online Bluetooth blind test you can find on my website, it's pretty clear that the differences among these technologies are subtle. The differences between speakers, however, are not subtle.
Our pick: Edifier S1000DB
The Edifier S1000DB is just what a wireless bookshelf speaker system should be. It starts with good-quality, well-tuned speakers, then adds amplification, Bluetooth, and other convenient features and connection options. Three of our four panelists picked it as their favorite of all the larger models we evaluated in our blind tests. At 13.3 inches high, 11.5 inches deep, and 7.9 inches wide, the S1000DB speakers are fairly large, which is surely part of the reason they sound good, but it may make them too large for desktops and some bookshelves.
The S1000DB is the only system in our test that our panelists thought had respectable deep-bass response, and the quality of the bass was generally good—it didn't boom the way some small speakers do when trying to play deep-bass notes. Although none of our panelists raved about the sound, none of them noticed any real problems. Geoff summed it up when he said, "It didn't really excel in any way, but it sounded best on average with all the tracks I listened to."
The S1000DB has a pretty nice feature set, with aptX Bluetooth, two stereo analog inputs, optical and coaxial digital inputs, and bass and treble controls. The cable between the two speakers runs 16 feet, the longest of all the non-Edifier models we tested. A sleek little remote control lets you adjust volume and select the input. A removable grille (which we didn't show here) protects the woofers and tweeters from prying fingers.
However, the S1000DB lacks some features found on competing models. There's no practical way to connect it to a subwoofer, and it doesn't include phono inputs or Wi-Fi. You can add those features by connecting external devices, such as a phono preamp or an Echo Dot, but that adds cost and complexity.
These speakers are beautifully crafted, with real wood sides. That said, their styling is reminiscent of typical high-end speakers from the 1990s—it's not what we'd call cool or contemporary. Because they have rear bass ports, they can't be pushed tight against a wall, because blocking the ports will reduce the bass.
No major audio publications seem to have reviewed the S1000DB, but The Test Pit raved about them, saying, "All that real estate is well used and the resulting sound is clean and beyond powerful." Audio Rumble agrees, stating, "These are definitely among the most capable bookshelf speakers you can get for less than $500 at the moment." In 186 Amazon user reviews to date, the S1000DB has earned an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars, although the Fakespot grade is a C.
Also great: Audioengine HD3
The Audioengine HD3 is a totally different kind of speaker system from our top pick. At 7 inches high, 5.5 inches deep, and 4.25 inches wide, each of the HD3 speakers is only about one-seventh the size of one of the Edifier S1000DB speakers. They produce a surprisingly full and balanced sound for such small speakers, but they don't have the deep-bass response of our main pick. The HD3 system also has lots of great features, including a USB input, a headphone output, and an analog output to connect a subwoofer.
Among the smaller speakers we tested, Lauren and John ranked the HD3 system first, and Geoff ranked it second—and this system was Lauren's favorite of all the speakers we tested. "This would be my pick for most people," she said, and that was before she saw how compact the HD3 system is. With "woofers" measuring just 2.75 inches, the HD3 system can't put out any real bass, but it's tuned so that its lack of bass doesn't leave it sounding thin. It also doesn't play super-loud; I found myself turning it up all the way most of the time I used it. But with sound that's loud enough to fill a bedroom or an office, and a design compact enough to fit on any desktop, the HD3 is an ideal choice for many situations.
Two analog inputs are included, and there's also a USB digital input for use with computers and smartphones (but no optical or coaxial digital input). An analog output makes it easy to connect most subwoofers, such as those featured in our guide to the best budget subwoofer, and a bass reduction switch makes it easier to blend the HD3 speakers with the subwoofer (and also allows the HD3s to play louder when used with a sub). There's also a front headphone jack, which is very convenient for desktop use. There's no phono input or Wi-Fi capability, but these features can be added through the use of outboard accessories.
The HD3 includes aptX HD, which is the only upgraded version of Bluetooth I've found that offers a significant performance improvement over the standard SBC Bluetooth codec. (Note that only a few Android smartphones are currently compatible with aptX HD, and that no Apple products are compatible with any variant of aptX.) It also includes AAC, a codec used by Apple iTunes and some streaming services; Apple phones and tablets are compatible with AAC, so this feature could deliver a slight improvement in sound quality for Apple fans.
The HD3 has received numerous professional reviews, including one in which PCMag's Tim Gideon said the HD3 "allows for an ideal combination of high-quality Bluetooth streaming and wired playback at a reasonable price," and another where Jack Roberts, from the high-end audio site Dagogo.com, called them "the best desktop speakers I have ever heard." Amazon user reviews average only 3.9 stars out of 5 stars (with a Fakespot grade of A), but most of the unsatisfied reviewers seem to have somewhat unrealistic expectations of what such small speakers can do.
We also read complaints about the first couple of seconds of audio selections being cut off when the USB input is used, but we couldn't replicate this effect; perhaps a firmware update has fixed the problem, as this system has been out for about a year and half.
Also great: Klipsch R-51PM
Klipsch's R-51PM is the most versatile choice of all our picks because it includes a phono input for connecting to a turntable, plus USB, optical digital, and analog inputs and a subwoofer output—but that versatility comes with a higher price. Our panelists ranked the R-51PM just slightly behind the Edifier S1000DB in sound quality. Everyone agreed it had a reasonably full and natural sound, but all said they'd prefer a little more bass. At 13.3 inches high by 9.1 inches deep by 7 inches wide, the R-51PM speakers aren't quite as bulky as our top pick, and they have a more contemporary look.
While many inexpensive turntables have a phono preamp or Bluetooth built in and thus don't need a dedicated phono input, anyone wanting to use a higher-quality turntable or an older turntable will need a phono input—so its inclusion on the R-51PM makes for a clean, easy setup. Any of our picks can be adapted for use with these turntables through the addition of an outboard phono preamp, but that's more money to spend, plus an extra set of cables to connect, plus an extra power supply.
In addition to Bluetooth and the phono input, the R-51PM has other nice connection options, including USB and optical digital audio inputs, plus an extra 3.5 mm analog input. Thus, it'll connect easily to computers and TVs so it can serve as a complete audio system. It's especially suitable for use with a TV because the manual provides codes for programming remotes from DirecTV and RCA satellite receivers and AT&T, Bright House, and Xfinity cable boxes to control the R-51PM's volume and mute functions. There's also a removable grille (not shown here) to protect the woofers and tweeters.
As I said above, the R-51PM produces a reasonably full and natural sound, but all of our panelists would've preferred a little more bass. This system does have a defeatable dynamic bass control that boosts the bass at low volumes, but it didn't seem to help, especially considering we did most of our testing at moderately loud levels. However, the inclusion of a subwoofer output does allow you to add your own subwoofer, and the R-51PM's remote control includes subwoofer output-level controls, so you can fine-tune the bass level without adjusting your subwoofer's controls.
While the R-51PM speakers aren't quite as bulky as the Edifier S1000DB speakers, they also have rear bass ports, which means they can't be backed up tight against a wall without affecting the sound quality. Klipsch also offers a smaller model with the same inputs and features, the R-41PM, but no samples were available at the time we did the tests for this article.
The R-51PM system was brand-new at the time of this writing, so we couldn't find any professional reviews of it. The one Amazon review we saw is from someone who seemed to have not read the owner's manual.
What to look forward to
There are a few systems in this category that we weren't able to get in time for this article. The Kanto Tuk is a higher-end version of the Kanto YU6 tested here, with aptX HD and higher-quality woofers and tweeters. The JBL Control XStream includes Wi-Fi capability with Spotify Connect and Chromecast (in addition to Bluetooth) and a splash-proof design. The Totem Acoustic Kin Play includes Bluetooth plus a phono input, although it looks as if it will exceed our price cap for this article. The Vanatoo Transparent One Encore brings the concepts of the Transparent Zero tested here into a more conventional, box-shaped speaker.
The Audioengine HD6 is a larger version of the HD3, one of our top picks, but only one of our panelists liked the sound.
The Klipsch R-41PM is a smaller version of the R-51PM, with the same inputs and features. Samples were not available at the time we did the tests for this article.
The Edifier AirPulse A100 sounds a little better than our top pick, with somewhat clearer treble, and it looks nicer, but it's more than twice as costly—and we don't think the performance improvements merit that big of a price increase.
The Edifier S2000pro is similar to our top pick, but it adds professional-style XLR balanced inputs and has a different tweeter. I thought its treble didn't sound as smooth as the S1000DB's.
The Kanto YU4 has a cool design, a phono input, and a reasonable price, but only one of our panelists really liked its sound. A larger version, the Kanto YU6, won over two of our panelists, but the other two weren't impressed.
We hoped to test the Peachtree Audio M25, but the company says it will be discontinued early in 2019.
The SVS Prime Wireless is a new system with DTS Play-Fi Wi-Fi–based audio, in addition to Bluetooth and a subwoofer output; I liked it, but the rest of our panelists felt it needed more bass.
The Vanatoo Transparent Zero is an unusual trapezoidal design with passive radiators to reinforce the bass. It's a well-tuned speaker, but our panelists preferred the similarly sized and priced Audioengine HD3.
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