Choosing the best bookshelf speakers in 2021 can be an incredibly intimidating task, with seasoned audiophiles weighing up lots of elements before deciding which pair will earn a coveted spot in their home setup… but it doesn't have to be! Our goal here at T3 is to make life easy, so that's what this guide does – we've drilled straight to the best options for different types of setup, at different price ranges.
The one decision you will need to make before reading out pick of the best bookshelf speakers is whether or not you want active or passive speakers.
Active speakers have built-in amplifiers (devices that actually power the speakers and let them play sounds), while passive ones don’t, which means passive ones need to be connected to a traditional hi-fi amp.
For most people, active bookshelf speakers are the better, easier option, as they don’t require the purchase of any additional hardware. They can also be wireless potentially, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming options as well as wired connections. As a result of this extra equipment, though, they tend to be heavier, a tad larger, and more expensive than their passive counterparts.
Passive speakers, on the other hand, are traditionally the choice of the more serious audiophile hobbyist, because they can tinker with their setup over time by adding different amps and accessories as they see fit without needing to buy new speakers. But they do require wiring, so their placement is only as flexible as your willingness to run cable.
There’s no right or wrong answer as to which speaker type is the better choice, but if you’re after great quality sound with minimal fuss, active speakers are the way to go. We'll make absolutely clear whether our recommendations are active or passive in this list, so you can skip the ones you don't want.
And you're also more likely to see active speakers among the best Black Friday deals, since they're a simpler purchase! We'll always have the lowest prices for our picks on this page.
What is the best bookshelf speaker?
The best active bookshelf speakers for most people are the Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2. They’re affordable active speakers, and they deliver truly impressive sound… and look smart while doing it with a classy walnut or grey lacquer finish, while their smaller size means they’ll fit into any space or desktop with ease.
Movies and music are presented with excellent sound quality, and while there’s no Wi-Fi or built-in smart assistant, you still get plenty of flexibility thanks to Bluetooth, wired audio in and aux in, with a handy built-in control dial in addition to a bundled remote.
Our pick of the passive speakers is Dali Spektor 2, which are again incredibly affordable for the level of audio quality you get from them. If you're just starting out with a vinyl system, or simply want as much sound punch as possible for the money, they're ideal.
The best bookshelf speakers 2021: our list
Ruark’s handsome bookshelf speakers have a lot going for them. For starters, they’re the most compact speakers on our list, making them ideal for desks, shelves, TV stands, or anywhere else that takes your fancy. This, combined with the aux in, optical in, and Bluetooth connectivity options, makes them delightfully flexible.
From blasting out gunshots on PC or console games and making your TV audio shine, to fuelling a party playlist or pairing up with a turntable, the Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2 speakers handle everything with bold clarity and ease, serving up superb, punchy sound that belies their diminutive size.
Available in handsome walnut or white lacquer finishes with a handy built-in control dial, they’ll look great in most setups, though you might find yourself disappointed by the lack of a black option. There’s no wireless streaming support either, so you’ll need to stream via Bluetooth if you’re using a smartphone.
If you want even more flexibility you can grab an optional battery pack to turn one of the units into a portable cable-free speaker, which is a clever party trick that stands out from the crowd.
Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (aka Dali) is a high-end speaker manufacturer that offers a range of kit that can set you back a fair few thousand pounds. The Spektor 2 is a far more affordable entry-level set of passive speakers that, despite being the cheapest pair on our list, produce beautifully crisp and punchy results when paired with an amplifier worthy of their audio prowess (the similarly affordable Onkyo A-9010 is a great option).
Available in walnut or black ash with the company’s signature wood fibre cones that promise a fast, light response, they’ll make a classy addition to any grown-up space, particularly if there’s leather and wood involved.
Looks aside, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better sounding pair of active speakers for this price, thanks to their full-bodied, balanced sound, which lacks the overly bright treble that some previous generations of budget Dali speakers have displayed.
Despite being a similar price to the Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2, the M20 HDs pack a more powerful auditory punch, with impressive bass and clarity, with extra connectivity options to boot. However, it's worth noting that their “wireless” moniker refers only to their Bluetooth streaming abilities. The reality is that you’ll still need to plug one speaker in and connect to the other one to it via a cable, so they offer less of the wireless convenience that the Ruark's do. But the ability to select the powered speaker as either the left or right channel is a godsend for sorting out a hassle-free layout.
Only available in black, we’re fans of their smooth and minimal design, and the bundled remote is smart and functional too. There are numerous options on the connectivity front, with optical, RCA for turntables, line-in and USB for PC connectivity all present and accounted for, making these one of the most flexible speakers on our list.
The only thing that’s absent is the ability to stream via Wi-Fi services such as AirPlay 2 or Spotify Connect, so you’re limited to Bluetooth for smartphones (though you can always connect something like an Alexa to the line-in for instant brains).
The Formation Duo are definitely at the premium end of the spectrum, and their size and expense won’t be for everyone. With that said, though, these are some of the best-sounding speakers we’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to, matching and even surpassing some truly high-end enthusiast audiophile setups. They’re just that good.
Incredibly crisp, clear, accurate and balanced, we’re constantly blown away each time we hear them, and are particularly impressed by the bone-thumping bass they provide even without a sub.
Being active, they require no external amp, which goes some way to justifying their price tag, as you’d need to drop the same kind of money on an amp/passive speaker setup to achieve this level of sound.
Focused primarily on wireless streaming services and Bluetooth, if you want to go wired you’ll need to drop more money on the Formation Audio box, which offers connectivity options such as optical and RCA for turntables. If you want an incredibly high-end experience with a simple plug and play setup though, the Formation Duo will treat your ears for decades to come.
Even hi-fi enthusiasts will be hard pressed to spot the physical difference between Bowers & Wilkins’ 606 S2 Anniversary Edition speakers and the original model they’re based on, but the new internal tweaks result in even better performance. An upgraded neodymium magnet and other components from B&W's 700 Series along with a revised tweeter provide improved harmonics, less distortion, and even more clarity.
These speakers particularly shine in vocals thanks to the company’s Continuum woofer design, which helps bring singers directly into your room, while the bass is much tighter, responsive, and clearer than the original model. Being a passive set, you’ll want to pair these up with a decent amp which will add to their cost, but if you’re looking to kick off your audiophile journey with a set of speakers that will lavish your ears with high quality sound for years and years, these are a fabulous investment.
The second-most expensive pair of speakers on our list are an active set from KEF which are still massively cheaper than the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo, at least. Not only that, but they pack in a plethora of connectivity options straight out of the box, without the need to part with more cash for any extras.
Impressively, the LS50 Wireless II feature optical, digital coaxial, analogue, and RCA connections, not to mention HDMI eARC for super simple TV-connectivity, letting you control the volume with your existing remote. If that wasn’t enough, you’ve got AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Tidal and other wireless streaming options thrown in for good measure, and that’s all before we even get to the sound, which, thanks to KEF’s soundwave-absorbing MAT technology, is incredibly accurate, crisp, and clear.
An ideal choice for those who want high-end speakers that’ll work with practically every device and service under the sun, with no extra expense required. Oh, and let’s not forget KEF’s iconic minimal design and colour choices, which we’re big fans of.
The KEF’s LS50 Meta passive speakers will hit your wallet harder than many rivals, and if you’re starting your setup from scratch, you’ll need to factor in an amp worthy of powering the speakers’ up-to-100W capabilities too. If you do decide to fork out the cash, though, you'll receive exceptionally clear sound that’ll bring up nuanced details in tracks that you’ll swear were never there before.
That’s all thanks to the fact that these are the first speakers in the world to feature Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT), which is a specially designed material with numerous channels that absorbs 99% of unwanted soundwaves from the rear of the tweeter.
Throw in their incredibly handsome looks and unconventionally brilliant colour options (we particularly love the Royal Blue editions), and you’ll have a pair of speakers that sound as incredible as they look.
What to look for in the best bookshelf speakers
The biggest decision you’ll make when looking for a bookshelf speaker is whether or not you want an active or a passive pair. If you’re looking at things from an audiophile or hobbyist point of view, you’ll likely be looking at passive options for the flexibility and future tinkering they offer, due to the fact that they can be paired with different amps.
If you are looking at passive speakers, note their maximum power output, as you’ll need to pair them up with an amp that’s comfortably capable of driving them to their best performance. You’ll also want to consider their location, as it’ll determine the size you go for.
Size is also a factor to consider for active speakers, especially as they tend to be larger. If you go down the active route, you’re likely looking for convenience in a setup that you can just plug in and forget about. If that’s the case, keep an eye on the connectivity options available, as simplicity and flexibility is king. In both cases, you might want to consider stands if you’re not placing them on an actual bookshelf, as they can help reduce distortion from vibrations and environmental movement.