Book­shelf or Floor­stand­ing Speak­ers: Which Should You Choose?

NOVO - - ROOM ACOUSTICS - Ge­orge de Sa

When it comes to putting to­gether an au­dio sys­tem, for a home theatre or a two-chan­nel stereo, there is no avoid­ing a de­ci­sion on loud­speak­ers. Speak­ers are an es­sen­tial part of any au­dio sys­tem and hence spend­ing some time get­ting to know more about them is al­ways ben­e­fi­cial. To­day there are many types of loud­speak­ers in­clud­ing satel­lite, in-wall, on-wall, sub­woofer, pla­nar, elec­tro­static and so on, each of which have their own spe­cific pur­pose; how­ever, one of the most com­mon ques­tions that comes up with au­dio en­thu­si­asts is…“should I buy book­shelf (stand­mount / com­pact) loud­speak­ers or floor­stand­ing (tower) loud­speak­ers?” Though this ques­tion may at first seem sim­ple to an­swer, there is in fact much to con­sider in mak­ing a de­ci­sion be­tween th­ese two pri­mary types of loud­speak­ers.

The de­ci­sion be­tween a book­shelf speaker and floor­stand­ing loud­speaker be­comes that much more dif­fi­cult when the two vary in con­fig­u­ra­tion, ma­te­ri­als, en­gi­neer­ing or qual­ity. An ex­am­ple would be if we tried to com­pare a high-end book­shelf speaker (made of bil­let alu­minum that uses an ex­otic beryl­lium tweeter and ce­ramic com­pos­ite woofer) to a mass-mar­ket floor­stand­ing speaker (made of MDF that uses a con­ven­tional fab­ric-dome tweeter and off-theshelf pa­per coned woofers). Can you guess which would be the bet­ter per­former? Could you guess which would likely cost more? Such a com­par­i­son would not help us de­cide on the fun­da­men­tal speaker form, i.e. book­shelf or floor­stand­ing. Sim­ply put, you can find many book­shelf speak­ers that cost more and per­form bet­ter than floor­stand­ing loud­speak­ers and vice versa. Does that mean the ques­tion of book­shelf speaker or floor­stand­ing speaker is unan­swer­able? Well, not ex­actly. There are, in fact, a num­ber of as­pects worth con­sid­er­ing; how­ever, they only make sense when we hold other fac­tors con­stant. What I mean is that we need as close to an ap­plesto-ap­ples com­par­i­son - a stan­dard­ized sce­nario. For in­stance, let’s start with two speak­ers: one a book­shelf and the other a floor­stand­ing speaker, both man­u­fac­tured by the same com­pany, within the same prod­uct se­ries and hav­ing the same con­fig­u­ra­tion (i.e. twoway, two-driver, 1” dome tweeter, 6” woofer, with sim­i­lar crossovers and over­all qual­ity of con­struc­tion and ma­te­ri­als). In this sce­nario, the only vari­able is the speaker form, book­shelf or floor­stand­ing – an ap­ples to ap­ples com­par­i­son, well not quite but close enough. Now, in light of this sce­nario, we can con­sider some of the dif­fer­ences be­tween book­shelf and floor­stand­ing speak­ers. Let’s look at th­ese dif­fer­ences in terms of seven key as­pects: 1) cost; 2) size; 3) place­ment & dé­cor; 4) power han­dling; 5) sen­si­tiv­ity & vol­ume; 6) bass ex­ten­sion and; 7) ac­cu­racy & imag­ing.


In our sce­nario, since the two speak­ers have sim­i­lar qual­ity and con­struc­tion and use the same driv­ers, we might guess that the floor­stand­ing speaker would cost more. Af- ter all, the floor­stand­ing speaker is es­sen­tially the book­shelf speaker in a taller/larger cabi­net, plus it has a tweaked cross­over to ad­just for the greater fre­quency range and ef­fi­ciency af­forded by the larger cabi­net. A larger cabi­net means more ma­te­rial, more parts and more labour. Specif­i­cally this means more: MDF for the cabi­net, ad­he­sive for assem­bly, in­su­la­tion, in­ter­nal brac­ing, sand­ing, stain, var­nish, wiring and assem­bly time. And, that’s not all - the floor­stand­ing speaker be­ing larger, calls for more pack­ag­ing and be­ing larger and heav­ier, higher ship­ping/han­dling costs. So it would be un­der­stand­able that the floor­stand­ing speaker would have a higher cost and price but is that the whole story? Not quite - there’s some­thing else to con­sider. Though the book­shelf speaker, in our sce­nario, should al­ways be cheaper, the per­for­mance of a book­shelf speaker is highly de­pen­dent on the

foun­da­tion that it is placed on. To re­al­ize the full per­for­mance po­ten­tial of the book­shelf speaker, it must be perched atop a suit­able, qual­ity speaker stand – as op­posed to…. well, a book­shelf. A speaker stand, in keep­ing with the qual­ity and per­for­mance po­ten­tial of a book­shelf speaker should roughly cost be­tween 20 to 35% of the price of the book­shelf speaker it­self – so it is def­i­nitely a con­sid­er­a­tion. Fac­tor­ing in the cost of a stand; the dif­fer­ence be­tween our book­shelf speaker with a stand ver­sus the floor­stand­ing speaker will likely be small, if any­thing. This means that cost, should not be the key de­cid­ing fac­tor be­tween book­shelf and floor­stand­ing loud­speak­ers.


If you have lim­i­ta­tions on space you might think the book­shelf speaker would be the best choice but this may not be the case. As stated above, a good qual­ity stand is a must for get­ting the most out of a book­shelf speaker. A stand will likely oc­cupy a sim­i­lar amount of floor space as a floor­stand­ing speaker and the book­shelf, on the stand, will likely be sim­i­lar in height to the floor­stand­ing loud­speaker – no space sav­ings here. How­ever, a book­shelf speaker can also be wall mounted or placed on a shelf – tak­ing no floor space. Keep in mind though that wall mount­ing or shelf place­ment will most likely com­pro­mise per­for­mance. Why? A wall mount or shelf place­ment will put the book­shelf speaker much closer to sur­round­ing walls than it should be for op­ti­mal per­for­mance, in­creas­ing the neg­a­tive ef­fect of rear and side wall re­flec­tions and re­sult­ing in less ac­cu­rate sound with di­min­ished bass qual­ity. To en­sure our com­par­i­son is fair, we should as­sume the book­shelf would be used with a stand, mak­ing the dif­fer­ence in size be­tween a book­shelf and floor­stand­ing speaker in­signif­i­cant.

Place­ment & Dé­cor

In con­sid­er­ing size, we did look at some place­ment op­tions for a book­shelf speaker, such as wall or shelf mount­ing but there is more to con­sider in the ar­eas of place­ment and dé­cor. A floor­stand­ing speaker, given its larger in­ter­nal cabi­net vol­ume will gen­er­ate greater bass out­put then a com­pa­ra­ble book­shelf speaker. This greater bass out­put means the floor­stander will have a greater propen­sity to gen­er­ate stand­ing waves within the room bound­aries and ex­cite room nodes, which could po­ten­tially com­pro­mise bass qual­ity, specif­i­cally re­sult­ing in re­duced bass def­i­ni­tion. To com­pen­sate for this ten­dency, a floor­stand­ing speaker will gen­er­ally re­quire greater at­ten­tion to place­ment and fur­ther dis­tance from sur­round­ing walls than a com­pa­ra­ble book­shelf speaker. This ne­ces­sity to pull floor­stand­ing speak­ers away from walls, can of­ten present a chal­lenge in the case of multi-use rooms. All of a sud­den, the floor­stand­ing speaker be­comes a main el­e­ment of dé­cor – noth­ing to brag about on an in­te­rior de­sign show, for sure. This is one area that a book­shelf speaker gains sig­nif­i­cant ap­peal over a floor­stand­ing speaker, since book­shelf speak­ers with their lower bass out­put can gen­er­ally be placed more eas­ily and closer to walls – where they can have less im­pact on dé­cor. An­other fac­tor is that book­shelf speak­ers gen­er­ally sit on stands that have legs, and th­ese less are less im­pos­ing and more del­i­cate look­ing, mak­ing the book­shelf and stand seem smaller than the floor­stand­ing speaker – a plus for any stiff dé­cor re­quire­ments.

Power Han­dling

In our sce­nario, we are com­par­ing a book­shelf speaker with a floor­stand­ing speaker, where both speak­ers use the same tweeter and woofer and sim­i­lar crossovers, with the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two be­ing limited to the en­clo­sure/cabi­net size. A larger en­clo­sure is not a pri­mary de­ter­mi­nant of power han­dling ca­pa­bil­ity (or max­i­mum pow- er han­dling) and so in our sce­nario, though we have two dif­fer­ent types of speak­ers - the power han­dling ca­pa­bil­i­ties, dic­tated by the cross­over and driver will be the same. If we were not do­ing an ap­ples-to-ap­ples com­par­i­son and look­ing at a mul­tidriver floor­stand­ing speaker, power han­dling would tip in favour of a floor­stand­ing speaker but let’s keep with our sce­nario.

Sen­si­tiv­ity & Vol­ume

Where all things, ex­cept en­clo­sure size, are kept equal, a floor­stand­ing speaker, given its greater in­ter­nal cabi­net vol­ume, will be more ef­fi­cient at pro­duc­ing sound than a book­shelf speaker. This greater ef­fi­ciency is more com­monly de­scribed in terms of sen­si­tiv­ity. Sen­si­tiv­ity is a mea­sure of the sound pres­sure level (SPL) or out­put in deci­bels (dB) at a dis­tance of 1 me­tre, for 1 Watt (W) of power in­put. A higher sen­si­tiv­ity rat­ing means a higher out­put or louder sound for any level of power in­put. In short, with the same amount of power, the speaker with the higher sen­si­tiv­ity will pro­duce a higher vol­ume, at the same dis­tance, in a room. Since our floor­stand­ing speaker is more ef­fi­cient, it will also have a greater sen­si­tiv­ity and there­fore pro­duce a higher vol­ume with any given power level ver­sus the com­pa­ra­ble book­shelf speaker. So, if vol­ume or am­pli­fier power is a con­cern, it’s worth know­ing that a floor­stand­ing speaker will have an ad­van­tage over a book­shelf speaker. How much of an ad­van­tage is more dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine, as other fac­tors such as the spe­cific dif­fer­ence in sen­si­tiv­ity, the room size and the power avail­able from the am­pli­fier must be con­sid­ered.

Bass Ex­ten­sion

One of the def­i­nite ad­van­tages that a floor­stand­ing speaker will have over a book­shelf speaker is in the area of low fre­quency bass ex­ten­sion. It’s a mat­ter of physics – a greater in­ter­nal cabi­net vol­ume will pro­vide greater ca­pa­bil­ity for low

fre­quency ex­ten­sion. So the floor­stander in our sce­nario will be able to pro­duce lower bass notes, at a higher vol­ume level, than the book­shelf speaker. The ques­tion is how much lower and how much more bass? Well, that de­pends on how much big­ger the floor­stand­ing speaker is and also on the de­sign of the cabi­net but rest as­sured to some de­gree, whether smaller or greater, the floor­stand­ing speaker will be able to pro­duce a greater quan­tity and lower fre­quen­cies of bass. Adding a sub­woofer to a pair of book­shelf speak­ers will more than off­set any dif­fer­ence in bass ex­ten­sion but our level play­ing field would be gone.

Ac­cu­racy & Imag­ing

This brings us to a very im­por­tant as­pect, which is ac­cu­racy and imag­ing. There are a num­ber of fac­tors in­volved here that we need to con­sider. The first fac­tor is that of cabi­net res­o­nance. With the move­ment of the tweeter and woofer, the speaker cabi­net, to which the driv­ers are af­fixed, will vi­brate or res­onate. Cabi­net res­o­nance is an un­de­sir­able re­sult of the move­ment of the speaker driv­ers. Th­ese res­o­nances neg­a­tively im­pact the ac­cu­racy or pu­rity of the sound waves emit­ted by the speaker driv­ers with an au­di­ble ef­fect. The man­i­festa- tion of th­ese un­wanted res­o­nances is typ­i­cally a blur­ring or mud­di­ness of the sound, with re­duced clar­ity and tran­sient speed as well as vague­ness/ loss of imag­ing. Imag­ing is the abil­ity of a stereo pair of speak­ers to present sounds in per­ceived fixed lo­ca­tions be­fore the lis­tener - left to right, closer and farther, as well as higher and lower. Good imag­ing, com­monly re­ferred to as the sound­stage, can re­cre­ate the var­i­ous ele­ments of the sound, such as the singer or in­stru­ments, as if they were in-front of the lis­tener. Speaker engi­neers try to de­sign speaker cab­i­nets to min­i­mize res­o­nances and their neg­a­tive ef­fects; how­ever, all speaker cab­i­nets res­onate to some de­gree. The fact is that the larger the cabi­net and the longer the cabi­net walls the more dif­fi­cult it is to re­duce cabi­net res­o­nance. Floor­stand­ing speak­ers re­quire ad­di­tional in­ter­nal brac­ing to keep their res­o­nances in check, given their larger and longer panels. How­ever, with­out great ad­di­tional cost, it is very dif­fi­cult to re­duce a floor­stand­ing speaker’s cabi­net res­o­nances to the level of a book­shelf speaker. This means, that in our sce­nario, the book­shelf speaker will have lower cabi­net res­o­nance and there­fore, bet­ter or more ac­cu­rate, clearer sound with bet­ter imag­ing than the floor­stander.

The next fac­tor is baf­fle in­ter­ac­tion. The baf­fle is the front fac­ing panel of the speaker to which the driv­ers are gen­er­ally mounted. When the speaker driv­ers move and emit sound, some of the sound waves travel across the baf­fle be­fore rolling around the speaker to the back. A larger baf­fle will have a greater im­pact on the emit­ted sound, which can be com­pen­sated for in part by the cross­over de­sign but ul­ti­mately, larger baf­fles gen­er­ally re­sult in larger neg­a­tive im­pacts on fre­quency re­sponse, while also re­duc­ing the abil­ity of the speaker to go un­no­ticed or dis­ap­pear within the sound­stage. Hence, a floor­stand­ing speaker, hav­ing a larger front baf­fle, will be more neg­a­tively im­pacted by this ef­fect and a book­shelf speaker will gen­er­ally have a more even fre­quency re­sponse with bet­ter imag­ing.

An­other fac­tor is floor bounce. Since the speak­ers we are con­sid­er­ing are both two-way, two-driver mod­els, floor bounce will gen­er­ally not be a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor. Floor bounce is the re­flec­tion of the sound waves emit­ted by the driv­ers off the floor be­tween the speaker and the lis­tener. The closer the speaker driv­ers are to the floor, the more detri­men­tal the im­pact, which gen­er­ally presents it­self as a hump in fre­quency re­sponse be­tween 100 Hz and 200 Hz. In a two way speaker, the driv­ers would likely be sig­nif­i­cantly el­e­vated, min­i­miz­ing this ef­fect. This would be some­thing to pay more at­ten­tion to in a multi-driver floor­stand­ing speaker that has driv­ers close to the floor, in which case the book­shelf speaker would gen­er­ally be more im­mune to this dis­tor­tion.

Some­thing to keep in mind is that as you add driv­ers to a speaker it gen­er­ally re­quires a more com­plex cross­over. Crossovers have a detri­men­tal ef­fect on the au­dio sig­nal, which can be min­i­mized by de­sign, parts and en­gi­neer­ing but never com­pletely elim­i­nated. More com­plex crossovers will have greater po­ten­tial to neg­a­tively im­pact the au­dio sig­nal and most of­ten floor­stand­ing speak­ers will have more driv­ers and more com­plex crossovers than book­shelf speak­ers. This is not an ab­so­lute and doesn’t re­late to our sce­nario but is worth keep­ing in mind.


So what’s the ver­dict? In our con­trolled sce­nario, the re­sults are that: cost, size and power han­dling are ir­rel­e­vant; place­ment & dé­cor and ac­cu­racy & imag­ing favour the book­shelf speaker and; sen­si­tiv­ity & vol­ume, to­gether with, bass ex­ten­sion favour the floor­stand­ing speaker. In most gen­eral terms, this means if bass and higher vol­ume ca­pa­bil­ity are of prime im­por­tance, a floor­stand­ing speaker will have the ad­van­tage; whereas, if ac­cu­racy, imag­ing and flex­i­bil­ity of place­ment turn your key, then a book­shelf speaker will likely be the more at­trac­tive choice. In the real world things get more com­pli­cated with vary­ing qual­ity, ma­te­ri­als, driver types and mul­ti­ple driv­ers, along with sub­woofers. This in­for­ma­tion can help as a guide but the only way to get to a def­i­nite an­swer is to try as many speak­ers out in your room as you can and let your ears guide you.

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