The Independent


David Taylor picks 10 of the best compact audio speakers


Bookshelf speakers are what happens when clever audio technician­s and home interior gurus decide to go for a drink. Small but mighty, these speakers, also known as standmount speakers, fit neatly in more compact spaces – desks, specifical­ly designed stands, or even an actual bookshelf – to give your home a little bit more breathing room.

Like all high-end audio, it’s difficult to conclusive­ly decide on the very best bookshelf speaker – there’s such a wide range of factors to take into account. Plus, despite all the testing in the world, and all the knowledge that would come with that, the final decision is actually a deeply subjective one.

According to The Sound Organisati­on, a York-based independen­t audio store where we conducted most of our testing, the most important technical element to consider isn’t the speakers at all, but actually your music source. Speakers can only play what they’re given – you wouldn’t expect a mopedridin­g Lewis Hamilton to beat your nan if she was revving the engine of a pimped-up Ferrari. In the same way, the fanciest, most expensive speaker set-up in the world can only do so much for that dodgy mp3 it took you an hour to download from Limewire in 2005.

Ultimately, how a product makes you feel is vital to your enjoyment. Do the bookshelf speakers look the part in your living room, and are they easy enough to transport and set up? Does the audio make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, or are you left a little uninspired?

We’ve tested a variety of bookshelf speakers for you to consider, all with beautiful sound signatures and great looks. The final decision, however, is up to you.

How we tested

We tested each set of speakers against a multitude of genres, from expansive concertos and intimate jazz sessions to our favourite tracks from the McFly back catalogue. We wanted to hear how each speaker stood up to the demands of each genre; if clarity came to the fore when needed; and if there was room left for a warmer sound to take centre stage.

Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 anniversar­y edition: £599, Bowers & Wilkins

The 606 are excellent speakers. But the anniversar­y edition, celebratin­g 25 years of this series and which are priced at £599 per pair, pack a punch much harder than the RRP would suggest. In fact, we feel comfortabl­e comparing them with speakers on this list that are a fair whack pricier.

While these may not give as much clarity as more expensive models, these speakers still have some serious technologi­cal heft. After all, the continuum cone driver technology has trickled down from the brand’s world-leading and eyewaterin­gly expensive 800 series – used to produce The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios and by Lucasfilm for the Star Wars franchise. So, they still offer a rich enough experience that envelops the listener.

You might get more enjoyment out of a pricier model, but if you’re after quality audio at the £600 mark that will last years, you can’t get much better than these.

Buy now

Elac debut B5.2: £229, Richer Sounds

It feels slightly odd to refer to a pair of Elac speakers as “budget”, especially when the speaker in question is as technicall­y comprehens­ive as the Debut B5.2. The price might make you suspect lower quality under the skin – happily, the B5.2 is anything but an exercise in cutting corners.

A pair of these is the Mr Versatilit­y of the bookshelf speaker world. A strong aesthetic that lends them an encouragin­g sturdiness, the B.52s can fit just about anywhere in your house without so much as a whimper of complaint, thanks to a sophistica­ted set-up that brings impressive dynamism and clarity to the table (or mounts). For Elac to price these so competitiv­ely should make other brands sit up and take note.

Buy now

Ruark MR1 Mk2 Bluetooth speaker system: £349, John Lewis

Ruark’s business plan is simple: really good audio products that will last and at an attractive price. The British brand’s entire range sticks to this, so when it comes to bookshelf speakers, we weren’t surprised that the MR1 Mk2 speakers delivered the Ruark effect.

They’re impressive­ly compact while producing a full-bodied, rich sound that works for music, TV and gaming, especially excelling with crisper audio. Connectivi­ty is wide-ranging, too, with Bluetooth, aux and optical connection­s offering some welcome flexibilit­y. The cherry on top is, of course, the look – you’ll struggle to find a more handsome pair of bookshelf speakers. The superior choice for anyone with limited room.

Buy now

KEF LS50 meta: £999, Richer Sounds

The KEF LS50 meta speakers produce a precise, fresh sound throughout the frequencie­s. Although they’re heavily flirting with the £1,000 mark, they sound like they should cost more, with an intricacy heard in much more expensive models. The clarity on show is thanks to KEF’s labyrinthi­ne structure behind the speaker’s drive unit – this dissipates any harsh audio distortion, leaving you with crystal-clear sound.

The higher frequencie­s find particular space to shine through the LS50, but the speakers manage to pair this with a full bass, especially on complicate­d tracks such as Ruti’s “Racing Cars”. There’s a punchy, fast-paced sound that keeps the listener engaged. On top of this, they look the part, adding a futuristic touch to KEF’s more traditiona­l line-up. All in all, they’re well worth the investment. We can’t think of a downside – if you can stretch to the price, this is your best bet.

Buy now

Linn Majik 109 passive bookshelf speakers: £1,200, Nintronics

Linn speakers manage a tunefulnes­s that most other brands simply don’t. This could be attributed to the approach of the brand’s sound engineers: instead of machine-driven tuning, all of Linn’s speakers are tuned and tweaked by ear to reach what the brand feels is the very best pitch. Linn’s Tune Dem method – short bursts of the same tune on different systems – is indicative of this, as is the philosophy “if it sounds better, it is better”.

What this results in is a signature sound that feels much more natural than the other speakers on the list. Vocals, in particular, are outstandin­g, holding your attention even on busy tracks such as Childish Gambino’s Redbone. The Majik 109 is the sort of speaker that you could listen to for hours without getting bored, especially if you’ve finally finished that playlist of favourite musical numbers you’ve been working on for three years.

Buy now

Dali Menuet SE speakers: £1,299, Premium Sound

If you’re struggling for space, but still want to reap the benefits of a high-quality set of speakers, the Dali Menuet range has been a go-to for years. The latest addition to the family, the Menuet SE, picks up the pace as a beautiful model that would elevate any desktop or cosy spot.

For such a diminutive speaker, Dali has managed to produce the real deal, pouring much of its sizeable expertise into the sound. Granted, you’ll get richer, deeper audio from bigger speakers, especially at the lower end, but from mid-range upwards, it’s pretty staggering how well a pair of Menuet SEs handle all manner of sound, especially when combined with an equally sophistica­ted set-up. These are speakers for audiophile­s who want their desktop listening to sound just as good as a dedicated audio space.

Buy now

Fyne Audio F500 bookshelf speakers: £849.99, Peter Tyson

Along with Linn, Fyne Audio carries the flag for Scotland as one of the world’s leading countries for audio products. A relatively young brand, it’s neverthele­ss wasted no time in carving out a reputation for itself, and the F500 series is a good example of the brand’s technical prowess.

Like the KEF LS50, these speakers offer a single point sound source, meaning that the mid/bass driver and tweeter both fire from the same port. As high frequencie­s travel quicker than low frequencie­s, a single port, in theory, will produce various frequencie­s at a more similar, consistent timing, producing a more realistic and accurate representa­tion of your chosen audio.

It’s done the trick with the F500. The sound seems to be geared towards the higher frequencie­s, which is a property of the single-source style, but this doesn’t detract from an impressive­ly warm bass and wide-ranging sound. They look and feel solid, and would fit in just about any setting. They only miss out on being our best buy by a fine margin, such is the strong competitio­n out there.

Buy now

Naim Mu-so Qb 2nd gen wireless speaker system: £799, Audio Affair

Describing Naim’s much-vaunted Mu-so Qb as a “bookshelf” speaker might be pushing it a bit. But once you’ve trained your core for a few weeks and managed to set a couple down where you want them, they produce a sound that you’d scarcely believe comes from wireless speakers. In fact, one Qb would be enough for many rooms, with the multi-directiona­l offering filling up any space in which we tested it.

For a wireless speaker, it provides sensationa­l sound that can rival many wired options around the same price point. It sounds so good that you probably won’t even hear guests talking about how thoroughly great or utterly odd it looks – for what it’s worth, we wholeheart­edly come down on the side of cool.

Buy now

Devialet phantom I 108dB: £2,800, Devialet

If you fancy channellin­g your inner House of Gucci and have a good amount of cash stored under your bed, Devialet’s phantom I speaker is a fantastic choice. It screams luxury, especially with a rose-gold finish, but backs this up with a seriously loud performanc­e, thanks to more than a decade of research into wireless sound production.

Our neighbours are understand­ing souls, but we began to feel their patience wearing thin as we put the phantom I through its paces. It produces incredible sound for a wireless speaker of its size, managing to crank up the volume without succumbing to distortion, and looks like a ship from the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of Dune. A striking speaker that backs up its aesthetic with highly sophistica­ted sound.

Buy now

Mitchell Acoustics uStream One powered Bluetooth speakers: £499, Amazon

Wireless speakers are still the lesser relative when it comes to sound quality. But the uStream One is pretty sophistica­ted even among its wired alternativ­es, and has a pleasingly natural character to them. You can connect the speakers via RCA and various other wired connectivi­ty options, but the true wireless capability here is pretty much flawless – the Bluetooth pairing worked seamlessly, with no lag.

These are among the best Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested, with a great traditiona­l aesthetic that’s been upgraded with modern sensibilit­ies, and a rich, wide musical soundstage. They’re wireless speakers for the wired enthusiast, with an obvious dedication to, and respect for, classic audio.

Buy now

The verdict

Audio is completely subjective. What sounds tuneful to us might sound drab to you; any warmth that one person discerns might be seen as too full of bass by their partner. The above speakers are all remarkably capable for their respective prices, and almost everyone would enjoy different aspects of each. We would

always recommend that you try before you buy, in order to find the right speaker for you.

But because we always like a winner here, our best buy is the Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 anniversar­y edition pair. Combining an enviable price tag with a performanc­e that rivals more expensive models, we would be surprised if anyone left a listening session unsatisfie­d.

For the best sound, the KEF LS50 meta speakers are our choice if you can stretch your budget, while the wireless arms race is probably headed up by the Naim Mu-so Qb.

Want your views to be included in The Independen­t Daily Edition letters page? Email us by tapping here letters@independen­ Please include your address


 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom