Bookshelf loudspeakers are all the rage in 2021. The term “bookshelf” is somewhat misleading as most of the models worth listening to are simply too large for such a scenario, or much better performers on loudspeaker stands or placed away from the wall on a credenza. You do get more for your money with this select group and all of these brands have been manufacturing some of the best loudspeakers in the world for decades. If you have a budget of $1,000 – $5,000 for a complete system, all of these will prove to be one of the best investments in better sound quality that you could ever make.
Paradigm Monitor SE Atom ($318/pair)
Never judge a pair of loudspeakers by its grille covers or its price. The Paradigm Monitor SE Atom will not impress with their boxy and somewhat austere appearance – and that’s exactly why you need to give these overachieving two-way bookshelf loudspeakers a serious listen. Where the rubber meets the road with these loudspeakers is when you remove the grille covers and discover that Paradigm is spoiling you with a scaled-down version of their X-Pal perforated phase-aligned tweeter and a robust 5 ½” mid-bass driver that belongs on loudspeakers that are double the price. The Monitor SE Atom are relatively easy to drive but take a significant step forward if you reward them with power. Tubes or warm sounding solid-state is the way to go if you want to hear what these loudspeakers can do. $318/pair at Amazon.
Q Acoustics 3030i ($399/pair)
The updated 3030i is larger than its predecessor, featuring a new crossover, reinforced internal bracing, as well as recessed binding posts for those who may want to wall-mount or set-up close to the wall. Q Acoustics have gone the extra mile with the finish options as well; the English Walnut, Graphite Grey and Arctic White give the 3030i a modern look that belies its price. The 3030i are not particularly difficult to drive but they benefit from some power; its 6.5” mid/bass driver is capable of excellent bass extension with the right amplifier. The 1” soft-dome tweeter (taken from the more expensive 3050i) balances out the warm tonal balance, and slightly recessed presentation of the speaker with some needed bite. $399/pair at Amazon.
PSB Alpha P5 ($399/pair)
For almost forty years, Paul Barton has been engineering high-performance loudspeakers with a focus on value/performance. The Alpha P5 are small two-way bookshelf loudspeakers at a price point with a lot of competition – a scenario that makes it hard for products to differentiate themselves enough to be considered category leaders. Make no mistake, the Alpha P5 are remarkable loudspeakers with even modest amplification, but they blow past anything in their price range with a better amplifier with wonderful resolution, tonal accuracy, and a very dynamic presentation that makes them a solid long-term purchase for anyone who loves music. $399/pair at Amazon.
KEF Q350 ($499.99/pair)
The KEF Q350 bookshelf loudspeaker looks and sounds very little like its predecessor; thanks to the next generation of its Uni-Q driver technology with its tangerine waveguide on the tweeter which helps the concentric driver direct sound more evenly. The sleek minimalist design dispenses with everything but a clean looking baffle and is only available in either satin white or black. The Q350 are rear ported and require some space between them and the wall to retain their open presentation, while benefiting from boundary reinforcement. They are slightly more reserved sounding than some of their competitors, but they reproduce music with a greater sense of scale and coherency that is hard to resist. $499/pair at Amazon.
Klipsch RP-600M ($629/pair)
The RP-600M have been a huge success story for Klipsch and helped renew interest in their more expensive Heritage-series loudspeakers at the same time. Despite their reputation for being forward/bright sounding, the RP-600M’s 1-inch titanium-dome tweeter with hybrid cross-section Tractrix horn never crosses a line that makes them sound etched or bright. Horns have ample detail, and it is their overall presence and strong dynamic capabilities that makes these speakers such an engaging listen. The RP-600M are a large set of bookshelf loudspeakers that require proper stands. While not bass monsters, the RP-600M are incredibly easy to drive and benefit from warmer sounding amplifiers.
Was $629/pair. Now $503/pair at Amazon or Crutchfield.
Bowers & Wilkins 606 S2 Anniversary Edition ($899.99/pair)
B&W prolonged the lifespan of the award-winning 685 S2 bookshelf loudspeakers before introducing the 606, but the wait was certainly worth it. A truly engaging pair of loudspeakers designed for both stand or media console placement, the 606 deliver a taste of B&W’s more expensive Continuum cone technology which is usually reserved for its more expensive models. Its 6.5” midrange/bass driver can deliver deep, tight bass that is well balanced against the rest of the sonic spectrum. The lively sounding tweeter will never fail to retain your attention, but don’t get the impression that these loudspeakers are bright sounding. They are engaging and very balanced sounding. $899.99/pair at AudioAdvice.com.
Focal Chora 806 ($990/pair)
The Chora 806 are part of larger group of affordable loudspeakers from Focal that have instant appeal; they are well made, modern and clean looking, and the sound quality is excellent for the asking price. The Chora 806 are front-ported two-way bookshelf loudspeakers that can be set-up close to the wall on a media unit or credenza if that reality applies to you and your room. The Chora 806 offers a really pleasant balance in the upper frequencies and I doubt too many will find the loudspeaker to be hyperdetailed or bright sounding at all. You get all of the extension and detail that you need and nothing more. $990 at Crutchfield.
Wharfedale EVO4.2 ($999.99/pair)
The first things you notice about the affordable EVO4.2 are their size and weight; very few bookshelf loudspeakers are 30 pounds and 18” tall. The robustness of their construction translates to their sound quality as well. Wharfedale has built a full-range sounding loudspeaker with layers of resolution, a laid-back sounding presentation that makes it compatible with a wider range of equipment, and an exceptionally airy sounding top end that you rarely find in loudspeakers below $2,000. The overall coherency and midrange transparency make the EVO4.2 one of the best sounding and affordable bookshelf loudspeakers you can find. The one caveat would be the need for heavy-duty loudspeaker stands between 18”-22” to place the tweeter at the right listening height. $999.99 at Crutchfield.
Polk Audio Legend L100 ($999.99/pair)
Polk Audio have been manufacturing loudspeakers for over 40 years, and the L100 might be one of their crown achievements. Unless your listening room is cavernous, the L100 might be one of the best sounding full-range bookshelf loudspeakers we have come across in many years; they do require a lot of power to show off their capabilities and we would suggest 75-100 watts of power (not A/V receiver watts) as the bare minimum. The L100 utilize Polk’s 1” ring radiator tweeter, and 5 ¼” turbine cone midrange/bass driver with great sonic results. This is a bold and accurate sounding loudspeaker with a warm midrange and a lot of detail. $999.99/pair at Crutchfield.
ELAC Carina BS243.4 ($1,379.98/pair)
ELAC’s Andrew Jones has a remarkable track record of designing both price-no-object and entry-level loudspeakers that deliver the sonic goods. It is his affordable offerings, however, that continue to inspire delivering sound quality that few designers have proven capable of squeezing out of two-way bookshelf designs priced below $1,500. The Carina BS243.4 raise the bar with its JET folded ribbon tweeter, and 5 ¼” aluminum cone mid/bass driver that can energize a room and create an enormous sounding soundstage when set-up properly. The Carina can sound a tad dry with the wrong amplification; tubes are a great option with these sleek looking loudspeakers which do require some power to open up. $1,379.98 at Amazon.com.