The Ultimate Home Speaker Buying Guide For Audiophiles (2022)

Helping You Choose The Best Audiophile Speakers For Your Home!

When building a hi-fi system, speakers are very important. They make the biggest impact on your systems sound. They are like a window to the rest of the system, and the more “transparent” they the more you can “see” what is coming from the rest of your gear, whether good or bad.

There’s a lot to think about when picking out a pair of audiophile speakers. Do you want Passive or Powered speakers? Floorstanding (Tower) or Standmount (Bookshelf)? 2-Way? 3-Way? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The beautiful thing is if you’re just getting into hi-fi, or you’re on a tight budget, it’s a great time to be alive. Affordable hi-fi gear has never been better, especially when it comes to speakers. Current technology allows master speaker designers like ELAC’s Andrew Jones and PSB Audio’s Paul Barton to wring amazingly great sound out of lower-cost configurations.

We have over 20 years of experience evaluating and reviewing hi-fi components, and we listen to tons of gear, so you don’t have to! If you’re looking for examples of great-sounding speakers, then check out our Speakers Best Buys page.

If you want to know how speakers work within a system, and get tips on speaker setup, check out our “How To Build A Mind-Blowing Budget Audiophile System In 5 Steps!” Article.

But, if you first want to learn a little bit more about speakers in general, then check out our Buyer’s Guide below!

What to know when buying Audiophile Speakers:

Standmount vs. Floorstanding Speaker:

This is usually one of the first decisions one must make when buying speakers. Standmount (or Bookshelf) speakers usually give you the most bang for the buck, especially in average-sized rooms. Floorstanding (or Tower) speakers are good for larger rooms where you need more volume to fill the space. For more thoughts on this, check out our article, “Q&A:‌ Should I Pick A Floorstanding Or Standmount Speaker? What You Need To Know!”

Enclosure Type:

Speakers are usually divided between three different types of enclosures, Bass Reflex, Sealed Box (Acoustic Suspension), and sealed with a Passive Radiator.

A Bass Reflex design has a bass port on either the front or the back, while the Sealed box enclosure has no port. The Bass Reflex design usually produces a higher quantity of bass than a sealed box design, but the sealed box usually produces tighter, more accurate bass.

A Klipsch Speaker With Bass Reflex Port

Bass Reflex models (esp. rear ported) are usually more sensitive to placement since the port may interact with room boundaries. Sealed box speakers usually benefit from closer placement to walls as it enhances the bass response.

Less common is the Sealed with Passive Radiator design, where the enclosure is closed but has a woofer-like passive radiator (not electrically driven) set into the cabinet. This radiator utilizes the sound pressure generated in the enclosure to create bass energy by resonating at a certain frequency. They are thought to be just as effective as a port but without the port noise. However, they are usually more expensive to implement.

2-way vs. 3-way:

This refers to how many times audio frequencies are divided within a speaker. Most bookshelf speakers are 2-way with the treble frequencies sent to the tweeter, and the mid and lower frequencies sent to the woofer.

On the other hand, there are 3-way bookshelf models that have three drivers, each individually handling low, mid, and high frequencies. That said, 3-way floorstanding speakers are more common, often with multiple woofers handling the bass frequencies. There are also 2-way floorstanding speakers.

Generally, the more division of frequencies (and drivers) there is, the better the sound quality since each driver can “specialize” on a smaller portion of the audioband. However, this is partially dependent on the quality of the electrical “crossover” that divides the highs, mids, and lows between the speakers. If this crossover doesn’t do a good job, the drivers will not blend the frequencies together well, resulting in inferior sound.

By the way, there are single-driver speakers out there where one driver handles all the frequencies. These are thought to have the best “mixing or blending” of frequencies (also known as “coherency”), conversely, they sometimes struggle to reproduce the highest highs and the lowest lows.

Tweeter Type:

The Tweeter, which reproduces a speakers’ higher frequencies makes a big difference when it comes to a speaker’s sound. The type of tweeter used in a speaker also makes a difference.

The two primary tweeter types are Soft and Hard Dome tweeters, with the Soft Dome usually made from a piece of tough woven fabric, and the Hard Dome made of metal. The Hard Dome tweeter usually has a more clinical sound which may not work with analytical sounding gear.

In addition to dome tweeters, you also have Horn Loaded tweeters, which amplify and spread out the tweeter’s sound. This makes the speaker more efficient, albeit usually at the expense of a little coloration. There are also Ribbon tweeters which may produce more lively detailed highs than other types. However, they can be hard to integrate with midrange cone drivers.

KLH Albany II Speaker w/ Metal Dome Tweeter

Woofer Cone Material:

Woofers, the drivers which reproduce the midrange and low frequencies, are also important to speakers’ sound. The lighter and stiffer the Woofer cone, usually the more accurate it is. Speaker designers use a wide variety of materials to achieve this.

There are Woven fiber, Metal, Paper, and Poly (Plastic) cones. You also have Composite cones which use a combination of materials. You can’t really say which one is best, it depends on the overall design.

Power Handling:

This spec tells you how much electrical power (watts) a speaker can handle before burning out. This can be calculated as a continuous, peak, or RMS value. You should make sure your amp power matches a potential speaker pick.

Sensitivity:

This rating, listed in dB, basically lets you know how loud a speaker will get using one watt of power measured at a distance of one meter. The lower the number, the more watts you’ll need to get up to your preferred listening level.

Woven Woofer Cone from KLH Albany II

Because you need double the wattage to increase a speaker’s volume by 3dB, a small increase in this rating can make a big difference. For example, a speaker with a rating of 85dB will need about 64 watts to get up to a volume of 100dB, while another with a rating of 90dB will need only about 8 watts to get to the same level. This of course affects what type of amp you need to use with a particular speaker.

Impedance:

A speaker’s impedance refers to the electrical load (resistance to current) that a speaker places on an amplifier, measured in ohms. When matching a speaker to an amp, you want to make sure the amplifier can provide the current needed to handle that speaker’s load. This is done by checking the impedance rating on the amp. Ideally, you want the impedance rating on the amp to be lower than (or at least the same as) the impedance of the speaker.

Frequency Response:

In terms of audio frequencies, the audible range for humans has been established as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. The frequency response of a speaker basically lets you how much of this range a speaker can reproduce.

A speaker that can reproduce the complete audible range is called “full-range”. These speakers are usually expensive because the extreme lower frequencies are harder for a speaker to reproduce.

That said, since we are most sensitive to the middle frequencies, we can still get a satisfying listening experience from a smaller bookshelf speaker that produces a substantial portion of the audioband.

Powered Speakers

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What are Powered Speakers?

Simply put, Powered Speakers are basically a pair of passive speakers with a power amplifier installed inside one of the speakers. The signal and power from the active speaker (the speaker with the amp) are sent via speaker wire to the second speaker in the stereo set (a fully passive speaker). Usually, that powered speaker has preamp and streaming capabilities, so you can connect a source (or initiate a music stream) and play music through the stereo pair.

What to know when buying Powered Speakers:

Wired Connections:

Every set of powered bookshelf speakers can accommodate wired connections. Most have at least one analog RCA line input for a CD Player, etc. in addition to Coaxial and Optical Digital Inputs (connected to a DAC) for digital sources like a music streamer. Some even have a USB input to play music from a computer.

Many also have a dedicated phono input which is essential if you plan to use a turntable, and a subwoofer output is nice to have if you want to add some low end to your system later.

In addition, you may find some Powered Bookshelf Speakers with a headphone jack for private listening sessions.

Wireless Connectivity:

Besides wired connections, most Powered Speaker sets provide some type of wireless connectivity. Most of the time, it’s Bluetooth, but some systems also add Wi-Fi along with some kind of app control and multi-room functionality.

Kanto TUK Powered Bookshelf Rear Panel

With Bluetooth, you have different versions designated by number. The higher the number, the more capable it is, usually in terms of range and data transfer. Bluetooth 5 is the last major update. Bluetooth Audio Codecs also affect the quality of sound possible, with “hi-res” Bluetooth Codecs like aptX HD and LDAC providing the best sound. They are followed by aptX and AAC with near CD-quality audio, and those are trailed in sound quality by the default SBC codec.

Powered Speakers with Wi-Fi streaming usually support a wide variety of music streaming services like TIDAL, Spotify, Qobuz, and more, plus they may also tap into music housed on a network drive (connected to your local network).

Voice Control:

Wi-Fi connectivity also opens up the option of voice control, which may take the form of Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri, to name a few. With this option, you can say “play X album from Prince,” It will search a particular music service, find, and start playback of that album.

Powered vs. Active Speakers:

Active Speakers are similar to Powered Speakers because they both have built-in amplifiers (plus preamps and streamers). However, it’s the way the amplifiers are employed that makes the difference.

In a Powered Speaker, the amps are used before the crossover (where the signal is then split into frequencies and sent to the appropriate driver) just like passive speakers.

In the Active Speaker, the amps are utilized after the crossover giving the designer more flexibility.

In an Active design, each driver usually has its own amp (which takes the divided signal from the crossover), so the designer can choose to use a higher quality amp for the tweeter where he feels it will have the most impact on sound quality, and then use a lower quality amp on the midbass to bring the price down.

KEF LS50 Wireless II Active Speakers

Because of this, the designer has added leeway to create a system with superior sound quality to a Powered System.

Also, since an Active Speaker system doesn’t have to send power from one speaker to another, a wireless connection can be set up for the signal that needs to go between them. That means it’s possible to have a pair of speakers with no physical connection, which looks cleaner and gives more options for placement. Some systems have a data cable running between them.

However, since both speakers in the stereo pair have an amp section inside, that means they both have to be plugged into an outlet. With Powered Speaker systems, only one side needs to be plugged in, so you only need to be near a single outlet instead of two.

We have over 20 years of experience evaluating and reviewing hi-fi components, and we listen to tons of gear, so you don’t have to! If you’re looking for examples of great-sounding speakers, then check out our Speakers Best Buys page.


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