Digital assistants and smart speakers are all well and good, but sometimes you just want to output your audio the old-fashioned way: through quality speakers.
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As with most things in life, you can pay a premium for a top-of-the-line speaker combo, but there are also plenty of budget options available, too. To help narrow it down, we’ve put together our list of the best budget bookshelf speakers under $500 you can find right now.
But before you take the plunge, there’s a bit of research you’ll need to do as bookshelf speakers aren’t at all like your average soundbar or Bluetooth device.
What are bookshelf speakers?
Bookshelf speakers are, as their name suggests, compact units that are meant to be placed on a shelf or a mantle. They are considered ‘passive speakers’ while Bluetooth devices are ‘active speakers’. Passive speakers don’t require power to function as they’re driven by a separate amplifier; active speakers have an amplifier housed within their enclosures and thus require power.
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So if you have multiple analogue sources – like a record player and cassette deck – then you will probably need a traditional stereo setup with passive speakers. However, passive speakers aren’t as accessible: there are factors such as impedance, wattage and sensitivity to factor in when ‘matching’ speakers with an amp.
What to look for in the best bookshelf speakers
Price: All of the speakers we’ve chosen are priced at $500 or below for a pair. Sure, you could spend upwards of a thousand bucks or pounds and get mind-blowing sound, but these options below offer incredible output in an affordable package.
Sound quality: Arguably the biggest part of picking any speakers, you’ll want to know that your music or content will sound great when it’s being played. Everything on this list sounds great, so you’ll be happy whether you’re a classical enthusiast, a metalhead or anything in between.
Style and build quality: If you don’t want to throw off your home’s feng shui, you’ll want to ensure your speakers complement the rest of the room they’re in, rather than overpowering it. With that in mind, we’ve gone for style-conscious designs.
Matching with an amplifier: There’s too much in this to go through here, but in general, you’ll want to avoid connecting speakers with a lower impedance (measured in ohms) to an amp with a higher minimum impedance. You’ll also want to ensure your speakers can handle the power output (measured in watts) of your amp.
The best budget bookshelf speakers under $500 in 2021
Dali Spektor 2
Not the surrealist – “Dali” stands for “Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries”, and they’re a seasoned brand that has earned near-universal plaudits for its entry-level and mid-range hi-fi speakers.
The Spektor 2s are among the brand’s most affordable speakers. And while they are a relatively diminutive pair – 6.7 x 9.4 x 11.5 inches – they offer a wide soundstage and expressive equalisation. So whether you’re listening to vocals, instruments, or a bit of everything, the Spektor 2s will sound entertaining.
For the price, they’re one of the best budget bookshelf speakers out there – that they come from a reliable brand is just the cherry on top.
ELAC Debut B5.2
Looking to mount your speakers on a stand? These could be for you. Big (7.09 x 9.21 x 13.43 inches), black and bold, the ELAC Debut B5.2s look indestructible in that ’80s sort of way – if that’s your jam.
The B5.2s are the second version of the line, but this isn’t an incremental upgrade. ELAC tweaked everything, from the enclosure size to the tweeter to the speaker drivers, and the result is a robust bookshelf speaker that reproduces balanced, if a little too ‘mature’, audio. They’re certainly not as lively as the Dali Spektor 2s – not a bad thing if you listen to older recordings.
Like the ELAC B5.2s, the KEF Q150s are sombre, ‘serious’-looking loudspeakers that prize functionality over fanciful aesthetics. They’re pared-down versions of the brand’s immensely popular LS50s, the speakers that propelled KEF to audiophile stardom – but at a fraction of the price.
The Q150s are renowned for their soundstage. It’s massive. Instrument separation and detail are impressive, and we like how the low-end – bass instruments and baritones – is clear and belies a speaker this size (11.92 x 7.08 x 10.94 inches). As are the trebles: KEF’s tweeter is one of the best at this price range.
Triangle Borea BR03
These monochrome offerings from Triangle come in both black and white pairs and are pretty sizeable, making a true audio-visual statement. And measuring 8.11 x 12.36 x 14.96 inches, the Borea BR03s are the largest on this list, too.
The size isn’t just for presence. It lets the speakers project huge sound with great separation between instruments and tracks. That said, these aren’t for bassheads or hip-hop fans – the equalisation on the BR03s is fairly balanced, which results in a ‘transparent’ sound that won’t colour your music.
The French brand may not be a household name, but it’s regarded within the audiophile community as a David taking on the Goliaths like Bowers & Wilkins.
Q Acoustics 3030i
These Q Acoustics speakers offer excellent sound quality at a great price in a handsome, wood-panelled package.
While they may be a tad too large (7.9 x 12.8 x 13 inches) to mount on your wall, they’re advertised as being perfect for bookshelves, and they put their larger cabinet size to use with increased internal volume for clearer sound. The 3030is are also considered ‘unfussy’ speakers, which really just means they’ll work well with most (budget) amplifiers and wherever in the room you place them.
The enclosure uses ‘point-to-point’ bracing to focus the stereo output, and is available in a series of colours (we’re quite partial to the walnut version) to ensure it fits with your home’s interior design.