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Bookshelf vs Tower Speakers: Which Should I Get?

by August 31, 2015
Salk Speakers

Salk Speakers

A common question we often get asked by our readers is “which should I get,a bookshelf or floorstanding speaker?”  There is no absolute "best" answer as it really depends on many variables.  Let us first define what each type of speaker is.

Bookshelf Speaker - typically comes in a compact form factor that can be stand mounted or placed on (for lack of a better term) bookshelf.  These speakers are usually two-way or sometimes three-way designs consisting of a tweeter and small midbass driver(s).  They are often limited in low end bass output due to their smaller form factor.

Floorstanding Speaker - (aka. tower speaker) is typically large enough to stand on the floor without the need for propping it up on a bookshelf or speaker stands. They are often multi-driver designs featuring a dedicated bass driver(s), midrange and tweeter.  They usually have more bass output and can play louder than a similar bookshelf counterpart though most floorstanding speakers are NOT true full-range speakers.

Subwoofer/Satellite System - (aka. sub/sat system) usually consists of a small bookshelf sized speaker to handle the mids/highs and separate powered subwoofer(s) to handle the bass frequencies. These systems can also get large where the satellite speaker is an array of drivers capable of extreme SPL output with matching capable subwoofers to deliver thunderously low and loud bass.

Note: Sometimes a bookshelf speaker mated with a powered sub can be referred to as a sub/sat system. But, we thought it would be useful to define both scenarios.

Please check out our Bookshelf vs Tower Speakers YouTube discussion as a primer to reading the rest of this article.

 Bookshelf vs Tower/Floorstanding Speakers Debate

When deciding on what’s right for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my budget?
  • Am I using the speakers in a home theater system with a sub or a dedicated two-channel system without a sub?
  • Am I looking for the best quality sound in the mids/highs or just want something that plays loud with a lot of bass?
  • Will I be bass managing these speakers?
  • Spacing considerations: can I fit a tower in my room?  Will my wife allow it?

Just looking at these questions, one may come to the natural conclusion that it’s all about the bass.  Well, they would be partially right but there are other considerations such as how loudly they can play.

Borrowing our scorecard from our article When to Add External Amplification to an AV Receiver, we came up with this little tabulated point system to help you decide. 

Points Assessed +0 +1 +2
Listening Habits Conversation level (60-70dB) Moderate to high (75-85 dB) Headbangers ball to the walls, turn it to volume 11
Room Size
< 1500ft^3 up to 3,000 ft^3 > 3,000ft^3
Form Factor
Must have small, unobtrusive
I can go either way
Bigger is better!
Bass Management Yes, crossing over speakers to dedicated sub No, running them fullrange with sub No, running them fullrange, no sub
 Score Max = 0 Max = +4 Max = +8

 Note: This is NOT a biblical source. It's just a guideline for you to utilize or not.

How to find your Total Score?

Add up the points from each column of the above table to find your Total Score.  Your Total Score can be as low as 0 points or up to +7 points depending on your conditions.

  • If Total Score is 0-4, you can probably get away with using a bookshelf speaker even for two-channel listening only.
  • If Total Score is > 4, then it is time to consider a tower speaker or a larger more capable bookshelf option mated with a sub.  If you score a +8 and feel your score should be even higher, we really want to hear from you in our forums!

Revel Performa3 m105 bookshelf speaker stands  Revel Performa3 f206 tower speaker RBH SX-T2 Sub/Sat Speaker

Pictured from left to right: Revel Performa3 M105 Bookshelf and F206 Tower; RBH SX-T2 Sub/Sat System

Budget

Most speaker manufacturers offer a good, better, best series of products.  It’s rare to find a company that will use the same drivers in their $500/pr bookshelf vs their $5k/pair towers.  If they do, you may have to ask yourself the question if you’re really getting high quality drivers in their expensive tower offerings? 

A tower crossed over at 80Hz will still give you bass advantages over its bookshelf counterpart.

Let’s assume a particular manufacturer has two series of products, Silver and Gold series with the Gold series being their premium line of loudspeakers.  Spending $500/pr on a Silver series bookshelf speaker vs $500/pair on a pair of Gold series towers from the same manufacturer usually means that more budget has to go towards the cabinets and perhaps more drivers to fill up a bigger box volume for the latter.  In this case, the drivers typically aren’t up to the same caliber of performance.  So if you want to hear the subtle nuances in a recording with excellent separation of instruments, and overall pristine fidelity, chances are you will have a higher likelihood of hearing these attributes in the company’s Gold series bookshelf than their Silver series towers.  The only downside may be in bass extension and overall output.  This can however be remedied.

Paradigm Signature S2 Bookshelf  Paradigm Monitor 11v7 Towers

From Left to Right: Paradigm Signature S2 Bookshelf ($1,699/ea); Paradigm Monitor 11v7 Towers ($799/ea)

Applying bass management to a bookshelf speaker will take the strain off  its small midbass drivers from producing the difficult bass frequencies.  Instead, these will be routed more appropriately to a dedicated powered subwoofer, or two subwoofers if you want to improve the listening experience for a wider listening area so your friends can enjoy great bass too.

But what if I want to run towers and a sub?

That’s OK.  You can do that too.  The advantage of a tower is not only in bass extension but in overall output even above the crossover frequency.  The reason why some small subwoofer/satellite systems don’t sound “full’ or “well blended” is two-fold:

1.     Lack of low enough extension to blend in with the sub at the crossover frequency.

2.     Lack of sufficient output at and above the crossover frequency.

I’ve seen so many people mate tiny 5” two-way bookshelf speakers with a refrigerator sized subwoofer wondering why it just doesn’t sound as integrated as a fullrange tower speaker.  When selecting a sub/sat system it’s important to choose a satellite module with similar output capabilities as the subwoofer your mating it with or else you may notice such a disparity. 

research shows bass accounts for 30% of the listening experience.

Tower speakers on the other hand tend to offer increased sensitivity (meaning they play louder with the same applied wattage than their bookshelf counterpart).  The tower speaker will usually also have more output capability above the range where the subwoofer stops producing bass.  Remember just because you select a tower speaker doesn’t mean you have to run it fullrange.  A tower crossed over at 80Hz will still give you bass advantages over its bookshelf counterpart.  You may also decide to run the tower speakers fullrange in concert with your sub(s).  As long as you can get the bass properly integrated, this may help smooth out the bass in the room by increasing the modal density and also increase the overall output for bassaholics that like to really feel the bass. 

We recommend reading our Bass Management Basics article for more information about how you should treat your speakers “large” or “small” in the bass management of your AV receiver.

Do I have the space for a tower speaker?

Well, that depends on my room accommodations, spousal considerations and the footprint of the speakers in question.  Many folks don’t realize that a bookshelf speaker on a stand often has the same footprint as a slimline freestanding tower.  In addition, a floorstanding tower with an outrigger system can offer greater stability for those with kids living in fear that little Johnny may explore the wonders of gravity by tipping over one of your bookshelf speakers.

But which is better?  I can’t decide!

Ok both and neither.  Go try and listen to a pair of bookshelf speakers and towers of your liking side by side to determine that for yourself.  However, just realize the floorstander will have the advantage of having more bass which research has shown accounts for 30% of the listening experience.  If you can bass manage and level match both speakers while doing the comparison, you will get a more accurate picture on which speaker you will prefer.

Conclusion

Before writing off either a bookshelf or a tower to be used in your audio system, it’s imperative that you honestly assess how you will be using the speakers and if you plan on upgrading down the road by either adding a powered subwoofer or moving from two-channel to home theater.  A high quality bookshelf speaker today can later be repurposed as a surround speaker. It is most important that you choose a speaker that you feel sounds accurate and pleasing to you in your listening environment.  If you need more bass down the road, adding a subwoofer can bring new life to your system.  There is absolutely NO reason why a properly set up sub/sat system can’t be every bit as good as a fullrange tower if you chose products that have similar output capabilities and you get the crossover frequency right.

Confused about what AV Gear to buy or how to set it up? Join our Exclusive Audioholics E-Book Membership Program!

 

About the author:

Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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Recent Forum Posts:

2channel lover posts on December 30, 2017 09:00
MR.MAGOO, post: 1226354, member: 77706
IMHO, tower speakers are merely bookshelf speakers on an expensive pedestal.

Maybe you've done this demo and still feel that way.

The people over at GA HT (one of maybe three 800 series B&W dealers in town) had a 805D3 demo room set up and they brought in the 804D3 (the speaker I was interested in) and we played them in 2.0 and 2.1, and swapped them back and forth. I didn't tell him I owned B&Ws, but the sales guys was eager to show off the book shelf…of course I'd already heard them, but not the D3s so I said okay and we started doing some A/B.

2.0…the 804 is a much fuller sounding speaker, no question.
2.1…the 805 catches up a lot, but it's still not as full sounding through the mid and mid/bass as the 804

I will say this…if I had one choice and had to stick with it for life… 805 w/ 2 nice subs, or 804 by themselves…I would get the 805 w/ the subs.
MR.MAGOO posts on December 30, 2017 00:55
I'm not saying bookshelves are superior, just easier to move around, that's all. Sorry for any misunderstanding I may have caused.
William Lemmerhirt posts on December 29, 2017 23:11
23202
MR.MAGOO, post: 1226354, member: 77706
IMHO, tower speakers are merely bookshelf speakers on an expensive pedestal.
Huh, gotta disagree mr magoo. I agree, some towers are just bookshelf’s with stands built in. But real towers are anything but.
3db posts on December 29, 2017 22:44
MR.MAGOO, post: 1226441, member: 77706
that's what subwoofers are for.
Most book shelf speakers require a sub but many towers do not so I fail to see your comparison . Must be magic pedestals again.
MR.MAGOO posts on December 29, 2017 15:01
3db, post: 1226371, member: 3560
Without the bass

that's what subwoofers are for.
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