The towers or bookshelf dilemma solved - Rapallo New Zealand :: Home Theatre & Hifi | Design & Installation
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I am debating between floor standing speakers and bookshelf speakers. I honestly don’t know which would be better for a home theatre….  I’m sure there is a reason why people choose one over the other, but I don’t know what it is.’-Ray


Does this sound like you? You are not alone. Many people seem to have trouble deciding. The answer may not be as clear cut as you might think. Our solution: time to dedicate a blog on the topic.


The straight answer- you guessed it: it depends.


It depends on your listening requirements, on your budget, on the size of your room and what size of speaker you are willing to put up with.

Both options have advantages and disadvantages and it all depends on where your priorities are. Let’s break it down:


Bookshelf speakers are usually two-way (sometimes three-way) designs consisting of a tweeter and a small midbass driver.  They are often limited in low end bass output due to their smaller form factor. We particularly like the ELAC bookshelf range,because they start from dead cheap with the Debut line, over the Uni-Fi range (both developed by Andrew Jones), to the superb ribbon tweeter based BS range (made in Germany).

Tower speakers (Floorstanders) on the other hand are often multi-driver designs featuring one or more dedicated bass driver(s), a midrange and a 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). Again, the Elac speakers perform very well, but we can’t forget about the SVS and the Focal floorstanders as well.


It is important to determine whether your speakers are LARGE (can handle the full frequency range) or SMALL (can not handle accurately low frequencies). More on this later.


When making a decision between bookshelfs or floorstanders, you need to ask yourself a few questions:


  • What is my budget?

Bookshelf speakers are cheaper in purchase and if you have X amount of money to spend, that same amount is going to get you a better quality bookshelf with better quality drivers than a tower for that same budget.


  • What are my listening habits?

Do I like to watch action movies in a 5.1 or 7.1 set-up, turn the volume all out and want all the booms and the bangs? (In other words, do you want volume and bass?) Or do I listen to a classic composer at a conversation level in an intimate 2-channel set-up?

In the first scenario the balance tips in favour of tower speakers, in the second scenario, you can go either way.


  • What room size are we dealing with?

If you room is large, you want a tower to be able to cope with the size of the space. As we mentioned before, tower speakers tend to offer increased sensitivity (meaning they play louder with the same applied wattage than their bookshelf counterpart).


  • Are you going to add a (or multiple) subwoofer(s) to your system?

As you guessed, this is a rather decisive factor in the question on whether to go for bookshelfs or towers. Unless you don’t turn up the volume and don’t care about the lower frequencies, you really want towers if you don’t want a subwoofer to drive the lower frequencies. Speaking of which, we will bring subwoofers into the equation further down the line.


  • Do you want a smaller sized less obtrusive speaker, or are you ok with a couple of large speakers in the room?

What many people don’t realize is that bookshelf speakers on a stand often have the same footprint as slim line freestanding towers.

Another consideration is that towers offer greater stability than bookshelfs on a stand for those of us living with kids or overactive pets.


As you probably picked up: Aside from budget, ‘bass management’ is a big decider. And when we talk bass we bring subwoofers to the table. This where a little background information is needed.


Typically, bookshelf speakers will play with authority up to a point of about 60-100Hz, for towers that is more around 40-80Hz. Beyond this point speakers will sound distorted and muddy because they are being sent too much information that they cannot handle or process.

Instead of setting up your speakers in your receiver/amplifier as ‘large’ (handling the full range of frequency through your speakers), running them ‘small’ and using a subwoofer frees up your speakers to produce the frequencies they were designed to, therefore allowing you to play them louder with less distortion.

This is definitely the case for bookshelfs, but also for towers if they are not true full-range speakers. Figuring out whether your speaker is ‘large’ or ‘small’ is therefore extremely important.


This brings us to a third option: a Subwoofer/Satellite System.

It usually consists of a bookshelf sized speaker to handle the mids and the highs and a separate powered subwoofer to handle the bass frequencies. In other words, Subwoofer and bookshelf speakers share jobs.

Getting ‘bass management’ right, or in other words optimizing the way your receiver handles low frequency information, is necessary for achieving the best possible sound for your home theater system.


When selecting a ‘sub/sat system’ it’s important to choose speakers with similar output capabilities as the subwoofer your pairing it with in order to have a ‘full’ and ‘well-blended’ or integrated sound. If you get this right as well as the ‘crossover’ (the point at which ‘bass management’ kicks in, sending low frequency information to the subwoofer, and allowing the information above this frequency to continue to play out of the loudspeakers), there is absolutely NO reason why a properly set up sub/sat system can’t be every bit as good as a fullrange tower.

SVS has a very price competitive range of subwoofer/satellite systems.


So, instead of giving you a yes-no answer we provided you with a third option. The best advice we can give is try and listen to a pair of bookshelf speakers and towers of your liking side by side to determine that for yourself. Don’t write off either a bookshelf or a tower too quickly, it’s really important that you honestly think about the above question and determine how you will be using the speakers

Also consider possible upgrades in the future: you can add a subwoofer further down the line. Or a good quality bookshelf in a 2.1 system can be recycled as a surround sound speaker for a home theatre set-up.

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