Vinyl has been making a resurgence for a long time, and the pandemic has somehow only accelerated it. There are many out there looking to upgrade from a cheap Crosley turntable and build their first HiFi system. Of course, there are many pieces that go into making a decent stereo, but perhaps the most important are the speakers. If your speakers don’t sound good, it doesn’t matter what you connect them to.
Active vs. Passive Speaker
This is understandably the part of their setup that people probably spend the most time researching. And you have to make a lot of choices. One of the biggest is: active or passive? Both have their advantages, but for this guide we will focus on passive speakers, which require a separate amplifier.
Active speakers have a built-in amplifier. Usually, the two items are specifically designed to work together, which means you get a more faithful version of the manufacturer’s vision and feel. And since you don’t need an external amplifier, active speakers also take up less space. While active speakers are more expensive than passive ones, the fact that you have to buy an amp to use passive speakers means that the savings aren’t as great as they first seem. The primary benefit of passive is greater flexibility. You can’t go out and buy your own amplifier and connect your active speakers to it; You are constrained by what is built. Also, since active speakers require a power source, you need to make sure they are close to an outlet.
We’ve also set a limit on our spending for this guide: a somewhat arbitrary $600. Anything more than that and you start entering budget audiophile territory. It also limits us to bookshelf speakers between five and six inches. Although you can certainly get floorstanding speakers for that much, the quality of the drivers is likely to be better than bookshelf speakers at the same price point.
A note about testing
Obviously, I can’t try EVERY set of five- to six-inch bookshelf speakers under $600, but I’ve tested enough and done enough research to feel confident in my recommendations. I’m sure there are other good speakers out there, but I don’t think anyone will regret buying the sets here.
Furthermore, the speaker’s preference is largely subjective. But I do my best to be as objective as possible. All speakers are connected to a Pyle PSS6 switcher with the same wire for easy side-by-side comparison. After I tried them all myself I enlisted several people to listen blind and then ranked them based on their preference to see if their opinions matched my own. The test included playing new and vintage vinyl, as well as streaming songs from Spotify.
Also worth noting: I’m not an audiophile. This is not a guide for audiophiles. I want my music to be good, but I’m not going to drop the price of a used sedan on my stereo. My setup includes Audio Technica Audio-Technica AT-LP120 and Chromecast Audio running through Technics SA-EX110. It’s not fancy stuff, but it’s an upgrade from a Crosley Suitcase turntable or even a higher-end Sonos sound system.
The best for most people: Audioengine HDP6
In fact, many of the speakers I tested sounded similar to each other. But not the $399 Audioengines. They have a brighter sound and more clarity than all, except for a more expensive pair of KEF. The particular pair I tested also came in a beautiful “walnut” enclosure that helped them stand out in a sea of utilitarian black.
The HDP6s deliver powerful mids that shine when it comes to vocals and guitars. But they are fairly balanced across the spectrum. Long compositions like Nine Inch Nails “The Day the Whole World Went Away” came to life and revealed nuances that, frankly, I had not noticed before even with headphones. and Promisesthe recent album from Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, was so packed I wanted to throw my current floorstanding speakers in the bin.
While no bookshelf speakers on their own are capable of delivering the kind of room shake that floorstanding speakers or a subwoofer can deliver, the HDP6 performed well with bass-heavy songs. They didn’t have the bottom end of my test units, but drums and bass were still punchy and clear.
For those who want the best sound: KEF Q150
If your number one concern is sound quality, no matter what, check out the Q150s. This is the entry-level option from renowned audiophile brand KEF and the only speakers to beat the Audioengines in any of my blind taste tests. They don’t come out on top every time, and some people have trouble deciding between the two, but in the end I think the KEF has the slight edge in pure sound quality. They have slightly more volume at the extreme low and higher ends of the spectrum. It added a sparkle to tracks like the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” while Run the Jewels’ “JU$T” was much louder than the HDP6s. The difference can be subtle depending on what you’re listening to, but it’s undeniable in side-by-side testing.
KEF’s audio profile is similar to Audioengines. They’re both brighter and have more treble and midrange than all the other speaker setups in this roundup. Whether you want to listen to classical or jazz on high-quality vinyl, this will provide exactly the kind of frequency response you’re looking for.
What stops the Q150 from topping this list is the list price. At $600 they’re essentially tied for the most expensive speakers I’ve tested. (The Polk R100s are $599, but didn’t make the final cut.) While the Q150s sound slightly better than the HDP6s to my ears, they’re not necessarily $200 better. At the time of this writing, however, the Q150s retail for $400, making them a compelling choice at Audioengines.
For the bargain hunter: JBL A130
JBLs have always been in the middle of the pack when it comes to listener preference. They’re not as bright as the KEFs and Audioengines, but they’re not as muddy down low as the Polk S15s. If you’re just looking for a decent set of speakers and don’t sweat spec sheets, or if you primarily listen to streaming music and only put on vinyl occasionally, this is a great option if you can find it. which is sold. .
For those who need more bass: ELAC Debut 2.0 DB6.2
Ok, so these speakers break our rules but, if you choose the slightly larger 6.5-inch DB6.2s, instead of the DB5.2s, you’ll get more thump in the bottom end. The Debuts don’t quite match the Audioengine or KEFs when it comes to clarity, but you can feel each 808 a lot more. New album by Backxwash I Lie Here Buried with my rings and my clothes the ELACs are more angry than the Polks, JBLs or even the KEFs. And they only cost $350, which isn’t bad at all.
If you mainly listen to electronic music and modern hip hop, you may want to consider the Debut 2.0 DB6.2s.
For those who want to ignore my advice:
If you can’t find the JBL A130s on sale, and really want to save as much as possible, you can get the Polk S15s. The S15s are silent BAD, but the JBLs are definitely superior. They don’t have a deep soundstage like other speakers I’ve tried and the lowend can be indistinct. It is probably better suited as part of a home theater system than a stereo system. At a list price of $229 they may seem like a bargain, but I’d save your pennies a little longer and spring for something better.
The Polk R100s are decent sounding speakers. Maybe a little better than the JBLs, though with a sound profile closer to Polk’s own S15. The problem is they’re $600, tied for the most expensive I’ve tried. At half the price it might be a solid choice, but the $600 KEFs and $400 Audioengines rank higher than the R100s in every tester.
I have no doubt that these are excellent speakers: They are Wirecuttertop choice. But I can’t test them and therefore can’t vouch for them.