Whether you are a dedicated audiophile or a casual listener, everyone wants the best quality possible when enjoying their favorite movies and music, and of course speakers are an essential part of the listening experience. With all of the different styles of speakers on the market, it can be difficult to know what is best suited to your home, but a good place to start is the two most popular designs: tower speakers and bookshelf speakers.
Determining whether tower speakers are better than bookshelf speakers is dependent on several factors, such as the size of the room where you will place the speakers, your home decor, sound quality requirements, and your budget.
In this article, we will take a look at both of these different speaker systems and detail what sets them apart from each other. We will also outline some of the technical aspects of speakers that allow for the high-quality sound that we all crave and some best examples of both designs on the market. If you have ever wondered which of these speaker systems to put in your den or home theater, look no further.
Tower Speakers vs. Bookshelf Speakers: An Overview
Before we get into the technical features of what makes these speakers more suitable for different situations, we should get a better idea of the differences between each of these designs.
Tower speakers — also referred to as floor standing speakers — are stand-alone units that typically have several drivers (the unit that produces sound) of different sizes within the cabinet. Some tower speakers may have as many as five drivers within a single enclosure. The larger size of tower speakers also means they can accommodate much bigger drivers. We will get to the significance of multi-driver designs and speaker performance later.
On the other hand, bookshelf speakers are much smaller than their upright counterparts and are designed to be placed on a shelf or table. Many bookshelf speakers also have stands they can be mounted on that can improve sound quality and help them to blend into a room’s decor. These speakers usually only have two drivers, which makes them compact and affects the quality of sound they produce.
|Bookshelf Speakers||Tower Speakers|
|Compact size can disappear into a room||Large, can be difficult to effectively place|
|Sometimes lacks low end and high-end definition||Broad frequency range delivers more accurate sound|
|May require a subwoofer to enhance low end||Built-in low-end drivers|
|Lack the power of tower speakers||More power, more volume|
|Great for multi-speaker home theater systems||More suitable for 2-speaker situations|
|More affordable than tower speakers||High-quality sound = big price tag|
Is Bigger Better?
The most obvious difference between bookshelf and tower speakers is their size, but how does the size — of both the drivers and the enclosures — affect the sound they produce?
Speakers, or drivers, work by converting electrical energy into mechanical energy. This mechanical energy moves the speaker diaphragm, which in turn vibrates air molecules that carry the sound from the surface of the speaker to your ear.
Because of the physics of sound, a speaker's surface area plays an important role in the sound it produces. When discussing speakers, the sound is usually split into three categories: highs, mids, and lows.
Lower frequency sound has longer wavelengths that are best produced by using large drivers. Mid-range drivers pick up the majority of the frequencies and are the workhorses of most speaker systems. The high frequencies are produced using what is known as tweeters–small drivers specially designed for these high tones.
The wide range of frequencies that occur in music is recreated using speakers, and having multiple, different sized drivers dedicated to a narrower band of frequencies will produce a more accurate performance.
2-Way vs. 3-Way Systems
Most speakers use either a 2-way or 3-way driver configuration, generally depending on the cabinet's size. A 2-way system means that two drivers are producing the sound, with one handling the mids and lows and another dedicated to the highs. This is the arrangement commonly found in bookshelf speakers.
The larger size of the cabinets allows tower speakers to use a 3-way driver arrangement, with one speaker dedicated to each frequency band. As we discussed, this will always lead to more clarity and power when producing the various frequencies that make music so compelling.
Some tower speakers have two bass drivers, and while they have 4 speakers, they are still considered 3-way systems since the second bass driver is covering the same frequency band and is used to enhance the production of low-end sounds.
These are just the basics. I have more on 2-way versus 3-way systems you can read about.
Size and Volume
Along with the ability to produce more bass, large speakers are also able to get much louder. Since we know that a driver is simply being manipulated by an electric current, causing it to vibrate air, the larger the speaker, the more air it can move. The more air is moved, the louder the sound will be.
Another important concept that contributes to the sound quality a speaker system delivers is speaker sensitivity (speaker efficiency is often used interchangeably but is a slightly different measurement). The sensitivity of a speaker refers to the amount of power it takes to produce a specific volume.
Most speakers are rated at around 88db sensitivity, with anything under 84db being considered poor sensitivity and anything over 92db being excellent. But what does this mean?
Well, if a speaker is rated at 81db sensitivity (poor sensitivity), this means it will produce 81db of sound with 1 watt of power. However, to produce a louder volume of 84db, you would need two watts of power. This is because, for every additional 3db of volume, you need to double the power supplied to the speaker. To produce a 102db volume, you would need to increase the power all the way to 128 watts.
Besides the potential impact this can have on your choice of the amp used to power your speakers, speaker sensitivity also plays a role in accurately reproducing dynamic music. If your amp’s power is topped out when your speakers are producing mid-level volumes, it will not be able to provide the additional power required for high decibel peaks. This is called “headroom” and is a key element of any quality sound system.
It is worth noting that both bookshelf and tower speakers are perfectly capable of having high-sensitivity drivers. I only highlight speaker sensitivity as it is an important consideration when choosing components to assemble a sound system.
Tower Speakers vs. Bookshelf Speakers: Pros and Cons
Bookshelf and tower speakers both have their place in the world of audio systems and now that we understand the differences between these two styles of speaker enclosures, we can take a look at the pros and cons of each.
The large size of these enclosures means they can house bigger speakers, as well as using a 3-way driver arrangement. This will produce louder volumes, more accurate and complex sound, and deeper, powerful low end.
However, the large size also limits their use in smaller spaces, meaning they can be cumbersome and look out of place in apartments or dorm rooms. There is a saying that goes, a speaker can never be too big, but a room can be too small. This refers to the fact that if you cannot sit far enough away from the speakers, you may not get the full benefit of the larger drivers and additional power.
However, some tinkering with an EQ can usually fix this issue.
The large size of tower speakers also means that they are difficult to hide. This may not be an issue for a dedicated audiophile, but not everyone wants their sound system to be the focal point of a room. These speakers also perform best when placed 12-16 inches (30.5-40.6 cm) away from any walls, adding to the footprint of the already large enclosures.
The smaller size of these speakers makes them more appropriate for a much wider variety of rooms and living situations. They are also easily incorporated into the decor of a room, meaning that with a little planning, your speaker system can practically disappear into the background.
While they often lack the low end that tower speakers are known for, the sound profile produced by bookshelf speakers can be enhanced with the addition of a separate subwoofer. This is a popular choice that improves the frequency range while maintaining the small footprint of bookshelf speakers. Many people make this addition when putting together a home theater sound system.
Like tower speakers, bookshelf speakers also sound best when placed away from walls. Thankfully, most of these speaker systems come with stands that will provide the space to get the best sound out of the drivers while still taking up less space than tower speakers.
Market Leaders: Tower Speakers
Now that we know the difference between these two speaker styles, let’s take a look at some of the best options on the market. Our list is by no means comprehensive, but these speakers will give you a starting point on your quest for the right sound system.
This is a top of the line tower speaker for those who are not afraid of spending money in the pursuit of the perfect sound. With 3×3.65” subwoofers, 1×5.25” mid-range, and 1×1” tweeter, these speakers can handle the entire scope of musical expression: the heavy bass of hip hop is represented just as well as more delicate folk music.
The only downside of these monsters is the need for a powerful high-end amp to power them. Use these speakers with a lesser quality amp, and the sound will suffer. These are on the higher side of the high-quality tower speaker price range.
This is a great option for a tower speaker with a smaller footprint that can be easier to fit in a tighter space than bulkier designs. Using 2×6.5” woofers and 1×1” tweeter, these compact towers are best suited for smaller spaces and may seem a bit underpowered in larger rooms–particularly in the bass department.
This being said, when coupled with an external subwoofer, these reasonably priced tower speakers come into their own. Not necessarily perfect for all situations, these are a great option for those in smaller homes or those that share walls with neighbors.
On the budget side of things, these speakers provide quality audio at a reasonable price. With 2×5” subwoofers and 1×1” tweeter, this tower speaker delivers clear sound and is particularly well-suited for music over home theater use. One review stated that the high-pitched movie audio became a bit grating, which is a common issue with inexpensive speakers.
Despite this drawback, the SS-CS3 provides a surprising amount of clarity and definition along with the powerful bass characteristics of a dual-sub system.
Another tower speaker that won’t break the bank while bringing quality sound in a sleek design. With 2×5” woofers and 1×1” tweeters, the S807 stands out for the depth of the mid-range frequencies that bring out vocals in music and makes them a great centerpiece to build a home theater sound system around. While they lack a little in the bass department, the addition of a subwoofer can round out the listening experience, especially in a home theater situation.
This is an affordable tower speaker that doesn’t disappoint.
To close our list of tower speakers, we might as well go for the gold. The Legend L800 is one of the most impressive tower speakers on the market with one significant feature that no other option can match. The L800’s use of Stereo Dimensional Array technology creates the effect of being on stage with the musicians you are listening to.
By utilizing a set of passive drivers that deliver sound to your right and left ear at the same time, these speakers put even the most expensive home theater systems to shame. However, you do get what you pay for.
Market Leaders: Bookshelf Speakers
Starting at the top, these are some of the best bookshelf speakers you will find. Using a 1×6.5” woofer and 1×4.5” tweeter, these speakers deliver well-defined bass as well as crystal clear trebles thanks to the large, dynamic tweeter. The elegant design of the Motion XTi sets it apart from other speakers and adds a visual appeal along with the stellar sound that is characteristic of the 92 db sensitivity rated speakers.
These are not for the casual listener, but the sound quality matches the price.
This is a quality set of speakers that delivers excellent sound in a sleek package. Using 1×5” full range and 1×1” tweeter, the 607 produces balanced and clear audio through the entire frequency range, with a surprising amount of depth. The only complaint that one review listed was that it takes a little bit of time dialing in the sweet spot, and they provide the best sound when placed on stands.
The Bowers & Wilkins 607 are among the best bookshelf speakers you will find under $1,000 and easily hold their own against much more expensive options.
On the budget side of things, the Debut 2.0 bookshelf speakers are a great option that brings quality sound in an affordable package. Created by a former Pioneer designer, these speakers provide plenty of punch, holding their own against more expensive bookshelf speakers. You are unlikely to find as good a set of speakers for under $500.
These speakers stand out from the other models we have looked at in that they are wireless and Bluetooth capable. Sporting a 1×5” full-range speaker and 1×1” tweeter, the TUK offers a surprising amount of clarity and punch. These speakers signify the next step in blue-tooth speaker technology and are head and shoulders above any other option on the market.
While not the cheapest option, the features and wireless capabilities make this an interesting choice for audiophiles looking to the future.
Like their bigger cousin, the L800, these Polk Audio bookshelf speakers are above and beyond anything else on the market. Using only a 1×6.5” full-range speaker and 1×1” tweeter, the deep, powerful bass that comes out of these speakers is astounding. Crystal clear sound and clean stylings make this an excellent choice for a serious fan of the sound.
However, the massive size, heavy weight, and hefty price tag, more than likely take the L200 outside the casual listener’s comfort zone.
If there is one thing that you can take away from this article, it is that there is no single, right answer for which is better: tower speakers or bookshelves. It is important to consider your personal preference, budget, and living space when you are looking for your perfect sound system.
That being said, there are hundreds of options in both styles, so the most difficult part of the process will undoubtedly be narrowing the search and making a choice. I personally like the power and aesthetics of tower speakers, but have used bookshelf speakers when (and where) necessary.