Bookshelf Speakers Versus Studio Monitors

Contemporary speaker technology is vastly different from the early days of home stereo systems. In the 1960s and 70s, as home audio became increasingly high-fidelity, the component audio system rose in popularity. No longer was a consumer tied to devices made by one company, as in the console stereos of the 1950s. Turntables, amplifiers, tuners and – perhaps most significantly – speakers were now chosen on their own merits.

During the same era, recording studios existed as laboratories of sound, filled with expensive and exotic equipment and often under the ownership of record companies. The home studio as we know it today was then a rare beast. Studio speakers were, after the fashion of the day, usually large and built-in to control room walls. The difference between a studio soffit-mounted monitor and a home bookshelf speaker was about as wide as it could get.

The Active Speaker Revolution

As technology supporting home recording fell into place during the later 1980s and early 1990s, there emerged a need for amplifiers and speakers that presented sound without coloration. Consumer equipment often took on characteristics that flattered recordings, so that a buyer playing the same piece of music on two brands of equipment could hear noticeable differences and make a purchase decision based on these.

Recording, however, requires more transparent reproduction. Sounds through the monitors should, ideally, sound like they do entering a microphone at the start of the recording chain. Amps and speakers form a system that has much to do with how audio reproduction works. As the miniaturization of electronics grew more capable, the logic of matching an amp and speaker, and then building the amp into the speaker cabinet, became reasonable.

Powered Speakers in the Studio

It wasn’t long before powered speakers found their place in recording studios of all levels, professional down to improvised home studios. The advantages are many. Since bookshelf speakers have no amps, they could be paired with any amp, even those too powerful or otherwise unsuitable. A speaker designer had no control over speaker and amp matching.

An active speaker, though, gives the designer complete control. The amp is inside the cabinet, so it can be matched to both the cabinet style and the actual speakers used in the package. Bi-amp designs emerged. These are active speakers that split the audio signal into frequency bands. One amp feeds the woofer and another feeds the tweeter, adding layers of efficiency and performance. The same concept integrated into powered subwoofer designs as well, providing deep, theater bass without overtaxing the main system speakers.

The Impact of Home Theaters

Subwoofers and surround-sound systems started a shift toward active technology in consumer audio systems. Passive bookshelf speakers remained practical for the left, right and center channels of a surround home theater, but the additional cable runs necessary for side and rear channels created issues in many installations.

At the same time, wireless streaming technologies emerged. Products such as Apple’s AirPlay, Sonos and Bluetooth-based speakers proved a perfect fit for powered speaker technology. Digital music streaming through nearfield wireless connections changed the definition of a bookshelf speaker. What was once a passive, wired device could now receive audio through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, plugging only into a wall outlet for its amplifier’s power supply.

Blurred Speaker Lines

The result of these technology advances is great news for anyone who listens to music. Not only are speakers and monitors available in more sizes and power levels than ever before, they’re more affordable than ever as well. Audiophile and studio speakers that once cost thousands now have equivalents that cost hundreds.

However, it has also confused the picture for the average consumer. Can a home theater system use powered monitors? Do bookshelf speakers have a place in a home studio? How much mix-and-match is normal between applications?

Let’s look at “bookshelf speakers” and “studio monitors” and find out what each really means in practical terms.

Bookshelf Speakers

This term refers to speakers designed for consumer use. However, it has a second, informal definition as a passive speaker that requires separate amplification. For example, many studios use small cube speakers made by Auratone that require amplification. These often stand in as consumer speakers when testing a mix for its sound on other systems. Many new wireless speakers, with built-in streaming and amplification, have a bookshelf design and description, yet they don’t meet the passive speaker criteria. There’s no right or wrong way to define “bookshelf” when it comes to speaker application.

Studio Monitors (also monitors, studio speakers, etc.)

The term “monitor” implies studio use when it comes to speaker systems. There is, however, no 11th commandment that says “thou shall not use monitors outside the studio.” In fact, many speaker manufacturers take liberty with the term “monitor” as a marketing device, particularly at the lower ends of the speaker price range. Many speakers carrying the monitor moniker are perfectly suited to consumer use, having connections and tuning options that are ideal for building into a home theater or surround-sound application. There are even some monitors that include Bluetooth as a playback input. A pair of these and a Bluetooth-enabled sound source, such as a smartphone, tablet or computer make a complete playback system that may be all a buyer needs for their living room “bookshelf” system.

As with many audio topics, the correct and final definition rests with the consumer’s own ears, preferences and pocketbook. If it sounds good, enjoy!

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