Bookshelf Speakers vs Studio Monitors vs Satellite Speakers: Decoding Home Audio

For about six years now my wife and I have been using a box set of speakers in our entertainment center. The box came with a combination DVD player audio receiver and a collection of speakers most of which we don’t even have hooked up. For our setup (for the longest time) I could never really get any meaningful sound out of some of the speakers so we just took them down when our cat chewed through one of the wires – true story.

Anyway, our entertainment center has expanded quite a bit over the past six years and the receiver portion of our DVD player is not really adequate anymore. We are hooking up high end pieces of equipment to our speakers with low quality cables running through splitters and piggy-backed plugs. One of the inputs on our TV plays through, gasp, the built in TV speakers of all things. In any event it’s clear we need a new system and I’ve been looking for ways to improve it over the past couple months.

Naturally the first thing I wanted to upgrade was the receiver. It’s silly to use the old system to manage audio inputs when it’s just not capable of doing it in any kind of reasonable way. This of course meant we needed new speakers because the old speakers were proprietary to the old system. This quickly presented a challenge for us because neither of us was very savvy when it came to audio. We just hit play and the sounds came out. Volume goes up and volume goes down, that’s about it in our world.

Bookshelf Speakers, Studio Monitors, & Satellite Speakers – What The Heck Is The Difference Anyway?

That was two months ago however, today I’ve learned a thing or two about speakers and how to choose the right ones. In the beginning it was all Greek to me but it hindsight it’s pretty simple.

To break it down there are highs, mid-tones, and lows in all audio and every piece of sound, dialogue, or piece of music is comprised by a collections of sounds in all ranges. The tone and color of each sound has nuances that are subtle but unique and all sounds, even the simplest, are somewhat complex.

In short a good set of speakers will be able to play all range of audio and add some sophistication to the sound. Instead of hearing audio as simple noise it should be clear and colorful; pleasant to the ear.

Bookshelf Speakers 101

Most bookshelf speakers are designed to just that. They are simple systems that can range in price from very high to very low. They are basically all encompassing speakers that attempt to hit all ranges of sound in the best way possible. Some of the higher end models do this very well while some of the cheaper models tend to do this not so well.

One of the main benefits to a bookshelf speaker system is that they are generally smaller systems that are easier to setup, manage, and fit into a room. They aren’t called bookshelf speakers for nothing. Some very high end bookshelf speakers are designed to fit into very small spaces and yet still fill a room with very colorful, rich sound, be it music or spoken word.

A major limitation of most bookshelf speakers however is their ability to really be precise in sound quality on both the high end and low end of the spectrum. Some bookshelf speakers are not exactly powerful in the mid-range either. The untrained or undemanding ear may not notice the differences immediately, but the quality difference can be striking when compared side by side to a high end speaker that performs well.

Satellite Speakers 101

Satellite speakers on the other hand are excellent powerhouses at the high and mid-range. They are very small so they are very easy to fit into a living room entertainment center but because of their lack of bass output they are not desirable on their own. If you are looking to buy satellite speakers then you should pay more for speakers that are really designed to make amazing quality on the high end while making virtually no output on the low end. These should be paired with a subwoofer, a low range speaker meant only for outputting bass tones less than 50-100 Hz. Many sound bars qualify as satellite speakers even though they don’t have the traditional shape. Most satellite speakers are found in pairs that will flank an entertainment center on the left and right and sometimes in the rear.

Studio Monitors 101

While we were shopping for new speakers in our own home we were quickly tempted to get a set of studio monitors seeing as though these are the types of speakers used in studio settings by professionals but after closer inspection and a deeper understanding of what they are exactly we decided that this wasn’t for us. Standard studio monitors are designed to isolate all the little variations in an audio recording or audio wave so that it is easier to isolate sounds for better and more precise mixing.

In the living room this is not all that important. Although you do want clarity you also want fluidity in sound. You want the tone and color of the sound to be pleasant to actually listen to as opposed to analyze. There certainly are some settings where the fine audio output of a studio monitor might be desired in the home but in most homes a set of normal bookcase speakers is the way to go, even if they are smaller.

My Pick For Home Theater Speakers…

For us, we like the earth shattering lows and it is great to get high-quality highs as well, so we went with a sub and a satellite system. The satellite speakers were very easy to incorporate into our wall mounted entertainment center while the sub was easily offset to the side of our living room in a low traffic area of the room. For use the price was a bit nicer too since each unit was specialized it was easier for us to find a quality set of speakers in our price range.

Bookshelf speakers certainly are popular though, so if you have the budget for some of the higher-end models, then they can really make you enjoy the movies without ever leaving the comfort of your living room.