You could quite comfortably spend hundreds, or even thousands, on a top-of-the-range hi-fi system, but if you were pumping it through a set of outdated, poor quality speakers, it could all be going to waste.
Indeed, the speakers are arguably the most important components of any decent hi-fi setup, so choosing the right pair (or more depending on your preference) is a choice you certainly should not be taking lightly. Here, we'll take you through the various options available for all budgets and tastes, hopefully, on the way, whittling down exactly what it is you should be looking for and why.
Before you even step foot in an electronics store or open up that search engine, it would be wise to study your hi-fi system (particularly your amplifier) and make a note of how many Watts (W) it is capable of outputting before you make a decision on your speakers.
Bookshelf or Floorstanding?
Whether you opt for speakers that sit on your shelves or stand on their own accord will primarily depend on two factors; your available space and the power of your amplifier.
Floorstanding speakers are obviously significantly larger, and generally deliver a greater frequency range for stereos that are capable of outputting a wider range and depth of frequencies. They are often multi-driver designs featuring a dedicated bass drivers, midrange and tweeter.
They usually have more bass output and their scaled up size allows for more frequency definition, giving more clarity to your music. They can also often look more attractive, even acting as design statements in their own right.
Equally, floor standing speakers are ideal satellite units for a high performance home cinema system when matched up with other complementary products.
Bookshelf speakers, on the other hand, are ideal for smaller, less powerful stereo systems, or for when space it at a premium.
These speakers are usually two-way or sometimes three-way designs consisting of a tweeter and small mid-bass drivers. They are often limited in low end bass output due to their size, so if you are into your bass then you're probably looking in the wrong place. They are, however, designed to maximise sound quality from limited cabinet volume, and can be combined with stands or brackets for system integration.
They can also be matched up to deliver surround sound for your home cinema system.
On a Budget
If you're on a budget, it goes without saying that you'll probably be opting for some bookshelf speakers, but there are numerous affordable floorstanding models available if that's your bag.
Tibo, for example, offer a pair of floorstanding speakers for under £100 and they are surprisingly powerful, especially if you like to listen to a lot of music that accentuates bass. Generally speaking, a pair of floorstanding speakers costing between £200 and £400 would still be considered budget, but will be able to handle more power than cheaper models.
If you want to go for a set of bookshelf speakers, you should be able to find a fairly decent pair for under £100. Roth, Q Acoustics and Mission all make quality inexpensive bookshelf speakers, many of which have won respectable industry awards. These are wonderful choices if your stereo isn't particularly powerful, but you require the best audio reproduction possible.
For both floorstanding and bookshelf speakers, the difference you'll see when paying less is primarily in the quality of the drivers, though there might also be design and branding implications. Driver-wise, budget speakers will probably use cheaper materials, so they might not last as long and they probably won't sound as clear and focused. However, they could be perfectly adequate for your requirements, it all depends on your specific circumstances.
Generally speaking, if you want to hear more of the subtle nuances in a recording with excellent sonic separation of the instruments and higher fidelity sonics, you will have a higher likelihood of hearing these attributes in more expensive speakers. This is true whether you opt for bookshelf or floorstanding speakers.
The major downside of making a budget purchase is generally the lower bass extension and lack of potential volume. This, however, can be remedied with the purchase of a separate subwoofer, which will be able to handle the bass. There are lots of options available, just make sure you do your research so that what you buy is compatible with your existing gear.
Money is No Object
If you're looking to really push the boat out and spent a few thousand pounds on your speakers, there is a wealth of options at your disposal.
What you'll find with more expensive speakers, especially floorstanding speakers, is that they will not only look more desirable from a design standpoint, but they will generally offer a deeper range of frequencies, a wider sound with better separation between instruments and frequencies, and greater flexibility in terms of what they can be used for.
One thing to take into account, however, is that, in a reverse of the point we mentioned earlier, if you are running incredibly expensive speakers from a cheap, under-powered amplifier and with low quality stereo separates, you won't be taking full advantage of what your speakers can do.
Here, we're talking about the 'sweet spot' of the £400 - £1000 range, where you'll be getting a set of speakers that will sound great, look great, and last almost as long as you do. If you shop smart, that is!
Generally speaking, you might be able to find bookshelf speakers at this price point that could stand head-to-head with some of the more expensive models in the £1000+ range, but, once again, they will never be able to fill a room in the same way a floorstanding model could, no matter how much you spend.
On the other hand, however, a decent bookshelf speaker could always be repurposed down the line as a home cinema surround speaker, and you could always add a subwoofer to bring a little more bass to your rig at a later date.
Simply put, if you want a more upgradeable system, buying a decent bookshelf speaker around this price point might be a good bet!
Wireless or Wired?
The final question relates to wireless speaker systems, which have become more common in recent years, as wireless audio technology has improved.
You'll be able to purchase many speakers, even affordable ones, with bluetooth or bespoke streaming technology (such as Apple Airplay or Yamaha's MusicCast) built-in, so you could theoretically run your entire audio setup from your smartphone, tablet or computer, without even the need for an amplifier.
Quality-wise, however, the results will vary dramatically depending on the quality of your streaming device and the audio files you'll be playing through it. MP3 files, for example, are incredibly compressed, and whilst they might sound fine through a pair of in-ear headphones, through a decent set of speakers at loud volumes, the compression will become immediately obvious and you'll be cursing the day you ever threw away your vinyl record collection!
You can also, of course, use wireless speakers as part of a more conventional hi-fi setup, but only if your amplifier supports them. If it does, wireless speakers are definitely the more convenient option, and if you're looking at a multi-room setup, we'd highly recommend giving them a chance!
Hopefully we've managed to give you a taste of what you should expect when shopping for your next hi-fi speakers. The sheer number of options out there can be a little daunting, of course, but remember that many audio specialist stores should let you try them out in-store, and if you're buying online, the vast majority of audio specialist outlets will have a 30 day return policy. With that in mind, happy shopping audiophiles!