How to choose the best speaker or hi-fi system for you
When choosing speakers, the big consideration used to be whether to opt for floor-standing or smaller bookshelf designs. Now, however, wireless technology and streaming services like Spotify mean there’s even more choice.
If you’re upgrading a hi-fi and have no reason to give up on your CD and amplifier, a classic pair of ‘passive’ speakers will be ideal. If, however, you’re looking to modernise your system and want to reduce the number of separates cluttering up your living room, you might consider a pair of ‘active’ speakers.
Active speakers have multiple amplifiers and electronic components built in, meaning you can either plug components directly into them or stream from a smartphone/tablet over Bluetooth, or via Wi-Fi and a network hard drive. The speakers are both plugged into the mains and remain connected by audio cable.
Two previous BBC Music Magazine Best Buy winners includes Kef’s multi award-winning LS50 wireless stereo speakers (£1,999, uk.kef.com) that can play from virtually every source and Ruark Audio’s Mr1 MKII (£329, ruarkaudio.com) with superb Bluetooth streaming. Most active speakers are bookshelf, but some good-value floorstanding designs are available from Audio Pro (audiopro.com) and Tangent (tangent-audio.com).
The benefit of active speakers over single all-in-one wireless ones is the scale of the sound. Carefully positioned stereo speakers sound better, offering a wider, deeper soundstage. But that doesn’t mean all-in-one streaming speakers can’t sound great, while also taking up less space. Software from brands such as Sonos (sonos.com) can now create stereo separation between two of their speakers, so you can enjoy traditional stereo pairing in the living room and stream to speakers in the kitchen, study or bedroom.
But Sonos isn’t the only streaming option. Bluesound, Kef and Bowers & Wilkins offer compatibility between own brand products, while if you look for the DTS Play-Fi logo (play-fi.com), you’ll discover different brands – including Klipsch, Philips and Arcam – that can all be controlled together using one app.
If you just need to replace your worn-out hi-fi speakers, remember that bookshelf speakers should never actually be mounted on a bookshelf or even pushed up against the wall. If your budget is small, buy a pair of bookshelf speakers and a decent stand rather than cheaper floorstanding speakers, and make sure they’re at ear level when you’re sitting down.
The best speakers: our recommendations
I adored the Formation Duo streaming bookshelf speakers, and this one-box alternative with its 120-degree elliptical speaker design displays the same hi-res (24-bit/96 kHz) brilliance in a beautifully organic shape.
The best-value speaker brand I know has updated its exceptional passive bookshelf design with a new subwoofer, which means better bass response without the bulk of a floorstanding speaker design.
Vintage style with a modern heart, these 160W active speakers connect via Bluetooth, HDMI, optical, USB, 3.5mm and phono inputs, meaning you can stream from your phone, turntable or TV.