How to choose speakers: a guide to buying the perfect audio for your listening needs
Active, voice-controlled, Bluetooth... there's a lot of choice out there when it comes to speakers. Our insightful guide will help you choose the speakers you need
So, you want to enjoy your beloved classical music in the best possible sound. But how to achieve this?
To enjoy your music at its best, you need some decent speakers. But the perfect speakers will vary from one listener to the next. All sorts of variable come into play, from how much bass you need in your life, to how much space you have to spare.
Searching for the best speakers for you can be a somewhat bewildering experience. Fear not: here is our handy guide to the different types of speakers you can choose from, together with a recommendation for each category from our audio expert Chris Haslam.
And remember, you can find a whole host of helpful audio advice and reviews on our website.
What sorts of speakers can you choose from?
If you don't want something too massive, a so-called 'bookshelf speaker' is often a good option. As their name indicates, these smaller speakers are designed to sit on something like a bookshelf, rather than taking up valuable floor space like, say, the bigger floor-standing speakers that we'll come to further down.
As such, bookshelf speakers are great for smaller spaces.
Bookshelf speakers: our recommendation
Sanyun SW208 Active Bluetooth Speakers
If you like to enjoy your Debussy or Mozart in the great outdoors (or simply in the peace and comfort of your garden), an outdoor speaker will definitely be worth the investment. What exactly is an outdoor speaker, though? Well, it's designed for outdoor use, so it will be a bit more rigged and weather-proof than those speakers that are specifically for indoor use.
A good outdoor speaker should have another special feature, though: they should have a decent amount of play time between full recharges. This can be useful, especially if you're planning to use your speaker while away from a power source - on a camping holiday, for example. We'd recommend seeking out an outdoor speaker with at least 10 hours' play time. Some larger models will play for 24 hours or more between charges.
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Outdoor speakers: our recommendation
Small (17cm x 6cm x 6cm; 430g) and stylish, this nifty little outdoor speaker slots seamlessly into an existing wi-fi multi-room network and uses Bluetooth if you go out of wi-fi range.
What are active speakers?
What does the phrase 'active speaker' actually mean? Essentially, these are speakers that allow you to stream music directly, thanks to their built-in powered amplifiers and wireless capabilities. In short, they offer high-resolution streaming and audiophile sound quality in a space-saving package.
What's the difference between active speakers and stereo Bluetooth speakers?
As we explained in our piece on best active speakers, most active speakers include Bluetooth streaming. To this basic requirement, though, the best active speakers also offer inputs such as 3.5mm, RCA and optical – found either on the back of one ‘master’ speaker, or in a separate ‘hub’ which streams to the speakers – so you can connect a CD player, turntable etc.
Active speakers: our recommendation
Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2
Ruark Audio’s stereo streaming compact bookshelf active speakers are multi-award winning, and for very good reason. They’re attractive yet understated, and the combination of 20mm tweeter, 75mm woofer and Class AB amplifier sounds splendid whatever the music. A recent upgrade means you can now stream in CD quality via aptX Bluetooth, connect wirelessly to a compatible turntable and also plug in streaming devices such as Google Chromecast.
We've written elsewhere about the best voice-controlled speakers on the market, so we'll limit ourselves to a quick rundown here.
Voice-controlled speakers: our recommendations
Amazon Echo 4th generation
If optimum sound is a priority, we'd recommend the fourth-generation Amazon Echo. On the compact side (13 by 14cm), the Echo still has enough capability to genuinely impress our audio expert Chris Haslam. 'The 76mm woofer and twin 20mm tweeters, despite the obvious size restrictions, manage to be impactful, organised and enjoyable,' Chris reckons. Some minor niggles (for example, recognising the names of classical composers) aside, this is a genuinely useful smart home assistant and cheap multi-room audio system.
Google Nest Audio
For a slightly more foolproof system, sacrificing perhaps the last degree of sound quality, you could also look at the Google Nest Audio, which makes use of the reliable Google Assistant with all of Google's search-engine power behind it. As Chris notes, Google’s ability to understand classical composers is marginally better, although it still isn’t perfect.
If you have the floor space to spare, floorstanding speakers can be a great bet. They tend to give a slightly better sound than the smaller types discussed above. That's because their bigger size allows them to can deliver a wider frequency of sound, including those (for some) all-important bass notes.
Floorstanding speakers are designed to project sound at your ear level when sitting. Ideally, you should keep the speakers well spaced and at least 30cm away from any surfaces to get the best result.
Floor-standing speakers: our recommendation
Q Acoustics 3050i
Over to Chris for his verdict, form his insightful piece on the best floorstanding speakers: 'A few years old now, these floorstanders remain the best-value around. Playing hi-res pieces from my laptop (using Tidal) combined with my Marantz HD-AMP1, I was thrilled by the energy on offer. They’re warm, engaging and offer plenty of punch and, impressively, don’t complain too much if they’re positioned in less-than-ideal spaces.'
Should I buy Wi-fi or Bluetooth speakers?
Here's a final, and important question for you. Should you invest in speakers that use Bluetooth, or Wi-fi, to connect to their sound source?
Connecting speakers via Bluetooth is usually very easy to do. In most cases you simply find your speaker in the Bluetooth menu on your smartphone, pair it, and you're good to go.
Wi-fi, however, is often more tricky. You usually have to set it up via your speaker's dedicated app on your smartphone. For this reason, when a speaker supports both wi-fi and Bluetooth, many connect via Bluetooth for convenience.
Thankfully, there are some speakers on the market that have both Bluetooth and Wi-fi connectivity options, saving you this particular decision.
Wi-fi and Bluetooth speakers: our recommendations
Sonos Roam SL
The Sonos Roam SL has the advantage of Bluetooth / Wi-fi flexibiility and very decent sound, at an affordable place. The rechargeable battery has a decent playing time, too. And the Sonos system means that you can simply add more speakers around your home for multiroom listening.
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.