02.01.2023 | Education

Behind The Sound®: How to set up bookshelf speakers

McIntosh home audio system featuring XR50 Bookshelf Speakers
A McIntosh home audio system featuring XR50 Bookshelf Speakers.

The right set of speakers can complete any home listening space. Whether you’re building an ornate home theater system or enjoying hi-fi sound from the comfort of your living room, high-quality speakers are crucial for good sound quality.

Obtaining a working knowledge of different speaker types is a game changer for audiophiles and casual listeners alike. Once you know the subtle differences between speaker types and their power systems, you can pinpoint what models are compatible with your space.

No matter where you fall on the audiophile spectrum, bookshelf speakers are likely familiar, at least in name. Because of their size range, they fit in a wide variety of set-ups, and are often found in home audio spaces. However, their ubiquitousness doesn't mean there’s not a science to their placement. So in this article, we’ll dive into the best ways to maximize the sound from a pair of bookshelf speakers.

What are bookshelf speakers?
Before getting into the best practices for set-up, it’s crucial to define what exactly bookshelf speakers are. In simple terms, bookshelf speakers are designed to enhance sound in small or medium sized rooms. In keeping with their name, bookshelf speakers are designed to rest on an elevated surface; it could be a table, a desk, or an actual bookshelf. While you don’t need to store them on shelving per se, you do need to make sure they’re elevated so the sound reaches ear level. Elevating them also protects your speaker’s components from dust, grime, or sound reflections from the floor. This brings us to the common question of what makes bookshelf speakers different from floorstanding speakers.

What’s the difference between floorstanding speakers and bookshelf speakers?
The most obvious difference between floorstanding speakers and bookshelf speakers is their size. Floor standers often reach around three to four feet tall, while bookshelf speakers measure around one foot tall. Aside from affecting the space itself, the size difference also affects how the speakers are structured.

Since they’re larger, floorstanding speakers can have more drivers. The term "drivers" refers to the parts of the speaker that outputs sound. Floorstanding speakers normally have three types of drivers: Woofers that output the bass frequencies; Midranges that output midlevel frequencies; and Tweeters that output the highest frequencies. When looking at a speaker, the Woofers are the biggest and are usually positioned lowest on the speaker, Tweeters are the smallest and are located towards the top of the speaker, and the Midranges fall in between both in terms of size and location on the speaker. Since floorstanding speakers can have more drivers, this means the speaker can send specific frequencies (bass, midrange, treble) directly to a driver that amplifies those sounds.

SEE ALSO: McIntosh XR100 Floorstanding Speaker

Since they’re smaller, bookshelf speakers often have fewer drivers and need to be elevated to reach ear level. Some bookshelf speakers designed to connect to computers or home office set-ups, come with an amp build inside of them. This makes them “powered speakers.”

In contrast, floor standers are “passive speakers” which means they require an amplifier to power them. One of the pros of passive speakers is they give you the ability to control the details of the sound quality even more, since you’re connecting the amp yourself. These are the main major differences between bookshelf speakers and floorstanders.

Why are bookshelf speakers so popular?
When it comes to space and convenience, bookshelf speakers take the cake. In most cases, you simply have to connect the stereo speakers to your amplifier or other powered audio component and you’re ready to go. If you’re looking for the best bookshelf speaker for the job, the McIntosh XR50 Bookshelf Speaker produces a full rich sound compatible with a home theater set-up or stereo music.

McIntosh XR50 Bookshelf Speakers
The McIntosh XR50 Bookshelf Speaker is 17" (43cm) tall, is available in high gloss black or a red walnut finish, and features a removeable magnetically fastened speaker grille.

What’s the best bookshelf speaker placement?
As with any high-quality sound equipment, you’ll want to store your bookshelf speakers on a surface completely cleared of other objects. If you place bookshelf speakers on the same shelf as decorative knick-knacks and other trinkets, it could cause vibrations that affect the sound quality. Even if the bookshelf speakers are on the same shelving unit as other objects but not the same shelf, you’ll want to ensure they’re as sonically isolated as possible. If you hear vibrations from other objects on the shelving unit, you can place decoupling material (feet or tips) between the speaker and the shelf.

Once you’ve isolated the pair of bookshelf speakers on the elevated surface, you’ll want to make sure the tweeters are at ear-level (the small drivers on your speakers that handle high-frequencies) for optimal sound. The common rule is to place the speakers at 10 o’clock and 2 o'clock positions angling them towards your listening position. Another way to ensure you’re positioning them right is to angle them towards the listener at 30 degrees. This ensures the sound is funneling directly at ear level, creating a triangle between the speakers and the space directly behind the listener. Since direct numbers vary depending on the size of your room, you’ll want to play with the toe-in (speaker angle) to maximize the mid-range and treble response.

Another key factor is the distance from walls: you never want to sit any loudspeaker directly against a wall. As a rule, you want to keep your speakers at least a foot (6 inches if that’s not possible) in front of your back wall, and make sure they’re at least that far from side walls. With bookshelf speakers, this is a bit simpler, since sitting on an elevated surface is likely to automatically place them away from the back wall, but your soundstage will sound better the more intentional you are.

McIntosh home audio system featuring XR50 Bookshelf Speakers
The XR50 speakers with red walnut finish.

If you have the space and energy to get really technical, you can apply the golden rectangle rule to your bookshelf speakers. The golden rectangle rule states that a stereo speaker’s distance from the closest side wall should be at least 1.6 the distance from the front wall. So that means if the front wall is 3 feet away, the speakers should be at least 4.8 feet away from the closest side wall. If that sounds overwhelming, the most important tips are to store them in a clean isolated space at ear level, and tilt them towards the listener.

Some audiophiles opt to use a subwoofer (an ultra-low frequency bass driver) to bookshelf speakers in order to get more balanced sound. With the right pairing of a subwoofer, you can fine tune your hi-fi setup without needing the space for floorstanders. Or, you can make it easier on yourself and go with the McIntosh Bookshelf XR50 Loudspeaker, which produces the bass of a much larger speaker but in compact bookshelf size.

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