I set out to conduct a group test of affordable bookshelf speakers, costing under £650 I felt this is a crucial price point for seasoned music lovers and those choosing their first speakers. Also, for those wanting a second system in a bedroom, or perhaps office, these are the type of speakers that may well be being considered. All prices quoted in this series of reviews were correct as of September 2020.
One Bite at a Time
Facing the review of nine bookshelf speakers is quite daunting. That is a lot of set-up, listening, note taking and, in my case videos to shoot, edit and upload. As the answer to the old question of ‘How do you eat an elephant’ goes, I had to take it one bite at a time.
‘Bookshelf’ is very much a misnomer nowadays; I doubt that many people considering speakers of this size are going to be placing them on bookshelves. ‘Stand mount’ may be a better description and, for my reviews, all the speakers were placed on dedicated stands Atacama Apollo Cyclone 6, however if you are shopping for stands I would recommend these instead
For all the reviews I used the same electronics and cabling, consisting of:
Mains Blocks – Isotek Nova / Genesis One
Mains Cables – Tellurium Q Silver / Silver Diamond / Ultra Silver
Interconnects – Tellurium Q Statement
Speaker Cables – Tellurium Q Statement
Sources – Custom made computer music server with DIRAC Live
DAC – Chord Hugo TT2 with Hugo M Scaler
Amplifier – Chord Etude
Room Treatment – GIK Acoustics
The speakers were initially placed in the same position in the room and moved only marginally to change toe-in and suit the larger and smaller sized speakers.
I carried out a custom Dirac Live Calibration for each speaker set, measuring their in room performance adjusting initially to undo the negative effects of their placement in my room and also to maximise the sound quality each speaker set. I listened to the speakers considerably before the Dirac Live Calibration to get an good idea of their sound before and after to get a full picture of the speakers performance.
The Strive for Accuracy
Although we all strive for accuracy of sound reproduction, there is no official “accuracy” therefore our own interpretations of ‘accuracy’ can be quite different
I set each speaker to sound as balanced as possible with as much detail as possible.
The consecutive reviews of this many similar priced speakers demonstrated to me that there are a lot of very good, very affordable speaker systems at this reasonable price point. At this price point there is an impressive amount of choice and variety.
Sitting down to make a final decision, I had areal quandary of deciding the best speaker from the 9 very good options. Sound quality, looks, build quality, finish, price and even size are all important factors to consider. Size makes this a little easier as there are obvious benefits to larger speakers, but not everyone wants larger speakers. I have divided the speakers into a ‘large’ and ‘small’ group and will then select a best from both groups.
To try and help buyers choose the right speaker for them I have put the speakers on a sound scale between a ‘fast and lean’ type of sound to ‘warm’ sound.
To take this one stage further I have listed my key positive points and negative points to consider.
You will notice that I have given various products awards, the awards are given based on all the same factors – sound quality, looks, build for the price.
The Fyne Audio F500M, on the left, are at the fast and lean end of the scale and the Q Acoustics 3030i are at the warm.
Q Acoustics 3030i
I have separated the Q Acoustics out even further ‘smaller’ group of speakers because its important to remember that the Q Acoustics 3030i are priced at £329, about half of the price of the rest of the speakers in this group test. The fact that they hold their own in this group is extraordinary in itself, and they have the added benefit of being the most affordable speaker in the group test.
The Q Acoustics 3030i impressed me with their big and solid bass, smooth overall character and ease of setup, hence my calling them a "Perfect" first HiFi speaker.
To these speakers I present them with my Serious Bang for The Buck Award as they can fantastic sound for the money.
Fyne Audio F500
There are some very interesting technologies in the F500 trickled down from Fyne's more expensive speakers. There are good things about how the sound, clarity and openness of sound, but I did perceive some "negatives", or things buyers should be mindful of such as system matching.
The F500 are a very interesting visual design and do have exceptional build quality.
I have awarded these speakers an Essential Audition award because some Audiophiles will really like these speakers other less so depending on many factors. My advise is demo before you buy where you can.
SVS Prime Bookshelf speakers
These speakers really impressed me for a lot of good reasons, particularly their even-handed sound delivery and smooth in-room measurements. They have a very high-quality finish and were, overall, not far away from being best in class for the smaller speakers in the test. In the U.S., you can pick them up for around $400 making them exceptionally high value.
This is another speaker I am pleased to present with my Serious Bang for Buck Award.
Acoustic Energy AE300
These are the smallest speakers tested in the group and are seriously nice looking with high Wife Acceptance Factor. Packing a nice punch, they have an outright clarity mixed, exceptional soundstage with inherent smoothness of sound with the only downside being a limited bass output, expected for their size. They exceeded my expectations in pretty much every other area and accordingly, they receive my award for Best in Class for the small speakers in the group test.
Well done Acoustic Energy.
The Larger Speakers
I have again ordered these from fast and lean, through to warm. They range from the Klipsch RP600M at the fast and lean end to the Wharfedale EVO 4.2 at the warm. The odd speaker out is the Bower 606 because their form factor as you can see are probably more akin to the smaller speakers in the group test, but their performance very much put them on par with the larger speakers - do bear that in mind.
It was very difficult to pick a best speaker from this group as there are such dramatic differences in the way they deliver music, and they all have serious merits.
Bowers & Wilkins 606
The Bowers are an interesting speaker system because the can be made to sound impeccable and quite close to being the best in the group test, however their treble character could easily make them too forward sounding for some, system matching being important.
Shortly after this group test Bowers announced the 606 Anniversary Edition of the 606 II so this model is now discontinued.
Despite them being discontinued I have given them my Serious Performer award which is well deserved.
Focal Chora 806
Not my favourite looking speakers but a good sounding speaker system, with a nice balanced overall presentation and not far from being seriously good.
I have given the Chora 806 an Essential Audition award because I feel you should ideally hear them before purchasing just to confirm they are the right sub £650 speaker for you given the options available.
If you have the perception from elsewhere that Focal Speakers sound bright. These Focal speakers certainly do not.
What an interesting speaker system. I liked them far more than I expected to. You may recall from the individual reviews that I was torn between my head, which evaluated them technically and pulled me one way, and my heart which wanted me to listen more to this fun and engaging speaker. These are not far off best in class, if they were a three way design and didn't have that big frequency dip, but they would then likely cost a lot more.
This is another speaker system you should listen to and hear the titanium tweeter through the horn liveliness and their mid range to confirm its a sound for you, but there is a lot to like here.
I have given my Essential Audition award to the Klipsch RP600M.
The Final Pair
These two speakers caused me a real problem as they are so difficult to separate overall. In some ways they are similar but in the main they are chalk and cheese with one sounding more exciting and emoting sitting with the other more sensible and less flawed. And so, to the last two.
Wharfedale EVO 4.2
As I discuss the Wharfedale factor in these were the first speaker I tested in this group test and I liked them enough that I bought a pair to use as a review tool.
They are a speaker that is going to work in the majority of real-world listening rooms, they are nicely styled, nicely finished and really seem to push what is available in a speaker at this price point, you seem to get more with the EVO 4.2 than any other speaker in the group test and they feature a soft dome mid range driver normally only seen in much more expensive speakers.
They sound smooth, even handed with a very expressive mid range and yes system matching is important but not as punishingly critical as some of the other speakers.
I awarded the Wharfedale EVO 4.2 our highest Accolade a Serious Performer award.
Cabasse Antigua MC170
A real surprise of a speaker. The enigma of a soft-domed tweeter that has the sound characteristics of a metal dome tweeter caught me out and was I was not expecting it. Excellent bass, and I was surprised that they are only rated down to 60Hz because the bass in my room was much deeper than that.
They are not perfect, but they make music stir your soul with their life and energy and drive from and this elevates music listening to a musical experience.
I have given them a very well-deserved Essential Audition award because there are a quite unique in their presentation and that may not suit every audiophile, I also want to suggest warmer sounding HiFi components to pair with them as being something to consider.
And Finally, The Winner Is…
Deciding the Best in Class was exceptionally difficult.
The Wharfedale EVO 4.2 is a clearer sounding speaker with more maturity, better looking and with superior build quality. However, the Cabasse Antigua MC170 are really, REALLY, exciting to listen to, a sense heightened experience
Overall, I felt that the niggles with the Cabasse Antigua MC170 would bother me over time than the niggles I have with the Wharfedale EVO 4.2.
Just by the breadth of the finest of hairs, I have therefore additionally awarded the Wharfedale EVO 4.2 with Best in Class for the large speakers.
A big, big, thank you to all the manufacturers for sending their speakers to me and allowing me to keep them for an extended period to conduct this group test.
I am pleased to say that the last bite of the Elephant has been eaten and fully digested.