Floor-Standing vs. Bookshelf Speakers: Which Is Right For You?

Whether you like it large or small, there is a speaker for you

Loudspeakers come in two main exterior physical types: floor-standing and bookshelf. However, within those two categories, there is variation in terms of size and shape. We compared both to help you decide whether floor-standing or bookshelf speakers will work best in your home. Loudspeakers have to sound good of course, but they should also fit with the room size and decor.

Floor-standing vs bookcase speakers

Overall Findings

Bookshelf
  • More flexible placement.

  • Takes less room.

  • Fits well into home theater setups.

Floor-Standing
  • Stand them anywhere.

  • More power for louder output.

  • Better for high-quality music listening.

  • Greater acoustic range.

When it comes to stereo speakers, bookshelf and floor-standing speakers are two popular speaker formats. It may seem like these are the same, but there are differences between the two.

Bookshelf speakers are smaller and designed to be integrated into a complete sound system. That can be as simple as adding a subwoofer or as complex as a full 7.1 surround system.

Floor-standing speakers are large tower speakers that provide complete stereo sound with only two speakers. These are geared toward serious music listening.

Stereo Sound: Floor-Standing Speakers Are Built For Stereo

Bookshelf
  • Usually built in stereo pairs.

  • Great mid-range sound coverage.

  • Weaker or non-existent high and low range.

  • Better as part of a larger system.

Floor-Standing
  • Usually built in stereo pairs.

  • Powerful full-range sound.

  • Ideal for situations where you only want stereo (2 speakers).

Bookshelf and floor-standing speakers usually come in pairs. This is because one speaker handles the left channel of sound, and the other takes care of the right. So, in a way, both bookshelf and floor-standing speakers are built for stereo sound, but that's not the entire picture.

A lot of this comes down to range. Most bookshelf speakers are made to be part of a larger sound system, providing mid-range sound and bi-directional sound. In that sense, bookshelf speakers are great for stereo but aren't as strong for providing a complete listening experience for music.

Floor-standing speakers are built for complete stereo output. These speakers cover a range of stereo sound, covering lows and highs in addition to the mid-range. When you want a complete stereo system from a pair of speakers, floor-standing speakers are the better choice.

Range: Larger Speakers Offer a Wider Range

Bookshelf
  • Less complete range.

  • Designed to connect to larger systems.

  • Usually strongest in mid-range.

Floor-Standing
  • Physically larger with more components.

  • Designed primarily for standalone stereo playback.

  • Fewer placement options.

When designing a sound system, you ideally want to cover as wide a range of sound as possible. The wider and more complete the range the sound system can produce, the more accurately it can play audio.

Bookshelf speakers alone are generally not designed to cover that wide a range. Unless you're looking at a pair of speakers specifically designed for audiophile quality output from a turntable or digital source, those bookshelf speakers were probably meant to be part of a larger system. That system would then add to and enhance the range of those speakers. There's also the physical limitation. Bookshelf speakers aren't as large and can't fit the same amount of components as larger speakers.

Floor-standing speakers are generally intended to be a complete system. These speakers are physically larger and include more components to cover a wider range of sounds. Floor-standing speakers are usually geared toward stereo listening environments with no additional speakers in the system. The result is a more complete and well-rounded range from only two speakers.

However, floor-standing speakers can, and are often used, as part of a surround sound speaker setup, usually serving as the front left and right main speakers, complemented by bookshelf speakers for the center and surround channels.

Size: Bookshelf Speakers Are Easy to Place

Bookshelf
  • Fit in a smaller space.

  • Designed to sit on a media center or desk.

  • Lighter and more compact.

Floor-Standing
  • Large and free standing.

  • Take up a decent amount of space.

  • Heavy and cumbersome.

Floor-standing speakers are much larger than bookshelf speakers. If space is a concern, bookshelf speakers are a good option. However, there are a few interesting compromises that you can make, depending on your budget.

Floor-standing speakers are at least three feet tall and have a substantial footprint. You can't put these speakers on a stand or furniture because of the size and weight.

Bookshelf speakers may not fit on a bookshelf but are more compact than floor-standing speakers. It isn't difficult to fit some bookshelf speakers on a media center or desk. Bookshelf speakers can often be placed on stands or mounted on a wall.

There are beefier audiophile-grade bookshelf speakers that do the work of floor-standing speakers. These might not be as good as top-quality floor-standing speakers, but pack serious quality into a small package. These extra-large bookshelf speakers don't fit on a bookshelf and may take up desk space, but you can put these on a media center and are excellent next to a turntable.

Music Quality: For Music, Floor-Standing Is Usually Better

Bookshelf
  • Strong mid-range.

  • Can produce solid sound quality.

  • Usually lacking in bass.

Floor-Standing
  • Much wider range.

  • Designed for stereo music playback.

  • Stronger bass and more audio depth.

If you are interested in dedicated serious stereo music listening, consider floor-standing speakers. These typically provide a full range of sound that's a good match for music listening.

If you're interested in serious music listening but don't have space for floor-standing speakers, consider a set of bookshelf speakers for the left and right channels and a subwoofer for the lower frequencies.

Home Theater: Bookshelf Speakers Integrate Into Theater Systems

Bookshelf
  • Integrate well into theater systems.

  • Easy to add additional speakers.

  • Fit conveniently into theater cabinets.

Floor-Standing
  • More suitable for stereo-only setups.

  • Take up more room.

  • Overlap in range with other speakers can be muddled.

For a home theater setup, you can use floor-standing or bookshelf speakers for the front left and right channels, but consider bookshelf speakers for the surround channels. Also, consider a compact center channel speaker that can be placed above or below a TV or video projection screen.

However, even if you use floor-standing speakers for the front left and right channels, add a subwoofer for the extremely low frequencies that are common in movies. One exception to this rule is if you have floor-standing left and right channel speakers that have built-in powered subwoofers.

More Factors to Consider

As you consider which speakers are best for you, there are a few more technologies and features to take into account. These won't matter to everyone, but if you're designing a new sound system, you should be aware of the other types of speakers, since these may sway you in one direction or another.

Center Channel Speakers

There is a bookshelf speaker variation that is referred to as a center channel speaker. This type of speaker is used in home theater speaker setups.

A center channel speaker typically has a horizontal design. Floor-standing and standard bookshelf speakers house speakers in a vertical arrangement (usually with the tweeter on the top, and the midrange/woofer below the tweeter). A center channel speaker often has two midrange/woofers on the left and right side, and a tweeter in the middle.

This horizontal design enables the speaker to be placed above or below a TV or video projection screen, either on a shelf or mounted on a wall.

LCR Speakers

Another type of speaker form factor that is designed for home theater use is an LCR speaker. LCR refers to Left, Center, Right. This means that inside a single horizontal cabinet, an LCR speaker houses speakers for the left, center, and right channels for a home theater setup.

Because of the wide horizontal design, LCR speakers outwardly look like a soundbar and are sometimes referred to as passive soundbars. The reason for the designation as a passive soundbar is that unlike real soundbars, an LCR speaker requires a connection to external amplifiers or a home theater receiver to produce sound.

However, exclusive of the way it is connected, its physical design has some of the advantages of a soundbar. You don't need separate left and right bookshelf and center channel speakers. The functions are encased in an all-in-one space-saving cabinet.

Two examples of free-standing LCR speakers are the Paradigm Millenia 20 and the KEF HTF7003.

The Dolby Atmos Factor

With the implementation of Dolby Atmos that allows sound to come from overhead, there are additional speaker designs for bookshelf and floor-standing speakers. 

The best solution for Dolby Atmos is to install ceiling-mounted speakers. However, most people don't want to cut holes in their ceiling and run wire through the walls and ceiling. For convenience, two additional solutions are available that allow sound to be directed vertically and reflected off a flat ceiling.

  • Vertically firing speaker modules: Speaker modules incorporate speaker drivers that point upward at an angle. This way, the speakers can be placed on top of most front left/right and left/right surround bookshelf or floor-standing speakers in a current speaker layout. 
  • Bookshelf/floor-standing speakers with vertically firing drivers:  These speakers include both horizontally and vertically firing drivers within the same cabinet (no extra module is required). This decreases the physical number of speaker cabinets needed in a setup.

Final Verdict

How do you plan to use your sound system? Which type of receiver do you have? There's no clear cut answer, but you should consider the strengths and weaknesses of each type of speaker.

Are you looking for something to integrate into or start building a home theater system? Chances are, bookshelf speakers are a better fit.

Do you plan to listen to music and want the absolute best possible quality? You should probably invest in a great pair of floor-standing speakers.

You can't go entirely wrong here. Good speakers will generally improve sound quality, regardless of how you use them. To get the most out of your new speakers, pick the ones best suited to you.

No matter what type of speaker (or speakers) you think you need or desire, before making a final purchase decision, take advantage of any listening opportunities. Start with friends and neighbors that have stereo or home theater speaker setups. Also, go to a dealer that has a dedicated sound room that demonstrates different types of speakers.

When you venture out for listening tests, take your CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, and music on your smartphone. This way, you can hear what the speakers sound like with your favorite music and movies.

The final test comes when you get the new speakers home and hear them in your room environment. Although you should be satisfied with the results, make sure you inquire about any product return privileges in case you aren't happy with what you hear.