Doing a huge budget bookshelf speaker shoot out!
After talking to many on this forum it can be hard to pick a set of Bookshelves under $350 so rather than keep asking questions I ordered 7 (and now more) that I felt would be a good fit for building a 2.0 system. And instead of picking a winner I'm going to compare differences between each to hopefully help you make a more informed decision based on your sound preferences!
Qualifications for initially picking a speaker were:
- Passive Bookshelf Speaker
- Goes down to 50 hz or lower
- $200-$350 (went a bit over w/ Wharfedale)
I've since added a few on request of others
The list of speakers and their prices are below. I'll be updating this forum over the next two weeks as I try them out. Each speaker has the price I paid, and the current MSRP next to them (a - if its the same)
- Wharfedale Diamond 10.2 ($375/$450)
- Elac B6 ($280/-)
- Chane A1rx-c ($300/-)
- Energy RC-10 ($330/-)
- KEF Q100 ($300/$550)
- Music Hall Marimba ($200/$350)
- NHT SuperOne ($300/$360)
- Wharfedale Diamond 220 ($350/-)
- HTD Level THREE ($320/-)
- Philharmonic AA ($195/-)
- Wave Crest HVL-1 ($200/-)
DAC: Schiit Gungnir Multibit
Amp: NAD 316bee
Source: MacBook Pro using Tidal through Amarra sQ+
The order of the speakers below is the order in which I received them to test.
My sound preferences are usually just slightly warm (super sensitive to harsh treble) so that may bias my reviews slightly to liking the slightly warmer speakers (that can be seen in me thinking RC-10s as semi-neutral and the Chane's as slightly bright while others would call the RC-10 warm and the Chane's neutral).
If you all have any questions please let me know and I'll listen for certain things/try certain songs!
Wharfedale Diamond 10.2
These speakers are first off absolutely wonderful so this comparison is off to a good start. Listened through my whole library and it added a ton of excitement to my music. The sound stage felt very much like the music was directly in front of me hovering right above my computer monitor and the deep bass could make you really feel it.
The mids/highs while nothing specifically wrong with them (don’t sound veiled or terribly recessed) don’t have the quality of the Chane’s or KEF Q100s.
After listening to a few of the other speakers these by far have the strongest bass of the bunch, deep and heavy, you won't miss having a subwoofer using these, but you can tell the bass extension traded a bit for quality and you can hear muddiness of the mid/upper bass.
These also have a very tall and deep soundstage, not the widest but still quite big.
I would put the sound signature of these as slightly warm.
- Exciting, big sound
- Very powerful and deep bass
- Mid-Bass Hump can make the bass sound exaggerated at times
- Mids/highs can sound slightly lower quality when compared to the other speakers
Coming off the Wharfedale these didn't have as much excitement to them, a bit more veiled/recessed on the mids/highs, and occasionally
peaky. The soundstage feels more stereo and less like the music was all floating over the middle but a bit more spread out across the front and more enveloping. One of the best 3d sound stages of the speakers.
On a good note the bass reached quite low on these, almost as good as the Wharfedales, but with a bit less impact, which I would say is a good thing. The bass it tighter, more accurate, doesn't have that mid bass hump and sounds nicer than the Wharfedale's.
I would put the sound signature of these as warm/dark.
- Very deep and high quality bass, quite astounding how good
- Wide soundstage
- Highs seemed a bit veiled and recessed
- Mids also somewhat veiled
- Lacks the excitement factor of the Wharfedale speakers
- Highs can seem a bit peaky at times, causing me to turn down my speakers
1 Meter Measurements
Getting to try out a "leaf" tweeter with these and they certainly shine through. These are the most detailed in the highs/mids and some of the better mids, possibly tying with the KEF Q100s.
Bass quality and extension is certainly there, and the kick/impact is solid, not exaggerated but noticeable. Wharfedale 10.2/Elac B6 would win out on bass output but these perform better in the mids/highs.
The sound signature of these speakers is just
on the bright side of neutral.
- Very transparent sounding speakers, not at all veiled
- The highs sparkle nicely
- Very good mids
- Tight accurate bass
- Occasionally the slightest bit of sibilance/treble fatigue at times
These are some of the more musical speakers. The mids/highs are laid back and slightly veiled, although not as much as the Elac B6.
There’s a good amount of bass kick, but maybe a slight mid bass hump then a quick drop off, while you could get away without a subwoofer I’d suggest one with these. The mid bass hump can mask the quick drop off and cause these to be a good musical option if running these as 2.0 speakers.
The sound signature of these are warm.
- Good upper/mid bass quality
- Very musical sounding
- Treble roll off / slightly veiled mids
- Quick roll off of sub-bass
1 Meter Measurements
The Q100’s have amazing and clear mids slightly better than the Chane’s and well extended and quality treble, if the slightest roll off when compared to the Chane’s.
There’s also solid bass quality for a speaker this size. I’d put the bass as very linear, the mid-bass kick is there, but the bass does sound a bit thin compared to many of the other speakers but not as bad as the Marimba’s.
These sound among the most neutral of the speakers tested with these having a bit less bass impact and extension on both ends than some of the others.
Sound sig is very neutral.
- Very clear and quality mids, one of the best of the set
- Good bass extension with nothing exaggerated.
- Would like slightly more bass impact
- Possibly the slightest bit of treble roll off
Music Hall Marimba
These are quite an interesting speaker and the cheapest purchase price of those reviewed so far. These are also the smallest speaker of the bunch. The sound of these were thinner than the rest, the highs didn't seem as clean and had a semi "metallic" sound to them, but on the other hand these had mids right in line with the Chane’s and KEF’s, it would be hard to pick a winner of best mids. They have a great attack/decay and make voices and acoustic sounds very real.
The con (and this is very real with speaker size) is very little bass. The sub rumble can show up, but the mid bass impact and quality isn't too great. Drum kicks sounded kinda tubby and not like a kick. These would certainly benefit from a subwoofer and probably a crossover around 100 hz.
These sound very similar to the Chane's/KEF’s but with less bass impact/extension and a tad bit more harsh.
Sound sig is neutral/bright
- Amazing attack/decay makes clean mids
- A bit thin sounding/metallic highs
- Lacking bass impact and somewhat of quality
1 Meter Measurements
First off before even listening these speakers look stunning, the piano black gloss all around gives it such a look of class. These are also the first sealed speakers I’ve tried out.
After listening for a bit these are quite neutral/slightly v-shaped sound signature. The bass quality and extension is great on these and overall they sound most similar to the KEF Q100s. These have a better upper/mid bass kick and more extension than the KEF’s and that part of the sound is one of the strengths of these speakers.
The KEFs are mid forward and could use a sub, these give a more full range of sound but the mids sound slightly recessed in comparison. Both have great resolution and clarity.
The soundstage/imaging on these aren’t as good as the KEF or Chane’s, more middle of the pack.
Sound sig is slightly V-shaped
- Great cohesion from mids to bass
- Right amount of upper to lower-mid bass that would be great to roll into a sub but you can get away without it
- Mids can sound a bit recessed
- Smaller sound stage of the bunch
Wharfedale Diamond 220
1 Meter Measurements
These are very nice sounding speakers and quite similar to the 10.2’s. The voicing is very similar, slightly cleaner in the mids but noticeably less bass oomph than the 10.2’s and extension, which is obvious for the smaller speaker.
The bass that is present is quite clean but the lower mids can seem a bit
muddy at times. But a good plus on the bass is the down firing port makes it very easy to place these in a room and the extension is nice, not as good as the SuperOne’s but very close.
The imaging and soundstage on these are wonderful and there’s also a bit of treble roll off and tilt towards the bass.
What I noticed about both Wharfedales is they have a bit of a thicker sound than the rest of the speakers, not sure exactly how to explain it but they carry a bit of weight/body to their sound that most other speakers don’t have and just about all of the other speakers sound thing when quickly A/B’ing them except for the Elac B6’s.
These sound a bit warm.
- Quality mid-bass kick
- Down firing bass makes these easy to place
- The lower mids get a bit muddy
- Can get a bit hot at times on snares and female vocals
HTD Level THREE
1 Meter Measurements
The second ribbon/leaf/planar type of tweeter of the speakers so first thing I did was compare these directly to the Chane’s. And the two certainly sound different.
These are a much fuller and laid back sound with slightly rolled off highs when compared to the Chane’s but just about as great treble detail. The Chane’s are more treble heavy and a bit thinner sounding. The Chane’s extend better in both directions but the HTD’s have better bass quality on the way down.
What’s nice about these are they bring a weight of the sound like the Wharfedale’s but bring more treble clarity, a bit recessed/veiled in the mids as the bass comes in stronger on these speakers, but you can get away well with these for a 2.0 system.
This sound signature does seem to make these speakers have an interesting, life-like/natural sound to them that not all of the speakers can represent well. While other speakers aim to be more true to the recording these can make it feel a bit more real.
I’d say these speakers are warm sound signature.
- Great bass impact and dynamics
- Good treble detail
- They can get occasionally slightly peaky/sibilant but only on certain recordings
- Mids can seem a bit recessed/veiled at times
1 Meter Measurements
These speakers definitely hit well above their price bracket. Listening to these back and forth between the other speakers I’m thoroughly impressed. While they don’t have the clearest mids or the most detailed highs, they reproduce a full spectrum of sounds very well from highs to the bass making it one of the best speakers I’ve heard for just a 2.0 setup.
They’re a bit more clear than the Wharfedales or the HTD’s in the mids, about equal in treble detail as those two, and have a much better bass than the Chane’s or KEF or just about all the other speakers tested for using as a 2.0 System. Dennis did a great job with these.
One thing to note about other reviews I’ve read on a number of these speakers, some will say “you can get away without a subwoofer for these.” Such as for the Chane’s or NHT’s. And the thing is it’s true, when you listen to them on their own, you’ll enjoy the bass response, but when you listen to something like the Philharmonic AA’s in direct comparison, you do get the full range of sounds and the other speakers will sound lacking in the bass department. The only speaker with a better bass quality/quantity was possibly the Elac B6’s, but I had to send those back before these arrived, these win on mid/treble clarity vs the B6.
These are slightly
warm but mostly neutral.
- Great reproduction of sound from treble to bass making them a great 2.0 selection
- The lower mids/upper bass can get just slightly muddy
- Slightly recessed mids
Wave Crest HVL-1
For the second cheapest speaker of the bunch the certainly do quite well. The mids are very clear and probably the best part about these speakers. The highs aren’t as extended/airy/sparkly as the Chane’s or some of the other speakers but they are very easy to listen to.
The most noticeable about these versus the other speakers is these lack low end extension the most and it’s noticeable for a 2.0 system. Listening to some music with bass guitar you can hear the drop off on the low end of the notes.
If you’re building a budget 2.1 system these would be very hard to beat at this price point. Versus the AA’s I’d possibly pick these a 2.1 and pick the AA’s for a 2.0 setup but I haven’t heard the AA in a 2.1 yet so I’d save that judgement for your own ears. These sound very similar to the Marimba but with a bit more body to the sound that I personally enjoy.
Sound signature is very neutral
I learned a ton about different speakers! Biggest two takeaways:
- Leaf/Ribbon tweeters have crazy good treble extension
- Bass output is heavily correlated to speaker size, for making a 2.0 system I would say anything smaller than a 6.5” woofer and a sub 45hz response you noticeably won’t be getting the full spectrum of sounds
And here's the conclusion of speakers thus far, again rather than picking a winner I'll compare sound signatures.
- Wharfedale Diamond 10.2 - Solid mids/highs and huge bass output
- Elac B6 - Dark sound sig, slightly less bass output than Wharfedale, better bass quality
- Chane A1rx-c - Very neutral, slightly bright, amazing treble and bass extension
- Energy RC-10 - Warmer/musical, slightly veiled in the mids/highs, solid mid-bass kick
- KEF Q100 - Very neutral with bass extension between RC-10 and Chane's, would like slightly more bass impact, very resolving/clear mids
- Music Hall Marimba - Extremely clear mids w/ great attack/decay, lacking bass, somewhat thin highs
- NHT SuperOne - Mostly neutral but slightly V-shaped, very clean upper/mid bass that would roll into a subwoofer nicely or could get away with them used on it’s own
- Wharfedale Diamond 220 - Very neutral and detailed sound, slightly muddy in lower mids, and slightly hot at times
- HTD Level THREE - Laid back but still fairly clear sounding
- Philharmonic AA - Wonderful reproduction of full spectrum of sounds, slightly recessed mids, not as treble detailed as the best but still good
Odd Men Out
Out of curiosity I picked out two speakers that aren’t the normal $350 or less passive speakers to get an idea for what’s out there in comparison
- Emotiva Airmotiv 6s ($399/$499)
- Monitor Audio Silver RX2 (used) ($425/$1000) - Arriving Tuesday
Emotiva Airmotiv 6s
18 Inch Measurements
1 Meter Measurements
HOLY F*** BASS! I didn’t know 2.0 speakers were capable of causing a bone rattling bass like this until I heard these. Listening to Daft Punk’s Doin’ It Right was the first time I could actually feel the bass, I in fact turned them down -4db on each speaker on the back because my neighbors would not be happy.
The mids and treble are still great quality, while not as clean as the KEF’s, Chane’s or NHT’s they’re so close that these are an obvious win for a 2.0 setup and if you can spend the $400 and were missing the bass in your speakers (especially for EDM) these will certainly fit your bill and there is no need for a subwoofer unless you really want to get that sub 40hz sound.
These also sound quite good nearfield and from listening at a distance.
What’s most noticeable about these vs. all of the passive speakers is that the soundstage is very much a flat wall and sounds “like a recording” where the other speakers create a sense of a stage, which makes sense as these are targeted for monitoring/mixing.
- VERY deep and high quality bass, sounds like there is a subwoofer here.
- Highs and mids not perfect but not bad
- Being a monitor the soundstage is flat
Monitor Audio Silver RX2
This speaker just ticked every box for me for the first time of all the speakers I’ve listened too, still not perfect as no speaker is but very well made. These look and feel like they cost more off the bat, the same piano gloss all over as the NHT’s but looks slightly nicer.
I can now see what other people meant by rated extension down to 40hz but being very distorted on some of the other speakers that produced sound that low. These extend low with great impact but cleaner than the other speakers tested that go this low. A subwoofer would pick up amazing for these right around 50hz but they aren’t begging for a subwoofer either.
The mids are very clear, and the highs are just slightly laid back which is the sound signature that I like. They may be just too laid back and get a bit muddy in the upper-mid/lower-treble transition but still sound great. It could be the crossover that they picked for this speaker wasn’t optimal.
Now this isn’t a fair comparison to the speakers above as these were $1000 new and I picked them up used for $425 almost three years old, but I was curious what would taking a step up give me and it was totally worth the money I paid, and I’d certainly pay $800+ for this sound.
- Great reproduction of the full sound spectrum while staying very clear
- Very deep sound stage
- Not the widest soundstage
- Attack/decay could be better but not bad
- The upper-mid/lower treble can muddy together a tiny bit sometimes
And that wraps it up for the speaker’s. Quite the exciting time to listen to these!
Last two notes
- If the pictures ever go down contact me so I can re-upload them
- I have each speaker stack ranked but I’m not going to post that to the forum as to not bias the outcomes of people’s decisions, you should base your decision on your sound tastes and specific system needs. That being said shoot me an email and I’ll send you my list if you want!
- For anyone that's curious after all of this I decided to ball out and pickup Ascend Sierra-2's and am unbelievably happy with those, blows the rest out the water, but at the price I'd hope they would
Final Setup - Sierra-2 + Rythmik Audio L12
I finally got around to writing up about my final setup. As some have commented in the thread I can be a very analytical listener and after testing all of the budget bookshelf speakers I decided to jump to the Sierra-2 and haven't been happier! These things are detail monsters w/ the RAAL but you pay the cost to get there. A bit more of a background on me I come from the headphone/IEM world and I've used things from the Noble Katana and Empire Ears Zeus-XR and Hifiman HE-1000 and Sennheiser HD800.
Alright now some details: My goal when I set out was to build a system that allows me to send audio from my PC/Laptop to my external DAC, split that dac between my speaker amp and my headphone amp, and then have analog bass management (no D/A then A/D conversion making my external DAC useless) to integrate a subwoofer and create an utterly amazing sound system!
My final setup for my speaker (and headphone) setup is a bit complex and going to list out the pieces then go through the setup:
1) Starting from the source
- Speaker: Ascend Acoustics Sierra-2
- Integrated Speaker Amplifier: NAD326BEE
- Subwoofer: Rythmik L12
- Headphone Amplifier: Schiit Jotunheim
- DAC: Schiit Bifrost 4490
- Passive Switch: Schiit Sys
- Crossover: Hsu Research High Pass Filter
The first step in my chain is a USB connection from my Windows 10 PC mostly streaming Tidal to my Schiit Bifrost 4490 Digital to Analog Converter. Using TIDAL on Windows you have the ability to stream your audio (I believe) directly to your external DAC bypassing anything Windows may do to the audio chain. Having an external DAC allows to extract more detail from the music (although some contend you can't hear the difference, that's for another discussion).
Setup in TIDAL:
Picture of my DAC and Headphone Amp on top:
2) From Source to AMP
Once the signal leaves my DAC and is converted to an analog signal I send it to my Schiit SYS Passive Amplifier. The sole use here is to split the sound so one chain goes to my NAD326BEE Speaker Amplifier and the other goes to my Schiit Jotunheim Headphone Amplifier.
3) Figuring out Analog Bass Management in 2.0 Audio
One of the huge struggles I ran into when designing this system was finding a way to implement bass management in the analog domain so as to preserve the audio quality from my DAC and not end up having it re-converted at a lower quality.
In my research I came up with a few critical pieces to make this happen:
Hsu Research High Pass Filter
Hsu research sells a customizable high pass filter that allows you to send a pre-amp output to the filter, and it sends back a high-passed RCA output back to your main amp. A nice thing is you order this with two different filters (I got 60 and 80hz) so you get to test out which one you like better in your system while keeping it in the analog domain.
NAD 326BEE Amplifier
The next hurdle was finding an amplifier setup that I liked that would be able to send a signal out to the hsu and receive the high passed audio back as well as sending the audio out to the subwoofer.
At first the only option it seemed for me was to buy separate pre/power amplifiers or drop $800 on an Outlaw RR2160, but what I found with the NAD 326BEE amplifier is on the back it had an option for a pre-out and main in! It comes with a super short RCA connector between the two but this is the perfect setup for me to send the audio out to the HSU and receive the high pass back into the built in power amp. I was fortunate to find one of these refurbished for about $300
4) Integrating the Subwoofer
The next step was connecting up my Rythmik L12 subwoofer. At first I was going to use the Subwoofer out from the NAD 326BEE but what I realized after the fact was that the Rythmik L12 built in crossover only worked through the RCA Line In and not from the LFE input, and the NAD doesn't filter the subwoofer out so when I plugged it all in the subwoofer was playing up to 200hz, not the 60hz I had set it to, whoops!
So from there I purchaed a RCA Y splitter so from the Pre-out on the NAD I send one signal to the Sub and one to the Hsu which is then fed back into the main in on the NAD.
5) Final Setup
Finally I got my setup all working. Streaming from TIDAL into my DAC split to my headphone and speaker amp, and from the speaker amps pre-out split to my subwoofer and the hsu filter, and from the hsu filter back to main in on the NAD. It took a lot of research and toying but I finally got my dream speaker setup running!
If any of you want to talk through your setup ideas with me feel free to reach out!