Speakers are typically a very long term investment, so it's a good idea to get things right the first time. Once you have a complete understanding of why you might choose one over the other, you’ll be able to make the right decision for your environment and future use.
Let’s look at each one, and then we will go over some different system situations.
As the name implies, Floorstanding speakers, also referred to as tower speakers sit on the floor or an attached outrigger type stand. Normally they will be three feet or taller and seven inches and up in width. Depth can vary from about nine inches to two feet.
Speakers are described as two-way, three-way, four-way, etc. This is a description of the number of speaker drivers handing the different audio frequencies. While it's hard to generalize that a 4-way speaker is better than a 2-way speaker, if you properly design a speaker, one with more drivers allows the speaker designer to have the components dedicated to a smaller range of frequencies, which can result in better and more accurate performance.
In general, the top of the line speaker from a speaker company will be a Floorstanding model. Music covers a very wide range of frequencies and there is just no substitute for size when it comes to being able to reproduce the deep bass tones in music. The larger size also results in an increase in efficiency, the measurement of how much amplifier power it takes to get them to a certain sound pressure level.
Efficiency is measured in db and you’ll typically see something like with one watt of power at one meter a speaker will produce an 88db sound pressure level. The higher this number is, the less power it takes to drive the speaker. Generally, more efficient speakers will give a greater sense of contrasts in the dynamics of music. Larger speaker cabinets will likely enable the designer to make a more efficient speaker. That sense of great dynamics makes your music feel more like real life.
When you go to a live concert, you’ve probably experienced that feeling of a wall of sound. Live instruments sound big! A large, Floorstanding speaker comes much closer to reproducing this big sound presentation than a smaller pair of speakers. With great Floorstanding speakers, you just get that sense of a live performance. When properly positioned in your room, Floorstanding speakers can also give you an amazing three dimensional sound stage. This means you will be able to shut your eyes and point to each of the musicians. That kind of audio experience is pretty amazing with a great recording.
Moving into the world of home theater, Floorstanding speakers can also be a great choice. They can flank your big flat panel TV or projection screen. Floorstanding speakers also give you a great platform to place an Atmos upward firing speaker on. The best home theaters are set up for Dolby Atmos, which has sound coming at you from all sides and above you. Dolby Labs have certified several Atmos upward firing speakers to bounce the upper effects off the ceiling. These are called Atmos elevation speakers. And just like for music, a home theater soundtrack will sound big and full of energy when played through great Floorstanding speakers.
Due to their large size, Floorstanding speakers are not for every environment and person. Unless you hide them behind a false wall made of acoustic fabric (which works great for home theater by the way) you’ll see them. Fortunately, many brands are starting to pay attention to style, and for some of us, we really like the look of them.
Most Floorstanding speakers perform best when they are not right against a wall. This means you will typically want to move them about 12-18” into your room for best performance.
Overall, we feel like you’ll get the best sound possible from a great Floorstanding speaker.
Floorstanding Speakers Summary:
These usually sound the best, giving you big, full range sound.
Typically have better dynamics than any other speaker type.
Can be easy to drive if they have high efficiency - although not all are.
When properly placed in a room, you can almost get a sense of the performers spread out in front of you, giving you that feeling of “being there”.
They make a great platform for elevation Atmos speakers.
Hard to make them disappear since they are fairly large.
Most Floorstanding speakers need to be away from the back wall to sound best, usually 12-16” out into the room.
As their description implies, bookshelf speakers are normally small enough to fit on a typical bookshelf, although some are substantially larger. Due to their smaller size, most bookshelf speakers will be a two-way type speaker with a tweeter and bass driver. Usually bookshelf speakers are not of the high efficiency type.
When set up to get the best out of them, bookshelf speakers can give you some of the great sonic aspects of a floor standing speaker. While you can put a bookshelf speaker on a shelf, they will sound better on a speaker stand out in the room - very similar to what we described for floor standing speakers. They will lack the deep bass of a tower, but some models, when coupled with a subwoofer, are able to put out a very large and convincing soundstage for music. Using bookshelf speakers with a good subwoofer can get you pretty close to the sound of a large tower speaker. This combination usually gives you more flexibility in how you place the speakers, which can be great for someone who might move from one home to another on a regular basis. We should point out that if you have a good spot for a bookshelf speaker on a stand, there may be a floor standing speaker that takes up no more floor space than the stand/speaker combo. From a décor standpoint though, a bookshelf on a stand does tend to look like its taking up less of the space in a room than a floor standing speaker with a similar footprint.
Many audiophiles who love music that is small in scale (like a jazz quartet) love great bookshelf speakers. Their smaller size can make them seem to disappear more than a tower, giving you a great three-dimensional sound stage when you get them on stands away from your walls. Adding a subwoofer can take the bass load off a smaller bookshelf which actually improves its midrange performance. We think if you want the full range sound of live sound, you will want to get a good subwoofer to go with your bookshelf speakers.
For apartment and condo dwellers, one of the cons of a bookshelf speaker is also a benefit. Their lack of deep bass keeps them from disturbing your neighbors. It is the deep bass tones that travel through walls. With a typical bookshelf speaker, this will not usually be an issue and if you couple it with a subwoofer. You can turn down the volume on the sub separately for those times when it's important to keep the noise level down.
For home theater situations, bookshelf speakers can be a great choice. They can be built into cabinets on either side of your screen. If they are on stands out in the room a bit, you can also put Atmos elevation speakers on top of them.
If you don’t have the space or budget for a large floor standing speaker, a bookshelf speaker, especially when coupled with a good subwoofer, can be a great way to go.
Bookshelf Speakers Summary:
Small in size.
Can provide a large sound stage.
Can fit inside a cabinet or on a speaker stand.
When used on a stand they can support elevation Atmos speakers.
Best performance is usually had by getting them out in the room on stands.
Not as full range as most floor standing speakers, making a subwoofer a must for most systems
Hope this has given you some more insight into the pros and cons of bookshelf vs floorstanding speakers.