Bookshelf Speakers Are Not for Bookshelves



From the comments it would seem that some do not understand my point about speaker placement and its effect on frequency response. Loudspeakers are greatly influenced by placement, particularly their low end response. Let us examine the chart above depicting the frequency response of a typical bookshelf speaker.  The blue line represents no walled in boundaries around the speaker. The speaker is free standing. The red line represents a single boundary such as a shelf or desktop. The green line represents two boundaries such a shelf and back wall. The black line represents a speaker placed in the corner of the room either on a shelf or the floor. Note the recorded frequency responses in each case. There is little difference in the responses about 3 Khz.

On the other hand, bass response is greatly dependent upon placement. The flattest bass occurs when the speaker is in the free standing position. That is why quality “bookshelf” speakers are usually sold with stands. It makes no sense to design a speaker for flat response and then spoil the achievement with improper speaker placement. In fact, it is difficult, if not impossible, to design a bookshelf speaker to be flat if it is placed on a bookshelf. With just one boundary the bass becomes exaggerated in the region where the uninformed listener has accused the loudspeaker of being peaky. Things get progressively worse when the loudspeaker is moved, first to the back wall and then to the corner. Check out the black line.

The classic LS3/5a’s were monitor speakers designed by the BBC to be used on location when recording. As such, like any small monitor loudspeakers, they were designed to be placed on stands.


Now about the AudioEngine 2A+’s – they are small monitor speakers. They are not sold as monitor speakers, however. They are sold as computer desktop speakers. (A desktop speaker is merely a small bookshelf speaker.) These speakers are not going to sound nearly at their best when placed on a desktop. In fact, they really need to be freestanding.

Has AudioEngine made a mistake about the markeing of their own speakers? Not necessarily. There is a big market for computer desktop speakers. I just do not care to listen to great music that way. I want to sit back from the speakers and imagine that I have been transported to the concert hall, or at the least the recording studio.

The AudioEngine 2A+’s are almost the perfect monitor speakers from the mid-bass on up, for a small to medium sized room. They are even better with a subwoofer because their power handling is greatly improved, which reduces overall distortion and gives the low end a more solid underpinning. If set up properly the subwoofer will not be heard at all unless there is some low end material like a bass drum or a low organ pedal.

Does AudioEngine realize that their desktop speaker is a great monitor speaker? Probably. Or perhaps they simply got lucky with their design without knowing what they were doing. What do you think?


Legacy Recordings


Once upon a time an audiophile was described as  a person who loves music and wants to an experience some semblance of a live musical performance at home. Reproduced sound can never actually achieve the sound of a live performance, but the goal was to come close. Today an audiophile might be described quite differently. Perhaps our audiophile is someone who wants to produce the most spectacular sound using the most expensive and sophisticated audio components. As you may have gathered by now, we are of the old school.

Ivor Tiefenbrun shook up the Hi Fi world when he introduced his Linn Sondek LP12 turntable as the most important component in an audio system. Most people would probably say the loudspeakers are, but Ivor stressed that the overall sound of the system could be no better that what was at the beginning of the chain. People scoffed at this until they A/B’d his table with others in the system. Ivor easily proved his point.

Let us take this approach one step further. Let us examine the source material as, perhaps, the most important link in an audio system. If we want to most natural sound then we want the very best recording. We want music that is mixed and mastered by a pro who understands both music and technology. To be honest, there are many bad analogue as well as digital masters. What good is it to reissue a highly regarded record without going back to the best master tape? It is all about the mastering.

Sony is to be commended for recently emphasizing the reproduction of high-resolution audio downloads. Maybe we will write about some of their equipment. But for our money their greatest achievement in supplying high-resolution sound thus far is the reissuing the greatest selling Jazz recording of all time – Kind of Blue – from the original master. I first heard Kind of Blue on a special SBM issued CD by Sony and was disappointed with the sound, though certainly not the performance. (A 20 or 24 bit master can theoretically be reduced to a 16 bit CD using Sony’s Super Bit Mapping (SBM) process.) What I heard on the CD was a relatively clean sound but with a small component of noise in the background. I thought the problem must have been the master tape. It was not. Kind of Blue came though in all its glory on Sony’s recent vinyl reassure of Kind of Blue. They must have used the very best master and/or analogue is just that better for recapturing the performance.


The second recording I want us to examine is the Beetles’ Revolver. This may be one of the Beetles’s finest recording. It is certainly up there with Rubber Soul and Abbey Road. I could have purchased the stereo digitally remastered Revolver but I chose the vinyl remaster from the original mom recording. It was an analogue recording with not a lot of trickery in the studio. Of course, there was no stereo imaging. The performances of each cut was a little on the raw side. It was like being in the studio when the recording was made. To be honest, the record was not spectacular sounding at all. The voices were not prettied up, but they seemed real. I loved both the sound and the performance. The audiophile always wants to get back to the source.


The last recording I would have us examine is a reissue of a Mercury Living Presence vinyl recording of The Firebird, conducted by Antal Dorati. With the Beetle’s Revolver we were transported to the recording studio and could imagine that the fabulous four were singing in our home. With this record, we want to be transported to the concert hall. Mercury does not disappoint us. Using a three microphone technique and tube electronics, thanks to the great recording engineer William Fine, the sound is magnificent. Can the little AudioEngine A2+’s hold up. You bet, with the right room placement and subwoofer setup. That is what monitor speakers do – they transport you to the scene of the performance. But there is a big if, the original mastering has to be good. All the expensive audio components in the world cannot make up for a poor recording.

Audio Legends: John Bowers

A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Monitor Loudspeaker Builder Extraordinaire


John Bower assembled some extraordinary loudspeakers using other manufacturer’s components. They he decided that he needed to make his own drivers. He became B&W with his partner Roy Wilkins, developing and manufacturing world class products.


Research and development drove the company. John was a perfectionist who was always trying to improve the product. His speakers became the darlings of both audiophiles and recording engineers the like. Today, B&W loudspeakers are used as monitor speakers in almost all of the major recording studios.

Here are some of the major speaker design breakthroughs pioneered by B&W:

  • The use of Kevlar fibers, impregnated with a stiffening resin. This composite material proved to provide controlled rigidity and internal damping, minimizing distortion (AudioEngine uses this same material).
  • The latest models use a a proprietary composite Continuum cone which is said to have less coloration than the Kevlar.
  • Phase linear transmission – the speakers are mounted in different vertical planes.
  • A tweeter separate from the main speaker cabinet.
  • The ‘Nautilus’ speaker resulted from research commenced by John Bowers into perfect dipoles’. The Nautilus project was one of the most extensive research and development projects undertaken. Instead of open-backed drivers, it uses drivers loaded by reverse-tapered horns, or exponentially diminishing tubes, to absorb the rear radiation.
  • The diamond tweeter developed to create an optimal ratio of tweeter dome mass and material stiffness.

The appearance of most B&W speakers seems somewhat unusual. They may not look like fine furniture cabinets. However, form follows function. They are shaped in such a way as to make the music sound beautiful. After listening to them for awhile, I would say that few people would want to part with them. Just change the decor of your listening room to match them!

John Bower is no longer with us, but his speakers have become legendary. What he started continues to this day. There are numerous very expensive high end loudspeakers. The difference is the sound of a B&W almost makes the price seem reasonable.

Audio Legends: J. Gordon Holt

A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Subjective Audio Journalist Par Excellence


When it comes to audio legends, how could I not mention J. Gordon Holt? Unlike the other legends about whom I have written, I never met Mr. Holt. Nonetheless, I felt like I got to know him over the years just from his writings. I was an early subscriber of Stereophile when it was just a little publication. Holt did it all himself and often times the issues would be late. I didn’t care. Each issue was like pure gold. I was happy just for the privilege of reading it when it showed up.

In those days Stereo Review, High Fidelity, and Audio were the mainstream publications. I subscribed to them all. Audio was the best of the big three. The great Bert Whyte of Audio was always worth a read. He was an exceptional recording engineer. But for some reason, Julian Hirsh of Stereo Review was perhaps the most influential. Stereo Review had the largest circulation. Julian’s reviews were all objective. If an amplifier measured well it must be good. Besides, all amplifiers surely sound alike, or so Julian thought.

J. Gordon Holt could not tolerate this nonsense. He understood the need for measurements, but he courageously risked his reputation to stress that subjective reviews were as important, if not more so. We have him to thank for much of the improvement sonics of home audio fidelity. He is our hero. There would be no high-end audio without Mr. Holt. The English publication Hi Fi News and Record Review would still be on the scene, but it is doubtful that few other high-end audio publications would exist.

Mr. Holt invented the vocabulary for describing the sound of home audio equipment, and his descriptions were for amplifiers as well as speakers. An audio component could sound liquid of dry, transparent or veiled, smooth or grainy. Holt knew that early solid state was grainy so he recommended certain tubed units long after their transistorized versions had been introduced.

Mr. Holt was not infallible in his recommendations. Occasionally he would make a mistake but was quick to acknowledge it when he did. I got burned on buying a Crown DC300 power amp based on his recommendation. It may have been OK for some box speakers, but it sounded dreadful on a pair of Magneplanar’s. I quickly traded it in on a pair of lovely QUAD 303 power amps. (I could not afford Audio Research tube amps at the time.)

But for the most part, Mr. Hold rarely disappointed. He knew live sound. He made his own live recordings. His philosophy was that, if you could fairly accurately reproduce the sound of live acoustical instruments, other types of music would simply fall into place. He was right. He was usually right. And he would insist that you acknowledge that he was right. I had no problem with that.

Mr. Holt was also a great journalists. He was informative and interesting. He had a lively writing style that was very entertaining, making you want to come back for more. His publication Stereophile grew under the sound leadership of John Atkinson, but I still long for the days when that first little publication would show up on my mailbox. When it did, nearly everything else was put on hold. 

Audio Legends: Ivor Tiefenbrun


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A Trip Down Memory Lane – The Master Turntable Builder

I met Ivor Tiefenbrun at a Hi Fi show in the early days. He was demonstrating what became his famous turntable. I asked why he did not put strobe markings on his turntable for fine tuning the turntable’s speed. He told me that what necessitated the need from speed correction were fluctuations in line current. Those same fluctuations would cause the speed indication and, thus, the speed correction to be inaccurate to the same degree as the fluctuations in the line current. He engineered his turntable to be simple, with only the things that mattered with regard to superb sonics.

Does a turntable have sound? In those days, some reviews were still writing that there were no sonic differences between amplifiers. Here was some strange guy from Scotland that was telling us that turntables affect the sound. Even some of the high end press were dismissing him. Direct drive turntables were all the rage, the ones where the motor is directly coupled to the platter without any belt to dampen out vibrations. The press needed an education and Ivor was just to one to give it.

His Linn Sondek LP12 turntable was beautiful to look at. It was so well machined – a processioned instrument that was deceptively simply, yet incredibly sophisticated. Introduced in 1972, it utilizes a suspended sub-chassis design and a patented tightly-toleranced single-point bearing. The design was similar to the Acoustic Research XA turntable created by renowned audio pioneer Edgar Villchur. However, Linn greatly improved the suspension system.526114-linn_sondek_lp12_with_ittok_vll_and_klyde

Ivor marked his turntable as the most important component in an audio system. Most people would probably say the loudspeakers are, but Ivor stressed that the overall sound of the system could be no better that what was at the beginning of the chain. People scoffed at this until they A/B’d his table with others in the system. Once again, Ivor new what he was talking about.

The cost of turntables has skyrocketed over the years. The Sondek is no exception. It is still helping to define the state of the art. Fortunately, the ground work that Ivor did helped manufacturers to greatly improve their turntables. Today we may buy some very good and quite reasonably priced turntables that provide excellent analogue reproduction. We are all indebted to Ivor Teifenbrun’s pioneering work.

Glasgow-based Linn Products also produced some excellent loudspeakers, and some outstanding vinyl records which are still the benchmark to this day. (See Exemplary Recordings of Handle’s Messiah).