The Audiophiliac's Top 10 speakers from $40 to $400
We pick the best budget-priced hi-fi and home theater speakers, and even the cheapest one is a bona fide audiophile contender!
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Update, September 10, 2012: This Top 10 list was originally published on August 31, 2011.
I cover a lot of high-end, audiophile-oriented gear in this blog, but I also love finding great-sounding affordable products. Match any of the stereo speakers on this list with any amp from my post on "Top 10 great-sounding amplifiers from $40 to $450," and you'll get amazing sound value. Unless noted otherwise, the prices listed are for pairs of speakers.
Dayton B652 ($40)
The price is no typo; the Dayton Audio B652 is a midsize, black vinyl-covered monitor speaker, 11.7 inches high, 7.1 inches wide, and 6.5 inches deep. Fit and finish are decent, but the rear panel's spring-clip wire connectors won't provide a tight grip on the wires, so they may fall out when you move the speakers.
I've seen clips on $100 speakers, so I can't really complain about spring clips on $40 speakers. Bass definition is fine, but deep bass is lacking. The B652's bass is reasonably flat to 70Hz, so you may not need to add a sub. The speaker earned its reputation by delivering surprisingly accurate tonal balance, exceptional detail, and transparency. The B652 speakers are available for $40 a pair from Parts Express.
Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($130)
This speaker was designed by Andrew Jones, a man best known for crafting uberexpensive high-end speakers like the TAD Reference One. That model goes for (gulp) $80,000 a pair! I've heard it, and it's awesome!
The SP-BS22-LR (a substantial redesign of the previous-generation model, the SP-BS21) may be a long way down from the One's exalted performance levels, but in its price class, nothing can touch this bookshelf speaker.
NHT SuperZero 2.0 ($198)
The original NHT SuperZero was the go-to entry-level audiophile speaker for nearly 10 years before it went out of production in 2001. Now it's back, but as NHT's Chris Byrne points out, you can't clone a speaker. There are differences in parts, but the SuperZero 2.0 is in the spirit of the original. It's an amazing little thing, with great midrange and nice treble. Bass doesn't go all that deep, but what's there is nicely done.
Audioengine A2 ($199)
The Audioengine A2 is a truly awesome design. I've reviewed well over 500 speakers, and the Audioengine A2 is one of the few I keep coming back to. It's a self-powered design, and it works really well with computers or as a home iPod speaker. The tonal balance is relaxed and full, so it makes even some of the crappiest Internet radio stations sound very listenable.
Audioengine P4 ($249)
I used Audioengine A2 self-powered speakers with my computer for years, but switched over to the Audioengine P4 model. It's a bit bigger, and unlike the A2, it needs to be used with a separate power amp. The A2 is a sweet-sounding little speaker, but the P4 is clearer, cleaner, and more vibrant. The P4 blows the A2 away -- it's not even close.
Pioneer SP-FS52 ($260)
This tower speaker measures 35.2 inches by 8.8 inches by 10.6 inches, and weighs just under 26 pounds. The SP-FS52 has a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter and three 5.25-inch Structured Surface woofers (most budget towers have one or two woofers). The tweeter and woofer were both completely redesigned to sound better and play louder, with lower distortion from the same amount of power than last year's tower speaker. The SP-FS52 is a wonder; a full CNET review is coming soon.
Hsu Research STF-2 Subwoofer ($319)
Hsu Research makes some of the very best subwoofers I've tested. The STF-2 is one of the company's most affordable models, but its 44-pound shipping weight is a sure sign that its build quality is a good deal more substantial than that of competing budget subs. It's also bigger than most, at 19 inches by 14 inches by 18 inches, which also bodes well for the 10-inch, 200-watt subwoofer's sound. Bass goes deep without sacrificing definition.
Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($349)
The Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 is easily the best speaker I've heard for $350 per pair. Its deeply curved sides look cool and the heavily braced cabinet feels extremely well put together. Details like the polished trim rings surrounding the 1-inch silk dome tweeter and 5-inch woven Kevlar woofer add a bit of bling to this handsome design. The speaker is 11.75 inches high, 7.5 inches wide, 10.75 inches deep, and it has threaded inserts on its back to facilitate wall-mounting. Wharfedale offers dedicated floor stands for use with the speakers.
Haier SBEV40-Slim Soundbar + Subwoofer ($350)
The Haier SBEV40-Slim sound bar is downright skinny. It features a 1.1-inch-thick sound bar and a wireless subwoofer that's nearly as svelte. The design is all-around excellent, with a front-panel display hidden behind the speaker grille. Connectivity is better than average with two HDMI inputs, an optical audio input, and a minijack input. Street price runs around $250.
Energy Take Classic 5.1 system ($400)
The Energy Take Classic 5.1 is a six-piece home theater system with four tiny satellite speakers, a slightly larger center speaker, and a 200-watt sub with an 8-inch woofer. The Take Classic has the full balance that you only get with a perfectly matched satellite subwoofer system. The "Wayne Shorter Live at Montreux 1996" fusion jazz concert DVD is the sort of disc that reveals weaknesses of little speakers, but here Shorter's saxophone had a big, rich sound, while Rodney Holmes' drum solos were punchy and solid. It's a very dynamic performance, which encouraged me to turn up the volume, and the Take Classic didn't seem to mind.