Back in the 60s and 70s, “bookshelf” speakers actually sat inside a bookshelf.
These speakers were more compact than floor-standing speakers and could easily sit on a table, be placed on a stand, and even be mounted on a wall.
Back then, the only speakers that were “happy” to be close to a wall were all acoustic-suspension sealed box designs or at least front-firing ports or slots or vents.
That was the only way to proceed with a “true bookshelf” design.
In this article, I’ll list the best vintage bookshelf speakers I recently tested and explain why I think they’re the best.
1. JBL L-100 Century
Few realized how recognized it would be when the first JBL L100 was launched at CES 1970 in Chicago.
A consumer version of the 4310/4311 pro monitors, it shared the exact driver line-up with powerful Alnico V magnets.
A simple crossover was employed for midrange and treble drivers, with the bass unit bypassing it altogether.
It looked strikingly modern at the time and was reputedly styled by JBL president Arnold Wolf.
I’ve read all of the reviews on this speaker from Audio Review, which all say pretty much the same thing – the best speaker ever. As much as I desired to be authentic in my review, I’m afraid I’m compelled to agree.
Coupled with a Denon PMA-600NE integrated amp (Amazon link) and an Audio-Technica AT-LPW40WN turntable, they deliver a warm tone that recalls the generation from which they emanate. The speakers are definitely suited to playing music of a more audible sort.
As I write this, I’m listening to Love Lies Bleeding by Elton John on the L100. I’ll tell you that there are moments during the tune that I have to turn and look at the speaker because I’m stunned as my ears are queued into instruments and sounds I’ve never heard before.
The detail and clarity are astounding.
The Centuries are not the most transparent, raw-sounding speakers on the earth, but they really do have the ‘punch.’
So, as I noted in my review of best vintage JBL speakers, the L100 Century are my favorites, and I’ll likely ask to be buried with them or in them if I’m cremated.
The Centuries are for you for mere sonic impact, where you hear every instrument, every bass pluck.
My one criticism about the L100s is that the details of the highs are lost in an ocean of lows and mids.
Considering the technologies at the time and the sheer care in constructing the speakers, I highly recommend them.
2. Acoustic Research AR-7
Acoustic Research marketed the AR-7 as nearly equivalent to the larger, more costly AR speakers.
The speaker was out in August 1973 for as little as $80; thus, AR-7 was an entry-level speaker.
Despite its entry-level positioning, it earned considerable attention and praise from audio magazines at the time and has been described as an exceptional performer for its size and price.
The AR-7 is a surprisingly little, two-way bookshelf speaker with around 16-inch width, 10-inch height, and a depth of 6 ¼ inches. It also weighs only 11 lbs (5 kg).
The speaker was the tiniest bookshelf speaker Acoustic Research delivered during the mid-1970s.
It looks similar to all of their other vintage speakers, and, like most other AR speakers, it has a control to alter the high-frequency level.
AR-7 has an 8-inch acoustic suspension woofer and a 1 ¼-inch tweeter. The tweeter is very similar to the one used in the AR-6.
I was worried about the sound when I first turned these speakers on.
The bass was flat and punchy. The mids and highs were too crisp. Then after three hours of continuous playing, the AR-7s started to open up.
The bass started to be smooth and began to become profound and responsive. The mids and highs started to settle down and blend in with the woofers, comprising an amazing soundstage.
My room started to be filled with music, and I couldn’t be more satisfied. I can only guess what they will sound like when completely broken in.
The speaker has a higher distortion at radical volume but performed very well in all other tests.
The sound of the AR-7 is clean and neutral, with ample transient “bite” but without “brashness” and a more pronounced bass foundation than one might expect from such a small system.
A realistic price for this speaker is very hard to evaluate as it has become somewhat rare.
You can find them now and then on eBay for about $250. I have read more than a few times that these speakers were sold at garage sales for as little as $70!
I would assume that paying up to $250 for these speakers is fair. If they’re in good shape, a bit more might still be ok.
3. Wharfdale Chevin XP2 (Best Budget Hi-Fi)
In 1978, the Chevin was a bare minimum guarantee of quality that folks would get a profound hi-fi loudspeaker. They’d buy it knowing it was imperfect but less so than its more striking price competitors.
They could hear that it had “a good tone,” and there was a real level of sophistication and respected – if not stellar – build quality.
The cabinet is a true piece of wood, and the driver(s) were constructed by individuals who knew what they were doing. The Chevin, as Wharfedale rather rightly stated, delivered “the best sound per pound.”
The Chevin was my pop’s ever proper ‘built’ hi-fi speaker. He says he spent three happy years with them and came to admire the smooth midrange, wholesome upper bass, and charming – albeit barely curtailed – treble.
You can tell the speakers are lopping a lot of high trebles – yet still, they do a lot well, particularly sound staging.
This is down to the exceptional Wharfedale drive unit with its own mechanical crossover; a little diaphragm is set into the central 200mm paper bass/mid unit.
The outcome is a strange speaker measuring 305x240x220mm, with an 11-liter cabinet.
The Chevin is a real bookshelf loudspeaker – you never have to use it on a stand – and this is made feasible by its endless baffle loading.
Reflex ported loudspeakers were less widespread in the 1970s than now because companies expected the speakers to be accommodated into hi-fi cabinets or shelves.
Despite its absence of reflex loading, the Wharfdale claimed an outstanding 89dB/1w/1m sensitivity figure.
They said it works with amps from 6W to 25W RMS per channel. I sometimes used a 25W RMS per channel Rockville BluTube (Amazon link) to drive my pair. It generated a sufficient level to truly enjoy Honesty by Billy Joel and Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough by Michael Jackson.
The frequency response Wharfdale stated was 80Hz to 20kHz, at -5dB points, and I believe they were a bit optimistic here because – as I said before – that treble lacked flash and extension.
By modern criteria, the Chevin XP2 can’t endure much power, has a limited bandwidth with lumpy frequency response, and isn’t quite kind to amps.
Yet still, this small loudspeaker has a certain appeal of its own – then and now, it has a naturally friendly and organic tone that makes songs sound lovely.
Moreover – unlike numerous current little speakers – it doesn’t sound like the songs are being squeezed out of a toothpaste tube; that oversized 200mm woofer has its benefits!
4. B&W 705
The Bower & Wilkins 705 is a relatively sized two-way, stand-mounted design.
The woofer features B&W’s standard woven Kevlar yellow cone and is reflex-loaded by a big port directly beneath it on the front baffle.
The 705 has a 1″ dome tweeter mounted in a minimal enclosure on the top of the cabinet, which optimizes dispersion.
Distortion is minimized through carefully designed magnetic circuits and by using stuff like copper covers and shorting rings on the pole piece.
Also, the tweeter has a lower inductance than expected, accomplished by using a single-layer ribbon for the voice coil to extend its response well above the audio band.
The 705’s tweeter dome is acoustically packed by the transmission-line tube first used in the Nautilus models.
The cabinet seems refreshing and different. Its front baffle and top plate are constructed from a single piece of multi-ply wood, this curving back outside the woofer to meet the back panel.
The sidewalls are striped with foam and are not perfectly parallel; the 705’s front is a little wider than its back, decreasing the internal standing waves’ effect.
The sound after I’ve broken them in is fantastic. The treble is crispy, letting me hear new sounds in my favorite old tunes with a high level of detail.
The voices and midrange are very clear, and female voices (Mariah Carey, Ella Fitzgerald) are amazing in these speakers. The bass is great for speakers of this kind.
The image is amazing, I could hear the music behind the speakers, and the scenario is also well depicted, with air between the instruments if the songs are well recorded.
Conversely, poorly recorded or executed songs tend to sound terrible through these speakers.
The high frequencies are smooth and balance nicely with the rest of the sound. The lows are beautiful and brittle with NO boominess.
Of note is the precision of the midrange frequencies, especially with vocals and smooth-sounding instruments like pianos, violins, and jazz guitars.
5. Dynaco A-25
The audio equipment manufacturer Dynaco was established in 1955 and made inexpensive speakers of respectable quality.
The Dynaco A-25, an “A-series” speaker, was Dynaco’s most prosperous loudspeaker.
It’s a bookshelf speaker made in Denmark and has been sold more than 500k times at an initial price of under 90$, a highly competitive price with other companies, and is one of the main causes why this speaker was so thriving.
A-25 is a 2-way speaker, which decreases the issues that can arise when various drivers cover the same frequencies.
Its dimensions are 20″ x 11,5″ x 10″ and weighs about 9 kilos (20 pounds).
Like most speakers of this time, it features walnut veneer. Considering these speakers’ small size and age, one is surprised about the tightness and strength with which the bass hits.
A-25s were designed before the age of speaker stands and should be hung on a wall or placed on a bookshelf.
The bass truly benefits from being close to a wall. When testing, I kept mine about 6″ from the wall.
The bass from A-25s is a bit soft and lacks punch. You catch this on fast, complicated music segments, but putting them near a wall makes a huge difference.
The harsh treble is rolled off, but the details are still fine, with the treble knob on the back altered to the highest position.
The midrange is wholesome, open, and natural on these speakers. The vocals sound so pleasing, with a smooth transition from woofer to tweeter.
Vocals are raw and uncolored. Instead of hearing tweeter hiss, you only hear the music. A-25s can be listened to for hours on end with no listening fatigue.
As these speakers were relatively inexpensive, they were targeted by a group of everyday listeners but less by fanatics who would care about them with excessive attention.
Therefore you will find pairs that have some scratches or stains more often. If you see some for around $150 with stains or scratches, you can effortlessly sand them and give them a fresh finish. They will look refreshed!
Decent for this speaker is around 300$ to 380$ on eBay, depending on the shape. You should expect around 350$ for a solid-looking pair on eBay, reframed, or old foams in okay condition.