I believe that you should always chose your speakers first, and then select components which work well with the speakers you have selected. There are a number of reasons for this. First, I believe the speaker choice (or headphones) will have a much greater impact of the sort of sound your system delivers. It is common to find individuals who will largely agree about the relative merits of a amplifiers or DAC, and completely disagree about speakers. Unless you are spending a great deal of money, you will have to make serious tradeoffs in selecting a speaker. Because all low and mid priced speakers have flaws which you must choose between, speaker preference will be extremely personal. The other reason to figure out what speaker or headphone you like is that they will require different amplification characteristics depending on their efficiency and impedance.
The cheapest way to get truly excellent speakers is to purchase great headphones. Often you could build headphone based systems which will be superior to speakers costing five times as much (or more). I have a seperate headphones post.
Electrostatic & Planners
I have found that the speakers that I generally favor electrostatic speakers made by Martin-Logan, SoundLab, audiostatic, older Quad, and Acoustat. I also tend to like panel speakers that use ribbons such as the classic Apogee and the reborn Apogee Accoustics. I think Magnepan speakers in general, and the MG1.7 in particular are 30% or less expensive when compared to speakers of simular performance.
Planner speakers are particularly well suited to the sort of music I like: “small” and intimate.Vocalists, especially female, chamber music, folk, blues, and small jazz combos. I want clear and tight bass, but it doesn’t need to shake my bones. I want something that gives me a lot of detail, and has exceptionally smooth vocals. Most panel speakers, once properly place (which can be hard to do right) give superior soundstage, and are particularly good in the mid-range and higher frequencies. Weakness of most panel speakers is that the absolute dynamic range is less than a conventional design, they tend to be large and difficult to set up correctly, and may have a weaker bass end. Sometimes panel speakers will be paired with a dynamic woofer, since the real-estate required for a good panel woofer is quite large such as in the Martin-Logan Aerius which I used for many years.
Horns were theoretically a very cost effective way to get audiophile level sound quality, but it was very challenging to get the built and set up right. With modern 3D printing and software modeling it’s much easier to do effective horns. I am sure a bit of searching on the web would produce a mound of useful information.
On the less expensive side, Aperion 422-LR ($220), Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti SE Loudspeakers ($400), Emotiva various bookshelves, NHT bookshelf speakers, and Omega Loudspeakers Super 3 ($650) are suppose to provide good quality sound for a moderate price.
There were a lot of well regarded speakers $2000-4000 range which didn’t impress me. Yet, there are a lot of people who seem to like them. If you don’t like panel speakers, I would suggest checking out the somewhat bright Thiel, warm Vandersteen, or speakers from B&W. GoldenEar speakers also seem quite good. My favorite dynamic speaker is still the Aerial Model 10T (replaced now by the 20), Sonus Faber Electa Amator (and up).
In 2017 I moved to a new home and my Martin-Logan Aerius just didn’t fit in. After a bit of searching we found that the KEF LS50 wireless monitor speakers were the only speakers under $10k was there visually acceptable to my wife, and sonically acceptable to me. The LS50 wireless are a mini monitor with a built in DAC and amplifier designed for the speakers. Good quality sound that fills a room, excellent for near field use. Can take TOSlink, USB, Bluetooth, analog, and several IP based streaming protocols inputs over ethernet or WiFi. Roon can stream directly to it over the network, but it’s not Roon-Ready so can’t be synchronized with other Roon-Ready systems. The iOS remote application is poor. I drive the LS50 via USB on a computer running Roon which remove the need for the KEF remote and the speakers can be synchronized with other Roon Ready end-points giving me whole house music. I still prefer the sound quality of electrostatic speakers with audiophile grade full electronics, but I am happy that I downsized my audio system so I could focus on other things.
Pulse Flex Wireless Speaker allows me to have syncronized whole house music since it’s Roon Ready. It also supports inputs via USB, Bluetooth, AUX, a number of streaming services like Spotify, and many free sites via URIs. Has a decent iOS and Android remote control app. Controls on the top let you select one of 5 user-defined “channels” without using the remote. I have the optional battery pack so it can be used in our backyard. It can be used away from it’s home, but you have to reconfigure it’s WiFi settlings which is a pain. Sound quality is significantly less than KEF LS50. For people who aren’t using Roon, I would recommend Sonos: for it’s lower price point, better streaming options, and slightly more processed sound quality which everyone but audio purists like me typically prefer.
I have yet to use a smart speaker that I thought had reasonable sound quality. The Apple speaker is the best sounding I have heard, but is a far distance from be audiophile grade, and the voice recognition is still a distant third to Google and Amazon.