Guide to Choosing Car Audio Speakers

There is no component more important to the sonic performance of your vehicle’s sound system than the car audio speakers you chose to install. You may own the best radio and amplifier in the world, but without great speakers, none of that great sound can get to your ears. Let’s look at why speakers are so important and a few suggestions on how to pick the best ones for your system.

Different Designs of Car Audio Speakers

Every car audio speaker is engineered to operate well within a specific range of frequencies. As a generalization, subwoofers are best at playing those frequencies below 80 Hz. Most midrange speakers can play from 80 Hz to 4 kHz, and tweeters typically play from 4 kHz and up. The size and weight of the speaker cone or diaphragm and the stiffness of the speaker’s suspension components (the spider and the surround) all affect the frequency response of the speaker. We need different-sized speakers to cover the entire audible range of audio.

For the speakers in your vehicle, you have two design choices – component or coaxial speakers. In a component speaker set, the midrange and tweeters are separate pieces. The midrange is often installed in the factory door or dash speaker location, while the tweeter is mounted high in the door, on the dash or in the A-pillars. This higher location helps make the sound appear to come from in front of you rather than from down by your legs. Coaxial car audio speakers still have two separate drivers. The tweeter is physically mounted to the midrange – typically, on a post that extends up through the center of the speaker. Coaxial speakers are easier to install, because there are only two pieces, not four. Both designs can sound very good, but typically, the best of the best speakers are designed as components.

A common trait among high-quality car audio speakers is high-quality passive crossover networks. Every tweeter needs some method of limiting what frequencies are being sent to it. In better systems, the output of the midrange that would normally overlap where the tweeter was playing is also filtered out. Passive crossovers can include tweeter level controls to help provide some basic system tuning.

Listen To This

Listening to speakers has been described as “personal preference” for decades. That being said, a speaker that is very accurate and free from distortion will always stand out from a speaker that has design issues. The best way to audition speakers is in a vehicle. Some companies put extra effort into the design of their speaker systems to make them sound better in a vehicle as compared to on a display board. Retail display boards have the benefit of letting you quickly compare the performance of several different models. Listening to both a demo vehicle and display can be the best solution for helping you pick a great set of speakers.

When you go to listen to speakers, bring your favorite music. It should be something that you have listened to many times on as many different sources as possible. Pick out and listen to different portions of the performance one at a time. If you are comparing speakers on a display, you can switch back and forth as you listen to different pieces of the performance.

Listen for vocals to sound natural. If there is too much high-frequency information, then S, T and P sounds will be over-emphasized. If there is an unwanted resonance in the midbass region (a very common problem with lower-quality speakers), then M and B sounds may be pronounced and sound unnatural. Some speakers sound nasally, some sound harsh. Either can be a sign of a distortion caused by the speaker design. Keep looking if you hear that.

Listen to high-frequency sounds like the ring of a cymbal or high-hat. It should have clarity and detail. Listen for the speed of transients – drums are a great test of a speaker’s ability to reproduce a wide range of frequencies while demonstrating smooth frequency response and lack of distortion. Drums should sound tight and controlled, with great definition.

Size Matters

When it comes to reproducing music, the size of your speakers has a dramatic effect on what you hear. A speaker with more area can move more air for a given amount of power – we refer to this as efficiency. The design of the speaker’s voice coil and the magnet structure also affects efficiency. In most cases, a larger speaker also produces more bass than a small speaker. This has to do with the weight of the speaker cone and the flexibility of the speaker’s suspension components.

Finally, how far the speaker cone can move will determine how loud the speaker can play. Don’t forget; you need amplifier power to move the speaker cone – don’t skimp on power.

Choosing Car Audio Speakers By The Numbers

One thing that an experienced car audio retailer rarely talks about is power handling. While this is important if you are looking for sheer system volume, power handling is in no way a quantifier of the quality of a speaker. There are speakers rated at 50 watts that sound exponentially better than speakers rated at 200 watts. Just as with amplifiers, manufacturers play many games when it comes to speaker power ratings. The only number that matters is the continuous power handling, sometimes referred to as RMS power handling. If you see a speaker with a CEA-2031 Power Rating, that is the best number to use. Max and peak power numbers start to make assumptions about the energy content of music, and it’s best to avoid assumptions. But don’t forget, power handling does not relate to sound quality in any way.

Drop in at your local specialist and have a listen to a few different car audio speakers in the appropriate size for your application and your price range. It may even help to make some notes as you listen. Your installer can offer suggestions like new wiring and sound deadening that can further improve the performance of your speakers once they are installed in your car. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and most importantly – have fun listening to your music! That’s what a great car audio system is all about!