Car speakers: What to look for

By

Ken Nail

Ken Nail has written about car audio for Crutchfield since 2003, after four years as Crutchfield Sales Advisor, and 10 years as a music teacher. He's an avid music listener, whose favorites are classical and film music. When not chained to a desk, Ken spends most of his time training for triathlons and marathons, and likes getting outside for backpacking, downhill skiing, and bicycle touring. He attended West Virginia University, where he received a Master's Degree in Music Performance and a Bachelor's Degree in History.

More from Ken Nail

Crutchfield carries car speakers of nearly every size, shape, and type. With so many choices available, it can be hard to know what to look for. But if you keep a few important points in mind, you'll be able to pick out the perfect speakers for your vehicle.

JL Audio speakers

New speakers, like these C2-570X 5x7's from JL Audio, put the life back into your music.

Match your speakers to your system

You should consider two main specifications when considering which speakers will work best in your car.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity measures how much sound a speaker yields from the power applied to it. If you have a low-powered car stereo, like most factory systems, speakers with high sensitivity ratings will make the best match. If you have a high-power system, like that provided by a brand-name receiver or external amplifier, then consider speakers with lower sensitivity ratings. Properly powered, they'll provide excellent sound quality.

Power-handling

Power-handling lets you know how much power (measured in watts) a speaker can handle. If you've got a low-powered system, your speakers don't need to be able to handle lots of power. On the other hand, a system with powerful external amps will require speakers whose power-handling is close to the output of the amps. And remember, the key spec in power-handling is the maximum RMS power-handling, not the peak power handling. RMS ratings realistically measure how much power the speaker can handle on a continuous basis, not just for a short period of time.

What type of speakers do you need?

Aftermarket car speakers can be divided into two main categories: full-range speakers, and component speaker systems. Let's explain each and look at their advantages and disadvantages.

Full-range speakers

Full-range speakers contain all the speaker elements in one basket. In their simplest form they consist of a woofer for the lows, and a tweeter mounted onto the woofer to produce the highs. Some models will have additional drivers, like midrange or supertweeter. You should choose full-range speakers if you're looking to replace factory speakers with a minimum of muss and fuss. They come in a variety of sizes that mount easily into factory speaker locations. In most cases, you simply remove the old speaker, connect the new speaker with a free Crutchfield wiring harness, and mount it. You'll find full-range speakers at nearly every price point and power range.

Component speakers

Component systems use a superior speaker design to give you the best possible sound. A typical component system includes separate woofers, tweeters, and external crossovers — all of which come designed to work in concert with one other.

Kicker 40CSS654

Kicker's 40CSS654 component system includes separate woofers, tweeters, and external crossovers.

In a component system, the tweeter comes separate from the woofer, and you can mount it in a location that provides the best imaging. Your music will sound more realistic, more "live," and have greater depth. The crossover network in a component system comes external to the woofer and tweeter, so higher quality internal components can be used to ensure a sharp delineation between the frequencies sent to the different drivers — that means more realistic sound for the listener. Component systems are generally made of better materials than their full-range counterparts, so they're capable of delivering exceptional dynamics and detailed sound.

Speaker materials

A speaker's material design will determine its durability and sound quality.

Woofer materials

To effectively produce the low notes in your music, the woofer of a full-range or component speaker should be made of material that is stiff, yet lightweight. Manufacturers make most car speaker woofer cones out of synthetic films like polypropylene, which serve well. Polypropylene mixed with other materials, like mica, is often stiffer, yielding more accurate bass response. Woven fabrics, or synthetics coated with metals like aluminum or titanium, are also lightweight, strong, and provide excellent response. All of these materials stand up well to heat, cold, and moisture.

Tweeter materials

A tweeter's material has a big effect on the type of sound it produces. Generally, tweeters made of soft materials, like poly, textile blends, or silk will give you sound that's refined and somewhat mellow. If you like the highs bright and snappy, go with hard materials, like metal, ceramics, or graphite.

Surround materials

The surround on a woofer performs a vital role — it allows the woofer cone to move freely and emit bolder bass. It must be durable to stand up to temperature and humidity extremes. Surrounds made of rubber will provide the best overall performance and longevity. Foam and cloth surrounds cost less, yet still perform well.

Other features

Several other common features in car speakers may be important for your system's needs.

Pivoting or swiveling tweeters

If you're replacing speakers low in your door, full-range speakers with pivoting tweeters can have a big effect on your sound. Tweeters produce very directional high-frequencies, so pivoting tweeters can be "aimed" towards the listener for a higher soundstage. Your music will sound more realistic with a greater sense of depth.

Infinity Reference X REF-9602ix

Infinity's UniPivot tweeter design in their Reference X Series lets you aim the high frequencies at your ears.

External crossovers

Some higher-priced, full-range speakers employ external crossovers to achieve clean separation between the frequencies sent to the woofer and tweeter. The woofer and tweeter don't waste energy by trying to reproduce frequencies they're not intended to reproduce. You'll enjoy cleaner, more efficient sound reproduction.

Detachable tweeters

Speakers with detachable tweeters can be used as either full-range speakers or component systems — a nice feature if you want to reuse the speakers in a different vehicle.

Get everything you need

Foam baffles protect your speakers from dust and moisture.

Bass blockers improve smaller speakers' efficiency by removing low frequencies they weren't designed to handle.

The right tools make taking a door panel off or removing a window crank a lot easier.

Dynamat lowers noise levels inside your vehicle, giving you improved clarity, volume, and bass response from your speakers.

Find what fits your car

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