Charting the decline of factory speakers

A Crutchfield mad science project


Matt Freeman

A circuitous path, involving England, New York, rural Michigan, Indiana, and lots of parts in between brought Matthew Freeman to Charlottesville, where he's been writing about mobile audio/video for Crutchfield off and on since early 2000. He fosters an eclectic taste in film, and is fond of a wide range of music. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he found his way to the University of Notre Dame, where, in an act of charity unsurpassed in the history of Western civilization, he was given a B.A. in English.

More from Matt Freeman

Factory speakers are tricky beasts. When they're new, they sound just fine. They're efficient, so they don't require much power to play at a reasonable volume, plus they're admirably accurate. In general, though, they're not really cut out for the long haul in an environment as taxing as a car door.

Toyota speaker

These speakers are made of inexpensive materials, like paper, that can't hold up to the extremes of heat, cold, and humidity found in a car or truck. As time goes on, these extremes take their toll on the cheap materials, and the speakers begin to fall apart. When the materials go, sound quality goes with them.

Unfortunately for our ears, this deterioration doesn't happen all at once. If we were to jump in the car and hear a deteriorated speaker for the first time, we'd know immediately that something was wrong. But the gradual degradation of the average speaker lets our brains get used to the sound. As a result, even when we know that something's wrong, we don't always realize just how bad it is.

Off to the Labs...

To demonstrate just how bad things can get, we decided to round up some factory speakers, put on our mad-scientist lab coats, and prove the obvious by running some standard tests on them. The results? Mostly hilarious.

To frame the project properly and reinforce the understanding that factory speakers start out performing just fine, we started with a set of "premium" factory speakers that were only a couple of years old and still in really good shape. We then examined three other sets of speakers that got progressively older, finishing with a set from a 1991 Honda that should have been put out to pasture years ago, but somehow lasted for 20 years. (Well, "lasted" is a pretty strong word in this case.)

We focused on three areas of investigation:

  • First, a visual inspection, in which we looked for deterioration. As you might imagine, this was not hard to find.
  • Second, we did an informal real-time analysis (RTA) with 20 to 20k Hz "pink noise" to see the frequencies each speaker was capable of producing. This really didn't tell us much, which is about what we expected. A speaker may be able to play certain frequencies, but an RTA doesn't necessarily indicate how well or poorly. 
  • Third, we did a basic test of relative distortion levels by simply hooking up one of each of the speakers to a receiver, playing a 400Hz test tone through them, and noting the volume level at which the tone changed. We weren't concerned about the actual dB level of each distortion point; we mainly wanted to demonstrate how much headroom one loses as speakers deteriorate.

The tests

Premium factory speaker from a 2010 Subaru

Visual exam

Only a couple of years old, this speaker is still in pretty good shape. No visible wear on the cone or surround yet. This speaker also features a dedicated tweeter, which is a nice touch.

Subaru speaker
RTA frequency response curve
As we'd expect, we see a nice bell-shaped curve across the audible musical spectrum, which indicates that the speaker can still handle most frequencies quite nicely.
RTA graph
Relative distortion level

We were able to crank the volume of the receiver up to 34 before getting any distortion, which is a good level.

Factory speaker from a 2002 Honda Civic

Visual exam

The speaker certainly looks rough. It's showing strong signs of wear and tear in the cone and the surround.

Honda speaker
Relative distortion level

Not bad. Its curve is reasonably smooth, with only a few jagged points and flat spots where it has trouble reproducing accurately.

RTA graph
RTA frequency response

We were able to to take the volume up all the way to 33, just one mark shy of the best speaker in our bunch. Not too bad, actually. We were surprised.

Factory speaker from a 1998 Ford Taurus

Visual exam

This woofer is a mess. It came from the rear deck, which means it suffered through nearly fourteen years of sunlight streaming through the rear window. There's no surround to speak of, and the cone is cracked, torn, and on the verge of turning to dust.

Ford speaker
RTA frequency response curve

At first glance, it doesn't seem that bad. But there are noticeable, unpredictable drops in certain frequencies, little bass to speak of, and a huge rolloff in the highs.

RTA graph
Relative distortion level

This tells the real story. The speaker distorts at 17 on the receiver's volume dial; exactly half the volume of the 2-year old speaker above. That's not nearly enough to play over road noise without distorting terribly.

Factory speaker from a 1991 Honda

Visual exam

One might ask why we bothered to test such an old speaker. The answer: people are keeping their vehicles longer and longer these days, so it's really not that unusal to run across speakers this old.

Honda speaker
RTA frequency response curve

A surprisingly complete curve, and a reminder that frequency response doesn't tell the full story. There are definitely spots where the response drops out, and there's very little in the way of bass and treble.

RTA graph
Relative distortion level

This got all the way up to 20 on the volume meter before distorting. Better than we expected, but still completely unlistenable in an actual car environment.

The prank

We asked three of our writers to do a blind A/B test with A) a set of Focal component speakers (which they knew about), and B) a "potential competitor" — actually, the set of speakers from the 1991 Honda. The factory speakers sounded so awful, each listener could tell immediately that something was wrong, which made it hard to keep straight faces for very long. Watch the fun in our video:

So if you have a set of speakers in serious need of replacement, don't live in denial any longer. Find find replacements that fit your vehicle, or give one of our advisors a call at 888-955-6000.

  • Syd from Me-She-Gan

    Posted on 5/30/2015 8:36:52 PM

    You know you need new speakers when the only CD that still sounds good is Powerage. That one is unaffected by fried speakers. And I buy from Crutchfield (pat-pat. good boy.)

  • Matt Petrone from Virginia

    Posted on 6/20/2015 6:34:18 AM

    Glad you are having some great fun at work! I wish the audio was a little better in the video, but I could still hear the difference.

  • Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/22/2015 10:56:36 AM

    Matt, I'm glad you could hear it. One thing about working for Crutchfield is that we do have fun! Everyone in the company has access to our listening rooms so they can come check out the latest stereos, TVs, and speakers. Thanks for reading and watching!

  • William Hernandez from Uniondale

    Posted on 7/25/2015 5:26:01 PM

    I have a question, I have a 2010 Honda Accord , now my question is many people tell me that when you want good clear sound you need better speaker which i know. But is it true that if you want better sound do you also have to change the car stereo ? Does the stereo Rms or peak power have anything to do with the speaker rms

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/27/2015 9:54:39 AM

    William, take a look at our Car Audio Proving Ground series for a deeper dive into what can improve the sound in your car. Adding an aftermarket radio and/or an amp will certainly improve your sound because you'll be feeding your new speakers more power than your factory radio can typically provide. And yes, you'll want to do your best to match the RMS output of a receiver or amp with the RMS power handling of your speakers. That RMS output should be within the range of 75-150% of the speaker's max RMS power handling.

  • Nick from Toccoa

    Posted on 7/31/2015 7:23:46 PM

    I understand what you are saying about the factory speaker deteriorating over time. But I think the factory speaker should have been compared to a little lower end after market speaker because Focal is some pretty high end stuff. Those focal 165krx2 would blow most brand new factory speakers in the dirt in my opinion.

  • Brian French from Corbin,ky.

    Posted on 8/22/2015 10:56:45 PM

    Just a shout out to crutchfield tech dept and justin. Thanks for the assistance with my sound ordnance 8bptd hook up. It really rounded out my jeep sound. Next up getting replacement 6.5 speakers. Again , thanks for what you do.


    Posted on 8/30/2015 4:38:59 PM

    WOW!! Those speakers sound very nice compared to the factory speakers. Now for example I've done something like this with my Ford F-150 SuperCrew factory speakers and replaced them with the Cruthfield Polk Audio db 571's. Now you talking about 380 turn around a difference between night & day here awesome sound coming from the Polk Audio db 571's. So hands down it really pays to up grade your Speakers at all cost. And Crutchfield is the only way to go.

  • Mark M from Rio Rancho

    Posted on 9/15/2015 5:02:50 AM

    This comparison is between factory speakers and aftermarket speakers. Do aftermarket speakers also deteriorate?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/15/2015 3:29:51 PM

    Mark, the take-away from the article is that aftermarket speakers are built better than factory speakers with high-quality materials and designed for optimum performance. Aftermarket speakers use cones made of some form of molded plastic or woven fiber. The surrounds are usually rubber, but even those with foam surrounds use a material that's higher quality and more dense than what's used in factory car speakers. Because of their better build, they are likely to perform well for a much longer period than factory speakers, but like anything exposed to the elements, they too will deteriorate with time.

  • Willie from Barbourville, Ky

    Posted on 11/6/2015 7:57:51 AM

    Really nice prank LOL paper cone factory speakers not only deteriorate within a short amount of time, but the cones are of a softer material and just don't reproduce sound as well (with age) as the stiffer cones in most aftermarket speakers... It's been my experience that factory head units sound their best with the factory speakers that came with them, I've never had aftermarket speaker paired to a factory radio or an aftermarket head unit paired to factory speakers that sounded great, an external amp is almost always need with a factory head unit and aftermarket speakers to get the full potential of the speakers, and if you're gonna replace the factory head unit with an aftermarket unit, do yourself a big favor and match up some aftermarket speakers or your new head unit isn't gonna sound like it should with factory speakers, factory speakers typically can't handle the added wattage of an aftermarket head unit.... thankfully though, auto makers have started using somewhat better quality paper cone speakers than they did like back in the 70s n 80s and they are spending more time with studying the acoustics of different vehicles and trying to overcome some of the short falls of the sound systems they install... I can't remember a vehicle I've ever owned that I didn't replace the sound system in, I've never had a factory system that I was satisfied with, I normally buy used vehicles but I've owner 3 brand new rides and none of the factory units have met my expectation

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