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Charting the decline of factory speakers

A Crutchfield mad science project

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.

  • Danny from San Antonio

    Posted on 12/29/2021

    You were certainly right to test those old Honda speakers--I pulled the exact same ones out of my 93 Accord this month to replace them! I would listen to podcasts and some people would be completely drowned out because their voices were higher.

  • Randy from Canton IL

    Posted on 12/11/2021

    I have vintage vehicles that I restore from the 70s, like a 73 Dodge custom street van aka shagging wagon. I'm restoring it. Anyway I have a NOS Audiovox 8 track AM/FM radio and a NOS 40 watt Audiovox car amp circa 1980. I want to use it in the van. My problem is that its tough finding 8 ohm car speakers to pair with it. Is there any reason I couldn't use vintage 8 ohm bookshelf speakers for the rear speakers and a 8 ohm premium 1980s OEM Chrysler speaker up front with that system? I'm doing a complete interior for it. Also I'm installing a modern stereo in it so it will have two systems. Plenty of room for both in this big old van! My problem is no one seems to make a decent 8 ohm car speaker any more that will work with the old school stereo systems. Thanks for any suggestions.

  • Shane Akers from Springfield

    Posted on 5/5/2020

    Personally I'd love to see a full car system compared to a more used system same speakers just more used I have a 96 Buick lesabre and the speakers sound fine nothing fancy but really nice for a 96 I'm curious how bad they'd be out of a 96 Buick with around 200k miles double the mileage just to show how much they wear over x amount of time same speakers except one set not used as much but I'd like to see you guys revises this comparison

  • Marcus Ariello from Dallas

    Posted on 2/20/2020

    Oh wow. I was going to buy some new speakers but based on these tests, I don't have to! Thanks Crutchfield!

  • Adam from Fort Lauderdale

    Posted on 6/21/2019

    I cannot argue with the outcome of your "testing" results, but for the sake of comparison, I think this whole comparison was done wrong! 1st off, the speakers being compared were different from the beginning... Some had "whizzer" horns (old/cheap way to accentuate "hf" in a "full range" driver that otherwise cannot reproduce full range signal!) 2nd, all cone speakers need to be in some sort of enclosure to separate the rear wave from the front wave. Testing them on a bench in free air will automatically remove much of the LF that would otherwise be heard if they were in a door or rear deck. Finally, there's no info as to what these speakers have been through, other than age alone... We're they in Florida summer heat and humidity all their life, frozen winters in Michigan, or did they live most of their life in a garage? Also, were they played lightly or abused? Finally, instead of using an arbitrary number on a head unit for volume, comparing actual avg decibel levels and maybe thd would be about more quantitative. Using a rta display with multiple bands at Max doesn't do much good to show the lack of quality that was being described-one case said alot of LF and HF roll off but the rta showed LF was at full and Hf can't be expected to be good past 2 or 3khz with no dedicated Hf driver! A more qualitative and quantitative comparison would be to find a current model car that has been using same or similar speakers for many years, then compare them.

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 6/24/2019

    Adam, thanks for your feedback. This is one of our older articles and we're considering revisiting the topic for a fresh take. Yours and other comments here will be helpful when we write it.
  • Rocco from NYC

    Posted on 5/29/2019

    One of the problems replacing factory speakers is wattage. Most "name brand" speakers are meant for aftermarket head units or separate amps with higher wattage. Your average factory radio is only cranking out maybe 10 watts per channel. You put a pair of 200 watt JBLs, and they'll sound flat. Probably worse than the cruddy speaker you pulled out. Best thing to do is just go to the local auto parts store, and buy those cheap dual cones that come in a blister card hanging on a peg. They don't even have a power rating. I'm sure Crutchfield has something similar.

  • JESSE from Hot sulfur Springs C

    Posted on 4/22/2019

    What exactly does dB mean in the sound spectrum

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 4/22/2019

    Jesse, very simply put, a decibel is measurement of loudness. A quick google image search for "decibel scale" will give you an assortment of diagrams that help put that definition into perspective. Some quick takeaways: a whisper is about 30 dB; a hairdryer is about 90 dB; and a jet engine is about 130 dB.
  • Luis Villanueva from El Paso

    Posted on 3/31/2019

    Quick question. I'm replacing factory 2018 Chevy Colorado speaker for kenwood excelon components. I'm NOT planning to add 4 channel amp to them due to the chime and static noise that produces. Although, do you think difference in clarity and crispness of the audio will be noticeable? Or amp is really needed.

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 4/1/2019

    Luis, that will mostly come down to your choice in speakers. If you're going to be driving them off of factory power, you'll want to look for speakers with high sensitivity (to make more out of less power). I've passed your question along to our advisors to help. Someone will contact you soon to discuss options.
  • Craig Albright

    Posted on 2/10/2019

    Came here to tell you how many ways you were doing it wrong in this "comparison". Then I realized that I am not the target audience for this. Carry on.

  • Eric G. Mitchell from Savannah, GA

    Posted on 2/4/2019

    Great, valid point but this wasn't the way to make it. It isn't even comparing apples to oranges. It's comparing apples to cumquats to walnuts. You can't compare speakers of differing brands and construction materials and claim that the differences are due to one cause, such as age. These speakers would have been different even when new.

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