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Car Speaker Buying Guide

A comprehensive guide that will give you all the information you need to pick the best car speaker system for your ride.

Getting Started

Upgrading your car speakers is one of the best ways to improve your daily commute. Whether you want to breathe new life into an older vehicle or you're shopping around for a shiny new ride, with an aftermarket car speaker system you might find yourself looking forward to your drive more than the destination. While many car makers offer premium sound systems, they often come packaged with other features you may not need. Because of this, stepping up your car speakers through the manufacturer can end up costing several thousands of dollars. Plus, factory installed premium sound systems aren't always equipped with the best car speakers. In many cases, aftermarket systems can provide better sound quality while saving you money. So, if you want the best car audio system money can buy or just a bit more clarity and bass, read on to learn what you need to know to pick the best car speakers for your ride.

First Things First

As the name suggests, power handling lets you know how many watts of power a speaker can safely process. Speakers will report both their peak power handling and, more importantly, their root mean square (RMS) power handling. The RMS number tells you how many watts the car speakers can handle continuously, whereas the peak measurement reports the wattage the speaker can handle in short bursts. Often provided as a range, the lower boundary of the RMS represents the minimum wattage necessary to achieve a respectable sound from the speaker. The upper limit of the RMS range is the more important number, detailing the maximum wattage the speaker can continuously handle. A low powered car speaker system will offer 15 watts RMS or less per channel, and should make use of high sensitivity speakers. Higher powered systems should be paired with speakers with lower sensitivity.

Speaker Types

Coaxial Speakers

If you're looking for an easy way to upgrade your factory car speakers, coaxial speakers are the way to go. These speakers nestle all of their components into a single housing. 2-Way coaxial speakers include a tweeter, which produces high tones, mounted on a woofer, which handles the lows. 3 and 4-way systems add a midrange driver and an additional tweeter, respectively. Coaxial speakers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, qualities, and prices, making it easy to find a model that will seamlessly replace your current speakers without the hassle of a complicated installation.

Component Speakers

To achieve the highest quality sound, component speakers are usually the best option. Their tweeters and woofers are each housed separately with an external crossover filtering the high and low frequencies to the appropriate driver. While the woofer can usually be installed in the same location as your original speakers, most vehicles don't include tweeter mounts. Consequently, you'll need to make a place for them by either cutting a small hole in your door panel, or by mounting them to the dashboard. Because of the complicated install process, component speakers often require professional installation. And while they might be a bit more expensive, by separating the woofer and tweeter, component car speakers distinguish themselves from coaxials with vastly superior imaging, allowing you to "locate" various instruments and sounds in three dimensional space. If you're after the best, components are the way to go.

Crossovers

Virtually every speaker, not just car speakers, uses a crossover to direct frequencies to an appropriate driver (woofer, tweeter, or subwoofer). Crossovers can be either active or passive. Active crossovers require a power source as well as a ground connection and offer a high degree of customization, but are typically more expensive. These crossovers sit between the stereo and the amplifier. By filtering the sound signal before it gets amplified, active crossovers can dramatically cut down on power usage when compared to passive crossovers which wait until the signal has been amplified before filtering. However, because the signal gets filtered before it reaches the amp, each driver requires a dedicated amp channel.
Passive crossovers, which don't require their own power source, are an inexpensive and easy to install option that still direct frequencies to their appropriate driver. However, passive crossovers are less efficient than their active counterparts. Because they're installed between the amp and the driver, the full signal gets amplified before getting to the crossover which converts the unwanted portions of this signal into heat. Component speakers come with their own passive crossovers, making it easy to install and direct the appropriate frequencies to both tweeter and woofer.

Other Things to Consider

Deciding on the best car speakers for your vehicle can be difficult without actually hearing them. However, paying attention to the following specifications will give you a rough outline of a speaker's capabilities.

Frequency Range

The reason that a low note from a bass guitar sounds so different from the shrill sound of a loud whistle is because of their frequency. Sound waves act just like ripples in a pond. If you throw a large stone in the pond, a deep *plunk* pushes large waves away from the stone. Throwing in a pebble, on the other hand, produces a higher pitched sound and smaller waves that nest closer to one another. The number of waves to cross a point in a given time frame is known as the frequency of the waves. The higher the frequency of a sound wave is, the higher its pitch.
Different models of car speakers are capable of producing different frequencies of sound. Woofers focus on deep, low frequency sounds while tweeters are used for high pitched sounds.
A car speaker's frequency range details the highest and lowest notes that it's capable of producing. In general humans are capable of hearing sounds ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz. While the frequency range of many car speakers extends beyond the 20,000 Hz limit of our hearing, the high notes in this range can harmonize with notes we do hear, modifying our listening experience. Just because a speaker can produce a wide range of frequencies, doesn't mean that it will sound good doing so. Unfortunately, the complexity of speakers prevents us from measuring their quality with a simple, single metric.

Impedance

For speakers to produce sound, they need power in the form of electrical current. A speaker's impedance is a measure of its resistance to this current, dictating the amount of power that it pulls from the amp. The lower a speaker's impedance, the more power it will pull. Measured in ohms (Ω), the impedance of car speakers generally range from 2 - 4 ohms. Amplifiers will push twice as much power to speakers with 2 ohms of impedance than to those with an impedance of 4 ohms. A speaker's impedance changes constantly based on the frequency of the sound it's producing at any moment. Rather than publishing a speaker's impedance curve, which details its impedance at any given frequency, speaker companies offer "nominal" impedance, a constant that's typically slightly higher than the speaker's minimum impedance. This simplification makes it easier to pick the right combination of speakers and amps.

In Summary

Paying attention to the ways that a speaker interacts with power is incredibly important when considering which car speakers to install in your vehicle. A low powered car speaker system, putting out 15 watts RMS or less, should be paired with high sensitivity (90 dB or more) speakers and vice versa. It's also important to match the maximum RMS of the speaker to the power put out by the stereo or amplifier. A speaker's impedance measures a kind of resistance to the power coming to it, with lower levels of impedance offering less resistance. Although impedance technically changes frequently, the reported "nominal impedance" gives a rough sense of how much power the speaker will pull.
With a general idea of power requirements, you can consider the kind of speaker you might want. Coaxial speakers fit a woofer and tweeter into a single package, allowing you to replace your old speakers with little or no modifications to your car. Component speakers separate tweeters and woofers with an external passive crossover feeding highs to the tweeters and lows to the woofers. By separating the highs and lows, components provide excellent sound imaging and often higher sound quality in general. However, they also typically cost more than coaxials, and regularly require professional installation, as most cars don't have existing tweeter mounts. Whichever style you choose, note the frequency range of the speakers you choose. This range lets you know how low and high the speakers can go. However, no one specification can summarize a car speaker's quality. If possible, drop by our store and listen to a few options, or give us a call and we can provide recommendations for the best car speakers to meet your specific wants or needs.

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