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How to Select the Right Car Speakers

A Basic Guide to Choosing the Best Speakers for Your Car Sound System

By

rear speakers

Some aftermarket car speakers will drop right into place, and others require some more extensive installation work.

Image courtesy of Praveen Selvam, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

If you’re ready to select the perfect speakers for the custom sound system in your car or truck, then you have some important choices to make. The first factor you’ll need to look at is whether to go with component or full range speakers, but the process doesn’t end with that single choice. In addition to choosing between component or coaxial speakers, there are also four main factors to examine. In no particular order, those factors are:

  • size
  • sensitivity
  • power handling
  • build quality

You may also have to work within a budget, or consider other things, but keeping those four factors in mind will allow you to find speakers that will work with the rest of your system and provide great sound.

Component vs. Coaxial

The argument of component versus coaxial speakers is complicated, and there is no simple answer as to which one is better. Component speakers provide better sound, but they’re also more expensive. Full range speakers are also easier to install, since you can typically find aftermarket replacements that are direct replacements for the OEM units.

If sound quality is the most important factor in your decision making process, then you should consider component speakers. Otherwise, full range speakers will probably get the job done just fine. Full range speakers are also the better option if you’re planning on a DIY installation and don’t have a lot of experience.

Speaker Size and Configuration

Before you start shopping for new speakers, it’s vital to gather a little information about the speakers that are already in your car and truck. If you’re fully committed to replacing them, then you can just remove the speakers and measure them. Otherwise, most stores that sell speakers will be able to look up the specifications for you. If you provide the make, model, and year of your vehicle, it’s typically possible to look up the size and configuration of the existing speakers.

If your car or truck came from the factory with full range speakers, and you’re planning on replacing them with new full range speakers, then it’s especially important to know the sizes and configurations of the existing units. In most cases, you’ll be able to buy new speakers that you can drop right into the existing speaker receptacles.

Power Handling

After you have some specifications to work with, you’ll need to look at power handling. If you want to get the most out of your sound system, your speakers will need to be able to handle the power that your head unit or external amplifier is capable of putting out, which is why many people choose a head unit before looking at speakers.

If you haven’t yet chosen a new head unit, then you have a little more freedom. In that case, you’re free to choose speakers with the power handling characteristics you like, and you can then look for a head unit or external amp that will be able to take full advantage of them.

Power handling refers to the level of power, which is measured in watts, that you can pump through the speakers. The most common measurement is the root-mean-square (RMS) value, as other numbers that manufacturers use are often meaningless. You’ll also want to make sure that you pay attention to the maximum RMS power handling of the speakers instead of the peak RMS power handling.

Sensitivity

In order to find out the best level of sensitivity to look for, you’ll have to know how much power your head unit or external amp puts out. Sensitivity refers to how much power the speakers require in order to put out a given volume level, and speakers with higher sensitivity require less power. If you’re working with an anemic factory stereo, then you’ll want to find speakers that have a high sensitivity level. On the other hand, speakers that have a low level of sensitivity tend to work fine with high powered external amps.

Build Quality

One of the biggest reasons to upgrade your factory speakers is build quality. Most OEM speakers are made with relatively low quality materials that tend to degrade over time. That’s why just upgrading your speakers can provide higher quality sound even if you leave everything else alone. Your investment will also last a lot longer if you look for speakers that are made with high quality materials.

Some of the materials you should look for include:

  • Rubber surrounds last a long time and provide great sound quality.
  • Foam and cloth surrounds are less durable than rubber surrounds, but they’re still better than foam and paper.
  • Stiff, lightweight woofer materials like polypropylene mixed with mica or metal-coated synthetic fabrics last a long time and provide great bass response.
  • Polyblend or silk tweeters or harder materials like ceramic or metal depending on personal taste.

Filling Out Your Sound System

Building a car sound system is like putting together puzzle that you’re also designing yourself. It can be a very complex undertaking, but it’s also extremely rewarding to experience the finished product. While choosing great speakers is an essential part, you’ll also need to consider a host of other factors, including:

  • The best type of head unit
  • Whether the amplifier that's built into your head unit will suffice, or if you need an external one
  • Crossovers, which are typically necessary if you're upgrading to component speakers.
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