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Audio Speaker Basics

“Drivers”, “tweeters”, “subwoofers”, “crossovers”: components of a car stereo speaker system can be confusing. We help you make sense of it all and make an educated choice.

If your current car stereo doesn't produce sound that's as clean, crisp, and listenable as what comes out of a high quality set of headphones, chances are it's because one or more of your speakers are past their prime, compromised, or even blown. If you're not the original owner of your vehicle, you have no idea how much or how little any previous owners abused the stereo system. Most OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) speakers in vehicles naturally lose quality over time no matter how they're treated, and if you spend 30 minutes or more in your car each day, you'll appreciate the benefits that higher quality aftermarket speakers offer over OEM ones.

Why Replace Original Speakers?

Car manufacturers are not focused on stereo systems because, difficult as it may be to believe, sound systems simply don't sell cars the way styling, power, and safety features do. You'll notice high-end vehicles often farm out stereo systems to brand-name stereo manufacturers. Why? Because the car manufacturers don't have the expertise the audio specialists do and they aren't interested in spending R&D funds to become audio experts. On the other hand, sound systems are the only thing that stereo manufacturers focus on. They are always experimenting with new ways to outdo the other, simply because it's their passion and pride.

Aftermarket speaker manufacturers advertise that they use higher quality materials which last longer, and it's true. Unlike audio systems inside a house or building, the ones in automobiles are exposed to constant vibration and harshness over jarring bumps as well as extreme hot and cold temperatures. Then there's the dirt, dust, and moisture that blast right onto them from open windows. Car makers think that they can cut pennies where most customers will never notice. But we know that it is expertise and enthusiasm which lead to the best automotive stereo equipment.

Oem Speaker
A worn OEM speaker (left) compared to a new aftermarket speaker (right)
Aftermarket Speaker

For example, most OEM equipment speakers build their insulating surround pieces out of paper and foam to save money. As these materials dry up and degrade, the quality of the sound drops noticeably. High-quality aftermarket speakers use surround pieces made of rubber because they last longer and reduce distortion. OEM cone pieces are crafted from thin paper-based material, while aftermarket speakers will feature thicker layering on the cone. Some will even use far superior materials such as woven glass fiber that deliver sound much better than an OEM speaker of the same size. If you're looking to create a system that sounds good at high volume levels by replacing a lower-powered radio receiver unit in the dash, or you're adding an amplifier that provides more power, you will not get your money's worth out of those components until you replace your OEM speakers with quality aftermarket ones.

Once OEM speakers are replaced, you WILL notice a difference. Bass will be tightened up instead of sounding sloppy and unfocused. Vocals and instruments will sound very natural instead of shrill. Audio experts say that with high-quality replacement speakers, you'll be hearing roughly the same level of purity that the sound engineer heard when originally in the recording studio. In this article, we'll help you understand the basics of audio speakers for your vehicle and what factors are important to consider when making a purchase.

Typical Speaker Construction

Remove the cover piece of any speaker, and the first thing that catches your eye is one or more round openings shaped like ancient amphitheaters. These round openings are known as "cones", and sometimes they're referred to as speaker diaphragms. As the surface of the cone vibrates, the sound we hear is created. "Dual-cone" speakers feature a smaller secondary cone mounted in the center which reproduces the higher frequencies. A mound-shaped dust cap serves as a cover piece for the centermost part of the cone to keep dirt and airborne debris out of the speaker's internals.

Behind the cone is a metal winding known as a "coil" which creates a magnetic force as an electrical charge collects on the winding. This magnetic force attracts or repels the cone, causing it to move back and forth as it vibrates the air with sound. Center cones are loosely suspended within a frame piece known as a basket. Aftermarket speakers usually come with larger, more powerful magnets than automakers use for original equipment, and that enhances sound clarity at all volume levels.

Speacer Components
The typical components of a speaker driver are shown.

Similar to the way larger size is best suited to low frequency sounds in musical instruments, speaker cones designated for high frequency sounds will be smaller in size while cones designated for lower frequency sounds will be larger in size. Some speakers have more than one cone inside, but not always.

Types Of Audio Drivers

For each cone, there's a "driver" behind it. A driver converts electrical audio signals into sound, but it's only part of the speaker. One might say a driver is to a speaker the way protons, neutrons, and electrons are to an atom - simply smaller parts that make up a whole. A tweeter is a driver, and so is a woofer, sub-woofer, mid-range, and Super Tweeter. Some speakers contain one driver, and some setups contain up to five.


Tweeters specialize in reproduction of the highest frequency sounds found in any audio transmission.


Midrange drivers specialize in reproducing the middle range of sound frequencies.

Woofer & Sub-Woofer

Woofers are typically the largest in size physically, and reproduce low-frequency bass sound. Depending on design, they may cover some of the middle range frequency notes as well. When it comes to car speakers, woofers are usually sold as part of 3-way speaker setups.

Sub-woofers serve to assist the woofers, serving up the lowest frequency sounds when music is played at a louder volume level. Sub-woofers are not included within speakers because they are a sold as a separate add-on component. The ideal place for mounting a subwoofer is in a vehicle's trunk. Sub-woofers are usually included in 4- and 5-way setups. Individual subwoofer drivers are available from Infinity, American Bass, and Lanzar.

Super Tweeter

This is a small add-on driver that focuses on ultra-high-frequency sounds. As with sub-woofers, super tweeters are usually included in 4- and 5-way setups. We've got custom designed super tweeters from Audiopipe and Lanzar.


A crossover is not a type of driver, but a network of coils and capacitors that do the work of categorizing sound by frequency range. After sound ranges have been split apart, they can be sent to the appropriate tweeter, midrange, or woofer driver. If you see the phrase "passive crossover" used, it means the frequency range is divided after the amplifier.

Crossover Setup

An "active crossover" setup means the frequency range is divided before amplification. A passive crossover doesn't need to get hooked up to a power source to work because it's usually located within the speaker itself. Active crossovers require their own power and ground connections, and they provide more flexibility and fine-tuning. Single-driver speakers have no crossovers at all, because all signals are being sent to one driver instead of being split up.

We've got mono, 2-way, 3-way, 4-way, and 5-way crossovers for subwoofers.

2-way automotive speakers like this one typically have tweeter and woofer drivers. There's no midrange, but the tweeter (housed in the center) and woofer fill in the gap by playing a wider range of sound frequencies.

3-Way Automotive Speakers

Here, a set of 3-way speakers is shown with tweeter, midrange, and woofer drivers housed together. Tweeters on top are smallest, with slightly larger midrange drivers below them. A large woofer surrounds them.

2-Way System (May Also Be Referred To As "Coaxial System")

2-Way Automotive Speakers

The "2-way" designation refers to the fact that two drivers are present - usually a small tweeter and a larger woofer - both of which are contained within one speaker housing rather than separately. The tweeter will be on top, the woofer will be below it, and there's no midrange driver present. Woofers designed for 2-way systems can operate at up to 5,000 Hz to cover for the missing midrange with some help from the tweeter. Some speaker manufacturers market 2-way speakers as "2-way coaxial" while others label their products simply as "2-way". We offer 2-way speakers from Fusion, BOSS, Kenwood, Pioneer, and Planet Audio.

3-Way Systems

The "3-way" designation refers to the fact that all three types of audio drivers are present: tweeter, midrange, and woofer. Many automotive speakers will house all three drivers together, and we offer a choice of 3-way speakers made by Lanzar, BOSS, Pioneer, Pyle, SPL, Kenwood, and Sound Storm Lab.

3-Way Automotive Speakers
Here, a set of 3-way speakers is shown with tweeter, midrange, and woofer drivers housed together. Tweeters on top are smallest, with slightly larger midrange drivers below them. A large woofer surrounds them.

"3-way component" systems feature all three drivers also. However, each of the drivers are housed independently from one another to provide a richer listening experience. For example, a tweeter might be located in the dashboard facing the passenger cabin while midrange and woofer drivers might be located within door panels. If a sub-woofer is used, it is probably housed inside the trunk compartment.

Set 3-Way Component Refers
Here, a set of 3-way Component speakers is shown. "Component" refers to the fact that tweeter, midrange, and woofer drivers are all housed independently from one another to reduce unwanted vibration interference.

4- and 5-Way Systems (sometimes more)

For refinement at greater cost, some 3-way systems may add extra drivers to complement high and low ends of the sound frequency spectrum. A secondary Super Tweeter may assist a standard tweeter, while a super low bass driver will enhance a subwoofer by heightening clarity of the lowest frequencies. If you're looking for 4-way or 5-way setups, we’ve got them.

Clarion 5-Way Speaker
A Clarion 5-Way speaker.

What Is A "Full Range" Speaker Setup?

You'll see the word "Full Range" often in descriptions of speakers. This means that a speaker setup can produce a full range of sound (from higher treble down to low bass) without any external help from a subwoofer. 2- and 3-way speakers fall under this category, and some full range speakers feature only one driver instead of two or three. While some single-driver speakers may do a good job of approaching both low and high ends of the sound spectrum, they generally can't match the power and clarity of 2- and 3-way setups.

Speaker "Sensitivity" Rating

Sensitivity Rating
This chart shows that a small difference in sensitivity rating can really make a difference. A speaker with a sensitivity rating that's 3 decibels higher can deliver the same amount of volume using only half the power.

This rating serves as a measurement of how efficiently a speaker converts wattage (power) into decibels (volume level). A higher sensitivity rating means speakers will play louder when supplied with a fixed amount of power. Usually, the amount of power supplied during testing for rating purposes is 1 watt, and decibels are measured at a meter's length away.

A small difference in sensitivity rating can really make a difference. For example, a speaker with a sensitivity rating that's 3 decibels higher can deliver the same amount of volume using only half the power.

Power Capacity Of Speakers And Why That Matters

There are several measurement of a speaker's ability to perform, and it's important to know what each of these measurements signifies. Speaker manufacturers tend to tout whatever measurement makes them look best for each different speaker they sell.

Peak watts is the most power a speaker can handle for a short burst - typically the loudest point in a song, for example. Average current tells you what a speaker can handle for long periods of time without suffering damage. RMS (Root Mean Square) Watts is the most accurate sustained power capability and the number you should pay most attention to, because it reflects the entire speaker system rather than a single driver.

Interestingly, any speaker performs its best when power levels are reaching the high end of its RMS Watt range. So if you'll be using a factory or aftermarket radio without an amplifier, lower RMS-rated speakers are actually the ones that will sound best at the volume levels you'll be playing. If you'll be adding an external amplifier to generate more power for louder volumes without distortion, speakers with higher RMS ratings will sound best.

To help guide you through the selection we offer, we have set up the Car Speakers section of our website to provide you as much information as possible about each product. Materials used in the construction of both the speaker cone and surround piece will be specified and you'll see ratings for peak power, RMS, and sensitivity.

If a "Product Options" field exists for the item you're looking at, select it to see any choices that may be available. Enjoy the vibrant sound that your new speakers bring into your automotive listening environment!

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