The Ultimate Guide to Buying Car Speakers

Car audio equipment amplifier speaker set

Ever since I was a kid, I was in awe of cars that you can hear and feel before you see. There was a guy on my street growing up that had an insane sound system, and I would make every excuse just to ride in the car and experience it. The power of a high-quality car speaker system is pretty awesome. Later, I realized that it’s just a matter of knowing which car speakers to buy and install — anyone can do it.

Make sure you understand the specs of the speaker you’re looking at before buying anything. On top of that, there are other considerations to make like the number, size, and type of speaker that you’ll be buying. The price of speakers can vary dramatically, and that’s due to a number of different parameters.

In this ultimate guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know about car speakers. The goal is to help you understand which speakers are perfect for you. I’ll define terms, explain everything, and include some key considerations to make before buying anything.

Why Do Car Speakers Matter?

A lot of people don’t realize the huge differences between speakers that you can install into your car. The bottom line is that high-quality speakers will play the music that sounds nothing like the stuff you’ll hear from junky speakers.

If you want a good example of this, buy a pair of headphones from a dollar store and compare the music to what plays out of a pair of Bose headphones. The sounds are richer, more dynamic, and smoother with high-quality speakers.

For people who love music, this is good news. You can finally hear music the way the artist intended if you have some nice speakers. In fact, you’ll probably hear components of a song that you haven’t heard before because your old speakers didn’t have the full range.

So, why do car speakers matter? They will improve how music sounds in your car and give you the best listening experience.

Parts of a Car Speaker (and Terms to Know)

Before I get too far, let me define some terms for you. This section will cover parts of the speaker and the next one will cover some terms to know.

Car speaker audio stereo amplifier subwoofer set

Sound Frequencies

The depth of your music will depend on the sound frequencies that are pumping out of your speakers. They come in three flavors:

  • Lows are those booming bass notes. They cover the bottom portion of the frequency chart. Lows are the reason why your car shakes when you put on your favorite rap song.
  • Middles or mids fall somewhere between lows and highs. Their job is to create a nice gradient between these two sectors.
  • Highs will give you the high-pitched trebles.

Subwoofer

This is probably the term that most people are familiar with. These are the big speakers that are in charge of the lows. They’re also the speakers that make your car shake like crazy when you turn up the bass and crank up the volume.

In terms of sizing, they’re the largest speaker on this list. They also require the most power to get the best sound. The bigger they are, and the more power they receive, the louder and deeper the bass will be.

Car audio single subwoofer in an enclosed audio box with an open port
Car audio subwoofer

Midrange or Squawker

A midrange, or squawker, the speaker is responsible for the middle-most portion of the system’s frequency range. They can’t achieve the lows of a subwoofer or highs of a tweeter.

They span the gap and create a more dynamic sound. If you’re just using a subwoofer and tweeter, you’re missing a lot of depth in your music.

Car audio midrange speakers
Car audio midrange speakers

Midbass

Midbass is another example of a mid-level speaker when it comes to its frequency range. However, they tend to lean more towards the lower end of the spectrum and complement the sub. They’re a little smaller than subwoofers.

Car audio midbass speaker
Car audio midbass speaker

Tweeters

On the high end of the frequency spectrum is the tweeter. They provide sound from the high hats and cymbals from your favorite songs.

Since high frequencies are highly directional, you’ll only hear these high pitches if the speaker is directly facing you.

Car audio tweeter speakers
Car audio tweeter speakers

Super-Tweeters

Even smaller and higher-pitched is the super-tweeter. The sole purpose of this speaker is to unlock the highest pitches in your favorite songs. With one of these, you’ll notice a more full sound and might even notice parts of a song you never heard before.

Car audio super tweeters
Car audio super tweeters

Speaker Terms to Know

To better explain your car speakers, here are some terms you should know.

Sensitivity

Your speaker’s sensitivity is a measure of how well it converts power into sound. A highly sensitive speaker will create a louder volume and richer sound from a lower wattage.

This is an important parameter because your speaker can only get so much power from your car. To really maximize the final sound, you’ll want more sensitive speakers.

Power Handling

Your power handling can be broken into two categories:

  • Peak Power
  • Root Mean Square (RMS)

Both of these categories refer to how much power a speaker can take before getting destroyed. For your car, it typically means how loud you can up the speaker before it blows.

The peak power is the upper limit of your speakers. In other words, it’s the maximum amount of power that your speaker can stand before breaking.

The RMS is more of a long-term idea. It refers to how much power your speaker can be routinely subjected to while still performing at its peak. Another way to think of the RMS is the ideal power that your speakers should see.

You can go above the RMS value without immediately destroying your speaker setup. However, enough exposure above the RMS limit will damage your speakers and can blow them out.

Speaker Material and Design

When it comes to speakers, material usage and design are both really important concepts. It might seem silly at first. Who cares what material a speaker is made out of? Truthfully, everyone should.

The way that a speaker works is that sound waves are bounced off of the material and projected into your car. Each speaker targets a different frequency in order to get a different sound.

Car audio close up of a car speaker

The material used in making the speaker can completely change how it sounds. For example, subwoofers need a really light material since there are a lot of vibrations. If you use a solid and inflexible material like metal, you won’t get the bassline that you want.

Furthermore, the design can help create the final sound. You want the speaker housing to help project the noise while keeping it intact and not tweaking how it sounds.

Crossover

Not so fast, basketball fans. In the speaker world, crossovers have nothing to do with breaking your opponent’s ankles. In this case, it refers to how your audio system transfers power.

An active crossover is a lot more customized. If you have a grounded power source, then you can filter the sound before it gets amplified and the power goes to its final component (like the tweeter or subwoofer). It’s usually more expensive than a passive crossover.

A passive crossover is an inexpensive and easy way to direct current to your speaker system. They get installed between the amp and the component, which brings along unwanted parts of the signal that would otherwise get filtered out in an active crossover.

Car audio 2-way passive crossover network
2-way passive crossover network

Types of Car Speakers

In the world of car speakers, there are two styles to choose from: component and coaxial speakers. Let’s take a closer look at each of these options.

Component or Full-Range

The first style of car speaker is a component speaker. These speakers each serve an individual function and they come together to create a full body of sound throughout your car.

For example, one component speaker is just a subwoofer, another is just a tweeter, and a third is just a midrange. When you install all three into your car, you’re left with a beautiful combination of the three.

Since they are focused on a single sound band, they offer a higher-quality sound over coaxial speakers. Where one coaxial speaker does four jobs, four-component speakers each do one job.

This speaker is also called a full-range speaker since it spans the whole frequency range within a single housing.

If you’re a true audiophile, then component speakers are the only option for you. They’re more expensive, but they offer a depth and range that coaxial ones can’t come close to.

Pros:

  • Much higher sound quality
  • More customization to your final sound
  • Better build quality

Cons:

  • More expensive
  • Requires an amp
Car audio component speaker with built-in tweeters
Car audio speaker with built-in tweeters

Full-Range or Coaxial

The other type of car speaker is called full-range or coaxial. These are typically the factory speakers that manufacturers put in your car in the first place.

Not only are they the default option, but they’re also the most common. They often have multiple speaker elements built into a single body.

For example, a single coaxial speaker can have a tweeter, woofer, and super tweeter all in one speaker. As a result, you’ll get a more broad sound that comes from the speaker.

You’ll find this style of speaker in almost every size, shape, and power range, available for a wide range of prices.

They’re easy to install, less expensive, and remove the need for an additional amp.

Understanding the Bands

Before buying one, you’ll have to understand the different bands they come in. Another way to think of “bands” is “components”. It refers to how many pieces are part of the speaker itself.

Car audio speakers with separate crossovers and tweeters
Car audio speakers with separate crossovers and tweeters

A 2-band coaxial speaker has two pieces. Typically, it’s made up of a subwoofer and a tweeter. This broadly covers the lows, mids, and high frequencies. In addition to being the simplest, it’s also the most common and least expensive.

A 3-band coaxial speaker has one more component. On top of a sub and tweeter, there’s usually a mid-range speaker included.

A 4-band coaxial speaker has four components. It’s made up of a subwoofer, mid-range, tweeter, and super-tweeter. This form is the most complex, most expensive, and creates the best sound of the three.

Pros:

  • Easy to install
  • Less expensive
  • No need for an additional amp

Cons:

  • Worse sound quality
  • Typically features worse build quality

How Much Can You Expect to Spend?

How much you spend all depends on what speakers you choose and the quality of sound that you’re looking for. If you install top-of-the-line speakers throughout your car, you can easily spend thousands of dollars.

For a more modest project, you can get it all done for a hundred bucks or so. Strictly replacing your speakers with comparable ones might even run you less than that.

You can find a single door speaker for less than $50, but the quality isn’t great and it’ll probably be a 2-band coaxial speaker. At the same time, you can find a high-quality component door speaker for over $500. It really depends on how much you’re willing to spend and the sound quality you’re craving.

Do You Want to Upgrade or Stay the Same?

Before getting too far, I should clear something up:

This article is mostly for people who are looking to upgrade their sound system. If you’re someone who wants to keep the stock sound in your vehicle but your speakers broke, then you can just replace them with OEM speakers.

For people who want to get the most out of their car’s audio system, you’ll have to consider all the categories below. It will help you arrive at the right option and ensure you’re not overpaying for your new speakers.

Can You Install Car Speakers Yourself?

Most speakers are surprisingly easy to install. Really, the hardest part is just getting access to your car’s current speakers so you can swap them out.

If you’re looking to replace your driver’s door speaker, the installation looks like this:

  • Remove the door panel cover
  • Unscrew, unplug, and remove the current speaker
  • Install, plug in, and screw in replacement speaker
  • Put the door panel cover back on
Car audio technician hold audio gear ready to install

Sometimes, the new speaker has a different mounting position, so you might need an adaptor plate. Other times, you’ll need special pry bars to get components out of the way so you can access the speaker without damaging anything.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing too tricky about the process. I helped a buddy change the speakers in his car when I was in high school with no help from adults, so that should tell you how easy it is.

Things to Consider When Buying Car Speakers

Now that you understand more about car speakers, let’s talk about some considerations to make. These are things you’ll want to think about before swiping your card and getting your new audio system.

Speaker Sensitivity

Think about what kind of speaker sensitivity you’re expecting. A more sensitive speaker can get louder from a lower amount of power.

As the speaker gets more expensive, the sensitivity gets higher. Is it worth it to you to splurge for a louder system?

Peak Power Level and Power Handling

You’ll need to consider what type of power handling you’re looking for. As a reminder, a higher peak power level means that you can crank the volume louder and give the speakers more juice before they blow.

The peak power level should be listed in the specs of the speaker you’re looking at. It’s a good idea to make sure the peak power level is higher than the power your amp delivers.

Consider Swiveling Tweeters

High-frequency sounds are very directional. If you’re not in the path of your tweeters, then you won’t hear the full sound from them.

That’s why a lot of speaker manufacturers make swiveling tweeters. You can push around the tweeter in its housing and it will rotate and swivel. You can customize the direction it goes to ensure the passenger gets hit by all those delicious sound waves.

Swiveling tweeters are standard for expensive speakers, but they can still be found on some entry-level options.

Car audio speakers with built-in swiveling tweeters
Car audio speakers with built-in swiveling tweeters

External Crossovers

For the best sound quality, you’ll want to get a system with active crossovers. It costs more money but it results in a lot more customization and a better overall sound.

The actual speakers might have an internal crossover, but you can still opt for an external crossover to get the best sound. Passive crossovers don’t sound as good, but they’re a lot less expensive and easier to install.

The Build Material

As I mentioned earlier, the build material is critical for your speakers. Often, a big difference between a $25 and $200 speaker is the build material.

The manufacturer will get specific results by tweaking the materials that they use. Polypropylene mixed with metal-coated synthetics is one of the best materials for subwoofers. It lasts a long time and contributes to a loud, booming bassline.

Speaker Basket Design

I hinted at this idea earlier, but it’s really important to check out the speaker basket design. Again, you’ll want a basket that optimizes the final sound and still fits into the speaker slot in your car.

More expensive speakers often have baskets that are better designed. This ultimately leads to a better final sound.

An area to focus on is the back of the basket. It should be designed so that sound is damped and diffuse. The back of the speaker basket can ruin the sound, especially if the waves simply bounce off of it and go into the cabin.

Car audio side view of the subwoofer basket design
Side view of the subwoofer basket design

The Number of Speakers Needed

The number of speakers you have in your car will vary from vehicle to vehicle, just like the number of airbags present.

Once you take a closer look around your vehicle, you can probably spot all of them. Alternatively, you can do a quick Google search to find out how many speakers your car has.

It’s not often cited in your owner’s manual, but you can certainly check there.

If you want to find your speakers, take a look in these spots:

  • In the front and rear doors
  • On the dashboard corners near the windshield
  • In the trunk
  • In the rear corners above the rear seats

Sometimes it’s hard to spot them. Look for a grill that’s indicative of a speaker underneath. Alternatively, turn on your music and use your ears to listen around for them.

Once you find out how many speakers you have, you can determine how many you need. Often, it’s a good idea to start with just two or four and see how much you like the new sound. This will help you avoid wasting a ton of time and money on something that you later find out you don’t care about.

Car audio stereo equipment full set
Plan on what speakers will fit your vehicle best (component speakers, full-range set, tweeters, amplifier, stereo head-unit, crossovers, and wiring)

Do You Have the Space? Check the Speaker Sizes

Before you do anything, you need to make sure you’re getting the right speaker sizes. Yes, speakers come in different sizes.

A standard speaker in a massive truck is going to be a lot bigger than the speaker in your BMW i3.

You’ll need to look at the overall diameter (or width and length if the speaker isn’t circular) and depth of the speaker.

For circular speakers, dimensions are usually taken at the diagonal of the top face for the width. The depth is the measurement from the top face to the bottom face.

This matters because you’ll be installing speakers into the same hole that you’re removing your current ones from. If you ever tried putting a square peg in a round hole, you know why this is important.

Car audio speaker mounted to the side door

There are resources online that will help size your speakers, or you can look up your vehicle’s OEM speakers and go from there.

You can definitely install smaller or larger speakers than your vehicle can accommodate, you’ll just need to do some alternations on your own. As someone who’s terrified of drilling new holes into my car door, I typically opt for new speakers that will fit the stock speaker holes.

The Price

It’s hard to discuss speakers without talking about the price. You can quickly dig yourself into a multi-thousand-dollar hole as you buy a new speaker system.

Before doing anything, consider how much you’re willing to spend for an improved sound system in your vehicle.

If you’re not willing to spend a lot, you should reconsider buying new speakers. Often, the stock speakers in your car are better than low-end aftermarket speakers. I’d hate to see you drop a few hundred bucks and get a sound that’s worse than what you started with.

Car audio equipment speaker set with wiring and crossovers

Replacing Speakers with Identical Speakers

A lot of problems can be avoided if you replace your speakers with OEM versions. This is only the case if your current speakers blew out or got damaged and you don’t want to upgrade them.

You can find other speakers that are less expensive but offer the same sound, but that requires a lot of research and offers the potential for getting a speaker that doesn’t fit or work.

A great place to find OEM speakers is at the junkyard. Make sure you bring some prying tools along to get the donor speakers out without damaging them.

Conclusion

You just learned everything you need to know about your car’s sound system. I covered some key terms, parts of your speakers, and considerations to make before swiping your card on a new speaker system. If you want more car guides, explore the rest of my blog. If you have something to add, then leave a comment below. Also, be sure to look at which car products I highly recommend for every driver.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Got it! Check your inbox for a confirmation email.

Sign up for Exclusive Car Tips

Get Access to Useful Automotive Tips from Motor Hills

Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

Leave a Comment