Car Speakers Review
How to Buy the Best Car Speakers?
The top performers in our review are the Pioneer A-Series, the Gold Award winner; the JBL GTO series, the Silver Award winner; and the Pioneer D-Series, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing car speakers to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
Unless you purchased your car brand-new with the premium audio package, your car has factory-installed speakers. These types of car speakers are cheaply made – the woofer looks and feels as though the manufacturer made it from a page ripped out of a notebook. You have to look very closely to find any sort of brand name – and if you do find a brand name, it's generally a brand you've either never heard of or a brand that's not known for making car speakers, like Panasonic. As such, these car speakers are better suited for people who prefer talk radio and internet podcasts to music. Either way, the bottom line is factory-installed car speakers don't provide a great audio experience. Replacing these speakers with after-market car speakers is the easiest way to upgrade your driving experience.
Buying after-market car speakers is more complicated than simply running to your nearest car audio shop and grabbing a pair of speakers off the shelf. First, you need to understand how to analyze your car audio system and how your car speakers fit into that system. What size are your speakers? Where are the speakers installed? How much power does your car stereo put out? Every car is different. It's important to find the best car speakers for your car. This starts with understanding how your car audio system works.
Analyzing Your Car Audio System: How It Works
The brain of your car audio system is the stereo receiver. This is the brick-sized box in the dash between the driver and the passenger. It receives the audio signal, processes it and amplifies it to the speakers (or an external amplifier). The audio signal can come from any number of sources – traditional radio, satellite radio, a phone via Bluetooth or USB port, CDs and music players. The stereo amplifies the audio signal through its channels, equally dividing the power per channel. As such, you'll need to look at the rated power and divide it by the number of channels the receiver has. This will give you a starting point when looking at car speakers, as it's critical that you ensure the speakers receive the proper amount of power.
Most car stereos come with four channels, but you can have more or less depending on the stereo. You wire the car speakers to each channel. If you're an advanced car audio enthusiast, you might send some, if not all, of the channels to an external amplifier. You'd do this if the internal amplifier of the car stereo wasn't powerful enough for the speakers or if you add a subwoofer, which requires too much power for most car stereos to drive.
When the audio signal reaches the car speaker, the woofer and tweeter vibrate. The woofer creates the low and midrange frequencies while the tweeter generally produces the high-mids and treble frequencies. The vibration literally ripples the surrounding air, like dropping a stone in a pond, to create sound waves at the various frequencies of the audio signal. Having speakers installed on the left and right side of the car provide a stereo image of your music. However, not all car speakers are capable of reproducing the audio signal as accurately as others, which we discuss later in the article. Your goal is to find the speaker that produces the audio signal with the most accuracy within your stereo's power-handling specifications.
Find the Best Audio: How to Focus Your Ears
The best car speakers provide both punch and clarity to your music. You should feel the music as much as hear it. And you should hear all the parts clearly, from the pluck of the bass to the splash of a cymbal. In essence, you want speakers that reproduce the song in the way that the artist intended. When you listen for audio quality, test the speakers with a song that you're familiar with and love. As the song plays, carefully focus your ears through four stages of listening – low, mid, high and the combined range in a different position. Since the speaker will play all the frequencies at once, learning how to focus your ears requires some practice.
First, focus your ears and your body on the low frequencies. This range accounts for the bass, the punch of the kick drum, the fullness of the guitars and vocals, particularly male vocals. You should feel the lows as much as hear them, but the low-range frequencies shouldn't sound muddy or too dominant. If the bass is too dominant, it will cancel out other frequencies, which robs the song of clarity in other frequency ranges.
The second stage is to move your ears to the midrange frequencies. This is where most of the tonal detail resides. Here, you'll listen for the different instruments, the words and the tones. You should be able to pick out the different instruments, including the notes being played. A speaker with poor midrange will compensate with dominant bass and high frequencies that are too sharp.
The third stage is to focus on the high frequencies, often referred to as treble. If the treble is too sharp, you'll feel sharp pulses in your ear that make you wince. You'll want to listen closely to the sibilance in the vocals, which is a sharp hissing sound that results from certain consonants. In this frequency range, you'll listen for spatial recognition and separation of the instruments. Imagine yourself at a concert: Can you hear where, on the stage, each musician is placed?
Once you've finished with the highs, listen to the song again but change where you're hearing the audio. If you're in a car, sit in the back seat or the passenger seat. If you're in a car audio shop, stand somewhere else in the shop. Changing your physical location is like cleansing the palate, allowing you to gauge the audio quality from a different perspective. You might hear a buzz or bit of distortion from a different angle that you didn't hear from the original position. This time listen to the full song and simply ask yourself: Can I get lost in this? Does this song sound as it should? Change your location as often as you need until you're satisfied.
Power Handling: Understanding the Specs
After audio quality, the best car speakers use power effectively. To evaluate this, you need to look at the sensitivity with consideration to the nominal impedance, which we'll discuss later during testing. There are two methods manufacturers use to measure sensitivity. In both cases, the sound pressure level is measured at 1 meter from the speaker. The difference lies in whether the manufacturers are basing the SPL on 1 watt of power or a 2.83-volt current. This is where the impedance rating comes into play. If the impedance of the speaker is 8 ohm, then the speaker draws 1 watt of power from the amplifier. However, since most car speakers have an impedance of 4 ohm, the speaker actually draws 2 watts of power.
With every 3 dB increase or decrease in sensitivity, the required power is exponential. For example, if you feed 100 watts to a speaker with a 93 dB sensitivity rating to produce a specific volume, you'd need 200 watts of power to reach the same volume with a speaker that has a sensitivity rating of 90 dB. If you're looking for volume, you want a high sensitivity rating with high power handling ratings. It's important to note that you'll need a 10 dB increase to perceive the volume as being twice as loud.
Car Speakers: Component vs. Coaxial
There are two types of car speakers: coaxial speakers and component speakers. Coaxial speakers consist of a woofer and at least one tweeter built into the speaker. Most coaxial speakers are two-way, which means that the speaker consists of a woofer and one tweeter with an internal crossover that splits the audio signal so that the highest frequencies are produced by the tweeter while the woofer produces the low and midrange frequencies. However, you can also purchase three-way, four-way and five-way coaxial speakers, which means that the speakers have more than one tweeter. Each tweeter is responsible for producing the highest frequencies.
Coaxial car speakers are easy to install, because the woofer and the tweeters are part of a single unit. In many cases, all you have to do is unplug your old speakers and connect the new speakers. The downside is that the entire frequency range of the audio signal is produced in a single location, which can result in some frequencies canceling out others.
For the best audio performance, you should consider component car speakers. These types of car speakers are broken into the individual drivers – a separate woofer and a separate tweeter. You install and wire the drivers separately with a crossover unit, which splits the audio signal so that the tweeter only produces the high frequencies while the woofer produces the rest of the audio.
Component speakers are ideal for the devoted, high-end car audio enthusiast, as these speakers often cost two or three times more than coaxial speakers cost. Unless your car came out of the factory with component speakers, these speakers also require custom installations for the tweeter. For this review, however, we reviewed the best coaxial speakers, because this is the most affordable way for most people to upgrade their car speakers.
There are many high-end car speaker brands – Pioneer, JBL, Alpine, Kenwood, Infinity, Polk, Rockford Fosgate, Sony and more. In our review, we considered the best car speaker brands because these speaker brands have a long history of high-quality audio. With every one of these top car speaker brands, you can trust that you're getting a significant upgrade on your factory-installed car speakers. These brands don't merely manufacture replacement speakers.
If you're looking to upgrade your entire car audio system, you should consider our car audio review and car subwoofer review. Your car stereo is the brain of your system. It tells the speakers what to play. A subwoofer can dramatically improve any car audio system by providing full low-end to your music. However, subwoofers require a lot of power – power that your car stereo won't have built into it. As such, you should also consider a car amplifier.
It's important to note that these audio ripples bounce off the interior of your vehicle while other frequencies are absorbed by the interior. This affects the audio quality. When you consider all the variables – that each vehicle has a different-shaped cabin, distinctive materials for the seats and dash, and speakers installed in different locations – you'll find that each vehicle has a unique acoustic landscape. This is why it's not uncommon for speakers that sound amazing when you're listening to them at a car audio shop to sound flat and lifeless once installed in your car. There are ways you can optimize the acoustic space. To learn more, read our articles about car speakers.
Car Speakers: What We Tested, What We Found
The most important consideration for a speaker is performance. To evaluate and test each speaker's performance, we examined audio quality and power handling. The ideal car speaker produces music exactly as the artist intended. It should also perform accurately at any volume. And to ensure that you're getting optimal audio, you have to make sure your speaker isn't underpowered or overpowered.
Audio quality is largely subjective and unique to the individual. This is because the audio experience is biological. You hear what you hear because your ears capture the vibrations of audio frequencies surrounding you and translate the frequencies into an electrical pulse on the auditory nerve, which leads to the brain. As such, the audio frequencies that your ears pick up and process are different from the person in the passenger's seat. So, to account for this inherent subjectivity, we performed multiple tests and evaluations to find the best overall audio quality. We also performed frequency accuracy tests to determine how well the speakers produce audio signals at low-, mid- and high-frequency ranges within the range of human hearing.
The overall audio quality was determined by considering three factors: the overall frequency accuracy tests, blind-ear tests and user reviews. For the blind-ear tests, we played music through each speaker and had listeners rate the audio quality without knowing which speaker they were listening to, so as to avoid brand loyalty. The same songs were used and the listeners were placed in the same distance and angle from the speakers. For the user reviews, we collated positive reviews from online sources with the simple logic that more positive reviews and more popularity within the car speaker market reflects the speaker's overall quality.
For the frequency accuracy tests, we had each car speaker in our review play a tone that transitioned from 20Hz to 20kHz. We chose this frequency range because this is widely considered the range of human hearing, though most adults can only hear as high as 15kHz. We recorded each speaker produce this tone dozens of times over the course of several minutes and at varying volume levels. Then we used a frequency-analyzing filter to produce the average frequency signature of each car speaker. We closely analyzed the number of dips, spikes and decibel fluctuations at the low- (20Hz to 470Hz), mid- (470Hz to 7.5kHz) and high-frequency ranges (7.5kHz to 20kHz).
To ensure that we adequately compared the results, we had to ensure that the testing conditions were the same for each speaker. This meant that we isolated the speakers in the same spot of the same room so that the acoustic landscape for the tests was the same for each speaker. We also tested the speakers on the same day so that the barometric pressure and humidity was the same for each speaker. We placed the microphone used for the accuracy tests at the exact distance and angle from the middle of the woofer for each speaker. Using a decibel meter, we also ran the tests at the same volume for each speaker.
Speaker Sensitivity & Comparative Loudness
A speaker's power-handling specifications are a critical consideration, because these specs tell you how well the speaker handles power and how much power the speaker requires to perform adequately. As such, we closely evaluated the sensitivity, continuous power handling and peak power handling. However, we placed significantly more weight on a high sensitivity rating over a high continuous power handling, because the sensitivity indicates how efficient the speaker is at handling the power provided by the car stereo.
Unfortunately, you can't take sensitivity specifications at face value with most car speakers. As mentioned earlier, manufacturers differ on how they measure sensitivity – some use the 1-watt method; others use the 2.83-volt method. The manufacturer generally uses the method that makes the speaker look the best. This leads to specs that look similar but are dramatically different in practice. In addition, since a speaker's efficiency is largely affected by the woofer's ability to move the surrounding atmospheric air, the present air pressure, altitude, humidity and other factors can affect sensitivity. As such, we performed our own comparative loudness tests.
For the comparative loudness tests, we used a decibel meter to record the volume at 1 meter from the woofer while the speaker played a variety of tones at the same volume level on the amplifier. We turned the volume to its maximum level and played 300Hz, 400Hz, 500Hz and 600Hz tones, measuring the decibels for each speaker. Then we averaged the recorded volumes. The difference between the loudest speaker and the quietest speaker was about 7 dB. For reference, a 10-dB difference is generally considered to be perceived as being twice as loud. However, since every 3-dB increase in volume requires twice as much power, the quietest speaker in our tests would require over three times as much power to produce the same volume as the loudest speaker.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else is Important in Selecting Car Speakers?
After audio quality and power-handling considerations, there's not much else to consider. Car speakers aren't terribly complicated. For the purposes of this review and because some of these systems represent a significant financial investment, we also included some other important considerations to guide you as you select the best car speaker system for you:
One of the power-handling specifications that you'll see with each car speaker is the impedance. This is the measurement of electrical resistance with the speaker. Impedance doesn't affect audio quality or performance unless you fail to match the impedance correctly with your car stereo or amplifier. However, this is more complicated than simply matching a 4-ohm speaker with a 4-ohm car stereo. A lower impedance draws more power from your car stereo's amplifier and vice versa. As a result, if you fail to match the impedance, you risk either overheating the amplifier or blowing the speakers.
To picture impedance, imagine the electrical current coming from the car stereo is water instead of electricity. The impedance of the speaker represents the size of the hose connecting the speaker to the stereo. Lower impedances are large hoses while higher impedances are smaller hoses. If the hose is too big (a low-impedance speaker matched with a higher-impedance amp), there won't be enough water pressure to power the speaker effectively. The amplifier has to work harder as a result, and this can cause it to overheat and burn out. Conversely, if the hose is too small (a high-impedance speaker matched with a lower-impedance amp), then water pressure might be too high, causing the speaker to blow as a result.
There are wide ranges of speaker sizes, but 6.5-inch car speakers and 6 x 9-inch car speakers are the most common. The 6.5-inch car speaker is the most common size for door speaker installations while the 6x9 inch speakers are most commonly found in the rear deck or rear doors. Since the 6 x 9-inch car speakers have a bigger woofer, they're typically better at producing fuller low frequencies. However, it's important to note that every car is different. Your car may have the 6 x 9-inch car speaker in the door and 5.5-inch car speakers in the rear deck. As such, it's always important to check your car's speaker sizes before purchasing speakers.
If you're installing the speakers yourself, it's a good idea to purchase a speaker bracket. Unfortunately, car manufacturers don't have a standard cutout for car speakers, which means that the holes for the screws might not match up with the after-market speakers. For example, a 6.5-inch car speaker's screw locations may not fit into the holes for the 6.5-inch installation of your car. Universal speaker brackets, which many car speakers provide, are an easy fix for this problem. These brackets can even allow you to fit a smaller speaker into a larger cutout.
Help & Support
For customer support, you should consider the warranty. The industry standard is one year. Should you have any problems, you should be able to contact support through email or telephone. You should also be able to find answers to common issues and concerns on a FAQs page. User forums are also an important resource for sharing ideas and concerns with people who use the same car audio products.
Car Speakers: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best car speaker series in our review was the Pioneer A-Series. Not only did this car speaker produce the best overall audio quality and the most accurate frequencies for mid- and high-range frequencies, but it was also the loudest speaker in our tests. The JBL GTO series received our Silver Award because it also combines excellent audio quality with excellent power handling. It has the highest continuous power-handling rating of any of the car speakers we reviewed. The Pioneer D-Series earned the Bronze Award because of the incredibly accurate frequency response and good audio quality and loudness, though the continuous power handling is among the lowest in our review.
If you're looking for affordable car speakers, the Rockford Fosgate Prime series offers an excellent upgrade over factory-installed speakers at about $80, which is significantly less than most of the coaxial car speakers in our review. The audio quality is very good and the low end scored one of the best grades in our tests. However, the loudness was just average and the 65-watt continuous power-handling rating is the lowest in our review. So while the audio quality is good, it can't handle the high volumes like the best car speakers in our review can.
If your car speakers sound dull and tired, there's no reason why you shouldn't replace them with one of the best car speaker brands. In most cases, installation takes only a few minutes. All you need is a screwdriver and a desire to experience high-quality audio as you roll down the road.