Speakers and watts, good car sound

Week 20, 2003

Q) In my previous car, I Pioneer 2-way, 6×8 inch 150 watt speakers installed in the front. These gave me a punchy, bright, high-end sound.   In my new car I have Pioneer 3-way, 6×8 inch 220 watt speakers.   Now I don’t get quite the same bright, punchy, high-end sound which I like.   What can I do… would the 2-way speakers be better?

-Jon, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

A) Your seemingly simple question requires a somewhat complicated answer.   I will start by clearing up a few common misconceptions about speakers, and then address your particular situation.  

First of all, many consumers quote the “watts” of a speaker when it is practically meaningless from a sound reproduction or speaker quality standpoint.   Speakers do not have “watts”.   They can only receive watts.   What’s more, there is no common frame of reference for the “watts” specification between speaker manufacturers.   For most manufacturers, it represents the maximum recommended amplifier power. For others, it may   be the continuous power handling.     To get a real idea of how much sound a speaker can produce, look at the sensitivity rating.   This is the amount of decibels a speaker can produce at one meter for every watt that is placed into it.   Very high numbers (above 92 decibels per watt) means a speaker will play loudly with little power.  

Second, there is no correlation between the number of drivers in a speaker and sound quality.   If you were to examine the speakers offered by some of the most exclusive, highly regarded manufacturers, you would see lots of two-way speakers selling for many thousands of dollars.   In fact, some of the finest sounding, most critically acclaimed speakers of all time such as the Quad electrostatic and the original Ohm Walsh series used only ONE driver to produce all the bass, midrange, and treble.  

The reason most speaker designers go beyond a two-way design is when the speaker needs to make very deep bass.   To make deep bass, speakers need to move lots of air, which means big drivers.   If a woofer in a two-way speaker is above six or eight inches in diameter, midrange reproduction will suffer.   Since your two-way and three-way speakers use the same size woofer, and a 6×8 inch driver is small enough to do a good job producing the midrange, it would appear at first that the two-way speakers you had before were of higher quality than your current speakers.

Which brings up the next variable:   the car itself.   Comparing different speakers in different cars throws a real monkey wrench into the equation.   The acoustics of any listening environment have a tremendous impact on what your speakers sound like, whether the environment is a room in a home, or an automobile interior.   In a home system, experimenting with speaker and furniture placement can yield drastically improved sound quality.   Sometimes moving a speaker only six inches can yield dramatic improvements!   Unless your cars are the exact same model, they have different interiors, different upholstery, and different speaker placement.   This makes it hard to determine exactly why you aren’t getting the sound you want.  

To find your auto sound Nirvana, visit a few auto sound specialists who have experience with your make and model of car to see what they recommend.   Also, listen to some automobile speakers from Boston Acoustics and Polk Audio.   I think you will find them to sound much better than even your prior Pioneers.

To learn more about speakers and sound reproduction, check out the speaker pages on my website.   I think it will help you in deciding.   Good luck finding that great sound again!

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