True story: In 1983, Honda didn’t bother to include a car speaker system in any of its Civics, even the super-fancy 1500 “S” model. You bought the whole audio system from a dealer, who then installed it for you. Nearly 30 years later, things have changed. Today’s car audio is integrated at the factory and is often wired so intricately into the rest of the vehicle that it’s difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, to change or remove any of the components.
No need to fret—there’s an affordable, low-tech way to improve your audio quality. All you have to do is swap out your factory speakers with aftermarket ones. The average factory-installed car speaker is designed more with durability and cost control in mind rather than ultimate audiophile enjoyment, so an upgrade is a chance to make a big change for relatively small bucks.
The 8 Best Car Speakers
- Best For Music Lovers With Money To Burn: Focal 40th Anniversary Kit
- Best Rock Music Upgrade: Rockford Fosgate Midrange 4-Pack
- Best For Cars With 6 x 9-in. Factory Speakers: Infinity Kappa
- Best For Custom Installations: Kicker 8-Pack 2-Way Speakers
- Best Value Component Speaker System: MB Quart PS1-316
- Best Custom Installation Subwoofer: JBL Arena X 12
- Best Powered All-In-One Subwoofer: JBL GT-BassPro
- Best Boom For Cramped Cars: KICKER 11HS8 8-in. Hideaway Car Audio Powered Subwoofer Sub Enclosure HS8
The Expert: I’ve been an audiophile for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been building home and automotive sound systems for more than 25 years. My first system was a complete rewire of a new VW Fox; my last one was a high-power, subwoofer-heavy, from-scratch install in (of all things) a stick-shift Mercury Milan. I’ve had Land Rovers with four amplifiers and 16 aftermarket speakers in them, and I’ve also made do with just an extra subwoofer in a complex fiber-optic factory system. I’m passionate about great sound in cars, in the home, and on the go.
What To Consider When Upgrading Your Car Speakers
Size and Location
When in doubt, just remove and measure your existing speakers, then get something the same size or similar. There’s actually a lot of “slack” in many car speaker installs, and there’s also a variety of “standard” sizes that should work in many cars. Don’t forget about speaker depth; that’s often the most important measurement of all. Most of these items are best installed by a competent local shop.
Woofers and Tweeters
The days of asking one speaker to reproduce the whole range of music, like the old handheld AM radios did, are long over. Today’s car speakers specialize in one part of the musical spectrum. Tweeters handle the highest notes while woofers take care of the lower frequencies. More capable systems may have mid-range speakers, which fill in vocals, guitar, and other middle-of-the-road sounds, and subwoofers, which are responsible for that ultra-low “boom” you hear in cars next to you in traffic.
Source and Signal
Make sure that your speakers are powered by a conventional wire with positive and negative leads. In some cases, your car may use optical cable or a “common ground” wiring system; consult an expert if that’s the case.
Choosing Your Upgrade
If you’re not able to swap out all your speakers at once, which ones should you choose? Go big first! In other words, replace the largest speakers in your car before the smaller ones. The larger ones are tasked with making most of the noise in your cockpit, so an improvement will be more audible than if you swap out the tweeters in your car’s A-pillar, for example.
Assuming you’re also the driver, it’s also worth spending your money up front first. In some cases, even the passengers in the rear will appreciate your doing so, as many systems have a heavy front bias regardless of what you do with the fader knob.
How We Selected These Car Speakers
As a lifetime audiophile and sound-system builder in both home and automotive, I’ve built, installed, and listened to dozens of high-end car-stereo speaker systems over the past three decades. Having listened to and examined many of these systems, I’ve seen—and heard—first-hand what works and what doesn’t. I’ve used that experience to select and recommend the speakers below.
Best Value Component Speaker System
MB Quart PS1-316
- Woofer: 6.5 in.
- Midrange: 4 in.
- Tweeter: 1 in.
MB Quart has a long history with audiophiles, and now it has a value-priced system to replace the “speaker separates” in many high-end cars. Instead of a “two-way” design where both a woofer and tweeter fit in the same area, this system offers six individual speakers in three different sizes. So if you have a car that’s wired this way, as some Audis and Mercedes-Benzes are, this is a good choice.
Power handling is a robust 100 watts, up to the demands of most factory-supplied amplifiers.
- Works well as a replacement for factory separates
- Good value
- Won’t be an easy install if your car wasn’t built this way
Best For Music Lovers With Money To Burn
Focal 40th Anniversary Kit
- Woofer: 2 x 6 in.
- Subwoofer: 1 x 10 in.
- Tweeter: Two (2) dome tweeters
Whether we’re talking headphones or automotive audio, it’s hard to find people who don’t enjoy the clear, musical, and powerful offerings from French speaker-builder Focal. This complete automotive kit offers five of the firm’s best car speakers plus the amplifiers to push them. Using an interface kit to upgrade your car’s head unit (available for most modern cars for just a few hundred dollars), you can give your automotive audio experience the same kind of power and clarity offered by high-dollar brand-name systems in the finest luxury cars.
Be aware that installation of this system is best done with at least the advice of a professional. It’s also not the loudest choice out here, but the focus is on clarity and quality.
- Impeccable audiophile street cred
- Very expensive
- Complexity of installation
Best Rock Music Upgrade
Rockford Fosgate Midrange 4-Pack
- Mid/Full Range Speakers: Four (4) 6.5 in.
If you have a powerful amplifier in your car already, as is sometimes the case with factory upgrade systems in higher-end trim versions, then this quartet of speakers can help improve the “punch” of your sound. Rockford Fosgate is justifiably legendary for building rock-music-oriented automotive amps and speakers; these four are designed to be used with a high-power amp.
To get a full-spectrum upgrade, you’ll want to add a subwoofer and tweeters, but for owners of economy cars and small crossovers, many of which come with four 6.5-inch door speakers as standard, this should be a noticeable and welcome change.
- High power capacity
- Factory-fit size
- Biased for rock and other high-dynamics music
- Just a part of total upgrade package
Best For Cars With 6 x 9-in. Factory Speakers
- Main Speakers: Two 6 x 9-in. coaxials
- Tweeters: Two (2) additional. Coaxial speakers already have tweeters so these can be placed higher in the car for audio staging.
Not every car has room for 6 x 9-inch speakers, but there are plenty of older vehicles with this size on the rear package shelf or even up front in the doors. If you have space for these Infinity Kappas, you’ll like what they do for your sound quality. The included “crossover” boxes separate the music into the appropriate range for each speaker size, and the tweeters are a good fit for a lot of cars that already have a tweeter facing the driver and passenger above the dashboard.
Infinity has a long history in automotive audio and was one of the first manufacturers to partner with established carmakers. So these should be durable and usable for the long haul.
- Sound quality
- Factory fitment for many cars
- Crossover eliminates a lot of noise and improves the sound
- Won’t fit a lot of modern vehicles
Best For Custom Installations
Kicker 8-Pack 2-Way Speakers
- Midrange Speakers: Two (2) 5.5-in.
Looking to add some sound to a classic or older car with a lot of options for mounting speakers? Or are you doing the “van life” thing and looking for an affordable way to fill the big box behind the driver? Kicker’s 8-pack is probably the answer. These two-way speakers are happiest with about 50 watts of power each, and they cover the whole dynamic range of most recordings. (Pair with a subwoofer for best results, if you like bass-heavy music.)
Small, light, and fairly shallow, these are a good choice for SUV or van installations. They can be angled as well, to provide a larger sound stage that works well with surround-sound car stereos.
- Not the best choice for a simple upgrade on many modern cars
Best Custom Installation Subwoofer
JBL Arena X 12
If you’re willing to build (or buy) a separate subwoofer enclosure for your audio system, the JBL Arena is a best-of-breed choice. The aluminum long-excursion cone can handle 1,600 watts of power — that’s not a misprint. It’s chock-full of exotic materials and technologies. Pair it with the custom enclosure of your choice and rattle your license plate off—or simply enjoy symphonic music as if you were sitting between the bass and percussion sections.
- Serious power capacity
- Will rock your world and the whole parking lot as well
- Requires a custom enclosure
Best Powered All-In-One Subwoofer
- Subwoofer: 12 in.
- Amplifier Power: 150 watts
This is one of those products so nice that I bought it twice: first to add some much-needed punch to a $5,000 high-end aftermarket components speaker system, and then a second time after it was stolen. This box fits in almost any car and needs just two wires to get it going: the low-frequency line from a head unit, and a power line. Don’t have a low-frequency line? The GT-Bass Pro can be its own crossover system, separating the low bass from your existing speaker wiring.
Used correctly, this is the biggest and most noticeable change you can make to a car for $300. Just make sure you keep your trunk locked.
- Sounds great
- Doesn’t take up much space
- Doesn’t cost much
- You’ll want to bolt or strap it down to prevent rattling at max volume
Best Boom For Cramped Cars
Kicker 11HS8 8-in. 150W Hideaway Car Audio Powered Subwoofer Sub Enclosure HS8
- Subwoofer Diameter: 8 in.
- Power: 150 watts
Can’t fit the JBL Bass-Pro in your smaller car? Or maybe you’re not keen on losing a lot of trunk space. The Kicker Hideway is the answer. It fits under your seat—or your passenger’s seat, in some cars that have bulky power controls on the driver side only—and it puts the boom back in your boomin’ system. An installation-friendly harness handles audio signal and power in a single connection wire, while a remote control allows you to adjust the amount of bass without reaching under your seat. This is a great way to put some serious bass into a sports car or family sedan where the trunk is usually full.
- Ease of installation (for a pro)
- Adds some physical sensation to your music
- Has Velcro strap-down to prevent rattling
- Won’t fit in every car
- Won’t “hit” like a full-sized powered subwoofer box
Our expert Jack Baruth gives guidance on how you know your car is ready to rock, the clarifying power of speakers, and the biggest mistake buyers make.
Q: What should car audio sound like after an upgrade? How do you know it’s mission accomplished?
A: A well-upgraded system should do three things. It should place you “inside” the music, giving you a much stronger sense of being in the studio with the instruments around you. It should improve the clarity of your sound, letting you hear the squeak of an acoustic- guitar chord change or the breath of a vocalist. And it should, when the volume is cranked, give you a physical sense of the music, with drums and other percussion instruments eliciting a response in your skin or chest.
Q: How much power do I need for my new speakers?
A: They say that power corrupts, but in car audio power actually clarifies! Each speaker comes with a power recommendation; you should always be on the high side if you can afford it. A more powerful amplifier is less likely to distort the music at your preferred listening level, even if you’re not a crank-it-up sort of person.
Q: Do woofer and tweeter cone materials make a difference?
A: Generally speaking, the quality of speaker manufacturer makes more difference than the materials; a high-end paper cone will always sound better than a cheap aluminum or carbon-fiber cone. But if you’re driving a Jeep or convertible, consider an “exotic” material like titanium or carbon for water resistance and durability.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake people make when buying car speakers?
A: Getting a bigger speaker that costs less, thinking it will be louder. It might be, but you’ll pay a price in sound quality.
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