Car Speakers and Home Systems – a match made in hell?
A very common topic on the forums is whether a car speaker can be used in a home system. My own experience is a simple “why not!”. It all depends what you have and how you intend to use it. A young African guy walked into my shop one day with a loudspeaker setup, which he called his ‘disco’. Consisting of 2 enclosures with 9 Pioneer 4″ car speakers per enclosure. He had a Kenwood 100 x 100 amplifier where one channel had blown. Those old Kenwoods were virtually bombproof, I don’t know about now. The speaker system actually sounded amazing. All the speakers were front firing so I don’t think he got the idea from Bose. Bose also gets a bad rap – at the time they came out it would have put most youngsters back a few months salary and time hasn’t changed this. They still sound good, I don’t own a set and don’t intend to, but if you know how to set them up and have a decent amplifier they are really good. But I digress, here in essence was a good sounding system with my client using 4″ car speakers.
Do we still use disco equipment?
Now I don’t know about you but like most youngsters we all go through a phase of building our own speaker enclosures and put in whatever we can afford. ‘Disco’ in my days always consisted of Fane 12″ 100W speakers. In my case I had this horrid cracking sound which used to come out of the one speaker when driven fairly hard but within spec. Lo and behold a mobile system came to town and the system made the same sound. One needn’t be a rocket scientist to know which speaker make he was using. In time I found a wire (the flexible one 😉 ) running from the cone to terminal broke clean off at the cone – but obviously then it was too late. One does not read about this in the forums but I can tell you that the speaker was used in the early 80s in nearly 90% of the systems I came across. Any event, I made speaker box which had some surplus 6 by 8s from Kenwood. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly they outperformed the Fanes. Perhaps I was a bit put off by the pricing of Fane speakers which in South Africa had miraculously tripled in price over 6 months apparently due to import duty. The agents were quite happy about this of course because I had no doubt that this was a crap line they were playing to all their customers. A Brazilian speaker had made it’s way onto the market at that stage and ate up the Fane fan base. The brand was Novik, different distributor, different “import tax”. Practical Wireless still advertised Fanes at the same price which coincidentally was a third of South African prices even before this special ‘import duty’ was imposed. No, Fane make excellent speakers and I feel their name took a dive because of the unscrupulous way in which the distributor worked. Or was it the reseller, I don’t know – don’t care either. What is relevant to this article though is that people without money had to find alternatives and Novik was one of them. Car speakers was another. When cranking up the power these audio transducers may just be what you are looking for, affordable and designed to take abuse.
All power and nothing else
Almost all cheap ‘disco’ speakers comprised of 1 or 2 12″ drivers in a box and a piezo horn. These horn speakers usually had horrendous quality but after a few drinks who cares, we don’t hear those high notes anyway. Even at 160W per channel which was big power in the 70s and 80s these sound systems were loud. Quality was never a factor. Times have not changed, we have become mere lemmings in marketing based on kW, no longer watts. Top end sound systems are often less than 100W per channel but every watt is made to count. Just a few dB loss due to inefficiencies in the weakest link, the loudspeaker, makes doing the entire project irrational. Here I will again give my own opinion: powerful amplifiers are cheap and easy to manufacture these days. Powerful amplifiers made to run the whole night with all channels driven simultaneously are not. Amplifier ratings are usually given with only one channel running, the power supply has been cut to the bare minimum and in fact it may not even be designed to run even one channel for more than one hour without giving up the ghost. I have seen this with many home theater systems, they are just not designed for parties. If we look at the actual duty cycle of a home theater system we will quickly determine that we only rely on peak power in bursts for movies. For music, the shortcomings of the supply system becomes evident. Turning up the volume the ensuing distortion is not through a poor power amplifier design but a power supply which is suffering so severely from droop that the amplifier can really no longer reproduce any note or range of frequencies effectively. It becomes a garbled mess.
Car speakers used in HT
So can car speakers be used in home systems? Depends which speaker and how it will be used. The nicest sounding systems I have heard was normally through paper cone loudspeakers. There was no listener fatigue. You could play Mozart and Pink Floyd and not say which genre or music the speaker system was actually designed for. The amplifier was always stereo. The amplifier had no effects or FX. In my experience as well, when making substitutions of speakers in an enclosure designed for this purpose, car speakers needed more power input and there was listener fatigue. What I could afford were Alpines, Kenwoods and Pioneer loose speakers. This was thirty years back – I don’t think we have come that far where speaker systems have become so advanced that the design criteria has changed. They have become definitely superior in what abuse they can take and of course, directly linked, power handling capability. Many installers rely on pot luck, the car is not designed to be an enclosure – if your subs resonated the enclosure walls like that of the metal skin of a car you would quickly discard them. I have used cheap arsed speaker enclosures which weigh next to nothing and the resulting quality is highly suspect, no matter which driver you fit. Strengthen the enclosure, follow tried and trusted techniques to improve the overall imaging which more often than not relies on the internal mechanics of the enclosure and you may be on to a winner. Listening tests on an active studio monitor system which cost 1000$ and then on a home brewed 200$ system using car speakers brought out some rather unsurprising results in 2013. The amplifier was a NAD 7100, the monitors, the active Mackie 624s and home brewed speaker system, 50L enclosure of 18mm MDF with Kenwood 6 x 8s. (KFC-C6894PS). This was a throwback from the 80s when I built the first car speaker enclosure. At low drive levels the studio monitors outclassed the home brewed speaker system in every aspect. Once we started pushing the Kenwoods I was really pleasantly surprised at the quality. I used these speakers because I have found that Kenwood have a tendency to rather underrate and as most car speakers go they are also not very efficient. The Mackie system was driven from a PC to Focusrite 18i20 via USB. The Kenwood was through PC, 18i20 to NAD. The home brewed system was distinctive in that the bass was more solid than the Mackie but it needed to be driven hard to get there. To say the Mackie system was vastly superior in every aspect would not be accurate – as a studio monitor system they are excellent. The home brewed system wasn’t designed to be a studio monitor, they were actually designed to fit on the rear seats of a friend’s double cab pick-up. Music in the bushveld. Speakers that could be put around the campfire. The Mackies are not designed for this purpose unless you have a very thick wallet and a 220V supply.
The object of the exercise was to do a comparison between a known good system and a home brewed system. It also proved to me that yes, car speakers can be used in a home theater or stereo system – most entry level systems do not have good speaker drivers. Don’t blame Sony, I often hear people griping about their Sony, JVC, Denon and Yamaha systems – they have entry level and high end systems. The speaker system is the most expensive to reproduce on a large scale so short cuts are inevitable. I would not put a cheap set of speakers on a high end amplifier just as one would not use expensive speakers on an entry level amplifier. Matching and power handling is critical and of course, room acoustics. Most young people like their systems loud – by an large, known brand car speakers can be purchased for next to nothing, easily dissipating 100W or more from an amplifier, albeit an efficient system. By examining what you want it for is critical – loads of power, loud and fair to pretty good quality can be had at better bang for your buck than buying a known brand on snob value alone. I leave the technical jargon to the philes and salesmen, good quality car loudspeakers are by no means inferior.
Testing, testing, one two three….
For tests on the two speaker systems I used a Behringer ECM8000, Instek Function generator 8255 and a Hantek 60MHz scope. Readers interested in building their own speaker systems for general listening are advised to stick to known speaker brands, my own experience has proved conclusively time and time again that for the little more money spent extra is well worth it. Although I mentioned that I had bad luck with Fane, this is a well established loudspeaker manufacturer. Their Fane 8-225 mid/bass driver is exceptional value for money and if you do intend to drive your boxes with anything above 100W these are the 8″ drivers to use. Most, if not all enclosure manufacturers do not only rely on theory but listening tests, wood type, bracing, resonance, reflection and where it’s going to be used all play a role. The Mackie studio monitors were on loan from a colleague, he is a respected audio engineer and felt these were a good way to check the final result of the ‘home brewed’ passive speaker system using the Kenwood KFC-C6894PS. The Mackie 624 is designed for the studio, the Kenwoods not. The NAD can push 50W comfortably and to my ears, the quality was surprisingly good. They are not Wilsons and not intended to be. For general all round entertainment on a low budget you will be pleasantly surprised. The boxes I used were 3″ ported, 50L. I tried a sealed enclosure first – I believe the ported system allowed better bass and dynamics. Again one cannot determine what is good or bad for any particular listener, I am inclined to be more critical of expensive systems because we need to get what we pay for. Sometimes it’s only the person that paid the money that can hear things that are non-existent to justify the high cost. When reading reviews from acclaimed critics whom are fortunate enough to have high end systems in for tests it comes as no surprise that often the layman buys on snob value. If your system sounds like crap then check your connections – a lot more functionality is given to some of these entry level systems for the same price you would have paid twenty years back. Sony is an example of this. Get your hands on the technical and service manual on any one of their DG range and ask yourself how a company could manufacture something this sophisticated for a few hundred dollars. The power supply is always the first place companies go to when cutting back. It’s not designed to be a professional audio amplifier and the manufacturer never tells you that it is. For the price you are getting amazing value. If you are a DIYer, this is the first place you should go to in order to improve your system. I mention Sony here because they get some really bad publicity, mostly unwarranted. Just like Behringer.
Entry level speaker systems – and in comes the sub…
Most entry level speaker systems used as the main speakers for home theater sound pretty ‘thin’. The designers rely on a bass bin. Don’t complain about this. For bass response you need large cone diameters, they do not need to be high quality. They will absorb power, loads of power. All the energy needs to go into this. This will be your most expensive purchase. The second will be F, L and center. I purchased expensive surround speakers (the rear variety). It was a waste of money. Any cheap arsed speakers would have been just fine. Know the ranges of musical instruments, frequency responses, crossovers and bi or tri amping. Budget speaker systems can sound expensive if driven correctly. Strip the drivers out of the boxes and look inside. Most of them do not have crossovers these days because a good crossover costs a wad. Active crossovers do not and neither do amplifiers.
In conclusion, my dad built a high end speaker enclosure in the 50s or early 60s. He could not afford the driver recommended so used one which he could afford. Much work went into this tuned port system. The walls were cement. The speaker weighed a ton. He really did an exceptional job on the enclosure but the sad thing is he never used it because it sounded horrific. Looking back, we are doing something right these days. For the price we pay we do get exceptional value. So stop complaining, you could do far worse than using a car speaker. If power is everything then why not stick to car speakers. As we get older the speaker system should get cheaper because we don’t hear the high notes anyway. High energy content will sort that out quickly for you in any event.