2-way vs. 3-way Car Speakers: What’s The Difference?

Music is a godsend and it is a constant companion. I usually drive my car with music playing and the volume turned up to a safe 70%. This habit helps me overcome boredom while stuck in traffic. This is why a good audio system definitely helps pass the time. Another reason why I’m particular about having a good audio system is I like having friends in the car with me. I don’t want my friends telling me to turn up the volume when our favorite song comes on and having the speakers crack, or sound distorted, or feel like the sound is coming out of a tin can.

2-way vs. 3-way Car Speakers

When improving your sound system, whether a small upgrade or a complete overhaul, some things come up for discussion. One of these is the option to choose between 2-way vs. 3-way speakers. To help you decide which is best, let’s discuss the issues that affect our choices. How do you decide which one is best? What are some things you have to consider? What are the trade-offs?

What is sound?

Without getting too deep into the physics of sound, you should know a few things about them. Sound, or acoustic waves, is a vibration that propagates through a medium, usually, air. These waves have a frequency measured in Hertz (Hz), or the number of cycles per second. The average human can hear frequencies of around 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz- or essentially, the full range frequency when talking about audio systems. As we age, though, we tend to lose the ability to hear higher frequencies, with studies showing men having it worse than women. Voices, in case you’re wondering, have a frequency of about 300 Hz to 3,400 Hz.

A basic speaker system

Here’s how a basic sound system looks like as a diagram:

Diagram of a basic sound system
Fig. 1 Diagram of a basic sound system

First, we have the source. In a car’s system, the source is usually the radio or entertainment system that provides the primary signal – or music – in electrical waves. This signal on its own isn’t strong enough to drive your speakers. The source signal can either be for mono or stereo systems, with stereo usually as default.

Monophonic systems simply mean the source signal has a single channel and the speakers, whether right or left, play the same signal. A stereophonic system, meanwhile, has at least two channels so different signals are played by each unit. This mimics the way our ears hear a sound, and depending on the location of the sound source, one ear will usually hear the sound first or hear it louder. This gives the sound “directionality,” which allows the listener to sense which side the sound is coming from.

Next, we have an amplifier or sometimes called the power amplifier. It is a typical electronic circuit that takes in the source signal and amplifies the power of that signal several times until it has enough power to drive the speakers to produce sound. Finally, we have the speaker or driver unit, a type of transducer that converts energy from one form to another and which converts electrical energy into sound waves.

Understanding how drivers work

Drivers create sound by driving a “diaphragm” back and forth. This movement creates a change in air pressure (sound/acoustic waves) that travel across the air, and into your ears.

Different kinds of drivers handle specific ranges of the full-range frequency, and driver types generally follow that bigger drivers handle lower frequencies, and the opposite is for higher frequencies. The main types are Woofer, Midrange, and Tweeter, and these fall into subcategories:

Main typeSub-categoryFrequency handled
WooferStandard20 Hz to 500 Hz
Subwoofer200 Hz and below
Midwoofer200 Hz to 5,000 Hz
MidrangeStandard500 Hz to 4,000 Hz
TweeterStandard2,000 Hz to 20,000 Hz
Super Tweeter10,000 Hz and above

Audio crossovers can affect the quality of sound

What are audio crossovers?

Audio crossovers were not included in the basic diagram setup we saw earlier, but this is an important aspect of sound systems. They refer to the electronic filter circuit that divides the full audio range into smaller ranges and redirects these signals that fit into the range accordingly to different drivers made to handle that range. Used when you have more than one speaker, audio crossovers are an important area to look at when you want to avoid distortions and they come in different electronic filter types.

Filter typeWhat it doesWhere it is used
Low-pass filtersBlocks/attenuates signals ABOVE a certain frequencyOn woofers
High-pass filtersBlocks/attenuates signals BELOW a certain frequencyOn tweeters
Band-pass filters*Only allows a certain range of frequency to pass through and blocks anything above or below that range

* Band-pass filters are made by combining both high-pass and low-pass filters

Roll-off points

The roll-off point, or cut-off frequency, is the frequency where the signal starts to be attenuated/blocked. An ideal band-pass filter response would block anything after the cut-off frequency completely.

An ideal band-pass filter frequency response
Fig. 2 An ideal band-pass filter frequency response

In the real world, however, an actual band-pass filter response that instantly blocks is harder to achieve. Actual filters have a slope wherein the signal is attenuated gradually.

An actual band-pass filter frequency response
Fig. 2 An actual band-pass filter frequency response

Crossover points

On the full frequency range, crossover points occur where smaller ranges intersect and cause distortions. Distortion results when crossover points overlap the frequency ranges of different speakers or drivers, resulting in a sudden change in the level of the signal heard on those specific frequencies, relative to a frequency not covered in the crossover points. This is where the design and the blending of the different circuits become important for the overall quality of the sound system.

Passive vs. Active crossovers

Crossovers are classified based on their component types. Passive crossovers in a circuit do not need an additional power source. They are low-cost and easy to set up and found after the amplifier. They split the frequency range for the corresponding drivers.

Active crossovers in a circuit, meanwhile, are differentiated in that these require a separate power source. They are placed before the amplifiers, which means after the crossover divides the frequency range, they supply those signals to different amplifiers, resulting in less power loss compared to passive crossovers.

Acoustic lobing

We have so far learned how your audio setup can overlap in some frequencies causing distortions. Another noteworthy point is how different units have different radiation patterns – usually in the form of a lobe – that can also affect one’s overall experience. Simply put, the sound coming from one speaker unit covers an area, and we need to pay attention to the area covered collectively by several units as they give off the sound. Areas covered by two units will sound louder than areas only covered by a single unit.

Comparing Coaxial vs. Component speakers

You will generally be familiar with two types of speakers – coaxial types and component types.

Coaxial speakers

Coaxials are “all in one” speakers, aka full-range speakers, and feature different sets of speakers on the same axis. The individual units are mounted on top of each other so that the sound they give off comes from a single point source. They usually have small passive crossovers mounted behind the speaker/driver.

One disadvantage of this design is that high frequencies, which are very directional, can be blocked when placed on a car door panel. Another disadvantage pertains to the number of speakers mounted on top of the main driver (usually the woofer). This design can disrupt the sound waves as it partially covers the diaphragm of the woofer.

Here’s how a typical coaxial speaker with a midwoofer and a tweeter mounted on top might look:

Coaxial speakers
Component speakers

Meanwhile, component speakers, as the name implies, have each speaker/driver separated into different components. Each component is connected via a separate large crossover, making the system more efficient than those found on coaxial types, and each can be mounted on different areas to improve the directionality of the sound.

Here’s how a typical component speaker with a midwoofer, tweeter, and cross over might look:

Component speakers with a midwoofer, tweeter, and cross over might look

Now that we know the basic concepts that pertain to a sound system, let’s differentiate a 2-way, a 3-way, and even a 4-way speaker.

2-way vs. 3-way vs. 4-way speakers

Simply put, these types are differentiated by the number of speaker combinations within the system. A 2-way speaker is composed of a midwoofer and a tweeter, a 3-way speaker is usually composed of a woofer, midrange, and tweeter, and a 4-way speaker usually has a woofer, midrange, tweeter, and super tweeter.

What are their differences? Which one is better for you?

Here’s a helpful video to show the difference between a 2-way and a 3-way speaker:

Notably, the differences and deciding which one is best aren’t exactly clear cut. Rather, many factors come into play including complexity, quality, budget, and the type of upgrade you might want.

Complexity

Essentially, having more units means having a more complex system. Two-way speakers only have one crossover, and thus, one crossover point. Three-way and 4-way speakers, meanwhile, have two and three crossovers and crossover points, respectively. Having more crossover points will mean more fine-tuning to reduce distortion. Moreover, choosing between a component or coaxial type may mean you don’t have a say on the crossovers as coaxial speakers usually already have them built-in. This leaves you stuck with the default configuration.

Sound quality

In theory, more speakers would mean you could have better sound. This is because each speaker was tailor-fit to a specific frequency range, rather than trying to have just one unit cover the whole frequency range. However, more factors are in play that can affect sound quality. These include the speaker’s size, the materials used in manufacturing, and the engineering that went into the design of the individual unit.

Budget

Budget, a major consideration for most, should always mean quality over quantity. A good two-way speaker is always better than buying, say, a four-way speaker bought at the same price, but of lower quality. Splurge on your system if you must, but always aim for the best quality you can afford.

Remember, too, the law of diminishing returns. On the lower end of the scale, a 30% price difference between two speakers may matter a lot. Once your price point starts to go up and inches their way to the more premium brands, however, that 30% price difference will probably come out to a very little difference in sound quality.

Type of upgrade

Are you looking to overhaul your whole system or are you just planning on some minor upgrades here and there? An overhaul of your car’s sound system probably means you don’t have a problem with budget issues. If you have a strict budget, though, you may want to check your car’s current system and setup and save some money along the way.

Is your car provisioned to have a tweeter in front – usually on the dashboard in a component setup – or is your current setup sporting a coaxial speaker? If it doesn’t have a separate tweeter speaker, then a minor upgrade of your current coaxial speakers might be good enough. Most car manufacturers don’t spend much on your car’s sound system by default anyway, and changing those drivers can be a good first step.

Quick reference guide on a 2-way vs. 3-way vs. 4-way system

Points of Comparison2-way3-way4-way
Complexity1 crossover point
2 crossover points3 crossover points
Sound Quality (for the same quality speakers)Midwoofer and tweeter
Woofer, midrange, and tweeterWoofer, midrange, tweeter, and super tweeter
Good ClarityBetter Clarity*
* There’s a small difference compared to a 2-way when compared to coaxial speakers.
Best Clarity**
** The difference, though, between a 3-way will be very minimal because of the additional tweeter.
Budget (according to lowest price)1st2nd3rd

Quick reference guide on a Coaxial vs. Component speakers

Points of ComparisonCoaxialComponent
Complexity-one speaker location -Built-in crossover (passive)-Different speaker locations (may need provisioning) -Separate crossover to manage
Sound Quality
(for the same quality speakers)
Woofer is obstructedEach speaker can be located to improve directionality
The sound comes from the bottom of the door panel when using the usual set-up.For the same quality, component speakers would sound better.
Budget (according to lowest price)1st2nd

Pro tips

Before you head out the door or spend money for a major upgrade, here are a few other things to consider regarding your preferences in a sound system.

Source material

The music you play on your system is important, and an expensive system won’t hide low-quality music. Use files with a bit rate of at least 320kbps or use lossless file compression types like FLAC, ALAC, etc., as these will give you the “Hi-Fi” sound you’re looking for. Make sure to review your playlist for the best file type!

audio file formats
audio file formats

Electrical wiring

When upgrading your vehicle’s audio system, make sure to check your vehicle’s electrical system, too! Depending on the upgrades, the amount of work to your electrical system may be minimal or extensive. Don’t be like those dummies whose car lights dim when they put their stereo on full blast while trying to blow the ceiling off.

How to get good bass

Get a good subwoofer and don’t forget that a subwoofer needs airspace – for the box and your car’s trunk. The size of the subwoofer you will want will decide how much airspace is available inside the enclosure and how much space that enclosure occupies in the back of your car.

A quick word about home theater systems

Size matters, and when choosing your home theater system, consider your room’s size. If it’s a large room, go big with the speakers. A small room, though, won’t require those 3- or 4-way speakers. If your space isn’t large, the returns just won’t justify the additional cost.

The Verdict: 2-way vs. 3-way vs. 4-way speakers

We’ve gone through the lengthy exercise of gaining a basic understanding of how to decide which setup or system is best. The best answer is that the best speakers for you depend on your constraints. Are you willing to splurge on high-end 4-way speakers for the incremental quality increase versus a 3-way? Will a 2-way speaker that gives the best bang for your buck be good enough? Sure, component speakers offer better quality than a coaxial but are you willing to spend more and do more modifications to your car just to set them up? For most of you reading this, a high-quality 2-way coaxial speaker that saves you money and effort just might be good enough already.

Being a professional DJ, who has performed life at numerous jazz festivals, clubs, lounges across the US, today Rafe Gomez has went far beyond his expertise as a professional musician. He is also a professional consultant, sharing his impressive knowledge, providing support to companies all around the world. His passion for high quality sound, both in terms of creation and transmitting, has led him to be a great music expert with amazing personality popular all over the world.

Add a comment