You can always tell which cars have subwoofers, as people can feel their deep, booming bass from yards away.
Subwoofers make riding in cars more fun thanks to the deep low frequencies they provide. This guide will explain everything you need to know about subwoofers, their sizes, and which subwoofer is best for your car.
One speaker can’t create the entire audible sound spectrum on its own to sound good, so speakers get broken up into three categories: tweeters, woofers, and subwoofers.
Tweeters cover the 2,000Hz – 20,000Hz frequency range, with 20,000Hz marking the upper limit of the human auditory range. For woofers, it’s 20Hz – 2,000Hz. We named them “woofers” because their deep sounds bear an eerie resemblance to a dog barking.
We call a speaker that produces the lowest audible frequency a “subwoofer.” They cover the 20 Hz – 200 Hz range, and they’re perfect for creating those heavy, bone-shaking vibrations we love so much.
The first known use of the word occurred in 1973 with Steely Dan’s album Pretzel Logic, when a recording engineer looked for new ways of enhancing the audience’s listening experience.
Movie theaters around this time used subwoofers in movies such as Earthquake to shake the theater. Subwoofers would eventually become popular in vehicles.
You’ll see subwoofers anywhere people play loud music — movies, concerts, theatres, cars, and more. The size, build, and manufacturing of each subwoofer determines its sound range and utility.
Subwoofer components include:
- The driver (also called the cone). The driver’s role is to move air to create sounds. It’s the actual mechanism that turns an electric signal into mechanical energy.
- Enclosure or box. The subwoofer enclosure, or the wood frame holding the subwoofer together, must match the subwoofer cone. Ill-fitting cones can come loose and sustain damage in the box, so the driver must fit in its enclosure. The more rumble you seek, the bigger the box you need.
You can choose between a sealed box and a ported box. Sealed boxes provide more articulate and finer bass sound. The ported enclosure gives you more bass power at the cost of accuracy.
- Some subwoofers have a built-in amplifier. The amp should provide 75-100% of the RMS power handling of your subwoofer or the combined total of all your subwoofers. A subwoofer of 200 Watts should have a rating of 150W or 200W amp.
- They tend to come in single and dual voice coil. The coils comprise the subwoofer’s wiring for mono and stereo speaker inputs.
- How will you plug the subwoofer into a power source? With speaker wire, of course. You must ensure you have the right size power wire, fuse, and all the wires you need for your subwoofer.
Power subwoofers typically require the least amount of wires, as the manufacturer already included the correct wiring upon purchase. Component subwoofers necessitate more wiring since you’re manually connecting the different parts.
Types of Car Subwoofers
Car subwoofers have a surprising amount of diversity.
Active and Passive Subwoofers
There are two main types of subwoofers — active and passive. Passive subwoofers essentially act as a loudspeaker. You need to plug in passive subwoofers into an amplifying source for them to work.
Active subwoofers, also known as powered subwoofers, include an amplifier in the enclosure.
Those who want to plug-and-play their music will prefer an active subwoofer. DJs, musicians, and other audiophiles may prefer to separately purchase their amplifiers to have more control over the final volume and sound.
The subwoofers parts come separate, giving you maximum control over how you want your subwoofer to sound. You can buy the cone, enclosure, amplifier, and wires either from the same manufacturer or all at once to style your speaker to your tastes.
If you’re not that particular about the components of your audio system, then an enclosed subwoofer may suit you better. The manufacturer builds the subwoofer, amplifier, and wires into a box frame. You simply have to plug the subwoofer into your car to get it working.
Vehicle Specific Subwoofer
Most subwoofer enclosures look like a square or rectangle box with scratchy fabric covering it to protect the speaker. Custom subwoofers may have lopsided, trapezoidal, or other unique shapes to make them fit particular vehicles.
Custom subwoofers reduce the amount of space occupied in cargo areas. Some manufacturers designed them to appear like arm-rests in the passenger portion of the vehicle to save space.
It’s probably best to avoid placing open drinks on them when used, as strong bass vibration can cause items to move around.
The driver and box of the subwoofer determine its size.
Subwoofer drivers tend to fall into the following size ranges:
- 5 inches
- 8 inches
- 10 inches
- 12 inches
- 15 inches
- 18 inches
Larger drivers displace more air and usually necessitate larger enclosures to fit any amplifiers, wires, and other materials supporting the driver.
Subwoofer drivers must correspond to the size of the box. While both small and large subwoofers can accommodate the bass of all music genres, the box allows that noise to expand. The larger the box, the deeper and heavier the bass will sound. Note that the thickness of the material used for the enclosure can increase the size of the box.
Having multiple subwoofer drivers also increases the enclosure size. Large subwoofers accommodate deeper bass. Boxes containing multiple subwoofer drivers give you more volume to work with.
How Do I Know What Size Subwoofer to Get
Generally, larger subwoofers can displace more air. They provide a louder and deeper sound. Larger subwoofers also give you the car-shaking rumble riders enjoy.
Smaller subwoofers provide punchier sounds. They’re also easier to control and require less electricity input. But they’re less performing in terms of vibrations.
Larger subwoofers and their boxes tend to be more expensive. In addition to size, price determines the quality of subwoofer bearings and thus the longevity of the speaker. Price may limit the subwoofer size you can get.
Drivers of vehicles with small cabs, such as pick-up trucks, may find it hard to set up a subwoofer without exposing it to the elements.
Some small subwoofers fit underneath seats for this reason, as they take up little to no usable passenger or cargo space. However, the seat standing above it, people’s legs, or additional items placed near under-seat subwoofers can obstruct sound clarity.
In vehicles, subwoofers typically go in the cargo space. Some drivers may prefer to place their subwoofers in the backseat passenger area for more intense bass vibration. Unless you purchase a customized subwoofer, drivers must trade-off bass intensity for extra cargo space.
Types of Music You’ll Play
We can see patterns in how different music genres use sound frequencies. You can then decide what subwoofer size to buy based on the music you predominantly listen to.
Small subwoofer cone sizes, like the 6.5-inch and 8-inch versions, give you a tighter, punchier performance, though they don’t offer a lot of deep rumbles. They’re best for music genres that aren’t bass-heavy such as country, pop, rock, jazz, and alternative rock.
Eight-inch subwoofers provide better audio for fast, repetitive bass notes like rock and pop.
Ten-inch and 12-inch speakers provide a good all-around balance for all types of music genres. The ten-inch speakers give you sound that’s a little punchier than the 12-inch subwoofer, so choose the smaller one for metal and rock.
Overall, both the ten and 12-inch subwoofer speakers work well for metal, rap, pop, R&B, jazz, blues, and rock. They’re a good compromise if you want to boost bass but don’t have enough room for a larger subwoofer.
Finally, subwoofer speakers of 15 and 18 inches work best for bass-heavy genres — especially rap and dubstep. The size of these speakers make them lag a little, so they’re best for bass-heavy genres with slower beats like rap and reggae. Note that you will have to upgrade your car speakers to prevent your subwoofers from overpowering your sound system.
Larger subwoofer speakers work best for rap, dubstep, hip hop, house, EDM, and reggae.
A subwoofer can be small enough to fit under your seat or take up your entire trunk area. The size depends on the space available, the type of music genre you usually play, and the money you can spend on the subwoofer.
Small subwoofers (6.5 inches to 8 inches) suit those seeking a better music experience than the stereo originally included in their car but don’t particularly care for having the loudest, most booming bass.
Midrange subwoofers (10 inches to 12 inches) fit people who want to feel a little shake to their car, but they either can’t fit a large subwoofer or care too much about precious trunk space to purchase a larger woofer.
And large subwoofers (15 inches and beyond) serve those hoping to feel every nut and bolt of their car shake under your music’s thunderous bass. You better say goodbye to your trunk, though.