When it comes to audio products in general, the fundamental problem is that most people simply aren’t experts – with so many brands, product turn overs, and glammed up sales pages with cool-sounding specs, how do you know which speaker is the best? This questions becomes all the more of an issue with specialty products such as marine speakers.
Funnily enough, the truth is that speakers – quite contrary to personal computing devices – haven’t actually changed all that much in the last few decades. You get an electric current that arrives at a terminal, which powers a magnet, which moves a voice coil, which vibrates a cone, which compresses air and creates sound waves. Boom, loudspeakers!
But the audio product market is burgeoning at an exponential rate – there are way more marine speakers available than there were just a few years ago. Why so many different versions of a product that has a fairly straightforward design that’s decades old?
Well, besides marketing hype, there are a few reasons that are particularly pertinent to marine/boat speakers:
- Sound perception is personal and subjective – just look at all sorts of reviews where authors use vague descriptors such as “thin,” “full,” “punchy,” “washed out,” etc. etc.
- Sound needs a medium to propagate and thus any material that is involved in reproducing the sound will influence it – this is particularly a challenge when that material also needs to be weather and turbulence resistant as well, which marine speakers of course need to be.
- Limitations explained by Hoffman’s Iron Law. This law (basically) states that between high output, low frequency extension and small size you can have up to two of these in any loudspeaker, but never all three.
High output and low frequency extension is obviously ideal – who doesn’t want full sound with deep bass at a good volume?
BUT, and this is why we mention Hoffman’s Law, if you want both of those things, a speaker needs to be bigger. This isn’t so much a limitation when we’re dealing with a conventional home-theater speaker indoors – just figure out a place where it can stand. Sometimes a speakers size actually plays into it’s aesthetics – bigger is better is how the cliche goes after all…
Though size is perhaps more a limitation for outdoor speakers, even then a consumer can accept speakers being bigger and bulkier, as long as they can figure out how to properly place/mount them.
With marine speakers though, size is the primary limitation – most units need to fit into a standard ~6 inch compartment on the hull of a boat. Beyond that, it’s easy to see how big, bulky speakers will quickly become a problem when they’re mounted to a boat that’s banging across moving water.
And then we get into the specific design: ceramic or neodymium magnets? Underhung or overhung motors? large or small diameter voice coils? Plastic, aluminum, carbon fiber or Kevlar cones? conical shape or curved shaped? Aluminum or copper wire in voice coils?
…Sorry, the whole point of this article is to help you from getting confused and to make a good buying decision. But, suffice to say, at least you now understand why there are so many different choices, and increasingly so as the future unfolds.
So how can one effectively decide which is the best speaker set to buy? That’s what we’re going to try to help you do, as well as keep this article updated with our favorite choices.
The Ultimate Question: Do You Like How Something Sounds?
You might not be an audiophile, but you do have a set of ears. Anybody can clearly hear the quality difference between a cheap knockoff and a quality alternative, even if they couldn’t explain why the latter sounds appreciably better.
Point being: The best way to pick speakers is to actually listen to them (in addition to considering specs, materials, and price of course).
But, much like we explain in our outdoor/all-weather speakers buying guide article, listening to viable options can be practically challenging.
The first obvious issue is that finding a retailer that carries various marine speakers and has them wired and ready to go for demoing isn’t exactly easy for a lot of people.
Secondly is the issue that speakers will sound very different in a show room than they will in the open air on an actual boat.
The next best option is to make an informed decision, perhaps taking advantage of generous return/exchange policies, and do your best to make your best choice.
This is where we come along as we try to point out the important things about a marine speaker system, where it shines and where it fails, and give you enough information so that you can make a decision. But ultimately the decision is yours, and especially for those aiming to high-end models, it’s best if you can test your choice on your boat. Contact a dealer and ask them if they can allow you to choose. Some dealers might provide a wide selection of speakers for you to test.
Now let’s discuss what makes a marine speaker system good:
Is The Speaker Well Built?
The way a speaker is actually designed and put together is very important in influencing how it sounds, beyond it’s specs on paper. This is especially true for marine speakers, which not only have to project well into the open air, but have to endure some of the roughest possible outdoor conditions. Here’s a summary of what we recommend a consumer should be conscientious of:
Assembly Quality – is there any glue showing at the joints? Are any parts visibly misaligned? Even if such “blemishes” aren’t directly important for sound per say, it can give you a clue as to which companies are the real deal or not.
Consider The Cone/Membrane Materials – in the audio world there is this preconception that if a vibrating membrane is made from aluminum or titanium then it sounds “metallic,” or if it’s made from plastic it sounds “plastic-y”, and so on and so forth. This really isn’t true though – although the material of the membrane does affect sound, it doesn’t mean necessarily all metal diaphragms will sound metallic, etc. The timbre of the sound is determined mostly by the moving parts of the speaker system, and there we must included the voice coil, the diaphragm, the spider suspension and the surround suspension as well. Most cones are also treated or coated with special materials to reach a certain internal damping level. For marine speakers (and outdoor speakers in general) the choice material is polypropylene. It is essentially a plastic material which can be molded in many shapes with a great amount of precision. This is very important because it means the tolerances between each unit can be very small. Polypropylene (PP) can offer a high resistance to harsh environment because many glues adhere very well to PP and can achieve good sealing. PP is also relatively cheap. Carbon fiber or composite materials are a bit more expensive but can add to durability. They resist mechanical stress much better, UV also much better, but glues might have a hard time bounding to them.
(Maybe) Consider The Magnets – Authors opinion here: many think that neodymium magnets make for better speakers, but that’s not really the whole story. Neodymium magnets are stronger indeed (for the same size) but the increased strength can be detrimental to the overall response. However the speaker can be designed with neo magnets so that its overall dimensions and weight are smaller.
Big Or Small Voice Coil? – If the speaker is fullrange (not coaxial or separated components) then a smaller voice coil will make the speaker respond better in frequency. Also you have to consider that a smaller voice coil is lighter and this means it will be more sensitive. For woofers in general a larger diameter voice coil is used to ensure a good power handling. A large diameter voice coil also couples better mechanically to the cone and force is distributed over a wider surface to the cone. This translates in less mechanical stress to the cone.
The Truth About Catalog Parameters (Specs on Paper)
Catalog parameters don’t tell the whole story, largely because we’re still at the mercy of the company’s reporting of them, and of course they have incentive to fudge things.
There were many attempts in the past by trade organizations to bring standards in this industry but still a large number of manufacturers don’t follow them, partially or at all.
This causes confusion when comparing parameters because we don’t really know how that value was actually obtained. So, a first selection criterion would be that measurements are done following a standard.
You will probably see a lot of AES ratings and these are standards created by the Audio Engineering Society. There are however other trade organizations creating standards, for example ALMA.
Power handling is probably the most published parameter and it is usually a selection criterion for most buyers thinking the more Watts the more louder the sound will be. This is actually incorrect because this parameter refers to input power not output power, basically it means the maximum input power the speaker can handle under certain conditions.
Sound pressure level (SPL) is the actual parameter that shows how sensitive the speaker is and you can get an idea on how loud it will be. Let’s look at an example:
|Speaker A||Speaker B|
|Power: 100W||Power: 50W|
|SPL: 86db/W/m||SPL: 92db/W/m|
Many will choose Speaker A because it can handle more power and think that is louder. However things are not like that. A doubling in input power causes the SPL to increase by 3dB this means that at 2W Speaker A will have an SPL of 89db. At 4W Speaker A will have 92dB matching Speaker B at 1W.
So for Speaker A to play as loud as Speaker B at 1W we need 4 times more power. 10 times increase in power means 10dB more in SPL so 100W would mean +20dB in SPL. Let’s see now the maximum SPL for our speakers
|Speaker A||Speaker B|
|Power: 1W ; SPL (dB): 86||Power: 1W ; SPL (dB): 92|
|Power: 4W ; SPL (dB): 92||Power: 4W ; SPL (dB): 98|
|Power: 10W ; SPL (dB): 96||Power: 10W ; SPL (dB): 102|
|Power: 50W ; SPL (dB): 103||Power: 50W ; SPL (dB): 109|
|Power: 100W ; SPL (dB): 106||Power: 100W ; SPL (dB): -|
As you can see even at twice more power Speaker A doesn’t sound as loud as Speaker B. It would actually require 200W for Speaker A to match Speaker B in loudness. Even so things are not so simple because as power increases a phenomenon appears called power compression. Increasing power causes temperature to rise and in effect the resistance of the voice coil wire will also increase. Because resistance opposes the flow of current less power will actually be converted to sound and more power will be converted into heat.
This said the best choice would be a speaker with a good SPL value, personally we would choose something above 90dB/W/m , and that can handle a fair amount of power. Here a good starting point would be around 50W.
I would like to point out an important aspect here. You will see in some specifications SPL rated as dB/2.83V/m. The 2.83V value corresponds to the voltage across an 8ohm load that will give 1W of power. However for marine speakers we usually have 4 ohm impedance so the dB/2.83V/m would give a higher value than the dB/W/m so be sure to check the measurement units as well.
Frequency response parameters are somewhat informative, but limited because we only see extremities and not the *actual* frequency response across the range. This is usually represented as a graph with a logarithmic X scale showing frequency and magnitude on the Y scale.
Most manufacturers just write the lower and upper frequency limit like 40Hz-20kHz, but the limitation is that we don’t know what output level the speaker has at 40Hz. Many would mention this by adding a -3dB indicating that at 40Hz and 20kHz the response is down by 3dB.
Even with a frequency graph shown you need to be careful at the Y scale. If the grid is scaled at 20dB you probably won’t be able to see any irregularities in the response. Most common graphs have a 10dB or 5dB grid.
For marine speaker systems it is important that the magnetic circuit is shielded otherwise if your mounting space is close to your compass and electronics, you might experience interference. With marine speakers it will probably hard to tell just by looking at it if it is shielded or not because usually the entire assembly is sealed for waterproofing. However shielding is done by adding another magnet and attach it to the bottom steel plate facing the same magnetic pole. So if the speaker magnet has the south pole facing the bottom steel plate then the shielding magnet will be glued with the south pole also facing the steel plate. This way stray field can be minimized. Some manufacturers also seals the whole structure in a nonferrous pot.
An equally important catalog parameter is resilience to weather conditions. Marine environment is one of the harshest for electronics. Marine speakers will be exposed many hours to UV rays, water, humidity and salt. Just like acoustic tests there are standards for testing resistance to environment for example ASTM B117-03 and D4329-99.
The most sensitive areas of speakers that fail in marine environment are the magnetic gap and cone terminations or joints. The magnetic gap is the tiny slit where the voice coil rests and moves along. If any rust due to salty humid air develops there then the rust particles will rub against the voice coil giving a harsh sound at first and ultimately failing.
The same humidity and even UV rays can affect cone especially at the points where it attaches to voice coil and outer surround weakening those joints and eventually leading to mechanical failure.
Before going through some marine speaker system recommendations we would like to point out one more thing. Size, in audio it matters, so as Hoffman’s Iron Law says if you want loud level and deep bass you need to consider big speakers.
Of course this brings the question of price. How much should we invest in our audio system? From what we have seen so far most people spend between 100-150USD on a pair of speakers. There are a few choices here especially from Amazon. But as we mentioned before advanced materials usually cost more so keep in mind that you get what pay for.
So what’s actually on the market? We’ve individually reviewed some of the most popular marine speakers out there, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Below are our (current) favorites among these – do keep in mind that review/comparison content on makeitsoundgreat.com is evergreen, so we’ll periodically update this article as necessary.
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This marine speaker system from Polk Audio combines high performance with amazing design. Powerful and loud, these speakers will sure rock your boat. Rated at 92dB/w/m and capable of handling 100W of power MM651UM will not disappoint you when you want to party. Great looks and solid build at around 200USD. It is a coaxial design, very robust with separated high performance crossover. The cone is made from a woven glass composite. These speakers have a cheaper version the MM651 but the compromise in materials used in my opinion it’s not worth it. So if you can look out for Polk M651UM (UM stands for Ultra Marine). See our full review here.
Deserves distinction for its accessibility and performance parameters. The grill design doesn’t stand out too much but the sound is above average. 612M marine speakers offer a good efficiency and power handling and always get a great feedback from owners. Easy to install, affordable price and loud sound, it what pleases most of us. The bass response is not so deep as the number 1 choice but still will put to shame many other systems. No need to worry about weather conditions, Infinity does a great job at quality check and you can be sure these marine speakers will satisfy the party person in you as well. See our full review here.
Update: This unit seems to have been discontinued, but, if you can manage to find it at a fair price, our endorsement still stands.
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These marine speakers are really good value, offering great sound quality and performance at reasonable cost. Robustly built they will sure impress you at the first sight. They handle power well and have good efficiency. Owners really love the bass response. You might have a bit of trouble to fit them in but if you don’t mind that you will end up with a serious sound system. As a plus most people held Alpine in high regards so you will have one more good reason to brag about.
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JBL is a speaker company we will always admire and I’m happy that, with their MS6200 model, they got a good place in marine speaker systems too. Affordable price, great manufacturing quality specific to JBL and good performance are the ingredients to a marine speaker system that will please anyone. The simple design has elegance and it will be so easy to install and integrate these speakers on your boat. These are the best choice for anyone who doesn’t really want to spend too much time on this subject and just needs sound up and running asap. See our full review here.
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Of course we could not complete a top 5 recommended marine speakers without the JL Audio M650. It’s a superb speaker system, a power hungry beast that can really shake your boat. It has won many awards from consumer publications and it has received great feedback. But all this performance and quality in design and manufacturing has its price. The M650 is the most expensive in this group so it sure appeals to audio fanatics. Those who will chose the JL Audio marine speakers will most likely get dedicated amplifiers and the whole lot. In the same line JL Audio also offers a subwoofer so this pretty much shows how serious they are in reproducing sound. See our full review here.
As you might have realized the list above doesn’t represent a rank of some sorts. All the 5 marine speaker systems have advantages and disadvantages that will appeal to different people with different priorities. That’s why we have so many models on the market, there is no perfect speaker.
This said, we do hope we could help you in making your decision, presenting you some aspects you should look into when you are in the market for marine speakers. If you get the chance to listen before you make your purchase that would be even better.