The First Step Towards Auto Sound Domination: How to Replace Your Door Speakers
Do you look forward to driving your car? If not, why not? Perhaps it has something to do with the quality of the sound system? Would your car be more entertaining with better audio?
Even if you barely know which end of the screwdriver to hold, it’s easy to upgrade your current door speakers, or even install door speakers where they don’t currently exist. Yes, you can learn how to install door speakers, and it’s a lot easier than it seems.
After driving a succession of lousy old cars with only a small, squawking central dashboard speaker, I decided to make my commute more pleasant with a real audio system. I've done this a few times: the first was about 5 years ago, back when car audio was all the rage.
The simple truth back then: Factory audio systems were often so bad (or in some cars, nonexistent) that upgrades were well-worth the time and trouble. Audio improvements were like the low-hanging fruit of the car customization business.
Nowadays, most cars leave the dealership lot with a serviceable audio system, at least. Some of them are quite good. However, one thing I’ve noticed: the door speakers sometimes stop working. Those “premium” auto sound systems with names like “Infinity” or “Bose” often use speakers with built-in amplifiers.
After six or eight years of use, those speaker-amp units frequently fail. Personally, I've owned two Nissans and a Jeep with this specific problem. In each case, the fix was the installation of a new head unit and new door speakers.
Another reason to upgrade: improved audio performance. Even if your current sound system is good enough (and honestly, most aren’t that bad), it could always be better. Upgrading your door speakers could be your first baby-step towards auto sound domination.
Often, new door speakers rapidly lead to a custom subwoofer, a trunk full of amplifiers, tweeters in unexpected places, and a radical lifestyle change. A whole new auto-sound you could be waiting just beyond that horizon.
So let’s get this journey towards wonderful car audio started, shall we?
What You’ll Need
- First: What’s in There Now?
- Finding The Right Speakers
- Removing The Door Panel
- If You Have No Pre-existing Speakers
- Installing The New Speakers
- Reassembling The Door Panel
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First: What’s in There Now?
- Screwdrivers (both phillips and slot types)
- Hex wrenches (if necessary)
- Torx driver (if necessary)
- Two small containers (boxes or jars)
- New speakers of the right size for your application
- Blue masking tape (optional)
One important question: Does your car already have door speakers?
Many cars have door speakers pre-wired from the factory. Maybe you haven’t noticed. Maybe (like in the examples above) they’re already broken.
This is important. This job might be quick and easy if the holes and wiring are already in place, though your replacement speakers might require some special steps (and perhaps a third-party kit) to fit in the factory locations.
But note this: If you have a system with amplifiers integrated with each speaker, you’ll need to do some planning on how the new replacement speakers will be powered. This is true if you aren’t going to use original replacement speaker units from the factory. The speakers on a factory “premium” system like those offered by Bose take a line-level signal (usually -10dBv) from the head unit and amplify it at the speaker itself.
If you hook up a passive, un-amplified speaker to that cable, you’re not likely to hear much. So, in the cases of amplified speakers, you will need to consider getting a different head unit, or adding an amplifier for your new speakers. You’ll also likely need an adapter box to get the stock head unit to talk to your aftermarket amp. Replacing speakers can get kind-of involved at that point.
For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you have your amplification choices figured out so we can concentrate on the installation of the door speakers.
Finding The Right Speakers
Here’s where one of my favorite websites - ever - comes into play. Crutchfield.com has been in the aftermarket car audio business for a long, long time. Put in a car make, model, and year, then get back recommended speaker sizes and models for each location in the car - including the doors. The results include speakers for every budget.
Pay special attention to any notes from Crutchfield on speaker mounting depth. For example: all 5.25-inch diameter speakers are not of the same mounting depth. Accommodating extra depth in the stock location can be done, but it isn’t always easy or neat. Once you have a speaker in mind, remember to note if Crutchfield recommends a mounting kit for your application.
The speakers you choose will depend on size, impedance, power-handling requirements, and budget.
You’re looking for speakers that match the output characteristics of the amp you’re using to drive them. In other words, if you’re using a stock head-unit or amp that had been driving a 4-ohm load from each stock speaker, you’re going to want 4-ohm speakers as replacements.
Usually, aftermarket gear has no trouble handling the output of a factory stock amp or head-unit, but maximum power handling is also something to consider. In terms of sound quality, consult customer reviews to find the right speaker for your musical tastes. A jazz listener is going to have different expectations of a speaker than a thrash-metal fan.
For a great overview on speaker choices, check out our article about how to find the best door speakers for bass delivery. Not all all door speakers were created equal - especially when it comes to bass.
PROTIP: One slightly higher-priced option to consider: Component speakers. These door speakers have their woofer-mid cone in the stock location, with a remote tweeter located higher up on the door panel for improved stereo imaging. They can be a bit more involved to install, but are sometimes worth the cost and effort.
Removing The Door Panel
Once you have your new speakers in hand, it’s time to get down to removing the old speakers and the door panel. This is often time-consuming, but usually not very difficult. Note I say “usually.”
1. Remove The Speakers (If Possible)
Sometimes, the existing speakers can be removed prior to removing the door panel. If this is the case, remove the speakers, first. If you’re not changing cables, mark which wire goes where (or take a digital photo) to help you reattach the old cable to the new speakers.
In very simple cases, speakers can be replaced without removing the door panel - though this is not common.
2. Locate And Remove All Screw-Type Fasteners
The next step is to locate all fasteners for the door panels. These can be screw heads (slot or phillips), hex-heads, or even that hipster of the fastener world, the exciting Torx.
Determine the right tools for all the fasteners holding your door panels to your doors, and get small boxes or jars to hold all the fasteners for each as you remove them.
Beware of any fasteners located behind the door handle.
Once you’ve removed and set aside the fasteners, prepare for what is often the most annoying part of this job: removing the door panel without breaking the trim clips.
3. Pull The Trim Clips Free
Trim clips aren’t screws: They're plastic fasteners that press into non-threaded holes in sheet metal. They aren’t designed to be removed more than once or twice in their lifetimes.
Frequently, they break in the process of removal or reinstallation. Your door panel might have six or eight or fourteen of these horrible little things.
If you replace the door panel without all the trim clips intact and in place, it frequently means annoying buzzes and vibrations while you try to enjoy your upgraded car audio. So be careful with your pry-bar.
PROTIP: The best approach is to get the real tool for trim clip removal. This package of non-scratching plastic trim clip removers from Harbor Freight tools can save a lot of aggravation. At less than $10, it’s better than scratching your door panel and breaking the trim clips with a screwdriver or a pry-bar.
4. Remove The Speaker
Once you have the door panel off, you should be able to easily remove the speaker (if not removed already in step 1). Remember to note which terminals take which connectors - if you are going to reuse the cables.
If You Have No Pre-existing Speakers
Most car manufacturers include the mounting spaces for a speaker even if they aren’t installed. Often, you’ll find the mounting hole for a certain size of speaker (often a 5.25 or 6.25-inch unit) behind the door panel.
You can mount the new speakers in these locations with the help of a few Hillman clips (also known as J-clips).
Speaker manufacturers often include these in the package with the speakers, along with a paper template for use in cutting the right size holes for the speakers.
In some cases you will need to open a hole in the door panel through which the speaker can be heard, and around which a grille and trim ring (from the speaker manufacturer) can be placed.
Though this will vary by each application, the basic method follows:
- Find locations for the mounting holes for speakers in the door panels
- Place the manufacturer-provided template at this location. Tape in place.
- Use a fine-tooth blade on a jigsaw to cut a hole to accommodate the speaker.
- Drill holes as necessary for attachment of speakers to the door frame using the Hillman/J clips mentioned above.
Alternately, you might find it necessary to attach the speaker to the material of the door panel itself. This isn't ideal, but car audio frequently requires compromise.
Installing The New Speakers
This can either be very easy or rather difficult, depending on how well the replacements fit. As noted earlier, it’s possible to use replacement speakers that require extra mounting depth, but the result is rarely very pretty.
If you wisely chose a set of replacement speakers that are drop-in replacements for the originals:
However, let’s say for a moment that your speakers ended up requiring some extra mounting depth. The new speakers either won’t set in their mounting locations, or when installed, they interfere with the function of a window or door release.
PROTIP: Always check the function of everything in your door before reassembly of the door panel. This includes the window up-down operation, power locks, door open-close, and any other controls built into the door itself.
One way to allow the mounting of speakers that are too deep for the stock locations is to use a commercially-available mounting kit.
Companies like Scosche or Metra offer kits that allow the installation of speakers too large or deep for stock locations. At less than $20, they’re usually a good investment if your car-speaker combo is one that they’ve already addressed.
- Connect the cables to the proper terminals
- Screw the speakers in place
- Test them briefly to check for function, looseness, or rattles
- Reinstall your door panels
One potential problem comes when a combination of speaker and car just won’t go, and there’s no kit available to help. That’s when you get creative with some MDF board and a jigsaw. It can be done, but it usually isn’t pretty.
Reassembling The Door Panel
Re-assembly in the reverse of disassembly, as they say. Hopefully, all your trim clips are intact and ready to go.
PROTIP: If you have trim clips that won’t stay in place in the door during reassembly, try securing them with a strip of masking tape on their backsides (not the pointy part). Blue masking tape is best for this. Duct tape tends to seep adhesive and get nasty.
Patiently replace all the fasteners you removed and kept in those separate boxes or jars. Make sure you get all of the fasteners back in and torqued correctly. You don’t want any buzzes intruding on your audio joy.
Hopefully, you only have parts you don’t have any un-identifiable parts left over.
Hopefully, you got all those dastardly trim-clips back in without too much hassle.
Hopefully, at this point, you are enjoying the benefits of upgraded car audio.
And Hopefully . . .
. . .you enjoyed this brief tutorial on one of the prime ways to easily beef up your car’s audio system.
I remember how much more pleasant my ’77 Ford Maverick seemed after I mounted a pair of Jensen 5.25 inch coax speakers back in the day, combined with a Clarion head-unit.
It almost made the rest of the car bearable. I’m sure you’ll find improved audio makes any car seem more enjoyable - even ones that aren’t old Mavericks.
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