You might be wondering why your home stereo system sounds weird all of a sudden. Did someone mess up the wiring, or perhaps you have the wrong settings on your receiver? Well, while the previous answers are probable, you should also suspect the quality of your speakers.
Speakers wear out with time and use, much like anything gradually degrades in our world. Usually, the first thing that wears out in a speaker is the surround, especially if it’s made of foam. The good news is, even foam surrounds can last for ten years in good condition.
If you’ve recently bought new speakers and you’re wondering when you may need to get new ones, read on.
The Two Components That Wear Out Quickly in Speakers
Some of your speakers’ parts — like the metal basket — will probably last for a lifetime. Most of the electrical components will probably last for 30–40 years, but only if you don’t abuse them.
So, what exactly wears out in speakers? Two components: surround and spider.
If you don’t know what these components do and where they’re positioned in your speakers, don’t worry. I’ll explain all this stuff in the next few sections. But first, we should quickly review how speakers work so we can understand how they wear out.
How Speakers Produce Sound
Each speaker has two main components responsible for producing the sound: the voice coil and the magnet.
When you connect your speakers to an amplifier, the electric current flows in the voice coil, transforming the coil into a temporary magnet.
That temporary magnet is then attracted to or repelled by the permanent magnet depending on the electric signal. And as the coil moves back and forth, it also vibrates the cone back and forth, displacing the air and generating a sound that your ear can perceive.
The surround is the ring that connects the moving cone to the immobile basket. You can see it if you remove the speaker’s grille.
Naturally, the surround should be flexible enough to allow the cone to move back and forth. But it should also bring the cone back to the original position to prevent sound distortion and unwanted peaks and dips in the response.
Obviously, the constant movement is bound to degrade the surround, and the fact that it’s directly exposed to the elements may accelerate the degradation process even more. But of course, some materials can withstand abuse better than others.
Foam surrounds are the worst in that regard. They usually last for ten years before starting to rot and break down. Rubber surrounds are much more durable, probably lasting for 30–40 years.
Luckily, you can replace rotten surrounds, usually for less than $50. However, the new surrounds should be made of the same material as the original ones. I’m not saying that a different material won’t work out, but the sound quality may not be quite as satisfying.
The spider is the part that fits around the voice coil, attaching it to the basket. Like the surround, the spider has to vibrate at a certain rate to keep the voice coil centered over the permanent magnet, thus ensuring accurate voice reproduction.
If you tend to overdrive your speakers, the spider will eventually stretch more than it should, which is when your speakers will start to sound off.
Gravity can also cause the spider to sag with time, especially if you’ve placed your speakers in the same position for years.
Unlike surrounds, worn spiders can’t be replaced individually. You’ll have to recone the speakers, which means you’ll replace the cone, the surround, the spider, and the voice coil.
Other Speaker Components That Wear Out Less Frequently
- Voice coil: The voice coil may start rubbing against the basket for many reasons. In mild cases, the problem might be caused by lodged dirt. But it can also happen due to overheating, which will require full reconing to repair.
- Crossover network: This component divides audio signals between woofers, mid-range drivers, and tweeters. Overdriving can burn any component in this network, but the capacitors usually degrade first.
- Cone fatigue: The cone may sag with use, especially if you tend to overdrive the speakers for a long time. Paper cones may also degrade by UV light, humidity, and other elements. Degraded cones can be replaced via full reconing.
- Glued areas: The glue holding the surround to the cone may fail with time and use, causing the speakers to sound a bit off. Luckily, re-gluing is relatively easy and cheap.
- Magnets: The speaker’s magnet may lose some of its power after about 40 years of use. If that happens, the magnet won’t vibrate the voice coil as efficiently, causing all sorts of sound distortions.
How Long Do Speakers Last For?
It’s pretty impossible to predict how long your speakers will last simply because many factors can accelerate or decelerate the degradation process.
If you’re looking for a rough guess, I’d say mid-end speakers can last for 1–3 years at best.
High-end speakers can theoretically last for a lifetime, although you may have to refoam it (that is, replace the surrounds) after about ten years.
But again, these are nothing but rough estimates. You can manage to keep a pair of mid-end speakers in pristine condition for decades if you steer clear of the things that can damage it.
Factors That May Degrade Speakers Faster Than Normal
Overexposure to Direct Sunlight
Have you ever wondered why we should wear sunscreen before going out on sunny days? It’s because UV rays are so powerful that they can cause sunburn and possibly skin cancer in the long run.
The same is true for speakers. UV rays can slowly break down several parts in your speakers, especially the cones and surrounds, since they’re the parts on the front line.
While you certainly can’t put sunscreen on your speakers, you can protect them by simply choosing a position that receives little to no sunlight.
Leaking Dust Cap
The glue holding the dust cap in place may degrade with time, allowing dust and debris to get inside and damage the voice coil.
Ideally, you should check on all the glued areas in your speakers every three months or so. You can re-glue any detached pieces yourself, although professionals will probably do it better and faster (it doesn’t cost that much money, anyway).
Overdriving your speakers can increase the likelihood of overheating the voice coil. And as I said earlier, a damaged voice coil can only be replaced by full reconing.
Do Speakers Wear Out Faster if Placed Horizontally?
No, the speakers’ degradation process doesn’t have anything to do with the speakers’ placement.
That said, you shouldn’t place your speakers on their side if the manufacturer suggests vertical placement.
The thing is, woofers and tweeters are positioned in a certain way to make sure that their sound waves will reach you roughly at the same time. When you place your speakers on their side, you may mess up the stereo imaging to a great extent.
Should You Cover Your Speakers With Grilles?
If you want to extend your speakers’ lifespan, then yes. Grilles will keep most of the dirt and grime away from the drivers, meaning you’ll have to do less cleaning.
Speakers do wear out with time since they contain lots of moving parts. However, if you own quality speakers and you take good care of them, chances are they’ll outlive the rest of your sound system components.