Appearing at the end of the audio signal, speakers are the essential pieces that convert audio to sound for our listening pleasure (or displeasure). One common question when considering loudspeakers and the devices that contain loudspeakers is whether they wear out. And if they do, how does that happen?
Do loudspeakers wear out, and if so, how? Loudspeakers eventually wear out due to mechanical wear, particularly in the surround/suspension that connects the cone/diaphragm to the basket/housing. Environmental factors can wear out the speaker with enough time and exposure. Extended high-level audio signals can wear out electrical components.
In this article, we'll discuss the various ways in which loudspeakers can wear out and comment on the likelihood and timespan of each wearing possibility.
Speakers Will Eventually Wear Out
The truth is that everything eventually wears out. But, as is the answer with most things, loudspeakers are a little more complicated than that.
Sure, a loudspeaker will wear out over enough time, or with enough use, or if it is mistreated, but speakers are often very durable, and a good set of speakers will often last longer than their “expected life.”
Indeed, many people end up replacing their speakers with newer models before the speakers ever break down.
How Do Speakers Wear Out?
There are various parts and reasons why a speaker can wear out. Before getting to the list of reasons regarding how speakers can wear out, it's crucial to understand how speakers function.
Note that, in this article, we'll focus on electrodynamic “moving-coil” speakers, which are by far the most common type we'll find. Some other types of speakers (ribbon, electrostatic, etc.) will experience similar wear on their diaphragms and general electronic circuits but may wear out in different ways. We'll touch on these types at the end of the article.
Okay, so how do speakers work? Let's begin with a simplifier cross-sectional illustration to show the various parts of the speaker:
On a fundamental level, a speaker is a magnet, a coil, and a cone/diaphragm. The electrical signals from the audio source travel through the coil, and the electrical current interacting with the magnet causes the coil to move.
More precisely, the alternating current of the audio signal causes the coil to experience a varying magnetic field due to electromagnetic induction. This varying magnetic field interacts with the permanent magnets, causing periods of attraction and repulsion.
The coil is suspended and in a cutaway within the magnetic structure and is attached to the cone/diaphragm. As the audio signal causes the voice coil to move, the cone moves along with it, pushing and pulling air to create the sound that we hear.
Of course, this is a significantly simplified explanation of what is happening but gives us a good base of knowledge to understand what is going on when speakers wear out.
To read more into how speakers work, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do Speakers Produce Sound? (A Helpful Beginner’s Guide)
• How Do Speakers & Headphones Work As Transducers?
• How Fast Do Loudspeakers & Headphones Vibrate?
With that all being said, the main ways in which a speaker with wear out are as follows:
- Surround deterioration
- Cone deterioration
- Voice coil burn-out
- Environmental wear and tear
- Mean Time Between Failures (MTFB)
- Ferrofluid drying up
- Loosened connections
- Physical trauma
The cone/diaphragm is attached to the rim of the speaker using a flexible rim of material called the surround. This connection point between the cone and the speaker enclosure/body is one of the weaker spots in general speaker design.
As the speaker works as intended, converting audio into sound, the surround allows the diaphragm to vibrate while keeping it attached around its perimeter.
Related article: What Is The Difference Between Sound And Audio?
As a side note, the lore of speaker “burn-in” is essentially the loosening of the surround from its initial stiffness when first produced.
To learn more about speaker burn-in, check out my article Do Speakers Need To Be Broken-In/Burned-In? (Fact/Fiction?).
Movement and flex cause friction, heat and mechanical stress, which build up in the surround, fatiguing the material.
Picture what happens to a malleable piece of metal like a paper clip continually bent back and forth. Eventually, the metal will break. This is similar to what will ultimately happen to the speaker's surround.
The more movement the speaker is subjected to, the sooner this wearing out will occur. Cone excursion (the distance the speaker diaphragm pushes and pulls from resting position) plays a major role. Therefore, greater signal amplitudes (louder audio) or louder perceived volume from the speakers will cause more stress on the surround.
Of course, speakers are designed with this repetitive stress in mind, and high-quality speakers will often perform for a long time (decades) before noticeable surround wearing occurs. That being said, the surround is typically the first part of the speaker to wear out.
Next on the list of speaker parts that are most likely to wear is the cone/diaphragm.
Speaker cones are thin and often made of paper or plastic, through aramid fibre and metal are also used. A good-quality speaker will be designed with a durable cone. Many speakers (especially those intended from live events and life on the road) enhance the safety of the cone(s) by including a protective grille.
Related article: Why Do Some Speakers Have Grilles/Mesh & Others Don’t?
However, as we'll get to shortly, environmental factors will play a role in wearing out the speaker cones. Of course, some cone designs are more susceptible to certain environmental factors.
For example, aramid fibre tends to absorb moisture and will wear out more quickly in more humid environments. Conversely, paper cones are more sensitive to UV rays and will wear out faster when exposed to direct sunlight.
Voice Coil Burn-Out
Like other audio equipment that deals with the electrical nature of audio signals, speakers can be overloaded. This overloading is typically stated as a power/wattage rating in the speaker specifications sheet. As the name suggests, the power rating refers to the maximum power (often peak or root-mean-square) value, in watts, that the speaker can adequately handle.
Exceeding this limit, one could guess, would cause the aforementioned surround or cone to stretch or tear or cause the voice coil to become dislodged as the mechanical excursion slams the moving element against the magnet.
Though these occurrences aren't outside the realm of possibility, it's much more likely that exceeding the wattage rating will cause the voice coil to either burn or melt, especially over extended periods of time.
Unfortunately, electrodynamic speaker drivers/transducers are notoriously inefficient. In fact, most of the electrical power is lost as heat and very little is actually converted into sound power. Efficiency ratings between 0.1% to 4.0% are standard.
To learn more about speaker power ratings and efficiency, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• The Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings
• Full Guide To Loudspeaker Sensitivity & Efficiency Ratings
As the voice coil becomes damaged, internal electrical shorts happen within the coil, and the electricity no longer flows appropriately through the coil. This, in turn, causes inaccurate fluctuations in the coil's magnetic field and, therefore, distorted sound production.
However avoidable, a speaker may be subjected to higher than optimal levels of heat, which would exacerbate its wearing out. To help avoid this, keep powered/active speakers off when not in use, keep signal levels within the recommended range, avoid extended use of the speakers, and keep them in as cool an environment as necessary (out of the sun, for example).
This “wearing out” is perhaps better defined as “avoidable damage,” though I reckon it's important to discuss anyhow.
Related My New Microphone articles:
• Loudspeaker Blow-Out: Why It Happens & How To Avoid/Fix It
• Is Playing Music Loud Bad For (Damaging To) Speakers?
• Is It Bad/Damaging To Keep Speakers On When Not In Use?
Environmental Wear And Tear
Let's consider how environmental factors wear on speakers, namely humidity, direct sunlight, and dust.
The electronics of a passive speaker are typically simple enough that excessive moisture should not pose a significant problem or long-term damage.
Of course, active/powered speakers, which have active components (amplifiers and active crossovers), are much more sensitive to the adverse effects of humidity and water on electronics.
That being said, the cone, which is often made of some form of paper, is most at risk of excess humidity. Humid conditions will wear out the cone of the speaker much faster.
Having the speaker in direct sunlight will affect its longevity twofold.
First, as was previously mentioned, the sun's UV rays will weaken the speaker's cone, thereby wearing it prematurely.
Second, as was also alluded to prior, the sunlight brings heat, and excess heat is the enemy of speaker voice coils.
Dust And Debris
Dust and airborne debris may
Mean Time Between Failures (MTFB)
MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) is a factor rarely discussed in audio. This specification, measured in hours, refers to the manufacturer-specified expected time in which the electronics perform optimally.
While mechanical wearing is much more apparent (and likely), electronic equipment, like loudspeakers, will eventually “wear out”.
That being said, if exceeding the MTFB is what ultimately causes a loudspeaker to wear out, it must have been taken care of incredibly well.
The portion of the speaker worth mentioning here is the crossover. A crossover effectively splits the incoming audio signal into separate frequency bands and sends the appropriate bands to the proper drivers.
More specifically, the capacitors within these crossover designs have a higher propensity to wear out.
To learn more about speaker crossovers, check out my article What Is A Speaker Crossover Network? (Active & Passive).
Ferrofluid Drying Up
Though largely a relic of the past, ferrofluid (a magnetic fluid) was sometimes used in speaker tweeters in the 1980s and 1990s.
The ferrofluid was designed to improve the electromagnetic induction and damping of the tweeter while keeping the voice coil cool.
This practice has been discontinued largely due to the fact that the fluid would dry up, leaving behind its magnetic particles, which would cause a slew of different problems ranging from distortion and low-pass filtering to complete seizure of the tweeter.
The vibrations of the speaker produce sound in the environment. They also permeate mechanically through the structure of the speaker.
The speaker's connections, whether it's the main signal inputs or the internal soldering, may come loose as a result of such persistent vibration.
High-end speakers are typically designed with robust connections that can withstand the typical vibrations of the speaker. However, no speaker is completely immune to the potential of loose connections.
The good news is that this kind of wear and tear can be relatively easily repaired without having to replace the whole speaker.
This goes without saying, but dropping the speaker, dropping things on the speaker and other physical traumas will wear the speaker faster or damage them instantaneously.
Additional Wear Issues For Alternative Driver Types
As mentioned previously, I'll discuss the additional causes for wear in non-standard speaker types.
Ribbon speaker drivers, as the name would suggest, utilize a ribbon diaphragm to produce sound. These ribbons (like those found in their microphone counterparts) are prone to wear. Tiny particles of dust can cause micro-tears in the ribbon, thereby wearing it out. The ribbon can also succumb to sag if the speaker is not positioned or stored correctly.
Electrostatic speakers are much less resistant to humidity, which can lead to wearing out of the panels (along with the other components). Besides the typical wear, electrostatic speakers are durable so long as they're operated in dry environments.
Unfortunately, speakers are not immune from the detrimental effects of time, but a high-quality speaker, when cared for properly, will likely last 50 years or more. With a bit of care and attention, you should be able to get a respectable life span out of many of the more budget options, too.
It is important to remember that looking after your speakers will help keep them working over a longer period of time. Avoid moisture, overloading and excessive heat, leaving them on (if they're active), and, of course, avoid any impacts, such as dropping them.
Finally, if the speaker starts misbehaving, check its connections before replacing the speakers or throwing them out.
Choosing the right PA speakers for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive PA Speaker Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next PA speaker purchase.
With so many loudspeakers on the market, purchasing the best speaker(s) for your applications can be rather daunting. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Loudspeaker Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next speaker acquisition.
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.