2-Way Vs. 3-Way Speakers: What’s The Difference?

photo of Jarrett Ziemer

by Jarrett Ziemer on October 4th, 2021 in Learn

Audio engineers like to keep busy. They spend their long days tinkering on woofers, their long nights recording soulful sounds, and In-between, they dream up wild fancy music machines.

Those engineers then give those complicated dream machines and their components hard-to-understand names like Amp and DAC, Vocoder, and 8-track player (that one for you Gen Zers).

If you’re scratching your head wondering what geometric plane a coaxial lands on or what a DAC even is, I’m here to tell ya, you’re not alone.

From cassette to cleaning guitar frets, the audio ins and outs can be downright confusing.

Insert the confusing of the confusing: 2-way and 3-way speakers.

If you’re wondering what a 2-way and 3-way speaker is and which ones are better, you’re not out on a limb.

Let’s take a look at the two, figure out what they are, and help you decide which is better for you.

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Difference Between 2-Way and 3-Way Speakers

The difference between a 2-way and 3-way speaker is simpler than you think, and all in the name.

A 2-way speaker contains two drivers (small speakers), and a 3-way speaker has three drivers.

A 2-way speaker will generally have a woofer and tweeter. The woofer will deliver lower frequency sounds, and the tweeter will deliver higher frequency sounds.

A 3-way speaker will have a woofer driver, a mid-range driver delivering mid-range sounds, and a tweeter driver.

Now let’s dig.

2-Way Speakers

The first 2-way loudspeaker was invented way back in the 1940s when Wharfedale combined a 30cm bass driver with a 25cm full-range treble unit.

The idea then was and now still is to use the two drivers to deliver, or better yet reproduce, a full range of sound.

To produce that entire range, a typical 2-way speaker will contain, like the OG, a woofer, and a tweeter. The woofer is designed to move more air and reproduce the audio’s lower range of sounds, while the tweeter is much smaller and intended to reproduce the audio’s higher ranges.

3-Way Speakers

A 3-way loudspeaker is a speaker system designed to reproduce sound from three separate internal devices.

The 3-way speaker uses a woofer to reproduce low-range audio, a mid-range speaker to cover the mids, and a tweeter to reproduce high-range audio.

Although both 2 and 3-way speakers are generally designed to produce a full range audio experience, 3-way speakers differ in that they allow each driver to focus on a smaller range of audio, offering a more precise sound clarity for that specific range.

closeup of soundbar speaker

What is a crossover?

To navigate the delicate balance of sound reproduction, 2 and 3-way speakers use an electronic device known as a crossover. The crossover determines what specific tones go to which specific driver.

To do this reproduction tango, the crossover processor splits the received audio signal into different frequencies or “bands.” So, when a crossover device receives multiple frequencies, it reacts by outputting those frequencies based on a predetermined range to the correct speaker.

In a 2-way speaker system, that received signal is, you got it, is split into 2-ways. In a 3-way system, it is divided into 3-ways.

When filling out your system, every speaker you purchase will have a recommended frequency range based on what sound the speaker is designed to reproduce.

So to reproduce the best sound, manage the amount of power sent through the crossover.

How to choose your speaker

Now, if you’re looking to get a speaker, there are a few things to think about.

A quick lesson first, though. So, audio, in its most basic explanation, has three frequency ranges.

  • The bass frequency range is from 20 Hz up to 250 Hz.
  • Midrange frequency runs from about 250 Hz on the low midrange end up to around 2 kHz on the high end.
  • And high-end frequencies range from 2 kHz to 20 kHz.

Now, the idea of a speaker that reproduces 3 frequency ranges covering an audio profile based on 3 frequency ranges may lead you to believe you have a simple choice ahead of you.

Unfortunately, although the simple design differences should mean a simple choice, thats not always the case.

That’s because although a 3-way speaker may, in theory, cover a broader range of sound, at the end of the day, a better quality speaker will usually produce better audio, no matter the range.

See, the reproduction of sound isn’t cut and dry. Quality of the speakers’ components, the type of crossover setup, the soundstage you’re actually looking for, and the range of audio frequency a specific speaker, whether 2-way or 3, is designed to cover, should all affect your choice.

Price/Quality of Components

When selecting any speaker, the first thing you should consider should be the quality of components in the speaker itself. Surround material, magnet size and material, a quality voice coil, and the body composition of the cone are all things you’ll want to consider.

The cone material itself will determine the overall sound and frequency response, but even a poorly designed surround will allow audible distortion at the least and speaker failure at the worst.

When it comes to price, I hate to say it, but when in doubt, bump up the price range a bit. Although you can occasionally pick up phenomenal speakers for less, often, the higher price of a speaker will be indicative of a quality build with high-quality material.

Crossover Setup/ Frequency Response

When you purchase your coaxial speakers, they’ll come with a crossover.

Although many audiophiles will choose to run their own active crossover between the speakers and the amps, you’ll also want to consider the built-in onboard one when purchasing your speakers.

That’s because a loudspeaker with a poorly designed crossover system will allow frequency overlap between drivers, resulting in poor sound quality, distortion, and eventually a blown speaker.

Instead, a properly designed crossover filter will limit the bandwidth to each driver, allowing for clear, even audio.

So, when looking for a quality speaker, 2 or 3-way, look for one that lists a high-quality crossover. When in doubt, spotting a high-quality crossover is actually pretty simple. It will look more complicated and thoroughly laid out than a poor-quality one. Things like air-core conductors in critical paths and high-quality copper coils are a sure sign.

Full System and frequency range covered

Whether you’re looking for a speaker to fill out your home entertainment system or your car stereo setup, you’ll want to remember that one speaker is often a specific part of the whole.

With audio frequencies ranging from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, what’s often more important than acquiring a 2 or 3-way, is acquiring a speaker that fits your system and range requirements.

For example, if your car stereo has quality tweeters in the dash, a sub in the back, and midrange 4X6 speakers overhead, you may find that going with high-quality 2-way speakers in the doors will fill out your system with just the right amount of rich tones.

On the other hand, if your stereo system only has a bumping woofer and your lack of space means you can only choose one set of speakers, it would make more sense to go with a quality 3-way speaker that gives you the most comprehensive audio frequency range possible.

closed-up-photography-of-brown-wooden-framed-sony-speaker

Which speakers to go with

Getting down to it, there is no real winner in the debate of 2-way vs. 3-way speaker. One delivers a tighter arrangement of sound, and one delivers more sound.

When looking for a speaker, you’ll want to consider your system’s needs over all else. For example, although a 3-way speaker will produce a broader range of sounds, If you’re filling out a complete system, a higher quality 2-way speaker will produce better sound than the same or a lower quality 3-way speaker.

On the other hand, if you have a small space or room for only one or two sets of speakers, 3 is probably the way to go.

In the end, the choice is yours.

Coaxial/Component

Here’s a little something extra.

If you were wondering what 2 and 3-way speakers are, you might also be wondering the difference between a coaxial speaker and a component speaker. That’s because the two are pretty similar.

Coaxial

A coaxial speaker is basically just another name for any speaker combination. 2-way, 3-way, and 4-way speakers are all coaxial. It is the combination of the woofer, tweeter, other speakers, and crossover contained in a single speaker basket.

Component

A component speaker is a single speaker connected to the other speakers and the head by an external crossover. This component design allows each individual driver to receive a more specific frequency range for the build.