Whether you’re down below listening to some smooth jazz tunes over an elegant meal or blasting your favorite ’80s hair band while trolling for billfish, music is an integral part of boating for many boaters. Me? I often annoy my boating guests with my passion for Rush, the Canadian prog rock trio of “Tom Sawyer” fame.
Tom Sawyer and Geddy Lee aside, I have to admit that installing the stereo system on my first boat was a bit daunting. Not knowing a cone from a subwoofer meant I had a steep learning curve—and maybe that’s a situation you currently find yourself in. If it is, read on and I’ll give you a solid foundation in the lingo you’ll need to know to pick out a set of speakers and install them on your boat.
If you want a sweet-sounding system the worst thing you can do is buy bargain basement speakers. That doesn’t mean that an inexpensive pair of speakers paired with a cheap head unit won’t do the job, but I can guarantee you, you’ll notice a difference in sound with better quality speakers—no matter the stereo you pair them with. You money is better invested in a middle-of-the-road stereo system with good speakers than a high-end head unit with cheap ones.
Does “Marine” Really Mean Anything?
Yes. Yes it does. Most speakers made for the marine market have varying levels of protection from not just moisture and corrosion, but also degradation from UV rays. Some are even completely waterproof—great for watersports and fishing boats where decks get liberal dousings of water and spray. There are also speakers designed with low magnetic interference that allow them to be mounted near sensitive electronic and navigation gear, such as compasses. Don’t be tempted to mount inexpensive automobile-style stereo speakers on your boat. They won’t last.
Box Style: Box-style speakers look just like the name suggests. They’re often enclosed and self-standing, but almost always come with a bracket mount. They’re great for boats with places to mount them, such as boats with large consoles. However they’re most often used in interior cabin spaces like cuddy cabins, staterooms, and saloons.
Cans/Cannon: You’ll most commonly find this type of speaker on watersports boats. They’re often aimed straight aft and project a big sound to anyone who happens to be wakeboarding or skiing behind the boat. In fact, most watersports boats have a tower designed to accept not just wakeboards and skis, but sound cannon speakers as well.
Flush Mount: These are the most common type of speakers you’ll find on boats. They don’t take up a lot of room, provide great sound, and can be mounted into most any flat surface with sufficient space behind it. If you mount them in a space with little room behind the magnet, they can’t produce sound as efficiently. A downside is that flush–mount speakers require cutting a whole in some part of your boat to accept them. Measure twice, cut once.
Speakers produce sound through drivers, also known as cones. You’ve probably heard of “tweeters” and “woofers” before. Tweeters produce high frequencies while woofers produce low-end sound. As you may have guessed, the more cones/drivers a speaker has, the better/broader the sound reproduction. Coaxial (two-way) speakers have a woofer with a separate tweeter, while triaxial (three-way) speakers have a tweeter, woofer, and a midrange cone, for fuller sound. Twin cone units have a smaller cone attached to the woofer and are driven by a single coil versus others, which have a coil driving each element. They’re a decent budget option.
Subwoofer: Pump up the bass–that’s what subwoofer speakers are designed for. They provide a deep low-end sound to supplement a stereo system with speakers. They almost always require a separate amplifier to drive them and a large covered space to house them.
Speakers are primarily rated by how much power they can handle, in watts. You never want to have a head unit paired to speakers with a total combined watt rating less than the stereo’s output. For example, if you have a 200-watt head unit or amplifier combo matched with four 30-watt speakers, the chances are pretty high that you’ll blow one or more of the speakers out if you crank things up. A better solution is four 50-watt speakers. And yes, the more watts, the more sound you’ll get.
Speakers produce sound directionally from their centers at about 30 to 50 degrees to both sides. That means you will want to give some thought as to the best places to install them. It will depend not only on where you spend most of your time on the boat, but also where you can find suitable locations to mount them.
Flush-mount speakers require a decent amount of room (air space) behind them to allow the cones to vibrate sufficiently; keep that in mind when picking a location. Also, be mindful of installing flush-mount speakers into any areas that might increase the chances of damaging the back of the speaker, such as in a stowage locker. If you do have to mount them in a less desirable location like this, consider purchasing covers for the back of your speakers—many good marine retail outfits that sell stereo gear will carry these.
Once you’ve decided on a location for your flush speakers, first make sure the location is absolutely where you want the speakers to go—because you’re about to cut holes in your boat. Using the provided templates carefully cut the opening and then lightly rough up the edges with sandpaper to remove any splintering (if you’re installing into fiberglass). While some flush-mount speakers come with waterproof gaskets to keep water from getting in behind them, others need to be thoroughly caulked around the hole and screw holes. I recommend a polyurethane-silicone caulk for this task, such as Boat Life’s Life Seal.
Box speakers and cans/cannons, as you may have guessed, are pretty self explanatory—simply mount them in a suitable location using the bracket provided or purchased separately. A good dab of caulk on the screw holes also is a good idea, especially if they’re mounted outside.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to use huge wire to connect the speakers to your head unit. I personally like to use 16 AWG tinned duplex cable, but 18 AWG is also just fine. Pay particular attention to the connections at the speakers. I like to use adhesive-lined heat shrink tubing to seal up the termination at the speaker. Speaker wires should be tagged down with a cable tie mount every foot or two all the way back to the head unit.
That’s a wrap. Armed with this basic information you should have no problem shopping for and installing a set of marine speakers on your pride and joy. The only question left is—what song are you going to blast first?