2-Way vs. 3-Way Speakers: What’s the difference?

2-way vs. 3-way speakers: what's the difference?

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Quick answer:

  • Two-way speaker has two speaker drivers, usually one small and one large. The small driver, called a tweeter, is for high frequencies, and the large driver, called a woofer, is for low frequencies.
  • Three-way speaker has three speaker drivers. In addition to a small tweeter for high frequencies and a larger woofer driver for lows, a three-way speaker also has a mid-sized midrange driver which is designed to play midrange frequencies.

A two-way speaker will have a two-way crossover built-in, which is an electronic circuit that divides the music or movie signal into high frequencies, to be sent to the tweeter, and low frequencies, to be sent to the woofer.

A three-way speaker will have a three-way crossover built in, which separates the music signal into three different parts, to be sent to the tweeter, midrange, and woofer drivers.

Let’s look into these different types of speakers and 2-way vs. 3-way speakers’ differences in a little more detail.

The Advantage of 2-way And 3-way Speaker Systems

Small drivers (tweeters) are inherently better at reproducing high frequency sounds like flutes and piccolos, and the highest notes of a piano or a soprano singer’s range, whereas larger drivers (woofers) are better at reproducing low frequencies like bass drums, bass guitars or the lowest notes of a bass singer, a piano or a pipe organ’s range.

A two-way speaker, then, gives the advantage of having different speaker drivers for high and low notes, so those notes can be played with the best sound and accuracy.

Most music, including instruments and singing, however, happens in a middle range, typically between 200 Hz (Hertz, or cycles per second) on the low end and 2.5 kHz (Kilohertz, or thousand cycles per second) on the high end. This is why many loudspeakers are three-way designs, with a medium-sized midrange driver of optimal size and design to reproduce so much of the all-important middle-frequency range.

A three-way speaker, then, gives the advantage of having different speaker drivers for high, midrange, and low notes, and can sound better than a two-way speaker in the prominent middle range. Since much of the work in the middle range is taken by the midrange driver, the woofer in a three-way speaker can concentrate more on deeper notes, and these designs often have a very good bass response as well.

On the other hand, a two-way speaker can have important advantages over a three-way speaker, and some very expensive audiophile speakers, with the very finest drivers, cabinets and components, and the very finest sound, are in fact two-way designs.

Two-way speakers can have slightly better imaging – that is, their ability to seem to present a three-dimensional musical image in front of you as you listen, with the singer, drums, guitar, and other instruments (or the violins, cellos, trumpets, and percussion) exactly where they should be – than three-way designs. They can also have a slightly smoother frequency response because there is only one point when the music needs to be crossed over from one speaker to another. (See more on crossovers, just below.)

Really, though, these differences can be very subtle, and it is difficult to say which speaker is best since they both have advantages. For popular music, especially with vocals, some may prefer a three-way speaker, and they often have a very good bass response as well. For classical music and jazz, where people are very critical about tonal quality and imaging, a two-way speaker is often preferred.

At the bottom of this article I will offer a few choices for the best two-way speakers on the market today, and the best three-way speakers on the market today, to help you decide which type of speaker is best for you.

2-Way vs. 3-Way Speakers: What's the difference?

Understanding Crossovers and How they Work

A crossover is an electronic circuit inside the cabinet of a loudspeaker, which separates high frequencies and low frequencies in the musical signal and sends them to the correct driver – the tweeter, the woofer, or, in the case of a three-way speaker, the midrange.

In a good speaker, a crossover circuit must be of very high quality and should be designed so that you cannot hear the point where music switches from one driver to another. The speaker drivers also should be very good quality, and especially well matched to each other, again to make the transition from one speaker to another smooth and natural.

Crossovers can help with making sure the two or three speakers are playing at the same level (loudness), and might even have controls to help you adjust the level of one or more of the individual drivers, which can help speakers sound better in certain rooms or environments, or just sound better to you and your own listening preferences.

A two-way speaker will have a two-way crossover, with two filters. The first is called a high-pass filter, which passes only high frequencies to the tweeter and holds back everything else. The second is called a low-pass filter, which allows only low frequencies through to the woofer and holds back everything higher.

A three-way speaker will have – you guessed it! – a three-way crossover, which has both of these filters, and will also have a band-pass filter, separating the middle frequencies and sending them to the midrange driver.

2-way versus 3-way Speakers: How Do They Function

Let’s look in a little more detail at exactly how two-way and three-way speakers actually work.

Again, both two-way and three-way loudspeakers have different drivers to best reproduce different sounds – specifically higher or lower frequency sounds. These drivers are usually mounted on the front of the speaker (the front panel is called a baffle), and so you can often tell if a speaker is two-way or three-way by simply taking off the front cover and counting the speaker drivers.

The smaller driver is a tweeter, which is designed to play music and sounds of the very highest frequencies – from around 2.5 kHz (kilohertz, or thousands of cycles per second) and upward. These will include instruments like flutes and piccolos, the highest notes of a woman’s voice or a piano or keyboard, some percussion instruments like triangles and cymbals, and others.

The larger driver is called a woofer and is designed to best reproduce lower frequency music and sounds – from around 2.5 kHz down. This will include the lower ranges of voices, pianos, keyboards, and all other sounds and this range in fact includes most of the music we hear. 

In a two-way speaker, those are the only drivers you will find, but in a three-way loudspeaker, there is also a medium-sized midrange driver, which takes some of the work away from the woofer. This midrange driver will generally cover frequencies between 2.5 kHz on the high end and around 500 Hz (Hertz, or cycles per second) on the low end.

An amplified musical signal will come in from your stereo system, through speaker wires, and will enter the loudspeaker. Before reaching any of the drivers, the signal will first go through a crossover circuit (either a two-way crossover or a three-way crossover), and this crossover circuit will separate the high frequencies, the mid-range frequencies (with a three-way speaker), and the low frequencies, and send them to their respective drivers.

These crossovers will typically have crossover frequencies of around 2.5 kHz (for a two-way) or 2.5 kHz and 500 Hz (for a three-way). This means that with a two-way speaker all of the music and sounds above 2.5 kHz will go to the tweeter and anything below 2.5 kHz will go to the woofer. With a three-way speaker, all of the music and sounds above 2.5 kHz will go to the tweeter, anything between 2.5 kHz and 500 Hz will go to the midrange driver, and anything below 500 Hz will go to the woofer.

Crossovers will sometimes have controls to allow you to adjust the crossover frequencies, and may also have other controls to let you control the level (loudness) of the individual speaker drivers. These controls can help you fine-tune the sound to your preference, or to sound better in a particular room or with a particular type of music.

There are also one-way speakers, with only a single driver (which, oddly enough, are usually either very inexpensive or very, very expensive), as well as four-way, five-way, six-way, and more. A six-way speaker, for instance, may have a sub-woofer, a woofer, a mid-bass driver, a midrange, a tweeter, and a super-tweeter, and would then need a six-way crossover.

2-way versus 3-way Car Speakers: How Do They Function

There is effectively no difference between the operation of two-way and three-way home speakers and two-way and three-way car speakers.

A two-way car speaker (also called a co-axial speaker) will still have a woofer and a tweeter, although they may be laid out a little differently. Instead of having the tweeter mounted on the front board of a speaker cabinet, above the woofer, the car audio speaker usually puts the tweeter directly in front of the woofer in a metal basket, which is then mounted inside the door or on the back deck and uses the car itself as the cabinet.

The same is true of a three-way car speaker, which will have a small tweeter and a small midrange mounted directly in front of the woofer driver in a metal cabinet. Two-way and three-way car stereo speakers can still be distinguished by simply counting the number of drivers – 2 or 3 – and they will still use the same basic type of passive 2- or 3-way crossover.

What are the best two-way and three-way speakers?

This article isn’t meant to be a buyer’s guide for best speakers or a review of recommended two-way speakers or recommended three-way speakers, but we thought it might be helpful to list a few of our very favorite speakers, any of which would offer superb sound and great quality for the money.

All of the speakers listed below are sold in pairs.

Our Recommendations for the Best Two-Way Home Stereo Speakers

Klipsch R-41M 2-Way High-Efficiency Bookshelf Speakers

A real bargain for high-efficiency bookshelf speakers with that legendary Klipsch sound – rich, warm, and musical character, high volume at low distortion, tons of detail, and great bass.

Dynaudio EMIT M10 2-Way Bookshelf Speakers

Superb audiophile speakers with incredible balance, perfect imaging, and a sweet, musical, and low distortion sound – not cheap, but equal to speakers many times more expensive, and absolutely amazing with any kind of music.

Our Recommendations for the Best Two-way Car Stereo Speakers

Infinity Kappa 62IX 6.5″ Two-Way Car Audio Speakers

Infinity Kappa 86CFX 6 x 8” Two-Way Car Audio Speakers

Truly high-end speakers from an established leader in audiophile speaker design and manufacture, with stunningly detailed, musical, and dynamic sound and deep bass, and suitable for any kind of music – two sizes for doors and back deck.

Our Recommendations for the Best Three-Way Home Stereo Speakers

Yamaha NS-6490 Three-Way Natural Sound Bookshelf Speakers

One of the best speaker values on the market today, offering the famous Yamaha “Natural Sound” experience. Perfect for any kind of music, these will play loud with even smaller systems but love big amplifiers as well. The sound is characterized by very low distortion, clarity, and a sweet, detailed quality which really allows any music to speak for itself.

SVS Prime Tower Floor-Standing Three-Way Speakers

A big, awesome full-range speaker system with intense deep bass, shimmering highs, and a natural, transparent sound all the way through the frequency range. Great for rock, hip hop, and electronica, these SVS Primes also reproduce a full symphonic image with staggering power and presence.

Our Recommendations for the Best Three-way Car Stereo Speakers

Kicker D Series 43DSC69304 6×9 360 Watt 3-Way Car Audio Speakers

An incredible value, and a really exciting speaker for rock, hip hop and rap, electronica, and more – dynamic, smooth and detailed sound, and amazing deep bass.

Infinity Kappa 93iX 6×9” Three-Way Car Audio Speakers

A brilliant speaker to use by itself in the back deck, with great response all throughout the frequency range, including awesome deep bass, smooth, shimmering high frequencies, and non-fatiguing high-resolution sound overall.