Car Audio

Back to Car Audio

Why is my car speaker clipping?

What does it mean when a speaker clips?

Clipping in a speaker – car or otherwise – is a term for the distortion of the signal at the source unit, the pre-amp (equalizer), or amplifier. It happens when a waveform in a music signal is pushed beyond its levels then the amplifier can handle. This distortion occurs because the amp gain is set incorrectly or because the volume is too high for the current settings.

What causes an amplifier to clip?

Top Waveform Showing Signal Clipping

One form of amplifier clipping happens when the amplifier is pushed past its ability to generate a sufficient amount of current or voltage to replicate the correct signal through to your speakers. The wide swing between the up and down voltage can be limited by maximum limitations on both the upper and lower end, causing the sound wave to be “clipped off” and sounding distorted. This form of clipping is the most common and also the most avoidable.

While there are a few instances of electric guitar players intentionally overworking their amplifiers to finding a different sound in their songs, clipping generally will cause changes in the music in an unpleasant way.

Types of audio clipping

Short-term clipping

If you find that clipping and distortion from your car speakers only happen at specific volumes or with particular sounds, this is known as short-term clipping. This kind of clipping is a result of having insufficient peak power available in the amplifier. Your vehicle’s amplifier is actually clipping, not the speaker, but because it sends the sound to the speaker, it sounds like the speaker itself may be clipping. Because some sounds or instruments require more power or energy, their waveform is more dynamic. This can be seen on an oscilloscope, a device that displays signal voltage. Beyond that, if a particular instrument has a much higher volume relative to the volume of others, that can cause short-term clipping in your car stereo.

An example of a particularly dynamic sound wave is a cymbal crash. You may see it’s voltage waveform rise high above that of the rest of the music. Your amp will produce the cymbal sound correctly if the amp has a lot of dynamic power available. However, if the amp’s power output is maxed out, the cymbal’s audio signal will exceed this voltage, causing distortion or clipping.

Long-term clipping

There is also long-term clipping. Long-term clipping is a result of incompatible power matching between your car speakers, especially at your desired volume levels – and your amplifier. It can also come from inadequate RMS (Root Means Square / Continuous) wattage or using the amplifier for over several hours. Typically, it’s best to match the speaker’s RMS power handling with the amplifier’s RMS power output.

Can clipping damage speakers?

In many short-term clipping cases, clipping may not do much damage to the speakers. However, in the case of an amplifier and speaker overheating, there can be a great deal of damage done.

The amp’s ability to run cool is relevant to its ability to produce power. If the amplifier is over-driven, it can easily cause clipping, which generates a lot of heat in the speaker’s voice coils. Subwoofers (the part of the speaker responsible for the lowest bass) are prone to overheating, so make sure to take this into account when choosing your speakers and subwoofer(s). When this happens, the sound will be clipped and sent to the subwoofer as if it were not receiving a complete signal, even though the amplifier signal is attempting to reproduce it properly.

Make sure to be aware that additional energy is propelled through the speakers as it overheats, and in turn, creates more heat than accurately formed signals. Because of this, clipping and the resulting overheating can cause damage in the car’s speaker system.

How do I stop car audio clipping?

The simplest and most obvious solution to both short-term and long-term amplifier clipping is to choose speakers that produce the volume you prefer and make sure it is compatible with the power the amplifier releases. You should also ensure the amplifier has access to excess power to avoid short-term clipping with voltage spikes, as well as continuous power to avoid maxing out the RMS power rating. A higher-quality amplifier will have been built to offer peak power at high speeds to ensure accuracy.

Another option is to get an amplifier with larger power output or to adjust to using lower volume levels from your system. However, before you resign yourself to this, make sure your amplifier gain is adjusted appropriately. An improperly set gain can cause clipping.

If you have a car audio system that works cohesively, especially when the speakers and amp are designed to work together, they will be able to produce music at your desired volume with plenty of power and without distortion. You will be able to hear all of the instruments involved, even the cymbals, accurate to the original. There will be little to no clipping, and music will sound great coming through your car stereo.

You can also adjust your signal level, reducing it, or improve the car audio system to make sure it can support a higher signal level. These adjustments can include an amp that is rated to handle twice a speaker’s rating of power output. This improvement could mean using a limiter to lower the levels of louder parts of the amplifier’s signal, such as the snare drums or the bass.

These days, many amplifier designers have implemented new technology directly into the amps to reduce the risks of clipping and distortion. Many Rockford Fosgate amplifiers use a circuit called C.L.E.A.N. that allows the installer to properly setup the gain setting of the amplifier so it properly matches the source unit.

There are many options to help prevent clipping and distortion from your car speaker system. Find the best method for you to produce the best sound at your preferred volume, and enjoy the great music you get from your new, clip-free car-stereo system. A Rockford Fosgate speaker system matched with a Rockford Fosgate amp will eliminate or greatly reduce the chance of clipping while delivering increased performance. Once you install a Rockford Fosgate audio system, you’ll see why we call our customers fanatics.