Sonic Differences Between 2-Way and 3-Way Speakers

I have owned a succession of 2-way loudspeakers. I have read comments suggesting that there are certain things 2-way speakers excel at and other things that 3-ways do better. What have I been missing?
It is easier to get a 2way right, than a 3way. 3way is more problematic. That being said, and all things being equal, (except, maybe price) I imagine 3 way would be, inherently, more capable of music wonderment. I have always been a 2way guy. That's the way my cookies have crumbled, but I'm not against anything that tittles my tympanics. I'm a total audiophool: I can go both ways....
HI Drubin,
My last four speakers have been two-ways and my last one I have really enjoyed. From what I hear a two -way is easier to design and get right . You are only crossing over to one driver and the crossover is less complex. Also you do not have to worry about another driver and its problems. The real magic and brains come into play with the designer and his knowledge of speaker building, you can mess up both designs or make a two or three way sound great. If the speaker you have chosen makes you happy than you have not been missing anything.
I'm no engineer, but when additional drivers are are utilized, my understanding is that crossovers become more numerous and complex. The whole trick to speaker design is to ultimately fool us into believing that only one driver is being used. I think single point source is the term that they use. That seamless transition from diver to driver is extremely difficult. If a single driver could be used to cover all frequencies as well as two or three(bass,midrange,tweeter)do, then life would be simple. Different materials reproduce various sound waves better than others and drivers are designed to optimize the reproduction of specific frequencies. Usually 2-way speakers lack a woofer per se and can suffer from the lack of low frequency extension. It really depends on how well that mid/bass extends into the lower frequencies because some well designed 2-way systems actually sound better and appear to go deeper than some 3-ways. Others on this site can probably give some better technical direction, but at least you've gotten my 2 cents worth.
I think in most people's price range a 2 way speaker makes more sense, it is better to have fewer high quality components.

That being said often people have a subwoofer to flesh out the bottom end, so in a sense a sub satellite system is 3 way anyway.

It is always the old compromise, do you want a better quality midrange or a full range system? I know I can not afford both.
I believe the closer you can get to "The One-Way way" the better off you are. Nothing is perfect.
My current speakers are one way. Acoustat 2+2s. All panels run full range with no crossover. Excellent sound. I have also owned Dahlquist DQ-10s, a five way speaker. Also excellent. Depends on who engineers them. Jim Strickland (Acoustat) and Jon Dahquist are both terrific speaker designers. Don
The obvious:simpler crossover,smaller enclosure=better imaging...I am also looking into the very efficient "one way" designs TWL and others speak very highly of...this is the future of hi-end speaker design IMHO...
While all of the comments above are true, three ways when done properly may offer more extended range, dynamics and speed.
A simple well designed 2-way offers a more coherent,transparent, 3-d midrange image...they dont have the low end of a 3-way in general...but 90% of music falls into the midrange the math...
That type of arithmatic would beg the question of, why bother with tweeters and why don't we only go with with one midrange driver? There is an ease to the presentation that three ways can more easily provide the complete musical spectrum.
There seem to be some shocking simplifications in people's responses. A two way will cost less, given equivalent quality components. However a two way places a severe constraint on the low frequency driver .. it must shift enough air to provide bass, but it must also cover the midrange frequencies that are critical for imaging. The advantage of a 3 way system is that the lowest driver can have quite a low roll off frequency and handle the shifting of a lot of air. The mid range (which can now be a smaller cone than in a 2 way design, and can therefore be crossed at a higher frequency with the tweeter) does not have to handle power, not does it have to be crossed in the high mid range, so could theoretically produce a purer midrange. Finally the tweeter comes in at a higher frequency than in a 2 way design, because of the smaller midrange, and so now this opens up the possibility of ribbon tweeters, super-tweeters and the like that give a beautiful and extended HF.

I own a 3 way design (Heybrook Sextet) and a 2 way design (Spica Angelus) and both are great, and different. The imaging is similar on both (very good on both) but the Heybrooks have much more at the frequency extremes. The spicas really need a subwoofer for anything other than chamber music.

I don't think one could say that 2 way design is better than 3 way or vice-versa, and 3 ways don't seem to come into play below $2000 per pair, but I can definitely see advantages of a 3 way design, even if they are more expensive and complex to pull off.
The bass response of a given design is the easiest to psychoacoustically adjust for.In other words one won't miss it or pine for it's absence or whatever if the speaker is very good in all other frequencies.Thus for a profound cheepskate bargain hunter like myself I can get about 90% of the way there with a great one way or two way AND have money left over for cd's and or vinyl.My experience has been that around 2,500 dollars is all you need to spend on speakers and after that diminished returns kicks in.DIY folks can achieve even greater value in their systems performance.
Great comments everybody. While I agree (I think we all do) that a single driver is the theoretical ideal, the points that unsound and seandtaylor make are what I was looking for when I opened this thread.

Is there a fundamental "sound" of a three-way that is different from a two-way, in the way that acoustic suspension bass sounds different from bass reflex, or mosfets sound different from other transistors? (This is a purposefully naive question.)
"The bass response of a given design is the easiest to psychoacoustically adjust for.In other words one won't miss it or pine for it's absence or whatever if the speaker is very good in all other frequencies"
I'm sorry .. is this personal opinion, or scientific fact? I have to say that my system is much more enjoyable since I added the subwoofer, and live recordings of some blues bands are in a whole new league since the sub adds the scale of the venue. That is my personal opinion ... if you don't have good bass to below 40Hz you're missing out.
Drubin .. I don't think there is a characteristic 3 way sound, since 3 way designs can vary a lot. My heybooks are almost like stand mounts with a connected sub, since the LF driver is in its own ported enclosure, with the two HF drivers in a small sealed enclosure. Other designs have all three cones driving the same enclosure. I must admit that since I change equipment roughly once every 10 years my experience is quite limited.

If I were to search for a new pair of speakers I would simply pick my price and listen to a number of alternative designs. I wouldn't try to narrow down on the basis of number of drivers, until I heard, and could convince myself that I preferred designs with a certain number of drivers, be that 1,2, 3 or more. All designs can be done well, and all can be done badly. To say that one is always better than another would be like saying that a V8 is always superior to a straight six, or a flat four in a sports car (or vice-versa).
I've gotta disagree with you, brucegel, a speaker not capable of getting down to at least the 30hz region always souds hollow, empty and lifeless to me. It is that visceral bass that makes for much of the emotional connection to the music, the quality bass that is more felt then heard that is critical, at least for the wide breadth of music I listen to.

FWIW, my current "3-way" speakers are very wide at the bass cabinet but use a minimum baffle design for midrange and tweeter, and this design sounds better then the 2-way floorstander I owned that was half a wide overall, yet the big 3-way images better, much better, and even surpasses the majority of monitor speakers compared them to. I've found the really good full range speakers to be more coherent, dynamic, transparent, involving, and more believable then constricted 2-ways, which always sound like speakers to me.

I tend to believe the heart of the speaker is the unseen and less glamourous electronics chosen by the gifted designer, not the drivers themselves, be it their number or quality, or even the box or frame they sit in that are the most important element of a great sounding speaker.
My benchmark for my opinion on bass is always live unamplified music.Once you amplify all bets are off as it were so my psychoacoustic comment applies to live classical,live jazz,live anything.I dont like most recordings with deep bass because they sound inherently hi fi ish to me and thats not what my criteria is for a system.I am hampered to a degree because I work for the SEATTLE SYMPHONY and get to hear what real instrument sound like in real space(there are two halls, one is 2500 seats and one is more intimate at 500 seats)so my orientation lies there.I understand the strong opinions about extension to 30hz and yes it can be more complete sounding and there are magnificent three way designs but I always return to two way designs for critical listening,whether this is mere coincidence or something inherent in design isnt important to me but what is is the greater detail retrieval and lucidity if you will that I prefer with two way but it cuts two ways,I mean both ways depending on your priorities doesnt it? My reference 3A DECAPOS have only a capacitor to prevent the tweeter from toasting otherwise no crossover and that in itself is a reason why they trip my boat but the carbon fibre woofers full range and speed give the impression of deeper than its 42hz spec.I think we can all agree that there are some very talented speaker designers out there that we are the happy beneficiaries of!
Hi Bruce, I noticed in another thread you used to own Spica Tc50s. I own the Spica Angelus, and they're wonderful for most classical. However my live blues recordings (for which the Spicas also do a stellar job on midrange) come to life now I've added a REL subwoofer.

Now I'm not trying to pick a fight, but do you think ALL classical music does not have low frequencies ? What about tympani? I think this has a low frequency component.

I also listen to quite a lot of choral music with organ backing, and those low organ pipes really need the sub.

I guess it's down to taste in music, but you're right that there are some great designs out there. It's such a shame spica is not still in business.
Okay, they can both be great, or suck, depending on how well they are done, and what parts are used. There is not one speaker system in the world that is not a compromise. None. You are compromising something with any design you choose, regardless of what it costs.

Since the 2-ways are getting "picked on" at the moment, if you'd like, I could tear a hole a mile wide, in the 3-way design, by pointing out the plethora of problems with them. I can also do the same with my single-driver system, 2-way, 4-way, subs and sats, and so on.

The bottom line that I've gotten out of the numerous threads regarding speakers on this forum, is that different people like different strengths and can accept different weaknesses in speakers.

It breaks down into 2 main categories, bass lovers, and those who can live with less bass, although not much less. A bass lover will accept what the added driver and crossover complexity will do to the sound, to get his level of deep bass response. One who will accept less bass will do that to get the coherence he wants out of his 2-way, or 1-way.

Oh, I can already hear it. "What do you mean that my 3-way isn't coherent?!". It may be. But likely not as coherent as a less complex speaker design. In a cost no object speaker, maybe the 3 way will be as coherent, but there will be alot of money involved. Not everyone has that amount of money. Excellent bass response is expensive. Probably the most expensive and difficult thing to get in a speaker design. So many would choose to accept a 40-50Hz bottom end, and save a large amount of money, and get a more coherent sound for the money that they can spend.

The woofers are the most expensive driver generally. They also require a large box size and bracing for lower bass. This translates into money. Added crossover costs more. Added design complexity costs more. For a given price, say about $4k, you can get better quality parts and design for your money in a 2-way, if you can live with higher than 20Hz bottom end. To get the same quality in a 3-way with deep bass response, you are going to about double the cost to $8k. And you still may lose something in the bargain, because added complexity means more likelihood of error, or problems.

There are some things, like deep bass response that most 2-way, and 1-way speakers will never do as good as a quality 3-way, but folks, and I know you hate to hear this, there are some things that a 1-way or 2-way speaker will do, that a 3-way never will do as well. Like point-source imaging. Lack of driver overlap, and no(1-way) or less(2-way)crossover distortion. You may think that your 3-way is perfect, but that is not right. It has problems in those areas no matter how good it is.

So what I'm saying is, buy what you like. You are the one who has to listen to it. Convincing us that a certain type of speaker is better than another is chasing your tail. In truth, you are only exhanging one set of problems for another. The problems that bother you the least, and the strengths that you require the most, will be your kind of speaker, no matter what I, or anyone else will say.
Well said Twl...the immutable laws of physics trumps all.
Seandtaylor99 is right about 2-way design constraint. 3-way or higher do offer drivers to operate in linear region where they are designed for. But like everyone knows, cross over is extremely complicated to design in 2-way already, 3-way is a million times more difficult. In electrical term, we called impedance because it's freq & phase combined.

You will also notice the best speaker on earth usually employee drivers from ONE manufacture. When manufacture design and build drivers, they apply their know-how from one to another and tend to behave similarly in electrical term. So designing a speaker with mulitiple drivers is easier when drivers are from one source.

Among all the speakers I have owned, my all time favorite were Sonus Faber Extrema & Dynaudio Confidence 5. A 2-way & a 3-way. Extrema got everything right, but C5 made everything better. So yes, a well designed 3-way can sound better than 2-way.

If adding a sub solve all the problems, I doubt manufactures can sell those $10k+ speakers as easily as they had. Till this day, I still haven't heard a sub that fully integrated to main speakers seamlessly. My last sub was a REL Stadium III and I ran it very conservatively (in volume) to make integration easier. Even then, I could still hear it from time to time.
For most...2-ways in a small room...such as hi end Brit monitors...are really the most cost effective way to get coherent sound and precise imaging (even with the lack of bass argument)...decent 3-ways really start with the Vandy 3 series...and as everyone knows...this is the 2k range...and if you factor in you dont need a sub...and have the room...then a 3-way design would be more appealing...
Socrates...although bass is important...specs can be misleading...I have heard speakers rated considerably lower than my Quad 12Ls(45hz) that sound lean,hollow,and thin...the new Meadolark Swifts (35hz) being one of them...on paper the Swift should have a fuller presentation...unfortunately they really comes down to design...
I hope nobody thought my post was about bashing two ways. In fact the intent was to defend three ways. Speakers with less bass out put are much easier to fit into more rooms. Many rooms dictate bass constraints. I think most people would prefer to have as much appropriate quality musical information (including bass output) as possible. There are pretty good examples of many different approaches out there. I think we all agree that a single crossoverless driver that could play back the full musical spectrum with all the speed, dynamics, volume, harmonic integrity, etc., etc.,not to mention affordable price would seem to be ideal. I don't think that vehicle has been created yet. Till then we each decide for ourselves on what our priorities and subsequent compromises best suit us individually.
Unsound...well amp plays the speakers...speakers play the room...
I am with Unsound. I can enjoy two-ways, but the further freqency extension of three-ways is more important than the cost/other quality benefit of two-ways. That's why after a/bing, I bought Revelation Twos instead of Transcendence Ones.
In their limited range..and in smaller rooms...I find 2-ways to be more accurate...unless money is no object...which it always are going to take a hit on bass...but the precision imaging of a coherent 2-way system will be always surpass a 3-way at roughly the same price get this hi-end performance out of a 3-way...additional driver,larger cabinet,more complex x-over will increase the costs significantly...often by more than 50%...I opted for a large 2-way full-range standmount...the new Quad 12L...which has more than enough bass for my needs...including electronic music...unlike imaging can always add bass...
Solution is a MTM design, Seas Thor(40hz-) + sub(20-40hz)