How to Safely Clean Your Home Stereo Speakers

A pair of stereo speakers with exposed speaker cones

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No matter your age, there is always that bit of excitement when opening up a new gift, particularly when it’s some variety of electronic. After buying new stereo speakers, the packaging still has that factory-fresh smell, and the product is sparkling clean and free of fingerprints. All this can change over time after you take it out, set it up, and put it to active use. But just because something you own is no longer considered "new" doesn’t mean that the honeymoon period has to come to an end! With regular care, you can keep most anything looking as if it was just manufactured yesterday and unboxed today.

Even though stereo speakers tend to sit untouched, they can and will accumulate dirt and grime over time. But it’s important to remember that the methods of cleaning and maintaining speakers are somewhat different from those performed on other types of technology. Most speakers feature exterior cabinets that are constructed out of wood (or wood veneer), MDF (medium-density fibreboard), plywood, vinyl, laminate, plastic, or a combination of. This means that speakers should be treated a little more like pieces of quality furniture than not. But there’s also the non-wood elements to consider. You can expect to find plastic, metal, felt, or rubber/silicone for buttons/interface, cables, connections, and feet/pads. Many stereo speakers also have fine mesh fabrics that cover the front, like a thin veil over the speaker’s drivers/cones.

If you want your speakers to last and look their best, don’t just grab any all-purpose household solution with a roll of paper towels! The wrong kind of cleaner or polish can end up damaging surfaces and/or dulling finishes. So before you get started, make sure you have an idea of what you’re working with. 

Know Your Materials and Liquids

First, take a look to see what the cabinets are like, no matter the speaker’s type or size. You’ll want to match the cleaning method to the material and/or finish. The cabinet might be bare wood that has only been painted or stained, allowing it to exhibit its natural look. Or it could also have been treated with a varnish, lacquer, polyurethane, or wax, which lends to showing off a glossy or satiny sheen. Speaker cabinets can be made from different varieties of pine, maple, oak, birch, cherry, walnut, and more. The type of wood matters if a cleaner or oil is meant specifically for one kind or another. Also, plywood and MDF react to liquids differently (more absorbent) than real wood, so pay close attention to your speaker’s construction.

Knowing the exterior will help you narrow down the best type of cleaning and finishing solutions to use. You don’t want to accidentally pick something too harsh that might strip off any existing wax or finish; while the speaker itself may not end up damaged, the result could be that it doesn’t look as nice as it did before. You also wouldn’t want to use a cleaner meant for wood if your speaker has a vinyl-wrapped (vinyl can look convincingly like real wood) or lacquer-coated exterior. Don’t use glass, kitchen/bath, or all-purpose cleaners either. Choose ones that are ideal for – or at least won’t harm – the cabinet.

If you’re unsure about what your speaker cabinet is made of, consult the product manual or manufacturer’s website for information. You want to be certain that solutions or sprays won’t negatively affect materials. Some generally safe suggestions for wood are Howard Orange Oil Wood Polish, Murphy’s Oil Soap, or anything meant for wood furniture. Otherwise, your best bet for basic surface cleaning is to use warm water mixed with a mild detergent (like Dawn dish soap). If you need a little more power to scrub out stubborn dirt or sticky stains, you can add some baking soda to the mixture.

When it comes to finishing the exterior after cleaning, the material type will help determine if you should use an oil to condition or a varnish to protect. Oils are typically better to use with real wood (and sometimes wood veneer), and some oils are created with particular wood varieties in mind. Varnishes can be ideal for plywood, MDF, or vinyl/laminate since it acts more like a coating on top (also great for building up multiple coats). There are also oil/varnish blends that offer the best of both worlds.

Cleaning the Speaker's Exterior Cabinets

Find some clean, lint-free, soft cloths to use on your speakers, like a cotton or microfiber towel. An old cotton t-shirt also works really well (cut it into usable pieces). Try to avoid using paper towels, since they tend to leave small unwanted fibers or particles on surfaces. You’ll also want to have two cloths when you go about cleaning your speakers – one for wet and the other for dry. If you’re simply wiping away dust, the dry cloth alone should suffice. But for anything tougher, you’ll want to use both.

Moisten the wet cloth so that it’s slightly damp with the cleaning liquid of choice, and then apply it to an inconspicuous area (such as the rear of the speaker cabinet, towards the bottom) to test it out. If there is no negative reaction to the speaker surface after a few minutes, then it’s safe to continue on. Be sure to put the cleaner on the cloth first and then use the cloth to wipe the surface. This way, you maintain control of how much cleaner is used (sparingly is recommended) and where it gets applied. You can always add a little more cleaner to the cloth as needed.

Start with one side of the speaker and gently clean the surface with the wet cloth. Be sure to wipe with the direction of the grain, whether the cabinet’s exterior is real wood or wood veneer. Doing so will help preserve the appearance over time. If the speaker has no grain showing (i.e. the exterior is laminated or wrapped in vinyl), use long smooth strokes. Once finished with the one side, wipe off any remaining residue (if you used your own soap mixture, wipe surfaces again with plain water) before completely drying it with the dry cloth. This is an important step to remember. You don’t want to allow any excess liquids to soak into and be absorbed by the wood, veneer, plywood, or MDF, as it can lead to warping and/or damage to the cabinet.

Continue working each side of the speaker cabinet, including the top and bottom. Be mindful of seams or cracks, as they can unintentionally collect liquid or residues. Q-tip cotton swabs are generally safe and useful for small spaces or hard to reach areas on equipment. When you're done cleaning, you can consider applying a protective coating of oil or varnish. If so, use a separate clean cloth and follow the product’s instructions.

Cleaning Speaker Grills

Speaker grills are coverings over the drivers (the cone-shaped parts that move to produce sound) that protect against objects and/or the accumulation of dust. Grill material is most often found as a fine fabric, not unlike that of stockings/pantyhose. Sometimes speakers can have grills made of metal – usually perforated in a waffle, checkerboard, or dot design – or none at all. Care must be taken when handling and cleaning the grills, especially if you’re not sure how they’re attached (or if they’re not supposed to be removable). Consulting the product manual is a good way to find out.

Fabric grills can be attached to frames, which typically pop right off with a gentle tug. The best way to do this is by starting at the top corners and loosening the prongs with your fingertips. Once the top has released, follow down and do the same with the bottom corners. Sometimes the frames are secured by screws, often found near the grill edges or at the bottom of the speaker. Once you remove the screws, you should be able to carefully pry the frame off of the speaker. Be mindful to not damage any silicone/rubber gaskets (if they exist), and be sure not to pull too hard or twist the frame once it’s free.

Lie the fabric grill/frame down on a flat surface and use a vacuum hose with a dust brush attachment to suck out all the dust. If you don’t have one of those attachments lying around, hold one finger over the open end as you vacuum in even strokes. This will help make sure that the vacuum (especially powerful vacuums) won’t pull on and stretch the fabric. If the fabric has some tougher dirt or grime, you can attempt to clean it by applying a mixture of warm water and mild detergent in circular motions with a cotton/microfiber cloth. Work gently as you go, and don’t forget to "rinse" the area with a cloth and plain water before allowing it to dry (think how you might hand-wash delicate laundry). Once the grill has been thoroughly cleaned and dried, place it back on the speaker. Don’t forget to replace any screws.

If your speaker has removable metal or plastic grills, you can clean them (front and back) with a soaped up sponge in the sink or tub. After they’ve been scrubbed and rinsed off with water, completely dry with a soft cotton towel before reattaching to the speaker. Take extra care with plastic grills, since they can be easier to bend or warp.

Sometimes grills aren’t designed to be (safely and/or easily) removed. In the event that your speaker’s fabric grills are not able to come off, clean the material with a lint roller and/or a can of compressed air. If you’re careful, you can still use a vacuum with a hose attachment. For non-removable metal or plastic grills, the vacuum and compressed air should be able to take care of loose dust and dirt. If you need to wipe grill surfaces with the wet cloth, use liquid sparingly and don’t forget to thoroughly dry afterward.​

Cleaning the Speaker Cones

Speaker cones (the tweeters, mid-range, and woofers) are delicate and can be easy to damage if you’re not mindful. It doesn’t take much force to punch a hole through a paper cone. Cones made of metal, wood, kevlar, or polymer are stronger, but even bumping them casually can harm the sensitive drivers that rest behind. So take extra care while working with exposed cones.

Instead of a vacuum or cloth, you’ll want to use a can of compressed air (or an air bulb duster for cleaning camera lenses) and a small brush that has long soft bristles. Good ones to choose are makeup/powder/foundation brushes, fingerprint brushes, art/painting brushes, or ​camera lens cleaning brushes. A dusting wand (e.g. Swiffer) can work, but results can be mixed, and you can run the risk of inadvertently poking the cone with the tip as you sweep.

With the brush, carefully dislodge any dust or dirt clinging to any part of the speaker cone and attached gasket. Maintain a firm hold on the brush but use gentle strokes with the least amount of pressure necessary as you move. The compressed air or bulb duster can safely blow the cone clean and free of all particles as you work your way around. Make sure to hold the can of air upright and several inches away from the side as you spray; blow dust away from the cone, not into it. Be twice as tender when brushing the tweeters, as they are especially delicate (versus the mid-range or woofers). Sometimes it might be safest to skip brushing the tweeters altogether and stick to canned air.

Don’t use any type of liquids when cleaning speaker cones, as it can lead to unintentional absorption and/or damage. In situations with deeply stained or soiled cones, it best to reach out to the manufacturer for specific cleaning instructions.

Cleaning the Speaker Terminals

The terminals on the back of speakers are fairly robust, but they can still accumulate dust/dirt over time. Unplug every connected cable (e.g. RCA, speaker wire, Optical/TOSLINK) before you start, and make sure the unit is powered down. Use a vacuum with a narrow hose attachment to clean out the connections and any seams; you don’t want to use compressed air, as it could end up forcing dust into the speaker’s hardware. Use a clean, dry Q-tip to get rid of finer particles that collect in and around spring clips, binding posts, or any small spaces/crevices/divots.

If you feel you need some kind of cleaning liquid for the speaker’s terminals and connections, stick with isopropyl alcohol (99%). Never use water or any water-based cleaning solutions with speaker terminals. Although rubbing alcohol can work, it’s known to leave some residue as it evaporates. Make sure the terminals are completely dry before reconnecting any cables.

Do’s and Don’ts of Cleaning Your Speaker

  • Do check your speaker’s manual for any helpful cleaning tips. It can save you a lot of time.
  • Don’t use any harsh soaps or chemicals to clean your speaker, as it can cause damage to the cabinet and/or electronics.
  • Do test any new cleaning solution or oil on an inconspicuous part of a speaker cabinet first. If the finish on the test area looks good, then you know it’s safe to continue with the rest of the speaker.
  • Don’t use too much liquid at a time when cleaning; a little goes a long way. You don’t want to soak the exterior and/or leave any lingering residue to be absorbed by the material.
  • Do carefully read the labels of any products before you buy. Make sure what you plan to use will be safe for the speaker’s materials.
  • Don’t use anything that contains some type of solvent on wood veneer. Over time, the solvent can dissolve the glue that holds the veneer to the base.
  • Do take your time when cleaning your speakers. Rushing or moving too quickly can lead to accidents.
  • Don’t cut corners! Taking proper care of your audio equipment will help ensure good-looking and long-lasting performance.