As a reviewer I have to admit I've blown up more than my share of speakers over the years. I usually push the limits just before I finish the review and ship them back to their maker. Hey, it's my job and I like to see how loud they can go, and most of them survive my torture tests just fine, but some can't take the heat, like the Sony DAV-X10's poor little satellite I popped last week. The 2-inch "woofer" fell prey to my over zealous fun with Eminem's "Live From New York City" DVD. Oops, I did it again!
Blowing up speakers is a misnomer, when they break they usually just stop playing or sound distorted. In the case of the Sony sat, it continued to play but made occasional buzzing sounds when played loud. In general, the tweeter, midrange, or woofer's voice coil (that's the part that moves the cone or dome in and out to produce sound) got too hot and it either melted or deformed, and then it's bye-bye driver.
Back in the day when I sold high-end audio systems my customers would occasionally bring in their toasted speakers, most having crapped out during a party. You know how it goes, everybody was having a great time and some bozo cranked the volume all the way up, and a tweeter or woofer, or both fried. The death(s) usually went unnoticed during the party, sometimes the owners didn't pick up on the driver failure for a few days.
I remember the first time I cooked a speaker in the late 1960s. For some reason lost to the mists of time I was playing folk music really loud and one of my speaker's insides caught on fire! Apparently the woofer's overheated voice coil ignited the wool stuffing inside the speaker and then quickly extinguished itself, but the burnt smell lasted for months. The speaker played fine.
Over the past few years my favorite speaker buster has been "The Fight Club" DVD. I first used it when I was reviewing some B & W speakers and the incredibly loud fantasized mid-air collision between two jets instantly melted a tweeter (and it went dead). I've since used that scene many times and I'd say the vast majority of speakers survive unscathed.
It's also worth noting that more speakers are damaged by low-power amps than big monsters (check out my "What's up with watts" blog to learn more). That's because the low power ones generate a lot more distortion when playing loud than big amps do, and distortion is unhealthy for speakers. Ergo, you're more likely to break a driver with a 25 watt receiver than a 250 watt brute.
Oh, and some tweeters get poked and prodded by curious fingers and that'll sometimes damage their delicate innards; and I know of more than a few that were vacuumed into oblivion by wives and cleaning ladies.
If you have any cool episodes with speakers expiring or shooting sparks, please share your stories here with the Audiophiliac.