Shootout: Five Mid-Price Subwoofers
Let's be honest: No one really cares about treble response. What's that all about anyway? "Air" or something? Give me a break. Frankly, if you are a real music lover or movie buff, you've been listening at loud levels for plenty long enough to fry your ears' high-frequency response anyway. Good riddance. And what's the deal with midrange? "Presence" and "speech intelligibility?" Who cares? If you wanted to understand what people were saying, you'd start paying attention.
Honestly, the only thing we care about is bass. And we really care about bass. We love bass. We can't get enough bass. Moreover, we need bass. If your heart stops from eating too many cheeseburgers, you'd need that sub for life-saving chest massage. Let's see a tweeter do that. Whether it is music or movies, we want the room to shake. We want our pants legs to flap. We want our next door neighbor's ceiling to start oscillating at 12 Hz and then collapse. Law suits. Bring 'em on. We want a guy three miles away to suddenly pause, look at the sky, and say to himself, "Funny, it doesn't look like rain."
In our quest for more bass, we rounded up five dynamite subwoofers priced between about $650 and $800. We picked some small ones, some Goldilocks ones, and some monster ones. We measured them to get the laboratory facts (see Test Bench), and we listened to them to evaluate their real-world performance. We wanted to know how low they would go, how loud they would play, and how good they sounded on music and movies. Sure, some were better than others. But when the test was over, I decided to keep them all and hook them all up. The more bass the better. And when the manufacturers come to get them, let's see if they can break through that invisible sonic wall of 12-Hz sound waves ringing my house.
Test Setup Evaluating low-frequency sound quality is particularly tricky because of the interactions between speaker performance and room acoustics. If you try hard enough, in a given room, you can get a good speaker to sound bad and a bad speaker to sound decent. My listening room encompasses about 3,300 cubic feet, perhaps a tad bigger than many living rooms. I have identified a spot along my front wall, near the front left satellite, that can deliver smooth response below 200 Hz. I placed each subwoofer under test in that position. (Hint: To find the magic spot in your room, put the sub in your listening chair, then crawl around the floor until you find a spot with good bass response. Then trade positions with the sub.) I evaluated the subs both in crossover-bypass mode (using an 80-Hz crossover in my receiver) and using their own crossovers. I also used an SPL (sound-pressure level) meter to adjust and compare levels. I listened to material that I was very familiar with; I knew what those sub tracks should sound like. These are all things that you should do to set up and evaluate a sub in your listening room. Disclaimer: Subwoofer performance will vary somewhat from room to room. Although my evaluations were consistent in my room, any sub may perform differently in yours. One final tip: Do not evaluate subwoofers after 11:00 pm (local nuisance ordinances may apply).
Test Tracks CDs • Saint-Saens, Organ Symphony (second movement) This is a deceptively simple piece of music, with pianissimo strings playing a simple melody and the organ exhaling a few sustained pedal tones. The problem is that those pedal notes are in the bottom octave, reaching all the way down to 16 Hz. Most subwoofers simply can't grasp that, so they fake it with upper harmonics. Only a few can tackle the lowest octave and play it loud enough so you can feel the air in your listening room (like the air in the organ loft) flutter.
• Linkin Park, Reanimation This is a great album, both musically and technically. I particularly like the surround mix of "FRGT/10." The synth bass plays a sequence of notes, each with its own sonic character. The lower notes are warm and smooth, while the higher ones really snap and bounce. The sub must have tremendous low-end grunt together with great punch -- an ability to dig deep and also dance with a lively dynamic response.
DVDs • Superman Returns The Man of Steel is back, and eager to kick ass -- in a shy and modest way, of course. As with any action movie, this one relies on heart-pounding effects. When a space shuttles tears through the atmosphere or an airliner plunges toward the ground, you need to feel those events, preferably with your shirt flapping against your chest. Those long sound-pressure waves are essential to getting your blood pumping and emotions stirring; without them, the movie won't work.
• Godzilla You just can't evaluate subwoofers without at least one movie featuring a gigantic mutant sea creature. In movie-theater lingo, subs are LFE (low-frequency effects) speakers. That is certainly the case here, where Godzilla's every footstep is accompanied by a dull but loud thud. Add in all the explosions, crashes, collapses, and general mayhem, and you've got a soundtrack that demands a great sub that can move lots of clean air. In fact, for this movie, the sub is so important you don't really need satellites. (Kidding, kidding.)