Subwoofers: 4, 2, or 1? Page 4

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THE CONTENDERS

The Little Guys: 4 x 8-inch

Even combined, the four 8-inch subs often failed to reproduce Saint-Saëns’s deepest notes and Mötley Crüe’s loudest slams. One panelist described the lowest notes as “just a sound, not anything I could distinguish.” Another complained, “It didn’t energize the room.” I heard the word “weak” used over and over.

While all of the panelists decried the quad 8s’ lack of dynamics and deep extension, they also complimented the tuneful sound produced in the sweet spot when playing James Taylor and Steely Dan. “It’s the most accurate. The bass sounds most like a bass with this one,” one panelist noted.

From the sour spot, the panelists’ views were even more positive: “It doesn’t go deep at all, but it’s the best balanced of the bunch,” one said. To my surprise, the panelists generally liked the sound of the four 8-inchers with movie soundtracks — probably because the energy in explosions and other action-movie sound effects is often concentrated in the so-called “punch region” around 50 Hz, a frequency the 8s could handle.

The Middle Option: 2 x 12-inch

The panelists never faulted the dual 12s for feeble output the way they sometimes trashed the quad 8s. However, in their view, this duo sometimes wasn’t quite dynamic. One panelist complained, “On the Saint-Saëns piece, I want the couch to shake, and this one can’t do that.” Another whined, “It’s not any fun on Mötley Crüe.”

That said, one of the panelists picked the dual 12s as her favorite from both the sweet and sour spots; she felt that on most of the test tracks, they sounded more even than the quad 8s. “It’s better balanced,” she said. “The lows are there, but they’re not overdone.” The other panelists granted the two 12-inchers respect at the least and solid raves at the best. “It’s the best integrated of all; it doesn’t even sound like a separate subwoofer,” one said. “You can really hear the definition in the post-explosion rumble in the opening of Star Wars.”

The Big Bully: 1 x 15-inch

The 15-inch sub beat up on the smaller subs like a bully roughing up the geeks for their lunch money. But when things got technical, the geeks got the upper hand.

“This is the show-off sub,” one panelist enthused. “It goes really deep. It energizes the room. It shakes things. It’s visceral.” Another described the effect as “like those gaming chairs with the vibration built in.” It was the only one of the three subwoofer configurations that delivered real punch from the kick drum in the Mötley Crüe track, and the only one that could reproduce the deepest organ notes in the Saint-Saëns piece.

However, none of the panelists was impressed with the overall fidelity of the single big sub, which couldn’t on its own combat the resonances in my room the way multiple subs can. “It really didn’t do anything but shake the room,” one said. “It defines the lowest notes better than the other ones do, but on the melodic bass lines it seems to have the least pitch definition,” another explained. And when the panelists moved to the sour spot, their opinion of the single 15 soured, too. “Back here, it sounds really one-notey,” one said. “It sounds too in-your-face.”

Surprisingly, the panelist who chose the highest listening level encountered the most distortion with the 15-incher. At lower levels, the smaller subs distorted on low notes, but at higher frequencies they seemed to compress rather than distort. Under the same conditions, the 15-inch sub’s cone crossed the threshold into audible distortion more often. In my experience, a professionally designed, high-quality 15-inch sub wouldn’t exhibit this problem — but a bargain-basement 15 might.

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