Way Down Deep III And The Award Goes To . . .
State of the Art: Genelec HTS6
By all the textbook metrics—tonal neutrality, stability of response at all playback levels, very low distortion, explosive dynamics, utter unflappability—as well as the harder-to-define but pervasive they-really-did-their-homework air that surrounds it, the Finnish flagship sets new standards for bass perfor-mance in the home theater. It wasn't much of a horse race, but then, this was the biggest horse in the race. At this level, you'll want a pro to dial in the Genelec's in-room response with a 1/12- or 1/24-octave analyzer and a digital parametric equalizer.
Best Bang for the Buck: Snell ICS Sub24
It doesn't play the flattest/deepest/loudest with the lowest distortion and the smallest price tag, but Snell's ICS Sub24, with its twin 12-inch drivers, gets close enough on all counts to be a shoe-in for best overall value of the dozen subs reviewed. If you're feeling flush, buy two of them along with a RadioShack sound-level meter, a test disc that includes pink noise, and a parametric equalizer. Then experiment with placement until you get the smoothest response throughout your primary listening zone, and polish the response with the EQ.
Best Special-Effects Workhorse:
Its rotary motor and belt arrangement may seem like something out of the Industrial Revolution, but for sheer pants flappage, nothing in this survey bettered the ContraBass in the 15–25Hz range, where many oh-my-gawd special effects have their root energy. This bad boy is best partnered with an industrial-strength power amp and main speakers that stay strong down to about 30Hz, and crossed over at around 40Hz in action-movie (as opposed to music-centric) systems.
Most Intriguing If You Can Buy a Bunch:
Bag End S21E
You'll need a stout power amplifier to get satisfying level out of the Bag End, but, say, a big Crown or Krell driving two or four of these 21-inchers will let you experience something no other sub can match: a full octave of extension below 20Hz. But the Bag End aspires to more than just supplying big grunt Way Down Deep: It's a full-on audiophile contender, at ease navigating intricate symphonic works in shoot-outs with Wilson's and Genelec's best efforts. Its small size—not a marketing compromise but an integral part of the below-resonance design—makes the prospect of buying a pair or two actually viable for those with some dosh and real estate to spare. If that describes you, read on: Multiple subs, spread around, will almost certainly get you a smoother distribution of bass throughout your listening area.
Best New Face: Kleiss S15A
Dolby and Skywalker engineers have hauled out their personal checkbooks to get in Tai Klyce's production queue. His compact 15-incher, a solid performer—and an equally solid value, due to factory-direct availability—puts him on the national radar.
Best Real-World Solution: Velodyne DD18
It hangs in there with the best of the bunch in every category but distortion, where it is the best of the bunch, yet the big Velodyne is a lot smaller and smarter than its no-holds-barred competitors. Make no mistake: Without help from a mike, a tone generator, and a high-quality outboard parametric equalizer, no sub in the survey can match the DD18 for bass quality in a typical home theater setting.
If you don't happen to have the aforementioned hardware gathering dust, along with the time to read a book or two on the physical acoustics and psychoacoustics of bass in small rooms, the DD18 strips down the quest to an add-water-and-stir affair. Just hook up the supplied mike and AV cables and run the simple room-adjustment routines from the sub's remote control. The only extra hardware you'll need will be your existing TV screen, to display the effects of your adjustments.
Hardware Drool Award: Wilson Watch Dog
It's a work of performing art, with fit and finish that will be familiar to anyone who's ever taken a Ferrari for a spin. Judged by both lab instruments and ear, the Watch Dog is a very good performer in absolute terms, and shockingly good considering there's only a single 12-inch driver and two narrow, slotted ports at the business end of this beautifully executed package.—KY