JL Audio Fathom f113 Subwoofer

JL Audio is best known for its car audio products. But when it first showed its line of home subwoofers at a CEDIA Expo a couple of years back everyone was blown away—in more ways than one.

The JL f113 is the middleman in the company's three-model range of home subwoofers. The flagship Gotham g213 sports two 13.5" drivers and 3800-Watts of short-term amplification. The fact that it sits nearly 3 feet high and weighs 320 lbs. probably explains why it hasn't appeared in many in-home product reviews!

The two JL Fathom subwoofers are a bit more manageable. The largest of them, the $3,300 f113, is the subject for today.

Inside and Outside
Small subwoofers are in. If you can fit 20Hz into a cabinet the size of a Costco- sized box of Cheerios, the world will beat a path to your door.

But the laws of physics are pretty inflexible when it comes to subwoofers. You want response to 20Hz or lower, low distortion, and high output? Choose two.

The JL f113 doesn't follow the Cheerios route, though as subwoofers go it isn't overly large. But at 126 lbs., it's surprisingly heavy. The heart of the system is a single 13.5", long excursion, high displacement woofer. Its sealed box enclosure is available in either black (gloss) or black (satin).

JL specifies the onboard amp as "2500 watts RMS short-term." I'm not sure what "RMS short-term" means exactly. An EE will tell you that there's no such thing as RMS power. What RMS power usually means, in ad copy-speak, is continuous power. But if it's continuous it can't be "short-term." But enough ranting. 2600 watts are a lotta juice any way you rate them.

The overall package is rated down to 19Hz (-3dB). And while the maximum output level of the sub is not specified, in my 3200 cubic foot home theater room it will play far louder than I would ever have any reason or desire to listen. And I don't play movies at polite levels.

The f113 offers the usual set of controls, with a few additional twists. They are all located in front, and easily accessible. The expected controls include Power (off, on, auto—the latter turns the sub on or off in the presence or absence of an active signal), Level (with a bypass switch), Lights (off, dim, and on), LP filter (selects a 12dB or 24dB/octave slope for the sub's onboard low pass crossover or turns it off if you want to control the response from your AV receiver or pre-pro), and LP freq (chooses crossover points from 30-130Hz if the low pass filter is turned on).

There are also separate phase (0-280 degrees) and polarity (0 and 180 degree) controls, which is an unusual combination in that we generally see one or the other, not both. The phase control is said to affect the timing of the subwoofer relative to the rest of the speakers in the system, but that would appear to be similar in function to the "distance" setup control offered by all AV receivers and pre-pros.

One unusual feature is a single band parametric equalizer, though similar subwoofer adjustments are becoming more common in other subs as well. Here it's called the Automatic Room Optimization system, or A.R.O. You plug in the included microphone, position it at the prime listening position, and push a button. From that point on it automatically generates test tones, performs the calibration to determine the room's most prominent peak, and dials-in appropriate equalization to tune it out.

There is no manual EQ option. The only manual response adjustment (apart from tweaks to the crossover frequency, phase, polarity and level settings) is an E.L.F. Trim control. It provides a cut of up to 12dB, or a boost of up to 3dB, at 25Hz.

Around back are both single-ended and balanced inputs, plus a "slave" output for daisy chaining an additional sub. There are also two input mode switches: a Slave/Master switch to designate whether the sub is the slave or master in such a daisy chain, and a "Grounded/Isolation" switch that provides two options to eliminate hum (it operates only on the single-ended inputs).

The AC input is an IEC-style connector for a detachable power cord. JL Audio recommends a separate AC circuit for the f113, but I experienced no problems using it into the single 120V circuit that services my home theater system. But much of my system is plugged (though not the f113) into an APC S15 battery backup system that can compensate for the sort of current sags that a power hungry product can draw, at least during peak demands.

Pump It Up
Great subwoofers can put you at a loss for words—but I think I can find a few. The Fathom f113 did everything I asked of it. Yes, you can spend more. But it's unlikely to buy you better performance unless you need immense output in a much larger room than mine. Yes, you can buy two cheaper subs for the same price and perhaps get the more uniform overall room response than the right placement of multiple subs can give you. But those cheaper subs are unlikely to perform as well, overall, as the JL. And yes, some subs now offer even more sophisticated room optimization features and multiple bands of equalization. But you can still find more expensive subs that offer none.

Subwoofers are indispensable for many movies, but you could argue that you don't really need one for music if you have front speakers with adequate bottom end extension. With the f113 you'll hear the difference on anything but the widest range main speakers. Add it to most systems and the differences will not be subtle. Bass drums have greater percussive impact. Live instruments with any pretension of a low end (piano, bass guitar, double bass, etc.) have real weight and strength. Synthesizer can alarm you enough to make you question the structural integrity of your house. And you'll be stalking room rattles you didn't know you had.

You might even start collecting organ recordings. Take for example that famous audiophile potboiler, organist Jean Guile playing an organ version of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Not every track here is a bottom growler, but the JL brings gut-wrenching power to the deepest of them.