$800 Subwoofers

Televisions, receivers, and speakers are important to the home theater experience, but the subwoofer is the only component that regularly gets pushed to its limits — or beyond. The laws of physics dictate that producing clean, powerful, deep bass requires drivers that displace lots of air, and amps powerful enough to push them.

Neither comes cheap. But these days, neither necessarily costs you a fortune. Thanks to the emergence of Internet-only vendors such as Axiom Audio, Hsu Research, and SVS, the prices for muscle subs have come way down. You can now pick up a world-class, powerhouse model for right around $800.

You’ll quickly discover that this price point makes room for many options. Giant, hulking beasts built for maximum output and minimum WAF. Subs that devote their resources to digital processing rather than raw horsepower. Sleek, compact subs designed for, well, designers.

So which one do you get? We test lots of subs here at Sound & Vision, but we hadn’t tested enough in this price category to pick any favorites. Thus, we decided to set up a subwoofer slugfest, comparing five models within a range of ±$100 from our $800 target. To avoid covering the same ground twice, we requested only models we hadn’t previously reviewed. We needed a reference to past Test Reports, though, so I included the Hsu Research VTF-15H.

Test Procedures
As usual, I brought in outside listeners and concealed the products so the session would be blind; the only IDs the listeners could see were the numbers 1, 2, and 3 on the handheld controller for my testing switcher. To fill out the rest of the system, I used my Sunfire CRM-2 and CRM-BIP speakers, driven by a combination of AudioControl, Denon, and Krell electronics, with a Panasonic Blu-ray player as the source.

Setting up a comparison test with subwoofers is especially difficult, because moving a sub only a few feet can greatly affect the sound the listener hears. To minimize the effects of positioning differences, I organized the six subs — the five under review plus the Hsu — into two groups of three. I further flattened the playing field by shuffling the positions of the subs in each group for each panelist. Observing the apparent gross mismatch between the 24-pound Paradigm Monitor SUB 10 and the 75-pound Power Sound Audio XV15, and realizing that the smaller subs were targeted at a totally different customer than the monsters, I decided to put the three smallest models into one group and the three largest into the other.

After the listening sessions were done, I performed frequency response and CEA-2010A output measurements on all of the subs to find out how their technical performance corresponded with the panelists’ impressions.

Our listeners included S&V contributing technical editor Geoffrey Morrison, frequent West Coast headphone panelist Will Huff, and me. I allowed Geoff and Will to listen at whatever levels they liked; then I took on the responsibility of pushing these subs to levels well beyond what most listeners would prefer, in order to find the subs’ limits — so you don’t have to. Unless you really want to. In which case, invite me over.

Here are links to the individual reviews: