A quality subwoofer will not distort under lower frequency sound like many common subwoofers do. Many names associated as “top quality” have little real subwoofer performance. Almost any subwoofer will work well at 60 hertz, but once you get under 40 things get real. Under 30, and things get very real.
It would be easy to name a few brands that stick out for being overpriced, floppy, and breathless, but the goal is not to bash brands that may make future improvements and be worthy of praise. The hope is to change the industry and move it towards performance rather than hype, and do it by promoting those who are doing it right.
It’s better to discuss brands and individual subwoofers that do provide the performance that satisfies the need for clean, accurate, substantial performance at the lowest levels you are capable of hearing, and then some.
The focus will be on reasonable value subs, which will range from $400 to $2500. If I find a subwoofer that is outrageous under $300, I will absolutely discuss it. In fact, I will celebrate it. It’s just too hard to obtain amazing performance at that price point.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Physics matter. To get substantial performance from a ported sub, you need a big box and wattage. There are a few small subwoofers that get down pretty good for there size, which typically rely on a passive radiator design, but for life below 30 hertz, they begin to lose the battle to distortion and output. While impressive for it’s size and great for small spaces, the cube subwoofer I had just wasn’t enough. The smallest ported sub I have heard that I can confidently recommend is the SVS PB-1000, which is still sizable for a 10″ subwoofer. It has been my one exception to my 12″ or better rule, and they hit all the way down to 21 hertz with authority, and don’t fall off until 18-19 hertz. It has the same rated response as the passive radiator cube design did, but the difference is substantial, with the passive radiator design falling off at 30 hertz. Lesson? Rated frequency response can be very misleading.
- Manufacturer rated frequency response. Few big brands advertise realistic numbers. They are almost always inflated. Some brands do not advertise frequency response numbers at all(?!), instead suggesting you should rely on your ears. If they advertised their actual frequency response with graphs, their home theater in a box sales would plummet. The only way to judge truly frequency response is through independent testing, or your own ears using challenging tracks and test tracks that can be found on the Subwoofer101 YouTube channel playlist under Subwoofer test tracks.
- White van speakers. Never, ever buy speakers out of the back of a van. EVER. They are universally garbage, and it’s a scam that has been going on for days.
- Internet Direct brands. Makers that are internet direct rely a great deal on word of mouth advertising, and therefore actual performance. From what I can tell, they keep more profitability by not having to share revenue with brick and mortar stores. So when you buy a factory direct speaker for $1,000, it would have to be priced at $1,400-$1,800 to have the same profitability in a brick and mortar. That is not an endorsement of all internet direct brands, some aren’t that great, but a suggestion to look at some celebrated, quality internet only brands. It is not to say all brick and mortar sold brands are bad, but chances are you are going to have to pay much more for similar performance and quality.
- Amp makers. The company that makes your favorite receiver probably doesn’t make the best speakers/subwoofers. Again, this may change in the future, but as of 2017 that is the case.
- Beware of “systems”. Speaker “systems” that do NOT allow for third party subwoofers (a different brand subwoofer) to integrate should be carefully scrutinized. The same is true if you cannot use dual subwoofers, an important part of quality bass performance. If you are buying a brand that only allows that particular brand’s subwoofer to be used, then you are limited. This is true of some wireless setups that may fix the problem in the future, and some bigger name systems known for their ultra compact design that should probably be avoided altogether. A wireless setup may suite you, but you can’t expect absolute deep bass performance, at least not yet. This is not referring to wireless sub kits, which are great for placement flexibility, but any wireless kit will add delay and can complicate things. Never try to mixed wired subs with wireless subs.
- You can always turn it down! Getting an under-powered or shallow subwoofer is a bigger problem than going too big. Particularly in a big room like my 24×24 living room, which is open to 1,200 square foot house, there is little pressurization, but a pair of PB-1000’s filled it up nicely. I would always make dual subwoofers a priority, and going a little smaller with duals is OK. Any sub on “The List” should fill most normal rooms under 25×25 feet, assuming sane but substantial listening levels.
- Placement. Subwoofers have a longer sound wave, and the features of your room will affect your subs performance. In my room I have dead spots, caused by what’s known as a standing wave, common with single subwoofers. As the frequency changes, loud spots and dead spots shift within the room, causing what I call “Swiss Cheese Bass”. Going with separated dual subs has resolved the dead spots in my room. A sub crawl is ideal for a single sub, but in my circumstances I could only move it within a 4 foot footprint for aesthetic reasons, which brings us to our next topic…
- WAF. The Wife Acceptance Factor, or more politically correct SOAF (Significant Other Acceptance Factor) is a real consideration. I auditioned a small footprint, passive radiator design cube subwoofer, and my wife loved it’s look because it didn’t stand out, but it just didn’t perform. With my 15 inch sub, it was definitely a stand out feature. There was a little dread on her face when I unpacked it due to it’s size, but when it went live she was hooked. The sound quality outweighed the visual impact. SVS sent out a pair of PB-1000’s for review, and they have been the best compromise, but the PB-2000’s just seem to fit next to the TV stand the best. Solid performance with a small visual impact, and they also happen to be the most affordable.
- How low? The human ear hears down to about 18 hertz (sometimes lower) for the best of us, most of us hear around 20 hertz, and your ability to hear low frequencies deteriorates with age. So why get a sub that actually goes down to 18 hertz or lower? Because if you have a sub that does well at 20 hertz, it will likely do great at 30-40 hertz where a lot of subs reach their real limits. When you listen to that challenging track that would tax most common subwoofers, and instead you hear the sound that was actually recorded, as it was meant to be heard, it’s quite satisfying.
- You also have the issue of how “flat” your frequency response is. Many common subwoofers vary widely in their measured curves. Many drop off substantially under 30-40 hertz. Many makers measure lower on that curve (even if it’s within accepted standards) , and when you listen to a 25 hertz tone and a 60 hertz tone, the 60 hertz tone is much louder. This is true for almost any sub, but how much of a difference is the key.
I have not listened to every subwoofer out there, but you can be sure I will not put a subwoofer on this site if it is not outstanding, or had a special merit.
If you are a manufacturer and want to have me review your subwoofer or otherwise believe your sub should be on “The List”, you can contact me through the contact page. My goal is to put really good products on a pedestal, not hurt brands that are still improving their products. I’ve set a nearly impossible standard, and I’m fully aware of that. Flat response curves, no bad manners, authority down to 20 hertz and reasonable output for no more than $2,500. I know there are some great subs that I have not heard of yet, so feel free to chime in.