Subwoofery: Trick Or Treat?

Jim Smith feels so strongly about the importance of subwoofers that he’s writing a series of 8 articles on the subject, exclusively for Copper. Here’s the first–enjoy! –Ed.

Part 1 – Full-range speakers need subs too…

…But not necessarily to achieve someone’s notion of “better bass”.

No matter how deep or authoritative the bass from a “full-range” speaker may be, no matter if it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s probably not going to let you have your (audio) cake and (hear) eat it too.

For example, here are just a few of the many large and/or expensive speakers that have benefited from subs: Wilson, YGA, Magico, Vandersteen, Raidho,Tannoy, etc.

Are they somehow deficient in the bass? Absolutely not. It’s about having the smoothest and deepest bass speaker location coincide exactly with the other requirements for great sound. Coincide is a good word, because it would be a huge coincidence if it ever happens!

It’s really simple. When you place your speakers for the absolute best overall presentation, with maximum intimacy, presence, tone, etc., as well as a convincing spatial reproduction, there is almost no chance that the same place will be the best position for the best bass. In fact, I’ve never seen it happen. Sometimes it can be close, but I’ve never heard a system that didn’t perform at a higher level with properly matched and integrated subs. Of course, properly matched and integrated is the key…

That does not mean that you have to go out and buy a pair of subwoofers. Perhaps your budget or room couldn’t easily accommodate them.

It does mean that you do have to make YOUR best choice for the most acceptable compromise. For me, I’ll take the smoothest bass I can get and opt for the best dynamics, presence, tone, etc., instead of getting deeper bass. We will discuss how to do that in a future article.

Getting back to the topic at hand…  for example, my Tannoy Canterburys with outboard Duelund crossovers are relatively flat in my room to a bit below 30 Hz.

I have a pair of REL subs that are placed for their highest performance. They are rolled off at about 28 Hz. They are never audible as a source of sound. But there is no disputing the system’s reproduction of the sense of the venue and the presence of seemingly live persons & instruments in the room.

In my case, I did it for a more compellingly musical sound, not for “better bass”. Maybe on 1-2% of the recordings that I play, I might notice the bass being a bit deeper or more authoritative, but the rest of the time, I’m never aware of the subs. Well, except for the fact that the listening experience is so much more musically involving.

Subs – again, properly implemented – will always enhance the sense of space and especially the sense of presence of vocalists and instruments, whether recorded up close or well back on a stage.  The result?  A more engaging musical experience.

But it’s not just the sense of space or hearing low bass instruments the few times when they are actually present.  For example, I can play a recording of a guitar solo, and when the subs are on, it’s as if you could walk over and pluck the guitar strings!  Yet, you are not aware of the subs in any way as far as making a sound.  They increase the sense of tangibility of instruments and voices.

My experience (something like 800 systems voiced) has shown that even the most expensive/exotic speakers – often which claim subterranean bass – still benefit from properly implemented subs.  In fact, I have never known this outcome to be untrue, no matter what is claimed or what the loudspeaker costs.

It’s important to recount that when I have heard reports of how a pair of subs didn’t blend properly with a pair of full-range loudspeakers, when I heard that system, the reports were nearly always correct!  Sometimes I could fix the problem in a few minutes, sometimes a few hours. But it was always solved and more musical engagement was the outcome.

Part 2 – Fast bass? Really???

Part 3 – Finding the anchor for the best Dynamics, Presence & Tone

Part 4 – Why a RTA is useful, even if you are not technical – and how to get   a good one nearly free

Part 5 – Sub set-up info you probably haven’t seen (but you should)

Part 6 – X-over freq. vs. level; location, location, location

Part 7 – The role of EQ and room correction when working with subs

Part 8 – A true story with a good outcome and lots of documentation

You can read Jim’s work at his website.