Rolling the dice

October 31, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

A truly full-range loudspeaker is a rare bird. There simply aren’t that many speaker models on the market that cover 20Hz to 20kHz.

But here’s the thing. Even if they were a common occurrence, few among us would be able to enjoy their low frequency contributions.

The problem of course is our old friend the room.

Rooms and low bass are not good bedmates.

The chances of producing a 20Hz note from where your speakers are placed and hearing it at your listening position are about as good as rolling snake eyes.

Where we place our main speakers for best imaging and tonal balance is not likely to be where it is best for bass reproduction.

Which is why, of course, we often turn to a pair of separate woofer boxes called subwoofers.

We can place the subs where in the room they work to support low frequencies without compromising where our main speakers sound best.

Subwoofers are like loaded dice. They guarantee we win.

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52 comments on “Rolling the dice”

  1. One of the greatest hurdles to overcome is to divorce yourself from what someone may think looks good in a speaker, with what is a speaker of appropriate size for the room. Room rise and proximity effect can and will be your friend in your setup when dealing with rooms if you know how to utilize it. If a sub is utilized, you may need to reconsider your speaker choice, if the goal is to have a speaker that can get you the response you seek.

    What I generally find, is that many over emphasize what low frequency that is realistic sounds like. For example, the primary of an A0 on a grand piano, (27Hz) and in its vibrato, doesn’t produce the type of “thud” you feel in your chest, which is the goal of many in their setup. There is a difference between clean, and loud. Many want their bass to look like the guy in the chair in the Maxell tape ad from the 80’s…

    Then comes the “realism” of time alignment and position of source that a separated sub from the primary enclosure cannot achieve, that a large displacement, single enclosure can produce. There is much to be said for the two-way, large displacement systems. However, we are back to the start of this post, what someone may think looks good with what can actually sound good in the room. Happy listening!

    1. You are exactly right in that a subwoofer may be able to reproduce the frequencies of a grand piano, but will never come close to the sensation of actually listening to one.

      The main reason is of course that the soundboard of a concert grand piano is about 8′ long and 5′ wide. Bass drivers are typically 1′ to 1.25′ (12″ to 15″) in diameter. The need to push so much air from such a small surface area and the resulting thud is where for me the whole exercise becomes futile. Better to spend $30 on a ticket and go listen to the real thing.

      1. Recording the frequency from the soundboard isn’t the real issue, that’s fairly easy with a proper choice of mic and placement. The real problem comes, as you understand clearly, in the reproduction. Low frequency is most susceptible to error (phase, overshoot, frequency doubling or amplitude) in the choices made in both it’s amplification and reproduction from the speaker. And when you have to add a sub, you may want to look to see if there is something lacking in the choice of the primary speaker.

        Subs have a place in audio, for example the required reproduction of soundtracks in video or movies. It’s just that most seem to prefer an exaggerated low frequency response, which isn’t accurate or realistic, and certainly musical reproduction can suffer.

        1. It was always my understanding that subwoofers were an AV product, TV’s used to have terrible sound although the most recent TV screens have fantastic audio.

          As to Paul’s post, I don’t know what a “20Hz note” is. Maybe he can give us an example. I assume it is just an electronically generated sound.

          It goes back to the same observation I’ve made before, speaker manufacturers usually make a wide range of speaker choices as it makes it easier for customers to choose a product that suits their room, and in a smaller room low bass just isn’t going to work.

          1. Sure, the pedal on a pipe organ make notes as low as 16Hz. But likely not a lot of people listen to pipe organs. Room sounds, environmental cues that help us believe we are in the recording space are all low frequencies well below what most systems can reproduce at the listeing position.

            1. While I don’t regularly listen to pipe organ music, I happened to purchase a Virgil Fox direct-to-disk back in the late 70s – this started me on the quest for a great sub-woofer. Until I purchased one, I had Altec VOTT biamped with 15″ non-reflex bass drivers and horn mid-highs, but even there, I felt I wanted to hear an authentic pedal low note in my own room.

              I was selling ADS home audio in the mid-80s, and picked up a great deal on a sealed, bottom firing sub with crossovers – this did well until 2007 or so until I graduated to a nice Rel sub. Careful placement with sub firing across the longest distance in the room, loads the space quite well.

              1. One the drawbacks of the VOTT’s is their low frequency roll-off. The A5 nor the A7 was ever really designed for below 50Hz, and the -6dB was around 40Hz depending on driver, and extend little past 15kHz. You would want to pair them with 8182’s for example, to obtain 20Hz performance, but they are quite large. You really need some distance from the VOTT to allow propagation.

                When we produced the Model 19 for home use, even it rolled off steep before you get down to 35Hz. Bill Hanuschak, one of our great speaker engineers, who purchased all the equipment from the floor when we closed Altec-Lansing in the 90’s here, he continued to do speaker development and has continued to improve performance over time.

                1. Barsley,

                  I drove up to Oklahoma City to meet Bill and purchase the GPA drivers for my Model 19 clones. It was a kick to meet the people who built my drivers. With 8.8 cubic foot cabinets tuned to 29 Hz they can produce 25 Hz at 5 db roll off.

                  I never expect to achieve the room shaking bass a high powered subwoofer system can provide. But as you stated, it is the “realism” large two way speakers can provide is what I desire for the jazz and acoustic guitar I enjoy.

      2. Sub sound awful !
        Switched to a new integrated and I picked up some very nice clean bass tones. My two sets of bookshelf’s sound great! Also eliminated much of the spaghetti by using only coax and optical
        Cables!
        By accident the room sound sweet and v v v listenable!!
        Reading and listening-perfect!
        BTW where is the $30 ticket?
        Not in Miami!
        Anyway my “room” sounds better than the Arsht or Broward music caves!

        1. Wigmore Hall recitals are between about $15 and $65. Sometimes the top price tickets are cheaper, but for the likes of Uchida, Levit, Schiff, Lewis and Isserlis top price is £50. That said, best seats purchased last week for Nabucco were £250 (about $310) because it’s a good cast and opera singers like Netrebko demand high fees. Wagner can command $400, lucky I don’t like it.

          Lang Lang is playing the Goldberg Variations at the Barbican in December. Can’t get more box office than that. Tickets between $30 and $110. No thanks, I heard Pavel Kolesnikov play them in May in a small room with about 50 people and tickets were about $50. It was magnificent and very intense, sitting 12 feet away.

          I had a ticket yesterday for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden that cost $25 (although I changed it for a better one). The performance was sponsored by Hans Rausig, a gazillionaire, so prices were lower.

          I would be interested to know what people pay in the USA.

            1. How much? My wife studied in NYC for three years and used to got to the Met and see Pavarotti for $10. Obviously prices have gone up in recent years. We go to Sadlers Wells a lot and see many of the world’s best dance companies, best seats in the house cost between $25 and $70. The more we buy, the bigger our discount.

      3. At that cost I wish the acoustics were good but it’s not.
        Symphony Hall at Lincoln CTR is awful
        It’s a rectangle and best seats are at the very back half way up. Arsht is just terrible all over as is Knight across the street
        At least there is no snow in Miami!

        1. By international standards, London, home to a large contingent of world class classical musicians, does not have a decent concert hall. The Royal Festival Hall is possibly the best, and it was built 70 years ago. We have loads of great smaller venues, and Wigmore Hall is one of the best in the world (seats 550). Covent Garden has great acoustics, even sitting at the back.

            1. So is Ayla – she’s interesting, intelligent and just like a classically trained musician possesses the ability to play other peoples music note for note. What she has yet to develop is the ability to create, channel and process a mind/soul connection, write and perform her own music.

              6.6 million views ain’t to shabby!

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dMrE9pyupQ

  2. The problem with subwoofers for ‘big bass” is that they make your house shake and the sound travels everywhere. They are impractical for my house, I have tried, and no longer use any. Other than in a dedicated audio space with a lot of acoustic isolation, I suspect they are most likely to be more trouble than they are worth.

    It really depends what you listen to. All I want is a reasonably realistic stand-up bass when listening to jazz, and I can do that with fairly modest sized speakers.

    There are plenty of speakers with enough bass without needing subwoofers, for example the PMC BB5-SE. The 15″ radial drivers were designed for BBC studio monitors in the early 1990’s and have filled homes and studios ever since. They have since designed piston drivers, which are faster and smaller.

    For me the biggest problem is that subwoofers are so damned ugly.

  3. I have just looked at the information about my speakers on the manufacturers website it say, In room usable frequency 20Hz-22Khz
    ( dependent on room ) all I know it’s better than what I was using before.
    No space for subwoofers in my less than perfect room.
    On another note I turned the BBC news on this morning to hear England hammered Australia what do you make of that FR.

    1. Hi yorkie,
      Any team can have a good day.
      ‘Royal Ascot Mike’ reminded me that Test Cricket is a whole different animal to T20.
      I like India’s strategy, where they ‘let’ you win the first Test & then when you’ve got your confidence up they come back & hammer you over the next three, but luckily India
      does not play in The Ashes (phew!)

  4. In the post above our friend the room has a dramatic effect when we put in full range speakers. Then our friend “sub” is put in, so we can place the full range speaker optimally.

    So if the room doesn’t support the optimal placement of a full range speaker to start with, then why not find what sounds best to you in a LF restricted speaker? Augment as you feel necessary.

    In some cases, as Steven points out, the house shakes, stuff vibrates and most importantly to him they’re old man butt ugly. 😀

    My experience with subs was similar to many. First the “boom”, then the wash out of other frequencies and sometimes an image that suffered. So then came isolation stands , spiked plinths, along with a concrete floor and now concrete walls. As I placed and dialed things in (over the course of a long butt ugly time) I found raising the subs helped immensely with sonic coherence and articulation. DSP for the bass helped and allowed a more flexible room placement. Once done, I always thought sh** where did the bass go? It went nowhere…. The boom and bloom disappeared and now just the articulated bass notes show up when present.

    The biggest stumbling block I’ve run into is the way to hook things up electrically. We all know Paul’s preferred method. For myself (and others?) I prefer a really good active crossover or high pass filter, on the line level side, to keep the unwanted low notes out of the LF restricted speaker. In my experience that also helps with the overall presentation.

    So for myself, full range in a speaker is not a requirement for my current room. The long term experimentation and unwavering quest to overcome the bass obstacles became the requirement.

      1. Not if you do it right 😉

        But perfect if you like your G&T shaken and not stirred. ✌️

        Although for a beer guy it’s best to have a couple guzzles 1st to prevent frothing 😉

      2. The one for my desktop system makes a good foot rest as well! It is tucked way back in the foot well, probably not the most optimum setup but speakers/sub/amp are all within 3 feet of me in my little audio bubble.

  5. This is exactly what I said in all the full range speaker related posts before and why I don’t see an advantage in a “too” full range performing speaker for most in their room situations.

    My speaker has about the size (mine is 4“ deeper) and quite exactly the exterior cabinet looks of this legacy Avalon speaker: https://www.audiotherapyuk.com/product/avalon-time/
    This Avalon has specs from 20 Hz to 50 kHz (let’s forget that)

    Mine, as it’s fully active, is in multiple ways adjustable not only in the whole bass region and above, but especially below 50 Hz. Together with not only movable but also EQ‘able subs, this makes the whole thing quite flexible within rooms and to address changing gear.

    I would seriously become desperate if I had to optimize a real full range non adjustable speaker in bass in a room that’s not built for that speaker. Even with the use of add. separate subs.

    In theory I then would prefer a speaker just going down not lower than around 50 Hz and do the rest with an EQ‘able sub. The disadvantage then in my experience would be, that the whole speaker setup then would loose some punch in the transitional region and the main speakers wouldn’t sound as confident in mids, but all better than serious deep bass problems in the room.

  6. I tried subs in my current listening room & I didn’t really like them.
    I bought a 500watt/ch amp & the bass that was coming out of
    my floorstanders was both seductive & very entertaining.
    Do it right in a medium/small room & you wont need subs.

    Vale ‘Bert Newton’.
    One of the greatest entertainers ever to grace our TV screens.
    May you rest in peace sir.

      1. Romex??
        Only if it’s 1.5mm dia. solid core (single ‘strand’) copper wire.
        When I see ‘Romex’ I think of a multi-strand copper wire;
        but then we don’t have ‘Romex’ brand here in ‘Straya.
        Solid core does tighten the bass up very nicely;
        better than any multi-strand, in my not so humble opinion 😉

        1. I generally have an excellent memory and recall you writing about “high-value” solid core electrical wire you purchased at Home Depot.

          Romex is a product from Southwire here in the U.S. Solid Romex Simpul refers to a nonmetallic sheath and jacketing which makes pulling wire through conduit much easier and is available in solid core conductor configurations.

          Many electricians and consumers use the name “Romex” generically to mean any wire that incorporates a nonmetallic sheath (NM) jacket. Engineered specifically for NEC applications, when someone mentions Home Depot electrical wire we think of Romex.

          1. Gotcha.
            No ‘Home Depot’ here either.
            I think that I said something like, ‘from my local hardware store’.
            I suspected that ‘Romex’, over there, was the same as ‘Hoover’ is for vacuum cleaners…a generic term.
            Thanks for the confirmation dr g.

  7. My speakers were tested, by Stereophile, as running between 17 and 45. Of course, those results were produced in an an environment that was very much unlike mine. I use a REL 212SX to reach the the effect that the Revels are supposed to achieve. I’m no expert at this hobby and, one day, when I have the time, I’m going to find and hire somebody who is an expert just to make sure that I’m wringing all of the juice out of my system.

    1. Biggarthomas,
      Be your own home audio expert.
      Purchase Paul McGowan’s book, ‘The Audiophile’s Guide’ along with the
      accompanying CD & sort it out yourself (DIY) AND further your home audio
      education along the way, before you pay stupid money to a so-called
      ‘home audio expert’ 😉

  8. I tried using a subwoofer with my apogee duetta 2 speakers, but found it didn’t sound as close to real instruments as the apogee’s by themselves. The apogee’s are a weird animal as they sound real but don’t give you as much of the tactical sensation as a box speaker.

  9. In my last house, I somehow managed the trick of getting everything right with my Triton 1s. Good soundstage and bass for music and, with the slight turn of the woofer control, house shaking bass for the Star Trek movies. They are now only used for tv and can’t be set up for stereo in the current room.

    On a somewhat related note, on a whim I pulled my Maggies (without the sub) from the too small room where they live into the large room where my piano is. Paired with an ols SS integrated and a sony bluray player, they sounded magnificent. The bass (an alleged Maggie weakness) was perfect on well recorded material.

  10. I have KEF R700 speakers and use them in conjunction with a pair of REL Stampede subwoofers, Paul recommended using two, and they gave me such a boost in listening experience I would not be without them now for 2 channel Vinyl replay. They add much more than just Bass, I did set them up exactly how REL told me to and its perfect and I do have them adjusted so that they do not boom. Well Fat Rat seems we bested you today I will say convincingly as well for a change

  11. With my 2.1 setup, 18 to 28K Hz room response is possible. The hand-off and blend between the powered sub/stand monitors (LP 50Hz/HP 50Hz) is seamless and with the bottom end easily generating the 4 T’s (tight-tuneful-tonality-timbre), organ, orchestral string bass/large bass drums and piano sub bass bandwidths appear in perfect harmony with the other top 9 octaves of music…All are alive and well! 😉

  12. Paul is right, although I am not ready to take the plunge back to using subwoofers. I am very fortunate. I have a large room for my system (30′ x 28′ x 11′ ), true full range speakers ( Magico S7’s ) and a very powerful amp ( 750 w rms per channel ). Just as Paul said my speakers are strategically placed for best imaging and tonal balance. I get really good bass at my listening position, however, if the right music is playing and I happen to be walking in or out of the room through one of the two large openings at the rear of the room I notice that the bass is even fuller at the rear of the room.

    1. By the time you get to 30′, you are getting close to the actual full propagation of the wavelength of 30Hz. When you do live performances outdoors or in extremely large venues, you begin to understand the importance of that.

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