Subwoofer history

April 13, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

In one of my Ask Paul video questions, I was asked how far back subwoofers go in 2-channel audio. The community member had only become aware of subs as they related to home theater.

Of course, many readers of Paul’s Post know subs date back much further than home theater.

From Wikipedia: In September 1964, Raymon Dones received the first patent for a subwoofer specifically designed to augment the low-frequency range of modern stereo systems (US patent 3150739). Able to reproduce distortion-free low frequencies down to 15 Hz, a specific objective of Dones’s invention was to provide portable sound enclosures capable of high fidelity reproduction of low-frequency sound waves without giving an audible indication of the direction from which they emanated. Dones’s loudspeaker was marketed in the US under the trade name “The Octavium” from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. The Octavium was utilized by several recording artists of that era, most notably the Grateful Dead.

Two years later, in 1966, my former partner in Genesis Technologies and the co-founder of Infinity, Arnie Nudell, along with his airline pilot friend, Carry Christie, launched the second and perhaps most important subwoofer of its time, the Infinity Servo woofer, based on an 18″ Cerwin Vega driver.

My experience with a subwoofer began a few years later when I was first introduced to a true high-end audio system. There, in the living room of local audiophile Norm Little, was serial numbers 1 and 2 of aerospace engineer Eugene J. “Gene” Czerwinski’s creation, a pair of 18″ Cerwin-Vega subwoofers capable of producing 130 dB at 30 Hz, an astonishing level during its time (or any time).

I suppose I have never gotten over the experience of hearing for the first time, all there is in the recordings, including subsonics.

Until you hear it all, you’re not going to know what true high-end is.

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34 comments on “Subwoofer history”

  1. My biggest quest regarding subwoofers is, how those large towers standing besides line sources like Genesis or Infinity panels and which probably range much higher than usual subs, can produce a coherent bass integration with that higher crossover point. I only heard single column large speakers so far unfortunately.

    Let’s see what design the upcoming PSA speakers will be.

  2. There was this movie that was released in late 1974 that used Cerwin Vega drivers (I don’t remember exactly what size, but I’m guessing 36″) & BGW amplifiers to reproduce an earthquake up to 120dB in the cinema.
    I was 14 years old & very impressionable…that was my first experience with subwoofers.

    I bought a couple of 10″, 120wrms ‘System Audio’ subs to augment my 5″ two way, shoebox standmounts, a year ago, but since I’ve gone back to 3-way floorstanders I sold both of them
    over Easter (11 days ago) as they weren’t adding much to the floorstanders output
    (both went down to 27Hz, in room)
    My neighbours are much happier now.

    I think that if you’re gonna ‘do’ subs you need at least 15″ drivers
    (minimum 2) & at least 500watts continuous per driver.

    1. Ah yes, that was the “Sensurround” on the movie Earthquake. Sadly we never got that experience in my small town. But I remember the ‘buzz’ about it and recall reading about it in an audio mag. They were 18″ folded horns that the theater owner would pay to have fitted at the expense of a several removed seats. Theaters also installed netting to catch falling plaster & debris from the ceilings. There were claims that it made some viewers nauseous & cause them to leave the theater. Good article about it here:

      https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2019/07/earthquake-sensurround-cerwin-vega

    2. I knew a guy back in college that graduated with an electric engineering degree. He joined the U. S. Air Force and was working on developing a sound system that could realistically reproduce the sound and volume of a jet fighter spooling up for take off in order to test the effectiveness of hearing protection headgear for the ground crews in a consistent manner. They could get the system to meet expectations for a while before something would blow out. Fires were not unknown. I think he said that they used Cerwin Vega drivers. It was a dream job for him.

    1. I’ve seen those before, absolutely crazy amazing. I’m sure a pair would fit nicely in the lounge? Bit low (pun intended) on the WAF though. Just imagine her face when she walks in and sees those big babies sitting there. Better check the medical insurance.

    2. You’d definitely have Marty McFly moment with those.
      Incredible. Hard to treat a room with those or maybe you wouldn’t have to cause the bass would be absolutely everywhere. Oh man. The look on my Girlfriends face if I ever brought that home.

  3. I have fond memories as an electrical engineering student interning at Cerwin-Vega’s Simi Valley headquarters in the early 1990s. We had a ball designing and building some awesome car and home subs with big CV drivers that would rattle the windows! 🙂

  4. Those subwoofers were so damn heavy that Done’s wrenched his back lifting them. An incredibly resourceful guy he formulated Done’s pills and sent a one year supply to everyone who bought one of his subs.

    I know that the pills were labeled Doan’s That was just a Snow Job ☃️

  5. Actually, a speaker system known as “full range” should not need subwoofers, my RSI-b, nor my Focus: Legacy (3 x 12 ”woofers) do not need them, since they provide the harmonics of the lowest notes of the instruments of the symphony orchestra and a very acceptable representation of the last movement of the symphony No. 3 with organ, by Saint Saénz.

    It would be an exaggeration to add subwoofers and even less, amplified ones (those that usually give: “one note bass”).

    In my sound rooms, all based on the Golden Ratio principle, the phenomenon of standing waves is conspicuous by its absence, since one of them also has non-parallel surfaces.

    On the other hand, for my Epos: ELS 3, which only go down to 65 Hz, it is totally unsatisfactory not to listen to them without a bass supplement, here I use a 15 ”driver (per channel) in a sealed box of 146 liters, specially calculated for that driver, with an active analog Xover, used as a low-pass filter (at 65 Hz) and driven with a suitable high-damping amplifier. Epos, even for a string quartet, will not be able to reproduce by themselves, the lowest notes of the cello, worse its harmonics.

    I have found that this combination is more satisfactory when compared to other speakers that cost much more.

    My conclusion, based on decades of experience: It is not wise to use additional subwoofers with “full range” speakers (and worse, very expensive) just as it is not wise to not use them with 2-way speakers no matter how expensive they are. The laws of physics cannot be circumvented so easily.

  6. I think it must be twenty years ago or more the Rogers AB1 made to put your LS3 5a speakers on I don’t know how low they went.
    But it must have increased the low frequencies.

  7. Hello Audiomana,

    The notion that a “speaker system known as ‘full range’ should not need subwoofers” forgets that speaker manufacturers write marketing literature to sell their speakers. A speaker does not become a “full range” speaker simply because a manufacturer or a purchaser says it is.

    Adding a subwoofer to a speaker which produces significant acoustic output at 20Hz is not about exaggerating that frequency. It is about recreating spatial or ambient soundstage or venue information well below 20Hz.

    In addition there may be some phase information below 20Hz which we cannot hear directly, just like there is phase information above 18kHz which we cannot hear directly but which super-tweeters reproduce.

    1. I would agree with you on this, My floorstanding speakers are rated to 31 Hz @-6dB and would probably qualify for full range, yet my sub is set to provide low bass pressurization below 40 Hz from corner placement where the most linear and efficient low bass can be produced. I don’t get this with my main speakers set out into the room for best soundstage/imaging/sonics.

    2. @RonRes

      Forget for the moment what manufacturers can say to sell their products, for example, I find it ridiculous that a speaker that costs US $ 750,000 – uses a technology of 80 years ago (bass reflex) already surpassed by Nudel, long before it end of the 1960s, when he made the sealed bass cabinets, with great success, only comparable to that of E. Villchur.

      I used that terminology for more objectivity among the subscribers of this site, I am the one who least believes in marketing phrases, that is why I build my own speaker systems currently using DSPs.

      As for the second paragraph of your post, we are not on the same page, if a speaker is capable of reproducing frequencies, say, 20Hz, and you increase the SPL with another driver at the same frequency, what you are, reinforcing the total output at that frequency, producing redundancy and a superimposition of the sound effect, which in the best of cases would produce an erroneous and unreal equalization at that frequency. Unless there is a serious hearing impairment.

      If a main speaker is capable of giving frequencies of 20 Hz, if the box is well designed, it will also be able to reproduce the harmonics relative to this frequency and will not need any other driver, if the response of the first one is acceptably flat, at that frequency. .

      What you propose is a duplication of acoustic-mechanical stresses that, being redundant, produce a “booming” sound that, in turn, causes listener fatigue.

      If a sound room is not properly balanced, thus reinforcing the low frequencies, or any other, the result will be disappointing. In addition, in the vast majority of cases it is very difficult to achieve frequencies as low as 20Hz, since there is very rare sound material that contains those frequencies, in addition, special speakers and very bulky sound rooms would be needed, to be able to reproduce such large wavelengths. .

      Did you know that one of the instruments that has the most extensive sound range, is the harp whose fundamentals range from 33 to 3.136Hz and that the very low piano and organ notes are perceived largely through theirs partials, so that unnecessarily increasing the SPL at your suggested frequency will only take hi-fi back to the late 1940s, when low notes were exaggerated by fledgling technology.

      1. Audiomana

        It’s not a matter of the speaker’s capability of producing the low frequencies. It’s a matter of where the speakers are placed in the room to obey the golden rules. I recall Dr. Floyd Toole of Harman addressing this issue many years ago that influenced my purchase of a sub. Jim Smith in his book also addresses this issue.
        I wish I had room for a second sub.

        1. nad:

          You have completely confused the topic of my conversation with RonRes.

          Authors such as: Crowhurst, Newitt, Franssen, Boyce, etc., agree that the corner is the worst place to put a normal speaker, since it produces an exacerbation of the different nodes in the room, causing colorations that did NOT exist in the original recording. This also happens with subwoofers when there is an increase in SPL that was not there. It is precisely the linearity to which you allude that is lost.

          What is obtained is a reinforcement of certain frequencies, which is a function of the shape and dimensions of the room. If you read the operating manual of any speaker, the position in a corner is the only one not recommended, the same happens for subwoofers, in which a reinforcement is obtained when the 3 planes that are formed and interact between them, causing an increase in SPL that is NOT in the original recording, thus producing an equalization (excessive boost) that in a short time produces fatigue of the listener, of course if the subwoofer is amplified you can lower the volume, but then you will be losing other fainter notes that are recorded.

          There are many ways to place a subwoofer in the right place for a room, but the corner is not one of them. PMCG has a post about it.

          The position of a subwoofer in a corner is nonsense, here the definition of the bass notes will be lost, and if it is of the amplified type it will be easier for it to become a One Note Bass.

          The exception is speakers designed to be placed in the corner of the room, such as the Klipshorn, the Jensen Imperial Folded Horn, which use the walls as the mouth of the horn, in addition to the Amazing Bass from Dynaco, which gets 6 dB of boost for the mere fact of having been designed to be used in the corner of the room.

          If you like to put your subwoofer in the corner, the Dynaco Amazing is for you, if you can find one.

  8. Hello!

    I was a spacecraft integration and test engineer for a few years…. One of the tests that are performed is “acoustic test” of the completed spacecraft. The test is to see how the spacecraft behaves when exposed to sound pressures that can reach 150db – which simulates the noise of launch which comes from the booster-rocket motors firing during powered flight. It’s quite impressive watching a full cup of coffee jittering across the floor during a test 😉

    Prior to testing, transducers are mounted inside and out of the spacecraft in order to measure how the components react, and then the vehicle surrounded by speakers…. Usually there are 4 to 6 runs which last only 2 minutes (that’s from lift-off to exiting the sensible atmosphere….).

    I’ve attached a few links to further enlighten you all!

    https://www.coloradospacenews.com/critical-part-of-jwst-completes-acoustic-testing/

    https://msi-dfat.com/gallery/

  9. I have had pairs of HSU ULS-15 and Seaton Submerssive HP+ subwoofers in my system and sold them because I prefer just the bass from my floorstanding loudspeakers. For my digital organ I have a 9′ tall, 2′ diameter, 18″ driver subwoofer for the lowest octave of the pedal bass, reaching down to 16 Hz.

    1. I might add that my loudspeakers are one of a kind, custom designed by the late Albert von Schweikert, and were tuned by Albert for a bottom end of 16Hz. Albert wrote: “They sound like 15″ subwoofers are playing along with the main speakers … with extremely fast and tight bass, nothing like a bloated Velodyne or other generic sub.” He also wrote, “I don’t think that we have heard a speaker outperform yours until we get into the mega buck range. Although our $90,000 VR-9SE Mk2 does sound a tad better, the difference is pretty small.” It just goes to show that it is possible to design great sounding passive floorstanding loudspeakers of modest size and cost that can provide all the bass an ordinary listener could ever want.

  10. The NASA Handbook on acoustic testing (aka “DIRECT FIELD ACOUSTIC TESTING (DFAT)” can be found by googling: NASA-HDBK-7010… You can download the pdf version.

  11. The first subwoofers were created by nature. When humans heard thunder they became terrified. For thousands of years, humans could not generate sound to match the low frequencies of thunder. Powder allowed the creation of cannons. Some of them generated huger low frequency waves. Some human groups created drums, and the drumming also terrified others. They were used by armies specifically to scare. But most music for most of human history had almost no low frequencies. A few great churches had organs that could play these notes. Bach composed with low bass. But it seems that almost in the 20th century we started to have music with bass notes in it. Nowadays, there are many genres of music dependent on very low frequency notes. Maybe subwoofers were needed because of our new interests in low frequencies that were basically unattainable before. It seems plausible that in human history, most only heard real bass by nature and only recently we can generate it ourselves.

    By the way, once you felt an earthquake (I presume a volcano could be similar) you know what a subwoofer cannot do.

  12. Back in the early 90’s a pair of B&W 801’s could be set on a pair of Velodyne ULD 15 subwoofers. The Velodyne subwoofers were only a few inches higher than the stands B&W sold for the 801s. The result was very impressive. It came close to the Infinity Betas at 2/3s the cost and was considerably more placement friendly (higher Wife Acceptance Factor.)

  13. OK, I’ve scrolled through the entire run of Comments (as of 6:30pm, Eastern Time) and I’ve yet to see a comment by Steven in the UK.

    I am certain that he would have some cogent opinions about subwoofers.

    Dang it, Steven in the UK, please show up when you can. I miss you.

    1. Hi Chazz,
      Sadly, ‘Steven in the UK’ has expressed to me privately that he will not be appearing here for some time into the future 🙁
      Maybe we should all sign a petition 🙂
      (I’m sure that after some time that he’ll be back; but I could be wrong)

  14. Let’s not forget the significant contributions that John Marowskis did to the concept of subwoofers for the two channel world as implemented in the home in a practical manner.
    In the mid nineteen seventies John Marovskis from the Bronx (New York) designed his extraordinary Janis W-1 and W-2 subwoofers. The story goes that he made some 50 cabinets before he arrived at the excellent sonic performance of his systems which have a flat frequency response from 30 to 100 Hz. (-3dB). He designed an electronic crossover module with a 60 Watt amplifier to go with the handsomely finished cabinet. This unit, the Janis Interphase, filtered the low pass section (Janis W1 or smaller W2) and the high pass section (satellites) at 100 Hz. both with slopes of 18 dB per octave.
    Another, most important feature was the continuous variable phase adjustment of the subwoofer (0-180º) in order to achieve a seamless and harmonious integration of subwoofer and satellites, independent of the subwoofer’s position in the room. The W1 was about 24″ by 24″ and 18″ high and finished with veneers as beautiful as any of the best furniture available. It was a thing of beauty.

    It appears that he was well ahead of many people in bringing a subwoofer of a very manageable size to the audiophile world. John was a fan of the Quad ESL-57 (a nomenclature not yet established since the ESL-64 was yet to make an appearance). The W1 or W2 models in combination with the Janis Interface proved to be a very potent pairing that blended very seamlessly with the much faster ESL-57 and resulted in an outstanding combination, something especially remarkable at that time.
    John Marowskis was a true pioneer.

  15. so many interesting reply’s….in my stereo and home theater system…and all my speakers are full range reference models…but the day i added the velodyne uld18 series two…even the wife smiled…as a member of the dead and other bands and audio systems….once you’ve gone sub, well you just gotta have it…the 15 inch woofers in my snell A 3’s and the 12’s in my other side and rear speakers just do not transmit that full sound you feel as much as hear…i could go on for days…meanwhile thank you so much for all the excellent reads by ps audio staff and especially you paul….my best to you all always joe akers in the okanagan valley bc canada

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