How to Buy a Subwoofer
A subwoofer is undoubtedly one of the most important components in an A/V system. Designed to deliver low bass content, subwoofers add pounding special effects in movies and the deepest notes in music. If you’re new to audio and in the market for a subwoofer, you may feel overwhelmed by the available choices. Fortunately, Audioholics is here to help guide you through the process. We’ll go over the basic points you’ll need to consider, including how much subwoofage you need. So where do we start?
This should be a no-brainer: assuming you’re just a regular Joe (or Jane), you’ve got a certain amount of cash you can spend. You’ll have to balance your pocketbook against your desires.
Size & Aesthetics
Before we talk about how much output you want, you’ll need to come to grips with the size of subwoofer(s) you can get away with. If you’re building a dedicated theater, relatively large subwoofers like the SVS PB13-Ultra and Rythmik FV15HP might not be a big deal. However, in other settings, say a bedroom or a dorm, such behemoths may simply not fit.
This would look fantastic next to my antique armoire.
Then there’s the matter of aesthetics. Size certainly plays a role here as well. If you’re putting an audio system in a formal living room, a subwoofer the size of a refrigerator probably isn’t going to be welcome. A cheap vinyl or bed-liner finish on top of a massive cabinet isn’t going to improve your odds either. Fortunately, subwoofers do come in all manner of shapes, sizes, and finishes, ranging from small cubes that could be hidden under an end table to shapely curved enclosures with exotic veneers. If you’ve got the funds, a custom subwoofer could even be hidden in plain sight as just another piece of furniture such as a coffee table.
Sealed vs Ported
Sealed versus ported subwoofers is one of the great debates in audio. While it’s a complicated subject, there are a couple general points that can help guide you in one direction or another. For starters, sealed subwoofers tend to be smaller than their ported counterparts, allowing them to fit into tighter spots. Conversely, ported subwoofers get a big boost in output around the tuning point of the ports, which also serves to extend response. Which is better? It depends on your room. A room under ~2,000 cubic feet can boost the low end response of a subwoofer significantly, which combined with its size advantage, makes a sealed sub the better choice. However, in much larger spaces without a lot of room gain, the low end output and extension of a ported subwoofer can be a big advantage.
In general, compact sealed subs tend to be well suited for smaller spaces, while larger ported subs have an advantage in bigger spaces.
While output isn’t the only measure of a subwoofer’s quality, it’s undoubtedly one of the more important metrics by which we judge a subwoofer. To aid in that assessment, Audioholics has developed a subwoofer room size rating protocol with ratings for small (<1,500 cubic feet), medium (1,500-3,000 cubic feet), large (3,000-5,000 cubic feet), and extreme spaces (>5,000 cubic feet). Every subwoofer we review gets measured according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) 2010 standard, and the results are then used to assign a room size rating. The aforementioned SVS PB13-Ultra and Rythmik FV15HP are both Bassaholic Extreme certified subwoofers, which have sufficient output to handle rooms beyond 5,000 cubic feet in size. Meanwhile, the compact SVS SB-2000 was rated Bassaholic Medium certified, meaning it can deliver satisfactory amounts of bass and low end extension for spaces up to 3,000 cubic feet in size. You can find a summary of all subwoofers tested by Audioholics attached to the rating protocol article.
Minimum targeted subwoofer output criteria vs room size.
As you might gather, purchasing a subwoofer can be a delicate balancing act, with size and cost being pitted against deep bass output and aesthetics. To get the best results, it helps to have a firm grasp on your goals, as well as where you are willing to make compromises. Beyond the above factors, we also recommend making sure to evaluate subwoofers on the various intangible factors: return policy, warranty, customer service, etc. While these factors may not have the appeal of additional output or an attractive finish, you don’t want to end up spending big bucks for a glorified paperweight either. Good luck, and happy shopping!