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Is it Time to Upgrade Your Subwoofer?

by May 01, 2014
Do you need to upgrade your subwoofer to a powerhouse like the SVS PB13-Ultra?

Do you need to upgrade your subwoofer to a powerhouse like the SVS PB13-Ultra?

As we’ve said at least once or twice before, subwoofers are the anchor of today’s A/V systems, providing deep bass that underpins music as well as the huge effects of today’s blockbusters. How do you know if you have enough subwoofer? We’d wager most people tend to go by the age old “seat of their pant method”: if it feels like you could use more bass, you probably could. Of course, from a technical standpoint, the questions you need to answer are:

  • Listening habits – how loud do you listen?
  • Room size – large rooms require a more capable subwoofer to fill effectively.
  • What do you own currently – if you have a pair of Bassaholic Extreme certified subwoofers, you’re in better shape than someone with a “subwoofer” (and we use that term loosely) from a home theater in a box.

To make this easy, we’ll assign points based on the above factors. Please note this isn’t a biblical source. No fuzzy math was used to come up with these guidelines; they’re a good start based on our experiences and a bit of common sense, so please use them accordingly.  Simply see which cells in the table below fit your situation and add up the points from each cell based on their values assigned in the columns.

Points Assessed
Listening Habits
I prefer moderate levels
(peaks <100dB; -25dB
from reference level)
I like it pretty loud
(peaks <115dB; -10dB
from reference level)
This one goes to 11
(peaks >120dB;
reference level and above)
 Room Size
 <1500ft^3 1500-3000ft^3 3000-5000ft^3 >5000ft^3
 What I Own Now
 Bassaholic Extreme
Certified or Equivalent
 Bassaholic Large
Certified or Equivalent
 Bassaholic Medium
Certified or Equivalent
 Bassaholic Small
Certified or Equivalent

Bassaholic ExtremeIf you don’t own a subwoofer at all, and are rerouting all bass to your main speakers, just add +10 and assume you’ll need one. For everyone else, add up the applicable point totals from each row. If your total score is 0-5, you can probably get by with your current subwoofer. If your total score is > 5, it’s time to consider a subwoofer upgrade.

Example: If you listen at > 120 dB (add +2), if your room is > 5000ft^3 (add +3) if you current have a Bassaholic Large certified sub (add +1).  Sum the total to get 2 + 3 + 1 = 6 pts.  Upgrade your sub to a Bassaholic Extreme rated subwoofer.

Looking at your Conditions

How much subwoofer you need is determined by your room and your listening habits; consequently, deciding if it’s time to upgrade your subwoofer comes down to evaluating these factors. With respect to listening habits, do you listen at levels where it’s still possible to hold a conversation, or do you prefer to push things to the point where you can start to feel the bass? Do you like to take things even further, only being satisfied with THX Reference levels and beyond?

Next, there’s the question of room size. Suffice it to say, if you’re running your theater in a smaller space that might be mistaken for a large walk-in closet, you can get away with less subwoofage than someone who has their home theater in a 10,000 cubic foot great room complete with vaulted ceilings.

Open space

Extra large spaces like the one pictured above require Extreme rated subwoofers to fill the room with deep, powerful bass.

Finally, one has to consider what they already own (not to mention what would actually make a suitable upgrade). In that respect, Audioholics has taken a lot of guesswork out of the equation with our room size rating protocol. Every subwoofer we review gets put through a full battery of measurements; we then take this information and determine how large of a room the subwoofer would be suitable to fill.

A More Precise Answer

So far we’ve approached the question of whether you need a subwoofer upgrade in general terms. However, if you happen to own a respectable SPL meter, you can take things a bit further in a few relatively simple steps.

SPL Meter

An SPL Meter is an important tool in any A/V enthusiasts toolbox; among other things, it can help you determine when your subwoofer is running out of steam.

1.    Set your SPL meter to C weighting / fast.

2.    Play a demanding, bass heavy passage on a DVD / Blu-ray, starting at -25dB from reference level. Measure the SPL peaks at your listening position, noting the exact time stamp of the passage in question.

3.    Loop the scene, and incrementally raise the master volume in 3dB steps.

4.    When the subwoofer starts to compress, i.e. it no longer delivers a full 3dB to correspond with the incremental steps in volume, note the master volume setting.

Now compare the level where compression starts versus the level you prefer to listen. If you’re usually listening at -5dB from reference, and your subwoofer is compressing at -10dB, you’ve got a relatively straightforward answer for how much more subwoofer you need to get the job done.


Does the seat of your pants tell you that you might need a new subwoofer? Want to know if your subwoofer is holding you back? It all comes down to how loud you listen and how large your room is. Thankfully, getting a capable option doesn’t have to break the bank, particularly if you’re not listening at ear bleeding levels. A subwoofer like the SVS PB-1000 can meet the needs of many users, but still squeeze in under the $500 mark. Another fantastic budget option is the Outlaw LFM-1EX, which achieved the Bassaholic Large room rating while costing a budget friendly $649 (plus shipping). Of course, if the budget allows, more subwoofer almost always translates into a greater smile factor. Please share your experiences on how a subwoofer upgrade has elevated your A/V experience on our forums!


Thanks to Ed Mullen, Director of Technology and Customer Relations at SVS for his contributions and peer review.


About the author:
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Steve Munz is a “different” addition to Audioholics’ stable of contributors in that he is neither an engineer like Gene, nor has he worked in the industry like Cliff. In fact, Steve’s day job is network administration and accounting.

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