The Subversive Subwoofer – or How to Save Bass

Subwoofers are usually the largest speaker in your collection, and the one speaker when played, on their own, sound just terrible. Yet, without a subwoofer, the typical home theater system lacks impact, rumble, and all the emotion that goes with it. Subwoofers are simply not optional anymore.

So what do I get? There are many questions that a subwoofer salesman (subwoofer salesman, really?) might ask you: How big is your room? How much bass do you like? How much do you want to spend? Do you have room for a big subwoofer box? Of these, “how big is your room” might be one of the most important. Little subs for little rooms, big subs for big rooms, right? Sort of, but it’s that room itself that we really need to know about.

See, with bass as low as that produced by a subwoofer, the sound waves are so huge that the room becomes part of the subwoofer system. It’s not avoidable, it’s life in acoustics.

Subwoofers occupy a lot of real estate in your room, so it’s not surprising that they share the three most important factors in buying real estate: Location, Location, and Location. A 2 million-dollar home built next to the city land-fill is still just a house by a land-fill, you can pretty much ignore that it’s $2 mil. A $5000 subwoofer in a bad location is just a subwoofer in a bad location, it could just as easily been a $500 subwoofer, and though the Sub Monster might play louder, neither will work well there.

Why so location-picky? Without going into a long and boring explanation, which you could google anyway if you can’t stand not knowing, those great big long bass waves the sub produces bounce around your room and actually interfere with themselves producing very uneven bass frequency response in different places in your room. The places you care about, the seats, included. What to do?

The easy way: move the sub! Move that big box right over to, and into your favorite seat. That’s right, let the sub have the money seat for a while. Connect it up and turn it on, and play something with good bass so the sub can do it’s thing. Now, drop to your hands and knees and go crawling around the room, listening to the bass as you go, and moving your head to locations that you’d consider putting the sub, and then some that you’d rather not. At some point you’ll find a spot or two where the bass is better, stronger, and smoother than other spots. That’s your sub’s new home, put it there, and it will happily provide your seat with the same kind of bass you just heard. Neat huh? Yup, the “subwoofer crawl” is free, and essential if you only have a single subwoofer.

“What? You mean I could have more than one sub?” Well, sure you can! In fact our friends at THX advocate no fewer than two subs, and we’d put a smile on their faces if you had three or four. No, they don’t get a sales cut, and having more subs isn’t all about having more bass, it’s about having better bass in more locations.

Remember from your crawling around on the floor, there were places where the bass sounded better, and others where it didn’t? If you have multiple subs in your room, they sort of fill in each other’s gaps. If one sub is weak at a particular bass frequency, others will take care of it. And that’s how you get really smooth, deep, and impressive bass.

I’ve been asked, given the need for many subs, is it better to have two or three smaller, less powerful subs, or one big monster? Again, it depends on location. In general, more is better, even if they aren’t quite as monstrous. Of course, more monsters is even better, but if you’ve pumped the oil well in your backyard dry and can’t afford four subs at $3500 each, you can get most of the way to your goal by buying four subs at one half to one quarter of the price for one monster sub. So yes, when we consider dollars, more less expensive subs are better than one gold-standard unit. You can do extremely well with a set of two, three or four M&K Sound SB12s, at $1200, for example.

What makes subs expensive? A subwoofer is essentially an motor that moves air. The lower the frequency, the more air the motor has to move. So, low frequency extension costs money. Also, the higher the sound volume, the more air the motor has to move, so high output costs money. Roll them together, and you get high volume at low frequency costing lots of money. Then we have to rock your world and throw in low distortion. Yes, you want to move air, but without distorting those bass waves while doing it. And THAT TOO costs money!

The desire to get high performance out of a sub at low cost moves us to look at creative engineering. Several manufacturers have tried to crack the size barrier, some have done pretty well. Sunfire (Bob Carver) has produced some impressive, yet tiny subs by designing special drivers, amplifiers and equalizers. Dr. Hsu makes some excellent low-cost subs by precision tuning ported boxes. Others manufacturers each have their area of focus. But getting THX Ultra2 Certification on a sub requires quite a bit of low frequency, high output, low distortion performance. Look for dollar signs after most THX subs.

Enter one of our favorite speaker designers, Ken Kreisel. Ken is the “K” in the venerable M&K speaker brand, and though he is no longer associated with that company M&K Sound’s product still carry Ken’s legacy. Ken is the pioneer of the concept of subwoofers in smaller rooms, having made the first tri-amplified, sub-reinforced studio monitor system for Walter Becker for the final mix of Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” album in 1973. Ken’s audio timeline is here:

Yes, Ken has been at it again. His latest creation, Kreisel speakers and subwoofers, crack the price/performance barrier yet again. If you can call his DXD-808 subwoofer “entry level”, it would simply crush all other subs in it’s price class to tiny bits, and though not “cheap” at $1995, we think it’s a bargain given what it does at that price. But then, there’s the Kreisel DSD-12012, clearly a leader for, clean, deep extension, and high output bass. “Hey Ken! If one is good…”…yes, Ken suggests you stack them! Duo, Quattro, and Quattro-Quattro combinations get to to bass waves you could walk across the room on. They aren’t for everybody, and frankly, per our discussion, before you pony up $48K for a Quattro-Quattro, you might just get four DXD-12012s and spread them around the room. You can enter into Kreisel DXD-12012-land for $2995 (list…but call us!)

We’ll talk about calibrating your subwoofer(s) another time. That’s it for now, probably too much (as usual). As Ken Kreisel would, and does say, “Good Sound To You!”