Subwoofers are often the unsung hero of any high quality or performance sound system. The addition of a good subwoofer can completely transform the experience of listening to music or watching a movie. However, like most audio equipment, there are some important considerations when choosing the right component to add to a new design or an existing set up.
Firstly, it’s good to understand the science behind why adding a subwoofer can make the most impact to your audio system. Most full range speakers operate within a range of 70 Hz to 20,000 Hz , a huge range that can accurately relate most – but critically not all frequencies in the audible spectrum. Subwoofers typically operate in the much lower and narrower band of 30Hz to 150Hz.. It’s the rumble in your seat that you notice during action scenes in a movie theatre or the thumping bass in a DJ’s set. At lower levels it can also help to produce a full rich sound that will fill the room. Low frequency reinforcement is not always needed, but if you’re going to do it, it needs to be done well.
There are three options, but you can pick only two!
When choosing equipment for projects, we consider three key elements: Aesthetics, Performance and Price. We often say: “pick any two”, because we are yet to come across something that is beautiful, powerful, andcheap.
By their nature, subwoofers are typically big, bulky, unattractive boxes – causing exasperation for any architect or interior designer. Balancing the needs of the room with the needs of the architectural finish will often be the most challenging part of project design. However, several of our brands have creative innovative solutions to making a subwoofer more aesthetically pleasing or, in some applications, almost disappearing.
In-Wall: Some subwoofers have been designed to be only partially visible. K-array from Italy have engineered a subwoofer to pack a very large punch in to a small enclosure. They also have some stunning custom finishes including Chrome and Gold. Sonance, who invented the recessed speaker, have in-wall subwoofers with paintable grills or custom wood finishes to seamlessly match their surrounding decor. JL audio also makes an impressive in-wall subwoofer with an attractive finish.
Remote Subwoofer: The ultimate aesthetic option, for us, is made by James Loudspeaker. These powerful speakers are totally hidden in a bespoke cabinet. Sound is delivered to the room via a flexible tube which connects to a discrete toe kick. The toe kick is often unrecognizable as the subwoofer output making it impossible to know where that low frequency punch is coming from. Alternatively, with specialized engineering, some subwoofers can be installed into existing furniture, or placed under beds and sofas.
Choosing the right subwoofer requires complete understanding of the form and function of the room as well as the speaker itself. In fact, it’s arguably more important to understand the composition of the room first before you choose the performance of your subwoofer, so let’s have a quick review.
In a home theatre for example, simply buying a powerful subwoofer, placing it in the corner and turning it on, may not necessarily yield a great audio experience. If the room is the wrong shape or has a lot of reflective surfaces, the low frequencies can be very uncomfortable to listen to. So, when it comes to choosing a subwoofer, it needs to be a balance of what the room is intended for, what the room’s acoustic performance is capable of and what the reflections are going to be like based on the finishes of the walls, ceilings, and floors.
In the Caribbean, we often find ourselves trying to add high quality sound in rooms or spaces that have tiled floors and large windows. These are not great spaces for a subwoofer. Low frequency wavelengths reflect off flat walls and surfaces more than higher frequencies. You can think of a subwoofer audio like a bouncy ball. You can imagine what will happen if you throw one against a hard flat surface. The same is true with audio and especially below 100Hz. The best way to prevent the ball from flying around the room is to add some absorptive materials that effectively “catch” or trap the audio waves. If you don’t add absorption to a highly reflective space, the low frequency energy will create an uncomfortable listening experience. It may also be important to try and prevent the low frequency sound waves from leaking out of the room which can be disturbing for the rest of the house or even your neighbours, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.
Now we’ve got a room that is ready for low frequencies, let’s review the different performance characteristics of a subwoofer. Subwoofers come with a few basic options: Active or passive, Ported or sealed. So, let’s review the main differences:
Active subwoofers have the amplifier built-in. Passive subwoofers have a remote amplifier and are powered by speaker wire. Generally, active subwoofers work well out of the box because the amp is powered and tuned for the speaker but they are not good for outdoor use, especially in the BVI’s Marine environment. Passive speakers are generally the best choice for outdoor applications and most distributed audio systems but you have to choose the right amplifier and use the right cable.
With all the different speakers out there, it’s impossible to say these rules apply to all, but broadly speaking, ported subwoofers have a higher output and range and are better known for use in large theatres. They are often described to make a better “boom” effect which is more common in movies but also known to be quite effective with some musical applications. Sealed subwoofers are known for their accuracy and the preferred choice for musical applications or small theatre rooms.
For the large-scale home theater solutions, we would choose the high-performance solutions from Pro Audio. These large speakers are generally installed behind a transparent acoustic curtain or hidden behind an acoustically transparent projection screen to provide cinema grade audio that is off the charts. For smaller residential applications, Sonance, JL Audio and Sonos all sell subwoofers that can boost, clarify, and elevate the audio and take your movie watching experience to the next level.
For listening to music, it’s important to note that different genres of music have different audio requirements. Therefore, we always spend time with our clients and architects to design and engineer an audio solution that will meet their needs.
If aesthetics and performance were the only two facets of our audio designs, our job would be simple! Where we must get creative is providing a bespoke solution that delivers all the needs of the clients, architects, and designers, within the set budget. When choosing brands, it’s often the price that ultimately tips the scales.
At the high-end is Pro-Audio but we only recommend that level of sound in a a premium home-theatre. For a typical residential application for watching movies and listening to music, subwoofers come in a variety of shapes, sizes and price.
For the discerning customer, we would recommend James Loudspeaker. Their selection is vast, the sound quality is incredible, and their speakers can withstand the harsh BVI environment, even in water-front properties. K-array are also a high-end solution and have an innovative selection of free standing or in-ceiling/ in-wall options to elevate any room in the house.
Sonance and JL Audio subwoofers offer amazing value for money and both provide excellent sound solutions with a high architectural aesthetic finish. And for a price conscious project SVS subwoofers are extremely affordable and provide attractive finishes. Sonos is a popular, cost-effective solution which can be integrated to any audio system and easily controlled using a pad or smart phone.
At AVL, we cannot stress enough the importance of a subwoofer in achieving well-balanced sound that fills the room. Those gasp-worthy movie scenes or dance-triggering music moments would not be possible without the impact, drama and power of your audio systems secret weapon – the subwoofer.