The first time I attended the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, in January 1986, I didn't get there until the second day of the Show. Still, by the beginning of the fourth and final day I'd managed to visit every high-end audio exhibit, and still had time to go back for seconds to the rooms that had sounded the best. Twenty years later, CES has grown so much that it's impossible for a single writer to visit even a quarter of the exhibits in which he might be interested. And even with the sort of team reportingStereophile now practices, covering the Show has become an exercise in applied logistics for the busy journalist: "Should I wait for the free shuttle bus? Should I get a taxi—though I might get caught in Las Vegas's increasing traffic jams, or even just get stuck at the city's interminable traffic lights? Or should I take the new monorail—though that goes nowhere near the hotel in which [insert name of hot company] is demming its products?"
I've been tweaking my weekend multichannel system for years, but with my city system I've kinda faked it. I now realize that I listen more actively to the weekend system, and not only because that's when I have the time for it—the sound of that system is simply more engaging and psychologically immersive. So, with the growth of my library of SACD and DVD-Audio recordings to almost half the size of my CD collection, I told my wife that it was time to transform of "our" city stereo rig into a full-blown multichannel system.
Home theater has dramatically influenced the design of aftermarket subwoofers. Multichannel processors automatically provide a properly filtered low-frequency signal to drive a subwoofer, relieving the need for the sub to be shipped with a passive crossover network or an active electronic crossover. When Genelec offered one of their subwoofers for review, I decided it was important to try to evaluate such a product, even if it meant I'd have to scramble around to find a quality external electronic crossover.
"Subwoofers are boring," whined John Atkinson when we were dickering about column inches for my review of the Thiel CS2.4 loudspeaker in this issue. "I know they're important, but I just don't get excited reading about them."
It didn't seem like such a big deal. After all, when designer Kevin Voecks added a passive radiator to the bottom of Revel Loudspeakers' powerful Ultima Sub 15 subwoofer, no one expected that the resulting 6dB increase in bass output below 35Hz would be so audible. However, Revel's sophisticated double-blind listening tests (described in my review of their flagship Ultima Salon full-range loudspeaker in the March 1999 Stereophile, revealed that a big change had occurred. With now twice the radiating surface, the modified Sub 15 produced significantly deeper, more powerful bass.
Makers of powered subwoofers fall into two camps: those that fit a high-powered amplifier and a single, large woofer into a relatively small, unobtrusive enclosure; and those that build two or more 10" woofers and an amp of moderate power into a larger, heavier enclosure.
Harry Partch (1901-1974), composer and inventor of musical instruments, delighted in generating deep bass. Finding most standard orchestral instruments wanting in that department, he built the huge Marimba Eroica, which he described on his A Glimpse into the World of Harry Partch: 27 Unique Instruments (LP, Columbia MS-20576):
"You certainly love weird music!" my wife yelled from the kitchen. This just reconfirmed my suspicion that reviewing subwoofers is a lonely job that brings no respect. What's so weird about the droning of Tibetan temple horns accompanied by the chants of Tibetan Gyuto monks, all framed by a powerful synthesizer in Philip Glass's soundtrack to Kundun (CD, Nonesuch 79460-2)? What's so strange about the karate-like cries of the drummers in the Kromata Percussion ensemble as they smash away at their timpani and gongs in Yoshihisa Taira's Hierophonie V (CD, BIS CD-232)? What's so odd about the shuddering majesty of 25Hz notes played by Harry Partch's one-of-a-kind Eroica Marimba, heard on his Delusion of the Fury (LP, Columbia M2 30576)? Why would any spouse object to the primitive, driving synthesizer growls and screams from Morton Subotnick's The Wild Bull (LP, Nonesuch H-71208)?
It's common to read ads for new audio hardware that crow about "revolutionary" breakthroughs in sound performance, and that's how Velodyne crowed about their new Digital Drive DD-18, servo-controlled, powered 18" subwoofer. The ads suggested that the DD-18 can be digitally equalized to one's room with a resultant in-room frequency response of 20-200Hz, ±3dB.
"You can't get deep bass in your room," a reviewer from another magazine who'd never visited my room insisted recently on the phone. "Do you know how long a 20Hz bass wave is? It's 40 feet long, and your room is tiny."
From The Audio Catechism: Q: What is a subwoofer? A: A large, ugly device that must be placed in the most inconvenient location in the listening room—for instance, in front of the only door. Q: What is the purpose of the subwoofer? A: To produce prodigious amounts of low-frequency sound and to glorify its owner, who can rest safe in the knowledge that his is the biggest.
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) once wrote, "The less limited one feels, the more intolerable all limitation appears" (footnote 1). Although directed at the paradoxical observation that suicide rates are higher in newly prosperous countries than in those mired in poverty, his comment applies equally well to subwoofers.
In the audio field, the British have traditionally thought "small," scoring hits both with their compact loudspeakers and with medium-priced amplifiers. The continued growth of the audiophile speaker market in the US, however, which favors larger loudspeakers, has at the same time stimulated the research and design of more powerful, excellent quality amplifiers. In their turn, these have placed increased demands on the speakers they drive.
What makes someone a good hi-fi reviewer? A fine critical sensibility? A good technical background? Ears? Eyes? Nose? Throat? So many different people are reviewing audio gear these days that it's downright impossible to characterize a good reviewer. But I do know that Beavis and Butt-head would make killer hi-fi reviewers!