In March 2008, when I bought my PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers, I decided that I should also buy PSB's matching SubSeries 1 subwoofer (footnote 1). It seems odd to me now that I would have considered the $449 subwoofer a necessary complement to speakers that sold for $279/pair. What was I thinking? Was I rolling in money? Certainly not. Was I merely young and fancy free? Yes and no. Was I sex-starved? Quite possibly.
Subwoofer technology is moving fast, with automated room equalization and system integration now a reality. A wave of new products has appeared in the past five years, all using different approaches to solving the problems of optimizing subwoofer response in listening rooms.
Although many high-end audio products are described as revolutionary and as breakthroughs in design when new, most audiophile components now on the market have not changed our way of relating to such products in the way the iPad has done. Once in a while, a new audio product does move in that direction by enabling the audiophile to do install a product and optimize its performance in a different way.
It's been over two years since I reviewed a pair of JL Audio's Fathom f113 subwoofers. Kalman Rubinson and I both gave the f113 top marks for delivering clean, powerful bass in a wide variety of full-range systems. At the end of the review period, JL Audio's Carl Kennedy told me that they wouldn't send me another subwoofer for review until they had developed one that outperformed the Fathom f113 (footnote 1). To this day, the Fathom f113 tops the subwoofer category in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
It seems only yesterday, but it's been 10 years since I began using the original Paradigm Reference Servo-15 subwoofer in my system. It was good then, and it still is, although a lot around it has changed. At first, I hooked it up via Paradigm's X-35 crossover, then via a Technics SH-AC500D surround processor, and finally to the subwoofer/LFE outputs of the various preamplifier-processors and A/V receivers I've used. Y'see, the Servo-15 is just a powered sub. It has an amp and a level control, but no crossover, no channel mixing, and no phase control. Just plug in the signal and it plays it. Along came in-room response correction from Audyssey, Anthem, Velodyne, etc., and the Servo-15 became an even better sub. For music, it entirely satisfies my needs.
We all recognize that the Super Audio Compact Disc, despite being an almost ideal format for high-resolution audio, has not replaced the "Red Book" CD. However, Sam Tellig's comments in the June and July issues of Stereophile, and Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" in July, unleashed e-mails urging me to champion multichannel sound (don't I do this already?) and smite the unbelievers (not a chance).
With the popularity of home-theater systems, subwoofers have proliferated. Because multichannel AV receivers are designed to provide a properly filtered, line-level subwoofer, or low-frequency effects (LFE) signal, many subs no longer come with built-in high- and low-pass filters for insertion into two-channel audio systems. However, the PB13-Ultra subwoofer from SV Sound does include these, which is what piqued my interest in it. After Ed Mullen, SV Sound's director of sales, assured me that the PB13-Ultra was capable of reproducing solid 20Hz organ-pedal notes in my listening room, I asked for one to review.
Good things come in threes, they say. Well, three-channel power amps suit me just fine. My main component rack is at the back of the room, so I split power duties between a two-channel amp under the rack to drive my rear-channel B&W 804S speakers and, way at the front, either three monoblocks or a three-channel amp for the front three B&W 802Ds. I do this to ensure that the timbre of the front three channels is consistent. The outstanding performance of the Simaudio Moon W-8 dual-mono power amp (Stereophile, March 2006) almost tempted me to go with a stereo amp and a monoblock, but voicing and balancing a multichannel system with equanimity makes me want as much simplicity as possible. I guess manufacturers and users see it the same way; many new three-channel amps are coming on the market.
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.