You can survive with just a regular set of speakers. You don't, strictly speaking, need a sub. But you cannot believe the difference having one will make. It's not just the inevitable boost to the low end that comes from a good quality sub; it's the overall richness of the sound. In this guide, we've evaluated the top subs for this year, no matter what your budget, or the size of your room. For more background information on subwoofers, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
This is one of the toughest categories to make choices in. There are hundreds of great subwoofers out there, and dozens of companies creating landmark gear. It would be very easy to populate this list with nothing but world-shattering models from high-end brands like Sunfire, Deep Sea Sound, and Funk Audio. They all produce absolute monsters, with price-tags that run into quintuple figures. We can't run the list like that. It not only neglects the amazing budget subwoofer market, but it's hugely intimidating for anybody who just wants to add a little bit of extra bass to their setup. For most people, it will just be too much.
So, we compromised. We capped the price at $3,000 – that sounds arbitrary, but after that price point, it's all about bigger drivers and louder bass. The major differences happen below the $3K mark, even in the high-end category. It still gives us a huge range to play with, allowing us to include subs from landmark independent operators, as well as budget models from bigger household names. Value-for-money is key here, as in ease-of-use, feature set, and overall sound quality. Yes, we had to leave out a few big names, and some indies, but we think you'll agree that our list is still banging regardless.
Wattage: 500 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12"
What We Like: Value and sound quality are second to none.
What We Don't: Won't satisfy those who like huge volume.
ELAC's super-impressive Debut 2.0 line includes a subwoofer that we think is the best available right now. For most people, this superb subwoofer will be all they'll ever need, regardless of room size. At 500 watts RMS and 1,000 peak (full breakdowns of those terms are in our Buying Advice, below), the SUB3030 delivers more than enough grunt, and the bass it puts out is solid and muscular. It satisfies whether you're watching movies, series, or playing games.
There are no physical controls. Instead, an Android and iOS app gives you access to all the functionality you need, including software that lets you fine-tune the sound to your listening environment. The sound isn't quite as deep or powerful as the PB16-Ultra, below, but is more than rich and detailed enough to blast its way to the top of this list. ELAC have produced a genuinely brilliant product here, and at a very affordable price. We never expected to get a subwoofer this good for under $1,000, but they more than delivered. If you want to give your home theater a kick up the backside, this is where you should start.
See the ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030
A Close Second (And $480 Less)
Wattage: 150 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12”
What We Like: You get a staggering amount of sub for your money.
What We Don’t: Dull looks, inferior to the ELAC and Velodyne.
If this sub looked and sounded a little better, it would probably be at number one on this list, challenging the ELAC for top spot. As it is, it loses out to the model above it in both overall wattage and in sound quality. It has a slight dip in detail, and a lower RMS wattage than the ELAC.
However, it's still one of our top picks, which means it must have something going for it. That something is the staggering value-for-money that you get from buying this particular subwoofer. If it was being offered at double the price, we wouldn't be surprised. Just because the sound quality isn't quite as good as the other models, doesn't mean it's bad. It still delivers a deep, extended, powerful bass effect, filling out the gaps in a home theater system nicely. For our money, it's the best subwoofer under $300, and although BIC America have a teeth-grindingly dull corporate identity - in common with many sub manufacturers, including Monoprice, below - they make some good stuff.
See the BIC America F12
Best Budget Subwoofer (And Best for Small Rooms)
Wattage: 150 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12"
What We Like: Excellent sound quality for the price.
What We Don't: Such boring design they didn't even give it a name.
In the world of audio, there is no company that needs to have a corporate getaway more than Monoprice. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them that a few shared joints and some vigorous sex wouldn't cure. This is a company with such a deficit of imagination that they don't even bother to give some of their product names. This one is called the 9723.
But simply because a company has a boring identity doesn't mean they make boring gear. Monoprice have been massively successful, and one listen to this subwoofer will tell you why. It may not have the raw power of the ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030 or even the BIC America F12, but it delivers gorgeous sound quality, with huge, thumping energy but makes it sound a lot bigger than it is. And by stripping away all the design frivolities, Monoprice are able to offer this gem of a subwoofer for an absolutely knockdown price. If you are on a budget, this is the subwoofer you need to buy.
See the Monoprice 9723
Best High-End Subwoofer (And Best for Large Rooms)
Wattage: 1,500 (RMS)
Driver Size: 16”
What We Like: Unbelievable volume and audio quality.
What We Don’t: Takes two people to unbox and shift, too expensive for most people.
It's very tempting to put a five-figure monster here. There are plenty available, including the absolutely thunderous JL Audio Gotham. But the model we choose also has to deliver bang-for-buck, and in our opinion, no other subwoofer does that more than the SVS PB16-Ultra.
We've never quite received a piece of audio gear like the Ultra. For starters, it took two people to move the thing into our living room. At 175lbs, this is not a piece of equipment you stash away unnoticed, and it's the first one we've come across that actually has unboxing instructions! It's exquisitely-built, with a gorgeous, comprehensive app and clear, simple instructions. And the sound. Dear God, the sound. It's not just that it's loud - although at top volume, it shakes glasses and dislodges picture frames and prompts visits from the landlord. It's that the bass is clear, robust, distinct, with a level of depth and detail that shouldn't be possible in a sub. With 1,500 watts of power (continuous - peak is an ear-shattering 5,000), driven by an absolutely stunning set of internal electronics, this is a subwoofer for the ages. Read our in-depth review…
See the SVS PB16 Ultra
Best Wireless Subwoofer
Driver Size: Unknown
What We Like: Terrific sound quality.
What We Don’t: Requires that you get locked into the SONOS ecosystem.
The biggest black mark against the SONOS SUB is that you can't use it with equipment from other manufacturers. Got an existing home theater setup? You, my friend, are out of luck. The subwoofer only works with other SONOS equipment, and while the company makes a real effort to ensure that the setup process and ease-of-use works well, you might want to steer clear of this if that lock-in is going to be a problem.
The upside is that, if you're okay with using only SONOS gear, you'll be rewarded with some genuinely good sound quality. While the subwoofer is a little light on stats, it hardly matters: there's no need to set the crossover point when it's automatically tuned to all other speakers, guaranteeing you easy, clear, deep bass at all times (see our Buying Advice section, below, for more info on crossovers and how they work). We also really like the design, which allows you to put the subwoofer in just about any position – a boon for small spaces.
See the SONOS SUB
Best of the Rest
Wattage: 300 (RMS)
Driver Size: 10"
What We Like: A leap forward for Paradigm subwoofers.
What We Don't: Perhaps a touch expensive, although there are cheaper options available.
Paradigm's new Defiance range of subwoofers comes in several flavors. The X series deliver raw power, while the V series is all about affordability. They are all good, and offer several advancements on basic subwoofer design, but if we had to pick one, it would be this one. In our opinion, it offers the best combination of sound quality, features, and pricing, and will be the best choice for most people. While we still wouldn't pick it over the ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030, which we think offers better value for money, it remains a good alternative.
In power, it is equal to the cheaper Klipsch SPL-120, below, but it more than makes up for it with its concise, clear representation of bass. You also get an excellent range of features, including app control of the subwoofer, included Anthem Room Correction, and the ability to make the subwoofer wireless with the purchase of an additional module. The Defiance range is a forward-thinking series, and the X10 is its finest ambassador.
See the Paradigm Defiance X10
Wattage: 1,000 (RMS)
Driver Size: 8"
What We Like: Unbelievable value, excellent design, compact size.
What We Don't: It can be exasperating to find and buy.
Velodyne are legendary. They've made some of the greatest subs of all time – and we think this is one of them. For starters, it's light, at barely 35lbs – for a twelve-incher, that's practically featherweight. The design is excellent, but it's the sound that really sets this particular subwoofer apart here. It's not quite as precise or dynamic as the cheaper ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030, but it has double the power, and in a far more compact size.
However, we can't rank this sub woofer higher, for reasons that don't have anything to do with the product itself. Finding one can be an exercise in frustration. It's not available via Amazon, not all dealers stock them, and at the time of writing, Velodyne's website is frequently down, or glitching, or otherwise encumbered. If you find the MiniVee, absolutely snatch it up – it remains one of the better subwoofers under $1,000 – but we've had a hell of a time tracking one down to buy.
See the Velodyne MiniVee 8-Inch
Wattage: 300 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12"
What We Like: Clean, dynamic sound quality.
What We Don't: Doesn't do anything particularly special.
We love the Klipsch SPL-120 for its crisp, defined sound. The bass it delivers takes full advantage of the lightweight 12" woofer; Klipsch made a name for themselves with their floorstanding and bookshelf speakers, and they've spent a long time translating that expertise into subwoofer design. It definitely shows here. The SPL-120 is an affordable, reliable option for any home theater, and it's definitely worth picking up.
The problem? While it's unquestionably an excellent subwoofer, it doesn't do anything to differentiate it from the models that came before, or anything to put it into the upper echelons of this list. It doesn't have especially high power, like the $899 Velodyne MiniVee 8-Inch, and it doesn't offer flexible app controls, like the ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030. Given that the latter only goes for a dollar more, it's a no-brainer about which one to buy. This is a very good subwoofer, and we think it performs well, but it isn't our first choice.
See the Klipsch SPL-120
Wattage: 100 (RMS)
Driver Size: 6.5"
What We Like: Clean, dynamic sound quality.
What We Don't: Doesn't do anything particularly special.
REL Acoustics market this as a subwoofer for small rooms. While we think it's beaten to the title by the Monoprice 9723, which is not only cheaper but offers more power, this delivers dynamic, entertaining sound quality and some very decent features.
It also absolutely crushes the Monoprice interns of design and styling – it looks as good as it sounds. And it sounds magnificent, with audio quality that is much better than the sub-$500 pricetag would suggest. The 6.5" woofer is only capable of delivering 100 watts of power, meaning that it will struggle in bigger rooms, but it's perfect for a smaller setup. If you want to take your audio to the next level, but only have a small space to play with, then this should absolutely be your first option. Plus, if you love the way this looks and sounds, but want something bigger, the company offers several more powerful subs.
See the REL Acoustics T-Zero
Wattage: 700 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12"
What We Like: Deep, rich bass.
What We Don't: Lacks modern features.
Above $1,000 is where you really start seeing subwoofers amp up the boom. With 700 watts of continuous power, Seaton Sound's amazing JS12 really brings the boom. It goes down to 20Hz – compare that to 25Hz for our leading sub, the ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030 – and you can really feel it. The audio has a rich, subsonic presence that will rattle your stomach and shake the walls. It's one hell of a thing to experience.
However, this is a subwoofer for purists. It offers almost no advanced features – no app control, no room correction. In addition, we think it may be a little bit too expensive for most people. However, if you like raw bass, and want some of the best in the business, then this is an excellent starting point. Seaton are a no-nonsense company from Chicago who've been making subwoofers forever, including the absolutely monstrous F18+, so you're in good hands here.
See the Seaton Sound JS12
Wattage: 1,920 (RMS)
Driver Size: 2 x 18"
What We Like: Huge power, fine-grained control.
What We Don't: Doesn't have the detail of other subwoofers.
While we prefer the Seaton Sound JS12 and SVS PB16-Ultra for detail, this is the subwoofer we'd go for if we wanted raw, unrestrained energy. With 1,920 watts of RMS power - and 4,300 peak - this is an absolute monster. It has not one but two 18" woofers, sealed within a heavily-braced MDF enclosure. That bracing is needed, trust us, because when this thing gets going, you'll want to stand well back…
It's the updated version of the old S3601, which is no longer available. While it doesn't do huge amounts to improve on the old model, it remains one of the most jaw-dropping subwoofers available. If we were being honest, we prefer the audio quality from the SVS model, Which feels a little bit more dense and detailed. That model also absolutely wipes the floor with this one in terms of advanced feature sets. But if we were looking to spend $2,000 to destroy the walls in our house, we'd go and talk to Power Sound Audio.
See the Power Sound Audio S3611
Wattage: 700 (RMS)
Driver Size: 18”
What We Like: Highly-tuned bass.
What We Don’t: Not as loud as the others, slightly awkward size.
Here's another indie brand that you'll almost certainly have to go direct to get – although it's definitely worth it. After leaving JTR off our last list, we got schooled by the legions of bass fans out there, and decided to revisit it. Well, apologies from us – they make some terrific subwoofers. Having heard the Captivator 118HT, we agree that it would be a crime to leave it off this list.
That doesn't mean it's perfect. When we heard it, it didn't feel like it could go quite as loud as some of the others, and its height means that it can be quite prominent in any setup. It's also not quite as clean or dynamic as the REL Acoustics T/Zero, above. But these are minor problems, and we have to admit that we adored the bass, which had been tuned to perfection. It was crisp and clear, and we really felt that it articulated the low end exceptionally well. This may not be the subwoofer for everyone, but it deserves its spot on this list. We won't make the mistake of leaving JTR off it again.
See the JTR Captivator 118HT
Wattage: 400 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12"
What We Like: Deep, deep bass.
What We Don’t: Maybe a little expensive?
One word: deep. Actually, we'll add a few words to that: powerful, smooth, earthshaking. Simply awesome. PSB know what they're about when it comes to subs, and, with this big, 400-watt front-firing twelve-incher, they've created a terrific complement to any system.
It's got excellent digital signal processing as well, and its relatively affordable price (compared to the SVS) makes it an excellent alternative. But truthfully, you choose this one for the epic sound quality. Part of it's due to the engineering of the amp inside, which is a Class D module from NAD Electronics. But it's also due to the outer construction, which includes two 10" passive radiators to really get the low end thumping. The advanced crossover makes it easy to cordon off that low-end, and the entire system works incredibly well. It has similar internals and features to the Seaton Sound JS12 - although, obviously, it doesn't offer that sub's level of quality. In addition, right now, it's a tiny bit overpriced.
See the PSB SubSeries 450
Wattage: 600 (RMS)
Driver Size: 15”
What We Like: Deep tones with plenty of clarity, flexible setup options, incredible value for money, seven-year warranty.
What We Don’t: No major issues.
HSU Research (pronounced Shoe) is a US company, formed in 1991, with one goal in mind: to make the best subwoofers. Their big breakthrough came with the variable-tuning technology featured in their first VTF range of subs, which are still going strong. The ULS-15 is their new flagship subwoofer, and has seen a recent upgrade to MK2. If you're looking for an alternative to the ELAC, look no further. It's a little more expensive than that model, by about $200, but it's still an excellent look.
As the name suggests, this powered sub is equipped with a 15" bass driver speaker and its capacity is substantial - 600 watts continuous power, handling peaks of up to 2,000 watts. HSU are so confident in the speaker's performance that the ULS-15 Mk2 comes with a seven-year warranty. We were really impressed with the audio quality of the HSU - it sounds absolutely massive, while displaying tight low-end character.
See the HSU Research ULS-15 MK2
Wattage: 300 (RMS)
Driver Size: 12”
What We Like: Offers decent sound at a good price.
What We Don’t: Overrated.
There are plenty of websites that have talked up the PSW505 as one of the better subs out there, and we have no idea why. It's not that it isn't good. It's fine - delivering clear sound in a decent package. It's just that it's not nearly as impactful or as impressive as it's made out to be. For example, you could pay $20 less for a BIC America F12, and get a much better package, with far better value.
Again, we need to stress that the PSW505 only lacks in comparison. And perhaps, even saying it's lacking is a strong statement. It's just not quite as impressive as other models on this list. You still get a decent sub, with some nifty features (like an adjustable crossover), wrapped up in a moderately attractive housing, for not a large sum of money. If the BIC is a little hard to track down, then this is definitely something you should check out.
See the Polk PSW505
Wattage: 100 (RMS)
Driver Size: 10”
What We Like: One of the best small-room subs available.
What We Don’t: Suffers with music, slightly boomy audio.
If you live in a small apartment, or have a small room for your TV setup, this could be the ideal subwoofer for you. It's relatively compact in size, and offers a similarly compact sound. The 10" driver pumps out bass that isn't super powerful, but makes up for it by being tight, controlled, and clear. For $150, Yamaha gives you a hell of a lot here.
It definitely has its downsides, however. It may sound okay while handling movies on Netflix, but doesn't have the depth and clarity to take on music. You may want to steer clear if you plan on listening to a lot of tunes through your system. We also noticed that the sound tends to get a little boomy at higher volumes, which can be a bit of a problem. Compared to the Polk PSW505 and BIC America F12, this sub doesn't really compete, but it's an excellent choice for under $150.
See the Yamaha YST-SW216BL
Driver Size: 10”
What We Like: A surprising sub-$100 subwoofer that really performs.
What We Don’t: Has nothing on the big boys.
Normally, we'd tell you to steer clear of any subwoofer priced at under $100. They just don't have the juice or the quality to compete. The Acoustic Audio PSW-6 is one of the very few exceptions - a remarkable little number that is genuinely worth your time. You're definitely not going to be pitting it against the SVS and Power Sound Audios of this world, or even the Yamahas and Polks, but for small spaces, it will do well.
Part of the reason for this is the decent level of technology packed inside. The subwoofer uses what is known as an extended excursion cone, which means the driver is made of treated paper to increase the sensitivity. This results in sound that's quite a bit better than you'd expect, especially at this price. We don't know what the continuous/RMS wattage of the sub is, but we do know that it peaks at 250 watts, which is reasonably solid. And if the 10" model is too small for you, you can quite happily choose a larger version – Acoustic Audio have several to pick from.
See the Acoustic Audio PSW-6
|ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030||$700||500||12"||Front-Firing||25-150Hz||18” x 17” x 17”|
|BIC America F12||$220||150||12"||Front-Firing||25-200Hz||17.25” x 17” x 14.75”|
|Monoprice 9723||$120||150||12"||Front-Firing||50-250Hz||17.5” x 17.3” x 17”|
|SVS PB16-Ultra||$2,500||1,500||16"||Front-Firing||13-360Hz||28.3” x 25” x 21.7”|
|SONOS SUB||$700||Unknown||Unknown||N/A||Down to 25Hz||15.8” x 15.3” x 6.2”|
|Paradigm Defiance X10||$999||300||10"||Front-Firing||30-120Hz||16.5" × 15.75 × 15"|
|Velodyne MiniVee 8-Inch||$899||1,000||8"||Front-Firing||28-120Hz||12.8” x 10.9” x 10.4”|
|Klipsch SPL-120||$599||300||12"||Front-Firing||24-125Hz||20” x 15” x 17.75”|
|REL Acoustics T-Zero||$448||100||6.5"||Down-Firing||Unknown||10.5” x 9.5” x 8.5”|
|Seaton Sound JS12||$1,095||700||12"||Front-Firing||20-200Hz||18” x 15” x 14”|
|Power Sound Audio S3611||$2,099||1,920||2 x 18"||Front-Firing||16-100Hz||28” x 24” x 20”|
|JTR Captivator 118HT||$1,799||700||18||Front-Firing||19-190Hz||30” x 22.5” x 20”|
|PSB SubSeries 450||$1,500||400||12"||Front-Firing||20-150Hz||16.5" x 16.25" x 15.75"|
|HSU Research ULS-15 MK2||$779||600||15"||Front-Firing||20-200Hz||19.5” x 19” x 18”|
|Polk PSW505||$230||300||12"||Front-Firing||28-125Hz||17.5” x 16.5” x 15”|
|Yamaha YST-SW216BL||$150||100||10"||Front-Firing||40-140Hz||15.2” x 13.4” x 13.4”|
|Acoustic Audio PSW-6||$90||Unknown||10"||Down-Firing||30-250Hz||11" x 10" x 9.25"|
*RMS = RMS Wattage
**Freq. = Frequency Range
- Passive vs. Powered Subwoofers
- Front-Firing vs. Down-Firing Subwoofers
- Driver Size Explained
- Wattage Explained
- Ported vs. Sealed Subwoofers
- Wireless vs. Wired Subwoofers
- Subwoofer Placement Explained
- Setting Up Your Subwoofer
- Subwoofer Crossover Explained
- Using More Than One Subwoofer
There are two types of subwoofers: passive and powered. The difference between them is very simple. Passive subwoofers require an external amplifier to work, while powered subwoofers have an internal amplifier, and just need to be plugged into the mains. That’s it. We aren’t really going to talk about passive subwoofers here. Firstly, they are far less common than powered subwoofers, especially in the home theater space - although there are some still available, like this Bose PS 28 III. Secondly, going into the process of matching a passive subwoofer with an amplifier is an entire guide by itself.
Fortunately, we do have such a guide to matching speakers and amps, but in this buying advice, we’re going to be talking about powered subwoofers exclusively. The benefit of doing this is that it vastly simplifies the process of connecting your subwoofer to your system: all you have to do is run an RCA cable between them (most receivers have a dedicated subwoofer output), and a power cable from the subwoofer to the wall socket. Boom. Done. Trust us: it’s a good thing that the subwoofer is powered. You’re going to need a lot of power.
So: you’ve decided to buy a subwoofer. Congratulations. You’ve only got about 10,947,084 models to choose from, and that’s just on the first page. Subwoofers are further split into two categories: whether they are front-firing or down-firing. Figuring this out is easy. If the driver (the big, circular element, which is the same in terms of functionality as the ones found on regular speakers) is on the front of the unit, then it’s front-firing. Bottom? Down-firing. The complicate things a little further, some subwoofers, like the Power Sound Audio S3601, actually fire in multiple directions – front and back. Models like this are pretty uncommon, though. You might reasonably ask what the differences are between the two. There aren’t actually that many – not enough, given the variances between different rooms and different circumstances, to make a major difference. Bass frequencies are nondirectional, which means that it’s not going to matter that much which one you pick.
However: if you’re planning on placing your subwoofer close to your main speakers, or underneath your TV (and we go into placement in more detail below), then it may be worth investing in a front-firer. Away from your speakers? At the side or in the corner of the room? Go for down-firing. But again, this isn’t a decision which makes a major impact, and in this case, consider what we are saying as general guidelines rather than hard rules.
In the case of subwoofers, size really does matter. To produce bass sounds, you've got to be able to produce a lot of energy. The bigger your speaker driver, the more energy you'll be able to put out (although a lot of it has to do with the amplification powering the driver as well). In general, you should be looking to acquire a subwoofer with a driver above 12" in size - that's 12" across, from end to end. Anything smaller will deliver good sound, but don't expect huge low-end power. The REL Acoustics T-Zero, which costs $448, has a driver of 6.5". We think it's good for small rooms, but you shouldn't expect it to put out huge energy.
That being said: you don't have to push the boat out if you don't want to. A 15" driver Will be perfectly suitable for most people, and only those who have very, very large rooms or need to produce seriously dramatic bass need to stray into the 18" and up range – For example, the Power Sound Audio S3611, which costs $2,099, and has twin 18" woofers. Always take into account the size of your room before you get busy with the one-click-buy!
Spend any amount of time on this site, and you'll see this term a lot. We're sort of obsessed by it. Broadly speaking, the more watts there are, the louder the sub will go, although it’s a bit more complex than that—you can, after all, turn a sub down. Rather, think of wattage as a range in which you push the sub. The higher the range, the louder you can make it without distorting the sound. Watts can be low (60W) or exceedingly high (4,000W), and as you can imagine, you pay more for higher wattage. Note the difference between RMS (sometimes called continuous) and peak (sometimes called dynamic) wattage. Always, always, always look at RMS, and ignore peak. The former refers to the overall power at a set and usually reasonable volume. The latter refers to the absolute loudest the thing can go. You'll need the first. Don't believe the hype. Anything with up to around 1,000 watts of RMS power should be more than appropriate for most people, although you can go significantly higher if you wish to. For example, the Power Sound Audio S3611 puts out a staggering 1,920 watts, Which is overkill for just about everyone except those with underground bunkers.
Of course, you might reasonably ask: if you have two subwoofers, one with an RMS and peak of 500 and 1,500 watts, and another with an RMS and peak of 2,000 and 3,000 watts, then what’s the difference between them, given that they are both separated by 1,000 watts? The answer is in the nature of bass itself. Unlike higher frequencies, bass needs a lot of energy. The more wattage a subwoofer has, the more it will be able to provide that energy, at any volume. More wattage equals bass that is tighter, clearer, more well-rounded. It means that whether you’re rattling the windows or turning things down late at night, you’ll be able to get better sound. Once again: you control the volume. What you don’t control is the base-level clarity of the sound, and that’s where wattage can be a useful metric.
We agonised over this section. It is so, so easy to get lost in mathematical formulas and tables of figures when calculating exactly how wattage relates to decibel levels (read: volume). Ultimately, we decided that we’d keep things simple. If you have one takeaway here, it’s this: buy a subwoofer with a nice, wide gap between peak and RMS, and get one with as many watts as you can afford.
Sealed subwoofers have a cabinet that is entirely enclosed, with no openings into its interior. Ported subwoofers have one or more openings, to allow the free-flowing movement of air. Put very simply: sealed subwoofers sacrifice a little overall volume and presence for a tighter, more controlled sound, while ported ones can pump out huge volume at the expense of a little clarity. Generally speaking, larger and more expensive subs tend to be ported, while smaller, cheaper ones do not. A good example of a ported subwoofer: the SVS PB16-Ultra, which has three!
If you’ve got a smaller room, and don’t need to blow the windows off, then it may be worth looking at a sealed subwoofer. If you aren’t going to be pumping things to huge volumes anyway, then it makes sense to invest in a little bit more clarity and depth to the sound, rather than plumping for huge volume. But if you have a bigger space, consider ported models. You may also come across things known as passive radiators. Think of these as unpowered speaker drivers which are there to simply react to the air the main driver is moving. A subwoofer could have one or more of these in addition to the main driver, and they help with the articulation and expression of the sound. Passive radiators are almost always a good idea.
There’s an easy dichotomy here. Most home theater or hifi subwoofers have wired connections, while many that come with soundbars are entirely wireless. Wireless subwoofers have the advantage of needing absolutely no setup. They will already be slaved to the central unit, and all you need to do, in most cases, is plug them in. The crossover point (see below) is already set, so they take the difficulty out of initial setup, although you will of course need to work out where to put them, and they will need to be plugged into a mains socket.
The downside is that in almost all cases, they don’t sound quite as good as wired subwoofers. This isn’t a universal rule, and the private wireless network they run on is certainly capable of transmitting some good low end, but we almost always prefer wired models. This isn’t a decision we can make for you. The only thing we can say is that if you intend on having a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system, then we strongly recommend a fully-wired subwoofer - although there are always exceptions, like the excellent SONOS SUB.
There are some people who will tell you that it doesn't matter where you put a sub, as long as you're not using it as a table next to the couch. Don't believe these people. They're talking out their backsides. Placement is important, and you need to spend a little bit of time getting it right. This isn’t as easy as you might think. Oh sure, you could stick it in the corner of the room, or under your TV set, and you’ll get a reasonable amount of bass. What you won’t be getting is the timbre of the bass, its characteristics and color. It's like paying a lot for an expensive meal, and tasting nothing but salt.
Subwoofers are tricky in this respect. Bass waves move in all directions, and as soon as they hit a flat surface (like a wall) they reflect all over the place. Fortunately, there’s a neat trick you can use to simplify things. Put the unit in the place you would normally sit, then start playing some bass-heavy music through it–something like Skrillex or Diplo would be ideal. Now you need to crawl around on the floor (yes, we know) and find a spot where the bass sounds richest. You may have one or two spots to choose from at the end, but those are the spots where you should conceivably place your sub.
There are also plenty of outlets that offer dedicated online system builders, which will let you plug in the size of your room and help you fine tune placement. SVS has a very good one.
Usually subs are simple to set up. Plug an RCA cable (make sure you have one long enough) into the line-in port in the back of the sub, and to the subwoofer out on your receiver or amplifier. All that’s left to do then is connect the power cable. OK: sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that, a factor which largely depends on the rear panel of your subwoofer. The more expensive model is, the more likely it will come with a variety of switches and controls that let you adjust things at source.
Let’s tackle a few of these. If you see a volume knob on the back of your subwoofer – something that is rare but not unheard of – set it at about halfway. You can adjust it later, but you’ll be calibrating your sub to get the best sound, and the twelve o’clock position is where you want to keep it for now. You might also see a switch or setting labelled phase. The simplest explanation for this particular setting is that multiple speakers sound better together when their drivers are moving “in phase” – as in, in sync with one another. The kicker is that it’s often quite difficult to figure out if you’ve set the phase correctly (phase is almost always available in two settings, 0° or 180°). You need to spend some time sitting in your listening position, listening to something with a lot of bass content, then flipping settings and listening to the same thing. Without putting too fine a point on it, one should sound “right”. If you can’t hear a difference, or both sound okay, then our advice is: don’t stress. Pick one setting, and leave it there. You can always change it back later. You may also have various other ports on the back of your subwoofer, such as speaker outputs. For these, we are going to recommend that you consult your subwoofer’s manual. Every sub is different, and we don’t want to give specific guidelines here.
Welcome to the single most important thing you can do to make your subwoofer sound better. As you've probably figured out by now, a subwoofer is designed to handle the low frequencies. But as well-designed as your speaker system is, it’s not actually sentient. It doesn’t know where those low frequencies begin. There’s a huge range where they occur, and until you tell it differently, your speaker system may be diverting some of the low-frequency information in your sound to your surround or front speakers - information that would be far better handled by your sub. Adjusting that point - the frequency below which all sound is sent to your sub - is called adjusting the crossover point.
Usually, the crossover is set using the on-screen setup for your A/V receiver. It should allow you to pick a particular frequency without too much trouble. To find the best frequency, what you need to do is go and look at the specs for the other speakers in your system. Every speaker has a frequency range it can comfortably reproduce. While they are completely useless when making a buying decision (something we’ve explained in detail here) they are very helpful for determining the crossover - which is why we've included them in our comparison table, above.
Let’s say you’ve got a set of speakers with a frequency range of 100Hz - 20kHz. That means your crossover point is 100Hz – that’s the point at which the speakers will stop being able to produce sound, which is where you need to bring your subwoofer thundering in the fill the gaps. Once you’ve set the crossover (and run your receiver’s room calibration software, if it has any), there’s one last thing you need to do. Start playing a song with a lot of bass content, at a reasonable volume, through your system. Lower the subwoofer volume until you can just barely hear the bass. Then, very slowly, start to turn it up until the bass is at a comfortable but not overpowering level. Congratulations, you’ve effectively matched your subwoofer with your speaker system, and no matter how loud you turn up the overall volume, the bass will not overpower the other speakers. Remember: wall-shaking bass is all well and good, but the key here is synergy. You want an overall sound that is rich, powerful, and deep, without being uncomfortable. Setting the crossover and the volume is the best way to achieve that.
If you think the bass is good with one unit, then wouldn't it be better with two? Or four? The answer is yes, of course it would, but you also run the risk of distortion, or simply overwhelming the other sounds in the mix. If you do want to try this, and have got the cash to throw around, then a unit in each corner of the room (although not up against the walls, please) will blow your mind.
But it certainly isn't essential, and if you make the right pick, you'll have something you'll love. Frankly, we'll take that over spending a huge amount of money on multiple variations of the same thing, just to produce endless bass. Unless you really, really want to annoy your neighbours. Or you live in the middle of nowhere.