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. Squirrelled away out of sight, this big box of wonders will do incredible things to your audio. 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, ranging from easy budget options to four-figure monsters - and at least one bad boy that needs a second mortgage to buy.
We've got a lot of experience in evaluating subwoofers, so we know how they stack up. With dozens available, we've narrowed it down to a set of models that we think are the best around. We take into account a variety of factors, not just price: wattage, driver size and ideal use are all factored in. We also spent a lot of time testing, and checking to see how different models responded to different sound sources.
Subwoofers are a contentious area - please don't shout at us if you don't see your favorite model or brand here! In many cases, we’ve had to pick which size of a particular model we felt represented the best value-for-money, so you can always go up and down in size if you disagree. Most of the major names are represented, and all of these models are fantastic - and we’re always looking for new subs to try. No matter what your budget, you'll find one you like here.
Output Wattage (RMS): 1,500
Driver Size: 16”
What We Like: Unbelievable volume and audio quality.
What We Don’t: Takes two people to unbox and shift!
We’ve never quite received a piece of audio gear like the PB16-Ultra. For starters, it took two people to move the bloody 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!
But oh, what a monster. This is, without question, the finest home theater sub available right now. Exquisitely-built, with a gorgeous, comprehensive app and clear, simple instructions. And the sound. Dear gods, the sound. It’s not just 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 - although it’s definitely not for smaller rooms, or those looking for simple pleasures. Compared to the other models below, this is probably the one that is the most accessible, and offers the most value-for-money; while we love the Funk Audio and the JL Audio models, we strongly prefer this one. It’s a king-hell, roaring, snorting monster of a subwoofer, and it’s an easy number one. Read our in-depth review.
See the SVS PB16 Ultra
Output Wattage (RMS): 3,000
Driver Size: 2 x 12”
What We Like: Unbelievable power for the price.
What We Don’t: Room EQ is good, but not amazing.
We can’t help but think that Sunfire has got their priorities a little muddled. They spend a lot of time marketing their XTEQ 12” subwoofer (which replaces the old HRS-12 on this list in our latest update) as having top-notch room equalization, allowing you to calibrate the sound to your exact specifications. They got their parties muddled up. For while the room calibration is good, it’s not the primary selling point here. That would be value, and in this case, Sunfire knock it out the park.
For less than $2,000, you get a subwoofer capable of putting out as much if not more power than the Funk Audio 21.0L, with sound that is almost as good, in a much more compact and sleek package. This is an absolute beauty of a subwoofer, and is cheap enough – relatively speaking – to allow you to buy two, and get twice the enjoyment. Then again, even if you can only spring for one, you’ll be equipping yourself with one of the best subwoofers available on the market right now. We still prefer the SVS PB16-Ultra, but it’s a close-run thing.
See the Sunfire XTEQ 12”
Output Wattage (RMS): 700
Driver Size: 10”
What We Like: Great wireless sound, easy to use.
What We Don’t: A bigger driver would have been nice.
You probably think we’re crazy. What’s this little guy doing above a JL, or a Power Sound? It’s here because, pound for pound, it offers the best value on the list. MartinLogan deliver superb quality, and unless you’re desperate for absolutely enormous power, you should really check this one out. The company’s Dynamo is a fantastic wireless subwoofer, with setup that is an absolute breeze. It comes with its own wireless receiver that connects to your existing home theater, and it all works beautifully – although you will need to keep it a bit of a distance from your other electronics, as the company's subwoofers are not magnetically shielded.
While we could probably have used a slightly bigger driver, there’s no question that the sound of this down-firing little beast is just fantastic - easily enough to compete with the big boys. It doesn’t feel overcooked or boomy – quite the opposite, in fact, with tight, restrained bass that doesn’t suffer at high volumes. If you enjoy systems with a clean, minimalist look, then this is definitely one worth looking into. And by the way, there is a wired option available, if you really are fussy about it.
See the Martin Logan Dynamo
Output Wattage (RMS): 2,400
Driver Size: 21”
What We Like: Stupendous engineering and audio quality.
What We Don’t: Very little - although the insane price keeps it from the #1 spot.
The Funk Audio 21.0L subwoofer is not just a sub; it’s more of a musical instrument. Every part of the 21.0L’s design is custom made in-house, and Funk Audio give as much importance to the exterior wood veneer (with lots of custom options) as they do to the grade of wire used in their baby’s power lead. Not many subs house 21” sized-drivers and if they do, they are rarely hand-made, and rarely using 100% carbon fiber cones with cast aluminum frames. Although other models on this list have bigger drivers - the Deep Sea Mariana 24SC comes to mind - this is the one that we feel gives the most bang for buck.
The power amp is rated at monstrous 2,400 watts RMS and 4,800 Peak. It features a one-piece aluminum chassis/heatsink, and although first impressions may hint at this speaker being of a classic appearance (on account of its baltic birch enclosure), at the heart of its amplifier you’ll find, of all things, a USB interface for connecting the 21.0L to a computer - a terrific little touch. Every feature can be DSP-controlled - full Parametric EQ with five filter types and ten bands, high and low pass crossover with ten slope options, adjustable delay, level, limiting...the works. And audio quality is as expected - an extremely rich, precise and multi-layered representation of any bass content down to 10hz. Remarkable.
See the Funk Audio 21.0L
Output Wattage (RMS): 1,800
Driver Size: 12”
What We Like: Gotham-level tech in an affordable package.
What We Don’t: Somewhat ugly control console.
Why not the Gotham, you ask? Because for nearly $20,000, we think it’s overkill for most people, and more than a little bit overpriced – especially when items like the ten-inch Fathom will be more than enough for most people, and which do a spectacular job.
This subwoofer pumps out 1,100 watts of sound, and will slip nicely into most systems. The low end it puts out is robust, clear, and dynamic, with a level of musicality that other subs lack. It uses the same driver technology as the Gotham, and includes a host of bells and whistles, like a complex front panel to control the sound, as well as a Digital Automatic Room Optimization (D.A.R.O) microphone to make sure the audio is tuned to your room. We don’t know that this is the best subwoofer available – cue every bass junky getting ready to flood the comments with angry insults – but it’s definitely nudging it. It's a much newer version of the now-discontinued f110, with much the same tech - f110s occasionally appear for sale at a far cheaper rate, so do investigate that.
See the JL Audio Fathom f112v2
Output Wattage (RMS): 4,000
Driver Size: 24”
What We Like: It’s a goddamn monster.
What We Don’t: Expensive - and not exactly subtle.
Sometimes, you just need to break things. You need to put out sound so powerful that it can cause the Cascadia fault to snap. Usually, you have to go into the five figures range for this, which we think is overkill in the most extreme sense. But every so often, a relatively affordable, ultra-high-power subwoofer comes along. Like, for example, the Mariana 24SC.
An enormous driver. 4,000 watts of continuous power. And for only slightly more than the JL Audio Fathom! While it doesn’t have the subtlety of a lot of these models (yes, believe it or not, subwoofers can be subtle – even the big ones) and it definitely is off the charts in terms of value-for-money, there’s no question that it deserves to be here. It's a total beast of a sub, with a skull- shaking sound that, if you have the space for it, you will find completely addictive. By the way, you can get a slightly cheaper 18” version, as well as a rectangular version of the 24” if you have space issues. If you do have more to spend, try the Funk Audio 21.0L - overall, it's a better sub, although you do pay more...
See the Deep Sea Sound Mariana 24SC
Output Wattage (RMS): 1,700
Driver Size: 2 x 18”
Direction: Dual (Front and Back)
What We Like: Huge sound, great control system, advanced processor circuitry.
What We Don’t: Definitely not for small rooms.
The Power Sound Audio PSA S3601 is a big, bold beauty - nothing on the Deep Sea leviathan above, but at half the price, you still get some fantastic audio. It has a unique driver structure: two opposing 18” drivers (each firing in opposite directions) that are contained in an airtight, sealed cabinet. The control panel also offers a number of user-adjustable parameters. Apart from the usual suspects such as volume and crossover, there are additional dials such as Room Size, and Delay, allowing for tweaking of the bass content and response of the sub (if positioned quite far from the listening sweet spot).
What is also offered as an optional extra (during the checkout process) is a choice of Power Sound Audio’s two Auto Mode audio processors, which are room correction / auto EQ modules. It’s great to see this level of customisation available, and even a short listen to this dual 18” monster immediately tells you that you are in serious cinema theater territory. Even when properly tuned (meaning not overtaking your main speakers) the PSA S3601 still makes you feel the bass rather than just hear it.
See the Power Sound Audio S3601
Output Wattage (RMS): 1,400
Driver Size: 18”
What We Like: Seaton’s superb design and build shines through.
What We Don’t: Tough to track down.
We hesitated to put the F18+ on this list – not because it is good (it is) but because actually getting one can be a bit tricky. The Seaton Sound website is…how shall we put this? Not very well designed. You have to visit a forum for current product information, and while the company’s subwoofers are still very much available, it would be really nice to see a slightly more user-friendly portal for actually buying them.
All the same: nothing wrong with their subwoofers. The F18+ offers stupendous sound, which you can boost from 1,400 watts up to $4,000 if you buy an additional slave unit, at a cost of $1,195 each. Even if you stay with the basic single sub, you’ll still have a winner here. It has full DSP, a Class D amplifier that puts out crystal-clear low-end notes, and a comprehensive control section. We don’t think it’s quite as good as models from Power Sound Audio or JL, but the differences aren’t huge.
See the Seaton Sound F18+
Output Wattage (RMS): 800
Driver Size: 2 x 15”
What We Like: Smart engineering, reference-grade clarity, five year warranty on drivers.
What We Don’t: No XLR / Balanced inputs, awkward size.
The Rhythmik F25 is a dual-driver subwoofer - an interesting design for a sub. It’s a sealed unit, which simply means that the F25 has no ports in its cabinet design. This is actually a big factor for overall audio character for any sub (or full-range speaker system). Although acoustic ports are crucial for dispersion of bass frequencies that remain ‘trapped’ in the cabinet enclosure, they can often be the main culprits contributing to a wooly and ‘cloudy’ bass performance.
To reclaim some of the ‘lost’ port benefits, the Rhythmik F25 design concept gets even more interesting on account of the choice of speakers and amplification used inside. The company have a patented tech called Direct Servo which reduces unwanted physical vibrations of the driver (such as speaker distortion and thermal compression), while making their ‘high excursion’ drivers a lot faster and more efficient for bass content tracking. This helps them coax more SPL (sound pressure level, e.g. loudness) out of the drivers, which are powered by two amps (400 watts each). The sonic result is that of an effortless, clear portrayal of any regular or extended bass frequencies, including those ultra-low bass octaves. Rhythmik’s claim that this is an ‘audiophile sub’ is justified here - the F25 integrates very well with full-range speakers, giving an impression that your main speakers have suddenly quadrupled in size. Highly recommended.
See the Rhythmik F25
Output Wattage (RMS): 2,000
Driver Size: 2 x 12”
What We Like: Decent improvement on the DB1, huge sound.
What We Don’t: Vastly overpriced right now.
Up until the end of last year, we were pretty convinced that the newer upcoming version of the DB1 will offer only incremental improvements; after all, the original was an absolute monster of a sub, and got so many things right, that it was hard to see where you could improve things. Well, this is B&W, and they take the concept of hard and kick it into the high grass. The DB1D doubles the power output of the original, packing two drivers into an absolutely insane subwoofer that you’ll need your biggest room to appreciate.
So why the low placement? It must be said, $5,000 is a staggering amount to pay for a subwoofer, even one as good as this. Yes, we know that you can quite happily pay five figures for a subwoofer, but that is frankly insane. For most people, this is simply going to be way, way too much – along the lines of the equally mad Deep Sea Mariana 24SC. As such, we don’t think it’s worthy of a place too high on the list – we do, after all, emphasize value for money here, not just insane power. Still: what a beast.
See the Bowers & Wilkins DB1D
Output Wattage (RMS): 700
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, and 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 DB1D from Bowers & Wilkins, 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, and we won’t make the mistake of leaving JTR off it again.
See the JTR Captivator 118HT
Output Wattage (RMS): 1,200
Driver Size: 12”
What We Like: Great EQ and digital display.
What We Don’t: Needs a bigger room than most!
Velodyne Acoustics offer a huge range of options to pick from. They are all good, but we think this is the best of the bunch – a twelve inch subwoofer that matches value-for-money with world-beating sound, and which should satisfy most people.
The audio quality is terrific, with serious weight and punch, and it’s helped along by a handy seven-band EQ that calibrates itself at the touch of a button, meaning that getting it tuned to your room is relatively simple. Like the SVS PB-16 Ultra, it has a front panel digital display, which makes operation breeze. If we had to pick one downside for this sub, it’s that it really isn’t suitable for small rooms – it’s not the biggest subwoofer on this list, but the audio it puts out will be so much better with a bit of room to play in. Still, Velodyne know what they are doing, and they do offer a variety of other options if you need them.
See the Velodyne Acoustics Optimum
Output Wattage (RMS): 1,000
Driver Size: 2 x 12”
What We Like: Fantastic dynamics, wireless capability.
What We Don’t: Very tough to find online - and hugely expensive.
This one did our heads in. After we last updated the list, several readers got in touch to let us know in no uncertain terms that we had committed a crime against God and man by leaving England’s REL off it. While we are nothing if not attentive to the needs of our readership, we still agonized about putting this one on here. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to find one to buy online. You can’t even go direct. In this day and age, that’s a bit of a problem, and not something we can ignore. Ditto for the price, which is completely ridiculous – this subwoofer is good, but not that good.
However: that doesn’t stop this being worth looking at. It has several things to recommend it, chief among which are the excellent dynamics and responsiveness you get when you plug this thing in. You’ve also got the option to take it fully wireless, if you invest in the Longbow box. So while it is imperfect, it does come with several attractive elements, and it’s clear to see why has such a devoted fanbase. If you ever see one for sale, snap it up.
REL Acoustics 212SE ($4,000)
Output Wattage (RMS): 2,000
Driver Size: 15”
What We Like: Great EQ, super-tight bass.
What We Don’t: Lacks ‘shake’.
One of the reasons you won’t find dedicated subwoofers in many ultra high-end audio setups is because the people have these setups are convinced the massive extension of the bass will disrupt the careful balance they’ve constructed. These people are pedants and should be ignored, but there’s no denying that subwoofers – especially the big ones – do tend to make themselves known. The Prestige 2000 SW is an excellent, albeit expensive, remedy to that.
It uses one of the best EQ adjustment systems in the business to create direct, focused, powerful low end that has an incredible amount of tightness and control. This is not a subwoofer that is going to shake the windows – one of the sacrifices of this ultra-tight bass is that you lose the very lowest frequencies, or at least have them not quite at the forefront. What you get in return is some of the best definition of any subwoofer on the market. This model is a little old now, and could probably do with a replacement, but compared to things like the Power Sound Audio S3601, it’s far more refined. Incidentally, it was a tossup at one point between this and a slightly cheaper model from Aperion for a spot on the list. Aperion lost out because they haven’t released a new sub in quite some time, whereas this is a little more recent.
See the Paradigm Prestige 2000 SW
Output Wattage (RMS): 110
Driver Size: 8”
What We Like: Unusual design, solid sound.
What We Don’t: May not be for everyone!
What a miraculous little device. Well, we say little, but the highly unusual Sub Air by Focal still has some presence to it – and a design that is unusual enough to draw attention from anyone who visits your setup. The thin housing – just over six inches wide – packs a 8” driver on the long side and an acoustic port on the other, and while this means you have to carefully position it (so as not to block either of those) it also means you’ll be rewarded with some superb sound.
It doesn’t compare to some of the monsters higher up on this list – even the ones in its price range, like the HSU below, offer more power – but what it lacks in raw power, it makes up for with precise and elegant bass. It’s also wireless, which is very handy, but does mean that the kinds of setups that can use it somewhat limited. All the same, we think it’s earned its place on this list, and it’s different enough to raise eyebrows. We like. By the way, if you want something more traditional, try the company’s Sub1000F. We prefer the other options on this list, but it’s a viable alternative, for sure.
See the Focal Sub Air
Output Wattage (RMS): 400
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. 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 really, you go for this because of the epic sound quality. Part of is down to the engineering of the amp inside, which is a Class D module from the legendary NAD Electronics. But it’s also down to the outer construction, which includes two 10” passive radiators to really get the low end thumping. The advanced DSP 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 F18+, although obviously it doesn’t offer that sub’s level of quality. In addition, right now, it’s a tiny bit overpriced. But this may drop in the future, and if you can afford it, then go for it!
See the PSB SubSeries 450
Output Wattage (RMS): 600
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 that was formed in 1991 with one goal in mind: making the best subwoofer speakers. Their big breakthrough came with the variable-tuning technology featured in their first VTF range of subs (which are still going strong), but the ULS-15 is their new flagship subwoofer, and it has seen a recent upgrade to MK2. If you’re looking for a similar budget alternative to the MartinLogan Dynamo, look no further.
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 (on the driver, two year for the rest of circuitry). We are really impressed with the audio quality of the HSU - it is sounding absolutely massive, while displaying a really tight bass character with fast low-end note tracking. The sub-bass power and clarity make this sub a top choice for around the $850 price bracket, and this here includes a factory-direct shipping.
See the HSU Research ULS-15 MK2
And For When Your Rich Uncle Has Died...
Output Wattage (RMS): Unknown
Driver Size: 2 x 15"
What We Like: Pump up the volume!
What We Don’t: Millionaires only.
Arguably one of the most powerful subs on the planet: a giant, earth-cracking monster with two down-firing 15" woofers that will make your ears bleed. Wilson Audio are known for extreme stuff, and they've really nailed it here. Of course, if you're worthy - and by worthy, we mean absolutely wedged with cash - you'll probably expect nothing less.
It’s not just that the subwoofer is loud, although of course it is. It’s that it has almost zero distortion. That was the acoustic goal that Wilson set out to do, and they absolutely achieved it. Not only that, but they achieved it in a surprisingly small unit – one that pairs perfectly with other Wilson speakers, like the Alexia Series 2. That’s a snip at only $57,200 for the pair. What are you waiting for?
See the Wilson Audio Thor's Hammer
|SVS PB16-Ultra||$2,500||1,500||16"||Front-Firing||13-360Hz||28.3” x 25” x 21.7”|
|Sunfire XTEQ 12”||$1,900||3,000||2 x 12"||Front-Firing||16Hz - 100Hz||14” x 13.5” x 13”|
|Martin Logan Dynamo||$695||700||10"||Down-Firing||24-200Hz||12.5” x 12.5” x 11.7”|
|Funk Audio 21.0L||$4,150||2,400||21"||Front-Firing||10Hz-200Hz||22.25" x 22.25" x 20.5"|
|JL Audio Fathom f112v2||$4,025||1,100||10"||Front-Firing||27-111Hz||17.3” x 15.6” x 12.9”|
|Deep Sea Mariana 24SC||$4,000||4,000||24"||Front-Firing||14-180Hz||28" x 28" x 27"|
|Power Sound Audio S3601||$2,000||1,700||2 x 18"||Dual (Front/Back)||17-200Hz||28” x 24” x 20”|
|Seaton Sound F18+||$2,395||1,400||18"||Front-Firing||30-120Hz||24.25" x 23.5" x 18"|
|Rhythmik F25||$1,499||800||2 x 15"||Front-Firing||14-200Hz||33” x 21” x 19”|
|Bowers & Wilkins DB1D||$5,000||2,000||2 x 12"||Front-Firing||10Hz - 350Hz||18.9” x 16.9” x 16.1”|
|JTR Captivator 118HT||$1,599||700||18||Front-Firing||19-190Hz||30” x 22.5” x 20”|
|Velodyne Optimum||$1,100||1,200||12"||Front-Firing||40-120Hz||18.5” x 15.5” x 15”|
|REL Acoustics 212SE||$4,000||1,000||2 x 12"||Front-Firing||19Hz - 100Hz||32" x 20" x 72.5"|
|Paradigm Prestige 2000 SW||$3,999||2,000||15"||Front-Firing||35Hz - 150Hz||22" × 22" × 20"|
|Focal Sub Air||$599||110||8"||Front-Firing||40-200Hz||16.1” x 14.2” 6.3”|
|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”|
|W.A. Thor's Hammer||$21,000||Unknown||2 x 15"||Down-Firing||10-300Hz||59" x 25.5" x 20"|
*RMS = RMS Wattage
**Freq. = Frequency Range
- Passive vs. Powered
- Front-Firing vs. Down-Firing
- Driver Size Explained
- Wattage Explained
- Ported vs. Sealed
- Wireless vs. Wired
- Subwoofer Placement Explained
- Setting Up Your Subwoofer
- Subwoofer Crossover Explained
- Doubling Up: 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. Let’s narrow things down a little further.
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, and you may as well not bother. While you'll still get good sound, it almost certainly won’t be as effective at delivering the low end.
We know that a slightly controversial viewpoint for some people, but we stick by it stop. When it comes to bass, bigger is always better
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. 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 1,500 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 Deep Sea Sound Mariana 24SC puts out a staggering 4,000 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 MartinLogan Dynamo.
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.