For speakers or headphones, how much bass is enough?

Bass is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures for audiophiles.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

When I was a high-end audio salesman in the 1990s, bass was the elephant in the room. Audiophiles used to pretend bass wasn't the main attraction -- that was too lowbrow. We were sophisticated people much more interested in things like transparency and a pure and natural midrange, but in the end, whether they admitted it or not, feel-it-through-your-toes bass was a factor. Gut-wrenching bass clinched many a sale.

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The JL Audio Fathom f113 13.5-inch subwoofer.

JL Audio

Funny thing, for audiophiles, subwoofers were a no-no. They were too crude a device, or maybe the association with home theater was a turn-off -- subwoofers were rarely involved. That's changed somewhat over the years, but I still don't see too many high-end audio shops selling subs. They all sell big speakers, that's for sure!

Once you live with a powerful subwoofer or massive floor-standing speakers you realize some recordings have bass bumps, rumbles and thumps that go unheard over most speakers, but those unintended noises can be troublesome. That's especially true for 1960s through 1980s recordings when the engineers were unaware of all the problems in the ultra-deep bass parts of the mix.

Of course, today's massive floor-standing speakers easily deliver deep, satisfying rumble, but incredibly enough some small speakers in small rooms could muster serious bass. In the 1980s one of my closest audio buddies had a set of Linn Kan speakers braced up against a wall that produced deep, very tuneful bass. Most people when they heard these tiny tots started looking for the sub in the room -- there was none.

Bass definition was a big draw for me, even more than bass power. The texture and palpability of bass was what I wanted. I'm not alone on that score -- lots of audiophiles favor bass quality over feel-it-in-your-gut bass. Then again, some crave pounding bass, but can't go there out of respect for their neighbors or family.

Which brings us to bass over headphones -- that's a very different thing. First, and mostly because it's all in your head, a lot of folks miss the whole body sensation of bass. I agree, but at its best, headphone bass is clearer, better defined and more articulate than speaker or subwoofer bass. I'm not talking about muddy or boomy headphone bass -- those are just cheap thrills -- but solid low bass response from in-ear or over-the-ear 'phones has its own satisfactions.

What do you think? How does bass influence your choice of headphones or speakers? Let me know in the comments.