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Speakers

The case against subwoofers for music

For home theater and games, sure, subwoofers can provide deep bass oomph that speakers alone can’t match.

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Big woofers for big bass

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Subwoofers for music systems don't make sense to me anymore. For home theater, where movies rely on low-frequency effects subs to make the magic happen, subs are essential. No argument here, but music rarely has extremely deep, under-50Hz bass, and most speakers with 5-inch (127mm) or larger woofers can muster 50Hz bass in small or midsize rooms. Of course, if you crave gut-shaking bass or you have a big room, larger speakers and subs are recommended.

I started mulling this over after I read Damon Krukowski's Pitchfork op-ed, Drop The Bass: A Case Against Subwoofers, and he had me tripping down memory lane to when I used subs in my home system. Sure, subs add bass, that's easy, but achieving a truly seamless subwoofer blend with the system's speakers is challenging. Getting most of the way there takes a day or two fiddling with the sub's controls and experimenting with room placement. Achieving the perfect blend isn't always possible -- subwoofer crossover tweaking isn't an exact science.

Over time I found my sub's presence intrusive in the sense that I was aware of what the sub was contributing to the sound, pulling me away from the music. When the sub is perfectly integrated with the speakers you shouldn't hear the sub; all of the bass should appear to come from the speakers. So I kept turning the sub's volume down, and then down some more. True, my speakers varied from year to year; there were Focal Mini Utopia, Magnepan 3.6, Zu Druid MK4 and Dynaudio Special 25s, and they could all make bass down to 50Hz or even lower. The subs were top-notch, a REL Storm III and later a JL Audio E-Sub e110, which were used to fill in under-50Hertz bass.

Mind you, that's comparatively an easy assignment. Blending a sub with smaller, bass-challenged speakers that need help with under-80Hz or under-100Hz bass, that's a lot harder to get right.

Still, my point here concerns the use of speakers that produce satisfying bass on their own, and that adding a sub may not the best way to spend your money. Here's one of the more interesting quotes from Krukowski's article, regarding excessive bass at live concerts:

Nosebleeds at festivals, trance states at dance clubs, intimidation by car audio -- multiple subwoofers have their place in the various physical experiences people seek from music. As [Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen] O'Malley points out, sound pressure is energy, and communicating energy can be a large part of what music is about.

Which is why it might surprise you that even a master of the low frequency universe like O'Malley doesn't use subwoofers for his own listening. "Not in my home," he says. "A properly set up hi-fi doesn't need a separate sub... Usually this culture of bass boosting is at the cost of clarity in the rest of the spectrum."

I agree; adding bass too often muddies the music, unbalancing the sound. Some people like bass, and a lot of people like adding more and more bass. Me, I'm done with subs, my current Magnepan .7 and TAD ME-1 speakers make enough bass on their own.

Perhaps we might need to take a step back from bass bombast. Just because we can pummel our bodies and ears with bass doesn't mean it's a good idea. Krukowski, who was a drummer in one of my favorite late '80s bands, Galaxie 500, summed up his article with this: 

To my ears, the bass boosting of Beats and of home theater systems designed to mimic reality for movies and games doesn't translate to a "real" experience of music. But my idea of real is based on the experience of physical instruments, acoustic and electric. And perhaps the reality of music itself has undergone a change.

I'm with Kurkowski on that, but in the end whatever makes you happy with your sound is valid, go for it.