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Why Should I Buy a Home Theater Subwoofer?
We spent more than 20 hours in our lab testing 11 subwoofers for clarity, impact and frequency separation by watching action movies and listening to music by the likes of GRiZ and Lettuce. Our pick for the best home theater subwoofer is the Yamaha SW300. It isn’t the most powerful or largest model we tested, but it had the most consistent and accurate frequency response. Those important sound attributes, along with its unique, smart design features, make it a good fit for pretty much any size theater room.
If you are interested in supplementing the low-frequency content in your entertainment room and don’t have a lot of space to work with, the Velodyne Impact 10’s compact and efficient cabinet design is easy to place in tight spaces. It was also one of the best performers in our music listening test.
The BIC America F-12 isn’t quite as accurate or powerful as the best subwoofers we tested, but it costs less than $250 and performed admirably in our listening tests. The matte black cabinet design is attractive and can easily fit in with any home décor.
How We Tested
Subs are the most difficult sound system components to try out in stores because they can sound similar at low volumes, and shortcomings like port noise are only apparent when you really push them hard with heavy bass. We tested in our AV lab, which is set up to react similarly to most people’s living rooms or home theater rooms, and our recommendations are based on listening to popular content in this real-world environment.
We narrowed our list down to the 10 best subwoofers by watching action scenes from the James Bond movie “Skyfall” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The scene we chose from “Skyfall” has a sustained rumbling effect that lasts 15 seconds, and it pushes the subwoofers’ amplifiers and speakers to their low-frequency limits. The Star Wars movie scene has shorter sound effects that highlight a sub’s ability to accurately recreate a wide range of frequencies and force the amplifier to recover quickly.
We also listened to music through all the subs, including GRiZ’s “Gotta Push On,” Bela Fleck’s “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” and a couple live concert selections from Lettuce and Anderson Paak.
We evaluated all the movie and music content at a chest-thumping 85 decibels, which is about as loud as a commercial movie theater. We listened to the movie and music selections on every speaker in our test group multiple times and recorded our impressions, the result of which is reflected in the final listening test grade.
How to Choose Home Theater Subwoofers
The important factors to consider when purchasing a home theater subwoofer include room size, budget, and the type of content you most often watch and listen to. If you’re thinking about adding a subwoofer to an existing system, you also want to consider the size and volume capabilities of your current setup.
If you watch movies and listen to music in a small- or medium-size living room, a powerful 12- or 15-inch subwoofer might be too much boom for your room. We found that 10-inch woofers, like the Yamaha SW300 and Klipsch 110SW, had no problem filling up our 500 square-foot AV room with accurate and immersive bass. However, if your home theater is in a large open area, a 12-inch woofer like the Emotiva Sub 12 or Polk DSW 660 may be necessary to achieve theater-quality bass response.
Speaker size and amplifier power ratings are also important factors when matching a subwoofer with the type of content you play through your audio system. The sound engineers who create audio for movies do so with a subwoofer in their studio. If you watch movies, especially action flicks, you want to consider a subwoofer with an RMS power rating of 200 watts or more for a theater-quality experience. However, if you listen to music as often or more than you watch movies, a lower-power 10-inch subwoofer might be a less-obtrusive way to supplement the low frequencies created by acoustic instruments.
If you want to add a subwoofer to an existing sound system, its size and power rating need to complement the speakers you already have. We suggest pairing a sound bar or bookshelf speakers with a less-powerful 10-inch subwoofer. However, if you have floor standing speakers with 6- or 8-inch woofers, a 12-inch subwoofer is a good way to reinforce the low-end material that smaller full-range speakers can’t create.
Finding the best place in your entertainment room to set up your subwoofer is more art than science. Every theater room is different, and the affect yours has on your audio system will dictate the ideal placement for your subwoofer. Smaller rooms may not have a perfect spot, but there are definitely places to avoid.
The bass waves that emanate from a subwoofer are omni-directional. That means they bounce off all the reflective surfaces in your room, such as windows and walls, in every direction. Placing a subwoofer close to a wall or corner may produce louder bass, but louder bass is not as pleasing to the ear as accurate bass.
Ideally, your subwoofer should sit somewhere the speaker and cabinet can breathe. If your TV is mounted on or close to the wall and centered with the room, try placing your subwoofer directly next to the floor standing speakers that sit on either side of the screen. You can also try placing your subwoofer on a side wall or behind your preferred seating area. Below is a graphic that illustrates a few common placement options.
Another effective way to find a good place for your home subwoofer is to temporarily place it where you normally sit. You can then move and sit in different spots around the room, and when you find a place that the subwoofer sounds good, put it there.
After you find an appropriate place to put your subwoofer, you should adjust the crossover and volume settings to ensure it sends the right amounts of the correct frequencies to complement the other speakers in your audio system. Volume and crossover settings may also need to be adjusted to suit the type of content you’re listening to. For instance, you may not want your subwoofer to be as present when you listen to music as you do when you watch action movies.
All the models we tested have adjustable crossovers, a feature that allows you to choose the subwoofer’s low frequency starting point. You want your subwoofer to handle all the low frequencies that the other speakers in your system are incapable of creating. A good starting point for a home theater subwoofer is around 80Hz, but this could vary depending on your room, the content you’re listening to and the other speakers in your system. If you are using an AV receiver with an LFE subwoofer output, you don’t need to adjust the crossover settings on the sub because the receiver sends the properly crossed-over signal to it.
All the subwoofers we tested are active, which means they have a built-in amplifier. The volume knob on an active subwoofer controls the amount of amplification you send to the speaker. Ideally, you shouldn’t need to turn your volume knob all the way up to get your desired amount of bass reinforcement, as doing so makes the amplifier work too hard and could result in a distorted sound and cause the amplifier to overheat and shut off.
To find the right subwoofer to complement your home theater environment, you need to consider specifications like RMS power handling, driver size and alternative inputs/outputs. During our tests, we also looked at the effects of transmitting content wirelessly rather than using a cabled connection between the AV receiver and the subwoofer.
Subwoofer manufacturers like Polk Audio and Klipsch have started offering proprietary wireless connection options. As such, we figured it would be good to see if we could hear a difference between a subwoofer connected to our AV receiver with a cable and one connected wirelessly. We used a third-party wireless subwoofer kit because only two of the subwoofers we tested have a proprietary wireless option.
We found that there is a noticeable volume difference between the two connections – the wireless transmission was, on average, 5 dB lower than the wired connection. However, there was not a noticeable difference in signal quality. The volume loss could easily be made up for by turning the subwoofer up, so if you want to put yours in a place that would be hard to run a cable, such as behind your couch, wireless transmission isn’t a bad idea. Keep in mind that you can only wirelessly use subwoofers that have built-in amplifiers, and both the sub and wireless receiver need to be plugged into a power socket.
The RMS power rating is the amount of power the speaker can handle without incurring damage, and it is a good indicator of how loud and powerful the subwoofer is. On the other hand, peak power isn’t a good indicator of performance because there isn't a standardized way for companies to measure it, so many of the ratings are inflated. If you are putting your subwoofer in a small room, you don't need one with 1,500 watts of power – that might shake all the pictures off your walls.
We tested both 10-inch and 12-inch subwoofers. Larger drivers produce more bass because they have a bigger surface area and more air moves inside the enclosure. Subwoofers bigger than 12 inches are only appropriate for large theater rooms, and they are often too pricey for the average consumer, which is why we didn’t test them. Also, you would be better off purchasing two 10- or 12-inch woofers and placing them in efficient spots rather than trying to make one large subwoofer do too much work.
Speaker-Level Inputs & Outputs
Adding a subwoofer to an older receiver can be tricky – many older, two-channel models don’t have a dedicated subwoofer output. A subwoofer with speaker-level inputs can connect to your current, older-style receiver so you don’t have to replace it.
You connect your subwoofer through the two main channels on the receiver using these inputs and then run your two main speakers with the woofer’s speaker-level outputs. These connections should only be used if your system doesn’t have a subwoofer or LFE output.
The subjective nature of evaluating and comparing speakers makes it hard to recommend a subwoofer that will work well for everyone. Factors like room size, budget constraints and content variance are important to consider when choosing the best subwoofer for your entertainment room. Just because a subwoofer isn’t rated number one here doesn’t mean it’s not be the best fit for your situation. For instance, a less powerful 10-inch sub might be a better option than a powerful 12-inch sub if you have a small room and are using it with smaller main speakers. When pairing a subwoofer with other audio components, the most important thing is that the mixture of speakers sounds good to you. That may require auditioning multiple subwoofers in your room before making a final decision.