The case against subwoofers for music – 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.

Exactly. Too many people turn the subwoofers up so they can hear them; and that makes music muddy.

About a year and a half ago, I mulled the idea of purchasing a sub-woofer for the audio system in my home office, where I do a lot of listening. (I already have one in the TV room, but only turn it on when I’m watching a movie where I think it will make a difference.) We recorded an episode of The Next Track podcast about sub-woofers: about how useful they are, and about how to set them up.

I was able to correctly configure the sub-woofer; it’s not as complicated as Steve Guttenberg says. And the new receiver I bought a few months ago – the Yamaha R-N803 (Amazon.com) – comes with a microphone to set up the speakers, the kind you get with an AV amplifier. So it automatically calibrates the sub-woofer’s volume to match that of the main speakers.

Gutterberg references an article by indie musician Damon Krukowski, who rails against sub-woofers, especially for live music, and finds lots of people, including musicians, to support his theory that they’re not worth the time, either live or at home. He thinks it’s a recent development in sound, that it started in the 1970s.

Between the wane of freak folk and the rise of EDM, it seems every rock club in the indie universe decided to install subwoofers—often directly under the stage, where they rumble back into acoustic instruments

To be fair, rock clubs may have only installed them recently, but discos were using them in the 1970s. It’s easy to argue that “for acoustic duos who don’t even use a bass,” like Krukowski’s music, it’s useless, but that’s a pretty specious argument. It’s the “it doesn’t happen to me so it doesn’t count” argument that is so common around anything in technology.

Live music for many instruments and ensembles does create frequencies that are below those of most speakers, at least home speakers. One reason the Grateful Dead built The Wall of Sound was to be able to reproduce the frequencies of their music with great fidelity. Phil Lesh’s bass was capable of going very low in Hertz, and the Wall of Sound reproduced these frequencies. But even an instrument like a cello can go down below the frequency of many home speakers; its lowest fundamental is 65 Hz, and that of a double bass is 42 Hz. So if you’re listening to music at home with those instruments, you’d lose out on some of the sound that you would hear live.

As long as your sub-woofer is correctly calibrated, it adds a ground to your music; not all music, but when you are listening to music that can benefit from it, a sub-woofer can make that music sound fuller, richer. Don’t turn it up just becaus you want more bass, but understand that, as Guttenberg said, you shouldn’t hear it.

Source: The case against subwoofers for music – CNET

10 thoughts on “The case against subwoofers for music – CNET

  1. I’m a bass player so having subwoofers is kind of a given for me. In our bedroom (where I’m writing this now) we have a pair of bookshelf speakers mounted on the ceiling and a powered sub on top of a built-in cabinet over to our right. I think I have the balance set pretty well because all the bass is part of the soundstage. At first we only had the bookshelf speakers and the sound was tinny and unsatisfying to my ears. Now it’s full and warm.

    In the living room I have two passive subs that I built myself. One is for music and is connected with the two main speakers through a crossover and dedicated amp. That one is a 15” cylinder (it’s a form for making concrete columns) with 1” MDF caps. One cap has a port and the other has two 10” speakers mounted face-to-face and wired out of phase. I built it almost 20 years ago. An audio engineer friend with access to speaker design software designed it for me. I think the face-to-face configuration is supposed to reduce distortion but, honestly, half of the stuff he told me went right over my head. I just built the speaker he told me to.

    The other sub is for the “.1” channel of the home theater system. That one is a big, stiff, heavy box with an 18” speaker that fires straight down. It’s just designed to move lots of air. Not long ago I had an old friend over and we watched Rogue One which, unsurprisingly, has some dramatic low frequency effects. Afterwards he commented on what a huge difference the sub made.

    Every now and then, I’ll listen to an album where the engineer obviously didn’t have a sub in any of their auditioning systems. Specifically, there was a classical guitar album where every time the player’s hand hit the body of the guitar, the thump completely overpowered the sound from the strings.

    (“Phil Let’s bass” — looks like you got bit by autocorrect.)

  2. Don’t even try to listen to anything played on a great organ without a subwoofer.
    Bass is more about feel than sound anyway.

  3. “Subwoofer” is a term as abused as one of Harvey Weinstein’s girlfriends. It has two correct meanings:

    It’s a second (usually larger) woofer that crosses over below the principal woofer.
    It’s a woofer capable of reproducing the lowest fundamentals of musical instruments (~16Hz).

    The woofer in a two-satellites + one-woofer system is //never// a subwoofer, in either sense, unless it’s able to produce significant output at the lowest organ pedals. This is unlikely.

    A good example of #1 is the subwoofer for the DQ-10. If I recall correctly, Jon used a 10″ woofer in the main speaker to get a better audible match with the lower midrange. The subwoofer extends the low end another octave or so.

    A good example of #2 is the transmission-line woofer in the Fried H system.

    One of the best arguments in favor of subwoofers was made about 30 years ago by J Peter Moncrief. He suggested that they reduced the excursion of the main woofers, thus reducing distortion. This is a good reason for adding a woofer to a two-way system, even though it’s not “really” a subwoofer.

  4. I’d say subs are fine, but don’t abuse them. Right: they are for the ultra-low frequencies (<50 Hz, down to 18 Hz or so) that simply fill in what the satellites may not provide without significant roll-off.

  5. The desire for stereo separation seldom seems to extend to separating science from sound hype. I appreciate Kirk’s willingness to take a stand against faith-based audio advice. Many of the statements in Gutenberg’s article are exaggerations, and some are simply wrong. A bit of snobbishness runs through it. His biggest complaint seems to be that people shouldn’t like what they like (sometimes, extra bass), they should only like what his refined audio palate prefers.

    He also reprises the common criticism in tech writing, that if some piece of technology is frequently set up incorrectly, no one should use/be allowed to use the items in question.

  6. Sub output level is probably a set-it-and-leave-it setting. I mostly use REL subs whose implementation, unlike others, is something called Neutrik Speakon (whatever that means) connection that gets the sound signal from the speaker output, rather than the dedicated sub output of the amp/receiver. The benefits are obvious.

    In my small squarish (12 x 13-ft) home office setup, i have a pair of floor standing speakers capable of going down to 35 Hz per spec. REL sub is in always-on state, adding from subtle to moderate amount of bass to the music, so that the main speakers don’t have to work too hard at the low frequency range. For richer and fuller sound, to me, sub is not a nice-to-have add-on, it’s a must-have. (There are top-end speakers that don’t require sub add-on even in large rooms, and I have heard them elsewhere).

    For the purpose of this comment, I played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture Telarc CD, the bass blends into the music so well, and there is no way that I can tell that extra bass comes from the sub on the right side of the room.

    I also have a JL Audio E-Sub e110, mentioned in the linked article, but I never really like it. It doesn’t blend well with any of my speaker pairs.

  7. As for me I would have been perfectly happy if the “sub woofer” would NEVER have been popularized. Everywhere I go in my vehicle at at least one time or another my teeth will be rattled and my head pounded by an obviously rude and most likely hopelessly ignorant young male listening to his “music”. If nothing else it is a stark reminder of how civility is under attack….

  8. I disagree with Steve Guttenberg’s words, which Kirk partially endorses, that you “shouldn’t hear” the subwoofer. I think Gutenberg is playing fast and loose with his descriptions of human perception. If you truly don’t hear something, then it can be removed without consequence. But, in fact, a properly adjusted subwoofer improves the listening experience for many people in many rooms with many kinds of audio setups for many pieces of music. The lowest note on a piano is at 27.5 Hz. 16.5 Hz on the ultimate Bösendorfer piano and some pipe organs. A 4-string bass guitar gets down to 41 Hz, and a 5-string to 30 Hz. There is more than a whole octave below 60 HZ on the standard piano.

    Guttenberg wants all the bass to sound like it is coming from the speakers. Why? 99% of the time, I don’t want to be aware of the speakers at all, as I listen to the music. For the 1% of the time when I suddenly pay attention to where the sound is coming from, it should be a moment when the composer and performers are trying to get my attention. Whether it is the vibraslap in a Reggae tune, the flute suddenly appearing over the violins, a solo voice coming out of the silent darkness, or a very low tone emerging from the depths, when a well-chosen musical highlight suddenly appears in the music, I want to hear it clearly, with an appropriate definition as part of the musical space. I’m NEVER going to be thinking, as Guttenberg claims he does, that “this really sounded good, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t localize the sound as coming from the two speakers.”

    • What I understood, is that you shouldn’t hear that the sub woofer exists on its own. That it blends in with the sound overall, and isn’t aggressive, isn’t upfront. That’s how mine sounds, because it is calibrated correctly.

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