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.