Home Subwoofers Review
How to Choose Home Subwoofers
The top performers in our review are the BIC Acoustic PL-200, the Gold Award winner; BIC America Formula F-12, the Silver Award winner; and JBL ES250P, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of nine home subwoofers.
You've noticed that watching movies at home isn't nearly the experience you get at the theater. Along with the enormous screen, the movie theater's audio system truly immerses you into the movie. Deep rumbling bass makes explosions seem real. For movie buffs, there is no better way to watch a film. But you don't need to leave your home to experience cinematic magic. With the right equipment, you can bring theater quality into your house. One of the best places to start is a home subwoofer.
A home subwoofer has one job – to provide deep and powerful bass. When you go to a movie theater there are usually a handful of extremely large subwoofers under the screen that provide the bass you can feel in your bones. The subwoofers we reviewed are not nearly as large as the ones in a theater, but they can provide more than enough bass to rumble through your home entertainment room.
Subwoofers are larger than a typical pair of speakers. The driver within a subwoofer ranges anywhere from 8 to 21 inches in diameter, whereas the speakers in a system such as a sound bar are usually around 2 to 3 inches. Subwoofers have to be much larger because it takes more surface area, power and air to drive low-frequency sounds enough for them to be heard and felt. While it is possible for smaller speakers to produce low frequencies, they will not be nearly as prominent or powerful as a subwoofer.
A subwoofer is generally not a stand-alone component. Since a sub is typically used to produce frequencies from 20Hz to 200Hz, other speakers have to handle the rest of the audio spectrum (200Hz to 20kHz). It is best to add a subwoofer to a sound bar, floor standing speakers or a full surround sound setup. In full surround sound systems such as a 5.1 channel system, the .1 typically refers to the subwoofer.
Many speaker systems can instantly be upgraded with a new subwoofer. Larger rooms benefit greatly from two subwoofers instead of one. When you add a sub to an existing system, it is always a good idea to calibrate the system. There are many programs and calibration discs you can use to achieve optimal performance. For more information, check out our articles on home subwoofers.
Setting Up Your Subwoofer
Once you get your subwoofer home, you'll want to set it up for optimal sound quality. Most people prefer to place the subwoofer near their TV or just to the right or left of their speakers, but there aren't your only options. In fact, you'll want to experiment with the placement of your subwoofer to find the best spot for even sound dispersion. Numerous variables will affect the sound, including the size of the room and whether the floor is carpet or hardwood. Proper placement can make a significant difference to audio performance.
All of the speakers that we reviewed have adjustable crossovers. A crossover is the frequency at which the subwoofer sends the audio signal to another speaker. You'll also want to experiment with your subwoofer's crossover adjustment to find the ideal crossover point for your subwoofer and your speaker system. A good starting point is generally around 100Hz, but this could vary depending on your system and subwoofer.
Powered vs. Passive Subwoofers
There are two main types of subwoofers – powered and passive subwoofers. For our review, we looked at only powered subwoofers. It's important to know that one does not sound better than the other, but there are certain advantages and disadvantages to owning each type.
Powered subwoofers have an amplifier built right into the enclosure. Essentially, the speaker contains its own power source. Since there are more components built inside of the subwoofer, powered subwoofers are generally larger and heavier than passive subs. One of the main advantages to owning a powered subwoofer is the easy setup. Most of these speakers require a single cable to run from your home subwoofer to the receiver, sound bar or other device.
Passive subwoofers do not have their own power supply built into the enclosure. An additional power source such as an amplifier or AV receiver is required. It takes more speaker know-how to set up a passive sub. Generally, you'll have to run more wires from the power source to the speaker than you would with a powered subwoofer.
You might be wondering why anyone would use a passive subwoofer instead of a powered one. Cost and space are usually the reasons for going with a passive sub. They cost less than powered speakers and are usually smaller, so they are better suited for smaller rooms. A powered subwoofer can overpower a small room with too much bass.
Quick Sound Glossary
We use these terms throughout the reviews to describe the sound qualities of the subwoofers.
Punchy: A term used to describe the attack or impact of the bass. You want your subwoofer to have punch because it gives the bass definition and tone.
Tight: The bass is well packaged with good tonal qualities. The attack is quick and decisive.
Flabby: Opposite of tight. Bass tones lack definition and punch. Think of it as cooked spaghetti without a bowl or plate. Without the bowl or plate, it's just a mess of spaghetti.
Boomy: Bass is overemphasized. Comparable to flabby. Lacks definition, but still provides impact.
Natural: The audio sounds real and unaffected to the ears. Natural and punchy are two of the best tonal qualities a speaker can have.
Home Subwoofers: What We Tested, What We Found
We only tested powered subwoofers for this review. We used two tests to determine the best home subwoofers in our lineup – frequency analysis and a blind listening test. The results from these tests helped us compare the best home subwoofers.
First, we used a test tone generator and a sound decibel meter to make sure all of the subwoofers were set at the same volume. Then, we hooked each subwoofer up to an AV receiver along with a Klipsch Quintet speaker system. We played a scene from the movie "Inception" and had our panel of listeners fill out a questionnaire to help score the specific attributes of the subwoofer's bass performance. The scores from the questionnaire were compiled and curved to grade the performance of each sub. Each speaker's audio power, presence, tonality and quality were evaluated during our testing.
We used a sound decibel meter and tone generator to determine that all the subwoofers were being recorded at the same volume. We used the same microphone and microphone placement to record each subwoofer. Using a tone generator, we played a sine wave from 20Hz to 200Hz and used a frequency analyzer in our recording software to determine the subwoofer's tonal accuracy. A flat (natural) sine wave is displayed on a grid as a straight line from 20Hz to 200Hz, so we compared the reproduced sine waves to the flat sine wave from the original. The most accurate home subwoofers created a frequency response line that was similar to the digital sine wave. This displays the speaker's ability to accurately reproduce low-frequency tones.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained all of the units in our comparison in house, some by loans from the manufacturer and some by purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Other Things to Consider
You want to make sure you get the best home subwoofer for your home theater environment. You shouldn't buy a subwoofer that is too powerful or underwhelming. Driver size and amplifier power are things you should consider when looking into purchasing a home theater subwoofer.
We reviewed subwoofers with drivers that are 8, 10 and 12 inches in diameter. Typically, larger drivers provide more bass because of the amount of surface area and the amount of air that moves within the enclosure.
The RMS power rating is the amount of power the speaker can handle without risk of damage. This is also a good indicator to how loud and powerful the subwoofer is. Peak power is not a good indicator because there isn't a standard way for companies to measure peak power, so many of the ratings are inflated. If you are putting a 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.
Speaker-Level Inputs and Outputs
Adding a subwoofer to an older receiver can be tricky. Many older, two-channel receivers do not have a dedicated subwoofer input. A subwoofer with speaker-level inputs helps you connect to an existing system without having to replace the receiver as well. These inputs can be used to connect the sub through the two main channels on the receiver. The speaker-level outputs can then be used to run your two main speakers through the back of the subwoofer. This is only an important feature if your system lacks a subwoofer input.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
The BIC Acoustic PL-200 is our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner. This 12-inch subwoofer impressed our panel with impactful, powerful and quality bass tones. This speaker gets plenty loud, offering 250 watts of RMS power and the ability to handle up to 1,000 watts of peak power. Its wide frequency response dips all the way down to sub 25Hz that rattles your feet. This home subwoofer also has speaker-level inputs and outputs in case you have an older receiver at home. One of the only downsides to this subwoofer is the glossy piano-black finish, which is a dust and fingerprint magnet, but it looks great when it's clean. This subwoofer provides great power, tone and connectivity, making it our top choice.
The BIC America Formula F-12 is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner. This subwoofer received almost identical scores in both our frequency analysis and listening tests as our Gold Award winner. It also features speaker-level inputs and outputs like the BIC Acoustic PL-200, but it is less powerful and more expensive. This sub is smaller and weighs less than the PL-200 and doesn’t have a glossy finish. If you want a slightly smaller sub than the PL-200, but with comparable quality, this is a great choice.
The JBL ES250P is our Bronze Award winner. This subwoofer is more powerful than the Formula F-12 and scored better in our testing, but it doesn't feature speaker-level inputs and outputs to connect to older receivers. It also has a less dynamic frequency response than the Gold and Silver Award winners. Overall, this is a great choice if you are looking to upgrade your speaker system without spending a ton of money.
If you are looking to upgrade your system with a new subwoofer, but you are strapped for cash, the Monoprice subwoofer is worth looking into. It costs just over $100 and is the least expensive subwoofer in our lineup. It connects to your receiver via RCA inputs and features speaker-level inputs for upgrading an old system. This isn't a top performer in our lineup, but it's worth consideration especially if you don't want to spend a lot of money.