If anyone asked me what’s the best affordable way to add bass to a small stereo, home theater, or computer sound system, I’d tell them to buy a Monoprice 9723 subwoofer. The 9723 emerged as the clear favorite after 20 hours of testing by our Southern California panel of audio experts, including extensive blind comparisons with 12 other subwoofers less than $300. Priced just a little over $100 plus shipping at the time of writing, the Monoprice 9723 is also an incredible bargain. It delivers powerful, well-defined bass notes that can shake your couch a little and help make movies and music sound more satisfying and realistic. Put on a Kanye West recording and you’ll feel much of that colossal thump you’d get with a high-end, custom-installed sound system. Put on a Diana Krall CD and you’ll clearly hear the subtle growl and groove of her band’s big double bass.
The 9723 has a 12-inch woofer, an amp rated at 150 watts of continuous power, and a price lower than many less capable 8-inch subwoofers. Curved sides and conical feet make it look relatively nice for a subwoofer, although at 17 by 17.25 by 17.5 inches, it might be a little too big for some spaces. It’s also easy to connect to most audio systems. You can connect it between your amp and your speakers, between your computer and your powered computer speakers, or to the subwoofer output of a home theater system. Simply put, it can make an ordinary set of small speakers sound like a set of big speakers, which makes the 9723 perhaps the wisest investment if you’re looking to upgrade the sound of a small audio system.
The BIC America V1020 is pricier than the Monoprice 9723, but it offers much of the Monoprice’s performance in a somewhat more compact package of 16 by 15 by 13 inches. Despite its smaller size, it still produces a nice sense of shake and impact when you play action movies, hip-hop or rock—just not as much shake as the Monoprice 9723. It also has a tight, punchy sound that makes it suitable for pop, jazz, and classical music. While it has nicer stereo connectors than our top pick, it has only a mono line input, so it may be a little difficult to use with typical computer audio systems.
The Dayton Audio SUB-1000L is built for people who would like to get more bass from their system but don’t have space for a subwoofer. It’s only 6 inches thick, slim enough to slip behind many couches and chairs and even under some couches. It can also be attached directly to a wall using an included mounting system. Yet with a beefy 10-inch woofer and a 100-watt amp, it has enough power to work well in a modest home theater system, or in a stereo system with bookshelf speakers.
I wrote my first review of a subwoofer in 1991; since then, I have, to the best of my knowledge, reviewed more home audio subwoofers than anyone in the world. I did so for magazines including Sound & Vision and Home Theater and websites such as Home Theater Review and About.com Stereos. I’ve been the most active and outspoken advocate of the CEA-2010 subwoofer measurement standard and wrote an online manual for it. In my work for the above publications, I have conducted at least seven multiple-listener subwoofer comparison tests, so I have not only my own impressions to guide me, but also the impressions of other listeners, too. This page on my website provides a more extensive list of my audio credentials.
I’ve played bass-register instruments (including electric bass, Chapman Stick, electric upright bass, and fretless bass ukulele) since the early 1980s. I play occasional gigs and attend workshops and weekly jam sessions, and I have heard many drummers and other bass players at close range, so I have a solid familiarity with what bass is supposed to sound like in music.
I had help on this test from two other listeners; both have participated in numerous audio tests I’ve conducted for The Wirecutter and Sound & Vision, and they have also conducted many audio comparison tests of their own. One is Geoff Morrison, who has written for Forbes, CNET, and Sound & Vision and who is A/V editor here at The Wirecutter; he has nearly 16 years of experience in the audio industry and has done his own experiments in trying to build the ultimate subwoofer. The other is Lauren Dragan, our headphone editor and a regular contributor to Sound & Vision. She holds a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College, has spent several years in terrestrial radio, and currently works as a professional voice actor in Los Angeles.
A subwoofer is a speaker specifically designed to reproduce bass (the deep sounds like the low notes on a pipe organ). You add it to an existing set of (usually small) speakers to give your system more bass and, potentially, a higher maximum volume. A sub can be of the same brand as your main speakers or a different brand; except in a few specialized, high-end systems, there’s no technical advantage to buying a sub of the same brand.
Adding bass to a small audio system is generally a good thing. The bass is where much of the rhythm of music resides. It’s where you get the deep vibrations of the bass guitar or double bass and the whomp of a kick drum. It’s what makes you tap your feet or bob your head when music is playing. Adding bass also tends to create an illusion of greater spaciousness—i.e., music will seem more like it’s being played in a large hall than in a bedroom or a home office. Most home theater enthusiasts consider a subwoofer to be an absolute must, especially for watching action movies, which are full of explosions and crashes that are too loud and too low in pitch for most regular speakers to play clearly.
Subwoofers do have a bad reputation with some people—especially many older, traditional audiophiles—because if a subwoofer is not correctly adjusted, it may make a boomy, annoying sound, something we’ve all heard when being passed by a car with a loud but poorly tuned audio system. But a correctly connected and adjusted subwoofer is nothing but a plus. It just blends in and makes it seem like you have larger speakers.
For this article, we decided to limit the maximum price to $300. We figured that was the most a casual listener would want to pay to add bass to a small stereo or home theater system. Also, we noticed that even though there are many subs priced less than $300, almost no one reviews them; audio websites tend to focus on models costing $500 and up, as those are the ones audio enthusiasts tend to buy.
With few reviews to go by and little personal experience with inexpensive subs, we knew the only way to find the best under-$300 subwoofer was to call in as many as we could get and do a blind listening test—along with taking some lab measurements that I’ll discuss shortly.
We started by scouring Amazon, Crutchfield, Monoprice, Parts Express, and other sites that sell inexpensive subwoofers to make a spreadsheet of all the models we could find. However, this proved confusing, because some manufacturers and websites listed models that went back as far as about 10 years. That’s okay, because subwoofer technology doesn’t change as fast as, say, TV technology. Still, we didn’t want to bother with anything that might have been discontinued, so I contacted all of the companies that offer under-$300 subs to find out what models are still current and which they might have available for testing.
Some of these subwoofers were from brands I’d never heard of, and, in some cases, the companies did not respond to repeated requests for review samples. I ended up with 11 models, priced from about $100 to $250, with woofers ranging from 8 inches to 15 inches; all can be seen in the above photo. Though it wasn’t as comprehensive a test as I’d like, given the performance we heard from our top picks, I doubt any of the subwoofers we missed would have beat them. For the most recent update, we evaluated two more models: the BIC America F12 and the Dayton Audio SUB-1000L.
I started with a roughly 10-hour listening session in which I auditioned all of the subwoofers in the same acoustically treated listening room I’ve used to test more than 100 other subwoofers over the past 14 years. I have run countless tests and measurements in this room, had many manufacturers set up their subwoofers in it, and, at one point, even had a scientist from Harman International come over to run tests in my room using as many as four separate subwoofers. I know this room’s characteristics (and how they affect speaker performance) extremely well.
Each of the subwoofers went into my room’s “subwoofer sweet spot,” the place where I’ve found most subs sound their best from my favorite listening chair. I connected the subwoofers to my Denon AVR-2809ci home theater receiver and used a surround-sound system made up of Sunfire CRM-2, CRM-2C, and CRM-BIP speakers. I used a crossover point of 100 hertz, what you might use with a small set of speakers; this also gave us a little more bass from the subs and a little less from the speakers, making the test tougher on the subs.
To make sure the subwoofer volume levels were set correctly, I first used the Denon receiver’s built-in test tone and a RadioShack sound-pressure level meter to get the setting close. Then I used TrueRTA spectrum analyzer software, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB interface, and a calibrated Earthworks M30 measurement microphone to check the level of the subwoofers relative to the level of the sound coming from the speaker using TrueRTA’s built-in pink noise generator.
For my listening, I used several of the toughest bass test tracks I know of, including Holly Cole’s “Train Song,” Olive’s “Falling,” and the recording of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3 (Organ)” from the Boston Audio Society Test CD-1, which has notes that drop down to 16 Hz. (How deep is that? It’s the lowest note a standard electric bass could play if its scale length was 7 feet.) I also used bass-heavy action-movie soundtracks via Blu-ray, including U-571 and San Andreas.
After my listening session, I deleted three subwoofers from the test because it was clear they were underperformers. Then I brought Geoff and Lauren in for different testing sessions. For them, the test was blind. I hung a thin black drape to prevent them from seeing which sub was playing and didn’t share the subwoofers’ identities until they’d given me their opinion and ranking of each sub. They used music of their own choosing, and each of them also watched a bass-heavy action movie scene (the opening of Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones or the brontosaurus chase scene from King Kong).
I concluded by running a set of measurements on each subwoofer to confirm our findings. We typically don’t rely on audio measurements at The Wirecutter because they so often fail to tell the whole story of why one product is better or worse than another, but I have found that the CEA-2010 measurement standard does provide an accurate and easy-to-understand baseline assessment of a subwoofer’s performance.
In its simplest form, CEA-2010 presents just two numbers, one for a subwoofer’s average maximum output in decibels in the middle of the bass range (63, 50, and 40 Hz) and another for the average output in the lowest bass range (31.5, 25, and 20 Hz). I also ran the measurement at 80 Hz. (These measurements represent the output on the ground at a distance of 1 meter.) The higher the number, the louder the subwoofer will play, and the clearer it will sound even if it’s not cranked to the max.
I’ll include the CEA-2010 results for our top picks. The rest can be seen in the chart below. Click here to see an embedded chart that includes all the data points.
Usually, after finishing our tests we have lengthy discussions about which products we should choose as our top picks, but not this time. For Geoff and me, the Monoprice 9723 subwoofer was not only the best value of the bunch; he and I both picked it as our favorite among all of the subs regardless of price. Lauren ranked the 9723 second to the Dayton Audio SUB-1500, but when I told her the price difference and placed the two subs side-by-side so she could see their relative sizes, she said without hesitation that the 9723 should be the top pick—and that was before I told her how Geoff and I had ranked the subs.
Unlike some of the smaller subwoofers we tested, the 9723 sounds like a “real” subwoofer. Its addition to a stereo system is not subtle; it adds a lot more bass, enough to shake my listening chair when playing the deep bass line on Olive’s “Falling” or the explosions of depth charges in U-571. It even reproduced some of the ultra-deep pipe organ tones from the Saint-Saëns symphony, something most of the other subs we tried couldn’t do at all. It gave my system a nice full, satisfying bottom end without sounding boomy or annoying. “By far the best,” Geoff said, describing the sound much as I did.
The CEA-2010 results for the 9723 were impressive. In the mid bass, from 40 to 63 Hz, it scored 115.9 dB compared with the 114.9 dB for the Dayton Audio SUB-1500, 114.0 dB for the BIC V1020, and 108.8 dB for the Dayton Audio SUB-1000L. In the deep bass, from 20 to 31.5 Hz, it scored 99.3 dB compared with 102.7 dB for the Dayton SUB-1500, 96.5 dB for the BIC and 97.0 dB for the Dayton SUB-1000L. Though it’s a bit of a toss-up between the 9723 and the SUB-1500; remember that the 9723 is much smaller and less expensive.
To put these numbers into perspective, one of the better mid-priced subs I’ve tested, the $640 Outlaw Audio Ultra-X12, scored 120.7 and 113.7 dB. What this means to you is that the Monoprice 9723 has enough deep bass output to get your chair shaking, but probably not enough to get the floor shaking the way the Outlaw Ultra-X12 can.
The 9723 is one of the few subwoofers we tested that includes inputs and outputs for speaker connections and line-level connections. This isn’t a real big deal, because in this case it doesn’t make any electrical difference whether you connect the cables separately, or just force both sets of cables into the same connectors (as you have to with, for example, the Pioneer SW-8MK2). But it is more convenient.
For a subwoofer, the 9723 even looks sort of nice, with curved sides and a detachable fabric grille covering the woofer. At 17 by 17.25 by 17.5 inches, it’s not small, but it’s also not so huge that it’s hard to fit into an ordinary living room.
As powerful as the 9723 is for its price, it does have its limits. “It feels a little reined in compared with subwoofer #7 [the Dayton SUB-1500],” Lauren said when playing Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown,” and that characteristic (probably the subwoofer’s internal maximum volume limiter kicking in] made the 9723 sound somewhat artificial to her. I felt it didn’t have quite as much punch and pitch definition as the best of the smaller subs, but that’s a complaint I make in many of my reviews of large subwoofers.
The 9723 may be too large to fit into smaller spaces such as home offices and bedrooms. The speaker cable connections on it are flimsy; one of the plastic clips popped out when I was testing it, but I was able to get it back into place.
Monoprice doesn’t offer free shipping. I checked to see what the shipping would be to Texas (Monoprice is based in California), and it was $34.80, so figure a total cost of about $145 plus or minus a few bucks, bringing its price more into line with our other picks.
Since we first posted this article, we have learned of complaints about the 9723 in this thread on the Slickdeals site. Some users have reported receiving scuffed or damaged units, and some have complained that the subwoofer produces inadequate volume or excessive hum. To investigate these issues, we purchased an additional sample of the 9723, using a friend’s credit card and shipping address so that Monoprice wouldn’t know that the subwoofer was going to us. The purchased sample arrived in new condition, and its measured performance closely matched that of the review sample. You can read more about this test in this blog post.
We expect that most, if not all, of the user complaints about hum and volume are due to setup issues, so we have expanded our How to connect a subwoofer and How to adjust a subwoofer sections to address these concerns.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any reviews of the 9723, and saw only a few sporadic comments on some Web forums. Steve Guttenberg at CNET has praised similar Monoprice subs, but hasn’t specifically reviewed the 9723. In 186 reviews on Monoprice’s site, the 9723 averages 4.5 stars out of five.
With subwoofers, spending more really does tend to get you more performance. That is because while skillful design and tuning helps, getting more performance from a subwoofer mostly requires some combination of a larger and/or beefier woofer, a more powerful amplifier, and a larger and stiffer enclosure. All of these improvements add cost. However, most people rarely listen at high levels, and most music and movies don’t contain enough super-deep bass tones to demand capabilities beyond those of the best of the under-$300 subs we tested.
In my experience, buying a more expensive subwoofer such as the Rogersound Labs SW10S or the SVS SB-1000 gets you more clarity and a little more punch and volume than you’ll hear from an under-$300 subwoofer. At low volume, you probably wouldn’t hear the difference, but at higher volume it would be noticeable. Stepping up to a monster subwoofer like the $900 Hsu Research VTF-15H Mk2 or the $1,900 Power Sound Audio S3600i will get you bass that’s so clear and deep and so powerful that it can be literally frightening when you listen to action movies.
Another option to consider is instead of buying a more expensive model, buying more than one of these lower-priced models. Research done by Harman International (parent company of Harman Kardon, Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, and numerous other audio brands) has shown that using two subs (usually placed in different corners of the room) delivers more even and natural bass response than one sub. Using four subs (one in each corner) delivers even smoother response. I did some blind listening tests with custom-built subwoofers to find out if spending the same amount of money on one, two, or four subs is best. We found the best solution for most people is two subs, as long as both of them have decent deep-bass performance. Based on my testing experience, it makes a lot of sense to buy a pair of a larger, more capable sub like the Monoprice 9723, but it doesn’t make much sense to double up on smaller subs like the Pioneer SW-8MK2. In that case, you’re better off investing in a larger subwoofer.
Note, though, that when you go with two subs, you’re mostly getting smoother and more consistent response throughout your room. You’re not, however, getting that much more output, as I discovered when researching a recent article for Home Theater Review.
Our tests found a subwoofer that splits the difference between the Monoprice 9723 and the Pioneer SW-8MK2 (our original compact pick, which we praised for its precise, musical sound), with much of the Monoprice’s muscle and some of the Pioneer’s appealing precision: the BIC America V1020. At 16.5 by 15 by 13 inches, it’s also sized between the Monoprice and Pioneer models. It’s priced similarly to our other picks: a bit more expensive than the Monoprice and generally available for about the same price as the Pioneer.
Geoff and I both considered the V1020 a fairly close second to the Monoprice 9723. Its 10-inch woofer sounds obviously more muscular than the Pioneer SW-8MK2’s 8-incher, and more powerful even than the Dayton Audio SUB-1000L’s 10-incher. Unlike the Pioneer, the BIC can shake your chair when the depth charges go off in U-571, or as Geoff put it, “Unlike with the small ones, a kick drum really sounds like a kick drum with this one.” Lauren thought it struck a good balance between small and large, saying, “It’s more solid than the smaller models, although it starts to fall apart on the brontosaurus stampede from King Kong.”
The CEA-2010 output measurements for the BIC predictably put it right in the middle of our other top picks. In the mid bass (40 to 63 Hz), it scored 114.0 dB compared with 115.9 for the Monoprice and 108.8 dB for the Dayton Audio SUB-1000L. In the deep bass (20 to 31.5 Hz), the BIC hit 96.5 dB versus 99.3 dB for the Monoprice and 97.0 dB for the Dayton Audio model..
The V1020 has much nicer speaker cable connectors than the Monoprice and Dayton Audio models—real threaded binding posts rather than flimsy spring clips. However, it has just one monophonic (i.e., not stereo) line-level input jack, which will make it more difficult to use with a computer and powered speakers.
In 159 customer reviews on Amazon, the V1020 has earned an average rating of 4.5 out of five stars. I couldn’t find any professional reviews of it. Incidentally, the V1020 is one of several BIC models I found for sale, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get more of them to test because the company didn’t respond to my queries.
Most subwoofers are blah-looking black boxes that take up a pretty good amount of space and detract from the decor of a room. The Dayton Audio SUB-1000L, on the other hand, is only 6 inches thick, so it can probably hide behind a chair or a sofa, or maybe even under the sofa, and thus could go unnoticed (or at least less noticed). You can place it horizontally or vertically, and it even includes brackets that let you attach it directly to a wall. It’s because of this well-thought-out design that we decided to substitute it for our previous compact pick, the Pioneer SW-8MK2.
The SUB-1000L could also have replaced the Pioneer purely on the basis of performance. When we played action movies through both, the SUB-1000L had noticeable extra power on the deepest bass notes, which gave a little extra excitement that the Pioneer couldn’t muster. It also sounded a little more satisfying with hip-hop and dance music, yet it had much of that precise, melodic quality in the higher bass notes that we liked so much in the Pioneer. It can’t match the punch, power and clarity of the Monoprice 9723 or the BIC America V1020, but its combination of room-friendly design, sound quality, and price is available in no other sub we’ve tested.
Like the Monoprice 9723, the SUB-1000L has speaker-level inputs and outputs, which makes incorporating it into an existing stereo system a little easier. It also has stereo line-level inputs.
The SUB-1000L’s CEA-2010 output measurements can’t compare to the Monoprice 9723’s numbers, but they’re respectable for an inexpensive sub, especially one so slim. In the mid bass (40 to 63 Hz), it maxes out at 108.8 dB compared with 115.9 dB for the Monoprice and 114.0 dB for the BIC V1020. In the deep bass (20 to 31.5 Hz), the SUB-1000L hits an impressive 97.0 dB compared with 99.3 dB for the Monoprice and 96.5 dB for the BIC.
Compared with the Pioneer SW-8MK2 that the SUB-1000L replaces in our picks, the SUB-1000L’s max output is 2 dB lower between 40 and 63 Hz, and 2.8 dB higher between 20 and 31.5 Hz. So it has slightly less mid bass, but slightly more deep bass.
It’s important to note that the SUB-1000L is conservatively tuned; its internal limiter doesn’t allow you to push the sub to its limits and keeps distortion unusually low at all frequencies except 20 Hz. Most of the subs I’ve tested that have similarly low distortion cost more than $1,000. Because Dayton Audio kept the distortion low, the SUB-1000L won’t give you that “punch in the chest” feeling when there’s an explosion in an action movie, but it does have enough muscle to shake your couch a little when the Hoover Dam collapses in San Andreas.
We couldn’t find any professional reviews of the SUB-1000L, but it ranks pretty well so far in user reviews: 4.6 out of five stars in 14 reviews on the Parts Express website, and five out of five stars in just three reviews on Amazon.
Acoustic Audio and Theater Solutions’s US importer, Goldwood Sound, did not respond to multiple requests for review samples of its affordable subwoofers, and does not list a phone number for customer inquiries.
We received a test sample of the BIC America F12, but it was defective. It’s apparent from the many good Amazon user reviews of this model that most F12s work fine, but we like to be enthusiastic and unhesitating in our top picks, and it’s hard to do that when the review sample doesn’t work.
We hoped the BIC America V1220 might be a nice step up from our alternative pick, the BIC America V1020. However, in our listening tests we found the V1220 had impressive power in the deepest notes but lacked mid-bass punch and didn’t blend as smoothly as the V1020 did with the speakers we used.
We contacted Blue Octave Home asking for samples of its numerous affordable subwoofers, but the company refused, saying it’s “not looking for reviews of our subwoofers.”
At just under $200 (at the time of writing) for a nicely made 15-inch subwoofer, the Dayton Audio SUB-1500 is a great bargain and was Lauren’s top pick for sound quality. In my measurements, it had slightly more output than the Monoprice 9723, but Geoff and I both preferred the 9723’s sound, and Lauren thought the SUB-1500 wasn’t worth the increase in price and size.
We were eager to get the MartinLogan Dynamo 300 in because of our past experience with MartinLogan speakers (most of which are quite pricey), and because it has an average 4.7-star rating in 286 Amazon reviews, but the manufacturer told me they’re “not interested in promoting that product,” which leads me to guess the Dynamo 300 is near the end of its life cycle.
Lauren actually liked the sound of the Monoprice 14567 better than that of the Pioneer SW-8MK2, but Geoff and I preferred the Pioneer, and the far superior (although larger) Monoprice 9723 costs $20 less.
The Monoprice 605999 is an interesting subwoofer marketed primarily for use in recording studios, but it’s easy to use in a typical home theater or stereo system with the use of a couple of ¼-inch–to–RCA adapters. It offers pro-style balanced XLR and ¼-inch inputs and outputs. Although it offers a lot, it didn’t have the kick of the similarly sized, less expensive BIC V1020.
The rather large Onkyo SKW204 has lots of output and can play very deep for its price, but all three of our panelists thought it sounded boomy, and it distorted badly on the extremely low notes of the Saint-Saëns symphony.
The Pioneer SW-8MK2 is our former pick for a compact model, and it still deserves recommendation for its musical sound and the fact that it can easily be blended with most speakers. However, we think the Dayton Audio SUB-1000L’s more friendly form factor and better deep-bass performance will make it a more appealing pick for most people.
In our tests, the Polk PSW110 didn’t have much punch or power for its size; the smaller, less-expensive Polk PSW111 is more impressive.
Geoff and I both liked the Polk PSW111 just about as much as we liked the Pioneer SW-8MK2, but the PSW111’s price is substantially higher. However, the PSW111 is slightly more compact and much nicer looking, with radiused corners and an attractive black matte finish. So if you want a small sub and your significant other balks at the rather tacky look of the Pioneer, the PSW111 would be a good buy.
At 6.4 by 6.4 by 7.9 inches, the PSB SubSeries 100 is one of the tiniest subs you can buy, and it performs admirably for what it is, as I found when I reviewed it for About.com Stereos. But unless you just really, really need a super-tiny subwoofer, the SubSeries 100 can’t touch the price/performance ratios of our top picks.
The Yamaha YST-SW012 is appealingly compact and affordable but has no crossover control, so it’s suitable for use only with a home theater receiver. Worse, though, it distorted badly on deep-bass notes.
We liked the front control panel on the Yamaha YST-SW215, a rare feature for any subwoofer, especially one priced around $200. But it distorted on many deep bass notes and didn’t deliver much impact or rumble for action movies.
If you are using your subwoofer with a home theater receiver, the connection is simple: Just run an audio interconnect cable like this one from the receiver’s subwoofer output to the subwoofer’s line input.
If you are using your subwoofer with a small stereo system, you can connect the subwoofer using extra speaker cables (provided the subwoofer has speaker-level connections). You hook up the subwoofer like an extra set of speakers, using the same connections on your amplifier and running the cables to the subwoofer’s speaker cable inputs. We can’t go into all the various ways to do this here, but the subwoofer’s manual will likely include diagrams that show the connections clearly.
If you are using your subwoofer with a computer speaker system, get a Y-adapter like this one. Plug the Y-adapter into your computer’s audio output, then connect one leg of the Y-adapter to your computer speakers using a 3.5-mm cable like this one (most computer speakers include this cable), and connect the other leg of the Y-adapter to the subwoofer’s line inputs using a 3.5-mm–to–RCA cable like this one.
Hum problems are common with subwoofers because users often plug the subwoofer into a different AC outlet than the rest of the audio/video system; if the two outlets are on different circuit breakers, a “ground loop” can result, which produces a 60 Hz hum.
To fix a hum problem, first check the audio connection between the subwoofer and the receiver. A damaged or partially disconnected cable can produce hum. If the cable is in good condition and the connections are solid, and if your subwoofer has a detachable AC cord that you can flip in its socket on the sub, try flipping the connector. If your sub’s AC cord is permanently attached or not designed to be flipped, try plugging the subwoofer into a power strip shared by the rest of the audio/video system. If this trick eliminates the hum but keeping it connected this way permanently isn’t practical for you, try using an isolation transformer on the cable going from the receiver to the subwoofer.
Deep bass sounds are difficult or impossible for the human ear to localize. In other words, you can’t tell where they’re coming from. This means you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to where to put your subwoofer. You can put it in a corner, under a desk or end table, or near your other speakers. The only wrench in the works is that the subwoofer will sound different depending on where you place it. Put it in the corner and it’ll sound boomy. Put it somewhere else and some bass notes will be boosted while others will be somewhat muted.
If you want the best sound from your subwoofer, there’s a time-honored technique you can use to find the optimum place for it. Put the subwoofer in the chair you most often sit in when you listen (no, really), and play a tune with a melodic bass line, like Steely Dan’s “Aja.” Now crawl around the room with your head near the floor (yep, we’re still serious) and find the place where the bass line sounds the most even. That’s the spot where you want to place the subwoofer.
If sound isn’t so important but appearance is, just put the subwoofer wherever it’s convenient. It should still sound pretty good, regardless of location, if it’s adjusted correctly.
Inexpensive subwoofers like these usually have just two knobs you need to adjust: volume and crossover frequency.
The crossover frequency determines the highest notes the subwoofer will play. Set the frequency too high and it’ll make Ariana Grande sound like Vin Diesel. Set it too low and there’ll be a sonic “hole” between the subwoofer and the speakers, and everything will sound thin and weird.
The idea is to get the subwoofer to pick up where the speakers leave off. You can probably find the lowest frequency the speakers are rated to play in the spec sheet on the manufacturer’s website. For example, the spec sheet for the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40, which we tested for our Best Computer Speakers guide, shows the speaker as having a rated frequency response of 85 Hz to 20 kHz. In this case, you should set the subwoofer’s crossover frequency at 85 Hz. Be forewarned, though—some manufacturers get a little optimistic with these specs. For example, the spec sheet for the much smaller Audioengine A2+, another of our picks in that guide, rates its response down to 65 Hz, considerably lower than the AV 40; our experience with the A2+ suggests the rating is inaccurate. Your best bet is to set the subwoofer crossover frequency to match the rating of the speakers, then turn the frequency higher if you hear a “hole” between the subwoofer and the speakers—for example, if Vin Diesel’s voice sounds thin and wimpy.
Note that if you use your subwoofer with a home theater receiver, you should set the subwoofer’s crossover frequency control to the maximum and use the receiver’s subwoofer crossover settings.
Now you need to set the level (or volume) of the subwoofer relative to the other speakers. If you’re using a home theater receiver, it has a built-in test tone that will help you set the subwoofer’s level. In this case, you’re usually best off leaving the subwoofer’s volume control about halfway up and adjusting the volume of the subwoofer using the receiver’s controls. If setting the sub’s volume halfway up doesn’t give you enough volume, try turning it up about three-quarters of the way (3 o’clock) and then fine-tuning the level with the receiver’s subwoofer level control. If you have to turn up the level on the subwoofer past halfway, don’t worry about it. Practically all powered subwoofers have an internal limiter that will protect the driver and amplifier. Unless you’re hearing gross amounts of distortion, there’s no problem.
If you’re using the subwoofer in a stereo or computer system, just set the subwoofer volume so it sounds the best from the chair you usually sit in to listen. The sound should be neither boomy nor thin. You can also change the subwoofer volume to suit whatever music or movies you’re listening to. No rules here.
Most subwoofers also have a phase switch or knob. Simply put, this adjusts the timing of the bass slightly so that the subwoofer is more in sync with the main speakers. In some cases, this can help the subwoofer blend better with the main speakers, but the setting of this control usually isn’t critical. Try different settings and see what sounds best to you; if you don’t hear a difference, don’t sweat it.
Sealed vs. ported subwoofers: The two most common types of subwoofers are sealed-box and ported (or bass reflex) designs. Some enthusiasts strongly favor one over the other, but most companies make both types, and both can deliver excellent results if skillfully and carefully designed. All of our top picks here are ported, because ported designs deliver the most deep-bass output for a certain size and cost; a sealed sub at these kinds of prices would be unlikely to deliver satisfactory deep-bass performance.
Front-firing vs. bottom-firing: Some subwoofers have a woofer that fires directly toward you. Others have a woofer that fires down toward the floor. While the two might sound slightly different for acoustical reasons, neither has an inherent advantage over the other or a particular character of sound that can be attributed to it. Most subwoofer manufacturers offer both types. I investigated the topic in-depth in this article.
If you want to add some bass to your system and demand the maximum bang for the buck, get the Monoprice 9723. If you want something that’s easier to hide in a room, get the Dayton Audio SUB-1000L. If either of those picks sells out, or if you just want something that splits the difference between the two, get the BIC America V1020.
(Photos by Brent Butterworth.)