Updated: March 20, 2016

The Home Theater Subwoofer Guide
Passive and Powered Subwoofers

Here is all you need to know about subwoofers and
what to look for when making a purchase

Bass is what makes sound feels 'fuller' and more lifelike, and gives special effects during a movie, that extra punch for a more realistic experience. It also helps enrich music listening irrespective of the music genre.

It is here that subwoofers come into play. It is the subwoofer that allows you to get a deep bass from your sound system, one that no other home theater speaker except for the full-size tower speaker, can really achieve.

Subwoofers play only low frequencies, typically only up to about 100Hz. But unlike the rest of the speakers in your home theater setup, they do so in a way that makes you 'feel' rather than just hear the sound.

No movie watching or music listening experience is complete without that deep sense of bass that shakes you up. But before moving on to your subwoofer purchase, there are a few things worth knowing about...

Polk Audio DSW Pro 550WI - 200W cont. 10-inch Powered Subwoofer with Wireless Connectivity

Polk Audio DSW PRO 500 and 550WI
Powered Subwoofers

These 10-Inch 200W cont. powered subwoofers are capable of almost the same bass performance — delivering accurate deep bass — of a 12-inch subwoofer, yet  they are significantly cheaper than a 12-inch model.

The DSW PRO 500 comes with a number of interesting features, including Polk Room Optimizer which makes it possible to choose the subwoofer response depending on your subwoofer placement in the room. It also comes with multiple hook up options and adjustable rubber/spike feet.

The Polk Audio DSW PRO500 used in front-firing mode

This subwoofer can be used in a down-firing or front-firing configuration.

Apart from giving you further placement options like using it in front-firing when placed in a cabinet, each of these options carry its own benefits. Front-firing yields more accurate bass while down-firing lets you better feel the shake from the bass.

The only thing missing is wireless connectivity; if you are after the convenience of a wireless subwoofer, Polk has a wireless version of the DSW PRO500, the Polk Audio DSW PRO 550WI; this is capable of the same bass performance as the PRO500 and is selling on amazon at just $50 more than the non-wireless model.

Home Theater Subwoofer Basics

There is no doubt that subwoofers are becoming more crucial to the demanding home theater enthusiast looking for the best home entertainment experience.

As stated in our introduction, it is unlikely that your home theater speakers will be able to deliver the desired level of bass on their own to create a sufficient low frequency impact during movie watching and music listening. Only full-size floor standing tower speakers are able to deliver solid bass performance. It is here that home theater subwoofers come into play; these can make a real big difference to your overall entertainment experience in the home.

These come in to two basic types passive subwoofers and powered subwoofers.

Home Theater Subwoofers: First things first: What qualifies as a subwoofer?

The subject of subwoofers is a rather complex topic in that these can range from simple small 8-inch passive units to complex powered (active) subwoofer designs with drivers reaching up to 18 inches.

Speakers smaller than 8-inch diameter do not qualify as subwoofers since these generally do not support the desired very low frequency response; for this reason, speakers smaller than 8-inch are referred to as woofers. Woofers are generally associated with low-end compact home theater speaker systems.

The larger the subwoofer driver is, the deeper is the bass. But the main problem with very large subwoofers — 15-inches and above — is that these require really good amplifiers with ample power and adequate low frequency response. For best results, use should be made of a dedicated subwoofer amplifier; the latter is specially designed to correctly handle the subwoofer low frequencies. Standard audio amplifiers will generally have trouble starting and stopping the heavy subwoofer driver in time, leading to distortion and instability issues.

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Passive or Powered Subwoofers - Is one better than the other?

Passive Home Theater Subwoofers: These are basically much the same as the rest of your home theater speakers, powered by an external amplifier. This can be your home theater receiver or a dedicated low frequency amplifier.

However, what differentiates a home theater subwoofer from the rest of your speakers is that it presents a much more demanding load on your amplifier since it takes more power to reproduce the extreme low bass frequencies associated with subwoofers.

In other words, ensure that your AV receiver has ample power to drive your home theater subwoofer. How much power you need is another issue. As we explain in our article on Amplifier Power, the required amplifier power depends on a number of factors, including your room and home theater subwoofer size, as well as your personal preference.

Powered Subwoofers: It is here that the powered home theater subwoofer comes in since it solves the issue of amplifier power requirement while ensuring you always have adequate power by providing an all-in-one speaker/amplifier single box solution where the amplifier and the subwoofer are optimally matched for the best sound performance.

The result is that all you need to connect a powered subwoofer is a line output from your home theater receiver. This leaves all of your amplifier power in your AV receiver available to power the much easier mid-range and tweeters. The result is a more accurate sound response. But...

As with other speaker specs, you have to be very careful when selecting a powered home theater subwoofer. In particular, some speaker manufactures tend to specify the peak power rather than the more important continuous power rating when it comes to powered subwoofers. Unfortunately, built-in power amps in subwoofers are not covered by Federal Trade Commission regulations. So be careful with powered subwoofer ratings as these can be misleading.

If in doubt, it is best to opt for smaller powered subwoofer with 8 or 10-inch drivers, and with at least one of the drivers facing the listener as these deliver more accurate bass response.

Which is better: Passive or Powered Subwoofer? A powered home theater subwoofer does not necessarily deliver a better bass than a passive one. If your home theater receiver has more than adequate power to drive your subwoofer, there is no reason why a passive subwoofer should not deliver a realistic bass-shaking experience. In other words, theoretically, all things being equal, both passive and powered systems should be able to deliver the same result.

However, if your AV receiver comes with a line output for a subwoofer connection, then opting for a suitable powered subwoofer would in most circumstances deliver better overall home theater sound.

Subwoofer Design: Choosing Home Theater Subwoofers: Front-firing, Down-firing, Ports and Passive Radiators

Klipsch R115SW complete with Wireless Kit
Klipsch R115SW complete with
WA2 Wireless Kit

Wireless Powered Subwoofer

A superb 15-inch subwoofer powered by a 400W digital amplifier and complete with the added convince of wireless audio connectivity.

As highlighted earlier on in this discussion, subwoofers with one of the drivers facing the listener deliver more accurate bass response. Yet, home theater subwoofers come in two major differing design concepts: front-firing and bottom-firing, with each having its pros and cons.

Front-firing subwoofer designs employ a speaker driver mounted on one of the sides or front. These yield the most accurate bass — throwing really deep bass waves towards the listener, leading to a better feel of the subwoofer sound.

Instead, bottom-firing home theater subwoofers use a speaker driver mounted in such a manner as to radiate sound towards the floor. These also produce a similar effect but not to the same extent as front-firing subwoofers. Down-firing subwoofers however, make it possible for the listener to better 'feel the shake' from the bass during movie-watching and music listening.

Some home theater subwoofer designs use ports in the enclosure through which they forces out more air to further enhance the low frequency response of the subwoofer. The main scope is to try to improve or extend the lower frequency response of the subwoofer unit — this explaining why these units are generally capable of producing some really deep bass. But in general, overall response of ported subwoofer units is not as clean and accurate as fully enclosed units.

A compromise between ported and fully-enclosed home theater subwoofer designs is the use of passive radiators instead of vented ports to enhance the bass response accuracy of the unit while improving its efficiency. A passive radiator can be either a flat diaphragm or a speaker-shaped diaphragm but without the voice coil.

More Home Theater Subwoofer Features: Crossovers and Equalization

Most subwoofers include a high-pass and a low-pass filter. The high-pass filter is used at the speaker level connection and enables the subwoofer to pass the rest of the high frequencies to the satellites. Instead, the low-pass is used with line-level connections; the latter is variable and limits the subwoofer to frequencies below the selected cross-over frequency.

Note that most surround sound processors found on today's AV receivers incorporate the necessary low-pass filtering on the LFE (low frequency effects) or subwoofer output, rendering the low-pass filter on the subwoofer unit redundant.

Ideally, your selected home theater subwoofer should therefore allow to by-pass its internal low-pass filter for a cleaner and more accurate bass; using multiple filters in tandem leads to a less accurate and clean sound.

Infinia Classia PSW310BK 300W Hi-end Wireless Subwoofer

Infinity Classia PSW310BK 10" Powered Subwoofer with Dual 10" Passive Radiators (available from amazon)

One of the best powered home theater subwoofers capable of excellent bass response that comes with the added convenience of wireless audio connectivity.

One final feature worth considering when purchasing a high-end powered subwoofer is equalization.

A case in point is the Infinity Classia PSW310BK 10" powered subwoofer with dual 10" passive radiators (featured here) by Harman, which Infinity calls 'Room Adaptive Bass Optimization system' or R.A.B.O.S.

This functions like a multi-band tone control similar to the equalizer found on some advanced amplifiers systems, adjusting the response of your overall sound by taking the interactions of the sound produced by your speaker within your room environment. The main difference here is that the equalizer in a home theater subwoofer operates on variable frequency bands (parametric type) within the subwoofer range rather than fixed bands as is the case with graphic equalizers.

Adjusting the built-in equalizer in a subwoofer unit calls for the use of a calibration CD and a sound meter, with the main requirement being to adjust the equalizer for a flat response over the subwoofer frequency range.

For this reason, high-end home theater subwoofers such as the Infinity referred to above, come with a test measurement kit to allow you to optimize its overall low-frequency response to match your unique room environment. The following video clip by Infinity about its RABOS solution, gives an interesting explanation of this equalization process.

Courtesy: Infinity

High-end powered subwoofers do not come cheap. The Infinity Classia PSW310BK is selling online at a reduced price of around $300 but comes with a list price of over $1,000! However, apart from its excellent bass performance, the Infinity also comes with the added convenience of 2.4GHz wireless audio.

While the Infinity — at its present significantly reduced price — represents a great subwoofer option, yet keep in mind that it is still possible to enjoy some really good bass even with a budget-class system that does not come with a built-in equalizer; simply playing around with your subwoofer placement as further detailed in our speaker placement guide can do a lot towards achieving a more balanced bass response.

Home Theater Subwoofers Buying Tips: What to look for

Go for a large 10-inch or 12-inch driver powered subwoofer if you are after room-shaking power.

But even smaller multiple 8-inch subwoofer driver units can represent a great option in the medium size room. In a similar manner, built-in multiple 8-inch subwoofer drivers in floor standing tower speakers can also deliver deep, room-shaking good quality bass.

Convenient options to look for with powered subwoofers apart from some form of build-in equalization, is a remote control option; this helps you adjust your subwoofer for best performance within the listening area from your seating position.

Wireless audio connectivity is also worth considering; it makes your home theater subwoofer placement less of an issue as it enables you to place your subwoofer practically anywhere it suits you best as long as you have mains power outlet, without having to think how to get your audio cable around the room.

Worth taking note that a way to complement your subwoofer and enhance the bass feel without annoying your neighbors is through the use of tactile transducers - like the Aura Bass Shakers and the interesting line of Buttkickers.

Tactile transducers add a whole new dimension to your home entertainment, making for a more complete experience especially during movie watching. You get easier immersed into every movie action by combining the sense of touch with your sight and hearing.

For more information on tactical transducers, refer to our article: Bass Shakers, Buttkickers… now you can feel the shake!

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article:

Blue bullet  Introduction: Home Theater subwoofer basics

Blue bullet  Defining the Subwoofer: What qualifies as subwoofer

Blue bullet  Passive or Powered Subwoofers: Which is better?

Blue bullet Subwoofer Designs: Front-firing, down-firing, use of ports and passive radiators

Blue bullet More Subwoofer Features: Crossovers and equalization

Blue bullet Home Theater Subwoofer Buying Tips: What to look for when making a purchase

Blue bullet Readers Comments: Submitting your comments is easy!

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Speaker Systems

Home Theater Speaker Basics

Understanding Speaker Specifications

Selecting Speakers for Multi-channel Audio

Choosing Ceiling and In-Wall Speakers

Sound Bar Speakers Buying Guide

Home Theater Speakers Buying Tips

Speaker Placement in Multi-channel Audio

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Home Theater Receivers: A Buyer's Guide

5.1 vs. 7.1 Home Theater Receivers

Understanding Amplifier Specs

Determining Amplifier Power

Delay Setting in Surround Sound

Best AV Receivers Review

SUBMIT a Home Theater Receiver Review

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Dolby vs. DTS: Which is better?

THX Home Cinema Explained

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