“The bass…was amazingly rich, full, and defined…”
“…this thing can produce real, no-foolin’ bass…it’s a great bargain, too”
Excerpted from: Tiny Killer Subs – Can you get big bad bass from little bitty boxes?
By Daniel Kumin, June 2005, Sound & Vision
What’s big and black, rumbles a lot, and can go really, really deep? If you said “a submarine,” you’re right. If you said “a subwoofer,” you’re half right. Both kinds of subs can take you down into regions you’ve never been to before — and a subwoofer can do it without a nuclear generator, cramped quarters, and the possibility you’ll never see daylight again. But unlike their nautical counterparts, subwoofers don’t have to be big anymore to explore the lowest depths.
Why the big push toward little subs? To anyone but a serious A/V enthusiast, there is nothing beautiful about a great, hulking cabinet in the family room, and placing one there has caused more than a little discord in many homes. So it’s no surprise manufacturers have developed ever smaller subs that can disappear into their environments, or that they’ve tried to wring performance from them that’s on par with their larger counterparts.
But getting a small box to put out deep bass isn’t an engineering slam-dunk. The laws of physics say you need to excite large sound waves to create bass, and the easiest way to do that is to use big drivers in big cabinets. There’s more than one way to skin this particular cat, though, and it usually comes down to employing shock-and-awe quantities of power, super-long-throw drivers, and generous equalization.
Those are the methods employed by our scofflaws here, the largest of which is hardly bigger than the box your kid’s league-approved soccer ball came in. Yet any of them can deliver enough deep bass (under most circumstances) to satisfy even experienced listeners — and to knock their socks off when the source is revealed.
What qualifies as “deep bass?” In my book it’s sound that goes substantially below 40 Hz. That’s the region of the lowest bass notes and subsonic rumbles — the kind you can feel but not hear. The sub needs to play loud enough to compete with the rest of the speakers at typical listening volumes, and do it without making any of the clacks, buzzes, or rattles that can draw attention to its location.
Could these pint-size renegades really stretch the laws of physics? Extensive listening showed that big surprises can come from small packages.
OUR TEST SETUP
Any subjective evaluation of subwoofer performance is as much a review of the room as it is of the sub. At about 350 square feet and 3,000 cubic feet, my studio is similar to many family rooms, except it’s double-sheetrocked and built to dimensions I chose for achieving reasonable low-end smoothness and extension. As in any speaker evaluation, you can expect the same sub to perform differently in a different room.
From long experience, I know that subs deliver their smoothest 20-100-Hz response in my room when placed behind the left front speaker. Our three bantams were small enough that I could set them up cheek by jowl and switch among them for fair comparisons — as I verified using a sound-level meter to calibrate volumes and check positions.
I ran all three in crossover-bypass mode, setting my preamp’s crossover at the THX-standard 80 Hz. And to simplify things, I did my listening using short segments of music tracks and movie scenes that I’m very familiar with (see “Test Tracks” below).
TEST TRACKS – CDs
James Taylor, Hourglass (Sony), “Line ’Em Up” This track has probably the strongest bass guitar you’ll hear on a pop recording. It’s a six-string bass that occasionally hits low Cs down at about 32 Hz. The sound, which is rich and heavy through the range from 30 to 120 Hz, is occasionally quite powerful.
Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope (Virgin), “Go Deep” I’m no great hip-pop fan (though I like Miss J’s album art), but this track is a bass classic. It features rock-steady synth bass at around 35 Hz, with a couple of forays into super-low 25-Hz country.
Movies can demonstrate a different side of bass, since the low-end sounds are usually more fleeting and more likely to be masked by higher-frequency sound effects and music.
U-571 (Universal), Chapter 15 The famous depth-charge attack produces powerful and dynamic bass with content well below 25 Hz. Listen to your sub alone and crank this segment up to hear what your woofer’s working life is really like.
The Fifth Element (Columbia/TriStar), Chapter 2 Another valued clip for deep, deep bass is the moment in the movie’s prologue when the stone chamber closes with a rumble. This is a good source of sustained bass that extends just about as deep as U-571’s depth charges.
The SubSonic’s controls are straightforward, so setup requires little more than the usual placement-and-balance exercise. In my room, it delivered smooth response to well above 120 Hz, so it should be easy to integrate with small satellite speakers that demand a high crossover point.
How Low Does It Go?
Bass limit 25 Hz at 71 dB (maximum 10% distortion)
How Big the Bang?
Average SPL from 25 to 62 Hz 83 dB
Maximum SPL 91 dB at 62 Hz
How Did It Sound?
James Taylor – The bass guitar was amazingly rich, full, and defined up to moderately high levels. Only when pushed harder did the SubSonic begin to sound a little bloated and the bottom octave slightly less substantial — a common effect of a sub’s limiting circuits. Pushed even further, the Pinnacle produced some fairly rude noises on the most demanding bass — no hard “clacks,” but very audible “raspberries” on the lowest, strongest notes.
Janet Jackson – The little Pinnacle delivered surprisingly strong bass on this track, too, and sounded solid and punchy even when it was played really loud. Only direct comparisons with the larger Sunfire and Velodyne subs revealed its weakness below 30 Hz — an area that the other two subs covered with pant-flapping grunt.
U-571 – The depth-charge attack had room-shaking, grab-the-popcorn impact, and, again, you won’t notice that the Pinnacle can’t deliver the soundtrack’s lowest notes unless you compare it directly with a sub that goes deeper.
The Fifth Element – This movie clip proved a bit much for this mighty mini. Playing the closing of the tomb door with master volume set to my test reference level (–10 dB), which is probably louder than you listen at home, caused the Pinnacle to produce a chorus of soft rattles and “blubs.” I could just barely discern these sounds with all the speakers going, but they became more obvious as I pushed the volume higher.
What’s the Bottom Line?
The SubSonic wouldn’t go as deep or play as loud as the considerably more expensive and larger Velodyne and Sunfire, but, hey — this thing can produce real, no-foolin’ bass. It’ll play loud enough for most folks in most rooms and blend well even with smaller satellites. And it’s undeniably tiny and unobtrusive — by far the smallest in the group. At about $300 less than the other two subs, it’s a great bargain, too.
THE LOW DOWN
While the Lilliputian Pinnacle SubSonic couldn’t equal the depth or power of the bigger and more expensive Sunfire and Velodyne subs, it should work well with tiny satellites that demand a 150-Hz crossover or even higher. And for such an attractively tiny sub, it sounded amazingly solid on almost everything that I listened to. —D.K.