Do I need a subwoofer you ask?
OK, we’re going to stop you there, because if we’re going to come to an answer on this, we need to understand what on earth a subwoofer is.
No, despite what it sounds like, it’s not one of those freakishly pampered dogs people carry around in their purses. In fact, it’s quite as far removed from that image as you can possibly get.
The subwoofer is the speaker in any audio setup – whether it’s for home audio, home cinema, stadium rock or anything in between, that brings the bass to your party. If you want to get specific – and why not, let’s learn something – it’s the speaker that delivers lower frequencies (between 20-200 Hz) that neither a traditional two-channel sound system, nor even a surround sound setup, can bring.
Feel the action
The range between 20-200 MHz is pretty darned broad.
Within that range, you have everything from the first two drumbeats on every line of Queen’s We Will Rock You, without which the song would be a little silly, through the twanging bass guitar of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to most of the best heavy metal and hip hop, to the rumble of Indiana Jones’ giant rolling ball or the distant approach of a T. Rex in any of the Jurassic Parks.
Want a war movie with the powerful wub-wub-wub of the blades of the last chopper out of hell? Want the DJ to really, truly drop the bass on your well-played copy of WAP?
Want to really feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention when the Phantom of the Opera gets organ-crazy? Want, come to that, to feel the power of a good gospel choir, with the rumbling basses backing up the tenors and sopranos?
You name it – if you want the full sonic experience of bass sounds that make your stomach rumble, not even your fancy-schmancy state of the art 7.1 surround sound system is going to cut it. For that… you’re gonna need a subwoofer.
That’s the job of the subwoofer in a nutshell. It turns bass sounds into bass feelings.
How needy is need?
Now the question of whether you need that in your life will depend on several factors, and there’s room for a little comparison in the whole thing. Watching a war movie, an action movie, most sci-fi movies – in fact, most movies where there are significant periods of Something Other Than Quiet, Calm Dialogue – is a thing you can do with no subwoofer.
Doing it, though, is the sonic equivalent of drinking 2% milk for pleasure. Drinking alcohol-free beer for pleasure. Eating tofu for pleasure. That’s not to throw shade on anyone who does these things for pleasure. As we say, they’re perfectly valid ways to go through life. But when you get introduced to the alternative, there can be no mistake that you’re experiencing something entirely different.
Drinking full cream milk, tasting beer with alcohol in it, eating identifiable vegetables – the experiences will rock your world because they’re so much louder, and brasher, and more somehow aggressive than what you’re used to. You doing you is fine and dandy. But then there’s this other thing. That’s the subwoofer effect – it turns life, and music, and movies up to 11.
Again, the question of whether you need that bass you can feel in the pit of your stomach on any kind of daily basis will be one that depends on whether you like that sensation of movie realism and musical stomach-flutter. If you do love that feeling of being subsumed in a movie or bassline, kind of from the inside out, you may well already be sold on why you need one.
Because – and no-one ever mentions this, apart from the occasional pop group – there’s something addictive in the sensation of bass sounds turned into rumbles, growls, and knee-trembling shudders. It’s one of the reasons people around the world love nightclubs and dance music, that zing and rumble that gets into your head through more than the usual one entry-point.
That boom and growl that goes into your stomach and shudders up your spine is a thing to which people sacrifice whole years of their life – add a beverage of choice and some good company and with a subwoofer, you have a party right there.
But say you’re not into it. Say you’re not feeling the thrill of the stomach-flutter, and the kind of music you prefer is all delicate harp arpeggios and tin whistle solos, in between re-runs of Pride & Prejudice.
Balance and subwoofers
No need for a subwoofer then, right? Erm… you might be surprised. Even if you live a life free from bass, and rumbling movie sound effects, and have no desire to feel anything in your gut but smooth digestive transit, believe it or not, your life will be improved by the judicial application of a subwoofer.
Here’s the thing. Without a subwoofer, your regular sound system is trying its best to be one. It’s trying, always, to give you the fullest, most sonically sensuous mixture of bass, treble, and all the other elements that make up a sonic picture.
The subwoofer is not just able to provide you with the sensations behind and inside bass soundscapes. If you let it do its job, even if you turn it down in the balance of the mix, it will step in like a strong man or woman to lift the burden of the bass off your system’s shoulders.
What that means is you get crisper dynamics all round. Your ‘soundstage’ broadens, and your system is able to sing a sweeter, clearer song. Weirdly enough, that even works with dialogue!
Part of the point is that very few people live entirely on the extremes. Sure, fans of bass-heavy music and action-heavy films will find more immediate use for their subwoofers, and will probably use them more often those who like period melodramas about stolen sugar spoons with very few explosions, or those addicted to the subtle melodies of the Belarusian nose-flute.
But most people live in the middle ground – not all bass-grunting death metal, hardcore drum and bass and snarling dinosaurs, but not all twinkly fairy cymbals and whispered dialogue either.
That means we’re unlikely to have an absolute empirical need for a subwoofer on a daily basis, inasmuch as it won’t necessarily need to bring the thunder or the gods of metal day in and day out. But that strain-taking system sharpening action that a subwoofer brings to the audio party of your life shouldn’t be underestimated.
It can make whatever you listen to – heavy, light, or as with most people, mostly in the middle – sound richer, more real, crisper and more clear.
Needs and wants
Does that add up to a case of real need? Maybe not if you haven’t experienced it before. If you haven’t experienced the upgrading effect of a subwoofer before, there’s every likelihood that you don’t know what you’re missing, and so would be content to live without it for the foreseeable future.
That’s especially the case if you’re working with a limited budget for your sound system or home cinema setup, because let there be no bush left to beat around, a subwoofer is a pretty big – and pretty expensive piece of kit.
Adding one to your current setup might seem like a waste of money you might not have spare just now, and also, you might worry about a subwoofer becoming the big showy piece in a kit that’s otherwise reasonably balanced.
The point of that is that it’s an assessment from a point of ignorance. That’s not as insulting as it sounds, it just means you don’t know what you’re missing because you’ve never experienced it.
Once you’ve tried a subwoofer…
Well, actually, that’s an over-simplification. Once you’ve tried a subwoofer for about a week or two, you’ll have gotten comfortable with its power and its abilities. The power both to drive the bass into your belly and shake your world, and to balance the rest of your system and add to the clarity and pitch perfection of the rest of your speakers.
They’ll both seem increasingly not like unusual things, but like normality, like how your music and your movies and even your favorite shows should sound, like you’ve had a whole other level of storytelling mystically revealed to you. You won’t have, as such, but the shift in intensity and clarity will make you think you’re hearing things properly for the first time in your life.
And once you get used to that sensation, there’s every chance you won’t want to give it up.
In fact, there’s every chance that once you’ve had your senses ‘awoken’ to that way of hearing your favorite music, and that level of immersion in all the various soundscapes of a favorite movies, the step back down the sonic food chain to experiencing them without the bass-boosting sub will feel instinctively ‘wrong,’ and more and more like something that needs ‘correcting’ by the inclusion of a subwoofer into the mix.
Building up to a subwoofer
If you don’t have the wherewithal to jump straight from your current system to your current system plus a subwoofer, there are things you can do to get at least somewhere close to the feeling. But to build a system that can compensate for the absence of a subwoofer, while getting somewhere close to sounding like a subwoofer… is ironically, probably almost as expensive as getting a subwoofer.
Essentially, to go subwoofer-free and get something similar to subwoofer results, you’re going to need a pretty high-end system, with extra attention paid to the power of the woofers. Tower speakers can give you a reasonable, clean bass sound, but you won’t get that fuzzy, ticklish sensation that a good subwoofer can give you.
High-powered woofers will get you there – kind of, but not really. They’ll give you a rumble, but it will almost be like feeling the rumble when you’re underwater – you’ll know it’s there, but it will feel strangely muffled.
When it comes to investing in a subwoofer, while they’re still on the expensive side, the market, being driven by more and more people wanting to add them to their systems, has evolved the nature of the speaker.
You can now get wireless subwoofers, in-wall subwoofers, and a whole range of other variants that diversify it from being just the monolithic bass bomb people usually think of. That means you can probably find a subwoofer that’s more in tune with your living space (or home cinema space), and that probably won’t break either your bank balance or the mental health of your neighbors.
Do you need a subwoofer? Yes. Yes, you do – even if you don’t know it yet.