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Strange Creatures from the Deep




Few things are as hated and necessary as taxes and subwoofers. But subwoofers, at least, are becoming easier to live with. Ten years ago, every good-sounding subwoofer took the form of a massive, ugly black box. Given the science of the time, the big box was necessary if you wanted deep bass. But thanks to a technological breakthrough or two, you can now buy an excellent miniature subwoofer that takes up less than a cubic foot of space.

Engineers have also reshaped subwoofers so they fit into a broader variety of rooms. The result is the diverse collection of exotic subs you see here. We have one that mounts almost flush in a wall. Another that hides in a beautifully crafted corner table. One that looks like something you’d roll down a bowling alley. And still another that fits in the palm of your hand… if you happen to be Shaquille O’Neal.

Although we like most minisubs, we were unsure how these radically reshaped new models would sound. So of course, we decide to give them a listen. Our process is simple: We hook them up in a system with the Infinity TSS-4000 speakers reviewed in this issue, evaluate each subwoofer to find the best place for it in our listening room, then let it rip with our favorite bass-heavy DVDs and CDs.

Let us see and hear how today’s most creative audio manufacturers are bringing big bass to any space ...

The Power of the Orb
On paper, B&W’s PV-1 follows the tried-and-true minisub formula, combining small but robust speaker drivers with a powerful digital amplifier. But in person, the PV-1 looks more like one of Robby the Robot’s spare parts. B&W designed it to complement today’s sleek plasma TVs and on-wall speakers, like B&W’s own VM1.


B&W Loudspeakers did not create the PV-1 subwoofer’s spherical shape purely for visual reasons. The shape helps the cabinet’s relatively thin metal walls withstand the tremendous pressure generated by the PV-1’s dual 8-inch driver cones and 500-watt internal amp. (Click image to enlarge)


The PV-1’s sexy form aids its function. B&W designed it along the lines of a pressure vessel, thus the “PV” in the model number. A pressure vessel is a container, such as a diving bell, designed to withstand high pressure. By shaping the PV-1 like a diving bell, B&W was able to reduce the size of its aluminum enclosure without compromising its ability to contain the pressure generated by the sub’s dual 8-inch cones.

So as not to tarnish the PV-1’s spherical shape, B&W’s industrial designers concealed the volume and crossover controls in a shallow trench on the back, and recessed the input jacks deep into the sub’s base. Adding to the PV-1’s $1,500 cost is the dime you will need to adjust the controls—they are slotted, so a coin or screwdriver is required to turn them.

Despite its unusual design, the PV-1 sounds much like other good minisubs. It plays deep bass notes without apparent distortion, and really rocks our large listening room when we crank up our favorite rock CDs and the Star Wars DVDs. It does not have quite as precise and defined a sound as the very best minisubs (such as James Loudspeaker’s EMB-1000), but we rank it solidly in the middle of the pack. And of course, it looks much nicer than any other minisub we have seen. Also, it’s fun to watch the PV-1’s little silver cones pulse in and out.

It might be an overstatement to say that a small, high-performance subwoofer that looks cool is what the world has always needed. But if it’s what you need, get a PV-1.

The Elephant in the Corner  
Despite the success of minisubs, some audio purists feel that optimum bass reproduction can be achieved only with a massive 15- or 18-inch woofer in a large enclosure. Such supersubs produce a tremendous amount of low bass, but because of their size, they have been relegated mostly to large, dedicated home theaters.


M Design’s Godfather 1500 subwoofer looks like a corner table—a rather large corner table—yet the design conceals a high-performance subwoofer with a 15-inch woofer and a powerful 1,000-watt internal amplifier. The aesthetics complement M Design’s line of A/V system racks. (Click image to enlarge)


With its Godfather 1500,  M Design seeks to sneak the supersub back into the living room. The Godfather 1500 conceals a 15-inch driver and a 1,000-watt amplifier in a large corner table. We thank M Design’s industrial designers for styling the Godfather 1500 with contemporary lines; many “disguised” speakers have taken on a ho-hum, Ethan Allen-inspired look. Much of the Godfather’s $4,995 price is justified by its outstanding build quality—the woodwork rivals anything you will see at a high-end furniture store, and the cabinet weighs in at 222 pounds. M Design offers the Godfather 1500 in left- and right-handed versions, so you can create a symmetrical look by placing a couple in the front right and left corners of your room—or one in every corner of your room.

Unless your home theater is large enough to double as a ballroom, though, we cannot imagine you will need more than one Godfather. The subwoofer’s power is literally frightening; after hearing a taste of what it can do while we set it up, we worry that our room will not survive the shaking when we play the Hellboy trailer. Fortunately, the Godfather does not crack our drywall, but it does deliver as much low-bass impact as we have ever heard in our listening room. Even the super-low notes from our favorite organ recording do not faze it; the subwoofer almost seems bored. What’s surprising about the Godfather 1500 is that it also sounds punchier and more defined than most 15-inch subs. It impresses us with its ability to reproduce the subtleties of electric bass lines and kick drums; all the music we play seems to groove a little more with the Godfather. We have never achieved the ultimate in bass precision by placing a subwoofer in the corner of our listening room, but the Godfather sounds at least as defined as any other sub has in this position.

With the Godfather 1500, M Design has clearly invested substantial resources in both aesthetic design and acoustical engineering. If you have an empty corner, this is a good way to fill it.

A Bug’s Life  
Next to the M Design Godfather 1500, the Pinnacle SUBcompact6 seems almost endangered, as if an especially deep note from the Godfather could crush the little Pinnacle. At only 8 by 7.9 by 9.4 inches and 16 pounds, the $499 SUBcompact6 looks like one of the feeble quasi-subwoofers that come with $39 plastic computer speakers that even Wal-Mart should be ashamed to carry. But do not be fooled—the SUBcompact6 is a real subwoofer, with a high-quality 6.5-inch woofer and a built-in 200-watt amplifier. Through some engineering sleight-of-hand, Pinnacle managed to get plenty of bass output from this little box. It cannot replace a full-size sub or even a good minisub, but in the right room, it works miracles.


With a tiny cabinet and only a 6.5-inch woofer, Pinnacle Speakers’ SUBcompact6 cannot match the output of a large subwoofer. However, used within its limits—in, say, a bedroom or a small den—it produces an astonishingly full sound. (Click image to enlarge)


The SUBcompact6’s safest burrow is a bedroom, perhaps in a system with a plasma TV and Pinnacle’s excellent Quantum Plasma 3 on-wall speakers. In this setting, it fills out the sound of the on-wall speakers (which generally can’t reproduce bass) yet can be easily stuffed into any available niche. It works especially well in a corner, where the surrounding walls and floor reinforce its output.

Play a DVD soundtrack at normal listening levels, and you will never realize you are listening to a sub that’s smaller than some clock radios. It really is astonishing how satisfying this little sub’s sound can be; it makes a small, anemic home theater system sound much fuller and more robust. Push it further, though, and you will hit the SUBcompact6’s limits. It does not threaten to self-destruct when played loud, but it does distort. To our surprise, the SUBcompact6’s limitations are most apparent when we listen to music; the distortion makes bass guitar and kick drum sound thuddy rather than tuneful.

The whole aesthetic of on-wall speakers and plasma TVs is spoiled if you have to chew up floor space with a subwoofer. But given the SUBcompact6’s satisfying sound and incredibly minuscule mass, it seems the simplest, most attractive way to fill out the sound of an on-wall speaker system.

The Secret Sub
For decor-conscious homeowners, the ideal subwoofer is an in-wall model. But these present complications. Some fit into a hole in the wall as regular in-walls do. However, these tend to sound boomy because they use the wall itself as a speaker enclosure, and the drywall vibrates along with the music. The alternative is an in-wall sub with a fiberboard back box, but your installer must rip out an entire section of drywall to retrofit these into your home.
Earthquake Sound has an alternative: the Thor in-wall subwoofer. The Thor has an integral back box, but it mounts like an ordinary in-wall speaker. Just cut the hole, connect the wires, place the sub in the hole and tighten the screws. Earthquake ships the $999 Thor with both a cloth grille and a heavier grille made from perforated sheet metal. The company also offers a 1,200-watt amplifier, the $699 IQ-1200R, which can power one or two Thors. The amp has a cool phase control circuit that helps your installer blend the sub with your main speakers, and low-bass equalization controls at 20, 30, and 40 hertz.


Earthquake Sound’s Shallow Woofer System drivers were designed for automotive use, but are equally suited for in-wall applications. (Click image to enlarge)


How could Earthquake use such a small cabinet? By employing its Shallow Woofer System (SWS) drivers, which were originally developed for car audio. The SWS woofer is less than 3 inches deep, so it mounts easily into an in-wall enclosure.

The Thor does present a cosmetic dilemma, though. The fabric grille looks more stylish and less obtrusive, except that the black woofer and passive radiator show through. The metal grille is more opaque, creating a uniformly white look, but the dimples Earthquake added to stiffen it attract too much attention for our taste.

The way the Thor brings down the hammer when we play Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart” proves it does indeed embody a new class of in-wall subwoofers. It also handles the tough DVDs—Hellboy, Star Wars, and their ilk—without apparent strain (although it does not match the M Design Godfather 1500’s muscle). The Thor reminds us of the fat, funky-sounding vacuum-tube bass amps that bass players favored in the 1960s; listen to any Booker T. and the MGs CD and you will know right away what we mean. It never sounds punchy, but neither does it sound boomy. Although those who are persnickety about precision would be better off with a conventional minisub, the Thor will sound quite satisfying for those who listen mostly to DVDs and rock music.

Good Vibrations?  
Home theater enthusiasts love the visceral thrill you get when a large subwoofer shakes the floor. Unfortunately, there is usually a spoilsport around who insists they turn the sound down. One compromise is a tactile transducer, a special kind of speaker that shakes the floor or your couch while producing almost no audible bass. Combine a tactile transducer with a small subwoofer, and you get the feel of a muscular home theater system without annoying bass boom leaking into the rest of your home.


Crowson Technology’s TES 100 is probably the easiest tactile transducer to install—just slip one under each back leg of your couch, put spacers under the front legs, and you’re done. (Click image to enlarge)


Until the Crowson Technology TES 100 came along, tactile transducers were complicated to install; you had to bolt them to your floor joists or the underside of your couch, or construct a seating platform to which they could be attached. The TES 100 is different. You place each of your couch’s back legs on one of the inch-high TES 100 transducers, place the front legs on spacers, connect the transducers to Crowson’s A200 amplifier, and connect the amp to the subwoofer output of your receiver or surround-sound processor.


Crowson Technology supplies the A200 amplifier with its TES 100 tactile transducers, and wisely includes a built-in filter circuit so only low bass sounds can excite the transducers. (Click image to enlarge)


 
After fine-tuning the level controls on the A200—and switching the transducers to the front legs of our couch, where they work far better—we get an enjoyable effect. Even when we use the Pinnacle SUBcompact6 with the TES 100s, it feels almost as if we’d moved four of the M Design Godfather supersubs into our room. The couch vibrates gratifyingly with every explosion, adding realism impossible to achieve with a small sub. The effect sucks us into the action.

Some transducer systems produce an unnatural effect: They vibrate even when the actors in a movie are talking. But thanks in part to the A200’s built-in low-pass filter, which allows only bass frequencies to reach the TES 100s, the system does not exhibit this annoying problem.
At $649 for a couch system with two transducers, and $349 for a chair system with a single transducer, the TES 100 adds a fun, amusement-park quality to your home theater for little cost and hassle.So are these strange creatures from the deep worth capturing for your own home theater? Possibly. Of the five, only the B&W proves versatile enough—in terms of both performance and aesthetics—for a wide variety of rooms. But each of the other subs solves certain problems quite well. If you have found the demands of your interior space incompatible with your desire for satisfying bass, it’s a good bet one of these strange new subs will be the perfect solution.

 

B&W Loudspeakers, 800.370.3740, www.bwspeakers.com
Crowson Technology, 805.962.9004, www.crowsontech.com
Earthquake Sound, www.earthquakesound.com, 800.576.7944
M Design, 866.563. 6388, www.mdesignlife.com
Pinnacle Speakers, 800.346.2863, www.pinnaclespeakers.com

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