Subwoofers and Whatnot

I can’t take it anymore, so I’m writing about stereo equipment.

Yesterday, I had plenty to do (clean bathroom, clean kitchen, laundry, vacuum), but I didn’t want to do it, so I threw together a Special Ops Reconnaissance Mission (no credit cards) to Best Buy to check out subwoofers, after which I planned to walk over to Patel Brothers Market to pick up a couple of packages of those Turkish black olives like I like, and then visit my favorite Mexican place.

No clue.
No clue.

I’ve owned three subwoofers over the course of my audio fixation (whole life), and each has been unsatisfying in its own special way. The Sequerra Pyramid (remember them?) needed way too much power. The JBL was hard to adjust and wouldn’t turn itself on until things got too loud for polite listening. And the B&W (Bowers & Wilkins) was massive, expensive and slow.

But those were the old days. Today, you can get a pretty good subwoofer in a very small package, and connect it to your system via a wireless transmitter (which makes them easy to place, which makes them easy to integrate sonically into one’s system, and also makes them easy to hide). The “smallness” is a result of a breakthrough in amplifier design — a development pioneered by Bang & Olufsen, and licensed all over the world (which is how those boys really make their money) under the general moniker of “Class D” amplification.

The Usual Suspect.
The Usual Suspect.

Class D amps work by…okay, I don’t know how they work…but they are distinguished by their small size and low heat generation. As I’m sure you’ve heard (whether you’ve wanted to or not), this has enabled mobile audio installers to go full nuclear — fitting many hundreds of watts’ worth of amplification under the front passenger seats of those 1997 Honda Civics with the racing exhaust pipes and the enormous rear wings. In a home environment, Class D means you can manufacture an 11-inch cube subwoofer with 600 watts in it and no heat sinks, and bring the whole thing in at less than 30 pounds. By contrast, my 1995 B&W subwoofer with “only” a 200 watt class A/B amp (the traditional design) was the size of a 27-inch vacuum tube television, had massive rear heat sinks, and was a “two-man” lift.

Having a tiny subwoofer also has sonic advantages, because tuning bass in a room is largely a “trial and error” enterprise. That means you need to be able to move those little suckers around, which is why they should be small and connected to your system via a wireless transmitter. And at today’s (relatively) low prices, if one little sub isn’t enough for your room, you can just get an additional little sub. Big subs should be avoided unless you have a baller crib and many, many ducats.

The $15,000 (each) JL Audio Gotham. Big. Baller. Ducats.
The $15,000 (each) JL Audio Gotham. Big. Baller. Ducats.

Place a little sub correctly, and it should bring plenty of enjoyment to Transformers 8, Terminator 27 or your latest round of Shoot ‘Em Up, Kill ‘Em All, Blow Sh*t to Smithereens IV: The Final Chapter. But for music — vs. movies and video games — your l’il sub should have some finesse. It should be highly responsive, tuneful (not just a thumper), and be adjustable for crossover frequency (the point at which your main speakers drop off and the subwoofer takes over) and polarity & phase (whether the subwoofer’s output complements your main speakers by being in sync with them, or works against them by being out of sync — a simple either/or determined by ear and controlled by a two-position switch).

This brings us (finally) to the Best Buy, where the “Systems Engineer” guy (SEG) brings me into the Magnolia Home Theater room to sell me a sub. Best Buy has started carrying some serious high-end gear lately. Tragically, most of it is horribly set up, half of it doesn’t work, and most of the salespeople don’t really know what the stuff is. In other words, it’s still Best Buy.

SEG had Guardians of the Galaxy on the big system, but I wanted to hear music in stereo, not a movie in 7.1 surround sound. It took three tries (he just kept saying whatever he’d been programmed to say regardless of what I said) for SEG to understand my intent, and then about 10 minutes for him to figure out the “big board” (which these days is the “big iPad”) before he finally piped some low-resolution Sonos files through the system.

Sonos. M'eh.
Sonos. M’eh.

SEG was using a $7,000 McIntosh integrated amp to push garbage through a $2,000 pair of Sonus Faber bookshelf speakers to try to sell me a $600 Definitive Technology SuperCube 2000 subwoofer, and the whole thing sounded like an 8-track playing in a Chevy Vega…down the block…around the corner…in the middle of the night. Okay, I apologize to fans of Chevy Vegas and 8-track players. The Best Buy setup wasn’t quite that good.

The 1971 Chevrolet Vega hatchback. Why?
The 1971 Chevrolet Vega hatchback. Why?

The $600 Definitive Technology sub was a poor substitute for the product I’d been hoping Best Buy had — an $800 JL Audio Dominion d108. JL Audio is the industry leader in subs, which — I suppose — is why Best Buy doesn’t carry them, and why SEG had literally never heard of the brand. JL Audio’s sweet spot is the baller crib/mucho ducats “Gotham” at $15,000 each (and you really should get two), but the company actually got its start in mobile audio (my superb aftermarket car stereo amp and digital equalizer are by JL Audio), so they know how to make small stuff that sounds good. Every indicator from available reviews is that many of the “Gotham” characteristics have trickled down to the cheap seats. Anyway, Best Buy doesn’t carry them.

The $800 JL Audio Dominion d108. Might be good...if I can find one.
The $800 JL Audio Dominion d108. Might be good…if I can find one.

SEG clearly was exhausted by my nearly 15 minutes of requests for product information and a proper demo, so I let him go. On my way out, I perused the headphone display, which featured several expensive models that are hard to come by. I don’t need any damn headphones, but there was a $700 Sony model that I thought I’d try out just for kicks. Naturally, they didn’t work. I steeled myself and axed SEG for help, but he had no idea what was wrong and said that somebody would have to tear up the board “on Monday” to fix it because…Best Buy.

I left and walked over to the Patel Brothers to get my Turkish olives, but they were out.

Then I went to my favorite Mexican place (great food; nice family) and ordered the Camarones a la Diabla (sautéed shrimp in a spicy red-chili sauce served with rice and beans) because I’m an idiot. It was delicious, but too hot even for someone who gets “7 out of 10” with Indian food.

Then I went home.

My bathroom was still dirty.


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