Choosing the Right Subwoofer for Home Theater

For as many changes as I’ve made to my home theater over the past couple years, I always manage to find something new that needs fixing or updating. In recent months, I’ve felt that my subwoofer was inadequate and the time had finally come to upgrade to a more capable model. With that decision made, new questions arise: How big, how expensive, and what type is best?

Prior to purchasing a house and building a dedicated home theater room, I had lived in an apartment for many years. My home theater at that time was crammed into a small spare bedroom. I neither needed nor had any space for a very big subwoofer. An 8″ powered unit was plenty enough to shake the room and upset my neighbors. Anything more than that was simply not practical.

When I moved, that little sub was clearly insufficient for the much larger new home theater. I got rid of it while building my HT room and purchased my first serious subwoofer, a 70 lb. beast that I felt sure would be more than I’d ever need. For a while, that even seemed to be true. Unfortunately, over time (especially during this past year) I grew dissatisfied with it. When I purchased the subwoofer, I was wooed by the wrong features and didn’t realize that its bass extension was only rated down to 25 Hz. Moreover, in actual practice, it’s essentially useless below 30 Hz. That subwoofer is simply not capable of hitting the deep lows of today’s dynamic action movie soundtracks. Blu-rays like ‘John Wick‘ or ‘Mad Max: Fury Road‘ (for a couple of recent examples) have hard-hitting bass that frequently goes much lower than my sub could handle.

So, something new was needed. But what, exactly?

Readers of this blog may remember the series of posts our Blu-ray reviewer E. wrote about building his own D-I-Y subwoofers. Sadly, that sort of effort is way beyond my own skill set. I need an off-the-shelf product I can buy and install easily.

After doing some research and consulting with friends knowledgeable in this area, I was steered to SVS speakers as one of the best brands for high quality, high performance subwoofers with strong bang-for-the-buck value. Even narrowing the search down that far, however, I still found that the company has a wide range of products to choose from. Currently, SVS sells 13 different models of subwoofer, priced from a fairly reasonable $499.99 up to the much more expensive $1,999.99. The latter was well beyond my budget.

Aside from price, the other major factors in picking a subwoofer are the size of the driver and the type of enclosure it’s housed in. SVS subwoofers are segmented into three categories: sealed boxes, ported boxes, and ported cylinders – with driver sizes from 10″ to 13.5″. I did a lot of reading online about the merits of each type, which only served to confuse me further and leave me even more indecisive than when I started looking. Ultimately, I contacted SVS and negotiated to test two subwoofers – one sealed box model and a comparable ported box model – for the purposes of doing a head-to-head comparison in my own home theater. The company was very gracious in working with us at High-Def Digest to arrange this.

How Many Subwoofers Do You Need?

Many experts and home theater veterans will tell you that using just one subwoofer is never ideal. No matter how large or how powerful that subwoofer may be, room acoustics will result in auditory nulls where bass frequencies sound weaker in some parts of the room than others, even to the point that a person in one seat may hear something very different than the person in the next seat. Using two subwoofers positioned at opposite ends of the room (either one in front and one in back, or in opposite diagonal corners) can greatly help to minimize or eliminate these nulls. In fact, two smaller subwoofers can give you smoother, more even and more accurate bass than a single large subwoofer. (If you’re really hardcore and have the space and budget for it, four subwoofers – one placed in each corner – are even better.)

Although I do agree with this principle, setting up a two-subwoofer room is beyond the scope of the article I wanted to write here. Many home theater fans can only afford to invest in one expensive subwoofer at a time. Even if money isn’t a concern, finding the space to put two large subwoofer boxes is simply not practical in many rooms. More to the point of what I’m trying to achieve with this post, a direct comparison of two different subwoofer models necessitated that I use them each individually.

I may write another article in the future about setting up a home theater system with multiple subwoofers.

Price and Size

When I contacted SVS about this article, I was tempted to request the biggest, most powerful and highest-end subwoofers the company makes. Why not shoot for the moon and go straight for the best of the best with this, right?

Upon further thought, I realized how unnecessary and impractical that would be. The “Ultra” model subs are overpowered for my room – which is moderately large, but hardly auditorium sized, and is fully closed off to the rest of the house. Did I really want to haul a 155 lb. behemoth down the stairs to my basement, and where would I put it? Also, how useful would an article about $2,000 subwoofers be to most of our readers, who have no intention of spending that much money on one?

Eventually, I settled on doing a comparison between the models SB-2000 and PB-2000, which are priced at $699.99 and $799.99 respectively. Both units feature similar 12″ drivers and 500 Watt amplifiers. The main differences between them are that the SB-2000 is a compact, sealed box design, while the PB-2000 has a ported enclosure in a much larger cabinet. Just to give you a sense of the size difference, here’s how they stack up to each other:

SVS SB-2000 and PB-2000

The following specs are provided by the manufacturer:

SVS SB-2000
Dimension: 14.6″ (H) x 14.2″ (W) x 15.4″ (D)
Weight: 34.8 lbs.
Frequency Response: 19-220 Hz ±3 dB

SVS PB-2000
Dimension: 20.9″ (H) 17.3″ (W) 23.2″ (D)
Weight: 65.6 lbs.
Frequency Response: 17-260 Hz ±3 dB

Room Placement

Just as important as buying a good subwoofer is finding the right place to put it. Although, technically, bass frequencies are non-directional, that doesn’t mean you can place the subwoofer just anywhere. Even the best subs will struggle if they sit in a room null, or if your listening seat is in a null relative to the location of the sub.

You may have heard the quick-and-dirty recommendation to put your subwoofer in a corner of the room for the strongest bass. While there’s some degree of truth to that, the strongest bass is not necessarily the best bass. What you want is to find a spot where: 1) the subwoofer audibly produces the lowest bass frequencies it’s capable of outputting, and 2) you get a smooth bass response at all frequencies across the spectrum. To determine that, you should do a Subwoofer Crawl, which entails placing the sub in your primary listening seat and then crawling around the room with a sound level meter while an audio calibration disc plays a bass sweep test tone. (I own several calibration discs on Blu-ray, but for some reason the only one I have with this particular test is ‘Digital Video Essentials‘.)

My own home theater room is unfortunately not a perfect rectangle. It has an alcove area to the right side. Additionally, the number of places where I can realistically place a subwoofer is limited by real world practical considerations, such as my furniture and equipment, the need to be able to walk through the room without tripping over a large subwoofer box, and spousal approval. Here’s a sketch of my room layout. The yellow numbers represent the two best placement options I found after doing a sub crawl.

Cinema Zyberdiso Room Layout

I narrowed my possible choices down to these two spots because they’re where I measured the deepest bass frequencies. If all else were equal and it didn’t make any measurable or audible difference, I would have preferred to put a sub directly behind my seats, where it would be out of the way and out of sight. Unfortunately, that’s right in the middle of a room mode that severely hampers bass response. Bass below 30 Hz isn’t audible at all from there. The front of the room gave me decidedly better results.

The smaller SB-2000 subwoofer tucks neatly into Position #1 in the alcove. For both aesthetics and spouse approval, this is perhaps my most convenient option.

SVS SB-2000 in Room

The ported PB-2000 is too big to fit in that space, which leaves me with no option except to put it between my front speakers. Initially, I placed it with the woofer facing forward.

SVS PB-2000 in Room - Forward Facing

That looked terrible with the sub sticking way out into the room beyond my other speakers, so I rotated it 90 degrees to sit sideways. The SVS representatives I spoke to assure me that this shouldn’t make much difference, because bass below 80 Hz is omnidirectional and emanates from the sub in 360 degrees regardless of which way the woofer is pointing.

SVS PB-2000 in Room - Sideways

That’s less distracting, but to be honest, it’s still kind of an eyesore to have a large box right under my screen like that.

The Comparison Results

Both the SB-2000 and PB-2000 are very capable subwoofers, and both made an immediate and obvious improvement over my old unit. I could easily be very happy with either one.

In the audio community, an old generalization has it that sealed subwoofers are better for music while ported subwoofers are better for movies. The logic behind this is that sealed subs allegedly have a “tighter” response that reacts better to quick changes in musical tempo, and a shallow drop-off in the bottom end that sounds smoother. Ported subs, meanwhile, are able to displace more air and thus can hit deeper octaves at louder volumes, but at the cost of a steeper drop-off curve that may sound boomy. In other words, sealed subs are supposedly better for strumming cello notes while ported subs are better for cannon fire and explosions.

That’s a pretty gross simplification. In reality, how well either type of subwoofer performs is a factor of how well it’s designed and engineered. Most home theater fans listen to a mix of both music and movies – not to mention that musical scores are a critical component of almost all movies. Any good subwoofer will need to strike a balance between both the musical notes and the explosions.

Nevertheless, these two specific subwoofers, which are otherwise very evenly matched in terms of driver size and amplification power, do have discernible differences. Judging those differences is more complicated than just disconnecting a cable from one and plugging it into the other, however. When you change subwoofers, especially when those subwoofers sit in different locations, each unit will react differently with the room and with your other speakers. The only valid way to judge either one is to do a full room correction calibration using Audyssey (or whatever similar alternative you have) before each. Of course, that sort of calibration takes time to complete, which eliminates the possibility of an immediate A/B comparison. As such, subtle differences are very hard to evaluate.

My approach was to judge both subwoofers individually, leaving each connected to my system for a good amount of time and putting it through its paces before switching to the other and doing the same. After all, most interested users will only buy one or the other of these subwoofers anyway.

I started with the sealed SB-2000, which was able to provide plenty of loud and rich bass with power and authority in my room. During the opening scene of ‘Spectre‘, I could feel the remarkably deep bass notes in the score reverberate through my bones. The explosion-heavy climax of ‘Terminator: Genisys‘ boomed at volumes that threaten hearing damage if prolonged.

However, for all that, the SB-2000 was not able to fully pressurize my room on its own. As a result, although movie explosions land with a solid punch I can feel, they don’t necessarily deliver the kick-you-in-the-gut sensation that some bass junkies crave and demand. Ideally, two of these subwoofers on opposite ends of the room would be a better fit for a space this size.

Keep in mind that my experiences are specific to my own room. A listener in a smaller room will no doubt get a more visceral impact from the exact same subwoofer. Back when I had a tiny home theater in an apartment, even my 8″ sub at the time could hit me hard in the chest. Recreating that same feeling in a large space is significantly harder to achieve.

Despite so many similarities, the ported PB-2000 has a physical advantage in being able to move more air than its smaller, sealed counterpart. A loud thundercrack in the ‘Amaze’ trailer on the Dolby Atmos demo disc made me jump for my remote to turn the volume way down. I’d watched that trailer countless times before and was plenty familiar with the thunder scene, yet it still startled me this time. The bass was actually too overpowering, both on that trailer and in other content. I had to do another calibration to reduce the gain to the subwoofer channel.

Once I got the PB-2000 dialed in to a better level, I did some more measurements with bass sweep test tones. I must stress again that bass results will vary depending on many factors, including the size and shape of the room, and the subwoofer’s placement in it. What I found was that – in my room – the SB-2000 placed in the front right corner had a fairly linear response across most of the frequency spectrum aside from a notable dip in the 60 Hz range. On the other hand, the PB-2000 placed in between my front speakers was less linear and had more spikes and dips at different frequency ranges. I do not fault the subwoofer itself for this. Rather, that result is much more a fault of the room acoustics. Measuring the SB-2000 in the same spot between my speakers demonstrated a similar issue. I have no doubt that if I’d been able to fit the PB-2000 in the front right corner position, it would have tracked more linearly.

Regardless of the measurements, in actual practice with regular listening content, I had no concerns with the PB-2000. It sounds great with both movies and music. In this room, it sounds more similar than not to the SB-2000. The ported design of the larger subwoofer allows it to generate more output, but that wasn’t overly a concern to me. I didn’t use the SB-2000 to anywhere near its maximum output anyway, and I had to pull the gain on the PB-2000 way down to keep the bass from overpowering the rest of a movie soundtrack.

The PB-2000 gave me a little bit more of a kick in the chest than the SB-2000, but even with the larger cabinet and ported design, still doesn’t entirely pressurize my room space. Pressurizing the room is a different issue entirely than volume, and can’t be fixed just by cranking up the gain to either subwoofer. The woofer itself needs to be able to move a greater volume of air. To achieve that, I think I’d need either one of SVS’s larger Ultra models, or (preferably) a second PB-2000 to put in the back of the room. Unfortunately, I don’t have anywhere in the back of my room where I could fit another PB-2000. However, I believe two SB-2000s would do just as well here, and I do have a spot in my rear left corner where I could place one of those.

The Power of Personal Preference

Having written all of this, I should note that I have never been a bass hound who craves a soul-shaking thump-thump-thump when watching movies or listening to music. What I care about is good, rich, resonant bass, but I don’t need or want it to rattle the foundation of my house. The visceral physical sensation of feeling the wind knocked out of you by a big movie explosion can be fun, but too much of it I just find obnoxious (and so many movie soundtracks today are swamped in so much heavy bass that they’re fatiguing to listen to). That’s just not what I’m looking for when watching a movie. I care more about musicality than slam-bang impact.

Other viewers may have other priorities. Only you can decide what type of auditory experience you want to have in your home theater. If nothing would please you more than having your entire house structure shake violently when watching a movie, that’s absolutely your prerogative. SVS has subwoofers that can accommodate that (as do other brands).

Ultimately, I decided that the SB-2000 was the best fit for my needs. Not only does it sound great and deliver plenty of clean, powerful bass, but its compact design allows me to place it in the most advantageous spot in my room (both for looks and acoustics). A larger subwoofer has limited placement options, which in this room also affects performance.

My next step after making this decision will be to incorporate a second subwoofer in the back of the room to address that 60 Hz dip I’ve experienced and to more fully pressurize the space.

The Final Verdict

From my testing, both the SVS SB-2000 and PB-2000 are excellent subwoofers for home theater. Most of the differences I experienced in comparing them had less to do with the subwoofers themselves than in the placement choices available in my room. Though most shoppers would consider either of them to be major purchases at $699.99 and $799.99 respectively, those prices are quite reasonable when judged against comparable products from other brands that provide this level of performance.

Choosing the right subwoofer is about more than just picking the model that has the best specs. You need to understand how it will interact with your real room. Sometimes, the only way to do that is to actually listen to it there. Another advantage in favor of SVS is that the company offers a 45-day in-home trial period with free shipping in both directions. If you purchase a subwoofer and feel that it isn’t working out for you, switching to another model is easily accommodated. (See the SVS Customer Bill of Rights for more details.)

I will also note that, from my experience, SVS has outstanding customer service and the company’s representatives were extremely helpful in answering my questions and assisting me to find the right subwoofers that were most appropriate for my needs within the budget I had set. I recommend them heartily.

You can find more information about SVS’s full product line (which includes more than just subwoofers) at svsound.com.

17 comments

  1. Csm101

    Congrats on your new addition, I’ve been looking forward to this article. I’ve had my SVS for almost a year now and am very glad and happy with my purchase. I didn’t know you needed spousal approval in your mancave😀. What I gathered from the article was that you prefer the sealed model and might go dual, correct? I’m sure you know this, but they offer a small discount with that option. For the record, the big ported 2000 looked great facing forward in your theater. It looked like it belonged there, I didn’t think it looked awkward at all. Were there any movies besides the ones mentioned that you really liked testing the new subs. Did you ever run both subs at the same time, although I’m not sure if it would work as well with the two different ones. Will this complete your home theater audio portion for the time being or are there other plans ahead?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      My next step will be dual subs. I didn’t try that with these two units because the limited placement options for the PB-2000 in this room were less than ideal. It’s better to have the subwoofers in opposite corners, and that just wouldn’t work out for me with the PB-2000.

  2. david batarseh

    Since I am currently working on my first home theater room; this article couldn’t of come at a better time! Thanks brotha and I have one question. Trying to get a sub to blend with a set of quintet V for a living room side project, ive heard klipsch subs flat out don’t last. Would martin logans dynamo series be a good fit or go with the old standby, polk psw line? Thanks brotha.

    • Abe

      I have two MartinLogan Dynamo 300s. They are placed on opposite corners in a small apartment. It’s good that we’re on the bottom floor but they can get pretty loud. Very reliable and I like that they don’t turn on until the bass registers in the yamaha receiver. Smart systems! The rest of the system is Definitive Tech. Those do 90% of the work but when we need bass, the ML’s are more than sufficient. I don’t know that much about the polks but amazon has fairly faithful reviewers on there. Check those out. Hope this helps!

      • David Batarseh

        Thanks for the reply; I like thats its fairly compact since its for the living room and the wife is not a fan of large subs. Glad to here it also produces decent bass.

      • William Henley

        Just looked up the specs on that one – VERY impressive for a sub-$200 sub (no pun intended). Going down to 23hz, that is pretty darn close to the limits of human hearing. As I said in another post, though, I couldn’t see myself going down that low because of my hearing loss, but I could see myself recommending this to others

    • I got a Polk PSW10, and have been very happy with it, but as someone noted in another thread, this only goes down to 40Hz. however, I have hearing loss in the lower ranges, starting at around 100Hz and dropping out completley at 45Hz, so this sub was a great buy for me.

      I also have hardwood floors in that room, so bass really carries. (Amazingly, I don’t have much trouble with sound reflections from the speakers, but I think that is due more to speaker placement and not watching stuff at rock-concert decible levels).

      Truthfully, their subs are great to start off with, and cheap, so if you want to upgrade six months or a year down the line, you are not out that much

  3. I have a 15 year old Klipsch KSW-10 that does seems to have lost a little punch, but it’s hard to say based off just my ears. It’s probably sat in the same spot for the past 10 years. I still think it provides all the bass my room needs.

  4. I’ve always heard the myth that putting subs in the corner of the room is the way to go, but thank you for dispelling that. I’ll definitely have to try your recommendation on doing a Subwoofer Crawl. As a huge fan of action movies. especially with a great soundtrack, I have always wanted to have subs that can achieve those deeper base tones that you described. I’ll definitely have to look at the two you described, thank you for the recommendations and insight on both of them!

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