Subwoofer: To scrap or not to scrap?
December 11, 2007 3:14 AM   Subscribe

Love my 5.1 sound system. Hate the subwoofer. Should I by a standalone subwoofer, or replace the whole system?

Actually, I should amend "love" to "like," because the 5.1 audio system connected to my TV does the job with few hiccups, but is hardly top of the line. It's an entry-level Sharp system that I bought four years ago for about $250 US. (Disclaimer: I'm deep in newbie territory on all things audio, as you'll confirm from the following remarks.) The main speakers produce acceptable audio; I'm familiar with its quirks; and I'm not ready to invest the time and research into buying a higher-end system (not to mention ironing out acoustic problems in my TV room).

It may sound like I'm dissing my current system, but the fact of the matter is, the higher-end speakers I've listened to in showrooms don't seem to produce dramatically better sound, at least when the playback source is from a DVD. (Question: is this truly the case, or are my ears deceiving me?)

The problem with my system is the subwoofer. It appears to be a cheap model thrown in as an afterthought, and produces a continuous hum. (In fact, the user manual advises that a new subwoofer be purchased as an addon!) Yes, I've performed all the hum-alleviating workarounds recommended on MeFi and google, with no success.

My first choice would be to replace the subwoofer with a decent standalone model for under $150. Is this possible, and what should I buy?

If it's not a good idea to buy a standalone subwoofer, I'll scrap the system and buy a new one. My budget is $300 -- $400, and all I need is a 5.1 Dolby system with speakers to connect to my Pioneer plasma for watching DVDs. What systems give you the best bang-for-the-buck in this price range?
posted by Gordion Knott to Technology (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I really like this brand and have recommended it to many friends who are happy with it.

Hsu Research

The cheapest model is STF-1 for $250 though, unfortunately. However it will beat the pants off any big name subwoofer.
posted by hariya at 3:51 AM on December 11, 2007

$150 is awfully cheap for a sub. Subs are simple things, basically: they're a big speaker, in a big box, driven by a large single-channel amplifier. Sadly, because they're so simple, there aren't many magic tricks available to cut the price. For the most cost-effective bass, you must have all three pieces, and those cost money.

The magic tricks come in with expensive subs, where they can use better speaker and more powerful amplifiers, say, to make up for a small enclosure... but at the low end, there just isn't getting past basic physics. Enclosure size, amplifier power, and speaker excursion are required to make good bass.

You can get very competent subs for about $400 from various online sources; Hsu Research is indeed very good, as is SV Sound. If you scale back some, to the $250 Hsu model, you're not going to get the full bass extension of a bigger unit, but that's often fine in an apartment or small house.

I would suggest waiting and saving up some more money. If you get a solid sub, it'll last a long, long time. Speakers don't age like other electronics, and subs in particular are low-tech and simple devices. Barring something really remarkable happening, in ten years you won't be able to buy subs that are much better than the ones you can buy now. If you get a competent unit, you can take it with you across systems for many years.

If you spend $150, you're likely to be disappointed in the results, both now and in the future. If $400 is just out of the question, I'd say $250 is the minimum you should even consider. And stay out of brick-and-mortar stores... buy something online.
posted by Malor at 5:19 AM on December 11, 2007

Oh, another thought... on some sites, like AVS Forum, they have lots of posts from DIYers. If you use an existing enclosure design, buy the parts from a distributor, and build the whole thing yourself, you could probably do a solid $150 unit.

But if you want to buy something premade, $250+shipping is really rock-bottom for anything decent.
posted by Malor at 5:23 AM on December 11, 2007

You must ensure you have a line-level SUB output from your packaged A/V receiver. It looks like a single RCA plug (y'kno, the yellow, red and white connectors you use to connect your ps2 to your TV, but just one of em). If your receiver recommends you get a new sub, it most likely has one, but you could post the model number of the system on here and someone can figure out what kind of outputs it has. You may have to buy a subwoofer cable that is basically a thick, single conductor wire with RCA connectors on the ends.

I love my Onix Rocket ULW-10 ( I got a bit of a price break because I was able to get in on a promotion had when they reviewed it.
posted by ijoyner at 5:51 AM on December 11, 2007

Okay, it seems like the best subwoofers are beyond my price range. So maybe I should splurge and buy a new system, assuming (as Malor pointed out) speakers don't change radically and will last for ten years or more.

So, given this scenario, if I work with a budget topping out at, say, $750, what's the best speaker/subwoofer home entertainment system I could buy to connect to my TV? Any suggestions, favorite products, etc?
posted by Gordion Knott at 7:25 AM on December 11, 2007

Well, if there's a Cambridge Soundworks store in your area, I recommend visiting and doing some listening. Their stuff is reasonably priced and sounds good. When I was putting together a modestly priced home theater solution several years ago, I spent a few weekends doing some listening at various hi fi stores in the area and visited CS on a whim and ended up buying. Of course, it didn't hurt that they were having a sale. Their line has changed a bit since then, so I'm not up on how good the current stuff sounds, but I would expect that it would be pretty good.

You could put together a decent system in your price range from their clearance page.

posted by reddot at 8:48 AM on December 11, 2007

You've still got the budget issue. If you need $250 at minimum for a subwoofer, and $400 for a solid one that will last you for ages, that doesn't leave you very much for speakers. :) You are, after all, buying five of them.

I tend to think of the sweet spot as being about $1500 for everything -- receiver, dvd/cd player, five speakers, your front mains, center, sub, and left/right surround. That kind of a system will have real legs, with high quality components that will last for ages. You may update your receiver and/or DVD player, but you probably won't change speakers again for a long time.

If you're serious about the $750, then you're probably more in the HTIB market -- Home Theater In A Box. In that market, Onkyo is broadly considered one of the best choices; their HTIBs use standard parts, so you can swap and upgrade easily. They sound very good for the price. I've heard mixed reviews on how the speakers LOOK, but they're pretty much unversally praised for sound quality.

I answered a similar question at some length awhile back. I'd suggest reading the whole thread.
posted by Malor at 11:13 AM on December 11, 2007

Upgrade one thing at a time, spread the cost over years, and you will be much happier and more informed in the end.

the higher-end speakers I've listened to in showrooms don't seem to produce dramatically better sound,

You just haven't listed to the right high end speakers.. You probably don't want to though, spending time with good $5,000+ speakers (in my case, Energy Veritas 1.6s in an electronics lab), and well mastered CDs, will ruin your low end recorded audio experience for all time.

Anyway, sounds like you are primarily interested in the home theater thing, rather than music listening. In that case, a subwoofer upgrade is probably a good place to start. If you were concerned with music listening I would look to the main L/R speakers.

Something to note with your subwoofer situation though.. In a lot of ways, you aren't really looking for a subwoofer at all. A subwoofer should be producing the last octave (20-40Hz) and perhaps reinforcing the second to last octave (40-80Hz). You are looking for something between a serious subwoofer and the base reenforcement woofers you get with computer 2.1 speaker systems (which don't really even reach 40Hz, and contribute to the sound at frequencies higher than 160Hz).

All that said, a good mid-fi subwoofer should help you out with the home theater impact you are looking for. Just remember that subwoofers need to be pretty beefy. The state of the art in loud speakers is still big ugly boxes. And, I agree with the above, $150 new isn't going to get you anything worth owning. $200 used is probably worthwhile though..

Oh, and you should ignore power ratings completely (here's why). Go by reviews and recommendations. I would recommend some models, but it has been a long time and the models I'm familiar with are hard to find nowadays. For example, if you want a real lease breaker, the HPS 1000 is a monster, but I wouldn't know how to find one..
posted by Chuckles at 1:12 PM on December 11, 2007

here's why [you should ignore power ratings.]
posted by Chuckles at 1:13 PM on December 11, 2007

I heartily second Hsu Research. They make excellent subs. At $250, the STF-1 is a steal for the performance you can get.
posted by pmbuko at 2:52 PM on December 11, 2007

HPS 1000 on ebay right now. Pretty nice buy it now price too. If you want to break a lease, or you want to hear the home theatre from across your 5 acre estate, this is the one.
posted by Chuckles at 3:24 PM on March 25, 2008

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