Subwoofer Group Test - £250 to £350
Gary from Hifistore.co.uk has taken a look at four Subwoofers in this comparison review. Today he has decided to focus on hardware...
Introduction & Preparation
Subwoofers. What peculiar beasts they are. The unsung heroes of many a Home Cinema system, sitting in the corner, chuffing away giving you the real low stuff that you need.
Over the past few years the number of subwoofers available has increased dramatically. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main ones are that the rise of DVD has driven an ever increasing Home Cinema market, and if you already make speakers, producing a 6 sided box, putting an amplifier inside it along with a drive unit is, well, not too difficult. But, building a GOOD subwoofer tends to be a little more troublesome.
Because people want the very lowest bass, from the very smallest box this means that the companies building subwoofers need to make sure they do a good job. If not, instead of bass, all you get is boom. So building a subwoofer is fairly easy, but making a good one…. That’s not so easy.
Over the past few years we’ve heard some amazingly good subwoofers at very low prices, and also some hugely expensive ones, from reputable manufacturers that have been quite frankly terrible. One problem with subs is that it can be difficult to gauge exactly how they will sound in your system as they tend to interact with the room they are being used in quite a lot, and also require a fair bit of setting up, something that you will only be able to do once the subwoofer has run in and you are familiar with it’s characteristics, and how it integrates into your room and system.
So, what we decided to do was sit down, and have a listen to 4 of the best selling subwoofers between £250 and £350. For the purposes of the test we have used the manufacturers retail prices (RRP) as a guide, but do bear in mind that you will be able to purchase all of the subwoofers at a lower price, which will affect how they compare. Though we have reviews the subwoofers based on the manufacturers RRP’s, we have taken into account the normal selling prices when rating the subwoofers out of 10.
Our system for the purposes of the test was a Denon AVR3802, Pioneer DV646, and a surround package consisting of the new KEF Q speakers. We used an Ixos sub cable to feed the signal from AV amp to each subwoofer, and QED Silver for the speaker level inputs. We listened to the system and each sub in a room of approximately 20 feet square with a wooden floor, solid walls and a high ceiling. We used a variety of CD’s and DVD films for the test, but for comparative purposes found ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Contact’ to give all 4 subs a good run around the block.
One point worth mentioning about the subwoofers in the test is the power ratings. Quite frankly, though you can use these as a guide of how loud the a subwoofer will go, they are really only any use for comparing output from subs from the same manufacturer, not those from different manufacturers. The reason for this is that if you decrease the Ohms of the drive unit, you effectively increase the power of the internal amp. So a 200-watt sub will not necessarily sound better, or louder, than one of say 100 watts. For the purposes of this test we will give our opinion of the performance, please follow the links for more technical information.
KEF PSW2000 - £299.95
This is by far the prettiest subwoofer of the bunch, as you would expect from the sub, which is used to partner the super cute ‘eggs’ in the KEF KHT2005 system. The quality of build and finish really are very good, in an understated way. There is no wood effect here, but instead you get ‘Video Grey’, which is a silver grey vinyl finish. This is very nicely done though, with the edges and corners being nicely finished and nice and sharp. Supporting it are 4 silver feet with rubber caps (no spikes here) and on the top you have a reflective glass plate with the KEF logo etched in. A nice touch. All in all this is the most ‘coffee table’ like of the bunch.
Providing the bass is a down firing 8” bass unit flanked by twin bass ports and a comprehensive control panel at the rear. This sub has been designed not only with movies, but also music in mind, something that can be seen by virtue of the fact that not only do you have a line level input (for connecting to an AV amp) but also 8 chunky gold plated binding posts for speaker level inputs. A nice touch, rather than the plastic spring clips we normally see. There is also a high level output that can be used to link into a second sub.
Set up and placement of the sub are relatively easy thanks to the downward firing design and the easy access to the control panel. This is a sub that can be crammed into a corner taking up very little floor space, but do bear in mind that the down firing design means the sub will interact with the floor, if yours is concrete, great. If it is wood, this is no bad thing, but does mean you will have to spend more time integrating this sub into your system than some of the other designs here. Thankfully, access to the controls is very good with the main set up controls being at the top of the control panel, handy, as the sub is surprisingly heavy for it’s compact size, and not something you want to be lugging around too much.
Without beating around the bush this sub is quite frankly, superb. It really is very punchy and deals with fast repetitive bass lines with ease. If you want to hear what we mean all you need to do is put ‘The Matrix’ on and access the scene where the helicopter is hovering outside the building and Neo has his hands on the machine gun. You know the bit ;) Here, you can hear the rotor blades rotate, and at the same time feel the power of the machine gun, both at the same time, but seemingly independent. No mean feat. Thanks to the fast, responsive performance this is a subwoofer that will happily partner small speakers, or alternatively larger floorstanders.
The only area that we found the sub lacking was in the ability of it to handle a constant bass rumble. Something that is due to the 8” bass unit, and restrictions is design imposed by cost. But, this is the only time the sub will draw attention to itself, the rest of the time it will disappear into your system, a good indicator of a quality sub.
Build 8/10 Performance 9/10 Features 8/10 Value 8/10 Overall 9/10
Mission M70AS - £249.95
The best way to describe the design of the Mission sub is, odd, but in a good way. Mission have dispensed with the standard cube design and wood finish, and instead have designed a matt black plastic covered rectangular box. I suspect with one eye on placement, and in the belief that ‘bland is best’. Certainly placement of this sub is fairly straightforward due to the slim nature of the design, as long as you want it by the side of the sofa or your TV. But do bear in mind the sub is quite deep, so check you measurements before parting with your cash if there is a specific place for the sub you have in mind.
There are no speaker level inputs here, only those for connecting to a subwoofer output on an AV amp. It’s fairly obvious this sub has been designed first and foremost with movie, not music use in mind.
Looking more closely at the sub you’ll notice it is a down firing design, with a 10” bass unit and a chunky port. For some reason Mission have decided that though the bass unit is on the bottom of the sub, it still needs a protective metal grille. As we said, an odd design. There are 4 spikes supplied to fit to the bass for isolation.
The Mission subwoofer is a real surprise package. In use it will go lower than any of the other subwoofers here, regardless of what the specs say. For the size of the box, this depth of bass is very impressive. In contrast to the Kef this is a sub that loves these low rumbles and will happily handle long and low frequencies no problem, and also seems to fill the room with bass easily.
The downside of this subwoofer is the agility. To produce the real low bass it is apparent that Mission have traded off a little agility, and it can sometimes feel that the performance of this sub is a little all or nothing. It is also not a subwoofer we would pair with small speakers, as the lack of mid bass agility would make for a very ponderous sound.
What this sub does undeniably well is produce loud, low bass for sustained periods with ease. This is a subwoofer that you crank up on Saturday morning and crank down on Sunday evening knowing it will not be unduly troubled by extended and loud listening periods. The amount of bass it produces from the relatively compact cabinet is also impressive, making it an ideal sub for those who want that big box sound, without the big square box dominating the room.
A good indication of this sub at it’s best can be heard by listening to the wormhole scene in ‘Contact’. The bass this sub produces is enough to make you believe you are standing next to the colossal machine at ‘the cape’.
Build 6/10 Performance 7/10 Features 5/10 Value 6/10 Overall 6/10
Tannoy MXSUB10 - £249.95
This sub stands out from the others for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the joint cheapest sub in the test, and if you shop around a little will find excellent discounts to currently be had, making it the cheapest sub in the test by far. The design is also different from the others. This has a front firing 10” bass unit covered by a silver grille, and is surprisingly compact. It is also a sealed box design, which combined with the fact that the bass unit fires into the room (rather than the floor) makes it a sensible choice for those who are concerned about the bass resonating through their room (and building!).
Because of the sealed box design this is also a sub ideal for those who NEED to place it in a corner, but at the same time wish to avoid that one note BOOM that can often occur. The control panel is once again on the rear of this deep, well-constructed sub. This is by far the most difficult of the subs here to set up, or alternatively offers the greatest level of control over the sound. It’s not that the sub has any additional settings or features, rather that the controls are incredibly sensitive, meaning that the slightest adjustment can affect the sound quite radically. One of the reasons for this is the sealed box design. The only air that this sub moves is by the bass cone (no bass sport here) and with you controlling this, you tend to hear changes of settings very easily. This is a sub that gives you a great amount of control over the sound it produces and allows you to tweak it to the nth degree until it really does disappear into your system.
Unfortunately you will only be able to do this when the sub is fully run in and you are familiar with how it interacts with your system and room. It is no exaggeration to say that in normal use we would expect it to take about a month for you to hear what this sub can do, so if you are looking for a quick and simple plug and play bass solution with the minimum of fuss it would be better to look elsewhere. If on the other hand you are happy to take the time and trouble to set this sub up then the performance it will provide is very rewarding.
In terms of performance we would rate this as the most musical of the subwoofers here, by that we mean it plays real musical notes, rather than low tones and dull thuds. Movies though do push this sub harder. Like the KEF, and unlike the Mission this is a sub that is more at home producing fast repetitive bass notes, and not low constant rumbles. It will do it, and sound very good, but when pushed hard you can hear it starting to get unhappy. It is also the most mobile of the subwoofers here. By this we mean that without the spikes on each corner this is a sub that will happily ‘walk’ across your living room and follow you into your kitchen due to the cabinet vibrations.
To show what this sub can do the best track we found was not a movie, but music. By playing Leftfield ‘Leftism’ through this sub we found it handled the fast and slow, varying bass notes with ease, and was very discrete in use. For movie use it was again very discrete when set up correctly, and really did integrate very well into our system, and would be a sub that could partner with a wide variety of speakers. Only when cranked up very loud does it start to feel uncomfortable.
<size="20" Build 8/10 Performance 8/10 Features 8/10 Value 9/10 Overall 9/10 >
Yamaha YSTSW320 - £349.95
This is the most expensive subwoofer in our test, and also the most powerful at 250 watts. It is a statement from Yamaha saying you Brits are not the only ones who can design a pretty speaker. The Yamaha is aesthetically very nice to look at in a purposeful sort of way. A coffee table this is not. It is the tallest sub on test, and a down firing design again, but this time there is a pyramid shaped deflector to channel the bass into the room. This is an attempt by Yamaha to retain the advantages of a down firing design, but without the interaction problems you can get if the sub is used in a ‘live’ room. The whole lot then stands on 4 stubby feet, no spikes or silver feet here.
One very nice touch about this subwoofer, and something common throughout the Yamaha range is the layout of the controls. The inputs and lesser-used controls are on the rear panel, out of site, but on the front you have the more commonly used adjustments. This means that the sub can be sited, and then set up, rather than having to constantly twist it round to see the back when you wish to change settings.
Though the layout is nice, the best way to describe the controls is fiddly. It is obvious that this is a subwoofer designed for a worldwide market, and it does sometime give the feeling that Yamaha have tried to please all of the people, all of the time, and have maybe overcomplicated the design and set up of this sub.
One facility that is present is a switch for Music or Movie use. This allows you trade off a small amount of depth in the bass, for more agility. Ordinarily this type of facility is about as useful as plasticine table legs. It is not so much a gimmick, but rather brings an extra level of control to the sub that is very handy when it comes to integrating it into your system. Will most people use the switch on a daily basis? No. But it really does offer an extra dimension to the performance of the sub. We found the music setting sounded great on movies, and the movie setting great for music. Treat is as what it is, another adjustment, and don’t stick to the ‘correct’ setting religiously.
Once set up the sub instantly impresses with music, and really does drive hard and move some air. The word subtle is not one that springs to mind; rather the term that springs to mind is PHAT. This is a BIG sounding sub, and not for the faint hearted. If out and out volume and bass is your goal, and you are happy to nail down the furniture, and don’t mind annoying the neighbours, then this is the sub for you. Our only criticism is much the same as with the Mission, that the sound can sometimes be a little over the top, and it can occasionally sound that in the search for the very lowest bass at a price point Yamaha have compromised the agility of this sub.
To sum up, the best scene we found to show what this sub can do is the shuttle launch scene in ‘Armageddon’. Often, this can get very confused, and instead of the bass being controlled and defined it just becomes one big boom. With the Yamaha set up correctly we found the bass in this scene to be multi-layered, with a number of different frequencies being produced with ease, at the same time. Also, it didn’t matter how hard we drove our amplifier, this was a sub that was certainly never left behind. In fact, it may be a good idea to fit the same seat restraints used in the X-71 shuttle to your sofa to stop you bouncing off!
Build 9/10 Performance 9/10 Features 9/10 Value 8/10 Overall 8/10
After we had conducted the side-by-side comparison of the subwoofers, we were surprised to find that there was no outright winner here. This was surprising because of the varying retail prices and designs. None of the subs reviewed here are bad subwoofers, and it is apparent that none of these models are a first attempt for any of the manufacturers, but instead are developments of tried and tested designs and components. What splits them is the manufacturers idea of what makes a good subwoofer, and how they want it to sound. Ultimately, which is best will depend on your system, room, and what type of sound you are looking for.
If we were pushed to have a favourite for music, then it would have to be the Tannoy. The sealed box design and 10” bass unit combined with the fact it is the cheapest sub here gives it the edge, just. It is a real gem, and shows how by following simple design principles, and leaving off the gimmicks can reward with a highly impressive product. We can’t see how anyone could fail to be impressed with this subwoofer. If there is a downside it is the amount of setting up this sub needs, and if you buy it, be prepared to be up and out of your sofa at least half a dozen times a day for the first few weeks as you tweak here and there. Also, do check where you want to put the sub as the large low box is not just one that can be plonked anywhere. Also, due to the sealed box design this is a very flexible sub to place in your room, and if you feel your room is a bit lively (wooden floor, plaster board walls) would be a good safe bet for good bass without boom.
Onto the Mission. This is a very well planned and thought out subwoofer, but does suffer through the limited connectability, and control in comparison to the other subs here. It is also a sub that we would not partner with small speakers, as it does tend to concentrate on the very low stuff and not a lot else. On the other hand, if you have floor-standing speakers, and just want the most bass for your bucks then marvel at the low-end performance of the Mission.
The Yamaha YSTSW320 is the most expensive subwoofer here, and with Yamaha’s subwoofer heritage we had very high hopes. It didn’t disappoint. If you want a sub that you know will work well regardless of your room or system, and generally wish to make a mockery of the noise pollution laws then this is a sub that certainly won’t disappoint. Yamaha have stuck to their usual gimmicky controls, but they work here. A superb subwoofer.
Now this brings us onto the KEF. Sitting above the Mission and Tannoy in terms of cost, but below the Yamaha this is the most flexible and easy to use of the subwoofers here. Sure, it only has an 8” bass unit, but if we were to sum up our opinion on this sub it would be that it doesn’t try and do what it can’t, but does what it does very well. It is easy to set up, handles music and movies with aplomb, and is also very nicely put together. The design also shows that to produce great bass you don’t need a huge box, but instead just good design, and quality components.
So, to sum up, all of these subwoofers are good, there’s not a bad egg amongst them, but overall we would say that the KEF offers the best all round performance in an easy to use and attractive package, but is it the best for you? We’ll stay sitting on the fence thank you.
Editorial by Gary @ hifistore
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