June 30, 2012

The Noise about Subwoofers


Greetings Bass Enthusiasts

As a mobile audio industry affiliate, designer and enthusiast, my goal today is to give my readers the tools necessary to choose a proper subwoofer without having to rely solely on others for advice or opinions. This is loosely related to a recent video of mine on my YouTube channel, Showtimespl, in which I reviewed some Definitive Audio Designs sub woofers.

Now, if the question is “what subwoofer is better?”, perhaps a better question would be, “better for what application?”. This means that what truly makes a subwoofer better is very subjective, and what it is subjective to is the type and condition of the car, the type of install, the parameters and expectations set by listener, the quality of the enclosure, and how well it is matched to the amplifier and other audio components in the system. So perhaps we should look at what gives a subwoofer its quality through comparing aspects of a subwoofer, to get an understanding of what is really going on in the construction of a subwoofer. We can use the best, better, good type scale. This scale can be used to identify a company as a whole, or their product lines when  compared to each other. In the world of subwoofers, we have cheap brands, middle level brands, and then higher end brands. In most cases, a manufacturer may offer an entry level woofer, a mid level, and a flagship woofer.

Now, at the low end of the spectrum are the “cheap” brands, usually with multiple lines in the “cheap” realm. Often, we can
identify these easily by seeing a huge max wattage number printed on the cone or magnet, but in reality these are often false claims. Mostly, these woofers are made with the cheapest parts easily identified through a process of examination. With first overview of a woofer, notice the cone, basket and magnet assembly. Is it something you have seen a dozen times since the 1970s? Lesser grade subwoofers normally have a very thin cone material that is easily bent or warped, a basket of thin gauge stamped steel , a magnet that is very light and small and in some cases disguised with a large plastic covering to appear larger. If you notice these features coupled with high power handling ratings, you can pretty much be assured it is indeed low level product.

Moving up to the middle level manufacturers, we see a large improvement in quality. In some cases of a middle level brand, the products are produced to the same exacting standards as a high end company, except for the fact that their brand name is not considered a bonus value and perhaps high dollar custom tooling’s or materials are not integrated into the products. This may be the case with Definitive Audio Designs, as they are considered a middle level product when it comes to price and build value, but still offering the level of performance or potential to be considered High End. Let’s take a look at why, and what makes these woofers mid level. First we take an overview, as was the case for the low level woofer. We can see a sturdy woofer, built with thick and rugged materials. Even the entry level woofers of the brand have a thicker gauge steel basket than the low level brands, and the cone is a heavier, more rigid material. Then we see the top offerings that Definitive Audio Designs offers in their BD series, with a strong cast aluminum frame, a very sturdy cone, a stout looking suspension and terminal set and a design that spouts performance and quality. For woofers of this level, we do not need any fancy add on plastics or unusable cosmetics. These woofers are designed to have the same or similar performance of a high end woofer, but cut down on the proprietary or exotic materials, as to keep pricing in the mid level.

Now we can move up to high end brands. The jump from a true mid-level brand to a higher end brand, in some cases, may offer very little performance difference. In some cases we see the higher cost woofers are a higher cost simply because the brand name is adding value by popularity in the market. In many cases, parts in a high end woofer are valuable and sometimes rare. Let’s take an overview. First look at a high end woofer shows a very unique look due to the manufacturer having tooled their own parts for use on their woofer, and has not used publicly available parts. This alone may add the bulk of the cost difference between a mid-level woofer and a high end woofer. Looking at the cone and surround, we may at times see the same materials used in mid-level woofer but in a unique shape. This is due to proprietary designs that the manufacturer had done to ensure a unique look or to meet higher performance requirements. Sometimes we see more exotic materials such as carbon fiber or Kevlar. These materials are much stronger and lighter than the paper cones from midlevel woofers, but it has been my opinion that this performance advantage is usually only apparent at the higher end of the power spectrum as well as in the case where motor force may be lacking in the woofer and a lighter cone is needed to compensate. Speaking of motors, usually we do see more exotic materials in these woofers motors that may only be for bragging rights, though in some cases a more high-end motor that is designed solely for that woofer will yield a better response. This difference in response though may be so small, that only a meter can detect it. Whether or not this makes it worth it to you, is totally your choice. Now, let’s look back at the Definitive Audio Designs BD series woofers, mentioned earlier. I would say that I would choose these to install in my car and here is why. I do not look at claimed power handling, magnet size or at brand name. I first take an overall view of a woofer and notice its look and character. This is important to me as my philosophy with show cars is that they are like a piece of art where every component should flow together. I look at glue seams and how strong the various parts are mated together. A strong bolt and glue bead can mean the difference between a woofer that lasts forever, and one that blows up in your face. I check to see if the cone can warp easily. For my use, I enjoy high power and long excursion, so an easily warped cone can mean sound distortion. I do not value a woofer by how stiff the suspension is. The apparent stiffness of the suspension, by hand, has no notation as to whether it will be a good woofer or not. The suspension depends on how the woofer is designed in conjunction with its motor and intended application. I also look at the terminals and tinsel leads to make sure these are physically solid, as not to rattle or fall apart, and to make sure the electrical connection will be solid. Once I am done with my physical inspection, I research what materials are used. In some cases, I may desire a copper voice coil and in others I may desire aluminum. One is not always better than the other as they are simply used for different designs. I research the cone and surround material to make sure they will handle the stresses I will put the woofer through and they will not deteriorate over time used, UV exposure or chemicals found in an automotive environment. For example, a butyl rubber surround works well in lower powered woofers while foam rubber surrounds are better suited for 1000w and up.

Notice that in all of this I did not refer to T/S parameters in my criteria for choosing a woofer. That is because these parameters are merely a tool in determining how this woofer can sound in a given enclosure. The truth is that one can build an enclosure for any woofer to achieve their desired sound. So once I choose a woofer that meets my quality standard, I can then use the T/S parameters to achieve that sound. In choosing your subwoofer, perhaps one key is to just close your mind to the noise around you and choose the woofer that speaks to your heart. Hopefully you have the mindset and love for car audio that I do in which you are capable of this. And if not, I am here to help.
Thank You, Bass Enthusiasts.

Edward Lester


About the Author

Ed Lester

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