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Don‘t Make This Mistake: The Hidden Dangers of Cheap Subwoofers

When building your dream home theater or audio setup, it can be tempting to try to save money wherever you can. I get it – quality audio gear isn‘t cheap. But if there‘s one component you absolutely DO NOT want to cut corners on, it‘s the subwoofer.

A subwoofer is responsible for reproducing the deep, low-frequency sounds that add impact, realism and emotional weight to your audio experience. It‘s the rumble of an explosion, the chest-thumping beat of a kick drum, the earth-shaking roar of a T-Rex in Jurassic Park. A good sub will immerse you in the action and rattle your bones. A bad one will make you wish you never bought it in the first place.

As an audio enthusiast who has set up countless systems over the years, I‘ve seen firsthand the problems that arise from pairing an otherwise decent setup with a cheap, low-quality subwoofer. It‘s not pretty. In this article, I‘ll share some cautionary tales of subwoofer woe, explain what separates the good subs from the bad, and give you my top picks for high-performance bass that won‘t break the bank. By the end, you‘ll understand why skimping on a subwoofer is a huge mistake.

Subwoofer Horror Stories: What Can Go Wrong

There are a number of issues that commonly plague cheap subwoofers. Some may be repairable if you know what you‘re doing. Others can kill your sub outright. Here are the big ones to look out for:

1. Popping, Crackling, and Clipping

One of the most telltale signs of a low-quality sub is extraneous noises like popping, crackling, or clipping (when the signal distorts at high volumes). This is usually caused by a weak amplifier that can‘t deliver enough clean power to the woofer. The sub is essentially straining beyond its capabilities.

I once bought a cheap 8" sub to round out a budget stereo system. It sounded okay at low volumes. But when I cranked it up, the bass started crackling like Rice Krispies. Not only did it ruin the sound, but I could smell the voice coil starting to burn. Effectively a paperweight after one week of use.

2. Buzzing and Humming

Another common plague of cheap subs is unwanted buzzing or humming, either from the sub itself or from other gear in your system. This is often due to poor shielding, shoddy construction, or uneven power loads.

Cheaper subs tend to use lower gauge wiring and inadequate enclosures that don‘t block interference well. So that subwoofer cable might be picking up a 60Hz hum from a nearby power source and dumping it right into your rig. Some subs also lack proper ground lift switches and power filtering found in higher-end models.

3. Underpowered and Overpromised

An underpowered sub is arguably worse than no sub at all. Cheap subs tend to grossly exaggerate their capabilities, claiming high wattage and low frequency extension that they can‘t actually deliver.

You‘ll often see no-name subs boasting "1000W PMPO power" and "20Hz bass extension." But these are meaningless marketing gimmicks. The only power spec that matters is RMS (the actual continuous power) and the only extension spec that matters is the rated -3dB point (the lowest frequency the sub can hit at -3dB of its optimal level).

In reality, that "1000W" bargain sub putting out maybe 50-100W RMS and struggling to hit 40Hz with any authority. Physics doesn‘t lie – there is no replacement for displacement and a quality amplifier.

4. Distortion and Weak Output

A subwoofer‘s job is to cleanly and powerfully produce a deep, controlled low end. Cheap subs tend to fall short on both fronts – distorting at higher volumes and failing to pressurize the room with convincing bass.

Subwoofer distortion is usually caused by woofers made from flimsy materials, poorly braced enclosures that rattle and resonate, and underpowered amps. The sub may make noise, but it won‘t sound good doing it.

Cheap subs also have a hard time filling space, especially larger rooms. A quality 12" sub can easily energize a 3000+ cubic ft. room. A cheap 12" will run out of steam well before that. If you have ever felt a sub bottom out with a sad thud during a movie‘s climactic moment, you know the feeling.

5. Mechanical Failure and Blowouts

Finally, cheap subs are prone to outright failure far sooner than quality models. Subwoofers endure more punishing use than any other speaker by dealing with high excursion, heat, and air pressure.

Cheap subwoofer drivers use brittle surrounds, weak suspensions, undersized voice coils and soft materials like paper that simply can‘t handle the abuse. The sub may fail in a number of ways – a tear in the surround, a cracked cone, a burnt out coil, a blown capacitor, etc.

Additionally, cheap ported designs often suffer from chuffing and port noise. The woofer will overload at high volumes and bottom out as it reaches the end of its excursion, slamming into the back of the enclosure. I‘ve seen cheap subs literally beating themselves to death.

What Makes a Quality Subwoofer

Now that we‘ve seen the dangers of cheap subs, let‘s look at the qualities that set good subs apart. If you‘re shopping for a sub, here‘s what to prioritize:

Powerful, High-Current Amplification

A great sub needs a great amp – one with ample RMS wattage, high current capacity and headroom. For a single sub, look for at least 300-500W RMS from a well-designed Class AB or Class D amplifier. Avoid "peak power" ratings.

Rigid, Well-Braced Enclosure

The sub enclosure should be made from thick MDF or wood with extensive internal bracing. The more inert and rigid the box, the less it will vibrate and color the sound. Ported designs need to be precisely tuned.

High-Excursion, Low-Distortion Woofer(s)

The best subs use heavy-duty woofers with beefy motor structures, oversized voice-coils, premium suspensions, progressive spiders and stiff, lightweight cones (ideally a woven fiber or aluminum). All of these elements allow the woofer to move large volumes of air without distortion.

Quality Components and Construction

From heavy gauge internal wiring to isolated speaker terminals to a thick front baffle, quality matters in subwoofer construction. Look for cast aluminum frames, high-grade capacitors, solid binding posts and a durable textured finish. Avoid plastic parts.

Brand Reputation and Specialization

There are certain brands that have established a reputation for building excellent subwoofers through extensive engineering, proprietary technology and specialization. SVS, Hsu, Rythmik, REL, JL Audio and Velodyne are some of the most respected names in subwoofers.

Extension, Precision and Headroom

A quality sub should be able to comfortably extend into the 20-30Hz region and remain composed during complex bass passages and high output peaks. It should provide a sense of palpable impact and weight to the low end without losing definition.

Subwoofer Recommendations

While you can‘t go wrong with any of the brands mentioned above, here are my top subwoofer picks at various price points:

Budget (<$500)

RSL Speedwoofer 10S – This compact 10" sub is an overachiever. With a 350W RMS amp and a smart front-firing port, it digs down to 24Hz and punches well above its size/price class.

Hsu Research VTF-2 – Hsu is known for packing a ton of performance into affordable packages. The VTF-2 is a ported 10" design with a variable tuning system that lets you customize the bass for your room.

Mid-Level ($500-$1000)

SVS PB-1000 Pro – If you have a mid-sized room, the PB-1000 is arguably the best value in subwoofers today. This ported 12" design combines an efficient 325W RMS amp with a highly advanced DSP for deep, clean and balanced bass you can tweak from an app.

HSU Research VTF-3 MK5 HP – Another Hsu winner. The VTF-3 ups the ante with a 15" CCD woofer and a potent 600W amp in a hybrid ported/sealed design. This sub will absolutely pound and pressurize larger rooms.

High-End ($1000+)

SVS SB-3000 – The SB-3000 is an audiophile‘s dream. Packing an 800W RMS amp and a pristine 13" driver in a compact sealed enclosure, this sub is all about speed, control and subtlety.

Rythmik FV15HP – Rythmik is a favorite among bassheads for their unique servo technology. The mighty FV15HP combines a 15" aluminum cone woofer with a 900W amp and a massive 5.25" voice coil. Total bass monster.

Remember, even the best subwoofer needs to be properly integrated with your system. Take time to dial in the crossover, gain and phase controls and experiment with placement for smoothest response. Also be mindful of your neighbors – no one likes a 2am bass junkie.

The Bottom Line on Budget Subwoofers

I‘ll leave you with this. In my 20+ years as an audio enthusiast, I‘ve never once heard someone say "I‘m so glad I bought the cheapest subwoofer I could find." But I have heard "I should have saved up for something better" more times than I can count.

When it comes to subwoofers, the gulf between cheap and quality is enormous. Trusting your low end to a no-name hunk of junk is just asking for trouble. Do your research, buy from respected brands and be prepared to spend a little more for something that will sound great now and for years to come.

Trust me, your ears (and your neighbors) will thank you.