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10 Reasons to Think Twice Before Buying a New Subwoofer

A high-quality subwoofer can add a thrilling new dimension to your home theater experience, providing deep, rumbling bass that you can feel in your chest during intense movie scenes and immersive video games. There‘s no denying the visceral appeal of a great subwoofer.

However, despite the benefits, there are also some significant drawbacks and limitations to consider before taking the plunge on a new sub. As an audio expert and enthusiast, I‘ve seen many people get caught up in the excitement of expanding their system, only to be disappointed with the end results.

That‘s not to say subwoofers are bad – far from it. But it‘s important to understand what you‘re getting into. Here are ten reasons you may want to think twice before adding that big new sub to your shopping cart.

1. Proper System Matching is Critical

One of the most common mistakes I see is when people try to add a subwoofer to their existing speakers without considering how well the components will work together. Mismatched or poorly integrated subwoofers are likely to harm your overall audio quality rather than enhance it.

Ideally, the subwoofer should be from the same manufacturer as your speakers (like a 5.1 home theater set) or at least specifically designed to work well with your speaker models. The subwoofer needs to blend in seamlessly rather than overpowering or clashing with the other speakers.

Recklessly adding a subwoofer runs a high risk of:

  • Frequency response mismatches between the sub and speakers
  • Uneven bass coverage with "boomy" spots and bass-deficient areas
  • Muddy, indistinct low-end that detracts from overall clarity
  • Distortion from the sub at higher volumes
  • An unnatural, disjointed sound as if the bass is coming from a different source

Bottom line – subwoofers shouldn‘t be an afterthought. Either plan your whole system with a subwoofer in mind from the start, or be very cautious about adding one later. Definitely don‘t try to mix and match different brand subs and speakers without doing your homework.

2. Placement and Calibration Require Technical Know-How

Another trap unsuspecting buyers fall into is assuming they can just plop their new subwoofer in the corner, plug it in, and enjoy earth-shattering bass. If only it were that simple!

In reality, finding the optimal placement for a subwoofer is both an art and a science. It requires careful consideration of:

  • The sub‘s directionality (down-firing vs front-firing etc.)
  • Seating positions and listening angles
  • Room dimensions
  • Reflection points and potential obstructions

Even with the best placement, most subs will require some amount of manual calibration to achieve a balanced frequency response and seamless crossover with the other speakers. You‘ll likely need to adjust phase alignment, crossover frequency, and levels using the sub‘s built-in controls or your AV receiver‘s bass management system.

Unless you educate yourself on the finer points of subwoofer setup, you‘re likely to end up with lackluster performance that doesn‘t justify the cost or space requirements. Simply put, owning a subwoofer is not a plug-and-play experience for novices.

3. High-Performance Subs Carry Equally High Price Tags

If you‘re going to invest in a subwoofer at all, it‘s worth getting one that can make a appreciably positive difference in your sound. And that means spending more than the bare minimum.

Budget-priced subwoofers will give you more bass, but not necessarily better bass. Many affordable subs under $500 use inferior drivers and amplifiers that fail to provide the speed, control, and distortion-free output needed for truly high-fidelity low-frequency effects.

To get a subwoofer that can start and stop on a dime, hit the deepest notes with authority, and blend invisibly with your main speakers, you‘ll typically need to spend at least $1000 for a 10" or 12" model. The sky‘s the limit above that, with the most uncompromising subs from brands like JL Audio and REL costing $3000 or more.

For many audio fans, that‘s a significant chunk of change to spend on a component that, while impactful, still plays second fiddle to the main speakers in terms of overall importance. So it‘s understandable why some choose to allocate their audio budget elsewhere.

4. Your Neighbors May Not Share Your Enthusiasm

One thing home theater newbies often fail to consider is just how much sound can pass through walls and floors, especially when it comes to low-frequency bass. While your new subwoofer may sound amazing in your living room, your nextdoor neighbors may have a different opinion, as they feel every kick drum and explosion secondhand.

In apartment buildings, condos, and townhouses with shared walls, a powerful subwoofer can quickly make you unpopular with the neighbors, even at moderate volume levels. They may bang on the walls in protest or even file noise complaints with the landlord or HOA.

For this reason, I usually recommend against adding a subwoofer unless you live in a single-family home without adjoining neighbors. Either that or stick to a small, sealed subwoofer and keep the volume in check. Don‘t be that guy who rattles the walls and annoys the whole building.

5. Patience is Required to Reach Full Potential

Like a new pair of shoes, subwoofers require a "break-in" period before they reach peak performance. The stiff materials of a fresh subwoofer – the surround, spider, and even the cone itself – need time to loosen up and achieve maximum flexibility and responsiveness.

How long does this take? It depends on who you ask. Subwoofer manufacturers recommend anywhere from 10 to 100 hours of playback to fully break in the components, with 20-30 hours being the most common advice.

During this time, you‘ll want to avoid playing the subwoofer at max output, as the parts are more susceptible to damage until they‘ve loosened up. You should also re-check the tuning controls like phase and gain after break-in, as these can shift slightly.

The point is, you need to be patient with a new subwoofer and put in the hours to condition it properly. Don‘t expect it to sound its absolute best straight out of the box. And if you can‘t commit to the break-in process, you may never hear what your sub is truly capable of.

6. Multiple Subs May Not Yield Multiple Benefits

You‘ve probably seen those awe-inspiring home theater setups with a subwoofer on each side of the couch, or maybe even four subs in each corner. If one sub is good, more must be better, right?

The truth is more complicated. While multiple subwoofers can help even out the bass response across a large room and reduce dead zones, the audible benefits for the average listener are usually pretty minimal.

The fact is, human hearing is relatively poor at localizing the direction of low-frequency sounds below 80 Hz or so. Hence why the ".1" channel in surround formats carries bass alone. As long as your single sub is positioned well, you‘ll likely hear the bass as emanating from a general area rather than the exact location of the speaker.

Dual subwoofers have real benefits in spacious dedicated theater rooms, but for the average small to mid-sized living space, the advantages are slim for the added cost and lost floorspace. If you‘re on a quest for ultimate performance then definitely explore multiple subs, but if you just want great bass for movies and music, one quality subwoofer is plenty.

7. Music Listeners May Prefer Going Sub-Less

While few would question the importance of a subwoofer for movie watching, the case is less clear cut when it comes to pure music listening. For some genres and speaker setups, adding a sub may actually be a detriment.

With classical and acoustic music especially, the goal is usually a sense of realism, as if you‘re hearing the instruments in a natural, unamplified space. The bass provided by a good set of tower or bookshelf speakers is often more than sufficient. Adding a subwoofer to the mix, even when carefully tuned, can sound obviously artificial and hyped.

Pipe organ music and some hard-hitting electronic genres can certainly benefit from subwoofer-assisted playback. But for other styles, it‘s very much an acquired taste and not necessarily a clear upgrade over a sub-less system with quality main speakers.

At the end of the day, the best way to hear music is whatever sounds good to you. Just understand that a subwoofer isn‘t a prerequisite for great full-range sound, and it‘s totally valid to prioritize your speakers and skip the subwoofer if music is your passion.

8. Home Decor Takes a Hit

Even the most ardent bass-heads among us have to acknowledge the simple fact that subwoofers are usually not attractive to look at. While they‘ve slimmed down some in recent years, the need for large drivers and powerful amps still results in a big, boxy appearance.

Whether you hide it in a corner, build it into a cabinet, or leave it out in plain sight, a hulking subwoofer is going to be a notable presence in your living space. It may draw the ire of others in your household with an eye for interior design, and will certainly raise questions from curious houseguests.

In the grand scheme of things, aesthetics may seem trivial compared to sound quality. But don‘t discount the visual impact, especially if it‘s in a main living area. You‘ll have to look at your subwoofer much more often than you‘ll be listening critically to it.

One potential solution is to wall-mount your subwoofer in a side or rear location, but this presents its own challenges in delivering consistent bass coverage. Ultimately you‘ll have to decide if the aesthetic trade-off is worthwhile.

9. Subwoofers Demand Extra Outlets and Cables

Back to a practical consideration, don‘t forget that a subwoofer is another component you‘ll need to supply power and signal to. That means one more power cord to plug in, one more interconnect cable to your receiver, and likely a whole lot of extra speaker wire if the sub is placed across the room.

Granted, this is hardly an insurmountable challenge. But it‘s one more point of potential failure, one more thing to troubleshoot if your system is acting up. The cabling and outlet access could also limit your placement options in smaller rooms.

None of these factors should be a deal breaker on their own, but it‘s still something to keep in mind as you consider adding a subwoofer, especially if you‘re trying to keep your system simple. More components means more complexity, period.

10. The Thrill of Earth-Shaking Bass May Fade

Finally, even if none of the practical arguments against subwoofer ownership put you off, consider this. Once you get used to having pants-flapping bass on tap, you may find the excitement starts to fade.

Sure, the first few times you watch a blockbuster movie or fire up your favorite shooter with a brand new subwoofer, it‘s a really cool experience feeling those subsonic tones in your body. You‘ll giddily replay the most intense scenes over and over.

But there‘s a real possibility that over time, constantly having your eardrums and chest cavity pounded with overhyped bass may start to get tiring. Many listeners find that after the honeymoon period wears off, they prefer a more refined, balanced sound without as much constant low-end thunder. Movies and music often sound more nuanced and easier to listen to at length this way.

So if you‘re on the fence about getting a subwoofer, think about the long term. You may love all that bass at first, but don‘t be surprised if a year or two down the line you dial it back or leave the sub turned off entirely. Hopefully the investment will still seem worth it.

Closing Thoughts

There‘s no one-size-fits-all answer to the subwoofer question, as it depends on your unique priorities, room, and system. Plenty of audio enthusiasts couldn‘t imagine living without a subwoofer, and I totally understand why – the best subs can provide an incredibly engaging experience that headphones and standard speakers can‘t fully replicate.

But as I‘ve outlined in this article, there are also plenty of valid reasons you might want to hold off on buying that fancy new sub, or at least think twice about which one you buy and how you plan to use it.

Subwoofers aren‘t automatically a smart purchase for everyone. Whether you‘re worried about bothering the neighbors, lack the technical know-how to properly integrate one, or simply don‘t want to spend the cash, going subwoofer-free is a perfectly respectable choice. Your main speakers and room treatment should still be the top priority.

If you do decide to take the plunge on a subwoofer, be prepared to put in the work to get your money‘s worth. Do the research to choose a high-quality model that matches your speakers, budget ample time for break-in and calibration, and make sure everyone in your household is on board with a bulky new addition to the decor.

Hopefully I haven‘t scared you off of subwoofers entirely. When done right, a great sub can add a thrilling dimension to movie night. Just understand what you‘re signing up for and consider all the factors before diving in. As with any audio purchase, it pays to be an informed and intentional shopper.