Face Off: Sub-$1,000 Subwoofers The Forum
At our sound laboratory in Woodland Hills, California, we conducted the test on an equal playing field. First, Mike measured the listening room with a 1/3-octave real time analyzer (RTA) to find the location in the room that provides the best frequency response at the listening position. Moving a subwoofer a few inches in one direction or another can make a tremendous difference. After we concluded that a location just forward of the front right corner of the room was the best choice, we marked the floor. (Note: This may or may not be the best location in your room.) Each sub was placed on its own dolly so that it could be wheeled into the exact same position in the room. Since each manufacturer's design places the driver in a different location on the cabinet, I made sure that each sub's driver lined up with our mark so that the room interaction would be optimized.
Before Mike and features editor Chris Lewis entered the room, I installed black curtains to ensure a truly unbiased evaluation. All three subwoofers were completely hidden from view, regardless of whether they were under test or not, making it impossible for Mike or Chris to know which woofer I was playing. Since you can't bypass the crossover on two of the three subs, I fed them all a full-range signal, with the main speakers crossed over at 80 Hz. Each sub's internal crossover carried the responsibility of filtering out high-frequency sounds.
For our two-channel evaluation, we chose "Two Worlds" from the Tarzan soundtrack, which opens with a wonderful variety of drums and bongos anchored by brass instruments and accented with great acoustic effects. We also chose track 1 of the United States Autosound Competition SPL Shootout disc. This disc is typically reserved for those who wish to make their eardrums rupture, but I felt it was appropriate because of the demand it puts on the subwoofer specifically. There are several full sweeps of the spectrum between 20 and 80 Hz. For our last music selection, we chose "One" from Metallica's And Justice for All disc.
Moving right along, our movie selections were limited to two cuts. Long exposure to high SPL levels can cause both permanent hearing damage and fatigue. Chapter 2 of Armageddon seemed appropriate, as did the Phantom Menace Surround EX- equipped laserdisc from Japan. Who can forget the low-frequency material recorded during the pod race (chapter 15, side B)?
Round One: Music
Beginning with the two-channel audio evaluation, the first woofer up was the CVT-300S. During the Tarzan soundtrack, I noted an aggressive attack on the upper-bass portions of the recording, which was anchored by excellent low-frequency extension. Mike agreed, commenting that the Cerwin made the drumroll sound thunderous while still providing plenty of impact and distinction. Chris thought the other two subs sounded tighter on this passage but agreed that the Cerwin's physical presence was intense. Moving on to the SPL Shootout disc, the CVT-300S didn't hesitate to attack every frequency in the sweep without failing or bottoming out. It kicked me square in the chest, picked me up, and begged me for another listen. Mike felt like his kidneys were going to rupture. He also mentioned that it sounded like a car stereo, although he acknowledged that this was most likely due to the musical selection. For me, the Metallica CD actually proved to be rather disappointing. Mike commented that the bass drum actually sounded like a bass drum, but it seemed a bit flat. For the most part, we found that the Cerwin-Vega CVT-300S sounds wonderful with music, detecting and replicating even the most subtle notes. This sub clearly doesn't play around when it comes to low-frequency extension. I should add that it appeared to enhance the lower notes a little too much at times but was impressive overall.
Next up was the Velodyne CT-150. I must admit that I had great expectations about the performance of the Velodyne going in to the Face Off. Beginning with Tarzan, we didn't detect nearly as much low-frequency extension as we did with the Cerwin-Vega. However, Mike and Chris both felt that the Velodyne had better detail. On the SPL Shootout disc, the CT-150 displayed very tight bass and decent impact in the upper-midbass region. I didn't think it came as close to hitting the 20-Hz frequencies as the Cerwin did, and it almost seemed to run out of gas when pushed. Mike agreed, although he mentioned that it still shook his innards like a good subwoofer should. Overall, the Velodyne is smooth and solid, with excellent transient response, but it seems to lack the excitement of the Cerwin-Vega.
Last came the M&K. On the Tarzan soundtrack, this sub was absolutely flawless. We all agreed that the V-1250THX not only picked up the subtlest of bass notes, but it woke up and punched out the tight kicks of the drum. Low-frequency extension was still less than that of the Cerwin-Vega, but it was very comparable to the Velodyne. In a way, Mike and Chris thought the M&K blended better with the main speakers. I guessed that it was playing a bit truer to the recording. With the SPL Shootout and Metallica cuts, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Right out of the gate, the M&K nailed the 20-Hz notes without pause or reservation. It seemed to have a lot more punch than the Cerwin-Vega but not quite as much as the Velodyne. Mike ranked the M&K as I did, particularly on the Metallica tune. Chris felt the M&K was clearly the most musical of the three and added that, if he were going to use a subwoofer with music, he'd prefer subtle, accurate character over pure SPL.