In this occasional series I ‘interview’ our editor in chief Neil McCauley. Today’s topic is stereo subwoofers

Q1: So Neil ..... does size matter?

By and large and in my direct personal experience, the answer’s yes. Moreover size matters greatly.

Q2: A practical example, perhaps?

So, If you have a couple of 8″ drivers in a box you’re calling a subwoofer, you’re going to be disappointed if you follow the setup steps I’ll be discussing (in the next in this series) – because you won’t get the results I’m getting. Big is better as long as you’re not asking it to go too high in frequency.

Q3: Which means what?

The simple fact is surface area is a big deal for moving air and achieving low frequencies. The lowest notes on a pipe organ, Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano and a tuba is around 16Hz – a frequency considered below the threshold of human hearing. These instruments do not create single notes at this frequency but what they do generate is full of higher frequency harmonics – the harmonics giving the instrument its sound signature – and those higher frequencies in combination with the low fundamental give a full visceral feel to the note. When played in a live space, any one of these instruments will produce sound you both feel and hear – your stereo system should do the same.

Q4: Within reason of course!

Yes indeed. To hit realistic in-room levels of undistorted clean bass at 15Hz is quite a feat. Carver’s Amazing subwoofer claims to go down to 18Hz with a 12″ woofer, the same claim is made with the current sub the Martin Logan Descents that have three 10″ woofers, but I suspect these claims are made in a close mic setting.

Q5: So what’s the issue here; what’s the problem – the challenge?

The problem with too small a surface area has to do with coupling the air in the room – which at very low frequencies is not linear.

Q6: What does that mean?

Okay ….. as the frequency goes down, the surface area of the driver has to go up rather dramatically to get what you want delivered in the room.

So, If I were building a subwoofer I’d start with an 18″ woofer, or at least two 12″ drivers. The total surface area of two 12″ woofers is 226 inches, while the total surface area of an 18″ driver is 254 inches – so nearly the same . A single 12″ woofer has only 113 inches and two 8″ drivers about 100″.

Q7: There’s a lot more to this though?

Indeed so. A single 18″ woofer is better, in my opinion, than two 12″ woofers or three 10″ drivers because a single piston couples more effectively than multiple smaller drivers.

Q8: So why don’t makers take this into account, or do they and for reason reject this?

Sub manufacturers like using multiple smaller drivers for three reasons: they are easier to source, have less mass so it’s easier to get a faster transient response and their higher frequency performance is better than a single big woofer.

Q7: Not your view though is it?

I would counter these arguments by suggesting the sourcing of a driver should be based solely on performance, not economic considerations. I would also suggest that given a proper motor assembly one can have any transient speed desired and lastly, in a good full range setup who cares about going higher than 60Hz?

Q8: You’ve got that off your chest and, since you don’t make subwoofers, let’s move on to the real world of what most of us are likely to own. Okay?

Sure is. Yes. So, I imagine nearly none of us have an 18″ powered subwoofer around and in all likelihood, we are probably going to have a single 12″ woofer per side. Oh, did I say per side?

Q9: Per side? Stereo subs?

Yes, sorry, but the myth of the single sub being adequate is in my view and my experience plain incorrect. Stereo subs are the only way to go – unless you simply cannot afford to have two. In that case, I fully understand the limitations we all face in this hobby so I’ll try my best to help readers make a single sub work as well. But by all means, if you’re financially capable of having a stereo subwoofer system, then that’s the best case for your musical setup.

Lastly, make sure you have a great subwoofer. I’d sooner have one great subwoofer than two inadequate ones.

HP’s note: This is part of an occasional series and we hope to return to the subwoofer discussion in the next few weeks.

Thank you


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