You have a pair of speakers but do you need to add subwoofers? Aren’t these components almost the same? Once connected to the receiver, audio is reproduced regardless of whether you're using just a pair of speakers or a subwoofer as well. While this is true, there are some key differences between subwoofers and regular speakers (more on speaker configurations and set-ups here).
The difference between subwoofers and speakers pertains only to the frequency range. Subwoofers are used for lower frequencies, also called the sub-bass response, while the speakers cover mid and high range frequencies.
While the fundamental difference between speakers and subwoofers are the frequency ranges for which they're designed, there are other features you should know about.
Subwoofers (or subs) and speakers both produce audio, but this is where the similarities end. If your music has a lot of bass and sub-bass, regular speakers won’t be able to handle it. Speakers focus on the mid and high-range frequencies which is why you find them in computers and televisions. The components are ideal for voices, but you will notice something missing if you listen to music.
If you want to hear the lower frequencies you’ll need to add a subwoofer. A subwoofer is designed to only produce the deep bass that is present in most music genres for a more balanced sound (more on the different types of subwoofers in our tutorial). One key difference to keep in mind is that speakers can be used without subwoofers but you can’t use subs without speakers.
A subwoofer is designed for one job, to produce lower frequencies and the frequency range of the sub often depends on the price. In fact, we've explored the different subwoofers in one of our other articles. Professional subwoofers do come with a higher price tag, but also have a frequency range of 100Hz and lower. Less expensive subs typically range from 20Hz to 200Hz, which is enough for most types of music.
Most subwoofers are in a wood casing that protects the sensitive component, with a port or vent for the audio. There are also two types of subs: passive and active. The difference between the two is active subwoofers come with a built-in amplifier. It can improve sound quality, but it’s also priced a little higher than passive ones. There are other differences too, which you can more about in our guide.
It's certainly the case that adding a subwoofer can improve audio quality in a big way, especially if you've chosen one from a reputable company like Polk Audio (on Amazon). Since the sub handles the lower frequencies, this frees up the speakers to produce the mid and high range for which they're better equipped by default.
The result of this is that the audio will sound clearer, crisper, and the sound will fill out more of what's called the 'sonic image.' While most casual listeners won't be able to hear the differences between higher grade speakers, a high-quality subwoofer is easier to distinguish due to the fact lower range frequencies are much easier to hear.
There are advantages to adding a subwoofer to your sound system.
Even though subwoofers do improve sound quality, the components can still come with a few issues.
If you have a TV, computer, or even a smartphone, it has at least one speaker. Like subwoofers, there are two types of speakers: active and passive. Active speakers have an in-built amplifier whereas a passive one doesn't. The inclusion of an amplifier also means the speaker or subwoofer needs to be connected to an external power source.
Both types of speakers have one purpose: to produce quality sound. Speakers can produce high and low frequencies, only the intensity and clarity differs according to the range. Lower frequencies will sound muted or barely audible, while higher frequencies will be clearer, more defined, and instruments and sounds within this range will stand out more in the mix.
Unlike subwoofers where you can often purchase only one, speakers come in pairs to give you a more balanced sound. Each speaker is on a separate channel, left and right, so both work together to provide you with surround stereo sound, in contrast to just one speaker which is called mono. If you add a subwoofer, you‘ll have surround sound.
Speakers have a few advantages that start with the price. Even if you want to replace factory-installed speakers, the components are often cheaper than adding a subwoofer. More importantly, you can also still hear most frequencies with a regular pair of speakers, but the bass won't be as pronounced.
Depending on what you use the speakers for, and the style of music, a subwoofer might not be necessary. Excellent speakers with solid low-end frequency response, such as the Polk Audio T15 (on Amazon), may also do the job sufficiently.
As long as you are using quality speakers, there are very few downsides. The primary one is that you won’t be able to hear deep bass as well because speakers are designed to produce higher-range frequencies. When speakers are used for transmitting lower range frequencies, the sub-bass sounds can appear muted, fuzzy, muddy, or just plain unclear. More importantly, if the volume is too loud it can cause distortion or what's called 'clipping.'
When subwoofers are used in conjunction with speakers, you’ll notice an immediate improvement in sound quality. It’s due to the subwoofers relieving the speakers of having to deal with lower frequencies. This allows your speakers to concentrate on the mid and high-range frequencies that they were designed to produce.
If you’ve decided that subwoofers are necessary for optimal sound quality, or maybe you just want to hear more of the frequency spectrum, setting them up usually isn’t difficult. You might have to do a little fine-tuning to get the audio perfect, but connecting the components shouldn’t take a lot of time.
It’s easy to connect the subwoofer to your home theater receiver. You simply connect the cable from the receiver to the subwoofer using the corresponding outputs and inputs. Not all receivers have outputs for subwoofers, and in this case, you’ll need a set of speaker cables. You connect the cables to the receiver and the subwoofer, and from the sub to the speaker.
The subwoofer most likely came with diagrams depicting the various setup options for easy reference. If this isn't the case, you can also do some research online to find out the best way to set up subwoofers with accompanying speakers.
On the subwoofer, you should see at least two dials, although, higher-priced models can often come with additional ones. Find the volume and crossover frequency dials. The crossover frequency is responsible for determining the highest range the subwoofers will produce. You will have to spend a little time playing with the dial to get the range ‘exactly right’.
Where you set the crossover frequency will also depend on what component the subwoofer is connected to. When it comes to adjusting the volume, it’s a process of trial and error. The best advice is to start with the volume in the middle and adjust it up or down until you get the sound you want.
After the subwoofer is connected and fine-tuned, it’s time to test audio quality. A lot of this will also depend on the placement of the sub. You want to ensure that the sub isn’t blocked by furniture, knick-knacks, or other components because it will mute the sound, even if the volume and crossover frequency is on the ideal setting.
When you’re checking sound quality, a good idea is to sit in your favorite spot. Also, you want to play music that covers a broad frequency range. Many audiophiles recommend classical music due to the variety of different instruments - including double bass, cello, and violin to name just a few - that cover almost the entire frequency spectrum.
Listen to see if the bass is clear and if the higher frequencies are crisp, if you notice muting or that the sound is unbalanced, you might have to do some rearranging. If you’re still not sure about sound quality, there are some apps you can download on your smartphone that will do the listening for you. The app will analyze the different frequencies and let you know if any adjustments are needed.
Without speakers, your devices wouldn’t come with audio. Almost all your devices from laptops and TVs to smartphones and tablets have speakers. And while you can listen to the wide range of frequencies, there is a downside, notably, that bass won’t be as clear without the addition of a subwoofer.
It’s not difficult to add a subwoofer to your audio system. The components can be more expensive than a pair of speakers, but if the lower frequencies are important it is something you’ll want to purchase. Lower frequencies will be deep and clear, and you’ll also notice an improvement in the mid and high range. If you’re an audiophile or love listening to bass, you’ll want to add a subwoofer to your audio system.