Subwoofers: $150 vs $1,800 No Holds Barred

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Disclaimer:  All this talk about speakers is practically worthless without a HUGE discussion on room acoustics. 

This test isn’t fair.  The test isn’t fair for Focal.  While I’m sure their technical expertise is second to none, they can never tap into the Walmart-like mass production price breaks that a sub in the $150 market can.  In short, in an era of robots doing the kind of work that humans could simply never do, it’s hard to determine if a $150 subwoofer would have cost $150 20 years ago or $1,500.  Without a shovel or screwdriver, it’s anyone’s guess as to the quality of components.

Going into this test, there are certain implications as to what an ultra high end product will do.  Long-term durability and tremendous service are things we generally expect with the tip-top products, but we’ve all seen exceptions to the rule both with cheap gear lasting for decades and expensive gear lasting for minutes.

The Data

The Data
I had to work fast.  I wish I would have had more time to get the subs calibrated exactly the same in terms of level and crossover frequencies for this test.  I thought I had a week and instead I had 5 minutes.  Oops.

Unfortunately, due to time limitations and the fact that my Focal Sub6 cables are all wrapped tightly, I wasn’t able to get the two subs in the exact same position.  I’d say there was about 4” difference in their position.  I have to admit that I had a bit of trouble determining what the perfect position would be since the Bic America sub is down firing while the Focal Sub6 is forward firing.  Regardless, I think being within 4” is reasonable although it dilutes the scientificness of the test a bit.  That’s your call.

I’ll let you make up your mind what these two graphs mean.

It’s clear the crossover frequency wasn’t calibrated correctly.  This kills what’s left of the scientific tests in the 100Hz ballpark BUT it’s worth noting just how damn similar the curves of the subs are in the under 80Hz ballpark.  I fully expected the Focal Sub6 to be dramatically more linear and “smoother”.  That just didn’t happen.

The Subjective Perspective

This particular test is flawed because the subs, while maybe only 1” apart for this test can not exist in the same place in space and time.  This means acoustics wreaks its usual havoc, unfortunately, and the differences between the subs could be attributed entirely to that slight difference in positioning.  Damn room modes!!!

I did quite a bit of listening to various reference material and was able to quickly switch the subs off and on via the console. To switch from one sub to the other took maybe 3 seconds, give or take.

My thoughts?  The subs sound 4% different.  If you asked me to pay $20 more for one than the other I’d say you were crazy.  I heard nothing objectively superior about either one.  I heard nothing new in mixes I had done that I didn’t hear before and I don’t feel I was missing anything either.  When listening to reference mixes I felt no additional fidelity was present in either speaker.  I give ‘em a tie.

Ruprect and Minivanz both SLIGHTLY preferred the Focal in our blind tests at first, but all three of us screwed up in picking the correct sub at various times throughout the listening.  What does that mean?  It means it’s a 50/50 toss up.  If while listening I have to feel around on the sub to figure out which one is vibrating to know which is which, there is no which is which.

This is something that really bugs the crap out of me.  The “if you can confuse ‘em” test should be a holy grail.  If within the frame of a matter of minutes you can forget which sub you are listening to based on the sound alone, that thing is probably not a huge factor in our quest for audio.  I know many audio dudes and chicks don’t mind spending 15x as much for differences that may be less than their own psychological shortcomings but I have a business to run and a new mouth to feed.  My tolerance for ultra expensive products that don’t kick the crap out of stuff costing 1/15th the price is at an all-time low.

So who do I blame?  Is Focal making junk that’s too high priced or is Bic America making incredibly good stuff at insanely cheap prices?  Maybe Bic America got lucky?  I don’t know.

I figured maybe the Bic America sub would crap out when pushed hard.  The truth is I don’t monitor that loud and rarely push my Focal Sub6 anyway, but we may as well push ‘em to see.  The Bic America sub never showed the slightest bit of one-note bass or any of the other usual suspects of budget subwoofers I had encountered in the past.  Keep in mind I’m picky.  I’ve probably got 6,000 hours on this Focal sub.  I’m used to a $1,850 subwoofer.  I’d know if I wasn’t getting that kind of performance.  At least I’d like to think so.  ;)

The CLA Factor

There’s a video around here somewhere where CLA is all excited about his compressors, EQs, console, etc.  When asked about his monitors, he’s decidedly less excited.  He says, “Yeah, I just use NS10s and some $300 Infinity sub I got at Best Buy.”  I remember feeling like a horses ass a bit when I first saw that video.  Why does my sub need to cost 6x more than CLA’s sub?  It’s a very fair question that I’ve yet to find an answer for.

Some REAL Benefit

One theory in subwoofer land is to use a bunch of ‘em.  The reason is very straight forward.  You probably won’t get the combined result of 5 subwoofers to tell the same lie as 1.  Forget the subs lying, it’s the stupid room acoustics problem distorting the truth.  Different positions in the room result in a “smoothing” of the dramatic nulls and peaks.  Maybe one sub drops 20dB at 87Hz, but another sub is up 3dB at that spot.   The others help with the load and smooths the overall frequency response curve.

I’m not the guy to explain the concept any further than that, but DanTheMan is.  DanTheMan always approaches monitoring in a way that is free of voodoo and dogma.  He also posts lots of hyper nerd frequency response charts which I dig.  :beerbangX:

He performed an experiment of using 5 sub-woofers on his blog.  (I wonder what it would take to get him to do a few of these types of hyper nerd tests here at RecordingReview.  :epiphany)

With every sub added, the response got a little smoother.  Awesome!!!

A guy in my position who has $1800+ invested in his single subwoofer and is clearly NOT getting that flat or response has to wonder what to do.  It’s obvious to me that 5 of these $150 best buy subs could let me sell my Focal Sub6 on Ebait and sound better and more accurate than I do now using freely available concepts.  At least that’s the theory.  Confucius says we’ll see.

Conclusion

I see zero reasons to keep my Focal Sub6.  I hear nothing from it that the Bic America sub can’t do.  If CLA doesn’t need an expensive sub I definitely don’t and I have to admit the notion of radically flatter low frequency response and hooking up 5 subwoofers at once sounds pretty damn cool.  While I’m at it, I’ll probably put $800 in my back pocket.

A person does have to think of durability over the long haul (an area which the Walmart mass-production thing doesn’t have a perfect record).  My Focal monitors and sub have had zero problems of any kind.  Then again, I have speakers from the mid 90s that are still trucking.  I’m not sure what that means.

I have some decisions to make in what is going to be right for me and my situation.  At the moment, I just can’t justify the enormous amount of capital involved in a high end sub that isn’t changing my life and I recommend all of you considering a giant subwoofer investment to try out one of these $150 subs.  I think you’ll be surprised.

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