Subwoofers are often associated with intense, room-shaking bass, but do all bookshelf speakers benefit from adding a standalone subwoofer? The best answer depends on a number of factors, including the type of source material you’re listening to and the frequency range that the bookshelf speakers are designed to produce. Most bookshelf speakers do not include a dedicated subwoofer out of the box, but as you’ll soon learn, not all bookshelf speakers are created equal.
In this post, we’ll explain what a subwoofer is, how it works, and describe some situations where you may, or may not, need a subwoofer to achieve an optimal listening experience.
What is a Subwoofer?
A subwoofer is a speaker designed for the sole purpose of producing low-frequency audio, and typically has a frequency response range of roughly 35 Hz to 200 Hz, depending on the model. These specialized speakers are limited to handling audio reproduction within their specified range and do not produce sound above it.
Subwoofers come in a variety of sizes—and in general, the larger the diameter of the subwoofer, the deeper the bass. Common sizes for home-listening subwoofers are 8”, 10” and 12”, with some as large as 15”, designed for premium home theatres. They almost always have a dedicated, integrated amplifier which provides ample power for all the low-end energy the sub needs to generate.
Determining the Frequency Range of Bookshelf Speakers
If you look at the technical specifications for an average pair of digital bookshelf speakers, you might find a frequency response range that is approximately 60 Hz to 20 kHz—some may have smaller or wider response curves. Even so, unless you are listening on high-end, premium speakers, it is unlikely that they are producing the full depth of bass all the way down to 60 Hz, as specified.
This is due to the desire to keep bookshelf speakers compact and aesthetically pleasing for the home. As a result, most bookshelf speakers have woofers that are around 5” in diameter. While speakers of this size can provide great performance from around 100 Hz and up (depending on the model), they may fail to produce crucial low-end information that, depending on the source material, you probably never knew you were missing.
Determining whether it’s worth investing in a subwoofer for your particular needs depends on two primary factors:
1. The type of source material you’re listening to.
2. The low-frequency performance of your bookshelf speakers.
Bass Frequency of the Source Material
If you mostly listen to older recordings, like classic rock vinyl records, your typical set of high-quality bookshelf speakers is likely to offer you a great experience as-is. In the days of LPs, mastering engineers would regularly reduce, or attenuate, the lowest frequencies before the vinyl was cut. This was done for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it helped reduce rumble and ensured that the needle stayed in the vinyl’s groove more reliably. As a result, a medium like vinyl doesn’t benefit much from a bookshelf speaker system that includes a subwoofer.
On the other hand, if you are listening to EDM, hip hop, or other bass heavy music, a subwoofer (or a speaker that provides bass performance equivalent to a subwoofer) can significantly enhance your listening experience. These musical genres are known for their use of fundamental bass frequencies that well exceed average bookshelf speakers. However, as mentioned in this article’s opening, not all bookshelf speakers are created equal.
Not All Bookshelf Speakers Are Created Equal
Conventional wisdom suggests that if you want the deepest, richest bass possible, you need to add a subwoofer to your bookshelf speaker system. While average bookshelf speakers may provide enough bass for casual listeners, they simply cannot offer the full-throated low-end often found in recordings of classical music, EDM, and hip hop—not to mention movie audio for home theatre enjoyment.
However, Certified Hi-Res digital bookshelf speakers, like the Edifier S3000Pro, reproduce frequencies as low as 38 Hz, which is better than some of the most popular standalone subwoofers on the market. The Edifier S1000DB digital bookshelf speakers also offers bass performance on par with standalone subwoofers, reproducing frequencies down to 48 Hz. Both of these digital bookshelf speakers are examples of audio systems that do not require a dedicated subwoofer in order to produce the full spectrum of sound needed to create a powerful and dynamic home listening experience.
A Better Home Audio Experience
At this point, you’ve read about how subwoofers can supplement conventional bookshelf speakers when they are unable to produce rich, deep bass on their own. You’ve also learned how certain digital bookshelf speakers, like the Edifier S1000DB and S3000Pro, provide low-frequency performance that meets or exceeds many standalone subwoofers.
You might be wondering how this affects your listening experience in practical terms. In popular music, especially classical, pop, hip-hop, and rap, you’ll discover entire new low-end elements in your favourite songs. In movies, you’ll literally feel the rumble usually reserved for theatre-goers. In video games, you will become more immersed than ever before, because what you’re seeing on screen will finally be matched to what you’re hearing in-game. You’re likely to be surprised by how much your experience improves when you hear the fuller, deeper bass that was originally intended.
In systems that do require a standalone subwoofer to achieve this level of performance, using a subwoofer is likely to make your bookshelf speakers sound better too! By choosing a bookshelf speaker system that includes a subwoofer, like the Edifier S350DB, the bookshelf speakers can be kept smaller and therefore housed in a smaller enclosure. And since the enclosure is smaller, there is less surface area and material to potentially vibrate and resonate. With virtually no resonance, you’ll hear more of your music with greater clarity and without any distracting rattling from your speaker cabinet.
A Recap of Subwoofers
Subwoofers offer exceptional low-frequency performance, with a typical response between 35 Hz - 45 Hz at the bottom end of their range. Although standalone subwoofers are often used in combination with bookshelf speakers, hi-fi speakers like the Edifier S3000Pro and S1000DB, offer bass performance on par or better than most subwoofers. This proves that not all bookshelf speakers are created equal, and that with the right design and quality components, a standalone subwoofer is not necessarily required to achieve the ultimate audio experience. With all that said, many bookshelf speaker systems are certainly functional without a subwoofer. But, if you’re the type of person who seeks the best home entertainment performance possible, you should consider upgrading to a system with a frequency response that matches the type of content you’ll be listening to. Even though you may not know what you’ve been missing, you definitely won’t regret the upgrade, and you’ll wonder how you’ve made it this far without experiencing the deep, rich bass typically reserved for standalone subwoofers.
Looking for a pair of high-quality bookshelf speakers that don’t require a subwoofer? Check out our wide selection of wireless bookshelf speakers.