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How Does a Subwoofer Work?

written by: •edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 5/11/2009

A subwoofer is an essential component of any decent home theater system because it adds the much-needed BOOM to your sound. In this article, I explain how they work and why you need to get one.

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    Subwoofers - Why the .1?

    Have you ever wondered why speaker sets that include a subwoofer are called 2.1 or 5.1 speakers? If it comes with two speakers and a subwoofer, it’s called a 2.1. Five speakers and a subwoofer make it 5.1, and so on. The reason is that the subwoofer only counts as the .1 because it doesn’t put out the same frequency range of sound as the other speakers, so it technically does not count as a whole speaker. In this article, I will explain how a subwoofer works and why they make such a big difference to any sound system. This applies to both your home theater as well as your car audio.

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    What is a Subwoofer?

    subwoofer To understand the reason why a subwoofer works so well, you need to understand the basic nature of sound. It’s easiest to do in terms of music. Look at a particular song in terms of three layers of sound – lows, mids, and highs. Lows are the low frequency bass notes like the beat of a bass drum, a synthesized beat, and so on. Mids are the middle frequency sounds like a guitar or a singer’s voice. Highs are the higher frequency sounds like a cymbal crash or certain nuances of guitars and other instruments.

    A subwoofer is designed specifically for reproducing low frequency sounds, otherwise known as bass. These low frequency sounds are all it puts out, so being able to specialize enables it to produce cleaner, better bass than what you might get out of a regular speaker. Without a subwoofer, the rest of your speakers have to pull triple duty of producing high and midrange sound, as well as the low stuff, and the results are often muddled. Even the best designed 3-way speaker won’t be as good as a system with separate components that let a subwoofer do bass while the rest of the speakers handle the mids and highs.

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    Bass Deflection

    One really cool thing about subwoofers is that the sound works best when it deflects off something, and the sound isn’t as directional as regular speakers. By directional, I mean you can’t always tell where the subwoofer is located. In most home theater systems, the subwoofer is hidden from view, and usually placed in a corner where the bass can deflect off a wall. I have a home theater system from Panasonic which consists of a bunch of small ‘satellite’ speakers and a giant subwoofer. From anywhere in my living room, it sounds like those little speakers are producing the bass when in reality all those low frequencies are being put out from one corner of the room. It was designed to trick your ears.

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    Get a Subwoofer!

    Adding a subwoofer to any sound system makes an incredible difference. Music, movies, and video games all sound better because you’ll hear sounds that you’ve never heard before, because regular speakers were unable to produce them. Last year, I added a subwoofer to the stereo in my Toyota Tacoma and I’ve been rediscovering my favorite music all over again because it all sounds different now, and in a very good way.