Once you get low with a subwoofer, you won’t go back
It can mean the difference between a realistic-sounding car audio system and a wimpy one.
If you’re serious about getting the most realistic sound possible out of your stereo system, a dedicated subwoofer is the single must-have feature to look for when car shopping.
Fortunately, they’re not as difficult to find in factory systems as they once were. A 2013 Kia Optima Hybrid I recently drove, for example, includes an 8-inch subwoofer mounted in the rear deck.
The uninitiated may only see a subwoofer as annoying, like the drivers who boom absurd levels of bass at stoplights and inflict their musical tastes on everyone within earshot. While that’s typically only possible with a subwoofer, the real reason to include such a large speaker dedicated to low-bass frequencies is that it allows for much more accurate music reproduction. Without it, you’re missing out on a big part of what makes music more realistic.
Consider a live performance you’ve attended -- whether by a symphony orchestra, a rock group or an electronic dance music (EDM) deejay. What usually gives these a visceral impact compared with listening to a recording is the sound -- and feel -- of the lowest frequencies in the audible spectrum. From a sensory standpoint, we experience these frequencies physically as much as we do aurally. You feel as much as hear a tuba at the symphony, a kick drum at a rock concert or a beat drop at an EDM performance. If your audio system doesn’t have a sub, that part of the music simply doesn’t exist.
Kia's 8-inch Infinity subwoofer (pictured, at right) does a decent job of reproducing low-bass frequencies but is not the best application of a subwoofer in a production vehicle. (It’s also not the best example of how automakers' audio now offers good audio value. To get the Infinity system you have to pay for the $2,950 Premium Touring Package option.) The setup suffers from the common bass-in-the-back syndrome, which makes it sound as if the drummer or bass player is in the back seat while the rest of the band is spread out in front of you -- as a sonic image, at least -- as part of the stereo’s front “soundstage.”
Problem is, it’s difficult to find a spot for a large sub, even in the trunk or cargo area, without taking up too much space and adding a lot of extra weight. Mitsubishi, with the 10-inch Rockford Fosgate subwoofer that's part of the pricey Touring and Premium Package options on the Outlander GT (pictured, at top), is one of the few automakers that makes a point to display its sub like an aftermarket installation.
Some automakers have figured out how to get bass in the front of the car. The Bang & Olufsen BeoSound system in the Mercedes-Benz SL features two 8-inch subwoofers in the front footwells. And even though the Beats by Dre system in the Dodge Charger has an 8-inch subwoofer in the trunk, it’s reinforced by a 6-by-9-inch woofer in each front door.
Of course, the aftermarket offers options for adding a subwoofer, some of which are designed to fit specifically in the spare spaces of a vehicle, such as with JL Audio's line of Stealthbox subwoofer systems that include a sub and an enclosure. Competent shops can fit almost any size subwoofer you want in your car and install it anywhere you want it, if money and keeping a stock appearance aren't concerns.
If you still don’t believe that a subwoofer can make a dramatic difference in sound, hear it for yourself. While car shopping, play the same music in a vehicle with and without a sub, preferably in an identical model. I’d bet that once you’ve gone low, you won’t want to go back to a wimpy system that lacks good bass.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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