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The Correlation Between the Quality of a Subwoofer and its Price Tag

Updated: Apr 7

Understanding the Facts Behind Subwoofer Performance and Price.

Money in a wallet

Are high-priced subwoofers really worth the investment? Like anything in life that requires an accurate answer, including what the buyer considers ‘high-priced’ and how it addresses the requirements of the user; ‘It Depends’ is the most real answer you will find. The price of a top-tier subwoofer could be an exceptional value to a buyer, or a complete waste of resources. Without having specific details, that question cannot be accurately answered. We can, though, address a related question, with more specificity, if we dare to elaborate. “Is there a correlation between the quality of a subwoofer and its price tag?“ The adage, “you get what you pay for most times less” stands true, but the details where the devil hides come with the question, “what are you paying for?” and then comparing that answer to the question, “what do you really want?” Figuring out the answer to both of those questions is work, but extremely worthwhile if you are in fact looking for your personal best value proposition. 

Let's look at what tools we have as consumers to help us make the determination of what offers a good value proposition as a product worth buying, and we will also discuss who is responsible for relaying that information to us in a factual manner. 

First up, we need to decide how to draw our own conclusions, which involves some introspection.

If a higher priced product gets you what you want, and a lower priced product does not, what is the better value? The answer to that is pretty obvious. To apply that specifically to a given product, and to your own circumstances, some deep thinking will be required: What am I actually getting for my money? 

  1. Am I buying into a marketing budget so that I can brag about having what many people ‘know of’ as ‘the best’, because the way has been paid and paved through the audio-industrial complex’s media machine?  

  2. Am I receiving expensive finishes or shapes that make it look exotic?  

  3. Is it nicely machined, good-looking parts that ‘scream quality’, but may or may not actually contribute to any performance benefits?

  4. Is it simply the pretense of a guru who has built a name for themselves spending money and time stoking the fire of their own image?

  5. Is it a pile of parts or features to check off the ‘good stuff’ feature set?  Are these features actually useful to you?

  6. Is it engineering time spent in design/testing/redesign, or just clever use of language to imply it?

  7. Is it followed up by meticulous manufacturing with arguably absurd QC to ensure that you get everything that the hard work of competent and thorough engineering made possible?

From this point we can see that you will develop a set of values that will serve to guide your choices and assertions by means of the; media presence, physical appearance, social standing, accolades of others, features offered, engineering standards, and quality control measures guaranteed. If any of these are missing from your value set, you need to ask yourself why.

Next, we need to look at the tools and data we have to help us make these determinations. I will, and have, gone on record many times; review measurements like CEA-2010, long-term output sine sweeps, and THD tests only show what that subwoofer is capable of during that test. They are not even close to reality in content playback as they are a representation of what the subwoofer can do in that condition only, and nothing more. So, how do we use that information to make reasonable assumptions or assertions?

Look for the first dB of compression at the lowest frequency that you are willing to accept. This is found in long term output sweeps and compression magnitude charts. Compression is the manifestation of inefficiency, and efficiency is sound quality with SPL. Thus, compression is a reduction in both sound quality and SPL because the unit is losing efficiency. If your subwoofer shows more than 1 to 2 dB compression, you will have audible issues with linear performance at and beyond that power level, accross your chosen bandwidth.

If the measurement chart does not show compression in a way that is easy to read, the people who published it do not know enough about efficiency to report on it in a way that is educating the potential buyer. So, where does this measurement chart originate from? Who did the work? Was it peer reviewed? This line of reasoning leads right into the next topic: Who is responsible for relaying the implied value of the return for the price?

If you rely on a manufacturers measurements, you may be subject to their marketing engine, unless they put themselves in a position where they are accountable for what they produce by publishing guarantee structures, documents explaining their procedure and purpose, publicly state that they do not abide by the industry accepted standards, and show where they differ from the accepted standard… like Harbottle Audio for example.

Now, what about reporting and reviews? This is much simpler than the former, because all you have to do is look at the website: Are they bound by published ethics standards? Are they selling something or reporting something? What do they stand to gain? If there isn’t a reporting ethics standard or journalism credentials in clear view and they have to interpret their work on each published measure instead of just using a published chart of definitions, then they are a marketing business. That means they make money on units sold or frame results to fit a monetary goal. Why would they speak negatively about the reviewed item?

C24 and Nathan Funk

Are high-priced subwoofers really worth the investment?  Maybe. But which subwoofers? And to whom? And based on what criteria? To summarize the answer to the reframed question… “Is there a correlation between the performance quality of a subwoofer and its price tag?” Reliably, no, there isn’t, because the ‘quality’ requires a comprehensive qualitative context that will depend on how it is designed and what it is designed for, qualitatively. You can get what you pay for, spend a lot, and the performance can be mediocre, or even terrible, based on your personal standards, even if it is widely lauded as ‘the best’ by friends, peers, or media personalities.

Price vs test results, price vs review accolades, price vs SPL, all of these are very incomplete measures of value because they are all subject to biased interpretation or inaccurate explanation. The two things that are not subject to interpretations are your own opinion and system efficiency. Your opinion is yours, and system efficiency is the ability to remain linear in output, compression, and distortion right up to the maximum power level applied. The question you really want to ask is whether a particular subwoofer, offered at a given price, addresses your personal standards and specific use requirements. Are you willing to reframe your personal requirements into scientific terms in order to find out what does or does not fit your design application? Are you willing to ask questions you may not like the answer to? If it does what you want and you can confirm by understanding efficiency limits, are you willing to pay the price to get that result? 

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