Enclosed Subwoofer Showdown
The 4 roads to bass nirvana!
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Four subwoofer enclosures prepare for the cruel world of loud, loud bass.
You're tired of anemic sound in your vehicle and you want to add some bass to your system. Maybe you checked things out at a local store, maybe you did a little research online, but now your head is swimming with unfamiliar terms. Who knew there were so many options for low-frequency reinforcement in a car? How do you select the subwoofer and enclosure that's right for you and your music?
Many people spend hours agonizing over the choice of subwoofer, and then buy an enclosure as an afterthought. But the enclosure doesn't just house your sub, it fundamentally shapes its sound. That's why loaded enclosures (boxes with speakers already in them) are so popular — you're assured of maximum performance since the box and woofer are perfectly matched. But you're still faced with a choice of sealed, ported, bandpass, or a tube enclosure, and everybody has a different opinion on what type of enclosure works best. How do you choose?
Sealed, bandpass, ported, or tube? — that is the question.
And so we arrive at our CrutchfieldAdvisor mission: using the same receiver and amplifier, install four different types of subwoofer enclosures — sealed, bandpass, ported, and bass tube — in the same vehicle, listen for a few days, and make some qualitative judgements about the type of bass produced by each enclosure.
We selected four candidates for this test, all in the same general price range:
- Kicker Competition TC10 10" sealed truck enclosure ($140)
- Alpine Type-S SBS-1041BP 10" bandpass enclosure ($200)
- Kicker Competition VC10 10" ported hatchback enclosure ($180)
- Bazooka BT1014 10" subwoofer tube ($150)
Each enclosure was set up in the rear of my Jeep Cherokee, powered by a Rockford Fosgate Punch 125.2 amplifier putting out 250 watts in mono mode. I played the same series of test songs — cuts by Buddy Guy (blues), Alpha Blondy (reggae), Redd Kross (power pop), and Hank Williams III (old-style country & western) — through each enclosure to evaluate performance. Each enclosure had a unique sound, so that the music sounded remarkably different with each test. The English language is not blessed with a wealth of words for describing bass, so you'll have to use your imagination as we press some new adjectives into service.
Kicker's TC10 sealed enclosure delivers punchy, accurate bass with its Comp 10" woofer.
Kicker Competition TC10 10" sealed truck enclosure
The TC10 truck enclosure features a Kicker Comp 10" subwoofer housed in a sealed box made from 5/8" medium density fiberboard (MDF). For the uninitiated, a sealed box (also known as an acoustic suspension enclosure) has an opening for its subwoofer, but is otherwise airtight. The movement of the woofer cone creates the bass, and the enclosure acts solely as a neutral housing for the sub. The up side — a sealed box tends to be smaller and to play more accurately, producing a very natural sound. The down side — a sealed box is relatively inefficient, so it takes more power to create a given amount of bass than with other designs.
The TC10 is a truck-style enclosure, wider and shallower than a hatchback box, designed to fit in the limited space behind a truck seat. Its Comp 10" sub is descended from subwoofer royalty — the legendary Kicker Competition — and it more than lives up to the name. I tested the TC10 first, and it sounded great right off the bat — loud, clean, and punchy, with no tuning necessary.
I'm a bass player, so I judge a sub in great part by how well it reproduces the sound of an electric or acoustic bass. Any decent sub will nail the kick drum and the lowest octave on the electric bass but, with an inferior sub, the bass can become indistinct as it ascends into its higher ranges. Not only did the TC10 reproduce the bass effortlessly throughout its entire spectrum, it also brought out subtle differences between fingered and picked bass passages, even between Fender and non-Fender basses.
Powerful, natural bass
The TC10 also exhibited little or no "overhang" — the ringing or resonance that continues after a bass note has ended. When a bass note or kick drum hits on the TC10, it comes to a dead stop, making the music sound very natural and "tight." One surefire test — acoustic bass can sound "swampy" on an inferior sub, booming out with little focus to each note. The acoustic bass on the Hank Williams III cuts sounded fantastic on this sub, full and clean with plenty of string definition. (Note: If you love Hank Williams and old time country-and-western music, go buy Hank Williams III's Broke, Lovesick, and Drifting today!) Another test — even a well-tuned system can be betrayed by the heavy, throbbing bass on the typical reggae recording. The TC10 handled the low frequency demands of Alpha Blondy's heavy reggae perfectly — the bass and kick sat perfectly in the mix, dominating the sound but not overpowering the other instruments and the vocals.
Conclusion: "Clean" is the first word that comes to mind to describe the TC10. Do you often turn the bass down on a car or home stereo system because it sounds boomy to you? If you do, a sealed enclosure like this one is an excellent choice, especially if you listen to a wide variety of music. This type of enclosure produces the type of bass you'd expect to hear from the typical home speaker — well-defined, strong, but not overpowering.
Alpine's SBS-1041BP bandpass enclosure uses ported and sealed chambers to achieve its wall-of-sound bass.
Alpine Type-S SBS-1041BP 10" bandpass enclosure
Alpine's SBS-1041BP features their Type-S 10" woofer in a bandpass enclosure, a hybrid design which combines sealed and ported chambers. It works like this — the subwoofer is mounted in a sealed enclosure, firing outward into a ported enclosure and through the ports into your vehicle. The design is extraordinarily efficient, so you get maximum output from the speaker within a limited frequency range. The down side — to operate properly, a bandpass enclosure must be built to exact tolerances and its ports must be precisely trimmed to complement the output of its woofer. Any errors in construction or tuning result in loss of accuracy.
At one time, the bandpass box was the ugly duckling of the subwoofer world, used by budget builders to get maximum output from cheap subwoofers. With modern manufacturing techniques, the design has come into its own — especially for preloaded enclosures, where the manufacturer can ensure a perfect match of sub to enclosure. Alpine's SBS-1041BP is the largest of the 4 enclosures tested, and it's no coincidence that it has the biggest sound.
I played a Buddy Guy cut through the Kicker sealed box as a reference, then hooked up the Alpine bandpass unit. To give you an idea of the difference in efficiency, I had to fade 6 steps forward toward the front speakers (no subwoofer level control on my Pioneer receiver) to lower the Alpine's level to that of the sealed box. And efficiency wasn't the only difference — the Alpine delivered the low frequencies with an undeniable authority that was missing before. The kick drum was hitting with a physical force that I could feel, and the low string on the 5-string electric bass was shaking my mirrors. And all this was happening after I'd turned it down! So all these things are good, right? Then why would anybody ever buy a sealed box?
Accuracy is why. The SBS-1041BP sounded awesome on the Buddy Guy cut, and totally fantastic on the reggae cuts I played. But the acoustic bass on the Hank Williams III tune sounded mushy, and I noticed a distinct lack of electric bass definition in some of the more complex mixes. There's a little bit of overhang, a subtle resonance that you hear on occasion — it's not a big problem, but you don't get the same "stop-on-a-dime" sound that the sealed box delivers. The bass is so heavy that it tends to overwhelm the subtleties in your music.
Now I am absolutely not dissing the Alpine when I point this out. Think of the sealed box as the jack of all trades, the master of none — it will sound good (but rarely awe-inspiring) on everything you play. Conversely, the bandpass enclosure is a specialist. It won't sound good on everything, but it will sound unbelievably great on some types of music. The Redd Kross Show World CD, for instance, can sound a little brash in my car at times, but the Alpine's powerful delivery balanced out the aggressively mixed mids and highs to make that disc sound better than I've ever heard it before.
Conclusion: "Thick" is the first word that comes to mind to describe the SBS-1041BP. The bass is not really punchy, it's more like a big, swampy wall of low end that powers the music — very cool on some tunes, overwhelming on others. If you listen to harder stuff (metal, hard rock, industrial) or music with strong bass content (reggae, hip hop) and you like to hear your bass LOUD, the bandpass box is a great way to go. And, if your amp doesn't have quite as much power as you'd like, you'll get the most bang for your buck from this specialized design.
It goes to 11! Kicker's VC10 pumps out big, fat bass, thanks to its ported design.
Kicker Competition VC10 10" ported hatchback enclosure
Kicker's VC10 features the Comp 10" woofer mounted in a ported (or vented) enclosure. The port — a round opening in the enclosure with a tube extending into the interior — provides a release for bass waves emanating from the rear of the speaker inside the cabinet, so that they reinforce the output from the front of the speaker. As a result, a ported enclosure is generally 2-3 decibels louder than a sealed box of the same size. The down side — the ported box isn't as accurate as a sealed box, and it won't play as low in the frequency range.
I played the reference Buddy Guy cut through the Alpine bandpass box, then connected the VC10. To balance the bass with the rest of the system, I had to fade 3 steps on my Pioneer receiver toward the front speakers, which would make the impact of this ported box roughly halfway between that of the Kicker sealed box and the Alpine bandpass box. Technically, the VC10 won't play quite as low as its sealed cousin, but it actually sounded like it was hitting deeper because of its extra-strong emphasis in the second lowest octave. The kick drum hit with almost as much power as it did through the bandpass box, and the electric bass was strong and well-defined.
Big + fat = ported
As a sealed box fanatic, I was surprised how much I liked the sound of this enclosure, a nice compromise between the sounds of the sealed and bandpass boxes. I had to fool with my EQ a bit to get rid of the touch of boominess, but once things were tuned up, it sounded great. Everything seemed rounder and fatter through the VC10, almost like somebody turned the bass and volume controls up a notch on my system. Electric basses sounded supercharged, kick drums hit like John Bonham's, and even the acoustic bass fared well — slightly boomier than through the sealed box, but still totally acceptable.
Conclusion: "Warm" is the first word that comes to mind to describe the VC10. It sounded great on all tests cuts, almost as tight as the sealed box but with a little extra punch and fatness. The ported box was also exceptionally loud, so it would also be a good choice if you have limited power available. If you listen to a wide range of music and if you're always cranking up the bass when you listen to tunes, the ported box would be a smart move.
Once considered a novelty item, the Bazooka tube has become a household word for bass.
Bazooka BT1014 10" subwoofer tube
Bazooka's BT1014 is a different animal: a 10" woofer housed in a ported polypropylene cylindrical tube. Originally designed to fit behind the seat in small pickup trucks, the Bazooka tube is known for producing big bass from a relatively small enclosure. Another plus — the tube design eliminates bass "standing waves," the booming distortion created as low frequencies resonate within an enclosure. The down side — more than other designs, the bass tube depends on proper location for best performance. It works best facing into a corner, so you have to experiment a little before mounting it.
The Bazooka is more compact and much lighter than the other three enclosures, so I was curious to see how it would fare in the matchup. Again, I played the reference Buddy Guy cut, then switched from the Kicker ported box to the Bazooka tube. To balance the bass in my system, I faded 2 notches forward, so the Bazooka had just a little more impact than the sealed box. The overall sound of the Bazooka seemed closest to that of the sealed box, surprisingly tight for a ported design. Oddly enough, the Bazooka seemed to be more "invisible" than the other three enclosures — it sounded like my front speakers were suddenly kicking out big bass, not at all like there was a sub in the back of my car.
The kick drum had plenty of impact, and the electric bass stayed well-defined into the upper ranges. Even with the bass-heavy Alpha Blondy cut, the bass stayed tight, focused, and balanced, with very little resonance. The acoustic bass sounded clean, with the string sounds clearly audible. The Bazooka did not have the ultra-heavy impact of the bandpass and ported boxes, and it even seemed a little lighter in the lowest octave than the sealed box — but still plenty loud and plenty fat. I could swear I was hearing more midbass production (even though the low-pass crossover on the amp was set at 80 Hz) than with the other enclosures.
Conclusion: " Punchy" is the first word that comes to mind to describe the BT1014. This bass from this compact tube tied in with my front speakers beautifully. In the past, the rap on the Bazooka tube has been that it sacrificed accuracy to achieve its compact size — well, I sure didn't hear it. With the Bazooka hooked up, my system sounded very big and extremely natural. Whether or not space is an issue in your vehicle, the tube is a great-sounding, user-friendly option.
Which enclosure is right for you?
We've taken a look at four different enclosures, each with its own distinctive sound, so you can form some general impressions of the strengths of each design. Hopefully, we've taken some of the mystery out of finding the right sub/enclosure combo for you. There's no substitute for listening, though — if you have any bass-loving friends, check out the subs in their cars to see what appeals to you. And, whichever type of enclosure you choose, may you safely reach the ultimate goal of low frequency enlightenment!