The main challenge of any sound system is accurately reproducing the music in a balanced way, and a fundamental component of this, spec wise, is that speakers can reproduce the entire range of sound frequency.
The human ear can roughly hear sounds from 20hz – 20,000Hz (source), thus –
theoretically at least – any sound system should be able to produce sounds at or greater than that range. Some audiophiles even claim that reproduction of the higher/lower frequencies that can’t actually be detected by the human ear is still important in overall sound quality, but others will say that’s unfounded speculation.
Sound reproduction outdoors is particularly tricky for a few reasons:
- Outdoor speakers don’t have the natural amplification of enclosing walls that indoor speakers do
- Effective placement of outdoor speakers is more of a logistical challenge than it is with a conventional home-theater set up.
- Longer-wave bass frequencies carry particularly poorly in the open air.
- Outdoor speakers generally don’t have a 20Hz or lower response range floor.
So, the question here is: is a subwoofer essential for sufficiently good sounding bass?
As usual, the answer is a big fat maybe. The more presumptuous answer is that unless your an audiophile, there’s a decent chance it’s just not worth the cost/hassle.
A well placed high quality subwoofer can absolutely augment outdoor speakers in a worthwhile way. But, “well placed” and “high quality” are indeed the common barriers – it’s not exactly easy to properly place an outdoor/all-weather subwoofer; and, high quality subwoofers can be rather expensive.
This article is going to help you figure out if adding a subwoofer to your outdoor system is worth the money and effort. We’ll also make some product recommendations. The truth is that outdoor subwoofers are niche enough that there aren’t that many apparent choices (there are a bajillion outdoor speaker choices now contrarily). But, there are a few good options out there that might be worthwhile.
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Firstly: Do You Need a Subwoofer? Enough So That You’re Willing to Pay For One?
What ultimately matters is that you (and perhaps your patrons) like how your speakers sound, and that’s ultimately subjective. It’s definitely true that even the experts, when reviewing speakers, often use non-scientific descriptors such as “shrill,” “thin,” “washed out,” etc. etc.
The truth is that outdoor speakers have come quite a long way even in the last decade – many of them, even the budget priced ones, have great power handling with low frequency response ranges. Audio companies of course realize that placing an outdoor subwoofer isn’t always feasible (we’ll get to that), thus many of the speakers they make produce great bass on their own. If you’re not particularly keen on feeling a chest thumping bass, there’s a good chance that you honestly don’t need a subwoofer.
The kind of music you’re typically playing also bears consideration – ambient background music simply doesn’t need the kind of bass that loud “lets get the party started and get our neighbors to hate us” music does.
Another thing we’ll say is that it makes no sense to get cheapo speakers with a high response range floor so you can budget for a subwoofer. If you’re working with, say, $500, it’s almost always better to spend the money on better speakers.
Speaking of Which: Good Outdoor Speakers With Strong Bass
On a quick digression well make some quick recommendations for outdoor speakers that excel with bass:
In the budget-tier category we strongly recommend the Dayton IO655s (reviewed here) – they have great power specs and an excellent response range floor for their modest price, and they’re indeed one of our favorite overall outdoor speakers.
Moving up we also have the Definitive Technology 5500-6500 series (reviewed here) – very powerful, highly sensitive, and the lowest response range floor that we’ve seen in outdoor speakers. Not exorbitantly expensive either.
You can always get something like the above and try it out before adding in a subwoofer – we think many people will find that they won’t even need one.
Let’s Talk About Outdoor Subwoofer Placement
Home speaker placement is generally more straightforward indoors. If you’re setting up, say, a home theater, then the obviously intuitive location for a subwoofer is going to be centered below the TV, near to and equidistant from each of the speakers. Or you might put it in the corner of the room to take advantage of the wall’s acoustics, which is also where a person isn’t going to realistically ever loiter.
But this isn’t exactly so easy when you’re outdoors. You want your subwoofer to be close enough to and centered relative to the speakers, but where do you then put it? If your speakers are mounted under the eaves on each corner of the door leading out to the yard (this is the most common set up) you obviously can’t plop your subwoofer right in the middle of the entry way. Alternatively, if your subwoofer is way over in a corner and significantly farther away from one speaker than the other, the sound will be imbalanced. Also consider that people meander around in an outdoor enclosure a lot more than they do in a home theater room. A speaker set up can sound a lot different and perhaps noticeably bad depending on where you’re standing.
One issue here, and we’re getting ahead of ourselves, is that as far as we can tell there aren’t any wall-mount subwoofers on the market that are graded for outdoor use (if something comes a long we’ll obviously update this article). That leaves you with omnidirectional on-ground units.
Outdoor Subwoofer Product Recommendations
As of this writing we only really see two viable options that make sense:
OSD audio is a good company, and they make an omnidirectional on-ground subwoofer that’s decently priced. This unit also has a built in crossover which might allow for your regular speakers to sound better, focusing on the mids and highs while the subwoofer reproduces the lows. If your speakers are not positioned over a doorway, then you can probably place this on the deck or ground in between.
One word of caution: don’t run speaker wire across the ground – you might have to use underground wire to power this unit. See our outdoor speaker wiring guide for more information.
The second choice is the more expensive Polk Atrium Sub10 (check it out on Amazon here):
This unit has the more aesthetic plant-pot look, but it’s hard to give it a glowing recommendation when it’s power specs are not all that much better than the above OSD unit that’s generally around less than half the price.
Can a subwoofer augment the sound of an outdoor system in a worthwhile way? Yes, in some cases it can.
However, most non-audiophiles would do better just spending the money on better speakers with a stronger bass. Plenty of outdoor speakers have great enough bass independently.
Unfortunately there aren’t many available subwoofers graded for outdoor use, and whether or not you can effectively utilize one also depends if you can feasibly place it in a good spot.
The audio market is ever burgeoning, and we think there’s a decent chance that a wider variety of products will become available in the not too distant future. We’ll keep this article updated as they come – it’s only a matter of time before a speaker company produces a decent wall-mount subwoofer that’s all weather and not prohibitively expensive.