A pair of speakers on their own can certainly work fine and sound decent enough, but adding a subwoofer will almost certainly make any system sound noticeably better and be well worth the money. And the good news is that there are now many great subwoofers that are not only inexpensive but super easy to add on to just about any system.
Table of Contents Navigation
- Why Adding a Subwoofer to a Home Theater System is (Almost) Always Well Worth It
- Is It Easy to Add a Subwoofer to a Home Theater System?
- What Makes a Good Subwoofer?
- The Important Truth About Buying Audio Equipment
- The Overall Best Budget Subwoofer – The Dayton Sub-1500
- The Best Very Powerful Budget Subwoofer – The Polk PSW505
- The Best Really Inexpensive Subwoofer – The Polk PSW10
- The Best Powerful Yet Compact Subwoofer – The Definitive Technology ProSub800
Why Adding a Subwoofer to a Home Theater System is (Almost) Always Well Worth It
Even the best sounding and most flawlessly built bookshelf speakers will start to struggle to produce decent bass when the sounds gets low enough. Sound waves get exponentially longer as their pitch goes down, and while a standard ~5-6 inch woofer is ideal for producing great sounding mids, it just can’t produce the lows like a bigger ~10-12+ inch woofer can.
What’s more is that, with an added crossover that a subwoofer will bring, it will free up the speakers to only reproduce mids and highs, which is what they’re generally optimized to do. That is to say that not only will a subwoofer greatly improve the sound quality of the bass on its own, it will also improve the functionality and sound thusly of the speakers it’s paired with.
Is It Easy to Add a Subwoofer to a Home Theater System?
Yes, adding a subwoofer is typically very easy to do. Almost all modern home theater subwoofers are powered, meaning they have their own built-in amp, and they simply need to be plugged into the sub-out terminal on your receiver or amplifier with a simple RCA cable, then plugged into the wall, then they’re ready to go. There are situations with more niche/specialty equipment where hooking up a sub is a little more complicated but those won’t apply to like 99% of people with relatively standard setups.
What Makes a Good Subwoofer?
We’ve reviewed, compared, or otherwise looked at just about every option in this price range and use objective industry specs that ultimately matter and can yield meaningful comparisons. While audio will always be subjective to a degree, doing it this way usually points to pretty clear winners. Here’s what we look for with subwoofers specifically:
Continuous Power Handling: this largely dictates how loud a subwoofer can play over the long run, as opposed to peak power handling which is only sustainable for short bursts. Beware of companies that try to fudge the peak power spec as the continuous power spec, that’s a red flag.
Sensitivity: this dictates how efficiently a speaker can convert power into loudness, and is complementary to operating power.
Response Range: How low of frequency can a subwoofer reproduce? Less than 20 Hz is ideal, which is the generally lower bound of human hearing, but that’s asking quite a lot for budget-tier speakers. The ceiling is actually important too because you want to set the crossover point high enough to where the main speakers are really optimized for reproducing the mids and highs.
Driver Size: While not an ironclad rule, bigger speakers generally perform better, and bigger drivers better reproduce lower frequencies. While high frequency tweeters are often around 1 inch, subwoofers rarely go smaller than 8 inches, but 10-12+ inch drivers generally will sound better.
Additional specs/traits are more situational and personal preference. Sealed speakers are more accurate, while ported or open speakers can move more air and get louder. Front firing woofers are good for focusing the sound in one direction to a point, the couch for example, whereas downward firing speakers will generally fill up a room better. Some of them look really cool, if you care about that, while others look pretty plain.
There are also some logistical realities that most people will have to contend with. Moving and positioning a big subwoofer that starts to weigh upwards of 30 pounds can become an issue. Also, bass waves can propagate much more than mids/highs do, and if you’re sharing walls with other people in your building for examples, you’ll need to make sure any resonance is reasonably mitigated.
Further reading: a discussion of subwoofer positioning and ways to mitigate resonance
The Important Truth About Buying Audio Equipment
We always say this same thing in each of our roundup articles:
Product prices can fluctuate significantly in the audio market, and often times for no apparent reason.
Therefore, the “best” product choice often comes down to whatever the best available deal is at the time among the top/popular contenders. It’s definitely worthwhile to shop around. One tool that’s useful for doing this is Amazon best-sellers lists – they update hourly and these good deals often rise to the top. The table below is populated in real time with data from these best-sellers lists. You’ll usually see our picks among them.
And now without further ado, lets get into our top picks:
The Overall Best Budget Subwoofer – The Dayton Sub-1500
Dayton Audio is a great company, and their simply and aptly named SUB series has remained one of our favorite budget audio products for a few years now. The 15 inch box subwoofer has the best size, specs, and warranty that we’ve seen go for under 200 bucks. The smaller 8, 10, and 12 inch versions are great too, but we have to recommend the large one because the modest increase in price is well worth the value you get. The only potential downside is this thing is massive, and might be prohibitively big and heavy for some people.
We’d also like to honorably mention a very close second place that has a distinctly cool design, The BIC America F12:
This is an excellent subwoofer in it’s own right, though slightly inferior to the sub-1500. But, it certainly might be the best choice if you can get a good deal on it. We also know that many people really like the metallic driver look that this and other speakers have, so if that’s worth it to you, this one’s a perfectly solid choice.
The Best Very Powerful Budget Subwoofer – The Polk PSW505
This older Polk subwoofer used to be a lot more expensive, but thanks to getting it’s MSRP slashed its worth mentioning here. A 300 W 12 inch sub with the range this has is an excellent value, even if a little more expensive than the Dayton Sub-1500. The downsides? Plain-jane design (if you care) and an inferior warranty.
The Best Really Inexpensive Subwoofer – The Polk PSW10
Polk’s bread and butter is quality loudspeakers that are inexpensive, and, despite this speaker being well over ten years old, it remains one of the best sellers on the market. Why? It’s a really decent 10 inch sub that can be acquired for less than $100. We’ll also give honorable mention here to the Monoprice 9723 (affiliate link), also absurdly inexpensive now, but just slightly inferior spec wise with a higher response floor.
The Best Powerful Yet Compact Subwoofer – The Definitive Technology ProSub800
The ProSub 800, thanks to its less common sealed design with a passive bottom firing radiator, packs a hard to believe 300 W of continous power and 20 Hz response floor. It’s an older product, yet remains, by quite a margin, the best and most powerful compact 8″ driver sub.