With all the new sound technology out there, don’t feel alone if you can’t tell a soundbar from a subwoofer. They are ultimately two very different speaker systems that work together to deliver high-quality sound in both the low and high-frequency sound spectrum. While they are both technically forms of a loudspeaker, their operations set them apart from each other.
Soundbars are different from subwoofers because they are multi-speaker systems in an elongated cabinet to deliver the illusion of surround sound. Subwoofers deliver low-frequency sound vibration by means of an inner coil to enhance bass and sub-bass sound not delivered by standard speaker systems.
Subwoofers complement soundbars by enhancing the effects of low-frequency sounds often not reproduced by standard speaker systems. Some soundbars have subwoofers integrated into their systems, while some may benefit from a dedicated subwoofer. If you would like to learn more about how these systems work alone or together, I'd be happy to fill you in.
What Is a Soundbar?
A soundbar is a form of a loudspeaker made to project sound from a widened space. Its length takes up most of its size, and its height dimensions are usually relatively small. The reason for its length and shape is partly for acoustic enhancements and partly for its dimensions that are suitable for mounting above a TV, a computer, or as an addition to a home theater.
As modern televisions grew thinner and thinner, there was a corresponding decline in sound quality. Soundbars provided a compact option to deliver great sound to match the high-quality visuals provided by the flatscreen televisions.
The soundbar has several speakers in a single unit, which aids the device to create surround sound effects, using the room’s dimensions in which it is placed to achieve ‘surround sound.’ Usually, a soundbar works in conjunction with a subwoofer, which supplements the soundbar’s bass sound.
How Does a Soundbar Work?
There are various levels of technology in play between entry-level soundbars and top of the range ones. Entry-level soundbars create the illusion of surround sound by creating extra space between the left and right channels and manipulate time and frequency to give the illusion of surround sound. Although they may have subwoofers and several woofer/tweeter drives, they essentially deliver two channels of sound.
Mid-range soundbars incorporate 5-7 speaker drivers, which can each play individual channels from a soundtrack, and your ears should be able to pick up individual sounds from each.
With the advent of technology such as Dolby Atmos, soundbars stepped up in delivering convincing surround sound (usually with an added subwoofer for bass.)
This system uses the room itself as an acoustic tool by angling sound to waves to ‘bounce’ off the walls and redirect sound back to the listener. The room’s geometry has an essential role in delivering quality sound, with even geometry, central positioning, and having the soundbar equidistant between the listener and the TV. To deliver this illusion of surround sound, soundbars such as the LG 5.1.2 have an intelligent design.
All of these angles and sound direction would not deliver quality sound without the Dolby Atmos audio processing technology that makes subtle adjustments in volume and timing and frequency in realtime to trick your brain into hearing sounds from several directions.
Here is a great demonstration of the illusion of surround sound works in an advertising video for the LG 5.1.2:
What Is a Subwoofer?
A subwoofer is a type of loudspeaker made to reproduce low pitch bass and sub-bass frequencies lower than what can be generated in a woofer. Generally, the subwoofer frequency range is:
- 20-200Hz for general consumer products
- Under 100Hz for professional live sound
- Below 80Hz in systems that incorporate THX standards (high fidelity audio/visual reproduction standards)
Subwoofers are not created to be used on their own but rather to augment the low-frequency bass range of existing systems that generally support higher frequency sound reproduction. While the term subwoofer refers to the subwoofer driver, today, it has come to refer to both the cabinet, the driver, and often the onboard amplifier.
Subwoofers come in passive variations that draw power from the receiver’s amp or active versions that require their dedicated power source.
How Does a Subwoofer Work?
A subwoofer receives low-frequency signals from the audio receiver or preamplifier (usually in the 20Hz-100Hz range.) These signals are called Low-Frequency Effects (LFEs) and are sent through an electrical current to the subwoofer.
The subwoofer then amplifies the current and converts it to vibration in its magnetic coil found in the driver’s cone. This vibration causes low-frequency sound waves to be sent into the air.
Subwoofers are not as location-specific as left and right speakers (which need to direct their sound toward the listener) and can be moved around a space to ensure their optimal position.
They are usually a great addition to any speaker setup, including being a great addition to ceiling speakers.
Do You Need a Subwoofer With a Soundbar?
Early in the soundbar history, often, subwoofers were necessary to provide a richer bass component to the soundbar audio. Today, the higher-end soundbars can deliver excellent bass without the need for a dedicated subwoofer.
As a rule of thumb, soundbars with quality onboard woofers have larger frames and larger, more powerful speakers to channel the inbuilt subwoofer.
There are music lovers who insist on a dedicated subwoofer to enhance their sound. The enhancement on sound delivered by a dedicated subwoofer includes:
- Subwoofers provide a more immersive listening experience. An excellent subwoofer will reach 20Hz and lower to the limit of human hearing. Average sound systems taper off at about 50Hz depriving the listener of vital low-frequency sounds that augment the listening experience.
- Subwoofers reproduce every note in the low-frequency range. Unlike general speakers that have certain range limitations regarding sound, high-quality subwoofers deliver bass notes true to the artist’s delivery. This is why subwoofers augment the sound quality of any established sound system and add depth to the listening experience.
- Adds speed and precision in low-end transients. Transients are notes of high amplification delivered in short durations at the start of a waveform. The rapid starts and stops in vocals and instrumentals can cause a ‘smeared’ acoustic image lacking detail. A good quality subwoofer has the speed and response to deliver transient sound with impact and realism that most subsystems lack.
How Do I Connect a Subwoofer to My Soundbar?
- Make sure you have the correct soundbar connections. Some soundbars may have specialized outputs that make connecting to an SVS or external subwoofer difficult. Ensure that your soundbar accepts cables like the SVS SoundPath RCA Audio Interconnect cable or similar, which works with most subwoofers, including SVS versions.
- Cabinet dimensions. The beauty of a soundbar is its compact dimensions, so a dedicated subwoofer should not be large or bulky when combined into your sound system. Sealed cabinet subwoofers usually have smaller dimensions and integrate more discreetly into your home theater.
- Playback levels and listener preference. Soundbars don’t need a massive subwoofer to improve their bass significantly. Whereas 5.1 home theaters may necessitate a large subwoofer, soundbars generally don’t need excessive subwoofer augmentation. Unless you like to watch action movies that make your chair vibrate, in which case go huge.
- Your room dimensions. If your soundbar is based in a large room or an open plan area, you may need a larger subwoofer to create your bass sound density. Another option in large spaces is to get two smaller subwoofers for even bass response.
High-quality soundbars can deliver an exceptional sound without taking up the space that so many of us need in city living. If you are seeking a sound system that delivers a full range of sound for your home theater or favorite music, they are an excellent choice.
Even soundbars with built-in subwoofers can benefit from the extra dimensions a dedicated subwoofer may provide. It’s all about your listening experience and the quality of sound you demand from your system. And as Meghan Trainor says, it sometimes is “All about the bass.” And no, I don't feel bad about getting a years old song stuck in your head. It's your fault, really.