The use of a subwoofer augments the bass capability of the main speakers, and allows them to be smaller without sacrificing low frequency capability. A subwoofer does not necessarily provide superior bass performance in comparison to large conventional loudspeakers on ordinary music recordings due to the typical lack of very low frequency content on such sources. However, there are recordings with substantial low frequency content that most conventional loudspeakers are ill-equipped to handle without the help of a subwoofer, especially at high playback levels, such as music for pipe organs with 32' bass pipes (16 Hz), very large bass drums on symphony orchestra recordings and electronic music with extremely low synth bass parts, such as bass tests or bass songs.
Low frequencies are not easily localized in small rooms, hence many stereo and multichannel audio systems feature only one subwoofer channel and a single subwoofer can be placed off-center without affecting the perceived sound stage, since the sound produced is difficult to localize. The intention in a system with a subwoofer is often to use small main speakers (of which there are two for stereo and five or more for surround sound or movie tracks) and to hide the subwoofer elsewhere (e.g. behind furniture or under a table), or to augment an existing speaker to save it from having to handle woofer-destroying low frequencies at high levels.
Some users add a subwoofer because high levels of low bass are desired, even beyond what is in the original recording, as in the case of house music enthusiasts. Thus, subwoofers may be part of a package that includes satellite speakers, may be purchased separately, or may be built into the same cabinet as a conventional speaker system. For instance, some floor standing tower speakers include a subwoofer driver in the lower portion of the same cabinet. Physical separation of subwoofer and "satellite" speakers not only allows placement in an inconspicuous location, but since sub-bass frequencies are particularly sensitive to room location (due to room resonances and reverberation 'modes'), the best position for the subwoofer is not likely to be where the "satellite" speakers are located.
For greatest efficiency and best coupling to the room's air volume, subwoofers can be placed in a corner of the room, far from large room openings, and closer to the listener. This is possible since low bass frequencies have a long wavelength; hence there is little difference between the information reaching a listener's left and right ears, and so they cannot be readily localized. All low frequency information is sent to the subwoofer. However, unless the sound tracks have been carefully mixed for a single subwoofer channel, it's possible to have some cancellation of low frequencies if bass information in one channel is out of phase with another.
The physically separate subwoofer/satellite arrangement has been popularized by multimedia speaker systems such as Bose Acoustimass Home Entertainment Systems, Polk Audio RM2008 Series and Klipsch Audio Technologies ProMedia. Low-cost "home theater in a box" systems advertise their integration and simplicity.
Particularly among low cost "Home Theater in a Box" systems and with "boom boxes", however, inclusion of a subwoofer may be little more than a marketing device. It is unlikely that a small woofer in an inexpensively-built compact plastic cabinet will have better bass performance than well-designed conventional (and typically larger) speakers in a plywood or MDF cabinet. Mere use of the term "subwoofer" is no guarantee of good or extended bass performance. Many multimedia "subwoofers" might better be termed "bass drivers" as they are too small to produce deep bass.
Further, poorly designed systems often leave everything below about 120 Hz (or even higher) to the subwoofer, meaning that the subwoofer handles frequencies which the ear can use for sound source localization, thus introducing an undesirable subwoofer "localization effect". This is usually due to poor crossover designs or choices (too high crossover point or insufficient crossover slope) used in many computer and home theater systems; localization also comes from port noise and from typically large amounts of harmonic distortion in the subwoofer design. Home subwoofers sold individually usually include crossover circuitry to assist integration into an existing system.
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