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The Beginner's Guide to Bass

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Let’s start from the beginning. What is bass?

Bass is the low end of the sonic spectrum, stretching from the lower limits of human hearing at 20Hz up to around 100Hz. It’s the rumble you can feel in your chest when listening to music or watching films, like the deep rhythmic pulse of a reggae bassline or the hulking drone of a massive spaceship overhead.

Bass, and the low-frequency soundwaves that produce it, carry an immense amount of power. That’s why it moves you so viscerally, and why it can be heard from further away (or through walls and other surfaces) where higher frequencies get dulled and muffled.

But bass has always presented an age-old challenge to sound designers and engineers alike: Most people can’t accurately experience bass the way it was captured and recorded in the studio because it requires an equally powerful speaker to reproduce it. The solution? A subwoofer.

What is a subwoofer?

A subwoofer is a separate, dedicated bass speaker (or ‘woofer’) designed to focus solely on reproducing powerful bass sounds. By splitting the audio signals and sending the lowest frequencies to a subwoofer, you can experience deeper and more powerful bass, leaving your paired speakers to focus on mid and high frequencies, delivering a wider range of sound with no loss in quality. Because subwoofers are omnidirectional (as in, they emit sound in all directions), you have more options for placement compared to a traditional speaker (we’ll dive into placement in more detail later).

Sonos offers two subwoofer options: Sub and Sub Mini. Both are designed specifically to handle bass frequencies, and also form the .1 in a 3.1 or 5.1 sound system. You can learn more about how to build a surround sound setup in our Ultimate Guide to Home Cinema.

How do subwoofers work?

Subwoofers create deep bass using large drivers (known as ‘woofers’) that produce low-frequency sounds — like the rumble of an engine — by moving air through a wooden or plastic enclosure. These large woofers have the ability to move a lot more air than smaller drivers, and therefore can produce much deeper bass.

So why does this matter? While a soundbar, for example, can produce the full spectrum of sound, it struggles to reproduce frequencies below 50Hz. Meanwhile, subwoofers shine when it comes to creating deep, rich bass because its only focuses on producing the lowest frequencies. By adding a subwoofer to your setup, you can achieve precise, pulse-pumping bass while freeing up your speakers to focus only on creating crisp, high-frequency sounds.

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Do you need to use a subwoofer with additional speakers?

Subwoofers are always part of a larger sound system. Adding a subwoofer is an easy way to add a little ‘oomph’ to your home sound system — whether you’re an audiophile who appreciates spine-tingling bass drops or a film buff who wants a cinema-like experience at home. Pair them with speakers or even with a soundbar to instantly level up your listening.

Is a subwoofer worth it?

In short, yes. A standard two-channel speaker comfortably delivers the full range of sound down to 50Hz, but begins to lose power and clarity beyond this point. By offloading the lowest frequencies to a subwoofer, you can experience richer and bolder bass than you would with just a standalone speaker.

Music purists who add a subwoofer will notice more than just beats they can feel: The addition will more accurately produce a song’s low notes the way the artist intended them to be heard, and less distortion will allow for easy listening at higher volumes. For those with sound systems in larger spaces — say, a spacious family room or basement — a subwoofer can improve sound depth to help fill these big rooms with sound.

But adding a subwoofer doesn’t just help produce lower lows, it also allows you to experience higher highs. It lessens the load on the rest of your system so your speakers can focus on the frequencies above 50Hz — like the sound of a whistle or hiss of a snake — creating improved detail and less distortion in the mid and high-pitched frequencies. This means that a subwoofer doesn’t just benefit those who love high-intensity action films or bass-heavy electronic music, but instead balances and improves your overall listening experience. Sonos offers two subwoofer options: Sub and Sub Mini, that can enhance your listening and complement your existing speakers or soundbar.

Where do you place a subwoofer?

If you’re building out a home cinema, you’ll generally want to place your subwoofer at the front of the room near your TV speakers or soundbar to create the best blending of sound. If your subwoofers are part of a stereo setup, place them wherever your speakers are. Just keep in mind that subwoofers are omnidirectional, so the bass should sound like it’s filling the room, not emanating from a single location (known as ‘localisation’). If this happens, test your subwoofer in different areas of your room. One of the best tools for deciding placement: your ears. Play a bass-heavy track to test the audio. Though not ideal, you can also place your subwoofer in a corner. If that’s the case, pull your subwoofer six to eight inches away from the wall to avoid interference with the sound.

You also want to have the right size subwoofer for your space. A smaller room can work well with a smaller subwoofer, like the Sonos Sub Mini, but a larger space may need a more powerful subwoofer, such as the Sonos Sub (Gen 3), to evenly fill the area with bass.

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How many subwoofers do you need?

The number of subwoofers you need depends on the size of your room and your sound setup. For instance, are you pairing it with a full surround sound system in your family room or with a single soundbar in your bedroom? A small subwoofer can provide enough bass for a smaller room, but what if you’re trying to fill a large basement cinema or an open-plan living room? A larger, more powerful subwoofer, like Sonos Sub (Gen 3), is one option.

You can also opt for two subwoofers. If you have a big room with a large listening space, it’s possible that the bass won’t be consistent throughout the room. For instance, you may hear more ‘oomph’ in certain areas and find it lacking in others. The benefit of adding a second subwoofer is that you can even out the sound quality throughout the space.

Aren’t subwoofers big and boxy?

Not necessarily. Subwoofers come in many different sizes, making it possible for people with smaller spaces to neatly fit them into an at-home sound system. The Sonos Sub Mini, for instance, is only 9 inches (22.86 cm) wide and 12 inches (30.48 cm) tall, or about the size of a small planter. Some subwoofers can also connect wirelessly to your sound system, so you don’t have to conceal messy cables.

Won’t a subwoofer shake the walls and floor?

While subwoofers are known for emitting so much power that they can shake pictures hanging on the wall, that’s not true of them all. If you do experience a rattle, there are ways to mitigate it — you can change the bass level or adjust the subwoofer’s position, among other solutions. You can also search for a subwoofer that’s built to minimise vibration, like the Sonos Sub and Sub Mini, so you can experience rich, bold bass without disturbing your neighbours.

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What if there’s too much bass?

Whichever setup you choose, you can customise the sound to your exact liking using the Sonos app. Precise EQ and volume controls allow you to set the level of bass to match your listening preferences and acoustic environment, making sure that your subwoofer works in perfect harmony with the rest of your system.

Which Sonos subwoofer is right for me?

If you live in a smaller space, like an apartment, then we would recommend Sub Mini and pairing it with a compact speaker or soundbar, like Era 100, Ray, or Beam. But if you have more space to play with and are looking for a more premium sound experience, then adding Sub to a powerful soundbar, like Arc, is going to take your sound experience to new heights. You can even add a second Sub—yes, two Subs—to feel bass unlike ever before. (But this is a beginner’s guide, after all. More on that later.)

Like all Sonos products, both Sub and Sub Mini are easy to add to your existing system with a little help from the Sonos app. Just plug it into power, connect to WiFi, and the app-guided instructions will walk you through setup.

Bass is a vital part of sound, and a physical feeling as much as something we hear. Whether you’re after all-powerful bass or subtly sharper sound, adding a subwoofer like Sub or Sub Mini to your Sonos system can bring out the full range of experiences from your music, films, and games, helping immerse you in them more powerfully than ever before.

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