Rich Warren: Reader asks me to bark up the subwoofer tree

Rich Warren: Reader asks me to bark up the subwoofer tree

Home theater confuses people with its nomenclature. Dolby Laboratories established the 5.1 home standard about 30 years ago. Now we also have 6.1 and 7.1.

It's that ".1" that confuses people. It refers to the subwoofer. Since the subwoofer only reproduces sound in the very low end of the audio spectrum and is not a full-range speaker, it received the ".1" designation. You need only one, rather than the pairs of front and rear speakers.

The center channel also is a single speaker, accounting for the odd number of 5.

With that said, here's a good reader question: "I am putting together a home theater system. I bought a Yamaha 5.1 receiver. I have two 8-inch three-way speakers, a center channel and two 5-inch bookshelf speakers for the rear channels. Do you think a powered subwoofer would be needed?"

Whether or not you add a powered subwoofer depends on how visceral you desire your home theater experience and the material you watch.

Your 8-inch speakers should provide plenty of low end for music and some effects. However, they won't give you that punch in the gut emotional experience provided by a good subwoofer. The subwoofer specializes as much in what you physically feel as what you actually hear.

Some program material uses very little of that range. If you mainly watch comedies and nonviolent romances, the presence of the subwoofer will be subtle.

However, if action pics and war documentaries thrill you, the subwoofer is essential for maximum effect. Jimmy Fallon and "Downton Abbey" probably won't stimulate your subwoofer, but "Elementary" and "CSI" will.

It takes fine-tuning to feel the subwoofer's enhancements. Too loud and it shakes and rattles the house. Too soft and the realism fades. You also don't want much overlap between your main speakers and the subwoofer.

Many systems that claim a so-called subwoofer really make it double as a woofer for bass. While a subwoofer is omni-directional, meaning your ears can't easily locate it, a woofer serves the stereo effect, meaning that your ears can roughly locate its position. That's why the Dolby standard calls for a single subwoofer, rather than left and right subwoofers.

The standard frequency when sound becomes the domain of the subwoofer is 80 Hertz, but many audiophiles prefer an even lower 50 Hz.

The lowest male bass voice reaches about 80 Hz. The choice of this frequency was mainly to relieve the bass burden on the left and right front speakers, so they could be smaller and less intrusive.

Our reader probably could cross over from his main front speakers, if they are good quality speakers, to the subwoofer at 50 Hz. He should experiment for the ideal arrangement or ask an expert to balance his system.


Reflecting 20 years of writing this column for The News-Gazette, most reader questions involved TV and especially TV reception, which includes cable problems.

In the past 25 years, three cable companies have served Champaign-Urbana.

Originally created to improve broadcast TV reception and then to provide additional channels that once required jumbo satellite dishes, cable now is the main supplier of home Internet connectivity.

Cable evolved from a convenience so you could ditch your troublesome roof antenna, to a luxury so you could watch HBO and CNN, to a necessity. Yet, the majority of the emails I received involved installing an antenna to receive over-the-air TV so viewers can ditch cable. A middling cable package with basic Internet costs about $600 to $800 a year, which is real money.


Speaking of real money, WILL radio and TV recently conducted a mini-fund drive to buy new equipment. It came up a bit short. It would be nice to see locally originated public television programming in high definition.

Currently, WILL TV only can pass through national PBS HDTV programming. So give them a hand to technically improve local programming.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at

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