Compact Bookshelf Speaker and a Subwoofer -or-Floorstanding Full-range Tower?
In the mid 70s the audio market was introduced to a relatively new concept in loudspeaker design; small, limited frequency range satellite speakers augmented by high quality subwoofers to fill in the lower registers and create full range speaker systems. Up till that time audiophiles were limited to larger integrated speaker systems that produced all frequencies from drivers in a single enclosure. Even though the "acoustic suspension" revolution resulted in smaller wide range speakers than the behemoths that had come before, it had been somewhat offset by the advent of stereo and the need for two speakers instead of one. When home theater came along the idea of having five (or more) full range tower speakers in a typical home living space pushed the sub/sat concept to the mainstream.
Interestingly, the introduction of sub/sat systems wasn't an overnight sensation. In fact, most speaker companies simply ignored the idea. As time passed, more companies realized there were advantages to this concept for home audio and introduced sub/sat systems of their own. In this article we'll look at the different advantages and potential pitfalls that full range and sub/sat systems offer, and how GoldenEar's speakers give you the option of either type for your system. Note that we're assuming high quality component parts, engineering and execution in the following discussion. If you don't have that, it makes little difference which type of speakers you choose.
Single enclosure full range speaker advantages - All the drivers are in one enclosure and well integrated to deliver optimum performance while being matched to their enclosure mates. There's much more than simple frequency response to this integration as time alignment, dispersion
characteristics, resonance control and more come into play. The crossover network plays a vital role in this process and must be designed with these specific drivers in mind. A full range enclosure system makes for a simplified purchase decision and you don't have to worry about getting the separate speaker elements to work together once you get them home. You also have the advantage of only having to figure out where to place two speakers as opposed to two satellites and a subwoofer (or more, in a surround system). This issue of placement can be a double edged sword, as we'll discuss further on.
An issue many so called full range systems face is the burden of delivering powerful deep bass, particularly in home theater applications. Other than pipe organ or heavy rap/hip-hop music, most music won't tax the bass section as much as typical movie soundtrack special effects. Although those bass special effects may be few and far between, there's no question that they add significantly to your acoustic involvement in the home cinema experience. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of full range speakers that simply aren't capable of reproducing these low frequency special effects we all know and love. Hence an outboard subwoofer is a great way to get the full surround sound special effects experience.
On the other hand, GoldenEar Triton powered towers have been specifically designed to work well with both music and movies as their built in powered subwoofers readily handle the requirements of those low frequency special effects. Their racetrack bass drivers coupled with the Quadratic Planar Radiators and built-in high power digital amplifiers are capable of exceptional deep bass performance from compact and affordable enclosures. Additionally, electronically bi-amping the bass section independently provides lots of flexibility in matching bass performance to room conditions just like with a separate subwoofer. The Triton powered towers are really the best of both worlds as they allow independent control of bass output through their dedicated electronics.
Satellite/subwoofer advantages - The sub/sat configuration allows you the freedom to choose an outboard powered subwoofer capable of significant deep bass output to compliment your limited range satellite speakers (or even limited range bookshelf or floor standing models). We say this because, as we mentioned above, many "full range" speakers really aren't in the truest sense of the word. With the exception of GoldenEar's powered Triton towers, there are very few all in one speakers capable of generating significant levels of the first octave deepest bass (20 to 40Hz) in the average room. Musically speaking this may not matter all that much also as noted above, but for home theater it can be significant. Actually, the majority of typical "full range" speakers begin to significantly roll off between 40 and 50Hz.
As an example of the demands made on the bass section of a home theater system, the original THX™ home cinema spec called for a system capable of reproducing 20Hz at 105dB in a 3000 cubic foot room. And trust us, that's no small feat, particularly if you're trying to keep distortion to an acceptable level too. However, adding a seriously capable subwoofer or two (or using a powered bass section like in the Triton One, Two or Three) can overcome this issue. The potential downside of sub/sat systems is getting the satellites and subwoofers to integrate with each other in your room. That may require a little effort and at the very least a sound pressure level meter or an automated EQ/level match system built in to the system electronics. Using matched speaker/subwoofers from a single company can help as well, but careful listening and level setting can result in excellent integration and performance. Other advantages to the sub/sat concept include:
- The ability to locate the sub(s) and satellites in different places in the room for optimum flexibility and "fit". Smaller satellites are easier to place and may make for more domestic tranquility. Of course, you still have to find a place for the subwoofer(s), but today there are high performance fairly compact subwoofers on the market like the GoldenEar ForceField models.
- Relieving your amplifier of the major burden of reproducing bass as the subwoofer has its own power amplifier. This results in your receiver/amplifier acting like it's a much more powerful model because it only has to amplify the mids and highs (Just like when using the powered Triton towers).
- Relieving the satellite speakers of the same deep bass burden, just like the amplifier. This potentially improves the speaker systems' dynamic range and maximum volume output and also reduces the speakers' distortion and the power requirements to drive it properly.
The bottom line here (pun fully intended) is there's no one right or wrong way to decide upon sub/sat or full range speakers. Your listening habits, your room configuration, whether you have a stereo or surround setup, and more, will influence your choice. And don't forget, in-ceiling and in-wall options are also available!