September 11, 2009 - The War of the Woofers
by Doug Schneider

In two days of walking the CEDIA Expo exhibit halls, I’ve noticed two main product trends that audio/video enthusiasts will be interested in: 1) 3D video, which is around the corner but still a long ways off in terms of a single standardized format; and 2) super-subwoofers, a category not so far up in the air because there’s a clearly defined target: deep, loud, distortion-free, ultra-low bass. Because of the uncertainty still surrounding 3D video, this report focuses on what I call the War of the Woofers.

Plenty of companies make subwoofers of all shapes and sizes at various prices, but three of them get the bulk of the press coverage and are the brands that audiophiles, in particular, tend to home in on: JL Audio, Paradigm, and Revel. These companies have top-class research and manufacturing facilities, which are what are needed to create a state-of-the-art subwoofer equally suitable for music and movies.

Paradigm and Revel are showing at this year’s CEDIA Expo; JL Audio is not. But for some time now, JLA has ruled the subwoofer roost with their Gotham g213 ($11,000 USD), which has often been considered the state of the art. At CEDIA Expo 2009, Revel and Paradigm have upped the ante by unveiling their own reference-level subs; both cost less than the Gotham g213, and each represents a decidedly different take on how, exactly, to hit those lowest notes and sounds.

Yesterday, I closely examined Revel’s Ultima Rhythm2 subwoofer ($10,000). Its single, 18", high-excursion woofer has two voice-coil windings, each driven by a dedicated amplifier. According to Kevin Voecks, lead designer at Harman International, Revel’s parent company, they went to great efforts to make a subwoofer with extremely high output and vanishingly low distortion, but without using any kind of servo-control mechanism. Maintaining perfect linearity was key. They also wanted to ensure that the amplifier would never clip, and that the driver would never even come close to bottoming out. According to Voecks, "consumers won’t tolerate any kind of noise" in a sub at this price. Basically, it has to hit the lowest pedal notes of an organ or convincingly re-create a bomb blast while being virtually indestructible.

The engineers at Paradigm had the same tall order but took an approach decidedly different from Revel’s -- and from almost everything else Paradigm itself has ever done. The Reference Signature Sub 2 ($7499) has a six-sided, "vibration-canceling" cabinet and three pairs of woofers, two on each of three sides. According to Paradigm, those six drivers have the same radiating area as two 24" drivers -- the Sub 2 can move an enormous amount of air. Inside is a digital-signal-processing (DSP) section as well as a super-high-power amp that they claim can deliver 4500W continuously and 9000W peaks. Like Revel’s Ultima Rhythm2, the Paradigm Reference Signature Sub 2 is a serious piece of work.

Revel and Paradigm both also introduced lower-priced subs at the 2009 CEDIA Expo, and JL Audio offers cheaper models than its Gotham g213. But it’s the new supersubs that will get all the attention, and there’s undoubtedly going to be a group who will want to see one declared the winner. Neither the Revel Ultima Rhythm2 nor the Reference Signature Sub 2 was playing at the CEDIA Expo, but they’ll be shipping to consumers and reviewers very soon. The War of the Woofers is upon us; it will be fascinating to see which supersub wins.