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Home Theater Speakers: Understanding the Bass

We all know what bass can do to a movie soundtrack. It can create drama, danger, even a feeling of strength depending on the visuals that go along with it. Bass is one of the most important elements of any audio format because it provides balance and contrast to the overall score of a movie, television show, even commercial. Quality bass in a sound system is impressive while not being overpowering.

In a 5.1 surround sound system, one of the most common for home theater installations, the '.1' is the bass. The speaker for the bass sounds on a soundtrack is called a subwoofer. Lower frequency sound waves use a larger diaphragm to move the amount of air it takes to make these sounds. While smaller speakers can produce these lower frequency waves, they typically cannot produce the kind of quality that one would expect from a quality theater. Smaller speakers can often sound tinny when trying to produce these lower sounds. Large home theatre speaker towers are capable of handling this part of the soundtrack though it may require the reduction of sound quality from the mid and high range frequency speakers.

Choosing a good sound system with a quality bass speaker is not impossible, even for people who do not have a lot of experience. First, start with the subwoofer. Homeowners will need to consider whether they require a passive sub or an active woofer. A passive subwoofer does not need a separate power supply. Rather it uses power from the same amp that is driving the other home theatre speakers. Volume from the amplifier can usually be controlled, there is less control overall with a passive sub. An active sub has a separate power supply. This means that the signal received from the amplifier/receiver is enhanced by the subwoofer itself, without taking any of the power from the other speakers.

Once you have your home theater subwoofer and other speakers picked out, lay them out to get the best sound from each. Bass sound is omni-directional, meaning that it goes out from the speaker in all direction. To decide where to place the subwoofer, put it in the same position that you will be sitting in, whether it is on the couch facing the television screen or in a home theater chair. Turn on a favorite film then move around your room and listen. Find the spot that the bass sounds best and move your subwoofer to that location. It can be set on the ground, on a shelf or off of a wall depending on where you feel the best low tone sound is heard. Since the sounds are going out and bouncing around the room in roughly the same direction, the sound should be great when you get it into place.

We've all heard the laments of mothers and fathers forced to deal with the incessant thumping and pounding of boom box bass lines from their adolescent's car or room. There is something to say for the potential for this phenomenon to occur in a home theater as well. While walls, ceiling and floor will generally block high sound frequencies from leaving the room, they can actually increase the volume of the lower range sounds. While laying out your speakers, try to also find the right volume balance for all frequencies that your family can enjoy the sound quality a bass can provide without driving your neighbors crazy.

~Ben Anton, 2008


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