Consider the subwoofer: so simple in purpose, relatively simple in design, yet the source of more contention than just about any other element of home theater design. How many subs do you really need? Where should you put them? Are big subwoofers too flabby? Are small ones loud enough?
These days, it seems like my secondary theater is a veritable revolving door of subwoofers — some simple cubes, some trapezoidal, some shaped like Christmas ornaments — and I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that placement and setup has far more influence on satisfying bass delivery than the subwoofers themselves. That isn’t to say they all sound the same, given similar volume (which, oddly enough, doesn’t always correlate with power ratings), but the differences between them have been, for the most part, subtle.
Which makes a standalone review of a subwoofer like Sunfire’s SDS-10 no easy task. Let’s face it: subtlety rarely makes for exciting reading. And exploring the subtleties of a product designed to rattle the rafters and rumble your naughty bits is perhaps a little ironic (don’t ya think?).
But indulge me my nuances, if you will, because if you’ve got a small-to-medium-sized room and you’re in the market for a very good, versatile subwoofer, the little things that set the SDS-10 apart may well make it exactly the right sub for your system.
Out of the box, it’s unassuming enough: a typical looking cube, noteworthy perhaps only for the fact that its wood-grained finish breaks from the trend of glossy, piano-black or matte-finished cabinets.
On the back, it sports fairly typical subwoofer controls and inputs: line level ins (including a dedicated LFE input), a signal sensing/always on switch, phase and crossover controls, and a volume knob. (No speaker-level connections, but most people will never use those, anyway). There’s nothing on the back to indicate the SDS-10’s wireless capabilities, but it works flawlessly with Sunfire’s Subwoofer Wireless Kit nonetheless.
It isn’t until you flip the SDS-10 over that you notice anything even slightly out of the ordinary: a 10-inch down-firing passive radiator that matches its front-firing active woofer in appearance, though not in function. (Passive radiators aren’t powered; they’re driving by the air pressure within the cabinet alone).
Perhaps as a result of that down-firing passive radiator, the SDS-10 is most similar to GoldenEar Technology’s ForceField of all the subwoofers I’ve got kicking around the casa at the moment (despite obvious differences in cabinet design), so comparing and contrasting those two specifically make sense.
First, the similarities: both the SDS-10 and the ForceField impress me with their ability to fill a room fairly evenly with bass. Both deliver more punch than their size might indicate. And both sound pretty much equally wonderful with movies and music. Contrary to nominal power ratings, though (the ForceField being rated much higher on paper), the SDS-10 strikes me as packing more punch, and is better suited to handling higher volumes, whereas the ForceField delivers deeper response. Those characteristics come into play most noticeably with the climactic battle from The Incredible Hulk. The SDS-10, as a result of its rapidly attenuated output below 30 Hz, lacks some of the ForceField’s ultra-low-end rumble, but delivers the crashing, booming, and bamming just a few hertz up the scale with a little more authority.
Which is preferable in that regard? I honestly can’t say. Based on my experience with both subs, I think I would prefer two ForceFields to two SDS-10s (after all, a pair of ForceFields could team up to deliver more SPLs with less effort, but no matter how many SDS-10s you add to a room, they’re all going to roll off pretty quickly below 30 Hz). But aside from enthusiasts, how many people run more than one sub? Not many. So if you only have room (or the budget) for a single sub, ask yourself whether you’re looking for deeper bass or stronger, more effortless bass. There’s no one right answer to that question, but if the latter is more your speed, the SDS-10 should most certainly be on your short list of subs to audition.
That’s with movies, of course. With music, I found it harder to really quantify the differences between the ForceField and SDS-10 in meaningful, objective ways, so let’s just focus on the Sunfire and what it does well. Which is a lot.
AIX Records’ Ernest Ranglin: Order of Distinction was still in my DVD-Audio player from my recent review of NHT’s SuperZero 2.0 monitors, so I queued it up first, not out of laziness (okay, a little bit out of laziness), but mostly because its mix delivers a rich, nuanced bottom end that really puts a subwoofer to test not in terms of stress, but subtlety (there’s that word again!) With the loping bass lines of “Satta Massagana,” the SDS-10 positively oozes bass into the room, spreading it around like a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese on a hot slice of sourdough. Just as impressive is its even-keeled performance with the frolicking, playful, bouncy-up-and-downy bottom end of “My Boy Lollipop,” each note of which rings through with equally authoritative volume and distortion-free clarity.
In digging through my DVD-A and musical Blu-ray collection, I didn’t come across anything with bass low enough to reveal the SDS-10’s lack of super-ultra-low-frequency response, but plenty that revealed its superb performance in the ~100-120 Hz range, at which point the sub gives way to the NHT mini monitors still set up in the room. The transition from the sub to the NHTs is seamless with pretty much any material I throw at the system (including movies). And more out of curiosity than anything else, I replaced the SuperZero 2.0s with a set of MartinLogan Motion 12s and set the crossover to 80 Hz. Also seamless.
So unless you hold its lack of significant bass extension below 30 Hz against it (which wouldn’t really be fair, given its size), there’s nothing negative to report about the SDS-10. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a room any larger than my secondary theater (roughly 13-by-15 feet), but for reasonably sized rooms, it delivers a helluva lot of very versatile performance for an incredibly reasonable price.