written by Mike Shea on 20 June 2003
Next to a large screen, one of the biggest changes you can make in a home theater is a powerful subwoofer. Subwoofer price range can go from $200 to $10,000 in price, but with a subwoofer you get what you pay for. A powerful subwoofer with a large dynamic range and a full 20hz to 100hz frequency range will improve any home theater system.
The Hsu VTF-2 subwoofer is a $500 subwoofer that is known in both professional and consumer reviewing circles as a best buy in home theater equipment. After my purchase and review, I agree. It works perfectly in any system above $3000. It is a liquidtheater.com recommended component. The VTF-2 is only available from the Hsu Research website.
Living in an apartment is hell for a home theater buff. Probably the largest reason I've come up with for buying a house is to have a dedicated theater with full range sound without having to worry about being arrested. Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I can't justify the move for this alone. The VTF-2 works perfectly in this environment. In my current situation, I am not sure I could be happier.
The VTF-2 is a typical box subwoofer. It is about 18" on each side with two ports on the sides and a 10" downward firing main driver. It has stands that hold it about four inches off of the ground. The manual mentions that it can be used as an end-table but I wouldn't recommend it. Physically my installation was very straight forward. I just pulled out the Energy XL-8 and put in the Hsu. No other work really needed to be done.
The sound output of a subwoofer is supposed to omnidirectional. This allows a subwoofer to be placed in a variety of spots, with the location of the sound being undetectable to the user. Normally a subwoofer is placed somewhere up front of the theater, usually in a corner for a bit more power. This is where mine ended up, in the front right corner of my screening room.
There are a few ways to hook up a subwoofer, but the most common is with a subwoofer signal output from your amplifier through an RCA connector, and into the "mono" RCA input on the sub. There is no need to buy a splitter, any long shielded RCA connector will work. I personally use an Audio Quest subwoofer cable that ran about $25 to $30, but there is no need for anything costing more than $50. With this configuration, all of your main channels should be set to "small" and your Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel should be set to "subwoofer". This will redirect every frequency sent from your source below 80 to 100hz to your subwoofer where it belongs. Almost every article I have read recommends this setup and it has worked very well for me. Even THX specifications recommend crossing over your main speakers at 80hz and redirecting everything else to the systems sub.
The Hsu VTF-2 has speaker level inputs to run it in series with your front main left and right speakers. This lets you run the crossover in the sub to tune it with your particular brand of speakers. With this configuration, your front left and right speakers should be set to "large" and your Low Frequency Effects channel should be redirected to your main speakers. Check your receiver instructions for specifics. This configuration also requires a lot of extra wiring and offers little advantage. Unless you are running an ancient system, you're best bet is to hook it up with the single subwoofer RCA signal output mentioned above.
Hookup and setup with my Yamaha DSP-A1 Receiver and B&W 600 series speakers was painless. All of my main speakers were set to "small" and all LFE effects were set to output to the subwoofer. The sub was hooked up with a single 12' RCA connector to the DSP-A1 subwoofer line-out.
The Hsu VTF-2 has one unique characteristic that not only helps reduce it's cost but also optimizes it for an apartment. The VTF-2 has two frequency tuning points, a high one that offers more power at the 50hz range but cuts off around 35hz, or a low one that reduces overall power but can reach as low as 25hz. I chose the latter, figuring that I would not be able to play it that loud anyway. To set it to "low" you flip the switch on the back of the sub to "25hz" and insert the included foam plug into one of the two ports on the sub. To run it loud, you remove the plug and set the switch to "35hz". The manual states that running it in any other configuration other than those two could damage the sub. I didn't call their bluff.
A lot of documentation on proper subwoofer location recommends a simple test to find the best spot. Take your seat out of the primary viewing position (wherever your best seat in the house is) and put the subwoofer there. Hook it up and run a subwoofer test tone, either from a THX Optimizer sound test or from the amplifier internal test signal. Walk around your room and find the spot with the best response, hopefully in a good location for sub placement. Now stick the sub there. Luckily for me, this location was the exact spot I had originally set it, so I had to change very little. The sub is light enough to move around without too much trouble.
Once I had found a spot for the sub and tuned it to 25hz with the switch and using the foam plug to plug up one of the ports, it was time to tune it. The most common problem with a normal home theater is a lack of proper tuning. Armed with any THX Optimizer DVD and a $35 Radio Shack SPL meter you can really squeeze every dollar out of your own home theater for very little cost. I stuck in the THX optimizer off of the Star Wars Episode 1 DVD and ran the test signal around, tuning every channel to 75db. I used the volume knob on the sub to keep it around that frequency, but considering my average listening level is around 50 to 55db, I turned it up about 10db higher than the other channels. The 200hz to 20hz sweep tone on the THX Optimizer showed that I have a lot of resonant frequencies in my room that make the sub louder or softer at different frequencies. This makes it very difficult to properly tune, so I ended up playing it a little by ear with the various DVDs and CDs I played. Normally this is blasphemy but given my imperfect world, I had no other choice. Even though you may end up tuning it a little by ear, you should still spend the time to tune your speakers and sub correctly as a baseline.
With my system set at a reference level of 75db, I stuck in my first test DVD, Star Wars Episode 1. Now this terrible movie is really only good for testing a system as the story quality is inversely proportional to the quality of the soundtrack. Right after the scrolling yellow background story, the Jedi ship approaches the trade federation. During the fly-by, the bass was so loud my cat ran away. It was loud, but not out of control. Still, to keep from being evicted, I dropped the sound down another 20db overall. This was good and loud, but not Mike's-looking-for-a-new-apartment loud. I tested it on that ship scene a few times and then skipped to one of my favorite tests, the Darth Maul / Obi-Wan match at the end of the movie. I remember sitting in my car after seeing Phantom Menace for the first time and thinking how my home theater would never be able to really recreate the movie that way. The scene I had in mind was the one where Darth Maul blows Obi-Wan off the ledge with a force blast after clashing sabers. Well, I was wrong. Even at a moderate volume level, the force blast blasted just as I had remembered it in the theater. The Hsu VTF-2 had passed the first test.
For the next few weeks I ran a series of DVDs that I knew showcased the LFE channel but weren't horrible movies either. This included some DTS tracks as well as Dolby Digital. These films included Seven, Terminator 2 Collectors Edition, and Face Off. All of them did very well, calling just enough bass to fill out the full frequency range but not enough to make the presence of the sub noticeable. The key was finding that one spot just before all you hear is rumble but after you can really feel the full weight of a sound track. You don't want to be able to notice the sub directly, but you want your overall system to feel powerful. It is a tough spot to find, and it is hard to make a subwoofer transparent after spending $500 on it, but that is what you want to do for the benefit of the movie itself.
I watched a few full-length movies as well as these tests. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets felt strong but my late-night viewing session forced me to worry about volume instead of letting it fire off naturally. Throwing in X-Men, in preparation for the release of X-Men 2, gave me a better feel of that proper transparency. My system sounded strong without sounding rumbly or out of control. The Hsu VTF-2 was the first sub I have owned that got that low without distorting.
The same was true with the Collectors Edition of Fellowship of the Ring. The initial battle in DTS is a strong demo of a system's capabilities. The pressure wave of Sauron's death rolled out without becoming any more overbearing than it was intended to be.
Gladiator one of the best technical DVDs was as strong as I ever heard it. The roar of the catapults, the explosions of burning oil, and the crushing blows of great war hammers filled the room. It was loud, but never harsh or out of control.
Finding a sub that is good with both music and movies is quite hard. Finding one as powerful as the VTF-2 for $500 is almost impossible. The VTF-2 did just as well at musical accuracy as it did for power in film soundtracks. I threw my standard collection of Enya and Loreena McKennett against it. All of my standard test songs were full and rich without slamming me with too much bass. Only the Sarah Mclachlan song "I Love You" was too bass heavy, but this has been a fault of the track for as long as I have tested it. I have never heard it without having to turn the bass down on whatever system I am listening to it on. The Hsu VTF-2 proved to be an excellent sub for music on top of all its other benefits.
There are some excellent values in home theater if you know where to look. The Hsu VTF-2 sub is a perfect example. It is a well designed, quality component with excellent ergonomics, easy setup and calibration, and wonderful performance all for half of what a sub like this should cost. It has been known as the best value in subwoofers and after owning it myself, I agree completely.
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