Living in a modest house I prefer less-than-gargantuan speakers. However, with high walls and an apex ceiling, my lounge (listening room) can handle a surprisingly big sound. Spendor’s Classic 1/2 were lovely but visually they dominated; think Great Dane in a small cottage. I did, however, appreciate their 30Hz (in-room) bass reach though.
I’ve been pondering this for a while: would a subwoofer help me generate the sound of larger speakers without putting twin towers in the living room? Sure, I’d have to integrate it with smaller main speakers. That’s either a simple or thankless task depending on who you ask. Perhaps that would be half the fun? I’d certainly learn a thing or two.
So this ‘My First Subwoofer’ investigation. One that conveniently ignores the REL Stygian that I ran a long time ago. Surely subwoofer technology has come a long way since? Indeed: the ‘automated’ app-based setup of Elac’s SUB3030 looked interesting.
What is it?
At £750 / US$800 / €800 the SUB3030 is the midpoint in Elac’s subwoofer range. A 12” downward-firing passive radiator is mated to a powered 12” forward-facing driver, the latter juiced by a 500W continuous / 1000W burst amplifier that uses Elac’s BASH technology. Essentially a Class A/B device with Class D circuitry regulating the supply voltage, it gives a high power / low distortion win-win – according to Elac.
The SUB3030 is no shrinking violet at 17”x17”x18.2” (WDH) and 50lbs. The finish is black ash. It’s well-made if not luxurious. Spikes are provided. The fixed plastic grill visually mimics the driver behind to give the unit a purposeful look, flaunting not hiding its size. Those putting the SUB3030 in a family room might find it knocks domestic harmony off balance.
On the rear sits a pair of RCA sockets for stereo connectivity – check you have a pair of RCA pre-outs on your main amplifier.
Now comes the twist. A USB input (for service only), reset button and mains socket complete the rear panel; there are no other controls. No gain. No crossover. For subwoofer setup and integration we instead turn to ELAC’s SUB Control 2.0 phone app (iOS & Android) that talks to the subwoofer via Bluetooth. How very Future-Fi! Adjusting things from the listening seat was a definite plus.
Sub Control 2.0
The app packs a lot of functionality into a neat interface and connects to the subwoofer reliably. When changing volume frequently it can revert to a previous level — but that’s easily sorted and only a minor niggle. And whilst instructions would help, in-app navigation is intuitive.
Auto EQ was the feature that initially caught my eye. It adapts the response of the subwoofer to one’s room and is super simple to use. Place your phone close to the main driver and run a sweep. Repeat at the listening position. The app uses the difference between the two readings to tailor the frequency curve. Clever and quick. Running and re-running the process – should you need to – is a breeze.
But this EQs the subwoofer to the room. It does not integrate it with the main speakers (as I initially thought). For that, we have to find the right subwoofer crossover point, volume, phase and position. Four variables for which there is no automated process. Not easy for anyone, like me, tackling their first subwoofer.
Back to the app. Phase can be set from 0 to 360 degrees. And bass can be delayed by up to 20ms if needed. There’s also a five-band Parametric EQ. I dabbled but ended up leaving things flat. Finally, four presets work in parallel with the other settings. ‘Flat’ negates the room effect. ‘Music’ adds a smidge back. ‘Movies’ liven things up (+2dB at 50Hz) and ‘Night’ reduces bass to placate neighbours. All commendably subtle – I stayed ‘Flat’ for one less variable.
Overall the app looks good, works well and is stable; thumbs up.
The loudspeakers used for this test were the £2300 Graham LS6 standmounts. Elac’s Debut B6.2 (£300) stepped in later. A Cambridge Audio Edge NQ streaming pre-amplifier (£4500) fed a pair of Gold Note PA-10 (£1300 each) power amplifiers. Four IsoAcoustics Iso-Pucks (£90) supported the SUB3030 on a concrete slab (in lieu of spikes).
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: setup was a painstaking task. Hifi News’ Keith Howard gives some insight as to why here. ELAC’S Andrew Jones, the SUB3030’s designer, was even more candid:
…unless you are measuring it’s very difficult to know how the response of the sub will add to the response of the main speaker. It’s mostly a matter of trial and error and luck…It’s the speaker designer’s job to integrate all the drivers together to get a seamless smooth response. And it’s not easy. Yet with subwoofers, we say to the customer “Here, you have a go. I know you don’t have tools or experience, so…… good luck!”
For the crossover point, Derek Hughes (Graham LS6 designer) suggested the lowest 40Hz setting to minimise any overlap from 40-60Hz (the LS6 is -2dB/45Hz). Andrew Jones concurred. I tried higher but they were right.
On the SUB3030’s in-room positioning, corner placement is recommended. That worked best; when placed on a sidewall and just 60cm from the front wall, the subwoofer sounded not as potent. Increasing volume to compensate messed the overall balance without bringing back the lowest notes. Clearly, the 9dB of mechanical reinforcement afforded by a corner position makes a difference.
All the above was done whilst also searching for the optimum subwoofer volume. And checking phase to ensure the sub was adding bass, not cancelling it. Four parameters, infinite options. No wonder it took me so long.
Volume was the most sensitive, minor changes making a disproportionate difference. Slightly low and the SUB3030 disappeared. A tad too high and …doof .. doof .. doof — bass boomed. It also varied by recording: what was right for one was overblown on another. Sure the app made changing parameters easy. Perhaps too easy – I never really stopped tinkering.
I start with Mika Vainio’s Konstellaatio (suggested by Kex in Letters to the Editor Week #12, 2021). “Otava” kicks it off, the low bass swirling insidiously round the room. The frequency analyser in Elac’s app (part of Auto EQ) confirms a 40Hz bedrock, punctuated by 30Hz bursts that sound glorious through the SUB3030. Without the subwoofer they’re absent, and the music loses some menace.
“Olympic Fanfare” on Pomp & Pizazz (Cincinnati Pops) next. This was a Richard E Lord (founder of REL) favourite; a bright Telarc recording that goes low. The SUB3030 shoulders the weight of the orchestra magnificently, even during the quieter passages. The LS6 without subwoofer does well but can’t match the Elac’s additional bombast, which adds some emotional wallop.
Onto The King next – cathedral organ not Elvis – via Charles Munch’s “Saint Saens Symphony 3”. A low-bass warhorse for sure but who cares; the finale is magnificent, the room pressurised, the SUB3030 just roaring. Its sheer force is majestic.
The slow 2nd movement showcases the Elac’s downward reach just beautifully. I’ve heard it live at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. The lowest notes – probably 16Hz from 32’ pipes – are more felt than heard. The SUB3030 gets closer than anything I’ve heard since, its 25Hz reach tested to the full. Just sublime.
In a broader sense, there’s an occasional fullness to the sound, but I sense that’s the room making itself heard, not the Elac misbehaving. Time will tell as I try other subwoofers (a REL is on the roadmap). Measurements would also help. For now, dropping the volume a shade keeps things better behaved.
A bigger problem is finding music to play. The SUB3030 is crossed over at 40Hz, and surprisingly little content goes lower (a double bass only reaches 41.5Hz for example). In truth, much of the time the LS6 doesn’t benefit from the SUB3030. Doubts begin to surface; do I really need a subwoofer?
Time to try a different main speaker – in come Elac’s Debut B6.2 standmounts. They’re similar in size to the Graham but at £329 they are a completely different animal. Andrew Jones suggests 45Hz for crossover (again, lower than I thought). Would the SUB3030 bring more to the party now?
Yes – a lot more. The B6.2 are impressive for the price but their bass stops well short of the LS6. The SUB3030 is doing more of the work, and it shows. With the subwoofer in the signal path, music comes on as richer and more fleshed out. The additional benefit seems disproportionate to the numbers. The subwoofer is only reaching up another 5Hz – but so be it. The question here is not whether to use a subwoofer but which one? At £500, is Elac’s SUB3010 more price-appropriate?
One last thing
REL makes the case for a subwoofer fleshing out a system’s soundstage, even on simple music. It’s counterintuitive – how can a subwoofer make a difference when there’s no bass? But, I’ve heard it demonstrated to good effect many times. The difference isn’t subtle.
Not with the SUB3030 though; I listened for it, I really did. I wanted to hear it. It just wasn’t there – adding the subwoofer had no impact on the soundstage of either the Graham LS6 or Debut B6.2. I mention it for completeness.
I said I might learn a lot and I did. As Andrew Jones laid bare, setting up a subwoofer isn’t easy. The process can flit between fascinating and frustrating in the blink of an eye. That’s a comment on subwoofers generally, not the SUB3030.
I was surprised how little the Graham LS6 needed a subwoofer. Conversely, the Debut B6.2 lapped up the SUB3030’s extra low-frequency reach. It’s not price-related, more costly loudspeakers don’t always go lower. My old B&W 802 floorstanders only managed 27Hz.
With the SUB3030, we get a lot of additional musical information for the money, the two 12” drivers surely fundamental to its impressive 25Hz reach. And whilst the Elac is quite large I’m sure it could be tucked away if needed. Its insistence on corner placement will help with that.
The app is easy to use and makes set up easier (thank goodness). And Auto EQ is clever both in principle and execution. When everything clicks, the SUB3030 integrates seamlessly with a hifi system, its impact on the listening experience irrefutable and worryingly addictive. A sharp reminder then that the journey is as important as the destination where room acoustics and musical taste enjoy far more than walk-on roles.
The SUB3030 feels like a good ‘un. Does it set the sonic standard for its price point? It’s my first subwoofer at any price point so I wouldn’t know for sure. That said, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Further information: ELAC