I have a love-hate relationship with subwoofers. When I hear them properly setup, I get the warm fuzzies listening to my favorite music. Subwoofers provide a sense of space, and both subtle and impactful presence to music. Subwoofers reproduce music that many people don't realize is present on their favorite recordings. However, I've always been extremely hesitant to embrace subwoofers. One reason is that I've never taken time to understand them thoroughly. Another is that poor subwoofer execution can ruin music in an instant. Perhaps the biggest issue for me has been an internal one. I have an ingrained sense that subwoofers are for home theaters, not audiophile endeavors. Logically I know this is nonsense, as I've heard some incredible systems using subwoofers to take them to otherwise unachievable heights. The tough part over the years has been truly convincing myself that it's not only OK to use subwoofers, but it's preferable in many systems.
Finally Interested In Subwoofers
My first two cars had incredible aftermarket stereo systems, including subwoofers. My old desktop computers had subwoofers, including the long running Klipsch 2.1 ProMedia speaker system. But, none of those systems count. They were really fun, but more on the level of a hyper vivid, high dynamic range photograph, than a system capable of accurate reproduction.
In a way, subwoofers have always been a strange beast to me, kind of like turntables. I'll configure any music server or 12 channel immersive audio system in my sleep, but present me with a subwoofer and I get nervous looking at "all" the settings. I'm well aware that's ridiculous, or as Metallica put it, "Sad But True." It has been my reality forever though. I guess we all have limits and interests. Without an interest in subwoofers over the years, I never took the time to learn much about them. I listened to systems with them, but that's it.
The tide started turning for me shortly after October 2021, when I reviewed the Wilson Audio TuneTot loudspeakers. The TuneTots reproduce music down to about 65 Hz. I loved those speakers and thought the 65 Hz bottom end was sufficient, especially because the speakers were reinforced by a rear wall behind my desk. No need for a subwoofer, or so I thought.
Then I was contacted by Wilson Audio to discuss a new subwoofer that was soon to be released, named Lōkē. I'd heard Wilson subwoofers many times and loved what they did for music, but the commitment was always more than I could stomach. The subwoofers were all passive models, requiring external amplification and crossover. For those with the means and space, I highly encourage looking into those models. Given my subwoofer hesitance, there was no way I was going the passive subwoofer route, even if the benefits were huge. I just couldn't do it. Walking before running is always wise.
When Wilson told me the new subwoofer was an active model, the wheels in my head started turning. Pairing the new sub with the TuneTots could be very nice. In addition, my ideas surrounding immersive audio were starting to solidify and I knew a subwoofer would be required for such a system. This gave me two solid reasons to bring in the new subwoofer, and give it a spin. To be honest, if the TuneTots weren't here and I didn't have immersive audio dreams, I likely would've passed on the Lōkē. Again, that's my bias against subwoofers rearing its ugly head, rather than a decision based on knowledge and experience.
The Lōkē was scheduled to be shipped, once a production unit was ready, and I started researching subwoofers a bit more.
A Low-key Arrival
The Lōkē arrived with far less fanfare than a thousand pounds of speakers for an Atmos music system, and I was thankful for that. The unit weighs 110 lbs, but I managed to get it up to my listening room without calling Manny's Piano Movers. I took one step at a time, and moved very slowly. Once at the top of the stairs, I wheeled it into position and cracked open the manual. In typical Wilson fashion, the manual is thorough, even though it's rarely needed because Wilson dealers handle everything from delivery to setup. I understood the broad strokes of adjusting the volume and selecting the low pass filter between 30 Hz and 125 Hz.
To help me understand the rest of the Lōkē, I called Wilson's Peter McGrath. I'd watched Peter setup Wilson passive subwoofers previously, and knew he could walk me through the details and options of the Lōkē. Peter explained everything to me, and more importantly why I'd want to use each option. After the call, I started listening to music and adjusting the settings. I was soon in over my head and trying to adjust the variable phase, based on some crazy method I read about online.
After a few days and conversations with others, I confirmed that subwoofers are my kryptonite. The only thing I could do was recognize my limitations, and proceed as a music lover rather than someone with a full technical understanding of the product and experience. In a way, this is when the fun began and the subwoofer apprehension ceased. I also felt like I did when I first got into this wonderful hobby. Before I understood anything about anything, and I could just listen.
I initially setup the Lōkē subwoofer with my desktop system. I switched between a Constellation Audio Inspiration integrated amplifier, and a Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2 integrated amplifier. Both units feature speaker outputs for the TuneTots, and balanced XLR outputs that I connected to the Lōkē. The Schiit Ragnarok 2 also features a built-in DAC, which made the connection to my desktop computer really simple.
I left most settings on the Lōkē at their defaults. The only items I adjusted were the main volume and the low pass filter. Based on my somewhat limited subwoofer experience, I've always enjoyed systems where I didn't even realize a subwoofer was present, until I heard or felt an unmistakable bottom end foundation. With this in mind, I set the low pass filter on the Lōkē to 65 Hz, the point at which the TuneTots should hand off low frequency duties to the subwoofer.
The Lōkē configuration is done via the back panel, but I've been told it's possible to use this Windows application for full control of the unit. The app could come in very handy for those with the Lōkē installed close to a wall, and a PC in close proximity. The app is supplied by Dayton Audio, which manufactures the amplifier used in the Lōkē.
I talked to a couple Wilson Audio representatives about the use of Dayton Audio parts in the Lōkē. What I heard was 1. This amp is bulletproof and was unfazed by incredibly rigorous testing by the Wilson Audio Special Applications Engineering team and 2. If Wilson Audio built this amp in-house, in relatively low quantities, the cost of the Lōkē would've been far higher, without additional benefit to the customer.
Once the Lōkē was minimally configured next to my desk, I fired up Audirvana and streamed some Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The 1993 album Sister Sweetly is a classic, not only because of its great music, but I love bassist Rob Squires' groove and the foundation he lays on every track. Listening to the opening track, Broken Hearted Savior, I immediately felt enveloped by the bottom end. Most importantly, the bass was tight, and right inline with the rest of the band. The Lōkē was serving the music beautifully, not calling attention to itself like the gentleman next to me at the stoplight a few days ago.
After jumping to a few tracks and albums, I knew I couldn't un-ring the subwoofer bell. I'd heard it in my own room, and there was no going back. Maybe this was one of my issues all along. I knew I'd "need" a subwoofer once I'd heard one in my own room. Seriously, adding the Lōkē wasn't a subtle change. It reproduced music I otherwise couldn't have heard or felt in this system. I'm not talking about a super tweeter that reproduces audio for bats. The impact of a subwoofer, such as the Lōkē, can't be missed.
A few months later, Peter McGrath and Tyler Hall from Wilson Audio visited me to setup my new Alexia V loudspeakers and the rest of my 12 channel immersive audio system, including the Lōkē. The Lōkē has two balanced XLR inputs, so I could technically leave it connected to my desktop and immersive audio systems simultaneously, but the purist in me has to separate the two. I kept the Lōkē in the same position, and connected it to the Merging Technologies HAPI Mk2 DAC that I use for Atmos music.
Unlike with my desktop system, I used Audiolense to measure my immersive system's in room response. To my amazement, the Wilson Audio Lōkē went down to 14 Hz in my room! Wow, I couldn't believe it. I thought it would bottom out closer to 20 Hz, and be more important for the desktop system, than the immersive system with Alexia Vs that go down to 19 Hz. This was a nice surprise.
I've spoken with several people about subwoofers lately, and without fail, every one of them says a system should have more than one subwoofer. My system has a single Lōkē, for now. I'm not opposed to dual Lōkē, but I need to walk before I run. In addition, Atmos music uses the LFE channel differently from typical bass management use cases. The LFE channel is a specific output to which a mixing engineer can send low frequency effects, not a channel to be used for all bass frequencies below a certain threshold. In Atmos music mixes, the LFE channel is frequently bereft of much content for two reasons, 1. Most music doesn't contain low frequency effects, and 2. When an Atmos mix is rendered to systems without an LFE channel (headphones), the LFE content is completely removed rather than folded into the remaining channels. I used the word "frequently" because it's often the case, but not always. Some Atmos mixes contain a very healthy amount of LFE content, and in these cases the Lōkē is stellar.
Nonetheless, I have a spot along the opposite wall of my listening room, where a second Lōkē could rest comfortably. I'm told the sense of space that a second subwoofer adds to a system is very nice. Someday I'll get there, but I'm enjoying what I have right now so much that I don't want to make a single change. Everything from the LA Philharmonic playing Le Sacre du Printemps to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass to the exquisite immersive albums from Morten Lindberg at 2L, sounds stunning in my room, with a single Lōkē. The subwoofer is most certainly there, but it doesn't overpower or stand out like the redheaded audio stepchild subwoofers that have turned me off previously. The Lōkē is low-key, and that's how I like it.
I must repeat that I've never had a "real" subwoofer in my listening room, until the Lōkē arrived. Therefore, I can't honestly report that the Lōkē is the best subwoofer on the market. I can say that it's the best subwoofer I've ever had in my system and it will never leave this listening room. Throw the shipping crate away, this one is here for good. I have no subwoofer to which I can directly compare the Lōkē, but from my perspective this leads to a different and very valid comparison. I've always been anti-subwoofer, for all the aforementioned reasons. My comparison is between my systems without a subwoofer and my systems with a subwoofer. In a way, I want to know if a subwoofer is right for me, not which subwoofer is right for me. The first question must be answered before the second can even be considered.
In my case, I elect to use Wilson Audio loudspeakers because the company's service, support, and products are second to none. Wilson is the gold standard. The Wilson Audio Lōkē is the perfect match for me, and my subwoofer apprehension. The commitment required for an active subwoofer is next to nothing, compared to that of a passive subwoofer. I must also mention the build quality and perfect color match between the Lōkē and my eight Wilson Audio Alida speakers is absolutely perfect. A Lōkē in my listening room looks and sounds like it belongs here.
Prior to listening with the Lōkē, I thought, can't everyone just use a pair of passive loudspeakers with zero settings, straightforward placement options, and call it a day? I guess they could, but they'd be missing out on a lot of music and enjoyment. How can one faithfully reproduce what's on the recording, without the proper hardware. Nobody would suggest saving money and space by removing the tweeter from a loudspeaker. Yet, those without a proper subwoofer are doing just that, on the other end of the frequency spectrum.
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