The Importance of Bass
to the Aging Audiophile (and the Essex SW2 Subwoofer
When I was 24, I helped my then girlfriend (later fiancé, then wife, then ex-wife, now distant stranger) pick out her first home stereo system. She was a writer (a computer journalist) and a serious amateur violinist, and music was very important to her. I had not matured to the point where I could recognize the difference between my priorities and her priorities in terms of audio equipment, so rather than picking out a robust system that would play very loud with lots of bass (I. e, a symphonic system), I picked out what any good 24 year old audiophile would have at the time, a low-wattage NAD receiver, an AR turntable with a Grado cartridge (which got replaced with a Dual turntable and Shure cartridge by the store owner hypothetically because the tonearm was more robust, although I always hated that Dual turntable) and a pair of Sequerra Metronome 7's.
Now the fact that when we got home (we were living together somewhat clandestinely, meaning that I still had my own apartment which I simply never visited), the first question she asked me was, "Does it sound good?" while we playing Beethoven's 9th did indeed register in the back of my head as my having picked out a system for me and not for her; although, the violins from the third, "lyrical slow movement", (taken from Wikipedia) did sound like Heaven; but the acid test was when she kept ramming the vacuum cleaner into the low cinderblock and particleboard shelf the stereo was on—while playing records—and then saying, "I think something's wrong. I don't hear any treble," that led me to conclude we simply should have bought a pair of used Cerwin-Vega's or, maybe, the original Advent loudspeaker and resulted in my moving my Mordaunt Short Carnival 2 loudspeakers from my own Tandberg-based system into her NAD/Dual system while we waited, literally years, for some Metronome 7 replacement tweeters to come along.
Back to the future (2010), I have gone through many systems including my current Audio Note-based single ended triode system incorporating AN-E SEC Silver loudspeakers, with piano lacquer Makassar wood finishes, that go down to 18Hz (at -6dB). I have also survived two pairs of heavily modified Quad ESL-63 USA Monitor electrostatic loudspeakers driven both by Spectral and Audio Research electronics; but—damn—I have say that even at the age of 33, around the time I got my first pair of Quads—I had to appreciate them, not enjoy them, because they still lacked that deep bass, that dramatic dynamic range and that ability to play loud that I take for granted with my AN-E's, even using a 7 watt/channel 300B-based integrated amplifier.
So when I took my first decent computer DAC (the FireWire 400-based Apogee Duet, long preceding my Sonicweld Diverter-oriented hard drive front end that I'm discussing in a separate, multipart article), and decided to make that the nexus of an office system, I knew I wanted BASS; and, in fact, I put together a nice little system using a "Tube Pod" amp, a pair of System Audio SA-505 loudspeakers (in maple) and a REL T3 subwoofer; and more important than anything else, it was fun! I used it all the time; but I wanted to morph it into a full backup system in case I ever found myself in a studio apartment, so I needed to add a turntable, and that's when I went back to my friend Nick to consult on a good analog front end; and let's just say that he wasn't super psyched about what I'd setup for myself if it was going to be a true backup system and not just the iMac equivalent of an iPod dock. (Remember Apple Hi-Fi? – http://tinyurl.com/295chxr)
So we wound up replacing the "Tube Pod" system with a Triode Audio Corporation ("Tri") TRV-88SE 45 watt/channel KT88-based push-pull integrated amplifier, with a very good built in headphone amp, a Tri TRV-CD4SE 24/192 upsampling CD player with a 6DJ8 tube built into it (which Nick upgraded), a Rega P3-24 with the RB-301 tonearm and an Audio Note IQ3 MM cartridge with a top notch stylus and the satin silver Rega TT PSU (attached to a shortened Ikea LACK table with ¼" squares of Blu-Tack) all accompanied by an Audiomat Phono 1.5 and a black Quadraspire Q4EVO two-shelf stand for the Rega and the Audiomat; underneath the shortened LACK table is a jet black Equi=Tech 1.5Q that I use BOTH for my office audio system and my 27" Quad Core iMac/G-Technology 4TB RAID 0 backup drive and the "piece de resistance", a pair of Micropure CZ310ES's modified to use all silver wire sitting on hand-turned wooden cones and cork paper to isolate them from my glass desk.
The problem is that the Micropures are mini-monitors and just don't have that much bass; and although my Tri KT88-based office/backup system is miles ahead of my "Tube Pod" system, I just didn't use it that much because I'm 50 now AND I WANT THE BASS. I want to enjoy listening to the music, the whole music, not just admire the purity of my equipment. So I sent a note to Nick saying that I was thinking about picking up another REL T3, "just for fun", and he replaced by saying that—a while back—e had picked up some Essex SW2 subwoofers which might be a slightly better for my office system because they're a little faster; he did not say that the REL was a bad choice, just that—as we often find ourselves—we were in a situation where I had a hankering for a little bass and he had the part I needed for my system, so he and his associate Lee brought it over and set it up, setting the crossover point in the middle of the range and the amplitude of the subwoofer in the middle of the range (the Essex, like the REL, has a "high level" input which connects to your speaker terminals so the signal you get is exactly what goes into the speakers) and I started playing lots of "bassy" sounding music.
Several days have passed and I've tired of having "thump thump" sounds coming from behind the closed office door; so I went in and adjusted the bass level to more of a "listening level" and less of a "breaking in" level using Lucia Souza's Brazilian Duos, which is a warm sounding CD. And just to make sure I was actually getting bass out of the Essex—although it sounded like I was—I removed the grill and placed my soap and water washed, well-rinsed fingertips on the woofer just to feel it moving, which it was, and now I'm mostly enjoying having some sense of "bass foundation" to the music, without being boomy, rather than having to imagine the bass guitar that creates those overtones I previously heard alone. Nick and his associate Lee came by this evening to dial in the subwoofer; and I really can't express myself more clearly than in the note I wrote thanking him:
I just wanted to let you know that after you left I put on Luciana Souza's "The New Bossa Nova", which is a well recorded and slightly "bassy" CD, and it was just perfect; I really could have sworn I was listening to my [Audio Note] AN-J's [http://tinyurl.com/39476j8]. Now of course I'll have to deal that the limits of my Apogee Duet FireWire DAC including its paltry bass response; but there's no doubt that having a real subwoofer that can actually keep up—mostly—with the Micropures is a true joy. Thanks so much.
In chatting with Nick, we agreed that when we're younger—although our hearing is better—we care less about bass and if we absolutely have to have it, it doesn't necessarily have to be very high quality; you can just add a cheap subwoofer or get a pair of second hand pair of Spendor SP-1's and you're perfectly fine with it. It's when you get older that—despite your hearing not being as good—you want that clean, tight, high-quality bass that has to speed to keep up with the contemporary equivalent of your Metronome 7's; and that's what led me to the Essex SW2 subwoofer system ("system" meaning it has an amp and more than just a driver in a box) because it does or has all that. I remember when I was 30. I did a side by side comparison between the now long out of production Apogee Stages(1) and the Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors on Crosby stands; and I choose the Quads, even on Stevie Ray Vaughn's "The Sky is Crying", because I could hear the tube rush of his guitar amp better on "Little Wing" despite the Quads very limited bass response versus the Stage's ample amount. I don't know I would make that same choice today.
I should say then—as an epilog—that the Essex SW2 is a really good subwoofer. It is large and heavy and, unlike the REL, doesn't blend as neatly and elegantly into the environment looking more like a curiosity than, well, a very large rectangular subwoofer system; but the sound of the Essex is clean and quick and it keeps up with the polypropylene midrange drivers in the Micropure mini-monitors; and I would say that I now have an office system that rivals many "home" or "main" systems; in fact, I could pick up a pair of black Quadraspire QV60 speaker stands to get the CZ310ES‘s off of my desk (http://tinyurl.com/3x7r78k), move my 2 shelf Q4EVO turntable stand and my shortened Ikea LACK table out from under my desk (technically the Q4EVO already is) and have a kickass home stereo system that would bring me years of musical enjoyment; but—again—there would be bass, deep dark, bittersweet chocolate bass dialed in to just the perfect amount so it's a joy to fire up the system and listen to "Shady Grove" by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman without having to appreciate what must be there but I cannot actually hear; and that's—to me—the importance of bass.
(1) Please note that the Apogee Acoustics that made the Stages, among other ribbon and hybrid loudspeakers, is NOT the same Apogee that now makes the Duet FireWire DAC, among other digital audio devices.