PowerSound Audio XS15 Subwoofer Review
By Jim Wilson
The subject of this review is the PowerSound Audio XS15
, a member of their PowerX line of subwoofers. The XS15 is an acoustic suspension design that utilizes a 15" down-firing driver. Weighing in at a robust 72 pounds, and measuring 20.75"x18.5"x19.5" (HWD, include the base), means this is no wall flower; if you have a small room you know the XS15's there. This is actually the runt of the litter; the XS15 is the smallest subwoofer PowerSound Audio (PSA) makes. With size comes performance though, so the trade off turns out to be well worth it.
Never heard of PowerSound Audio? You're not alone, because they've only been around for a few months. However, that doesn't mean they have no experience in this field. Far from it actually; PSA was started by two guys who worked for years at SV Sound, one of the premier ID (Internet Direct) companies. As a matter of fact one of those two individuals -- Tom Vodhanel -- happens to be the 'V' in SV Sound, so there's definite pedigree behind PSA. A new company, yes, but not newbies to the subwoofer field by any means.
The XS15 has an amp rated at 500 watts RMS, with 1000 watts available during peak times. It's what PSA is calling the PS BASH®, a patented hybrid amplifier utilizing the best of Class D and Class A/B designs. The XS15's frequency response -- which PSA lists as 26Hz-200Hz +/-3dB (with 16Hz-20Hz typical in-room extension) -- has been specially tuned using a Digital Signal Processor (DSP), so even though this amp is the same one used in some of their other models it's been configured to match the XS15's characteristics perfectly. The amp also includes such features such as temperature sensing protection, overload detection and soft limiters, all of which are advanced and uncommon features to find in a subwoofer that costs what the XS15 does.
PSA includes a 5 year warranty covering parts and labor. And get this; it's transferable, so they're putting the warranty on the product and not the purchaser. That's quite rare. There's also the ubiquitous 30 day in home trial, but after hearing the XS15 myself I can't imagine there's anyone who will be returning it.
As if all that's not enough already, PowerSound Audio has one other benefit to throw at you; made in the USA. With the exception of the amp everything PSA uses in their subwoofers is designed, made and assembled right here in America. For someone like myself that's a huge
advantage they have over the competition.Ordering
Purchasing from PowerSound Audio is done in the same manner as any other ID company, directly from the manufacturers website
. The XS15 costs a mere $750, which includes shipping. That's right, PSA picks up the tab for shipping this beast. Depending upon where you live that's probably $75 that stays in your pocket. For those counting... you're essentially getting 10% of the purchase price refunded to you because PSA picks up the tab for shipping.Unboxing
The XS15 came single boxed, but it was a heavier gauge then most; the box looked to be about 500 pound burst strength, which essentially means thick. The subwoofer was firmly held at all 8 corners by thick blocks of medium density foam (yea, no miserable styrofoam!). A plastic bag was the only other protection.
The manual is small but complete - Stephen King has nothing to fear, that's for sure. The only other accessory is the power cord which, thankfully, is only two prong. That means no ground loop issues to contend with.Initial Impressions
OK, let's start with perhaps the most controversial part of every PSA subwoofer; the finish. Some have taken to calling it undercoating or bedliner, and to an extent it does resemble Line-X. However, it doesn't look bad, just different. For me it's a good kind of different though. Personally I'm not a fan of the piano/gloss black finish because it's nothing more then a dust and finger print collector. It also reflects light, which is not something I find all that beneficial in my home theater. I think when done properly high gloss paint looks gorgeous, but the liabilities outweigh the benefits for me.
PSA calls this finish a "sand texture", which seems aptly named. They also claim it's "super durable", and I would tend to agree with them. I'm not sure what it is or how they apply it, but it does appear as though it can take some abuse. The coating was applied perfectly on the review unit, with not a single imperfection to be found.
Another area that seems to be a point of debate is the plinth, or base. It appears to harken back to early SV Sound designed subwoofers. Some people like it, others don't. I have mixed feelings myself, but thankfully you can remove it and use the XS15 as a 'regular' down-firing subwoofer if you so choose. The bolts holding the plinth on are standard grade 3 hex head, about 5" long. Get the same thing in a 3.5" length and you can reuse the original feet. The plinth works like an isolator of sorts, de-coupling the sub from your floor, so it's probably best just to leave it in place.
Perhaps the only area I found where it looks like PowerSound Audio may have cut corners is the cheesy feet they used on the bottom of the base. They're tiny rubber stick on's, the kind you can get at any home center. Not what comes to mind when I think of feet for a 72 pound subwoofer.
The 15" driver is a proprietary design, and is quite impressive when you see it in person. The cone material is paper based and appears to be topically coated, with a Rubatek foam/rubber hybrid surround. It's held in place using threaded inserts, which is a good thing because this driver is capable of a massive 2" of travel peak-to-peak. Triple stacked magnets, cast aluminum 12 spoke frame, vented pole piece, high excursion spider and a half dozen other features lead you to believe they built this thing to be abused and still last for the long haul. Somebody at PSA did their homework, and it shows.
The cabinet is made from 1" MDF and feels solid, with absolutely no flex to it whatsoever. The edges are all rounded slightly, giving it a nice look. The entire inside of the cabinet is lined with thick bats of fiberglass insulation adhered directly to the walls. Rap your knuckles on this thing at your own risk. The plinth is made from 1.5" MDF, so it's even sturdier then the cabinet itself. Construction quality is first rate; everything fits perfectly, and not a single screw was even the slightest bit loose.
Unfortunately, my initial impression of it's durability was not all that positive. Why? The original XS15 had a problem and had to go back to PSA to get fixed. Here's what happened...
I received one of the very first XS15's made, and being a 1.0 product from 1.0 company I half expected there might be something that needed to be tweaked. Turns out there was.
Whenever I get a brand new unit for evaluation I break it in gently. That means no excessive volume, no blu-ray test scenes, no pushing the limits until at least 20 hours of run time. Only then do I start listening in earnest. The PowerX line of subwoofers had been released with tremendous expectations, due primarily to the people involved with the company, so there was a lot of pent up demand for those of us who actually had one to release some information about how they were performing. To an extent I almost felt compelled to post something and assuage the masses, so after about 20 hours of light usage I decided to push the XS15 to see what it was capable of. That didn't end well.
After perhaps 10-15 minutes of heavy, but not insane usage, the amp went into protection mode and shut down. It barely felt warm, so it didn't seem to be thermal. I unplugged it and waited a few minutes, then plugged it back in. It fired up again but it's output had a "warbling" or pulsing effect, so I shut it back down. I fired off an email to Tom Vodhanel letting him know what happened, but since it was about 9PM I decided to call it a night. Tom had other ideas.
Not 15 minutes later I get an email reply, and he's obviously quite upset. We go back and forth a few times, but he quickly comes to the same conclusion I already had; the amp seemed to have coughed up a hairball. He sends another one overnight and the next day I have it. I install the new one but I can't do anything other then run a few hours of TV because of my schedule. A day or two later I have more time, so I decide to try some of those same blu-ray scenes. Maybe 20 minutes goes by and the XS15 shuts down again, but this time there's an unpleasant noise associated to it. That's never a good sign. I unplug and wait about 15 minutes, but it simply won't power back up this time.
Same thing happens with regards to the response I get from Tom; send him an email on a week night, get a horrified reply back almost instantaneously, followed by immediate action (does this guy ever sleep?). This time, however, he asks if I can send the whole unit back so they can tear it apart and see what's happening.
Fast forward two weeks, multiple emails and even several phone calls and Tom tells me Jim Farina (the other PSA company principle) has identified the problem, and the fix is nothing more then a minor DSP change. Apparently I was driving it so hard that the amp was tripping it's protection circuit, and as it turns out a little tweak was all they needed to do in order to ensure it never happened to anyone else. Next time someone questions how hard I work on these reviews I'll use that as an example of just how far I go to find out what something can/can't do.
So now I have my reservations about PSA, right? Wrong! I've never encountered any company that went to the extremes both Tom and Jim did to resolve this issue. Days, nights, weekends, didn't matter; they were always on top of it and completely professional. The cynic might say "well yea, that's because you're writing a review so everyone is going to hear about it". Under normal circumstances I would probably agree with you, but not in this case. All someone has to do is spend a few minutes on any home theater forum where Tom participates and you'll see that's how PSA handles everything they do. I have exchanged countless emails with both Tom and Jim -- Tom in specific -- and have spoken to them as well, sometimes at length, and their passion and dedication is very clear to me. I do not feel how they treated this situation is any different then they would have treated it if the person who had the problem was a "normal" customer and not a reviewer. The company and the products are still first class in my eyes.
Want an example of why I'm so confident about PSA? When Tom sent back the XS15 he actually told me "to beat
on it" (his emphasis, not mine). That's precisely what I did too, which is the largest contributing factor as to why it's taken so long to get this review published. I hammered
this subwoofer mercilessly, like I've never done before with any other test unit. Day after day, week after week I literally tried to break it, but was unable to. The XS15 took all I dished out and never had another problem. I absolutely believe what happened was an isolated incident, and I'm actually quite glad it happened to me instead of someone else. Bottom line is I would spend my own money on a PSA subwoofer and not think twice about it.Setup
The XS15 has most of the dials, knobs, setting and connectors that other subwoofers in it's class do, so there's no real surprises.
The amp has dials for gain, phase and crossover. Because it uses a dial the phase is variable between 0 and 180 degrees, which I thought was a nice touch. The crossover dial is pretty standard fare but it only shows numbers for the extremes, 40Hz and 150Hz. It would have been nice to see more granularity. There's an on/off/auto switch for the power as well.
All the markings are silkscreened on the amp in a big, legible font. The only connection option though is low-level RCA; there are no XLR or speaker level inputs or outputs. You can use both left and right RCA inputs to increase the sensitivity, but I just used the one marked LFE because when I did try using both I got a weird little "pop" as I switched channels or muted the TV. One other thing I found odd was that the amp had no serial number on it. I don't recall ever seeing that before.
Connecting the XS15 is simple, and pretty much the same as any other subwoofer. You basically hook up an RCA cable from the sub-out port on your AV receiver to the LFE input port on the XS15, and then plug in the power cord. Set the gain dial to around 3 o'clock (more on that in a minute), set the phase dial to 0 and the crossover to the LFE setting. That's how most people will probably configure it up for home theater.
The gain knob seems to confuse most people because PSA opted to go a slightly different route then the rest of the industry. From what I've been able to gather the PSA gain knob works in a more linear and accurate manner then the majority of them do. Instead of setting it at the 12 o'clock position and making all your level adjustments from there you're more likely to find that 2 or 3 o'clock is needed. However, that equates to the true amount of gain as opposed to some arbitrary value most other companies seem to use. It took me a while to get comfortable with that, but once I did it was easy to make the switch.Listening
My living room is 13x17x8 (1768 CF), so it's not terribly large. The main seating position is approximately 11 feet from the subwoofer. All testing was done after the unit had been broken in for at least 15 hours.
The XS15 proved to be a bit sneaky, but I mean that in a good way. Sometimes, like while watching sports for example, it seemed rather tame, but then a commercial would come on and suddenly it would unleash a fury of deep bass. I never really found it to be lacking mind you, just sort of clandestine in how it went about it's business. My guess is PSA opted not to try and impress with over-emphasized bass, but instead went for pure and faithful reproduction. The dynamics and depth were always good when called upon, that's for sure. The XS15 doesn't easily get flustered either, it almost always seemed composed and under control.
One of my favorite nits to pick is the poorly implemented auto-on function that far too many companies fall prey too, but thankfully not PSA; on the XS15 it worked perfectly, coming on when it should have and only going off when it was supposed to. The amp hardly ever gets warm either, which I liked. The only time there was any appreciable heat was after pounding on it with electronic music for the better part of an hour. Under virtually all other circumstances the amp barely registered any heat. Considering the dearth of fins -- and how hard I drove it at times -- that's a pretty remarkable achievement.
As mentioned previously the XS15 costs just $750, and that includes shipping. Obviously "just" is somewhat relative, but for a really good sub with a 15" driver the price PowerSound Audio charges is on the low side. Does that mean you can't get bass with quality, quantity and depth for that price? Generally speaking, no - you can pick any two of those features, but not all three. With the XS15, however, it seems you can get all three.
Right out of the box I liked the sound, which struck me as very detailed. Depth was pretty evident almost instantly as well, with a nice powerful rumble when the situation warranted. It's output took a little while to fully appreciate though, because initially I was focusing on the dynamics more then anything else (and, as a matter of course, I never push a brand new subwoofer until it has at least 12-15 hours on it). Once I felt comfortable about the depth and quality I started to push the limits higher and higher, yet the XS15 hardly ever seemed to mind. Turn up the volume 5 more dB and it gets louder and more impactful. Turn it up another 5dB and the same thing happens. Do this a few times and all of the sudden you realize it's at reference level, yet the sound is no worse for the wear. In my sub-1800 cubic foot room I gave out before the XS15 did. I'm still not sure if I ever bottomed it, unless I was actually trying to.Movies/TV
Like most people I have specific movies and particular scenes I use while evaluating a subwoofer. I run each test scene twice; once while seated in my normal listening position, and then a second time while sitting a few feet from the subwoofer. This allows me to hear it as I normally would, yet also affords me the opportunity to determine if there's even the slightest bit of straining. Both tests are run at the same volume level which is slightly above what I would normally use, generally in the -10 to -5 dB range.Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
During the opening scene -- One Ring To Rule Them All -- there is some brutally low bass. In specific, when Saron's hand is cut off and the ring falls to the ground there is a very low bass sweep. The notes are so deep they can be felt coursing through your chair, assuming the subwoofer you're listening to can actually produce them of course. The XS15 was certainly up to the task, producing extraordinary impact and depth when the ring and helmet hit the ground. The same thing occurred when Isildur picks the ring up, which has even lower bass notes.
In the Bridge of Khazad Doom scene there's an ultra low frequency rumble at times, as well as significant amounts of impact generated by numerous structures crumbling. That rumbling sent waves of bass rippling through my chair, and virtually everything in my house it seems. Of course, the fact that I was running at 0dB may have had something to do with it. At this volume level the crumbling structures took on an entirely new dynamic, but the clarity and definition did suffer just a bit. It seems I may have hit the drivers limit at that point but anything below it was balanced and dynamic, with the emphasis in all the right places. There were no unpleasant sounds, just a touch of what might be called straining.
My favorite part of this scene to play around with is the Balrog's roar. There's an instance when you see it for the first time that I just love to crank way up. He jumps out of a cavern and lands right behind the Fellowship with a thud, and then lets out a fire-breathing roar. I really enjoy seeing how loud it will play, and 0dB seemed to be fine by the XS15 for this part. I can't tolerate that level for too long, although I did replay it a few times because I liked how it sounded. This was one of those instances were I gave up before the XS15 did.Avatar
During the Assault on Home Tree scene there are low frequencies, ultra low frequencies, explosions, artillery fire, gunships, you name it. Certainly enough things going on to provide a really good subwoofer test.
As the gunships approach Home Tree their rotor blades could almost be felt, which created a nice sensation of realism. The incendiary bombs they launched were punctuated with a crisp explosion, while the rockets shot at the columns hit with precision and sounded very clean. As Home Tree finally tumbles and crashes to the ground the impact was almost palpable at -10dB.
When the gunships take flight in Battle For Pandora I didn't quite get the same sensation I did when they descended upon Home Tree, which I found a bit odd (a deficiency in the audio track perhaps?). As Taruk Mato was approaching the the battle convoy it's wing flaps could actually be felt. When the huge robotic warriors jump from the transport and land on Pandora they hit with a substantial thud, which was still pronounced in spite of the prodigious amount of bass being generated by the propellers of the gunships hovering overhead. In spite of the bedlam each element was very distinct.
One of the parts where the XS15 excelled was the enormous sound created by the thundering hooves that were part of the stampede of warrior beasts as they approached the ground troops. You could almost pick out the sound of an individual animal because of the definition. I actually cranked this to 0dB and ran it back a second time, with the XS15 uttering nary a complaint.War of the Worlds
The Machine Emerges scene is perhaps the most recognized subwoofer test of all time. The depth and quantity of bass that occurs during a several minute span in this scene is simply amazing. With subterranean vibrations, exploding pavement and collapsing buildings you have ultra low, low and mid-bass frequencies pouring out of your subwoofer. This is the scene that caused the aforementioned amp problem with the first XS15, so I decided it was going to be here that I determined whether or not the fix was really going to hold. But it wasn't just The Machine Emerges that I used; say hello to seven full scenes run three times each, all at 0dB. Cruel? Perhaps, but I wanted to be certain the XS15 was truly fixed.
The acid test started with In The Storm, but other then the lightening strikes -- which were potent -- there's really not a whole lot of brutal content in this scene. But that's just the prelude, because the very next scene is Emerges. The XS15 did a splendid job with the buckling pavement and the sensation of the earth moving under your feet. As buildings were being split apart and the ground started disappearing the XS15 kept chugging away without any indication of distress. This scene flows right into Heat Ray, so I went from a test of depth to a test of clarity because the heat ray itself sounds like nothing more then static if your subwoofer has little to no definition. The XS15 did a fantastic job of capturing the variation in pitch that's embedded in this portion of the audio track.
Next up was The Escape, which I eagerly anticipated because of the bridge destruction and subsequent explosion. The combined effect sent waves of bass through my chair. I then jumped to At The Window because the jet crash and explosion that follows it require both definition and depth, which the XS15 produced in spades. Hudson Ferry is another of the scenes where the bass dips to some very low levels, especially when the tripod bellows out those horn-like blasts. I had to momentarily turn it down because it was so loud I was beginning to cringe. I also started to hear a rattling, which I initially thought was the XS15. Turns out it was the thermostat on my wall, which I don't recall ever happening before.
The Fighting Begins was the last of the test scenes, but certainly not the least. At it's beginning a line of people are walking towards the area where the military is actively engaging the aliens. There are background explosions from artillery that have a potent, yet somewhat muted wallop. The XS15 produced those with ease, just like the sound of the jet engines as they screamed past everyone. The climactic ending of the scene -- where the Army is just continuously firing away at the aliens -- is a cacophony of explosions and detonations that seemingly came spilling out of every corner of my room.
So how did the XS15 fare after more then an hour of me deliberately trying to trip it up? Are you familiar with the Energizer Bunny that just keeps going and going and going? I've never treated any other subwoofer like I did this one, yet it just kept coming back for more. I'm impressed.10,000 BC
The Mammoth Hunt scene is pretty much all I watch in this movie, and only for the punishing low bass it has. As usual, the XS15 delivered; it was as though there was a mammoth stampede in my room, with every step accompanied by a vibration throughout my living room. Even with dozens of rampaging mastodons the sound of their individual feet was clear and distinct. Oh yeah, and that was at 0dB.Tron: Legacy
Because of the driving and intense bass in this audio track I was only able to handle -20dB for any length of time. The Transporters that carry the strays in The Games were deep and powerful, with an almost deafening roar from their propulsion system. During several parts of The Grid there's an almost constant rumble, and the XS15 was thumping right along. I especially liked the Light Cycles because of their percussive nature, which was reproduced with great clarity.Underworld: Awakening
When the huge Lycan shows up in the underground lair his footsteps are some of the lowest bass notes I've ever encountered in a movie, and they're capable of finding the weak spot in just about any subwoofer. As he begins to chase after Selene the thuds and impact are vicious, and for the most part the XS15 played along. I sensed a bit of diminished clarity, but the Lycans footsteps did create a rippling effect that went right through me. At one point I heard a closet door rattling, and that was out in my hallway!Blood Diamond
Here's something new for me; actually watching a movie. While reviewing a subwoofer I only play select scenes so I can get a feel for how it goes about it's business, but in this case I opted to sit back and watch an entire movie.
In spite of what you may or may not think of Leonardo DiCaprio I actually like a few of his movies, and this is one of them (and no, Titanic is not among my favorites). It doesn't have a tremendous amount of LFE, which ironically is exactly why I chose it. I wanted to see how the XS15 performed during a "normal" movie, as opposed to just pounding out a bunch of test scenes. What I found is that it's perfectly capable of handling every day fare; the gunfire, explosions and helicopters this movie does have had the correct weight and impact -- which you would expect -- but so did the vocal parts, making everything seem quite well balanced. Nothing came across as embellished or over-emphasized. I was able to just sit back and enjoy it, knowing all the elements of the soundtrack would be produced exactly as they should. Isn't that the ultimate goal for your audio system?MusicJonnie Lang - Lie To Me
The eponymous Lie To Me has a strong kick drum and bass combination that were perfectly in sync and blended wonderfully. When I cranked the volume to 0dB I actually started to feel room pressurization, not something I anticipated from a single subwoofer. The kick drum at the beginning of Good Morning Little School Girl hit with power and depth, yet it didn't drown out the bass guitar one bit. Because of how emphasized the kick drum was recorded for this track it made the attack seem especially sharp and precise. For Hit The Ground Running the situation is reversed; it's the bass guitar that's more prominent, yet the drums were not subjugated to 2nd class citizen status because of it. I just couldn't help cranking Rack 'em Up, even though it's not one of my favorite tracks to be honest. It's amazing what a good sound system will do for an average song.Pearl Jam - Alive
Alive is from a CD called 'Ten', yet there are 11 songs on it. Go figure. Perhaps Pearl Jam called it Ten because 10 of the 11 songs have a single word title. Either way, it's the only Pearl Jam disc anyone needs in order to know what the band was about. My favorite song is Alive, which is thick and bottom heavy. That means the XS15 was in it's element, and sounded fantastic regardless of the volume. To create that morose effect Jeff Ament's bass must have been tuned down, yet even at 0dB it sounded wonderful. Dave Krusen has a lazy/generic drum piece for this song, but it blended perfectly with Ament's bass and simply poured out of the XS15.Soundgarden - Outshined
Probably my favorite band to come out of the "Seattle Scene". Although I love Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, et al Soundgarden was perhaps the best of them. Outshined is a heavy, deep, brooding song with an intense feeling, making it perfect to test a subwoofer. Ben Shepard's bass lick is this slow, melodic, sinister sound that matches the driving rhythm of Chris Cornell's guitar. At 0dB my room was rocking, and I loved every minute of it.Electronic
- Bass Mekanik - Quad Maximus (CD)
About all I could tolerate with this material was -10dB, but with the energy recorded in these tracks that's still very loud. During Welcome Stranger I actually felt some pressure waves in my head. When I got up close to the XS15 the air it was pushing out the side of the plinth felt like it was coming from a ported sub! Lock On Target was pounding, although there was one set of notes it wasn't quite able to hit. Funky Annihilating Bass brought back the pressure waves in full force. It was right around this point that I began to realize that not only was the XS15 able to play this "music" with aplomb, but it could do so cleaner then perhaps I've ever heard it. Doctor Oblivion starts with a reverse sweep, which the XS15 was not quite up for though (at least the very deepest stuff). The rest of the song was no problem however.
- Bass-O-Tronics (MP3)
Bass I Love You is probably the granddaddy of all subwoofer tests. At -10dB the XS15 could handle about 95 percent of this savage track. That was fine by me, because it was so loud I couldn't really tolerate it myself. Sub Bass Excursion sent ripples of bass flowing through my entire house. It got so intense at one point that cabinet doors in my kitchen began to rattle. 'Nuff said.
- The Smoke And The Mirror (MP3)
I downloaded this from one of the forums. Think Lord Of The Rings meets Riverdance. Frightening thought, isn't it? But it's good for testing subwoofers because there is plenty of deep, rolling bass, the kind that sends vibrations across the floor and into your chair. Which is precisely what the XS15 did.
After all the testing was finished I checked the amp for heat and found it was pretty warm. This was the only time I felt any discernible heat though, but considering what I had just put it through it's not all that surprising.Support
What's a good adjective for 'superb'? Extraordinary? Outstanding? Exemplary? Unrivaled? Pick whichever one works for you because guaranteed it's applicable. Simply put, the support PowerSound Audio provides is the model all others should follow. Spend even just a little time on virtually any forum and you'll see precisely what I mean. People are absolutely effusive about the type of care they've received, which is something I can personally attest to. Both Tom and Jim have been first rate since PSA exploded out of the gate, which I truly believe is a huge factor in why they have been so successful; great products at a great price with great support. What's not to like?Conclusion
To paraphrase a line from the movie 48 Hours... "there's a new sheriff in town", but his name isn't Reggie Hammond it's PowerSound Audio. What this company provides is a level of value that simply didn't exist a few months ago. Very rarely does a rookie step into the majors and hit a home run during their first at bat, but PSA has done just that. The XS15 is definitely worth more then the $750 they're selling it for. Pick one up soon, before these guys come to their senses and realize what they have.The following are close mic measurements of the PowerSound Audio XS15 using XTZ Room Analyzer II Pro. The unit was indoors, physically positioned in the center of my listening room. No other speakers were running.