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The Tale of Two Subwoofers

A Review On: XS30

XS30

Rated # 17 in Subwoofers
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Review Details:
Features
Performance
Value
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Purchased on:
Price paid: $1,149.00
dsrussell
Posted · Updated · 3087 Views · 23 Comments

Pros: Impressive performance on LFE content. Nice finish. Reasonably priced. Solid warranty. Includes free one-way shipping.

Cons: Large for a sealed design. Music capability is good but not exceptional.

It wasn't all that long ago that I never even considered a subwoofer. But I now own two of them (actually three, not sure quite what to do with my old BIC). This is not really a full subjective review. This will be a fairly quick synopsis (quick for me, at least) of my impressions of my newest subwoofer, the PSA XS30, and how it compares to my SVS SB13-Ultra that I auditioned almost four months earlier.

Disclaimer #1: What I like in sound fidelity versus what someone else will like can be polar opposites. I can only talk about how these subwoofers performed in my home environment with the equipment I have for various movies and music that I like to showcase. How either of these subwoofers will perform in your home environment could be quite different, since environment and equipment play an important role in sound reproduction. I will also state that I am far more critical about music reproduction than I am about movie LFE.

Disclaimer #2: I'm not a home theater enthusiast. I don't own 5.1 anything. Other than movies, I don't watch much TV. My home entertainment comes mainly from music (at least a 4 to 1 ratio over movies, and probably higher). I also don't have to worry about sound from a subwoofer covering multiple seats, and while my rooms aren't small, they aren't cavernous either (approximately 3500 cu. ft. each and not closed off).

Disclaimer #3: I don't listen to movies or music at what is referred to as "reference levels". I assume reference levels means 100 dB (peak concert level) to 115 dB (peak rock concert levels). I will usually bring ear plugs to indoor rock concerts. I rarely push past the lower 90 dBs on peaks in my home and closer to the mid to high 80 dBs on most peaks. I consider that extremely loud. And guess what I found out? One doesn't need 100 plus dBs to shake the walls to silly putty. Actually one can shake walls at surprisingly low dB levels. For instance, on Poulenc's Organ Concerto in G minor, Tempo Introduction, Largo (a very low volume piece of music on my Saint-Saen's Organ Symphony SACD), the two minutes of sustained low pedals at or near 16 Hz rumbled with silent authority throughout the house rattling any and everything not nailed down. My dB readings on this piece averaged upper 40s to low 50s dB. And yes, it did indeed pressurize several rooms, and enough so that one would have to yawn to "pop" the ears. A weird sensation.

End of disclaimers.

While I purchased the SVS SB13-Ultra to enhance my stereo system, I also tested the Ultra on movies and was extremely impressed with its LFE capabilities. I thought it might be time to consider upgrading my current subwoofer that I use in the TV room with something that has a lot more bite. Unlike my stereo setup, the equipment for watching movies is rather meager, but certainly suitable for my needs:

1. Samsung 42-inch LCD
2. Zvox 550 platform speaker system
3. Oppo BDP-83 blu-ray player
4. BIC V1220 12-inch down-firing ported subwoofer (which the XS30 replaced)

Equipment in music room:

1. 19-inch Samsung LCD (for displaying DVD-A content)
2. Magnepan 3.6 Planar-Magnetic floor-standing speakers
3. Oppo BDP-95 blu-ray player (used only for music)
4. SVS SB13-Ultra subwoofer
5. McIntosh MC2205 Amplifier (yeah, it's 37-years old)
6. McIntosh C48 Preamplifier (just replaced the venerable C28 last year)
7. dbx 3BX Dynamic Range Expander (for vinyl only)
8. JVC Quartz Lock Turntable with Shure V-15 Type IV cartridge
9. Yamaha TX-350 Tuner
10. BIC Beam Box FM-10 (Indoor FM antenna)
11. VPI HW-16.5 Record Cleaning Machine

I've auditioned the following sealed subwoofers:

1. JL Audio F212 Fathom (in Covina)
2. Paradigm Sub 1 (in L.A.)
3. SVS SB13-Ultra (in-home audition)
4. Hsu ULS-15 (at the Anaheim Hsu Research facility and in-home audition)
5. PSA XS30 (I'm in the last week of my in-home audition)

All of the above, except for the PSA, were subwoofers I had auditioned for my music system. While I didn't care all that much for the Hsu's musical capabilities, I was very impressed with its movie LFE capabilities and decided that it would be a great subwoofer to use in my TV room, especially considering its fairly compact size. However, things didn't quite work out as planned and I returned it to the Hsu's facility just prior to the ending of my 30-day trial. This is where PSA comes in.

Music (Ultra = solid 10 out of 10 / XS30 = marginal 7 out of 10): Music and movie LFE are two completely different animals. One looks for subtleties as much as the more visceral elements in music. One also needs the subwoofer to completely disappear and never call attention to itself. The Ultra performed wonderfully on every CD, SACD and DVD-A that I have played. Just as importantly, it didn't add anything unwanted. The Ultra is a clear and easy choice and it does an incredible job in enhancing my music system.

Like the Hsu ULS-15, the XS30 performed very well on some music, but not quite as well on others. The worst offender was the music from Mike Oldfield (pretty much any CD -- Mike loves his ultra deep synthesized bass). One particular track, "Shabda" from "Music of the Spheres" clearly showed the XS30's inability to reproduce this with the solidity needed on these powerful, wall-shaking passages (although I rate it above the Hsu). I did get the XS30 to perform much better on that track, but by doing so it exaggerated the underlying bass on Oldfield's other music. The XS30 did its finest job with the SACD of Saint Saen's Organ Symphony, which I found quite impressive, and it reproduced those 16 Hz pedal notes with wall-rattling ease. I consider the XS30 only slightly better than the Hsu ULS-15 for music in general. However, if you don't listen to Mike Oldfield, the XS30 performs well to very well on most music (so did the Hsu), at least on the limited number of selections I tested it with. After all, the XS30 is my movie LFE subwoofer, not my music subwoofer.

Movies (Ultra = 8 out of 10 / XS30 = 9 out of 10): In movies, one looks for the visceral far more than the subtle. If it doesn't shake walls, your seat and you, it's not doing its job. Both the Ultra and the XS30 are impressive for movie LFE (as was the Hsu). I feel the Ultra is a hair more detailed in its presentation, but for pure aggressive brute force and deep rumbling impact, the XS30 is my subwoofer of choice for movies and I'm very happy with its performance. One scene in particular had me searching for rattles everywhere, and I thought I had taken care of all the rattles when auditioning the SVS and the Hsu. It's the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Fox's trailer descends underground and comes to rest where they had stored a nuclear fusion device. I thought the sound would bring down the walls -- everything was banging and rattling.

But every movie I have played seems more impressive. There are many top LFE movies, but Battlestar Galactica continues to be one of my favorites. Between the deep rumbles inside ships, the rapid explosions and the heavy drum beats … and all going on one after another or at the same time, it's a subwoofer's dream or nightmare. If a subwoofer is going to cough, it will be on Battlestar. The XS30 has sailed through everything I placed in front of it with apparent ease. This surprised me because I don't consider a 725 watt RMS amplifier a powerhouse considering we are talking about it moving two 15-inch drivers.

Aesthetics: The Ultra is relatively small and quite elegant in its piano black finish. I also really like its stylized front metal grill. It's unique, bold and makes a statement. The XS30's black sand-textured finish is a whole lot nicer than the photographs indicate. I'm quite pleased with the finish. Unlike the Ultra, which comes in only piano black or black oak, the XS30 comes in several different wood grain finishes (along with the sand-textured black, but alas, no piano black). However, the XS30 is much, much larger than the Ultra and has the ubiquitous standard black cloth grills. I'm still not use to such a big, black rectangular box, and I've tried to hide some of it with a large plant on top (I think I'd need closer to a forest). And while I am now just beginning to make peace with its size, I much prefer the Ultra's aesthetics.

Amplifier controls: No contest. The Ultra wins hands-down. It comes with a digital panel with a lot of control options that are far more exact and easier to use when dialing in your sub. It also has balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. The XS30 has the basic controls one would expect, but that's it. Also, there are no balanced inputs / outputs, and like the Ultra, no high-level inputs / outputs. And other than hash marks, there is nothing to delineate settings on its basic controls. Guessing is the name of the game here. I don't quite understand why numbers couldn't be silkscreened on, unless the linearity of the controls are so inaccurate that numbers would have little or no meaning (but then neither would the hash marks). However, I had very little problems setting up the XS30, so the controls turned out to be a non issue for my situation.

Summary (Ultra = solid 9 out of 10 / XS30 = marginal 8 out of 10): I feel I have precisely what I was looking for. I have an elegant and superb subwoofer for my music in the SB13-Ultra (I rank it as one of the top 10 subwoofers produced today), and a surprisingly impressive LFE subwoofer for movies in the XS30. Different brands in different rooms performing different tasks. The XS30 is significantly less expensive than the Ultra, but one can easily see and hear where SVS spent the extra dollars, and I consider both subwoofers to be a bargain. Both SVS and PSA offer best in class 5-year warranties (with SVS the leader because of all their other perks).

Final note: There are a lot of excellent subwoofers in the market these days, so it is not at all easy to make a choice. And just because I may think that the Ultra and the XS30 are outstanding in their categories, it doesn't mean there aren't better subwoofers available, because obviously there are. Trying to find them within the same price ranges is another story. I had intended to audition the Rythmik F15HP-SE, but there is a 6 month back order on this model in piano black, so sadly I had to drop Rythmik as an option (Rythmik has a great reputation and undoubtedly makes great subwoofers). Funk Audio (a true custom subwoofer shop) was also on my list, but I decided to go with a more price-conscious approach.

23 Comments:

Music is your priority and you haven't heard a Rythmik?!
You have a very accomplished writing style. Personally, I think you should do more reviews. That was a good read.
I thought my final note was clear concerning the Rythmik.
Oops! How'd I miss that? The SB13 was actually on my original short list. I'd love to hear it and the F15HP in the same room/system.
Thanks for the compliment, Jim. It's appreciated! I actually do quite a few reviews on Amazon.
BDP24: I would have loved to have auditioned the Rythmik. It was high on my list, but just wasn't meant to be.
Great review! We have a lot in common. I also eschew the >2 channel thing, and have a Hsu Research sub that I used to bring bass to my small 2-way loudspeakers. My personal preference is a "2.0" system, with two full-range loudspeakers, and therefore no need for an add-on subwoofer.

I grew up when "Tubular Bells" was played on the radio, and when art rock bands (Pink Floyd, Genesis, etc.) used the mighty Moog Taurus pedal synthesizer to produce large amounts of low bass that my humble stereo of the day (and even the large FOH PA systems in concert c. '70s) had no hope of reproducing. I don't find Mike Oldfield's studio works or "Exposed" terribly challenging for a well-made stereo system, not when I have so many equally challenging tracks in my catalog.

I mean no offense, but I have to say that I'm surprised by how sub-par your most critical components are! A direct drive turntable with a crappy old Shure cartridge?!? Why?!? And a cheap Chinese CD player? You could do SO MUCH BETTER! A Rega RP-1 with a Grado moving-coil cartridge would make a HUGE difference! I urge you to start at the source before investing in costly items downstream.
Hi Speed Daemon. I want to thank you for the kind words on my review and appreciate your concerns on my audio equipment.
Speed---I myself was surprised when I entered the subwoofer world last year. I came to it from the High End/Perfectionist Audiophile world, and my surprise was to learn that there was a sub-group of people spending large sums of money, time, and energy on, not complete high-performance audio systems, balanced in regards to money spent and sound quality achieved, but on low-frequency output above all other aspects of hi-fi performance. This group of people really into getting very high SPL of very low-frequencies, have systems comprised of, except for the subs, mid-fi components. Systems using receivers or surround sound processors, Pro Audio power amps, cheap CD or DVD players, "big box" loudspeakers, zip cord speaker wire, etc. Not to disparage those enthusiasts or their systems, but they just have different objectives and priorities than the audiophiles I was used to. Audiophiles will gladly sacrifice low-frequency output to gain low-frequency quality or to make a more balanced system. Subwoofers are actually eschewed by them, in general. I think it's a generational thing---bass heads are much younger than audiophiles. Your suggestion of the Rega/Grado tells me that you yourself are an audiophile. I think audiophilia is held in contempt by subwoofer enthusiasts!
Hi BDP24. Great observations! My background is audiophile, pro audio and electrical engineering, so I'm not a typical high end customer either. OTOH I was introduced to early 2.1 sub/sat systems in 1979. I've always seen a sub as a kludge to fix small speakers, and not an end in itself. I agree about differing priorities, and while I don't want to disparage them either, I do feel like I should "help lead them out of the wilderness." When I was in college a DJ friend had that same Shure cartridge on his 1200s. It was awful! I had an RP3 at the time w/ a $400 MC cart, and got my friend to try Grado Greens. He eventually settled on Pickering and we were both happy. We used to DJ at parties, he would do House and I would do Alternative w/ his turntables & my PA. If subheads have contempt for me, that's their loss because I know how to engineer systems that win on all fronts, not just one or two. I know where to put the money for best effect, and no doubt they're embarrassed when I crank up my full range system and do better at every octave. Rock is my preferred genre, BTW. I love nothing better than a fat, loud, sustained bass line! I just think it's a shame that the kids are spending so much money and getting comparatively little for it. Knowledge really is power.
SD---I had a budget Grado in the late 70's, and they're fine with tables having shielded motors, but hum like crazy with ones that don't (Grado's themselves are not shielded). I've had a couple of the old AR's---that table and Grado's doesn't work---neither is shielded. Having a couple of nieces and musician acquaintances in their 20's and 30's, I know younger people are getting interested in LP's and TT's, and Rega and Music Hall tables are a better recommendation to them than a used table (although a good-condition Thorens would probably be okay). The independent record store (Music Millenium) in Portland, OR where my sisters live stocks and sells them!
The Grado suggestion came from Ken Christianson at Pro Musica in Chicago. I've never owned a Grado cart myself, but it seems to be a safe recommendation for people who are stuck with really bad carts like the Shure. I don't recall any hum problems with my friend's DD turntable. I'm more familiar with Rega, having owned one. But I'd think that any "basics" turntable will be a big step up from any consumer DD model.
Oh yeah, definitely. You can't go wrong with a Rega. I have the RB300 arm myself, rewired with Cardas tonearm wire and cartridge clips. A world class arm. And I have the Exact cartridge too. I don't know if they make a budget priced cartridge though.
I bought my RP3 in '81, and before that I had a cheap TT from a big box hi-fi store that I had bought second hand. I put the bulk of my money into transducers, so I had this $400 Micro Acoustics cart on my $89 TT that I moved to the Rega when I bought it. Later I upgraded that to a MC cart w/ step-up transformer to make it work w/ my old preamp. After that I got a standalone phono preamp. The original s-shaped R200 arm came stock w/ my RP3, and that eventually was upgraded as well. It was definitely an evolutionary process! These days I mostly upgrade my software. As the state of the art of CD mastering progresses, I upgrade the recordings with newer, and hopefully better sounding versions.
Me too with the remasterings. I'm getting sick of rebuying my favorite classic albums, though! Some albums sound so much better than the earlier version that it's almost like hearing it anew. I've gone through three generations of some titles. I'm at the age now where I'm just not gonna do it anymore.
Yes, it can be a pain, and I only usually do it when it's a really major thing. For example, that one distorted note in "Wish You Were Here" on the Pink Floyd album of the same name that finally got fixed in 2006. (It had been bugging me for 30 years!) Or when Peter Gabriel's first self-titled albums were remastered, probably the largest sonic improvement I've ever heard. The lesser stuff I might get around to one day... BTW, sorry to dsrussell for the threadjack!
@ speed & bdp - U 2 really should get a room!

@dsrussell, thank you for the well written and informative review!
Thank you, hyghwayman. I appreciate the comments!
Yes hyghwayman, it would be convenient to be able to take a good discussion to some place in the forum. Something to ask the AVS Forun Santa for! LOL...
Excellent review and perspective on your test selection of subs. I've currently got a pair of PB13Ultras, but have been very curious on the sound characteristics I'd get from the SB13Ultra(s) if I made the switch. I've also been intrigued by the dual opposed PSA XS30 unit, particularly in rosewood finish to match my B&W's, but perhaps that's not the tight detailed controlled sub I'm after.
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