Subwoofers were used extensively in movie theatres in the late ’60s and ’70s, and they were far from consumer items.
Yes, they existed but weren’t part of the consumer HiFi experience.
A few subs that were around the late ’70s and ’80s were geared towards music, which has different requirements than home theater systems, which is what really aroused the public’s awareness of subwoofers in the late 80s.
The challenge in those days was the complexity of active setups was too high for the consumer market.
Before we begin, we must question the term “vintage” as it applies to subwoofers.
Vintage is a generic term with no set rules, and one could say that the definition of “vintage” depends greatly on the definers’ age.
Since subs didn’t exist in any consumer-oriented commercial form in the ’60s and ’70, we must use a sliding scale based on how long a product has been available.
I consider audio gear from the 1950s and ’60s to be antiques. Things from the ’70s to the ’80s, I believe, are vintage.
In this article, I’ll review the best vintage subwoofers I tested and explain why these are great even today.
How Subwoofers Started
There were lots of audio enthusiasts in the 50s building their own subwoofers.
Some were building what we would today call band-pass subs underneath the floors of their conventional foundations, and they often referred to them – incorrectly, I think – as Helmholtz resonators.
Others built stand-alone or in-wall direct radiators, often with multiple large drivers.
The problem was that there were very few sources with true capability and ability to hold and reproduce <30 Hz signals, nor was there real music for a long time.
LP record grooves limited frequency and amplitude, and phono circuits could not reach down below that well, in addition to the issues of induced rumble and feedback problems with cartridges/arms with very low tones.
The same issues occurred with tape formats too.
When electronic synthesizers and digital sources came about, you could dial in any manner of low frequency without attendant feedback problems.
The general trend towards film sound effects instead of music has spurred subwoofer development.
My grandpa had an 18″ CV sub in the 1970s in a huge box that I pulled directly out of a local movie theatre that was closing down.
Most subs nowadays pale by comparison to the performance of that old sub. The ruler is flat down to 28 Hz. 100 dB/1watt sensitivity. One thousand watts of power handling (126 dB!).
Definitive Technology was the first company to advertise and promote its subwoofers actively.
Despite their inflated amplifier wattage ratings and LF extension limits, they successfully created a market niche still exploited by many companies today.
Hartley built an 18″ woofer, JBL built a few, and EV had a 30″ (!) woofer, too.
Of course, Cerwin-Vega provided the speaker systems used in Sensurround for the movie Earthquake, but that was for theaters.
1. JBL B380
JBL B380 subwoofer could reproduce the 25 Hz to 50 Hz octave and can do so at levels over 110 dB.
B380 makes any good stereo system much better. It restores the missing octave and puts the drama back into the music.
In the 1980s, this sub was the best low-frequency loudspeaker you could buy.
It was developed from JBL’s long experience designing drivers for demanding professional applications, which required very high sound pressure levels at extremely low frequencies.
The B380 can generate sound pressure levels of 110 to 115 dB in a typical listening environment.
It has the ability to play earthquakes and cannon shots, but it also reproduces the rich harmonic textures of a double bassoon or the subtlety of gently played tympani.
The driver is the JBL Model 2235H, a 15-inch (380mm) loudspeaker designed for high-power monitor applications. It’s mounted in a ported enclosure of 4.5 cubic feet (127 liters).
I’m running it with a Denon stereo-integrated amplifier (check the specs on Amazon).
I was intrigued by the performance. These things will give you your “earth-shattering kaboom” with clean power.
These are possibly the finest subs ever marketed and are in great demand by those who know them.
These subwoofers provide the bottom octave and do it in a way that doesn’t take away from the rest of the spectrum.
I’ve used mine for nearly ten years with plenty of high-end mains, and they have always made me smile.
This sub was designed to complement regular mains in music reproduction in mastering studios and works great in music-only systems.
It was never intended to be a home theater system but excels there too.
While there are no exact replicas of the B380 available on Amazon, there are several subwoofers that have similar specifications and are well-suited for use in a professional audio setup.
Similar modern subwoofer: One option to consider is the SVS PB-2000 subwoofer. The PB-2000 has a frequency response range of 16Hz-290Hz and features a 12-inch high-excursion driver, which is smaller than the driver in the B380; however, the PB-2000 has a similar power output of 550 watts RMS (JBL has 600) and delivers a deep and powerful bass response.
2. Definitive Technology PF-1500
The Definitive Technology Power-Field 1500 Subwoofer, with its 325-watt power amp, delivers enough power and tight bass for both movies and music.
I borrowed this sub from a friend a few months ago, and I’ve absolutely enjoyed it.
It has a well-built/damped cabinet and a sufficient amplifier to power its hulking 15″ driver. It’s a beautiful design (for a sub) with a black lacquer top.
Some audiophiles will find it boomy, specifically when approaching half of the max volume or more, which is overkill. I enjoy bass more than most people and have difficulty turning it past one-third.
I feel it’s more of a home theatre sub than a musical one.
Even though I have some fantastic audio gear in my house, this subwoofer is far from being the weakest link in my stereo/HT setup.
PF-1500 plays down to 18 Hz, even though some folks don’t believe it. I played a calibration CD performing notes down to 10 Hz (in 1 Hz increments) from 40.
Playing down to 16 Hz was hardly noticeable. 18 Hz was definitely quieter than 20 Hz, but it still played loud enough.
This subwoofer is ideal for anyone wanting the bass to sound similar to commercial theaters.
In short, I HIGHLY urge anyone who wants or needs a loud, great-sounding subwoofer to buy this one if they find any.
3. JBL B460
The difference between the B460 and B380 is that the larger B460 offers substantially the same performance, with the only difference being that its maximum power rating is 800 watts rather than the 600 watts of the B380, meaning it can produce more volume in larger rooms.
This sub allows a system to reproduce the information below Hz with exceptional realism and at high sound pressure levels.
In addition to adding dramatic bass, the B460 also improves midrange clarity.
Relieved of the responsibility for the low bass with the help of this sub, the speakers produce cleaner sound, with less intermodulation distortion, in the mid-bass and lower midrange.
This sub uses the JBL Model 2245H 18-inch (460mm) driver, mounted in a vented enclosure of 8 cubic feet (226 liters.) The combo is a third-order quasi-Butter-worth alignment. The enclosure is tuned to 26 Hz.
The B460 is built right, made of MDF, not particle board, and laboriously reinforced inside. Walnut veneer truly adds a significant amount of low bass extension.
I don’t believe there are many of these around. It arrived with the original BX63a, and I was keen to install a 2245h with the original cone.
You definitely can pay more for a subwoofer, but I don’t believe you will find one that can dominate your listening room like this when properly executed.
This sub is quite scary when playing certain movies with sudden deep transients.
For an 18″ driver, I have never heard any subwoofer stop and start with the speed this one has.
I somehow feel like I “stole” this subwoofer since I paid under $1000 for it, and nothing vintage in that range can even touch it.
The B460 can create “seismic” levels of clear bass reproduction that will test the limits of your home’s foundation. It is a true “T-Rex,” a subwoofer competent in window demolition.
Whether the most tender passages in recordings or the all-out bass extremes, this subwoofer can and does it all without flinching.
4. PSB Subsonic III
First of all, Subsonic III just looks gorgeous. It’s flawlessly square with a piano black finished top cover.
It is built exceptionally well. Has outstanding features. And massive output.
I was stunned at the deep, tight bass that pumps out. I hope the neighbors weren’t thinking that there was an earthquake going on. And I only had it on at about a third of its max volume!
I was also impressed that Paul Barton (founder of PSB) made a ported enclosure produce deep, tight bass that one would expect to hear in a sealed configuration.
Ported subs typically have great output but are boomy and not remarkably musical. Not this subwoofer. It is musical and has an incredibly low bass extension.
I do have one criticism, though. A part of one of my bass CDs that is recorded very low (the CD has one of those neat 10 Mhz speaker damage warnings on the label) causes brief but audible chuffing sounds in the ports.
This only occurs at extremely high volume levels and is brief, but it’s the only thing to hold this subwoofer from reaching perfection.
I tried the same material on the SVS SB-3000 and SVS SB-4000 (the link will bring you to my comparison of those two), which was much better than the PSB.
Back to the PSB Subsonic III. If you find one, purchase it. It is amazing for movies and music. You won’t be disappointed.