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JL Audio E-Sub e110 Subwoofer

It is no secret that I’m not a fan of subwoofers. In my experience they take away more in transparency and coherence than they pay back in low-end extension and power-handling, especially when they are mated to bass-shy two-ways or any kind of planar, ’stat, ribbon, or quasi-ribbon. (Ironically, subwoofers work best—or at least better—with speakers that don’t really need them, i.e., with dynamic speakers that already have good bass extension.) Thus, it may come as a surprise to learn that I really like JLAudio’s e110 sub, even when it is paired with a two-way. It certainly came as a surprise to me.

The e110’s price tag may also come as a surprise—$1500 in what JL calls its “black ash” finish, and $1700 in the gloss-black version sent to me. This isn’t exactly cheap for a single ten-inch driver in a small (13.5″ x 14.25″ x 16.5″), hefty (53-pound), sturdy box, but it isn’t Thor’s Hammer or JL Audio Gotham (or even REL Series R) territory, either.

What you get for that grand-and-a-half is a highly engineered loudspeaker that incorporates many of the patented Finite Element Analysis-based technologies that JL Audio has been introducing since 1997—such as its Dynamic Motor Analysis program for computer-optimizing driver design, its Vented Reinforcement Collar driver-mount system, its Floating Cone Attachment method of driver construction, and its Engineered Lead-Wire System for internal wiring. You also get a built-in, proprietary Class D amplifier (powered by a proprietary switch-mode power supply) said to be capable of 1200W RMS; a genuine two-way (high-pass and low-pass), built-in, active crossover using a fourth-order (24dB/octave, 80dB/decade) Linkwitz-Riley filter, equipped with variable gain, variable crossover-frequency, and variable phase controls, as well as a polarity (absolute-phase) switch; a ten-inch JL Audio woofer with dual spiders and a linear motor system engineered to provide equal force over the driver’s entire excursion range (with both positive and negative current flowing through the coils) at any applied power level up to the built-in amp’s peak; and a sealed box whose entire front panel is actually the steel mounting flange of the E-Sub’s driver assembly (the back plate of the driver is threaded and bolted to the thick rear wall of the enclosure). In sum, the e110 represents a lot of technology for the money.

As anyone who’s fiddled with subs knows, setup is at least half the battle when it comes to getting the most out of a subwoofed system, and I can honestly say that JL Audio (for whom subwoofers are a long-time labor of love) provides some of the sanest instructions and most useful tools for optimizing its subs I’ve seen—provided that you first acquire the right software. That software, which was sent to me separately by JL Audio (it doesn’t come with the sub—and I think it should), is the Soundoctor Test CD V 2.6.1, available (for $18) online at http://www.soundoctor.com/testcd/index.htm.

Without this CD (or something similar) you will just be making educated guesses when it comes to certain key adjustments, which means, of course, that you will be haunted by second and third guesses since you’ll never be quite sure whether your first guess was “right.” With the Soundoctor CD (and the Radio Shack SPL meter for which it is optimized) you can dial certain parameters in with confidence, giving you a “textbook accurate” baseline, from which you can depart or to which you can return as you season the sound—and you will season the sound—by ear.

The first step in the set-up process is finding the spots where the subs are happiest in your listening room. What JL and Soundoctor suggest is to place one sub at your listening position, facing forward, then plug a CD player directly into the sub’s RCA inputs (using the CD player’s analog outputs), and play back Tracks 22, 23, and 24 of the Soundoctor CD, which contain music with very deep bass. As these tracks are playing, you crawl around the perimeter of your room listening for those areas where the bass sounds weak and thin or those where it sounds boomy and ill-defined (usually in the corners). According to JL, you should also find certain spots where the porridge is just right, and these are where the subs go.

To be honest, this “crawl-around” method is rather hit-and-miss. It also assumes that the subs will sound better somewhere along the perimeters of the room, which hasn’t always been the case in my experience. Typically, I’ve found that for the transparency and coherence I prefer (as opposed to ultimate slam and extension) subs fare better close by the main speakers, immediately to the outside or the inside (or both, as explained in the sidebar) of the speakers’ enclosure and roughly parallel to their drivers, although the subs’ exact location vis-à-vis the mains and the sidewalls needs to be adjusted by ear.

Far more hit than miss are JL’s suggestions for getting the subs and the mains in phase. A subwoofer’s phase control is intended to adjust the “arrival time” of the sub’s output so that its driver and the main speaker’s woofer or mid/woofer or bass panel are pushing and pulling together throughout the frequency range covered by both units. The question is how can you tell when the drivers of both speakers are in maximum sync? With the appropriate tracks on the Soundoctor CD and the e110’s continuously adjustable phase control, finding the answer to this often-perplexing question is a snap.

For the record, JL Audio recommends the same method that Robert Harley recommends in The Complete Guide to High-End Audio: Reversing polarity on the main speakers, playing a test tone at the crossover frequency (Tracks 2 through 17 on the Soundoctor CD give you one-minute test tones ranging from 20Hz to 120Hz at 5Hz and 10Hz intervals), and adjusting the continuously variable phase control for the least amount of bass. As Robert explains it: “The technique works because it’s easier to hear the maximum null than it is to hear the maximum peak. When the phase control is set perfectly, the main speaker’s woofers will move out when the subwoofer cone is moving in, cancelling each other. When the main speaker’s correct polarity is restored, the main speakers and the subwoofer are maximally in-phase.”

 

Similarly the sub’s volume level can be optimally set by playing back Tracks 18 and 19 on the Soundoctor CD. Track 18 contains “contoured” high-frequency noise (i.e., a test signal with no low-frequency information that has been contoured for the Radio Shack SPL meter). What you do is adjust the volume of your preamp so that your Radio Shack meter reads 85dB (slow, C-weighted) while Track 18 is playing. Track 19 contains “contoured” low-frequency noise (i.e., a test signal with only low-frequency information that has also been contoured for the Radio Shack SPL meter). Playing this track back, you adjust the level control on the e110 subwoofer so that your meter once again reads 85dB SPL (slow, C-weighted). In theory, your e110 subs are now matched in level with your main speakers.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your system will sound as coherent or as transparent as it does without subwoofers—or that the sub’s level will not need further tweaking by ear. Getting a relatively seamless blend and tight, powerful, high-resolution, high-definition bass depends on several other equally important factors: the crossover frequency that you choose between subs and mains, the quality of the subwoofer itself (including its amp, controls, and crossover), and above all else your own listening preferences.

The question of crossover frequency is hotly debated. JL Audio recommends that crossover be set at 80Hz or higher, regardless of main speaker. And it is true that setting the sub at a higher crossover frequency can make for a more seamless sound. Alas, it can also make for a substantially different sound than what you’re used to from your main speakers alone.

Let’s face it: You’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money on your loudspeakers. Presumably, you picked them from a myriad of others because you prefer the way they sound on the music you typically listen to. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you think they are perfect. (Or why opt for subwoofers?) What it does mean, I think, is that their essential qualities satisfy you— that you are pleased with what we used to call, in The HP Era, their “character.”

There is no surer-fire way of changing a loudspeaker’s character than crossing it over to a powered subwoofer at too high a frequency. With first-or second-order crossovers the problem is generally that the subs continue to play (albeit at reduced levels) into the power range and the midrange, audibly masking the very qualities of timbre, resolution, speed, and dynamic nuance that led you to buy your main speakers in the first place. With steeper crossover slopes, such as the 24dB/octave Linkwitz-Riley filters in the e110’s crossover, this should be less of a problem. (The theoretical advantage of fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley filters is that because of their steep roll-off at the high and low cutoff frequencies their gain at crossover is closer to 0dB.) And yet…crossing the e110s over at 80Hz or higher isn’t less of a problem. Here it’s not so much that the sub is still playing beyond the crossover point, masking the main speaker’s virtues; rather it’s that the sub’s own character (including the character of its amplifier and crossover) becomes more audible and predominant the higher up you cross it over, since the sub is literally playing more of the music.

Many people don’t seem to be as sensitive to this “change of sonic character” as I am, and can live happily with the added bass-range power and extension (and concomitant added breadth and width of soundstage) at what they presumably consider a reasonable cost in tonality and transparency. Speaking for myself, I would far rather live without the deepest bass than audibly sacrifice the characteristic sound of my main speakers.

For me, then, the secret to subwoofer satisfaction is to find a way to cross the subs over that doesn’t markedly change the character of the main speakers—or that changes it only in the sense of extending its virtues into the bottom octaves. With the e110s this means a lower crossover point (lower than 80Hz).

Although the speaker that I am using with the e110— Raidho’s superb stand-mounted D-1 (review forthcoming, recommendation already the highest)—is a two-way, it has remarkably satisfying mid-to-upper bass. Flattish down to the 50Hz–55Hz range its ported 4.5″ mid/bass driver (which uses a diamond diaphragm) manages to give the psychoacoustic impression of going lower than it does because of its naturally full and high-resolution reproduction of the power range, where first and second harmonics live (as do a whole lot of fundamentals).

Because the D-1 doesn’t really cry out for a subwoofer and because I simply love the beautiful and lifelike way it sounds (which, reduced image size and dynamic power notwithstanding, comes very close to—and in certain respects exceeds—the sound of my reference Raidho C-4.1s), I picked it for this experiment, knowing full well that I would easily hear any changes in its character, and knowing, as well, that in the past I have not been able to mate super-high-resolution two-ways to subwoofers without substantial sonic penalties. And at a crossover point of 80Hz—with all other parameters (placement, phase, level) set to theoretical correctness (and then tweaked by ear to my own preference)—the changes in the Raidho’s character were marked. Despite the much deeper, more generous bass, the D-1 simply no longer sounded like the speaker I’d fallen in love with.

 

However…moving the e110’s crossover point down to 70Hz and subsequently to just below 60Hz, where the D-1 is still playing strongly, made for a blend that was so unexpectedly magical— and so much in character—that it was almost as if the D-1 had developed several more octaves of bass on its own.

At a crossover point of around 57–58Hz (this is an educated guess as the scale on the e110’s crossover-frequency control, though graduated, isn’t graduated finely enough to say for sure), the bottom bass—and this little sub goes deep, down only 3dB at 23Hz—acquired the same tonal and dynamic character, the same dark, rich, lifelike timbre, sensational transient speed, and ultra-fine resolution of texture and articulation in the low bass that the D-1 has on its own in the mid-to-upper bass, power range, midrange, and treble. At the same time bottom-end pitch-definition, impact, and extension were dramatically improved.

It was as if (and I scarcely exaggerate) a blanket that had been thrown over the deepest bass octaves had suddenly been lifted, revealing an astonishing wealth of previously unheard information—and revealing it with a clarity and definition that I don’t quite hear even with my reference Raidho C-4.1s (though, as you will see, there are other aspects of the bass that the C-4.1s are far better at reproducing).

I could give you musical example after example of the e110/D-1’s virtues, but it is simpler to sum them up like this: In the bottom bass this combination reveals low-level details about pitch, timbre, intensity, and duration more clearly and more often than any loudspeaker I’ve heard, no matter how expensive or sophisticated. This is an ear-and mind-bogglingly high-resolution system. (It kind of makes me wonder what JL Audio’s top-line sub—the $12k Gotham, with dual 13.5″ woofs—is capable of, although, when it comes to matching the speed and resolution of a great two-way, there is something to be said for a “quick” ten-inch driver.)

While hearing a fresh bonanza of low-level information about an instrument and the way it is being played is enormously satisfying (and contributes greatly to the sense of being in the presence of that instrument), let me quickly point out that bass-range instruments in particular aren’t just about texture and articulation. They are also about power and impact, and here the e110/D-1 combo is not the most revealing speaker system I’ve heard. To be fair, this isn’t the e110’s fault. A two-way—even a great one like the Raidho D-1—and a ten-inch sub simply can’t move air in the bass and power range the way a big multiway can; nor can such a combo image with the more-lifelike size (particularly image height) of a big multiway.

There is this, as well. My decision to place the subs nearby the mains and to cross over at a lower-than-recommended frequency in order to more fully preserve the character of the D-1s comes with a slight additional price in imaging and power. With the reinforcement provided by a nearer-to-the-wall placement and a higher crossover point, the e110/D-1 seems to size bass instruments—indeed all instruments—more consistently from their top octaves to their bottom ones. With the closer-to-the-speaker positioning and lower crossover point, some instruments seem to shrink a bit in size as they descend in pitch, so that a four-string contrabass, for example, isn’t as big and expansive sounding on its lowest notes (E1 and C1, 41Hz or circa 33Hz) as it is higher up in its frequency range.

This slight “funnel-like” effect in imaging is accompanied by a small loss of impact on big, powerful instruments and orchestral tuttis. I don’t want to oversell this point. The e110/D-1 is plenty powerful, capable of genuine room-shaking temblors on really deep synth or bass drum, and punch-in-the-chest sock on toms or kickdrum. As two-way-based systems go, this one is a veritable dynamo. But…when it comes to pure wallop it ain’t a Wilson XLF or a Magico Q7 or a Raidho D-5.

But then the Raidho D-1 and e110 subs don’t cost what these giants cost, and don’t take up the real estate that these giants do, and (if configured optimally—for which see the sidebar) don’t give anything away in color, speed, definition, or resolution to the biggest of these Big Boys. For one-sixth (or less) of the system cost, you can live like a Robert Harley (or, yeah, like a Jonathan Valin)—with a loudspeaker that comes so close to the very best that you’ll scarcely notice the difference. I scarcely do…and I do live like a Jonathan Valin.

The E-Sub e110 is a no-brainer highest recommendation if ever I heard one. And remember this is coming from someone who hates subwoofers (or used to).

SPECS & PRICING

Enclosure type: Sealed
Driver: 10″
Effective piston area: 58.78 square inches
Effective displacement: 131 cubic inches
Frequency response (anechoic): 25–116Hz +/-1.5dB, -3dB at 23Hz, -10dB at 18Hz
Amplifier power: 1200 W RMS (short-term)
Dimensions: 13.5″ x 14.24″ x 16.51″
Weight: 52.7 lbs.
Price: $1500 in ash, $1700 in gloss

JL AUDIO, INC.
10369 North Commerce Pkwy
Miramar, FL 33025-3962
(954) 443-1100
jlaudio.com

JV’s Reference System

Loudspeakers: Raidho D-5, Raidho D-1, Estelon X Diamond, MartinLogan CLX , Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 3.7, Magnepan 20.7
Linestage preamps: Soulution 520, Constellation Virgo, Audio Research Reference 10, Siltech SAGA System C1, Zanden 3100
Phonostage preamps: Audio Research Corporation Reference Phono 10, Innovative Cohesion Engineering Raptor, Soulution 520, Zanden 120, Constellation Perseus
Power amplifiers: Soulution 501 and 701, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Audio Research Reference 250, Lamm ML2.2, Zanden 8120
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V record player, AMG Viella 12
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Ortofon MC A90, Ortofon MC Anna
Digital source: Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cable and interconnect: Synergistic Research Galileo and Galileo LE, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream
Power Cords: Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream
Power Conditioner: Synergistics Research Power Cell 10 SE Mk II, Synergistic Research Transporter Ultra SE, Technical Brain
Accessories: Synergistic ART system, Shakti Hallographs (6), A/V Room Services Metu panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps, Critical Mass MAXXU M equipment and amp stands, Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix SE record cleaner, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses

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