A subwoofer should not only supply powerful low bass throughout your home theater; an ideal subwoofer should also be able to reproduce concise musical elements. The designers at Elemental Designs take both of these requirements to heart.
Though not widely known, Elemental Designs has been creating home-theater products for quite some time, and are perhaps best known for their high-quality, high-value subwoofers. They began as a distribution and design company that built their finished speakers and subwoofers using parts made by other speaker manufacturers. That has changed in recent years, however; ED now builds many of their own subassemblies, including their own subwoofer drivers. Their self-contained production line features driver construction, a full machine shop, and a measurement system.
When I was told I’d be receiving one of Elemental’s latest subwoofer models, I was excited. I figured that breaking in their monolithic A5-350 subwoofer ($800 USD), which has a shipping weight of 108 pounds, would be quite an undertaking. I’ve never owned a sub that weighed much over 25 pounds, much less one that takes two people to remove it from its box. But once I was able to hook up this monster to my Onkyo TX-SR506 A/V receiver, I was amazed at how elegant it looked in my room.
You need a decent amount of floor space for the A5-350 -- it measures 25"H x 19"W by 24.75"D -- and there was just enough between my right speaker and the door. Due to the subwoofer’s weight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to easily move it after getting it in place, so I made sure it was positioned away from all room boundaries by a couple of feet, to give a smoother in-room response. I’ve found that this sort of placement tends to work best in my room; putting a powerful subwoofer right up against a wall tends to muffle the overall sound and results in a muddy low end.
The A5-350’s 15" cone has a peak excursion of 23mm. The claimed frequency response is 18-100Hz, and the crossover is adjustable from 35 to 150Hz. Elemental Designs claims that the continuous output of the A5-350’s internal amplifier is 500W. Many lower-priced subwoofers don’t include frills such as phase adjustment and line-level inputs, but the A5-350 has both, as well as the usual RCA input for LFE connection. The front of its heavily braced cabinet has two 4" bass-reflex ports tuned to 20Hz. The A5-350 appears to offer a lot of hardware for the price, which includes threaded floor spikes.
My review sample’s black matte finish felt very durable, and integrated easily with the rest of my gear so as to not completely dominate my room. However, if the A5-350 will be easily visible in your room, real-wood finishes are available and will likely look better: add $200 for Maple, Walnut, or Cherry, or $250 for Bamboo.
My system consisted of the Onkyo TX-SR506 receiver and an Energy Take Classic surround-sound loudspeaker array. My main music and video source was a Sony PlayStation 3 gaming console, which can play SACDs, CDs, and Blu-ray. I used Monster Cable interconnects and speaker cables throughout.
I began by watching a few BD selections, to see how the A5-350 would handle bomb explosions and other sound effects associated with action movies -- after all, that’s the least that anyone should expect from such a huge sub. A great film that features one of the best bass-monster openings of all time is in the Blu-ray edition of Saving Private Ryan: the first combat scene, when the Marines land on Omaha Beach in 1944.
The incredibly deep and resonating mortar fire from the German artillery that continually rains down on Tom Hanks’ regiment was deafening through the A5-350. Although I pushed the volume to near extreme levels, I could hear no noise or distortion or tonal imbalance that I could associate with the A5-350. In terms of playing loud and low, the Elemental Designs easily passed muster. As the scene continued to unfold, I noticed that in the quiet moments, when Hanks goes temporarily deaf after a particularly close mortar explosion, I heard none of the hum or untoward noises that inferior subwoofers sometimes emit when they’re not booming away.
When this battle tapered off into a quieter sequence in which the musical score came to the fore, the A5-350 was able to reproduce John Williams’ subtle orchestration with more than competent fidelity. This sub never imposed too much bass on the overall sound, or called attention to itself; properly calibrated to my room and system, it seamlessly blended in with the rest of the speakers. The bass response produced by the A5-350 with other sound effects, such as shattering glass and exploding grenades, was always fast and impactful, resulting in realistic sound effects as well as a truthful reproduction of music.
A really good subwoofer should not only faithfully reproduce a jazz or rock band’s bass instruments; it should also help to reproduce the acoustic signature of the recording venue itself, which also helps define the size of the soundstage. With that in mind, I inserted Metallica’s latest, Death Magnetic (CD, Warner Bros. 508732), in my PS3 to see how that heavy-metal assault would sound. As a number of critics have pointed out, bassist Robert Trujillo is way down in this album’s mix -- yet I was able to enjoy his playing simply because the bass that was present was so clearly articulated by the A5-350. The soundstage was huge as well, indicating that the A5-350 was going really deep into subbass territory.
The first song on Death Magnetic, "That Was Just Your Life," gets things off to a fast-rocking start. Early in the song, the kick drum comes jarring into the soundstage. With the A5-350 in the system I heard a lot more bass detail than I ever had with other subwoofers (as opposed to a pair of tower speakers, for instance). This was definitely a good start -- as the song progressed, I was very pleased with the A5-350’s capacity to push enough air into my listening room to create realistic impact, even as it played with enough precision to get right the finer points of the music.
The next track, "End of the Line," has a stop-start bass line that showed just how agile the A5-350 was. This sub had no problem stopping on a dime and starting right up again as it reproduced massive amounts of percussive impact. Lars Ulrich’s drums sounded clear and powerful as the A5-350 expertly duplicated this disc’s natural yet snarling sound. The speed and agility of the A5-350 are attributes that I always listen for when enjoying Metallica, one of the harder-rocking bands of the last 25 years.
Then, for something completely different, I put on Essential Mozart: 32 of his Greatest Masterpieces (CD, Decca 468 517-2) and began to listen to one of my favorite classical works of all time: the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, as performed by Sir Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic. The overture begins slowly, then gradually builds to a climax consisting of an incredibly vibrant cacophony of violins, violas, and flutes that ends in a fluid yet dynamic orchestration of pure musical delight. In its most enthralling sequences, this slice of classical brilliance was enhanced by the A5-350’s adroit reproduction of the bass: articulate and well behaved, even as the ample lows never detracted from this recording’s subtler points. The A5-350 didn’t boom or muddy the sound at all.
Elemental Designs has configured the A5-350 subwoofer to accommodate the discerning tastes of the surround-sound movie lover while at the same time allowing the musical purists among us to enjoy articulate bass that serves the finer points of music reproduction. The A5-350 was equally at home with music or movies -- a great attribute, and the sort of all-around versatility that makes purchasing an A5-350 a valid choice for audiophiles who seek a substantial subwoofer at a terrific price for their own large listening room or home theater.
. . . Rob Mead
Elemental Designs A5-350 Subwoofer
Price: $800 USD.
Warranty: Five years on driver and enclosure, one year on amplifier.
1618 N. 15th Ave. E.
Newton, IA 50208
Phone: (641) 792-2501
Fax: (641) 792-2657