Few audio companies have fanbases quite so vociferous as that of Franklin, TN-based Emotiva Audio Corporation. Whenever the company announces a new A/V preamp or high-current monoblock, the Internet chatter that follows resembles nothing so much as the impending birth of a royal spawn or the next big Marvel movie. And yet, for whatever reason, that fervor rarely extends to the company’s subwoofers, although I have a sneaking suspicion its new Airmotiv RS13 Reference subwoofer might represent something of a sea-change in that respect.
Priced at $1599 with a matte black finish ($1699 in high-gloss piano black, all prices USD), the Airmotiv RS13 is certainly the most expensive sub yet for a company known for delivering big bang for the buck. But its price is in no way out of line with similar offerings from other Internet-direct retailers, and it’s reflected in the design and engineering of the sub, especially as compared with previous Emotiva efforts.
The first thing about the Airmotiv RS13 that catches the eye (assuming its magnetic grille isn’t affixed) is the double-roll nitrile butadiene rubber surround for the 13″ long-fiber treated paper cone. Since we’re so used to seeing subs with big, beefy surrounds, the thin pleats of the RS13’s accordion surround create a bit of an optical illusion, making the driver look larger than it is. The reason for the double-roll surround, according to Emotiva VP/CTO Lonnie Vaughn, is that it allows for high excursion, but not at the expense of linearity.
Backing the driver is a class-D amp rated at 1000W RMS continuous / 2000W peak and a 48-bit dual-core DSP, all housed in an incredibly inert HDF cabinet that’s 50mm thick at the front and 25mm thick on every other side. At 20″ high by 17″ wide and 22″ deep, the RS13 definitely doesn’t qualify for “compact subwoofer” status, but it is a good bit smaller than other subs in its performance class. That adds to its appeal if you’re looking to bring the boom but find yourself tight on floor real estate. The company reports nearly ruler-flat output from 20Hz to 160Hz, with overall frequency response of 16Hz to 240Hz, ±3dB.
The sculpted, angular bevels that cut through the front baffle—from the top of the cabinet down to just above the capsule-shaped front-firing bass-reflex port—also give the RS13 a distinctive look that’s commensurate with its price. This design element runs through most of Emotiva’s loudspeaker offerings, and was hinted at in the now-discontinued Airmotiv S15 sub, but this is the first time we’ve seen Emotiva fully commit to this aesthetic in its subwoofer lineup.
Unboxing and setup
Despite its relative compactness compared with similar competitors, the Emotiva Airmotiv RS13 Reference is still a chonk in terms of weight at 86 pounds, which means you’ll likely want to phone a friend for help unboxing and positioning it. If you don’t have help, take solace from the fact that the sub is well-packaged, with all of the expected Styrofoam padding and even a big satin bag to keep it relatively safe from scratches as you flip the carton, dump out its contents, and do your best to waddle and wobble it into position. If you’re on a firm surface, this is made somewhat easier by virtue of the RS13’s four conical, hard-rubber feet, which add an extra 7/16″ to the height of the sub and allow you to get your fingers under the cabinet for a good grip. Just note that the feet are permanently affixed, so if you tend to replace your subs’ hooves with isolation footers, that’s not an option with the Emotiva.
Also note that the Airmotiv RS13 comes with its long, capsule-shaped port plugged with foam, so you’ll want to remove that before setup—unless, of course, you plan to run it as a sealed sub. Other than that, setup is pretty self-explanatory. Around back you’ll find a stereo pair of unbalanced line-level inputs, with the left input labeled LFE, as well as a balanced XLR mono LFE input and a balanced XLR loop output. When you fire up the sub, it detects which input you’re using and disables the rest as a prophylactic against unwanted noise, which is a nice touch.
All of the other twisty bits and fiddly things you’d expect to find on the back of a sub aren’t there to be found. Instead, they’re atop the RS13, housed under a smoked plastic cover that’s recessed to sit flush with the cabinet. Depending on the size of your fingers or the length of your fingernails, you might find it handy to keep a coin nearby so you can more easily pop this cover off when you need to access the controls. Given that I keep my nails trimmed to the quick for speedcubing, I found it nearly impossible to get the cover off without the help of my buddy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Underneath that recessed cover, you’ll find the usual crossover control (labeled X-Over, and variable from 40Hz to 160Hz), Phase control (variable from 0° to 180°), and Level (-20dB to +15dB), along with a crossover bypass switch, a Power Auto/On switch, and an EQ switch that needs a bit of explanation.
The two settings for the EQ switch are labeled Deep and Flat, and represent two response curves with matching names. Confusingly, the curve dubbed Deep is actually the flatter of the two curves and is reflected in the aforementioned frequency response specifications: 16Hz to 240Hz, ±3dB, with response from 20Hz to 160Hz resembling the Bonneville Speedway.
The Flat curve, on the other hand, represents a gentle roll-off of the lowest frequencies starting at around 32Hz, with the -3dB point right between 21 and 22Hz. This allows for slightly higher maximum output of higher frequencies. At any rate, I left the switch on Deep for most of my testing, only switching to Flat with some musical selections out of curiosity and thoroughness more than anything else.
Since the Airmotiv RS13 is simply too much subwoofer for my bedroom home-theater system, I installed it in my main media room, which did cause me a few concerns initially. That room measures roughly 18′11″ by 17.5′ and opens up into two doorless hallways on the left side. What’s more, my A/V system isn’t positioned symmetrically in the room, since the left side of the space serves as the walkway into the kitchen. As such, I always run two subs in that system (their positions marked by two Xes), not necessarily for the benefits of their summed output, but to provide more consistent bass response from seat-to-seat.
That left me scratching my head as to where I should install the solitary Airmotiv RS13, since my system is arranged nothing like it was the last time I employed a solo subwoofer. As expected, placing it at the left position resulted in quite uneven seat-to-seat performance, so I moved it closer to the right position and tinkered with placement a bit before running Audyssey MultEQ XT32 room correction on my Marantz AV8805 preamp-processor.
The results of that process nipped in the bud any concerns I had about the Airmotiv RS13’s ability to provide enough output for the room. Once calibration was done, the right sub-channel output of my Marantz preamp was set to +3dB, leaving me 9dB to spare, and the level knob on the R13 was resting at high noon, leaving another 15dB of additional output on the table.
One tweak I made to the Audyssey setup (in addition to setting a max filter frequency of ~810Hz) was to raise the sub/sat crossovers across the board to 80Hz, just to more closely approximate a typical use case in most home-theater systems. Since I’m running GoldenEar Triton One and Triton One.R towers at the back and front of the room, Audyssey typically sets their crossovers quite a bit lower, but that would have lightened the load on the AirMotiv R13 far too much for a fair and thorough evaluation.
Time to put the Airmotiv RS13 to the test
Impatient as I was to stress-test Emotiva’s new flagship sub without hunting and pecking for good demo scenes, I fired up my Roku Ultra, loaded the Vudu app, and cued up a movie that wastes no time before clobbering you in the gut with delicious LFE: 2017’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (UHD). The opening titles are accompanied by the droning and pulsing of what sounds like the heartbeat of a cardiomegalic blue whale, as well as one significant bass drop right around the 58-second mark that sticks to your ribs like my meemaw’s camp stew.
The Airmotiv RS13 gobbled up that sequence and begged for more, proving itself more than capable of pressurizing the room with bass at the bottom end of the audible spectrum (and below), but without ever feeling remotely one-note or bloated.
I did pick up on a good breeze coming from the front-firing port during that aforementioned bass drop, but I didn’t hear a hint of chuffing, which can be a problem with some smaller bass-reflex subs playing this sequence (depending, of course, on the tuning of their ports). So after the end credits for Into the Spider-Verse rolled—and I was more than satisfied with both its capacity for deep rumbling and high-impact punch—I cued up some frequency sweeps and kept an ear out for port noise. But at no point on the road from 1Hz to 100Hz did I pick up on any appreciable whistling or tooting from the front-firing port.
Next up, I turned my attention to a Blu-ray that’s never far from my player: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. What I love about this one as a subwoofer stress test is that it has oodles of cavernous effects for the LFE channel, but also a good amount of bass-driven music. One scene that combines the best of these elements is the battle-of-the-bands showdown between Scott’s garage group—Sex Bob-omb—and the techno-synth Katayanagi Twins in chapter 15.
Scott’s bass guitar is the driving force of the first stretch of this scene, and the Airmotiv RS13 delivered every ounce of growl and oomph you could hope for. But the real star of the show is that torrent of nearly subsonic bass that pours out of the twins’ synthesizers in response. This pressurized propagation of pounding air was more felt than heard, and I was almost more impressed by the sub’s distortion-free delivery of it than I was by the sheer SPLs.
That said, the R13 was cranking out so much sound at this point that I was worried its grille would give up the ghost. I haven’t had a lot of luck in the past with magnetically affixed grilles for subs. At the loudness levels required to pressurize my big, relatively open media room, even pegged grilles tend to flop off onto the floor like a fainting goat during scenes like this one. But the R13’s grille clung tight to the cabinet like a beard hair in a buttermilk biscuit, no matter how high I cranked the volume. So, yeah. Kudos there.
Moving on to two-channel music: one song in particular that I tend to use as a test for consistent bass response is Björk’s “Hyperballad,” from her second post-Sugarcubes release, Post (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Atlantic/Qobuz). What makes this track stand out is that its distinctive bassline consists of a parade of sinewaves ranging from 40-something to 70-something Hz. Is it the most organically musical cut in my streaming library? No. But it will shine an unflinching light on any significant hills or valleys in a sub’s output. And with the Airmotiv RS13, every note reached my seat with equal authority and impact.
Looking to test the upper end of the RS13’s output, I played “Ants Marching” from Dave Matthews Band’s Under the Table and Dreaming (24/44.1 FLAC, RCA Records/Qobuz). There isn’t a ton of deep bass in this one at all—in fact, I think the lowest note Stefan Lessard plays is a low G, right around 49Hz, and most of his noodling is much closer to the 80Hz crossover point between sub and main speakers. But that’s really what I was listening for. Or, more accurately, what I was attempting to listen for. Truth be told, I couldn’t tell what was coming from the RS13 and what was coming from my GoldenEar Triton One.Rs. Throughout the track, the Emotiva sub proved so nimble and so distortion-free that it simply disappeared into my system and into my room.
Yes, yes, but how does the Emotiva Airmotiv RS13 compare to SVS subs?
This isn’t a question I love to answer, but it’s one that always comes up from readers of any subwoofer review, so we might as well get it out of the way. One of the things that I like about the Airmotiv R13 ($1599 to $1699) is that it fills the gap between SVS’s PB-3000 ($1399.99) and PB-4000 ($1899.99), at least in terms of price. It also strikes a nice balance between the two in terms of maximum output below 20Hz, besting the PB-3000 but not quite keeping up with the PB-4000. Above 20Hz, both SVS subs have more maximum output than the Airmotiv R13 according to CEA-2010 measurements. (Full disclosure: I didn’t measure the Emotiva myself and am relying on the company’s reported CEA-2010 specs for comparison. I have measured both SVS subs, though. And in my main media room, none of these subs reaches its output limits even at reference listening levels.)
With levels matched, the R13 more closely matches the frequency response of the PB-4000, although the Emotiva sounds a bit more consistent in its output and cleaner at the bottom end. All three are good in terms of linearity, but I would give the Emotiva the edge here. (Another full disclosure: I have only the PB-4000 on hand for direct comparisons and am relying on memory and my own notes for the PB-3000.)
But there’s a baby elephant in the room here that most people don’t discuss when it comes to subs in this class: size. The SVS PB-3000 is, without its grille, 21.9″H by 18.3″W by 23.5″D, making it 1.9″ taller, 1.3″ wider, and 1.5″ deeper than the Emotiva. The PB-4000, meanwhile, measures in at 23.4″H by 20.5″W by 30″D, a full 3.5″ wider than the Emotiva and 8″ deeper. If you have a dedicated home cinema space, this might not be a problem. If your main A/V system is in a multi-use media room, though, the svelter dimensions of the Airmotiv R13 could give it an edge simply in terms of space savings.
TL;DR: Should you buy this sub?
If you’re looking for a high-performance ported sub that won’t eat up a ton of floor space or wreck your budget, the Emotiva Airmotiv R13 Reference should absolutely be on your shortlist. I love the fact that its controls are more easily accessible from the top of the cabinet, although I do wish the smoked plastic cover for the control panel were a little easier to remove for those of us with Wookiee paws instead of normal human-sized hands. I also wish it had app control and built-in parametric EQ functionality, which I’ve come to expect in this price class. But for me that would only really come in handy in a two-channel application, since both of the A/V preamps I rotate in and out of regular use in my media room have good room correction. But—and I can’t emphasize this enough—the fact that the R13 doesn’t have any front-facing blue lights or readouts that I have to either dim or disable is a blessing worthy of a hashtag.
Given my experience with the R13’s gloss cabinet, I would probably opt for the matte finish, simply because the former picks up fingerprints if I so much as gesture in its direction from across the room, and I have to dust it daily. The $100 savings when stepping down to the matte finish doesn’t hurt, either. But both options are really lovely, and they represent a big step up in terms of aesthetics from a company whose subwoofers have in the past run the gamut from dour to unfortunate in terms of looks.
High points that I can give with no caveats? The Emotiva Airmotiv R13 delivers deliciously deep bass with diminishingly low distortion, and it’s also surprisingly musical and nimble at the upper end of its output. The lack of chuffing is a huge plus. What’s more, it delivers a lot more punch than I would have expected from a 13″ driver in a cabinet this size. Given that its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses—and the fact that none of its downsides are performance-related—I can recommend it with no reservations.
. . . Dennis Burger
- A/V preamp: Marantz AV8805
- Amplifier: Anthem A5
- Sources: Roku Ultra Model 4800R streaming media player, Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player, Kaleidescape Strato movie player
- Speakers: GoldenEar Technology Triton One and Triton One.R towers, GoldenEar Technology SuperCenter Reference
- Speaker cables: Straight Wire Encore II
- Interconnects: Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects and subwoofer cables, Monoprice 8K Ultra High Speed HDMI cables
- Power protection: SurgeX XC18 Space Saver Surge Eliminator
Emotiva Airmotiv RS13 Reference Subwoofer
Price: $1599 USD in matte black finish, $1699 USD in high-gloss black.
Warranty: Five years transferable.
Emotiva Audio Corporation
135 Southeast Parkway Court
Franklin, TN 37064
Phone: (615) 790-6754