Hands On: Sunfire Atmos XT Subwoofers

Big bass doesn't need to come from a big box

Nearly every part of a home theater system can be considered critical in one way or another, but most people would agree that subwoofers belong near the top of the critical list in a high performance theater.

Strong, clean, well-balanced bass is like the fibrous material in a body—it holds a home theater’s sound structure together. Without good bass performance, your experience may be spotty, uneven and unconvincing. Loud, crashing bass isn’t’ that hard to get, but smooth musical bass takes more finesse and more work. Also, often it takes more money.

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Sunfire has a long history with bass, and the company’s subwoofers command a lot of respect from professional installers. One thing Sunfire has been able to do is engineer powerful subwoofers that fit into very small spaces. The Atmos XT XTATM265 reviewed here is one of them.

The Atmos subwoofer is a micro sub by most standards. We often expect powerful subwoofers to be big as ottomans and supporting 15-inch drivers. The Atmos sub is only 8.5 inches high, not much bigger than a pot for cooking pasta, but the size is misleading. The little cube weighs 32 pounds, which tells you there’s a lot going on inside.

Inside the Sunfire Atmos are two 6.5-inch drivers facing outward in opposite directions. Built-in amplification is 1,400 watts. The system is based on Sunfire’s Asymmetrical Cardiod Surround design which allows 1.8 inches of excursion from the drivers. The company says the displacement created by the dual drivers is equivalent to one big 12-inch driver. You’re getting big subwoofer performance in a smaller size.

Sunfire notes that the Atmos was designed for corner placement (which is nice, because that’s where most people will want to stash it). The sub comes with a microphone and an equalization feature for room correction.

I plugged in the subwoofer and placed it close to a front corner as directed. Immediately I noted how much it visually disappeared in the room compared to my own subwoofer, which practically comes up to my knees.

I ran some test tones into my Sony ES receiver and moved around the room listening for modes. There were several spots where the bass was quite strong and others where it was more subdued.

I then ran the room correction feature. I plugged the included microphone into the mic input on the sub, placed it in the center seating position and commenced with the button-pressing instructions. The results were very satisfying. The room was more balanced and overall the sub fit right in, though there were still places where the wave action still wasn’t quite right.

That’s where Atmos Part II comes in.

First, I need to make it clear that I’m not disparaging the Sunfire Atmos because I wanted to add a second. Two-subwoofers are always better than one. That’s just the way bass works, unfortunately it’s not the way most people buy their home theater speakers. THX always recommends multiple subwoofers even in moderate sized home theaters like mine (a little more than 300 square feet).

To be fair, Sunfire recommends adding a second sub on rooms 400 square feet and larger, so my room really didn’t need it by that standard, but I wanted to play anyway.

A second subwoofer isn’t used to create more volume. It’s for more accurate and even coverage. Sunfire makes adding a second subwoofer very easy. Each Atmos includes in/out ports allowing you to tether your subwoofers together.

Once I hooked the two subs together, I ran the EQ feature again. The distribution, while good before, was now even better.

After messing around with some more test tones I switched to a couple of movies. First up was last year’s creep-fest The Conjuring. In that ghost/poltergeist movie you hear a lot more than you see. There are entire scenes in which a low rumble permeates everything (for no apparent reason but to freak you out). The Atmos system kicked butt at delivering the right amount of chest-thumping whack along with more subtle LFE effects. I equally enjoyed the big orc battle scene in The Hobbit. Every boulder crash and goblin bellow was delivered like a war hammer in the chest.

I then moved on to music. Barrel-chested bass for movies is one thing, but for music, you want depth and subtlety. I found this in the Atmos when listening to Henry Mancini’s “Walking Bass” from the Peter Gunn soundtrack. “Walking Bass” is, as you can imagine, very bass heavy with some deep guttural brass tones, but with the Sunfires it wasn’t at all soggy. Finally I tuned up the punk rock Horror Pops’ song “Baby Lou Tattoo,” and there the Atmos subs rocked with tight action.

The best reaction though, came later, when my teenage daughter had some friends over to watch a movie in the theater. I don’t know what they were watching—some wall-walking undead creeper flick—but it was filled with heavy LFE moments. After the movie, I asked the kids how it sounded. One of them turned to me and said, “Mr. Clauser, that was awesome. I thought the walls were gonna come down!”

Subwoofers are fun and necessary in a home theater, but one of the reasons many people settle for sub-par subwoofers is the size. Sunfire has proven that you can get the sound of a large subwoofer in an incredibly small package.

Sunfire Atmos XT Subwoofer

More articles on subwoofers:
9 Overlooked Home Theater Features
Q & A: Digital Bass Management Basics
Two Subwoofers Balance Bass In an Open-format Home Theater


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