The home theater subwoofer market has become a very competitive segment in recent years, as companies like SV Subwoofers and Hsu Research have brought out a wide range of very good product options. Outlaw Audio's newest product, the LFM-1, is one of the latest additions to the subwoofer market. Their first speaker product, it is a "black box" subwoofer designed with input from Dr. Hsu of Hsu Research. Hsu's subs are widely regarded online as some of the best, and combined with Outlaw's ties to speaker companies like Atlantic Technology it seems reasonable to expect them to be able to field a pretty respectable sub. The LFM-1 is built around a good sized dual-ported rectangular enclosure with a down firing 12" woofer and a built-in 325W BASH plate amp. At $579 and with a frequency response of 25Hz to 180Hz (-2dB), it is positioned to compete directly with Hsu's similarly priced box subs and with SVS's entry level box and cylinder subs (the PB1-ISD and 25-31PCi). A "two-pack" option for $999 is also available for those with particularly large spaces or a particularly passionate desire for bass.
Perhaps because it was an Outlaw product (the venerable and now discontinued Model 1050) that sparked the upgrade process which has led me to my current system, I tend to follow Outlaw Audio's products pretty closely. I have received their e-mail newsletters for a number of years now, spent many an hour in their forum (where I post as "gonk"), and enjoyed several of their products -- including the Model 950 pre/pro, the Model 750 amp, and an assortment of the audio and video interconnects. When they announced that they would be branching out into speakers with the introduction of a powered subwoofer (the LFM-1 "Low Frequency Module"), I was intrigued but not initially interested in buying one. My SVS 25-31PCi sub (a similar product to the LFM-1 in both rated performance and price, albeit visually very different) is still a great sub. But around the time we got ready to move into a new house, Outlaw posted some pictures of the LFM-1, and my wife thought that it looked much less obtrusive than the SVS's "water heater" cylinder. The specs for the two units are very similar as far as frequency response and amp power, so in theory the replacement of the 25-31 with an LFM-1 would cost us nothing sonically. Since we could sell the SVS and make enough to pay for much of the cost of an LFM-1, we started thinking about getting one. The next thing you know, one was on its way to our house.
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Much of my job involves sitting at a desk, so I have to seek out opportunities for exercise. I'm usually not very good about doing that, but lately I've found that trying to move can be a great (or miserable) way to do some heavy lifting and carrying. Case in point: moving my home theater, including the 70lb Studio/60 main speakers and the 73lb Model 750 amp. Just when I thought I was done with the heavy lifting, the LFM-1 shows up at my doorstep. The listed weight at Outlaw's web site is 58 pounds. The shipping carton said 77 pounds. Either way, it's hefty.
The packing on something as bulky and heavy as a sub is a serious issue, especially when it is destined to travel through the hands of a shipping company before it can reach the consumer. The LFM-1 shows up in a double box that clearly was the subject of some thought. The outer box is taller than the inner box, with sheets of heavy styrofoam above and below the inner box. The handles in both boxes line up, so you are able to get a grip on both of them. Once you get down to the inner box, you find the LFM-1 wrapped in a layer of white cotton and braced in place by eight dense foam corner caps. The box of accessories (manual, spikes, discs, and power cord) and another wedge of foam are tucked in beneath the sub, locked in place by the bottom corner caps. Overall, I thought it was a good job of packing.
Once it's out in the open, the LFM-1 looks pretty slick. The construction is solid and clean. It has a smooth, nearly featureless cabinet (broken only by the amp on the back and a small, subtle Outlaw badge on the front) with a chamfered top edge that is capped by a unique feature: a dark plexiglass top panel. The panel does not allow any visibility into the cabinet; instead it acts as a reflective surface, which is a pretty cool effect. To top it all off, it looks like it belongs alongside my Studio/60 and around the other furniture in the room. It is much less of a shocking presence than the SVS's cylindrical shape and black fabric cover. The SVS will be more likely to elicit comments from guests (especially the taller SVS cylinders), but any comments the LFM-1 generates should be positive. It is worth noting, however, that even though this sub has an attractive finish and a traditional form, it is still pretty large. This is no little Bose Acoustimass bass module that you can tuck behind a fern and forget about, it's a ported sub with a plate amp and a 12" driver.
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The LFM-1 comes with spikes, a bit of a change from the SVS's bottom plate and rubber feet. In a thoughtful gesture to those of us with hardwood floors, Outlaw included isolator discs to put under the spikes and prevent any undesired floor accupuncture. The discs have felt pads, so you can nudge the unit around a little on hardwood or tile floors after you get the discs under the spikes, which is a big help for connecting the unit and for final positioning. Outlaw does recommend two people for the process of flipping the LFM-1 onto its feet and setting it on the discs, and while I did it on my own I do agree with their advice. Once in place, the combination of feet and isolation discs gets the LFM-1 up off the floor nicely. There have apparently been a few users who set LFM-1's up in deep carpet and worried about the carpet choking the ports and driver. In general, this should not be a problem (the discs and spikes provide some good elevation), but I can see the potential for particularly deep pile carpets warranting the addition of a 15"x22" board under the LFM-1 to push the carpet aside. A coat of paint (black or perhaps a color that matches the carpet) should make the board vanish.
The LFM-1's BASH plate amp will look familiar to most anyone who has set up a powered sub before. There's a power cord connection and master power switch, of course. Directly above these, it has speaker level inputs and outputs for those who want to set the sub up in line with their mains; I chose to leave these untouched, as I use my pre/pro's line level subwoofer output to feed my sub. The manual recommends using the speaker level inputs only if a line level input is not available, which is a good rule of thumb. The line level input is a bit different than some other sub amps, as the LFM-1 includes only one input rather than the more common stereo pair. Seeing as one of the most common questions about hooking up subs tends to be which input to use (left, right, or both with a splitter), I was pleased to see this. In general, good subs come with manuals that cover this detail sufficiently (the manual that came with my SVS specifically said that there was no need for a splitter and that either the left or right input could be used), but there's a reason that the expression "RTFM" came into being -- not everyone actually reads the manual.
The controls on the amp are as standard as the connectivity: a phase switch (0° and 180° options), a switch to enable or disable automatic power on, a volume control, a crossover adjustment knob that allows the low-pass crossover to be set between 40Hz and 120Hz, and a switch to enable or bypass the crossover. I left the auto-on feature enabled but bypassed the crossover for my initial setup. To start with, I took the manual's advise and set the volume control on the sub's amp to 5, and I ended up leaving it there. I left the phase switch alone initially; when I experimented with it later, I found that the default position (0°) was the correct one for my case.
Overall, the setup process was very straightforward. How straightforward? I pulled into the carport at around 5:20, got the mail, unpacked my briefcase, and still had the LFM-1 out of its packing and in place with an initial calibration done by around 6:00.
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The subwoofer frenzy in recent years is largely due to our friend the DVD and his buddies Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. Most music doesn't get much below 40Hz or 50Hz, but the sound effects in movies can dip as low as an inaudible 10Hz or 15Hz. That's far beyond the range of even "full range" tower speakers, which is where the subwoofer comes in. The LFM-1 is not tuned as low as some heftier, pricier subs out there, with a listed -2dB cutoff of 25Hz (human hearing generally stops around 20Hz). This is very similar to the other subs available online in this price range: my old 25-31PCi ($549) and the Hsu STF-3 ($599) both share this same bass extension, and the SVS PB1-ISD ($599) goes marginally deeper, to 22Hz at -3dB. All of these will typically be able to reach around 20Hz when room gain is factored in. What do these numbers mean? It means these subs were designed in large part for the role of providing strong, solid, deep bass with movies. How does the LFM-1 work in this role? Very well, thank you.
My hope and expectation for the LFM-1 was to provide the same low frequency muscle as the SVS 25-31PCi in a more graceful package. In a few minutes of sampling notable bass-heavy movie passages, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the LFM-1 seemed to provide a somewhat more refined bass than the SVS. Particularly deep passages were carried off more naturally and smoothly. There was no loss of bass presence, and even without reaching reference volume levels the THX intro to Attack of the Clones sent the cats scurrying away. Becca asked to hear the seismic charges in the asteroid field (chapter 28 of AotC), and the first charge knocked a plaque off the wall behind the TV. Darla tapping on the fish tank in Finding Nemo was even more ferocious. All of those observations came from the first evening with the LFM-1, when I'd only begun to put the LFM-1 through its movie paces, but the first impressions were clear: the LFM-1 can handle movie soundtracks without hesitation.
The "shake things off the wall, vibrate fillings out" bass of demo scenes is of course entertaining, and the LFM-1 readily proved itself capable of handling that sort of activity -- in the process verifying that the windows in the new house are better than the old ones, which tended to rattle in their aluminum frames. It's the more subtle and controlled bass that typically makes me glad I have a sub in the system, however. There were several times in the first week or so that the sub was in place that I found myself grinning when the sub stepped up and delivered quickly and gracefully without calling attention to itself. When compared to the LFM-1, the SVS came off as a bit boomy. It's a subtle improvement over the SVS's performance (made all the better by the better acoustical space), but it was enough to make me satisfied with the change to the system.
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I successfully resisted the urge to buy a sub for years because I liked the way my Studio/60's sounded on music all by themselves and I didn't see a need to add a sub. When the 25-31PCi (my first sub) arrived in the summer of 2002, I experimented with crossover points for the main speakers and settled on a 40Hz point that left the majority of the stereo music work in the hands of the Studio/60's. Higher crossover points would have been better in theory (the bass extension on the Studio/60's is 30Hz at -3dB and 42Hz at -2dB), but they tended to cause the sub to start to overpower the main speakers on music. After a brief listen to the LFM-1, I decided to revisit my crossover point and adjusted it to 60Hz. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the LFM-1 blended better at a 60Hz crossover point than the SVS had. On most music, the difference is not very pronounced (since it only becomes a factor when the recording includes material in the range of <80Hz or so). The Return of the King soundtrack was largely unaffected by the changes in sub and crossover. Tantric's new CD After We Go has a fair bit of low frequency material, and while the 60Hz crossover point clearly involved the sub more than the lower crossover had, the effect was more unified -- the sub was definitely contributing, but it didn't call attention to itself. The revelation made my want to switch back and forth a bit to make sure I hadn't been doing something wrong with the SVS all this time, or that perhaps the new house had helped matters to a degree I hadn't previously discovered.
A little more testing and some swapping between LFM-1 and 25-31PCi (with the front channel crossover set to 60Hz the two calibrated to the same level using the 950's internal test tones) revealed a couple of things. First, the den in the new house and the sub placement within that room offer a better listening environment than the old house's living room did, to the benefit of both the 25-31PCi and the LFM-1. Second, the difference between the two subs, while not as pronounced as initially believed, still favored the LFM-1. Anyone looking for a "good music sub" on a budget (a goal that many people pursue as they assemble their home theaters, even though the specific traits associated with that goal are extremely difficult to pin down) should feel safe including the LFM-1 on their list of candidates. It is extremely capable with music, blending cleaning with the main speakers.
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Today's home theater is a lot more sophisticated than in days past. The speaker count has risen steadily, with many systems now employing seven speakers thanks to Dolby Digital EX, DTS ES, Pro Logic IIx, Logic 7, and other processing modes that generate surround back channels. The LFE channel on Dolby Digital and DTS tracks is a far cry from the days of Dolby Surround and Dolby Pro Logic, making a subwoofer (or more than one sub) much more important. Likewise, multi-channel audio formats like DVD-Audio and SACD are reinforcing the need for a subwoofer. A good subwoofer is important, but good subs are also expensive. In order to help fill this need for good, powerful, and affordable subwoofers, the Internet has stepped up. Do-it-yourself subwoofer kits and instructions are readily available along with good quality drivers. Some people have even created "infinite baffle" subs that are built into their houses, using closets, basements, or attics as massive enclosures. Most visible of all, however, are the handful of companies that have begun building very good subwoofers and selling them for very reasonable prices over the Internet. Aided by a strong presence at Home Theater Forum and years of experience as hobbyists, SV Subwoofers started up a number of years ago and has created a very large and loyal userbase thanks to their high quality and (comparatively) low cost. Hsu Research has made similar use of the Internet as a sales and marketing channel, albeit in a lower profile manner. Outlaw Audio has been selling other home theater gear online since around 1999, and around Christmas 2003 they started shipping their own answer to the subwoofer in the form of the LFM-1. As one of the latest entries in this already crowded market, the LFM-1 could easily be overlooked -- but after hearing one, I would suggest that consumers take care not to let the LFM-1 slip under their radar. It has revealed itself to be a great product, and I would classify it as one of the top subwoofers in the sub-$1,000 price range.
In a few months, I'll return to this review and add some more thoughts once I've spent a lot of time with the LFM-1. Until then, I'll just say that I've been very pleased with the LFM-1's performance and would readily recommend it to others.
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