The Klipsch R-115SW is one of the few subwoofers I've seen from a mainstream speaker company that's built with the market realities of the Internet era in mind. It used to be, subwoofers were an afterthought for mainstream speaker companies. They could toss practically any old sub onto the market, safe in the knowledge that if someone bought Brand X speaker system, the dealer would probably talk them into adding a Brand X subwoofer.
Now there are fewer dealers, and more audio gear is purchased online. If online purchasers search around a bit, they'll find subwoofer specialists such as Hsu Research, Power Sound Audio, and SVS whose subs often outperform those of the mainstream speaker companies yet usually cost less. And with the unforgiving CEA-2010 subwoofer output measurement being used by more manufacturers and reviewers, substandard subs have nowhere to hide.
At $899, the R-115SW is priced to compete with the Internet-only companies. Technically, it's standard stuff: a 15-inch Cerametallic (a proprietary mix of ceramic and aluminum) driver in a slot-ported box, powered by an 800-watt Class D amp. The only thing that's even slightly unusual is the rear multipin port for Klipsch's $129 WA-2 wireless connection kit. The sub looks really nice, with a brushed polymer veneer cabinet that mimics the look and feel of anodized aluminum.
It's worth noting that I found the R-115SW available through several Internet outlets with free shipping. That's a big deal; shipping on a sub this size can run more than $100.
The R-115SW can definitely compete in price. Let's find out if it can compete in sound.
I started with the R-115SW in my listening room's "subwoofer sweet spot," the place I've found that most subs sound smoothest (against the wall under my projection screen, between my center and front right speakers). Note that this positioning prescription is particular to my room and my chosen seating position. You'll have to find your own sub sweet spot.
I combined the R-115SW with two different speaker systems: my Revel Performa3 F206 tower speakers and a Klipsch Reference system based around the RP-280F towers. My stereo electronics included a Classé Audio CA-2300 amp and CP-800 preamp/DAC, using a Toshiba laptop as a digital music file source. For surround, I used a Denon AVR-2809Ci receiver connected to an AudioControl Savoy multichannel amp. In every case, I used a subwoofer crossover point of 80 Hz, so the sub would handle most of the bass on its own, without help from the tower speakers' woofers. For comparisons with other subwoofers, I used my Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switchbox, which permits precise level-matching and quick switching.
Note that the R-115SW has only RCA line-level inputs, so it's tough to use without something else providing a crossover between the main speakers and the sub. Of course, the Denon receiver has that, and fortunately so does the Classé CP-800, but it's a rare feature in stereo preamps. If you do want to use this sub with a standard stereo preamp, you can run a couple of interconnect cables from the preamp to the sub, but that's a rather clunky arrangement in my view. Or you can get the wireless kit.
As you'll know if you read my review of the Sumiko S.9, I initially had some difficulty getting the R-115SW to blend well with the main speakers I used. As I suspected, I was finally able to get a better blend by experimenting with the phase switch and moving the sub around a couple of feet. Advanced subs like the Hsu VTF-15H Mk2 make this easier because you can tune the sound of the sub to some extent, and some subs--like the Sunfire XTEQ12 I'm currently testing--have auto EQ. If your receiver or pre/pro has some sort of auto EQ such as Audyssey, you may not care about tuning the sound and blend of your sub; you'll probably just let the DSP chip do it for you.
I ended up doing most of my critical listening to the R-115SW in a system with the Klipsch RP-280F towers, partly because the system sounded really good and partly because I also needed to review the RP-280F and its associated center and surround speakers.
You might assume--and not without reason--that a sub with a 15-inch driver will sound boomy, slow, and sloppy. That's not the case with the R-115SW. In fact, if I had to sum up its sound in one word, I'd say "tight." In fact, I expected I'd do most of my listening to the R-115SW with movie soundtracks, but I spent the most time listening to jazz bassists, whose playing can turn into mush when fed through a mediocre subwoofer.
A great example can be heard on "Playground" from David Friesen's Where the Light Falls. Friesen plays a Hemage bass, an unusual stand-mounted electric upright design that looks almost more like a club than a bass. I got to hear Friesen play it live a few weeks ago, and I was happy to hear that the R-115SW portrayed its unique tone--a big, resonant, almost bass-guitar-like bottom end with the singing, clear upper notes of a well-made, impeccably played upright. Friesen's style seems to borrow from acoustic guitarists such as Ralph Towner and Michael Hedges, with all sorts of harmonics and strummed chords. It's a tough sound to reproduce, especially in the lower range of the bass, because the bass was never designed for these techniques. But through the R-115SW, I could easily discern every note, which I couldn't when I saw him live.
Pardon me for citing a similar example, but I can't resist mentioning how great the Klipsch R-115SW (and the RP-280F towers) sounded when I played "Have You Met Miss Jones?" from the Oscar Peterson Trio's We Get Requests. This recording of this tune might be the single greatest jazz bass performance ever. Most bassists would play a simple two-notes-the-bar feel through most of this tune, but bassist Ray Brown throws in all sorts of octave-plus leaps and fast-fingered melodic fills to answer Peterson's melody. With the Klipsch setup, I could hear every note clearly and evenly--and I marveled at how perfectly even Brown's level stayed no matter where he was playing on the instrument, or how fast. (I normally listen to this on headphones, most of which have a bass response that's far from flat.)
That same tightness serves the R-115SW well on movie soundtracks, too. One of my favorite subwoofer tests is the opening of Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in which Senator Amidala's silvery yacht passes overhead, producing high-decibel, low-frequency rumbles, then explodes right after landing. Playing the ship's engine noise, the R-115SW pressurized my room almost like a real explosion would, providing a shaking sensation in the floor and in my chair that would have been frightening had I not tested so many monster subs. When the ship exploded, the R-115SW gave me a firm punch in the chest, yet it produced no audible distortion. "Tightness and punch are this sub's thing," I wrote in my listening notes.
This punchy character makes the R-115SW stand out a bit from most of the 15-inch subs I've tried. Some audio enthusiasts refer to this as "speed," and it's not something normally associated with such a large subwoofer--or a ported sub, for that matter.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...