JL Audio Fathom 113 Subwoofer 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Subwoofers
Written by Mike Levy   
Saturday, 01 September 2007

Introduction
JL Audio is very well known to many audio enthusiasts for their powerful yet accurate car audio speaker products. Those who think today’s car audio world is limited to the guy blasting ear-destroying rap while driving down your street as all there is have a lot to learn. State-of-the-art car audio offers consumers willing to customize their cars’ audio and video systems many of the same tricks that you would expect to see in a ModernHomeTheater.com featured installation. JL’s specialty for more than a decade has been building and designing some of the most impressive, tight and powerful subwoofers you could ever hope to put in your trunk. Logic would suggest that repackaging JL’s excellent car audio subwoofers for the home theater and audiophile market would be a no-brainer, but JL would stop you right there. Their home theater subwoofers are anything but repackaged car audio speaker systems. These woofers are as serious as you might expect to see from audiophile brands such as Wilson, Revel, MartinLogan, B&W and beyond, with prices that are more than competitive in the current marketplace. With this back story in mind, I jumped at the chance to review the new, top-of the-line $3,500 JL Fathom 113 subwoofer.

I visited JL Audio recently with special interest, as I am a self-proclaimed loudspeaker geek. I love designing and studying the art of audio reproduction, especially loudspeakers. Ward Benjamin, the technical support specialist at JL Audio, showed me around the facility and Ernie Collado, the senior production manager, explained the manufacturing procedures. I was truly impressed with how clean and neat everything looked at the factory. The machinery is state-of-the-art and the manufacturing and test procedures are carefully controlled, with an expert in charge at every critical point. The factory is as carefully designed as the JL products, and their quality control measures are of the highest level I have ever seen. Every driver for every product has a bar code serial number and is individually tested. These tests are kept in computer memory, so that if a component should ever be brought in for service, JL Audio can track every move the product made. If a product is serviced at the facility, JL Audio creates a video of the product being disassembled, photographs the interior parts and makes a video record of the product’s reassembly. This allows the JL staff to find and/or track any problems that may (or may not) occur. As important as all the carefully designed manufacturing and test systems are, I found another very important feature of the JL Audio factory – a happy and dedicated work force. Everyone seemed to truly care about and enjoy what they were doing. This is no small matter when investing in a specialty audio product costing thousands of dollars. For the same money, you can buy a so-called high-end product made in China for slave wages and by people not adhering to the stricter codes and laws of this country. Moreover, you want the pride of ownership that comes from buying a fine item and I have seen this pride right from the people who make JL Audio products.

Set-up
This subwoofer is impressive while still in its shipping carton. The JL Audio Fathom 113 is relatively small, a cube with rounded corners measuring 19-and-three-quarters inches high by 16-and-a-half inches wide and 19-and-a-quarter inches deep and weighs a massive 130 pounds, so, you likely will need a friend to help you move it. Everything about this subwoofer exudes luxury. The packing is elegantly done, with a soft black cloth bag protecting the black mirror high gloss finish. White gloves are included as a thoughtful touch to prevent your fingerprints from marring the finish when moving the subwoofer. Still, if you do leave a few prints, the finish is very scratch-resistant and wipes to a high gloss with ease. The entire front of the subwoofer is covered by an elegant grille, which when removed reveals a copious amount of controls and the JL Audio woofer itself. The controls from left to right are Power, Microphone Input, Demo, Defeat, Calibrate, Level Mode switch, Master Level, Light Levels, Low Pass Filter, Low Pass Frequency Control, Extreme Low Frequency Control (ELF), Polarity and Phase.

In auto-mode, the subwoofer turns on when it senses an input signal. The microphone input is for the Automatic Room Optimization system, which has three settings: Demo, Defeat and Calibrate. The Indicator Lights let you know if the sub is on and whether the sub is being operated as a master or slave unit. The lights themselves can also be dimmed or defeated, using the Lights Level Switch so not to attract too much attention in a darkened theater or living room. The Level Mode switch has a variable or a reference position; the latter defeats the Master Level Control altogether when activated. The Low Pass Filter has three positions: off, 12db and 24db.

Below the buttons and switches sits the heart of the system, the JL Audio 13-and-a-half-inch subwoofer driver. From the front, the only evidence of its extraordinary design is the size of the surround and the fact that you cannot see the mounting screws. A look inside finds the JL Audio driver weighing in at 58 pounds. It has an astonishing four inches of linear excursion and a magnet structure to match. The die cast basket and the voice coil assembly are designed to absorb extremely high power. Unseen from the exterior are the patented innovations in the design that allow for the greatest linearity and silent air flow. The rear of the unit sports two huge vertical cooling fins on either side of the 2,500-watt amplifier. Between the fins are the inputs (Left and Right, Balanced and RCA), a Balanced Output to Slave, a Grounding Switch, an Input Mode Switch and the Line Power Input.

While it is common for people to corner load subwoofers, I preferred the Fathom 113 right between my monitors. Corner mounting augments the deep bass, but there was no lack of deep bass in the center position; at the same time, the central location provided improved melding and speed. I tried the Fathom both with its internal filter and through my DEQX-based Wasatch Acoustics processor/crossover. When using the Wasatch crossover, the crossover frequency was 100 Hz and the slope was 60 db per octave. No processing was applied, and the Automatic Room Optimization system was on in both cases. Operating the Automatic Room Optimization system was simple. I plugged in the microphone, placed it in the listening position and pressed calibrate. The system did the rest, although it did take a couple of tries to get the test level to the acceptable range. It was then only a matter of listening to music and adjusting the listening level. High-quality bass is intoxicating, so it took me a while to be sure I had it just where I wanted it. It was not long before the Fathom 113 melded into my Wasatch Musina 2.0 monitors seamlessly and provided an astonishing feeling of power and size. The internal LP filter sounded best at 24 db per octave and 50 Hz. While the filter did an excellent job, I found the melding and speed somewhat better using the Wasatch as a crossover.

Music And Movies
Manufacturers usually publish the range of response for a loudspeaker. In the case of the JL Audio Fathom 113, the frequency response is reported to be 19-200Hz. Since subwoofers are not stereotypically expected to operate above approximately 100 cycles, it is the lower number that is in many ways most important to us. There is more to a subwoofer than just how low it can go. The way a subwoofer loads into the room is directly related to its success. To me, sealed or acoustic suspension systems are the least sensitive to room interactions. Their output rolls off slowly when compared to vented systems. This is also true of the JL Fathom 113. It has significant output below the rated 19 HZ. Using test signals, I had no problem rattling the foundation of my house with notes below 16 Hz, the lowest pedal on a full-size pipe organ. So how about a full-size pipe organ? Playing the Cantate Domino, its wonderfully recorded Scandinavian church organ ran through my body and moved me in ways few instruments can do. The low end on the JL Fathom 113 is beyond low. The JL Audio Fathom 113 doesn’t just stop at rattling the walls of your house – it rattles the caissons dug into the bedrock of your foundation.

On the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks Home Entertainment), the JL Fathom 113 makes you feel the ground physically move with every blast. Tanks and artillery and even bullets moved me either by resonating in my chest and or coming up from the ground. I could hear and feel the tank’s motor and motion not as two separate sounds, but as one emanating from the tank. Moreover, I could hear as the bass was not just low but articulate – my entire audio system become clearer. I could hear the highs sound a little less congested. With a top-performing subwoofer like the JL Audio Fathom 113 in your system, you need to set your expectations higher than just loud, low bass. When your system is properly set up and tuned, you can expect to get audio improvements for music and movies well above the rated 130 Hz limit of this speaker.

It’s important to discuss the linearity of such a subwoofer when doing an evaluation. While linearity has a lot to do with room acoustics in most cases, in my room, the output of the Fathom was quite smooth, with only a little set-up trickery needed. Most rooms have one dominant resonant frequency in the bass. The Automatic Room Optimization System finds that resonance and equalizes it out. Connecting the microphone and running the Automated Room Optimization system smoothed out the bass, letting the Fathom disappear into my system. When I listened to Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs’ “Boogie Street,” the bass guitar was finely articulated, with each note reproduced at its appropriate power. Nothing sounded overpowering, but everything sounded energized in ways that I tend to reserve for the live experience with electric music.

Dynamic response has to do with how well a speaker transmits sound through the room when presented with a pulse. It is a product of output level and speed, but it is more than that. The best way to explain it is that a product with good dynamic response will make you feel the notes without fogging the sound or being too loud. The JL Audio Fathom 113 proved its mettle in dynamic response on Yim Hok-Man’s “Poem of Chinese Drums.” The incredible dynamics in this recording can knock you off your feet. Amazingly, the Fathom 113 accomplished this while finely defining the drums’ sizes and shapes, allowing you to hear every nuance of sound from the drumsticks and the skins. Leonard Cohen’s voice on “Dear Heather’s Morning Glory” resonated in your chest cavity while the female vocals flew freely, unencumbered by the bass. The Fathom subwoofer silently and cleanly made me feel the sound going right through me.

This feeling of power and control also made the sound effects on action movies such as Terminator 2 (Artisan) and I, Robot (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) more engaging and real. When Arnold Schwarzenegger is chasing the truck and they both fall down onto the concrete base of the Los Angeles River, the impact went through the ground while the motor sounds went through the air. Both moved me without the usual bouncy, boomy sound that screams “artificial” that comes from many lesser subwoofers. The four-inch excursion, which yields an amazing 6.3 liters of effective displacement, coupled with the 2,500-watt amplifier, gives the Fathom gobs of volume output. Using a sweep frequency from below 16 HZ to 200 Hz, I found it perfectly clean throughout the range at output levels that pinned my meter. I could have gone louder, but the walls of my room were screaming uncle and I was fearful that a drywall screw might pop free and crucify me in my own audio room – it was just that loud. This kind of audio output gave me the horsepower needed to play Santana’s Supernatural Live (Arista) at levels equal to the live concert in my room without any noticeable distortion. Amazingly, I found myself listening to “Maria, Maria” after turning the volume louder than I ever had before and enjoying it, thanks to the clean and powerful base line coming from the JL Fathom.

The Fathom uses a very linear driver with a robust, low-distortion amplifier in the appropriate sealed enclosure to achieve audiophile-quality bass. Listening again to “Poem of Chinese Drums,” the drums hit me with an impact I would expect only from a live performance, while still allowing me to hear the nuances of sound vibrating across the drum skins. This is a level a speed I have not heard from a sealed system before.

The quality of room correction and Low Pass filtering are important features for integrating a subwoofer with the room and the speakers. The Automatic Room Optimization system and the phase and filter controls, combined with the relative insensitivity of the design to room interactions, make this a subwoofer that can be used with many speakers in a variety of placements. While corner placement is popular, it is clean and fast enough not to be hidden. It can look pretty standing in the middle of the room and still disappear sonically.

The Downside
I am still working on trying to find a sonic downside for the JL Audio Fathom 113. If I had to nitpick the sub itself, I suppose its weight would be a factor when it comes to moving it and/or placing it on delicate surfaces like tile or wood, as it may damage these if not maneuvered carefully. Also, the JL Audio Fathom 113 is prone to dust and fingerprints, but the finish is robust enough to allow you to clean it using mild cleaners and a soft towel. I will say this much – if the worst knock you can come up with on a product is that it collects dust and is built like a tank, then you can draw your own judgments from there. Musically, this sub rocks my world.

Conclusion
The JL Audio Fathom 113 dollar for dollar is the best subwoofer I have heard on the market. If you are in the market for any of the top-of-the-line audiophile products, you owe it to yourself to go out and take a test drive with the Fathom 113. It has the power to knock your socks off. It has the finesse to make your best speakers sound even better. The subwoofer has the setup tools to get you room tuning that will likely render a properly set up woofer inaudible in your room but man, I promise you, you will feel it.

There is nothing about the JL Audio Fathom 113 that didn’t make my music and movies more enjoyable. To put it conservatively, this is a no-brainer for an AVRev.com Top 100 Award this year. Let the high-end speaker community be warned: I have heard JL’s full-range speaker system that is coming to a high-end salon near you sometime in the future, and it has the potential to be a market-maker just as JL’s subwoofers are doing now in the home theater space.
Manufacturer JL Audio
Model Fathom 113 Subwoofer
Reviewer Michael Levy





Like this article? Bookmark and share with any of the sites below.
Digg!Reddit!Del.icio.us!Google!StumbleUpon!Yahoo!Free social bookmarking plugins and extensions for Joomla! websites!
 
Joomla SEF URLs by Artio