HTS Moderator , Reviewer
The subject of this review is the PowerSound Audio XS15se, an acoustic suspension subwoofer utilizing a down-firing 15" driver. The BASH amp is rated at 550 watts RMS and a staggering 1650 watts peak. PowerSound Audio (PSA) lists the frequency response as 23Hz-200Hz +/-3dB, and they go on to state "9Hz-16Hz typical in-room extension". The XS15se weighs in at 68 pounds and measures 19.5"x17"x18" (HWD), which certainly doesn't make it unwieldy for a subwoofer boasting a 15" driver.
This is my second look at a PSA product; I was one of (if not the) first to post a review of the original XS15, so I'm quite familiar with its predecessor. In going over my previous notes it became apparent this evaluation would be distinguished by the differences between old and new, specifically in the areas of more and less. By that I mean where PSA added or subtracted something, and from what I can tell they did both brilliantly. For example, without the plinth that was on the original XS15 the XS15se appears smaller. For me, that's a good thing. It also means the 'se' weighs less, so it's a double bonus. The original amp was rated at 500 watts RMS and 1000 watts peak, which is certainly nothing to sneer at. However, the new model boosts those numbers to 550 watts RMS and that eye-popping 1650 watts peak. The peak output, in particular, is significant - that's a 65% increase! The frequency response gets a similar improvement; the original XS15 was rated at 26Hz-200Hz +/-3dB ("16Hz-20Hz typical in-room extension"), which almost pales in comparison to the XS15se and its 23Hz-200Hz +/-3dB ("9Hz-16Hz typical in-room extension").
As I further scrutinized my notes from the XS15 I came to the conclusion that everything PSA had done with the XS15se was for its betterment, so the price had to go up proportionally I reasoned. Nope; an improved driver, more powerful amp and better frequency response resulted in a measly $50 price increase. That's not even 7%. Did I mention the original unit came out about 2 years ago, so the $50 also includes inflationary costs PSA has incurred during that time frame? In my original review I concluded "The XS15 is definitely worth more then the $750 they're selling it for. Pick one up soon, before these guys come to their senses and realize what they have". Apparently these folks haven't come to their senses yet, because they're still selling subwoofers for less than they could.
PowerSound Audio is an archetype Internet Direct company, so if you're familiar with the genre you wont find any surprises when it comes to ordering. Basically you go to their website, select what you want and proceed to the check-out process. Quick, easy and painless. The XS15se sells for $799, which includes free shipping anywhere in the continental US. Having the shipping charge included in the purchase price is really not all that uncommon with ID companies, but something else PSA does is quite rare; they also offer free return shipping if you opt not to keep the unit, for whatever reason. The free shipping offer applies to more than just the XS15se, the XV15se and XS30se also qualify. That's confidence in your products for sure, because it costs a lot of money to ship a subwoofer. PSA includes a 30 day in-home trial, enough time to afford you ample opportunity to decide whether this subwoofer works in your environment.
The XS15se has a 5 year warranty against defects in material and workmanship on everything. And get this; it's transferable, so if you sell your subwoofer the next person inherits the remainder of the warranty. You only need to contact PSA and let them know who the new owner is, so facilitating the transfer is remarkably easy.
The XS15se came single boxed, but thankfully the cardboard used was about twice as thick as the typical packaging. The subwoofer was nestled within 2" of custom molded foam on both the top and bottom, the latter having special cutouts specifically designed for the feet. Across the bottom of the box was an additional sheet of cardboard to add strength. Protecting the subwoofers finish was a plastic bag.
Accessories include a power cord with a two prong input, something which should eliminate the fairly common ground loop issue. There was an owners manual as well as 4 stick-on rubber discs to cover the hex bolts used to hold the feet in place. Given that the bolts are recessed into the feet you may not even need those discs, but it was a nice touch to include them nonetheless.
Perhaps the most obvious difference with the new 'se' model is the driver, so I'll start with that. It's based upon the Eminence Lab 15, and it turned out to be one impressive feat of engineering (the original driver was produced by Fi Audio). The Lab series of drivers is renowned throughout the DIY community -- and is actually the basis for several other commercial subwoofers -- so it's not like PSA went with some unknown entity. They changed a few of the parameters and characteristics to suit their individual needs, but thankfully they didn't mess with the inherent goodness of this driver. Think tweaks rather than wholesale changes, adhering to the ethos that if it's not broken don't fix it.
This is a high excursion driver with a full 2" of peak-to-peak travel. It utilizes a rigid Kevlar reinforced paper cone with a treated foam surround, large double stacked ferrite magnets (covered in a rubber sleeve no less), extended and vented pole piece with a sizable bumpout, under-spider venting and a 3" voice coil with aluminum former and Kapton heat shielding, all of which is encased in a 12 spoke cast aluminum frame. A mouthful for certain, but clearly designed to ensure excellent performance and a long life.
The amp is from the same company PSA has used since their inception, which is a good thing since they've proven to be very reliable. It does run warm when the subwoofer is pushed, but I didn't experience any issues because of that. All the markings are clearly labeled with a bright white font that's easy to read against the black background. There are dual RCA inputs, but no XLR or high (speaker) level. The Phase knob is variable so anything between 0 and 180 degree's is possible. That's always beneficial when it comes time to fine tune a subwoofer to your particular room. Just like the XS15 the crossover dial only designates what the min and max are, 40Hz and 150Hz respectively. In between those extremes are dots, but I would rather some of the more common crossover settings be identified. It would be nice to see where 60Hz, 80Hz and 100Hz are relative to the extremes. That makes it easier for those among of us who choose to use the subwoofers low pass filter in conjunction with their receivers bass management.
Rounding out the controls is a toggle switch for power mode, with settings for Off/Auto/On. The Auto functionality worked perfectly, coming out of standby when it should have and never going back to sleep unless it was supposed to. The gain knob is pretty standard, and in similar fashion to the crossover only labels what the extremes are, but like the original XS15 warrants special mention for a deliberate design choice PSA made. Under most circumstances gain knobs have been engineered such that the 12 o'clock position is the preferred location and will result in the correct amount of output, but PSA went with a slightly different approach. Often times you'll need to set their subwoofers in the 2-3 o'clock range instead, so don't be surprised if you find yourself turning the gain up higher then you're accustom to. In my case I found 2 o'clock to be preferable, and even though that might seem as if I was running the XS15se 'hot' it never sounded embellished or bloated.
The original XS15 was covered in a finish called "sand texture", while the XS15se now sports "satin black" instead. To me they look and feel the same, so it seems only the name has changed. That's not necessarily a bad thing though. Sure, the XS15se does still have a bedliner-esqe appearance, but it has proven to be a very durable finish. There's no reflection from ambient lighting either, which is a huge bonus in the home theater where a lot of effort has been expended trying to make everything as dark and muted as possible. As was the case with the XS15, the finish on the 'se' was applied flawlessly. And are you ready for this? The entire inside of the cabinet was sprayed with the same finish! Who goes to that extent?
Just like the previous XS15 the cabinet of the XS15se is constructed entirely from 1" MDF, with all interior panels covered in 3" thick mats of fiberglass insulation that was neatly stapled in place. During even the most spirited playback levels there was almost no vibration transmitted through the cabinet walls. The knuckle rap test produced a dull 'thud'. The driver screws needed maybe 1/4 turn to snug them down completely, while the amp required nothing. All of this is supported by substantial feet that are 2.5" tall and held in place using hex bolts.
The owners manual is above average in both content and layout. It's a small booklet, so one might assume it lacks sufficient information, but that would be a mistaken assumption. Every control and switch is explained in detail, with wording such that even someone not well acquainted with subwoofers will be able to get the XS15se dialed in. Placement options are clearly explained, with diagrams showing examples of each. This one manual covers virtually all of the PowerX subwoofers PSA sells.
My living room is 13x17x8 (1768 ft^3), so it's not terribly large. The main seating position is approximately 11 feet from the subwoofer. All testing was done after the unit had been broken in for at least 15 hours.
In real terms no subwoofer the size of the XS15se should be able to produce this much bass, yet it did time and time again. To an extent that's been PowerSound Audio's stock in trade since their inception. What the 'se' version does is take all that raw output and smooth it over, making the sound more refined and deeper. You may not ultimately classify it as the cleanest or most articulate bass you've ever heard, but when taken as a whole -- especially considering the price -- what you end up with one very hard to beat combination that should easily satisfy even the most picky among us.
Similar to the XS15, the XS15se was deceptive on occasion; just when you think it's not doing anything it would spring to life and start pounding away. Without question, that type of behavior is what I prefer; I don't want to hear bass all the time, only when it's supposed to be there. The XS15se did precisely that. I did have to set the crossover at 60Hz for a time in order to combat a touch of 'chestiness' in male voices, but seeing as how I'm particularly sensitive to that phenomenon I don't consider this an issue too many others would confront.
I run each test scene twice; once while seated in my normal listening position and then a second time while sitting a few feet from the subwoofer. This allows me to hear it as I normally would, yet also affords me the opportunity to determine if the subwoofer is straining even the slightest bit. Both tests are run at the same volume level, which is slightly above what I would normally use on a day-to-day basis.
Initially my thoughts were to employ the same suite of movies I utilized when reviewing the original XS15, but when I looked over the list it became apparent a few of them had cropped up frequently in the ensuing 2 years and therefore were not ideal candidates. Because of that I opted to use just one of them, with the remainder being random selections.
Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring (blu-ray)
At the beginning of the movie there's a fierce battle raging, one that pits man and Elf against the Black Army of Mordor. There is all manner of material to work your subwoofer here, with snarling beasts, thousands of feet pounding the earth from marching troops, impacts from the weapons being used during the battle, etc. At one point Saron -- the Black Lord and ruler of Mordor -- gets his hand cut off, the one that happens to be wearing the Ring Of Power. He subsequently implodes, literally, and the last vestige of his physical existence are the helmet he was wearing and the hand with the ring on it. As they both hit the ground a fulminating wave of bass is hurled out at you, and if reproduced correctly should have an ominous feel to it. 'Feel' being the key word, which is precisely what the XS15se did; there was a distinct rumbling in my chair. When Isildur -- the kings son -- picks the ring up off the ground there's another bass sweep, only this one is even deeper. Scene 30 -- The Mines Of Moria -- is my go-to though, so I wrote a lot of my notes from this part of the movie.
While in the labyrinth of caves and massive halls that constitute the Dwarf city of Moria the Fellowship encounters a Balrog, an immense creature that had been buried deep in the earth for centuries until the Dwarves mistakenly unearthed it. At first you don't see him, but you certainly hear his guttural roar. While he's making all that noise there's also a very deep and menacing tone emanating from the soundtrack. In the past I've reviewed subwoofers that weren't able to distinguish the two elements with sufficient separation, and what you ended up with sounded more like distortion as the two effects blended together. Not in this case - the XS15se rendered both with remarkable precision, making it such that each was easily identifiable. I actually replayed this small section a few times just to see if what I was hearing really was as good as I thought during the first pass. It was.
As the Fellowship flees the Balrog they come upon a huge cavern with but a single exit, one which leads them down a winding and crumbling staircase. As they work their way around collapsed sections of the staircase the Balrog draws ever closer, heralded by his thunderous footsteps. At one point there's a dissonance of simultaneous noises comprised of the Balrog, collapsing structures and huge boulders crashing down all around. There's a lot for your subwoofer to decipher here, but each sound needs to be unmistakable in order to create the essence of this scene. The XS15se was clearly up to the task, effortlessly providing all the depth and detail necessary to draw you into the chaos. From the ground shaking destruction, to the more subtle background sounds, this was bass to be enjoyed.
At its heart Cloverfield is the story of an alien being that terrorizes Manhattan. Know for incredibly deep bass it's a staple in subwoofer tests. Realistically there isn't a tremendous quantity of bass though, in as much as it's not non-stop mayhem, but the soundtrack is mixed very well so that helps cement its reputation. The scenes are also fairly long, so you only need to select a few to really exercise your sub.
As the action unfolds we find our main characters attending a going away part for Rob who is moving to Japan because he took a new job there. A few of them are hanging out on the fire escape when a massive explosion rings out, prompting the XS15se to send out ripples of bass into my living room. His entire apartment complex empties out as everyone heads to the roof so they can see what's going on. While they're all milling about trying to make heads or tails out of what just happened another explosion occurs, only this one sends debris their way so everyone scurries for cover. Huge chunks of building rain down all around them yet the XS15se seemed unfazed, calmly reproducing every thud with authority. Once chased from the rooftop our crew of 20-something's head for the exits. Hundreds of others start pouring out of their apartments as well, joining them on the packed streets. It's at this moment when you catch a faint glimpse of the creature as it destroys a building and escapes. With a building disintegrating into a pile of ruble as a backdrop you should feel your own room shaking and the XS15se was up for the challenge, creating a deep rumble that was sent coursing through the floor. Rob and company retreat into a store as the dust cloud envelopes everything, but it's this part of the scene where I felt the XS15se did some of its best work. As things begin to settle down outside you can still hear the invader's growling and footsteps as he makes off. As it did you got a very clear sense of distance because the intensity starts to diminish. With the ample dynamic capability this subwoofer possesses the effect came across beautifully, making it quite easy to tell the beast was withdrawing.
Scene 8 is my favorite for testing a subwoofer because it's the first appearance of the military, and you know what that means; lots of things go 'boom'. By this point there are only 4 of the original cast of characters navigating the streets of NYC. All of the sudden they're confronted by the 10 story tall beast in front of them, but to make matters worse the Army is directly behind. Trapped between the artillery being launched at the creature, and the creature itself, they all scatter to the sides as the military pounds away. That's what the XS15se did as well, making the pandemonium seem believable. Whether it was small arms fire, RPG's, the 100+ mm rounds from the tank or the aliens shrieking sound and foot stomps, this subwoofer 'kicked out the jams' (with apologies to the MC5). It didn't seem the least bit flustered, and because of that I was treating to a rollicking depiction of the bedlam.
After using a pair of 'bass fest' style movies to work over the XS15se I decided to go for something a little more subdued and focus on detail and nuance instead. This Tom Cruise offering was a regular in my arsenal for a time but it hasn't made an appearance for a while, so I blew off the dust and queued it up.
Cruise plays Vincent, a hitman contracted to eliminate 5 people; 4 witnesses for the Prosecution and the Prosecutor herself. Jamie Foxx is Max, a cab driver who unwittingly picks up Vincent as a fare. Vincent is impressed by Max's amazing knowledge of the LA streets, so he hires him for the evening to drive from place to place so he can finalized a 'business deal'. Unbeknownst to Max the business deal is really the 5 executions. It doesn't take long for Max to figure it out though because the first hit goes sideways and the body ends up public when it lands on Max's cab from a second story window. From there it's all downhill.
Now that Max knows what's happening Vincent has to ensure he won't run off as soon as the opportunity presents itself, so at the second hit he uses tie-wraps to secure Max's hands to the steering wheel of the cab -- which is parked in an alley -- while he goes to take care of business. As soon as Vincent is out of sight Max tries to make himself visible by hitting the horn and stepping on the brakes to flash the tail lights. His hope is that he'll be rescued, but unfortunately all he does it attract the attention of a bunch of crackhead's who subsequently rob him and take Vincent's briefcase from the backseat. Bad idea, because Vincent sees the drug addicts walking off with his briefcase and confronts them. It isn't more then a few seconds before he guns them down. Since this takes place in an alley the gunshots ring out and echo, which makes their impact all the more obvious. The XS15se had no problem here, adding a weighty and credible sense to everything.
As the evening progresses our hapless duo find themselves at Club Fever, a dance club where hit number 4 happens to be partying with his entourage. What are these venues famous for? Loud thumping music of course, so the Collateral soundtrack cues up the synthetic noise and attempts to recreate that club feel. My notes say the XS15se did a remarkable job with the overall quality, but the music sounded as though it was perhaps a little further back then it should have been and not quite as prominent. As our antagonist Vincent makes his way through the crowd toward the (eventual) victim things are much the same, with a great deal of precision to the music but not as obnoxious as you might encounter in a club like this. When the shooting starts things are better, with sharp percussions and distinct sounds from each caliber of firearm. The soundtrack emphasizes Vincent's pistol the most, which the XS15se faithfully reproduced. The one shotgun blast is even more potent, unleashing a solid kick to the chest.
After all the testing had concluded I checked the amp to see how hot it was, and just like the the XS15 it was warm. Not terribly surprising, I suppose, when you consider PSA uses the same style of amplifier they had previously (albeit with even more power). What didn't happen this time, that did back then, is I wasn't able to trip the amp's protection mechanism and force it to shutdown. When I reviewed the original XS15 I actually caused an amp overload due to how hard I was pushing it, but no amount of abuse could generate the same reaction this time. It simply went about its business, unfazed by my attempts to cause bodily harm. And believe me, I tried.
When it comes to music the PSA XS15se has the goods to handle just about anything you might listen to, with one significant trait different than the original XS15; dynamics. I heard increased definition between the high and low notes, with a more articulate sound overall. The general sense was of a subwoofer that was refined, able to express itself with greater detail. Audio memory is notoriously short lived I'm afraid, but comparing my notes from the original XS15 to what I wrote about the XS15se made it clear to me the new driver is a definite improvement over the original in that regard. The XS15 struck me as a subwoofer designed for HT first, music second. The XS15se seems like each potential usage was equally weighted.
Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Smashing Pumpkins (Streaming)
This is my kind of song, the type that compels you to crank the volume up and play it more than once. This tune won Smashing Pumpkins the 1997 Grammy award for Best Hard Rock Performance, vaulting them to stardom in the process. (Trivia question; who won that award the following year? None other than the Smashing Pumpkins again, with a song titled The End Is the Beginning Is the End) Bullet comes from their mid-90's release titled Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, which was a compilation the likes of which you rarely see any longer; a double album.
This song opens with Jimmy Chamberlin pounding away on the tom-tom's, an intro the XS15se simply ate up. It's a driving sound, one which leads right into the body of the song, and is typical for this band; an off-beat rhythm with an odd time signature, but the XS15se had no problem following right along. D'arcy Wretzky's bass guitar was deep and rich, exactly as it should have been. The mix leans toward a dark and brooding sound -- another Smashing Pumpkins hallmark -- and something the XS15se relished. Of special note was the power from the kick drum, which is prominently highlighted throughout this song.
Creep, Radiohead (WAV)
Everyone has a song or two in their personal music collection that they aren't quite sure why they even have. You know what I'm talking about, the embarrassing ones, the guilty pleasure, the "what was I thinking?" tunes. Creep is one such example for me. Radiohead doesn't have any other songs I like -- at least not that I've heard thus far -- and to be honest I'm not even sure I like Creep, but for some reason it gets stuck in my head and I keep listening to it. Oddly enough, I'm not the only one who isn't sure if he appreciates this song. Rumor has it Radiohead's own guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, hated the tune so much that the 'crunches' you hear him do were an attempt to sabotage the recording process and make it unlistenable. Apparently he failed because it went on to be their most popular song. Go figure.
Similar to most Radiohead songs I've heard, Creep is a little bizarre with a simple beat and above average recording quality. Whomever worked the mix board for these guys must have been pretty talented because that's the one constant. Colin Greenwood's bass guitar (Jonny's brother) was very distinct, with ample texture and capacious sound. Phil Selway's drumming, and in particular his kick drum, were produced with a deep and resounding thump. Don't underestimate the transient response of this subwoofer; notes didn't linger, they were presented to you and then instantly disappeared. For music that's exactly as it should be.
Fell On Black Days, Soundgarden (CD)
My favorite band of all time is still Black Sabbath, even to this day. Pink Floyd is a very close second, but the heavy riffs and simmering undercurrent of a Sabbath song -- especially the early works -- have always appealed to me. In later years, as they lost their direction and started putting out some questionable material, I often longed for another band to fill the void. To me Soundgarden came closer then any other, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I love their music too. Of all the grunge bands to emerge from the 'Seattle scene' this quartet has always been my favorite. I listen to their stuff all the time, but it's been a while since anything from them has showed up in a review. Today I rectify that omission.
Fell On Black Days is from the groups 4th album, Superunknown. This is perhaps their most popular and commercially successful offering, producing such hits as My Wave, Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. Like all Soundgarden tunes, Fell On Black Days prominently features two things; Chris Cornell's vocals and the rhythm section, in this case that would be Matt Cameron on drums and Ben Shepard on bass guitar (Soundgarden's original bassist, Hiro Yamamoto, had departed a few years prior). However, the sound engineer flip-flopped the normal Soundgarden formula by spotlighting Shepard more so than Cameron, and it's precisely for this reason that I chose it. A notable percentage of the songs I use target the drums, but I wanted to mix things up and focus on the bass this time.
The XS15se went about its business with conviction, producing excellent dynamics and pitch. You could clearly make out the different notes Ben was plucking as he moved his fingers up and down the fretboard. Whether he was going for authority or something a bit more laid back, each note came across with the correct amount of weight. A commanding performance - I don't imagine the original XS15 would have been able to handle Fell On Black Days this skillfully.
Approximately 2 years ago I published what may have been the first review of a PowerSound Audio XS15, and at that time I made a statement considered by many to be rather bold; "What this company provides is a level of value that simply didn't exist a few months ago. Very rarely does a rookie step into the majors and hit a home run during their first at bat, but PSA has done just that". I took some flak for that position but I held my ground, confident what I heard would prove to be a game-changer. Turns out my statement was prescience, and even today PSA is unable to build subwoofers fast enough to meet demand. Vindication for me, and a nice problem to have for them. Fast forward to today and you have the first major update of the PowerX product line, the 'se' version. The XS15se takes a ridiculously good subwoofer and makes it even better by adding a much improved driver and more powerful amplifier, yet they raised the selling price a paltry 7%. Realistically that's not even an inflationary increase which, from a business standpoint, is nothing short of ludicrous; make your product better and charge almost nothing for the added value? Unheard of, yet that seems to be PowerSound Audio's way of doing things. Countless home theater and audio enthusiasts have benefited from their dirt cheap prices and extraordinary support, and it's hard to see that changing any time soon. When it comes to value, PowerSound Audio is in a class by themselves.
Please use the PowerSound Audio XS15se Discussion Thread for questions and comments
PowerSound Audio XS15se Pictures
PowerSound Audio XS15se Measurements
These measurements were taken using XTZ Room Analyzer II Pro. The unit was indoors, physically positioned in the center of my listening room with no other speakers running.
This represents the overall frequency response
This represents the Spectrograph from the driver