Tannoy TS2.12 powered subwoofer review

My son-in-law’s familiarity with Tannoy’s status in the British Isles underscored for me the company’s long history in the speaker business: their founding in 1926, and the crucial role they played in the 1940s, supplying the British armed forces. Thus reminded, my experiences with the Tannoy TS2.12 subwoofer took on even more luster!

Ten years ago, our family was joined by my son-in-law, who was raised in Dublin, and spent his university years in London. I was editing this review during a recent visit with our daughter and grandchildren, and Justin became interested in the fact that I was reviewing a subwoofer made by Tannoy. He reminded me that, in the UK and Ireland, Tannoy had long been a generic term for public-address systems, just as Hoover had come to describe any vacuum cleaner, regardless of manufacturer. Although Justin admitted that this usage was probably “old school,” he teased me that I was reviewing a PA speaker for an audiophile magazine!

Compact and Light
Like the Bowers & Wilkins DB-1 subwoofer, the TS2.12 has two opposing, 12″ drive-units, their combined surface area equalling that of a single 18″ cone. Yet in the TS2.12, only one of these is driven by the amplifier; the other drive-unit, which Tannoy calls an Auxiliary Bass Radiator (ABR), is passive, and is intended to balance the actively driven cone in order to minimize cabinet vibrations; both drive-units are made with multi-fiber cones and butyl rubber surrounds.At 17.2″ high by 16.75″ wide by 14.75″ deep and weighing only 40 lbs, the TS2.12 ($921) is about the same size as my previous bantam subwoofer champ, SV Sound’s SB13-Ultra, yet only half the weight—and a little more than half the cost.

The internal, 500W amplifier is a bridged class-D design, controlled by what Tannoy calls their Tri-State Pulse Width Modulated digital-signal processor (DSP). The latter permits adjustment, in the digital domain, of crossover frequency, phase, and gain. Built-in equalization allows the system to reach below 30Hz.

The TS2.12’s cabinet is made of two layers of 25mm MDF, to reduce colorations and add stabilizing mass. As Tannoys says on their website, “The pressure generated by twin drivers demanded that the TS2 subwoofers be constructed much heavier and more robustly [than] competing subwoofers as typical 18mm MDF cabinet construction would impart [an] unacceptable level of colouration.” The TS2.12’s combination of active and passive drivers and its carefully sealed enclosure have been configured to eliminate the chuffing noises associated with some ported subwoofers.

On the rear panel are all of the TS2.12’s connections and set-and-forget user adjustments, including line-level RCA input and output jacks for the right and left channels, a power switch, an IEC jack for the detachable power cord, Volume and continuously variable Phase knobs (0–180°), and a crossover dial with settings of 50, 100, 150Hz, and Bypass. Once the TS2.12 is set up, its Auto On/Off feature eliminates the need to access the sub’s controls.

Standard finish for the Tannoy TS2.12 is Dark Grey vinyl; add $103 for Black Gloss, which is reportedly hand-polished to a mirror finish.

Room, Setup, Measurement
Adding the Tannoy TS2.12 to my system was straightforward. I moved the sub into the front right corner of the room and ran RCA-terminated interconnects from it to the line-level outputs of either my Bryston BP-26 preamplifier or a Mark Levinson No.585 integrated amplifier. The inner edges of my Quad ESL-989 electrostatic speakers were 6′ 8″ apart; the left speaker was 18″ from its sidewall, the right speaker 18″ from a built-in wall unit; both were 5′ 5″ from the front wall. I heard the best imaging and soundstaging when I listened in the nearfield: 7′ 8″ from each Quad and 10′ 8″ from the TS2.12.

I used a number of different configurations of main loudspeakers and amplifier for this review. After trying several higher settings, I left the TS2.12’s low-pass filter at 50Hz. At first I drove the Quads full-range with a Mark Levinson No.334 dual-mono amplifier. Later, I used the ML No.585 integrated, with its 80Hz, second-order, high-pass main-out filter set to 80Hz and the TS2.12’s crossover set to Bypass. This relieved the Quads from trying to reproduce the deepest bass, allowing them to play louder without distortion. I also compared the Quad-Tannoy system to a pair of Revel Ultima Salon2s: dynamic, full-range, floorstanding speakers that produce outstanding bass, comparable to that of several small subwoofers I’ve reviewed.

Before I switched on the TS2.12 or enabled the No.585’s high-pass filter, I measured the Quad ESL-989s’ full-range room response, using Studio Six Digital’s iTestMic and the RTA (real-time analyzer) module of their AudioTools app to measure the bandwidth of 25Hz–200kHz. For test tones, I played a digital file, supplied by Revel’s Kevin Voecks, of uncorrelated pink noise. The in-room frequency response measured 25Hz–20kHz, with room-mode peaks at 80 and 40Hz. From 40 down to 25Hz, the Quads’ response fell by 15dB (fig.1; the blue line is Audio Tools’ audibility marker).

Fig.1 Quad ESL-989s, no subwoofer, in-room response (5dB/vertical division).

I then switched in the TS2.12. At first I set the system volume so that the Quads alone played the pink noise at a level that, at my listening seat, registered as 75dB on the SPL Meter module of the AudioTools app. After setting the TS2.12’s low-pass filter to 50Hz, I adjusted its level control until the sub’s output matched the Quads’: 75dB at 100 and 40Hz, as displayed by the AudioTools RTA module. I fine-tuned the sub’s volume using Stevie Nicks’s voice in “Landslide,” from Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac (CD, Reprise 46702-2), and found that setting this knob to 7:45 o’clock eliminated any chesty colorations from Nicks’s voice, while retaining the punch, drive, and coherence of John McVie’s bass line.

With the TS2.12 now integrated into my system, I repeated the room-response RTA measurements. Fig.2 shows a flatter response between 40 and 60Hz and slightly higher output at 31.5Hz, just over the blue “Audibility Limit” line superimposed by Audio Tools on the RTA graph.

Fig.2 Quad ESL-989s with Tannoy TS2.12, in-room response (5dB/vertical division).

With both the Tannoy and Quads active, I played the lowest-frequency tones of the Chromatic Scale track on Editor’s Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2). I heard all the tones clearly, as I did the 40 and 32Hz tones from the Bass Decade Warble Tones track on that disc. Also from the latter track, the 31.5Hz tone played softly without doubling; the 25Hz tone was inaudible.

All that done, I sat down to listen to the Tannoy and Quads. At first, the deep-bass response, drive, and dynamics of the Revel Ultima Salon2 loudspeakers greatly exceeded what the Quad-Tannoy combo could produce. So I threw caution to the wind and readjusted the TS2.12’s output by ear, using a wide range of recordings, vocal and otherwise. I used John Atkinson’s digital recording (24-bit/88.2kHz AIFF) of the Toccata of Widor’s Organ Symphony 5, performed by Jonas Nordwall at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, to adjust the Tannoy’s output to produce room lock—ie, when the subwoofer and room work together to create a sense of non-directional pressure when notes in the lowest octaves are played. I trimmed the volume back a touch so that the sound of Michael Arnopol’s double bass, which opens “Too Rich for My Blood,” from Patricia Barber’s Café Blue (CD, Premonition 90760-1), was dense and solid, not overfull or bloated. This required resetting the Tannoy’s output control, racing back to my seat to listen, and then repeating the procedure. After several rounds, I’d increased the TS2.12’s volume control from 7:45 to 9 o’clock.

Playing my favorite pipe-organ recordings, I was delighted by the deep-bass response. JA’s recording of the Widor Toccata had solid, room-locking pedal notes that lifted the 32Hz display bar of Audio Tool’s RTA display higher than adjacent frequencies. The lowest pedal notes underpinning the soprano singing the “Pie Jesu” of John Rutter’s Requiem, with Timothy Seelig conducting the Turtle Creek Chorale (CD, Reference RR-57CD), thundered with an authority, solidity, and clear pitch definition that I didn’t hear from the Quads alone. The massive pedal note that concludes organist James Busby’s performance of Herbert Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament, from Pipes Rhode Island (CD, Riago 101), produced room lock and a tightening of the air. However, the TS2.12 didn’t sort out the various ranks of pedal pipes underpinning Gnomus, from organist Jean Guillou’s transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, DOR-90117), nor did it enhance the ominous, sustained 25Hz pedal note that opens Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, in the recording by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops on their Time Warp (CD, Telarc CD-80106).

Synthesizer recordings were enhanced by the Tannoy, sounding more articulate, linear, musical, and fast. The TS2.12 improved the pitch definition of the sawing, massive bowing of the double bass, with synthesizer and contrabassoon, in “The Caravan Moves Out,” from Philip Glass’s score for the film Kundun (CD, Nonesuch 79460-2). With James Horner’s score for Patriot Games, the Tannoy enhanced the concussive thuds that punctuate the suspense-building mix of synthesizer, chimes, cymbals, and breathy pipes (CD, RCA 66051-2), and further tightened and solidified the ominous heartbeat that threads its way through “Breathe,” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (SACD/CD, EMI 82136-2).

Percussion instruments gained snap and pace, as I heard in Mark Walker’s exploding tom-tom solo at the end of “Too Rich for My Blood,” from Barber’s Café Blue. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in the recording by the Minnesota Orchestra under Eiji Oue (DVD with 24-bit, 176.4kHz WAV file, Reference RR-70), revealed the timbres of the delicate reeds while increasing the impact of the explosive bass-drum whacks in Adoration of the Earth and Dance of the Earth. And the bass line of Lyle Lovett’s cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” from Deadicated: A Tribute to the Grateful Dead (CD, Arista ARCD 8669), had just enough punch without thickening his voice.

The ambience retrieved by the Quad-Tannoy system sounded most dynamic and the soundstage deepest when the Quads were driven via the amp’s high-pass filter. This was most evident when I listened to the DSD64 file of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Beethoven’s Symphony 7. I was bowled over by the music’s dynamics, and the Tannoy TS2.12’s capacity to enhance the timbre of each instrument. Additionally, the TS2.12 deepened and widened the soundstage, engulfing me in the ambience of the hall. David Bowie’s “Been So Long,” from the Cat People soundtrack (CD, MCA MCAD-1498), was reproduced with its full dynamic range, and I could determine the relative positions of instruments on a wide soundstage: electric bass at center, Bowie’s close-miked voice left of center, and a rasping scratching noise, like a cat, appearing on the right.

More important, the addition of the TS2.12 didn’t obscure the Quads’ reproduction of solo-piano music: Keith Jarrett’s treble notes in “True Blues,” from his The Carnegie Hall Concert (CD, ECM 1989/90), weren’t muddied by his thudding foot stomps.

Subwoofers I’ve reviewed in my system have included the B&W DB-1 ($4500), the SV Sound SB13-Ultra ($1599), and the Revel Ultima Rhythm2 ($10,000). Interestingly, only the Revel and the Mark Levinson No.585 integrated amp had high-pass filters clean enough not to flatten, distort, or color the Quad ESL-989s’ upper bass, mids, and highs. However, the Tannoy has the smallest cabinet of these four subs, so it was no surprise that its in-room response on the AudioTools RTA display showed a reduced contribution below 40Hz. The other three subs went substantially deeper in the bass, down to 25Hz and below. The Revel, B&W, and SVS had better pitch definition, and more readily produced room lock in my large listening space.

The TS2.12 was at its best when the Quads were driven by the ML No.585 with its 80Hz high-pass filter turned on. You get what you pay for: Revel’s Ultima Rhythm2 greatly exceeded the TS2.12’s dynamic range, deep-bass extension, room lock, pitch definition, and slam—at more than 10 times the cost and almost five times the weight.

Although I realize that the TS2.12’s small size and light weight limited its ability to reproduce a pipe organ’s deepest notes, it performed impressively well when properly set up with its volume control fine-tuned using a wide range of vocal and instrumental recordings. Its quick, musical, well-articulated bass blended well with that of my Quad ESL-989s. And while the little TS2.12 costs just $921, its substantial build quality, elegant finish, and easy-to-use controls were as good as those of more expensive subs I’ve used and recommended, such as the SV Sound SB13-Ultra.

Its bargain-basement price means that the Tannoy TS2.12 doesn’t come with the accessories or features found in higher-cost subwoofers—eg, an internal high-pass filter, self-adjusting room equalizer, calibration mike, or remote control—and that I had to spend more time than usual in trial and error, taking measurements and tweaking the TS2.12’s controls. But trying different volume and crossover settings ultimately paid off. My listening sessions confirmed that the TS2.12 could provide refined bass reinforcement in a small or medium room, as long as the main speakers were preceded by a clean high-pass filter.

Tannoy’s TS2.12 did a restrained and subtle job of providing low-bass reinforcement for my Quad ESL-989s. Its combination of pitch-perfect output, a weight and size that make it easy to move around the listening room, rugged construction, and superb finish puts the TS2.12 on my list of recommended budget subwoofers. For those who associate Tannoy with the PA systems of English railway stations, the TS2.12 will be a refreshing change!

Sidebar 1: Specifications

Description: Closed-box, side-firing, powered subwoofer. Drive-units: one powered 12″ cone woofer, one 12″ Auxiliary Bass Radiator (ABR). Inputs: unbalanced (RCA) for two channels, LFE or stereo. Outputs: unbalanced for two channels, LFE or stereo. Rear-panel controls: Volume, Phase (continuously variable, 0–180°), Low-Pass Crossover Filter (settings for 50, 100, 150Hz, and Bypass), Turn-On Mode (signal-sensing or always on), On/Off. Low-pass filter: 12dB/octave slope. Internal amplifier: class-D, 500W RMS. Input voltage sensitivity: N/A. Input impedance: N/A. Frequency response: 21–150Hz, ±3dB. Acoustic output: N/A.
Dimensions: 17.2″ (440mm) H by 16.75″ (430mm) W by 14.75″ (378mm) D. Internal volume: 37.5 liters. Weight: 40 lbs (18.2kg).
Finishes: Dark Grey vinyl; Black Gloss, add $103.
Serial number of unit reviewed: SB13U03131008E.
Price: $921. Approximate number of dealers: 400. Warranty (fully transferable): 2 years, electronics; 5 years, drive-unit.
Manufacturer: Tannoy, MUSIC Group Innovation SC Ltd., Rosehall Industrial Estate, Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire ML5 4TF, Scotland, UK. Tel: (44) (0)1236-420199. Fax: (44) (0)1236-428230. US distributor: TC Group Americas, 335 Gage Avenue, Suite 1, Kitchener, Ontario N2M 5E1, Canada. Tel: (519) 745-1158. Fax: (519) 745-2364. Web: www.tannoy.com.

Sidebar 2: Associated Equipment

Analog Sources: Linn Sondek turntable with Lingo power supply, Linn Ittok tonearm, Spectral cartridge; Day-Sequerra 25th Anniversary FM Reference tuner.
Digital Sources: Bryston BCD-1 CD player, BDP-2 media player with IAD sound board, BDA-2 DAC. Lenovo W510 laptop computer running Windows 7, Mark Levinson USB driver, JRiver Media Center 20.
Preamplifier: Bryston BP26.
Power Amplifier: Mark Levinson No.334.
Integrated Amplifier: Mark Levinson No.585.
Loudspeakers: Quad ESL-989, Revel Salon Ultima2.
Cables: Digital: Wireworld Starlight Coaxial. Interconnect: Bryston (balanced), Mark Levinson Silver & Red Rose Silver One, Pure Silver Cable, Totem Acoustic Sinew (single-ended). Speaker: Coincident Speaker Technology CST 1, Pure Silver Cable R50 biwire double ribbon, QED X-Tube 400, Ultralink Excelsior 6N OFHC.
Accessories: Studio Six Digital iTestMic and AudioTools app for Apple iPhone 6 & iPad, ProMic1 Audio Analyzer; Torus Power Isolation Unit AO24-ACB-A1AB (120V, 20A max, 2400VA, 10 outlet).
Listening Room: 26′ L by 13′ W by 12′ H with semicathedral ceiling, moderately furnished with sound-absorbing furniture. Left wall has large bay window covered by Hunter Douglas Duette Honeycomb fabric shades. Rear of room opens into 25′ by 15′ kitchen through 8′ by 4′ doorway.—Larry Greenhill