Whether you’re watching Avengers Infinity War at full volume, or playing a round of Fortnite, having a strong thumping bass is key to an immersive entertainment experience. There’s just nothing like the sensation of a fictional explosion rocking your couch, chair, or virtual reality cockpit.
I’ve got a subwoofer. Why do I need a bass shaker?
Even the Gremlin does not live alone in a sound isolated concrete bunker. The truth is, a subwoofer at full volume is a pain in the ass. Maxing out your sub’s volume can reduce the quality of its sound, and its longevity. It disturbs those around you, and at full “couch shaking” volume, it can overpower your speakers. There’s also situations, like Virtual Reality space games, where you’re using headphones, but want to FEEL the sensation of a spaceship jumping to another star system, or the rumble as your car hits the edge of the asphalt in Project Cars.
(for subwoofer recommendations, check out the Gremlin’s home theater guide)
The solution is the Bass Shaker, a specialized speaker which can be used either in place of, or in combination with a subwoofer. Bass Shakers, or tactile transducers, are basically a speaker that only operates at extremely low frequencies. It’s physically screwed into a chair, sofa or virtual reality cockpit, and sends a low frequency vibration through the furniture, shaking its occupant with precision.
The Aura Pro Bass Shaker
Bass shakers have two big advantages over a subwoofer. The first, as I’ve already alluded to, is that they can provide that tactile vibration without an audible BANG. Because they’re installed tightly to the furniture, any shaking they produce is driven directly into your seat, without necessarily shaking your room with it (for how this is achieved, see “sound isolation,” below).
The other main advantage over a subwoofer is that Bass Shakers provide a much more precise physical sensation that a subwoofer.
A really expensive subwoofer cranked high and paired with surround speakers, can give you excellent directionality. A helicopter will feel like it’s flying over you, bullets will feel like they’re strafing your left side. But you won’t feel much of a difference between that bullet and that ship. The source of the vibration is too far away, and subwoofer’s have to reproduce a comparably large frequency of sound. A key advantage of a bass shaker’s piston design allows it to be much detailed in dispersing low frequency vibrations. In a game like Elite Dangerous, this means you get a visceral “clang” when launching your ship, that’s powerfully distinct from when you deploy your hard-points. In Project Cars, which actually interfaces with advanced software packages like SimVibe for higher fidelity bass shaking, shifting gears is a soft clunk, that’s discernible from the rat-atat-tat of your tires hitting the rough edge of the track.
The effect is magnified dramatically when used in a cockpit or specialized sim seat. In a future article, I’ll be going into detail on how I designed and assembled my own cockpit for Elite Dangerous, but for now, suffice it to say that the effect of bass vibration roaring through your rudder pedals as you fly out of a space station is exhilarating like few other moments in gaming.
How do Bass Shakers know when (and how) to shake?
We’ve delved into the hardware side of things, but what about software? Bass Shakers get their signal source in one of two ways.
For the vast majority of titles, they get their sound wave the same way as any other speaker. They receive the same sound wave as your headphones or speakers, and shake accordingly. In order to achieve a realistic experience, you need to use a low pass filter in your sound system, to limit the frequency range feeding the bass shaker (remember, there’s no computer circuitry in a bass shaker, just a piston that produces vibration from the signal it receives). This has its pros and cons. The good news is that this method works with any game that has low frequency sounds (i.e. almost all of them). The bad news is that if developers have gotten sloppy in their sound design, you might occasionally find your seat doesn’t shake as hard as it seems like it should in a certain situation, because the sound in the game’s effects track doesn’t go low enough to really activate the shaker. You can find the Gremlin’s experiences with some popular games further down.
The second way a bass shaker can get audio is from special software. The most popular option is the aforementioned SimVibe, which jacks into certain games that support it, and provides the shaker with telemetry data that tells it with a high degree of precision when and how to shake. You can even setup multiple bass shakers in different sides of a cockpit, and set the simulator to shake each one on its own channel for a much clearer sense of directionality. Sadly, the list of support ed games for SimVibe is mostly restricted to racing simulators (Even Elite Dangerous doesn’t provide the data stream SimVibe needs to function, although hope springs eternal). The software is also a bit pricy, at $89. If you’re a real racing sim guy or gal, forums and reviews suggest it’s well worth the outlay, but it was a bit too much for the Gremlin’s casual racing time.
Okay, what should I buy?
For Most People:
The Aura Pro is a remarkable device. For less than the cost of an Xbox game, you get a device that provides a detailed tactile rumble in anything from an office chair to a sofa, or even a cockpit. It also only uses up to 50 watts of power, meaning that pretty much any receiver or power amplifier can provide power to it. It doesn’t go as low as other shakers like the ButtKicker referenced below, but if you’re really concerned about limiting the rumble to your furniture, that’s actually an advantage. After buying one of these for a home theater sofa, the Gremlin was so in love that he purchased two more, (for an office chair and simulator cockpit). For the best experience on anything larger than a desk chair, the Gremlin suggests pairing two Aura Pros together to distribute the rumble evenly, but a single shaker will work in a pinch.
For a deeper rumble in larger furniture and cockpits:
If you’re looking for the most serious shaker you can find, look no further than the ButtKicker LFE. This is a beastly shaker that can handle up to 1500 watts of raw power, to rattle your seat to the limit. It reaches into the depths of the bass frequency range at 9 Hz (the Aura Pro won’t reach below 20), to truly bring your entertainment experience to life. Considering the level of shake the Buttkicker provides, the Gremlin recommends restricting its use to sofa’s and cockpits.
Like speakers, Bass Shakers require some additional accessories to setup. First, you’ll need an amplifier of some sort to power the speakers. You can always use a more powerful amp than you need, but NEVER connect an amplifer that’s not powerful enough to a big shaker like the ButtKicker, and don’t crank the volume too high on an amp connected to the Aura Pro.
For the Aura Pro:
The beauty of the Aura pro is that any quality amplifier that can output 50 Watts is really all you need. The Gremlin recommends using an AV receiver, as they include an inexpensive amplifier and a remote, to easily turn the system on and off. If you’re feeling crafty, the Gremlin suggests scouting the nearest thrift shop or garage sale, as even an ancient receiver will still work just fine for powering the aura pro, as long as it turns on.
For the Buttkicker:
To power the mighty ButtKicker, you need a really high wattage amp to maximize its performance. Subwoofer plate amplifiers, like the SPA1000, are efficient, powerful, and cheaper than most quality power amps in this power range. Outputting a total of 500 watts, the SPA1000 is a solid, reliable choice for the ButtKicker LFE. These amps are designed to be mounted to a subwoofer frame, but you can easily build a wooden box to mount them to out of some two by fours, or even cut a hole in a media cabinet and mount it on the side.
Isolating your furniture:
A key part of a successful bass shaker installation is de-coupling furniture from the floor. Even the best shaker only has so much energy to dump into the frame of your sofa, and if you don’t take steps to isolate the couch from the floor, that energy will dissipate, limiting the shake factor, and sending bass waves through the floor into other rooms.
The solution is easy. A set or two of rubber isolating subwoofer feet, screwed into to the legs of your furniture, will ensure that the shaker’s energy is restricted to your couch. The Gremlin recommends SVS SoundPath feet (pack of 4), (pack of 6).
For connecting your Bass Shaker to your sound source, you’ll likely want a couple of more things.
In order to limit the frequency range that the shaker receives, you need to use a 50 Hz RCA low pass filter. This prevents unwanted sounds (like people’s voices) from emitting a creepy echo from your seat.
Simply connect the filter adapter to the input jack on your amplifier, then connect your source through the adapter.
If you’re using a bass shaker in a home theater situation, you may want to use that and a subwoofer. The problem is, most receivers only have one subwoofer out. The solution is to use a simple Y adapterto split the subwoofer out from your receiver into two.
For connecting a PC to a bass shaker amp, you’ll also want an RCA to 3.5mm adapter. Connect the 3.5mm into a free speaker or headphone out on your PC, then run one channel of the RCA into a single input on the amp (connecting through the above referenced low pass filter).
Putting it all together sounds complicated, but once you can picture the whole thing, it’s really quite easy. As way of a guide, the Gremlin will run you through his current Bass Shaker setups.
The Gremlin’s sofa. A second shaker will be returned to the couch soon.
In the home theater, mounting to the couch required creating a proper mounting point for the shaker. The Gremlin used a few pieces of scrap 1/2 inch plywood screwed into a couple of short 2x4s as supports. Keep in mind, you’re couch may already have an appropriate wood span. You don’t need the surface to be vertical, but you do need it to be securely mounted to the frame of the furniture, so that the vibration radiates across the whole area. It also needs to be perfectly flat, so that the entire surface of the shaker rests firmly against it.
Close up of the plywood mounting points. Nothing fancy.
In the Gremlin’s gaming den, a simulator cockpit has an Aura Pro shaker mounted under the seat to best distribute the rumble through the entire frame of the cockpit while flying through distant galaxies (mounting on the underside of the cockpit floor resulted in almost no bass making it to the seat, and an excessive foot massage from the rudder pedals).
The Gremlin’s Coveted VR Cockpit
Aura Pro Mounted Under the Seat
Banana Jacks for Quick Disconnects
HOWEVER, the Gremlin quickly realized that there are other games that are great with rumble, that aren’t best enjoyed in a cockpit (Star Trek: Bridge Crew requires additional space for VR controller movement that gets awkward fast with hotas controls in the way). Instead, a second Aura Pro is mounted under a nearby desk chair. A pair of banana plug jacks on both the chair and the cockpit make it easy to use one amplifier for both setups, simply plugging the amp in to whichever shaker is in use. I used these plugs on the end of some speaker wire to make the cable connection.
Aura Pro Mounted to an Ikea Markus Chair
These are the Gremlin’s top gaming experiences with a bass shaker:
ED is less of a game, and more of an experience. With the power of VR, a decent joystick you will truly feel like you are dogfighting in space (or exploring new star systems, if that’s more your thing). “Feeling” your space craft takes this to a whole other level. The soundtrack of the game is beautifully precise, which translates into precise and realistic energy from a bass shaker.
If you’re considering jumping into Elite Dangerous, check out the Gremlin’s joystick guide for some hardware recs.
Star Trek: Bridge Crew
My personal favorite VR title (also available in 2D), Bridge Crew is all about controlling a Star Ship. What’s really game-changing about this title is it’s ability to make you feel like you’re sharing a spaceship with a group of buddies, and the immersion factor is doubled when you can feel the thud of the Enterprise’s warp engines ramping up. The audio of the game is immersive, but the mix could use some tweaking, as you’ll occasionally encounter events like a torpedo hitting the hull, that don’t trigger as deep of a shake as they could. Still, once you’ve tried this game with a bass shaker, you won’t want to go back.
Project Cars 2
Anyone who’s tried the Project Cars series knows that there’s nothing that can match it’s attention to vehicular detail. This is a true racing simulation, where everything from the pressure in your tires to the dynamic weather conditions has an effect on your car’s performance on the road. Even without using the available shaker telemetry software, a bass shaker will improve your driving, as subtle tactile cues key you in to whether your car is slipping, or if someone’s else is bumping you in a turn. This game’s audio track is perfectly tuned for a realistic bass shaker mix.
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