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It's simple - a subwoofer gives you more bass, reproducing lower frequencies that your other speakers can't deal with. And subs aren't just for "bassheads." Filling out those lower frequencies will make any kind of music sound better. At Crutchfield, we love to see that look of surprise and joy on someone's face the first time they hear a sub in their vehicle!
There are three different types of subs: component subs, sub boxes, and powered subs. A component sub is the speaker by itself, and you'll need a box and an amp to complete the package. A subwoofer box is an enclosure with a component sub installed. A powered sub is an enclosure that houses an amplifier and a sub - an all-in-one bass package.
A sealed enclosure tends to sound tighter and more accurate. A ported (or vented) enclosure adds a small opening that allows bass to escape for more output with a slight loss of accuracy. A bandpass box is a combination of those two designs for even more output. More questions? See our Subwoofer Buying Guide.
First, figure out where a sub will fit. If you have limited space, consider a small powered sub. You'll be surprised how much bass you'll get. Also, what are your plans for your sound system? A small sub and amp will work great for adding some bass to a factory radio, but if you have plans to expand your system, go with the biggest sub that'll fit.
Yes, all subs need an amplifier. Some subs even come with an amp built-in (powered subs), so you don't have to match the sub to the amp. If you prefer to customize your system, make sure to get an amp that's powerful enough for your sub. The more bass you want, the more power you'll need.