Are tech deals really worth it?

We look at a subwoofer with big promises and a small price tag, plus five other tempting bargains

Today I'm playing the sucker so you don't have to, or at least that's what I figured when I ordered a $25 deal-of-the-day subwoofer online recently from Best Buy.

A subwoofer is the grunt of any home theater system, the speaker that reproduces low-frequency effects like the pyrotechnics when Captain America dodges downtown Cleveland explosions in "The Avengers." The Insignia NS-RSW211, a Best Buy house-brand subwoofer, sells for $90 online but is customarily paired with the Insignia NS-SB212 sound bar in a $150 package.

Both are "wireless-ready," which means the sound bar can send a signal without wires to the subwoofer using Insignia's Rocketboost technology. Such freedom, however, costs $65 more, the price of a Rocketboost wireless receiver/transmitter called Rocketfish.

By itself, the NS-RSW211 is just a little slug of subwoofer, not quite an 11-inch cube because of its tapered top. It weighs 10.4 pounds and uses an amplifier generously rated at 70 watts that powers a 6.5-inch driver firing downward from the bottom panel. A port adjacent to the driver allows the subwoofer to sound a little louder and deeper, which really isn't very loud or deep.

For $90, I'm skipping this one. The least-expensive full-price subwoofer I'd consider is probably the Dayton Audio Sub-1200, a legitimate, full-size sub with a 12-inch driver that costs $109 at PartsExpress.com.

At $25 with free shipping, however, the Rocketboost subwoofer costs next to nothing and sounds better than nothing, which isn't quite a five-star endorsement but an indication of value. A subwoofer, even a cheapo special like the Rocketboost, adds another dimension to movies a viewer can hear and feel.

The Rocketboost surrendered to silence at about 45 hertz when I played a test tone through it. A full-size subwoofer, which should reach closer to 30 hertz — some even approach the limits of human hearing (20 hertz) — would roll on the floor, laughing.

Yet an inexpensive sound bar might reproduce sounds no lower than 80 hertz, leaving a lot of fill-in-the-blank work for the brain when it hears those explosions in Cleveland. A set of five Insignia speakers (model NSSP511) recently on sale for $40 reach down to only 150 hertz. They need help in the lower frequencies. The floor actually vibrated when I inserted the Rocketboost subwoofer into a surround-sound system for effects-heavy sound tracks. Yes, I could actually feel it; certainly not like the twice-the size PSB subwoofer sitting next to it, but it plainly enhanced each sound track.

Really, I didn't think it was a bad deal for a starter surround system or to supplement a sound bar — until a month later when I saw it online for $19.99.

5 bargains that might be

a little more tempting

Monoprice 5.1-channel home theater speaker system (model No. 8247, monoprice.com, $84.10): I've expressed surprise several times over the years at the high quality for sometimes absurdly low prices at Monoprice.com, everything from HDMI and RCA cables to in-wall speakers. This $84.10 system, praised by CNET.com and online forums, has four satellite speakers, a center-channel speaker and a full-size subwoofer. This might be the most absurdly priced of all Monoprice bargains.

Fiio Kilimanjaro headphone amplifier (fiio.com or Amazon.com, $51): A little amplifier for higher-quality on-the-go listening with your iPhone or other mobile device.

Fiio A1 Mini Amplifier (fiio.com or Amazon.com, $60): A tiny Class D amplifier, 14 watts per channel, for a desktop system or even larger speakers.

Audiosource Amp-100 stereo amplifier (audiosource.net or about $80 at Tigerdirect.com): This old-timer stereo amplifier, 50 watts per channel, is an inexpensive way to add a music zone to your house. I have an AMP-100 in the basement powering speakers in the sunroom. The AMP-100 has an auto-on feature, so you can connect an Airport Express and start music playing automatically from a mobile device, an iPad or computer.

HifiMeDiy Sabre USB DAC (hifimediy.com, $42): A tiny digital-to-analog converter with a Sabre ES9023 chip that bypasses a computer's sound card. When connected to an audio system, expect a major improvement over straight-from-the-computer sound.

khunt@tribune.com

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