The Audiophile Apartment

The JL Audio Fathom In Ceiling Subwoofer System

A well-integrated subwoofer is genuinely a thing of sonic beauty and functionality.

Because subwoofers tend to be somewhat imposing, the toughest part of having one (or more) is where to put them. To complicate the issue, a subwoofer often must fit in a less than optimal place, which can make getting excellent bass response more difficult.

JL Audio has always used subwoofers powered by massive amplifiers along with a highly effective DSP system (D.A.R.O. – Digital Automatic Room Optimization) that goes a long way at eliminating the peaks and valleys in low-frequency response. I’ve used JL subwoofers in a variety of systems over the years, all with excellent results, and often find them the magic bullet when placement options are limited.

One of my favorite JL products has been their Fathom IWS (In-wall subwoofer) because it lets you hide a high-quality subwoofer completely. Whether in the context of a two-channel or multichannel theater system, this can be the difference between having a full-range system and not.

The ICS only uses an 8-inch driver, but it is every bit a Fathom product. The spec sheet says it is down 3dB at 24.6 Hz, but for the intended audience and those listening to main speakers that will probably struggle to go to 40hz, you’ll be amazed at just how capable the ICS is.

One step beyond

Their latest product, the ICS – you guessed it, “in-ceiling subwoofer,” can now hide in your ceiling, between 2 x 6-inch ceiling joists (from 16 to 25 ½ inch centers) and with its tiny grille, hide anywhere. Just like JL Audio’s IWS, the ICS hides perfectly. Using a smaller 8-inch driver and accompanying 300-watt amplifier, you can purchase a single or double pair of ICS woofer enclosures to hide in your ceiling. Where the larger IWS is fairly expensive, the ICS has a modest price of $2,300. Remember, this is the woofer, enclosure, amplifier, crossover, and DSP.

If by chance, you are doing new construction, this couldn’t be any easier. Tell the framers where you want the enclosure(s) to go. Otherwise, you’re going to have to do a bit of surgery, so access to your listening room’s ceiling will determine how difficult this will be. I live in a small mid-century house with a plank ceiling, so for this review, I built a temporary enclosure for living room evaluation, that was fit to the ceiling, yet removable. Both bathrooms in my house have lowered, wallboard ceilings, but I got a hard “no” for installing a bathroom system. Sometimes, the best of plans, eh?

Unless your walls utilize 2 x 6 construction, you must mount the ICS in the ceiling, as the enclosure is 5.13 inches thick. Ironically the final resting place for the ICS here has been in my garage, which does have 2 x 6 wall studs, and my vintage pair of JBL L-100s powered by a stack of Nakamichi 600 components was begging for more bass. Changing a timing belt goes a lot faster when you have great sound. However, JL informs us during the fact check of this review that they also offer an In-Wall version, the IWS-108 for standard 2×4 wall construction. Great news for those of you that can’t fit the Fathom IWS into your room or budget.

Quick setup

Unlike a standard enclosure based JL subwoofer, where you spend a fair amount with static room placement and then attend to the DSP, the majority of the work is installing and finishing the ICS. Once complete, a speaker cable runs from the amplifier to the speaker enclosure, and in this case, I purchased some bulk speaker cable from Cardas Audio. It seemed a shame to use a component of this quality and connect it with lamp cord quality wire. In order to take the measurements you need to fully fine-tune the ICS to your room, you will need to purchase one of JL Audio’s calibrated mics to plug in the front panel. One of these will set you back about $100.

Getting audio to your ICS can be done via single-ended RCA line-level connections from your preamplifier, or high-level inputs from your main speakers. Both work well, and it’s nice that JL has included high-level inputs to offer more system flexibility and integration.

Once connected, running the DSP through its paces with a calibrated microphone (available separately) goes pretty quickly. Be sure to optimize for where you will do the majority of your listening, and you’re ready. It was a little tougher to pick a spot in the garage, because of the concrete floor, but the DSP came through with flying colors. I even did an optimization for hood up listening! And I wouldn’t mind a second one for listening with the garage door open…

Bring on the bass

There’s just no going back once you’ve heard a properly implemented subwoofer, and one that physically disappears along with great integration is fantastic. I never had the feeling bass was coming from a “hole in the ceiling,” so that aspect of the ICS is a major success.

In the house, the ICS was used as part of 2.1 system in our living room with a pair of Dynaudio Special 40s and the new JBL L-100 Classics as the main speakers. Giving it a go in our bedroom system in a 5.1 system with a full complement of Dali Fazon speakers also worked brilliantly.

Starting with the fast, plucky guitar style of Michael Hedges, from his Aerial Boundaries album, the ICS immediately impresses, with its ability to keep up with the main speakers effortlessly. On to a long playlist of hip hop, and electronica tracks confirm the audiophile pedigree that is part of every JL product. A barrage of heavy rock tracks reminds me that JL has also been a dominating force in car/boat audio as well. This sub definitely delivers the goods.

Giving it an easy run through with the recent Jakob Dylan piece on life in Laurel Canyon, the ICS performs as well with movies as it does with music and has the necessary range to capture explosions and such that permeate today’s modern action movies as well.

Quite the limit

The overall performance of the JL ICS is impressive on every level. It provides powerful bass response, great musicality, and can rock the house when necessary. And for those with smaller living quarters, that can’t make the space for a larger JL product; the ICS is the perfect solution.

With this in mind, we gave the JL ICS subwoofer system one of the Audiophile Apartment’s Product of the Year awards for 2019. It wins on multiple levels: value, sound quality, and concept. It doesn’t get any better than that.