SubPack S2 review: portable mega-club experience, without the hearing loss

subpac s2 review
 The Subpac is a box of specialised transducers that you either strap to your back under a bag or attach to the back of a chair to add an extra, thumping dimension to your music. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Hearing music is one thing, but to really become enveloped by it, you need to feel the music too. Until recently that meant standing in front of an enormous speaker that pounded your body and ears with sound, the kind that makes your chest reverberate and your ears bleed. But what if you wanted that super-club experience at home? Meet the Subpac, a sub-like device you strap to your back to give you that body-rumbling feeling without deafening yourself or annoying your neighbours.

Wired or wireless (to your phone at least)

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 The back plate is contoured to that it fits a bit like a large posture pillow in a chair or flat on your back in a backpack. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The Subpac comes in two configurations. One is a small Camelbak-like thing you strap on and walk about with called the Subpac M2. The second, and the one tested, is the Subpac S2, which can be strapped to a chair to act as a sort of sub back rest or slipped into a bespoke backpack for going out. Both are packed with transducers, which are essentially speakers – instead of moving air, they move something else, such as the Subpac’s back plate, making vibrations instead of sound.

You wire your music into a little control box via a 3.5mm jack or streamed over Bluetooth and then connect your headphones to the headphones socket. A small knob adjusts the intensity of the experience, effectively how sensitive it is to certain frequencies in your music, and crank up the volume on your phone, tablet, PC, console or other audio device.

In an office chair it feels like a large posture pillow and is really quite comfortable. It comes with a set of elastic clips that hook into eyelets on the sides of the Subpac and around the back of the chair holding it securely in place. It all feels really well made and takes about 30 seconds to attach, if that, then you’re ready to go.

I’ve got a feeling

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 The clips and elastic straps secure the Subpac to the chair. There’s an additional velcro attached strap for attaching to the top of it to hold it in place if required. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Practicalities aside, what does it feel like? It really depends on the music. Ambient electronica tracks with a general ever-present rumble create a vibrating effect in the small of your back. Punchy bass produces punchy thumps, with higher and lower frequencies causing rumbles, thumps and vibrations in different parts of the Subpac. Deep rumbles feel incredible, while the music is punctuated with sudden, sharp thumps.

At full tilt with something really banging, it feels like you’re being thumped in the back by a massive drum beat from a huge speaker. It all adds another dimension to music, hooking you in. At no time did it hurt or feel unpleasant, even with extended listening sessions of four or so hours. The best bit is that even going hell for leather, it barely makes any noise, just a slight vibration sound when you put your ear right up close to it, meaning with a set of headphones on the office is none the wiser.

Gaming

subpac s2 review
 The control box clips on to clothing, straps or bags and has a knob for adjusting the intensity of the experience. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Music is excellent with the Subpac S2 on, but gaming is another level. There have been several different attempts to inject a bit of physicality into gaming, mainly vests that simulate the impacts of shots in shooters or similar. The Subpac S2 works equally well with game soundtracks, even those from mobile phones.

Playing Xenowerk on a Galaxy S8, for instance, produced the desired rumbles with the chaingun vibing through my back with a rat-a-tat-tat, a dimension in mobile gaming I’d not thought possible. Hooking it up to something like a PlayStation or Xbox might be a bit more difficult, but it worked great with the Nintendo Switch, particularly when flying round the track in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

I can see it also being particularly good for virtual reality too, for those headsets that have an easy line-out audio for your own headphones at least.

Observations

subpac s2 review
 The control box attaches to the Subpac by a sturdy-feeling coiled cable. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
  • The control box is connected to the Subpac by a coiled cable and has knobs and lights on it – let’s just say I wouldn’t wear it on the London tube
  • The battery lasted for a good nine hours and charges via an included power adapter
  • There’s a Kensington lock hole on the Subpac controller
  • It works best with tracks with strong bass lines, particularly EDM but less so with alt-rock
  • You can almost hear the rest of the track by just feeling the vibrations through your back
  • It weighs 1.8kg. which makes the backpack quite heavy before you start loading things into it
  • The Subpac needs the music to be played at a decent volume and so best to use with relatively large headphones to avoid having to have the music too loud

Price

The Subpac S2 costs $299 (£229), while the optional backpack costs $79. The Subpac M2 wearable version costs $349.

Verdict

The Subpac S2 is a strange, fun device that is something worth experiencing. In the era of congested cities full of tiny flats and people practically living on top of each other, the days when you could have floor-to-ceiling stack speakers capable of holding your own Glastonbury in your living room are gone.

With that some of the physicality of music has been lost and that’s where the Subpac can come in. It adds that extra dimension to your beats in a way that doesn’t annoy anyone, turning energy-filled private listening back into an event. Once you strap it on your back, listening to music without it doesn’t quite feel the same.

On the other hand it’s bulky, looks like something you wouldn’t want to take out into public for fear of falling foul of the security services and it’s an expensive luxury that is in no means necessary for anyone. But when all’s said and done, I’d still buy one for gaming, if not for adding punch to my upbeat ambient music-filled life.

Pros: fun, immersive, discrete when strapped to a chair, adds something difficult to get without annoying everyone around you

Cons: expensive, difficult to wear about and about in today’s security climate, needs relatively large headphones to make the most of it

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 The optional backpack allows you to side the Subpac S2 into a pocket in the back to provide a solid experience. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian