Choosing the Ideal Subwoofer: A Comprehensive Buyer’s Guide

REL Acoustics Tzero MKIII

“What Kind of Subwoofer Should I Get?” At the end of the day, all the educational posts and efforts to teach people enough to help them make an informed, educated decision boils down to answering that – fundamental question. And let’s face it, it’s getting to holiday season and no one has time to ruminate. You want, nope need, answers NOW please. So, here’s a quick ramble through 4 mythical-but-frequent types of systems we encounter. You may see yourself, or part of your needs, in the systems listed below.

Student system/Home Office/Small Room

First up is for a truly tiny space. Doesn’t matter if it’s a student dorm room, your first apartment (your dorm room was bigger) or a home office you’d like to outfit with some quality tunes.

System suggestion: In the US, try the Audioengine A2+. Has every buzzword and useful wired connection any 3 humans could want. Wireless, powered active speakers, they even look good in a slightly retro way. For REL types, you will NOT be able to use High Level simply because only one channel is accessible on the rear of the left speaker. Just plug an RCA into the low level input of the new Tzero MKIII or for a more dynamic sound that you can always use on a future home theatre go with an HT/1003. These little beauties are killer, just remember to keep the crossover setting low (under 9 o’clock) and you’ll hear fast, dynamic bass that extends lower than a $500/£499 sub should be able to deliver.

Hot Tip: For a nice step up, grab a pair of Pro-Ject Audio’s SpeakerBox 5 (around $300/pr) and drive them with a PS Audio Sprout (AROUND $699) along with the same Tzero MKII ($449) and for around $1500 you have a really neat, complete system.

REL Acoustics HT/1003

The Flat/Apartment

Congrats, you graduated, did whatever needed to be done to get a few steps up the ladder and never forgot your love for music and movies. You have a flat with a little more room, you’re still listening to music and streaming movies and sports, usually fed via Bluetooth off your phone or a streaming device direct to your TV, but in the back of your brain you’re remembering how the song sounded live in concert or the movie in the theater, or the sports game live in the stadium and you have a desire to recreate that at home.

What’s next? A pair of KEF LS-50’s –around $1500/£1200 on decent stands is what. Or better yet, a pair of Harbeth P3’s at double the price, but what a sublime little speaker. Amazon sells some decent, heavy 28” stands for around $140/pr. Use BluTack to fix them to the stands. Your PS Audio Sprout will still work fine, but the LS-50 sounds best paired with a T/7x, or expand to a pair when funds permit.

The Home

So now things start to get fun, you’ve finally got a bit of room, maybe even a dedicated music room. Ok, maybe not. But you’ve got a decent-sized living room, a big flat panel tv so you can watch movies, NetFlix and all the other streaming media without which we’d starve. You want to create a gathering space. Someplace where you and your significant other and family can listen to music and watch tv and movies together. So, you start with your trusty old LS-50 KEFs on stands but you’re really able to do something a fair bit better. Step up to the KEF R-7’s, they’re a big step up from the LS-50’s with stands and will give you much more impactful theatre dynamics and sheer output.

Take it a step further and add an R2c center channel ($1200), move your trusty LS-50’s to the rear channel. Repurpose your T/7x to beef up the center channel, add on a pair of T/9x to the R-7 KEFs and add an HT/1205 or HT/1003 to the rear channels and you have a truly enveloping theatre with the ability to deliver beautiful sounding music anytime the desire hits you. This system, called REL 3-D, delivers on the promise Dolby set forth over two decades ago and can be built up over time.

REL Acoustics T/9i RED Limited Edition

To get started we suggest a single T/9x, add on a second when you can better afford it, and then drop the rear channel HT model in to hear how 3 dimensional modern theatre is intended to be. You’ll never go back, but then, why would you.

Hot Tip:

For something truly special, indulge in the incredible (and incredibly beautiful and limited) T/9i Red Limited Edition.

Mid Life Crisis

You’re a little bored but don’t know why. Life has been kind to you, you have a family–hey a dog or cat can be all the family anyone needs—and you’re ready for something more. Maybe the kids have even graduated from university. But what now? For some, it might be buying a Corvette (substitute any pricier exotic as needed), for others a boat. Only the foolish or truly wealthy indulge in affairs… or boats. For those of us who love music and movies, it can be the joy of finally being able to build out a really good system; maybe not true exotica but not having to make do quite as much as you had to in the past. Here’s a go at a lovely double duty system, capable of bringing joy to its owners.

To do dual duty, we’re looking at companies that not only make fine speakers, but also make a complete theatre suite to allow for the movie watching experience. I put an arbitrary cap of $10,000/£9,000 on main speakers and chose a mainstream company. We’ll go with the French company Focal and if you know anything about the French school of music reproduction—yes, various nationalities or regions do seem to have preferences.

Scandinavian and Swiss companies seem to favor arctic clarity, the British generally speaking prefer warm, cozy sound rather like their homes. The French tend to prefer a bright, fast sound with good dynamics and rhythmic abilities. Verve is the word that comes to mind.

At $10,000 the Focal Kanta No. 2’s fit the bill nicely. Stylish and well-finished, they use natural flax fibers in their midrange drivers for natural midranges so important to seeing well inside the music and critical for dialogue articulation in movie sound. A beryllium inverted dome tweeter delivers sparkle which can become spitty if not well setup. Careful rake adjustment, a subtle backward tilt helps tame this during setup.

Focal Kanta No. 2

Match this with a pair of REL S/510’s ($2,500 each); here’s a sub that has speed and detail for days while still delivering the lower end weight and extension RELs are known for. A stereo pair is always best for getting the most clarity and broad soundstage from a system.

The Kanta range makes a fine, if expensive center channel at $3,500. But I’d spend another $500 to get the far better sounding step up model, the Sopra Center Channel. It uses a tiny midrange driver to ease the transition between midwoofers and tweeter that makes a HUGE difference in articulation and clarity and allows your brain to relax and enjoy the movie. Spend the money, about 50% of the sound in theatre is often directed through this speaker so if it can’t handle dynamics, you’re sunk. Pair it with a model T/9x (ok you only go around once so give yourself permission to get another S/510 if you must) and you’ll have an amazing front LCR lineup across the front for great theatre.

For the rear surrounds, Focal make inwalls and in ceiling speakers—talk to a Focal dealer about the right match for your needs. Drop a REL T/9x in the rear to fill out the rear half of the theatre’s stage and make some popcorn.

Music will sound fantastic on this, the RELs have a way of mating with fast speakers that’s almost spooky and by re-establishing the correct low-end balance you rebalance the harmonic structure all the way up the sonic range. What can, without them, sound taut to the point of shrillness sinks into a balanced cocoon of rich warmth, just like the real thing and you’re able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Speed and detail on one hand and the full, natural balance of sound that permits relaxation into the event. This effect, which we call the REL Effect, produces incredible enjoyment for both music and movies and is so key to being able to enjoy one’s system night after night.

There you have it, four different system recommendations that satisfy very different size, usage, and space requirements. We took you on an imaginary journey through 30 years of life, with sample systems along the journey. Dreams are important, it allows one to have a guide point to imagine these kinds of rewards for the hard work we all put into our careers. Each recommendation is grounded in our philosophy of building fundamentally sound systems that deliver remarkably satisfying experiences by making great decisions up front in how to balance the priorities in a system. Next up is a bigger, no-holds-barred dual-purpose system. Stay tuned…

December 1, 2020 - Posted in: System Thinking