We get a lot of questions from avid REL customers who have been more than happy with their older RELs, some boarding on vintage status. These customers are often wondering if the latest line of REL’s are worth the upgrade. We get it, it’s always hard to take the manufacturers advice at face value, despite the reviews and awards. So, we sent a pair of T/9i to Duncan Taylor, a frequent guest writer for REL and lover of our decade-old Strata III to see if we could convince him modern RELs don’t just look better, but outperform their elders at every level.
If you’ve ever held a guitar, you know that when you pluck it, you can feel it.
Same thing with any stringed instrument, no matter how high-pitched. When you’re holding a mandolin, and doing 32nds across the smallest strings, each pick strike carries with it a little weight that travels through the body of the instrument to your skin.
Question: Have you ever recorded your own voice, played it back and been surprised at the “dry” sound of it? Dry meaning that it doesn’t sound as bass-y or as thick as you remember from hearing yourself.
We’re made of rigid bones that can also easily transmit and resonate along with sound waves, and the cavities in our sinus region can resonate for many frequencies, causing the perceptions of our own voices to lean on the warm side.
These things I mentioned, among others, are why hifi audio designers have always strived to create quicker and more accurate bass. We want that body to the sound of a human voice, or that pressure from a string pluck, and we’ve always been working to unite the upper end of the sound spectrum in those moments to the lowest region seamlessly and convincingly.
What I know, in 2019, is that if my listening comparison test between older REL subwoofers and the current line is any kind of measuring stick, it’s clear that the direction of movement of subwoofer design as a whole is, and has always been forward.
Today I’m comparing the REL Acoustics Strata III, introduced in 2000 for a retail of around $1,300, to the current REL T/9i, which costs just about the same. Given the latter appeared 19 years after the former, it seems that regardless of performance, there is already an element of cost savings in the T/9i. Both have a 10” driver, although the modern subs also enlist the help of a bottom-firing mass-loaded passive radiator.
The on-board amplifier of the T/9i boasts triple the wattage of the elder Strata III, and driver material science has never been better for subwoofers, so I’m not exactly going into this expecting a fair fight. Just hoping to observe what’s happened in the last 20 years.
Moving on to the music: I gotta say, I just love the effect of good subwoofers in place when listening to bluegrass. You would think that a bunch of screechy stringed instruments wouldn’t do much to exercise the low end, but with the very quick drivers of the T/9i, texture and flattering weight is added to every instrument, and there’s a punch added to the plucks of the banjo and stand-up bass alike.
The beginning of Mandolin Orange’s “Old Ties And Companions” on the newer subwoofers opens up a dimension of the recording that just doesn’t exist without them. Elastic, liquid weight on the male and female voices is imparted with the T/9i subs both firing, and it is just breathtaking. The guitar sound reminds you of what you hear when holding a real one.
Switching to the Strata III on one of my favorite ‘grass group’s recordings, I could tell that while it was designed to be fast, and the quickness is there, something about the pair in the mix caused the whole character of the band to change.
There was a thickness to the guitars that wasn’t necessarily unpleasing, but when contrasted with T/9i subs, it was clear that the speed, power and ultimate bottom end of the new designs far outpaced the old in this musical context. Guitar strings simply sounded more realistic with the T/9i subs, and as a guitar player myself, that quality instantly draws me into the music.
Moving to something more challenging, I dialed up Yosi Horikawa’s latest album Spaces. I’m smitten with this modern artist’s sound design skills, and I’m appreciative of the care he takes to ensure an audiophile soundstage experience even in the midst of huge beats that really move the woofers.
On Spaces’ first track, “Timbres,” you can hear the influence of the subwoofer immediately. The opening to this one is an excellent measuring stick for any system with a sub integrated into it. The T/9i simply shines on the difficult material, mating to the speakers flawlessly. Whatever that sound is at the beginning is simply more dimensional with the T/9i subs, and because of that I start to see the whole setup in my living room as an epic 3-way full-range system rather than a pair of two-ways and a pair of subs separately.
The pair of Strata III wanted to keep up with the speed of the electronic and sampled elements of Yosi’s work, and they did a fairly decent job. Room pressurization was apparent with the Stratas, but again, after having the T/9i in place it seemed like some of the pressurization effect could have been more of an emphasis or resonance than truly in the recording.
Moving on to vocals: Well-recorded vocal harmony can have a vibrance and a strength to it that is only shown most beautifully on a truly full-range hifi system. Without a quick brush of low color on each of the parts, the exciting realism from a truly excellent reproduction can be obscured.
Cream-of-the-crop harmonizers in the band I’m With Her, likewise, sounded more real and intimate on my system with the T/9i subs in place. Singers and instrumentalists Sarah Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan never have appeared more vividly to me as they worked their way through the mostly A Capella song “Ryland (Under The Apple Tree).”
Switching back to the Strata, I noticed again a subtle addition to the music of a bloom or a warmth that thickened the situation to a degree that was not necessarily overwrought, but like mentioned before, was a nice effect, even if it seemed wrong cognitively.
In truth, if I didn’t have the T/9i to compare to the Strata III, I could be happy with the 20-year old models as my reference system foundation. Unfortunately… I do have the T/9i here. It’s easily proven that it can go lower, quicker than the older model. Sorry, Strata III, but I’m afraid it’s to the backup system for you.
These T Series subs, in their beautiful cabinets with all of the details working together to cast a feeling of luxury and excellence… It’s almost surprising that they sound so damn good. And they don’t just sound good, they meld to your system and improve it, no matter how good you thought your system was.
I am learning that the subwoofer game has always moved forward. And where we are now is an incredible place to be. Color me impressed.