Field Notes

The Case For Excellence:


“I will never build a system for my own reference purposes without a pair of quality subwoofers like REL builds again. There’s simply so much top-to-bottom performance you give up (without it), I’ll never do it again,” said Jeff Dorgay to me a few days after his own reference system had been hugely upgraded by the addition of a pair of our larger models. “Nothing else I have tried in 35 years of pursuing the goal of live sound being produced in my own room has delivered what these two, relatively inexpensive pieces (REL 212/SE) have delivered (for context, his reference system totals up to around $300,000). It’s the sound I have been chasing for 35 years.”

Sometimes we at REL miss the obvious–we presume everyone knows this. However, there is a substantial amount of misinformation and confusion about the benefits of a subwoofer, and in particular a REL, for 2-channel music system. So it makes sense for us to make the case for the use of RELs in high end 2-channel music systems.

For decades, it’s been understood that home theater without a subwoofer simply isn’t theater. But the 2-channel market has viewed subwoofers traditionally as something to be avoided. Why? Because of the damned “theater” subwoofers that are heavy-sounding, ponderous, slow, and can’t possibly integrate properly with a high quality 2-channel set-up. This is exactly why we exist and have such a following among those pursuing the jaw dropping emotion igniting beauty of sound as the artists intended to produce.

From the way our subs connect to your system, to the quality of drivers we design, to an emphasis on what a great subwoofer does to produce the structural firmament of music (not the mid-bass boom that sells standard subs); the moment I first heard a REL properly dialed-in, I had the same reaction as Jeff Dorgay, albeit 24 years earlier. So what do we do that is so different from other makers of subs, and why do we do it that way?

In one word? Everything.

We do everything differently from the standard subwoofer maker because we understand all of the various aspects of performance needed to make subs work perfectly in a high end 2-channel context. Our goals are substantially different than those of common sub builders.

  1. First we work to make sure room acoustics that can have dramatically negative effects on your bass response can be overcome to a large extent by our subs. When the bass is wrong, everything above the bass in your music sounds wrong; thin, hard, harsh and strained. It’s probably not because your speakers are bad, more likely it is the result of the huge compromises inherent in placing speakers out in the room, attempting to do many things well, but giving up rich, deep bass to do so.
  2. Speed is a hallmark of our design philosophy. Why? What does speed in the lowest bass have to do with anything in making non-bass-heavy music take flight? It has everything to do with making remarkable sound happen at all If your sub isn’t as fast as, or faster in our case, than the main speakers, then it is holding up the parade. How do we achieve speed? Through a variety of techniques but, briefly, by reducing a lot of weight in the moving portion of the driver. And by using simple, very fast, natural sounding filters rather than relying on digital circuitry like many competitors do in trying to “fix” a problem at the back end. It is always better to solve the core issue than apply bandages trying to fix the problem after it has occurred. Produce fast, lightweight, precise drivers, eliminate slow crossover filters and use specially-designed high current amplifiers that produce pinpoint control and acceleration and you have a recipe for a truly high end product that can keep up with the highest end speakers.
  3. We design our cabinets to act more like miniature concert halls than simple cubes, as our competitors often do. You do know that a cube has the worst cabinet behavior of all, right? Think of it, in room design, we strive to avoid repeating measurements as it results in perfect, complete cancellation at certain frequencies. Now, take all three dimensions (HxWxL), make them identical and you have a perfect nightmare. It’s why in our cabinets, even ones that appear to be roughly cubic in shape, we strive to achieve ratios more similar to the ancient Greek’s Golden Mean Rectangle than to a cube, precisely to minimize these internal cancellations. After all, we want to showcase all the performance we designed into our amazing bass engines, putting on display our ultra-fast drivers.
  4. At REL, it’s an interlocking eco system of complementary disciplines leading to superior overall system performance. We do this because we’re not interested in bass for its own sake, we’re driven by what great, fast—and very low—bass does everywhere above what we contribute. It’s whole system thinking engineered into every subwoofer.
  5. Hell, we don’t even connect up to your system the same way as everyone else (although we can do that too). Early on, we listened closely and realized that for a subwoofer, a REL, to adopt the sound of the main system, we needed to feed forward the complete sound of the system to our inputs. This seems so obvious to us, it still amazes us when we have competitors who want to argue this point.

Still don’t get it? Pick whatever ultimate electronics you revere and hold up as your ultimate standard for amplification excellence. A world class source component, lovely sounding preamp, multi-thousand pound-or-dollar interconnects, and an amp capable of driving any speaker perfectly, effortlessly. Huge soundstage, rich and full bodied, yet capable of capturing all the soft nuance of music.  Good, hold that thought. Now, think of the absolute worst sounding, nasty, aggressive, edgy, bright in the highs but dull everywhere below that, entry level receiver you have ever heard. Given a choice, the answer is obvious, you’d rather connect to the state of the art electronics. Yup, so do we. It’s why we connect the way we do, using a special High Level (Speaker outputs going to our inputs) connection that sounds exactly like the rest of your system.

Everyone else who makes subs advocates for eliminating the high-quality interconnects, the state of the art power amp and instead cut your system in half, like a pair of poorly adjusted bifocals by coming off a Low Level preamp feed. This is less than ideal because the voice of your system is the sound of all those contributing elements–including the sound of the amp driving your speakers– coming together into one glorious whole. By using our High Level Connection as the basis for perfectly blending sub and system, REL ends up with an organic whole; a system where it is impossible to tell where the main system leaves off and the REL takes up the enormous effort, high energy extension of the low-end, that forms the foundation of your system.

Read any REL review of the last fifteen years and without fail, reviewers comment upon their inability to “hear” the REL (by which they mean locate it as a different sounding entity operating as an alien within your system) and find themselves hearing a new, full range, effortlessly dynamic richer, fuller-bodied, ultra-dynamic realization of your original system. What the owner wanted their system to be from the start of building it.

REL’s alone can elevate your system from merely average performance; lots of money spent chasing the Holy Grail with thousands spent on cables, trying to balance out various structural flaws in one’s system. You’re on your third new amp in five years, decoupling pedestals underneath all manner of electronics, room treatments applied to corners and ceiling, expensive power supply conditioners. And while many of those items can be of benefit, they tend to address secondary issues rather than structural. We’ve seen it and heard all the well-meaning-but-misguided attempts to fix the core issue.

Yet, the one thing that can produce truly jaw-dropping results, audiophiles still hesitate to consider because they’ve heard all those other home theater-centric manufacturers wrong-headed attempts at subwoofers and have concluded that all subs must act this way. In the end, the choice is between hearing a state of the art, full range REL-based system versus a system that is artificially constrained by being unable to present the full breadth, scope and glory of music to its fullest expression. A system that soars, unfettered by dynamic limitations and allows you to hear not simply more bass, but interleaves the crucial low bass foundation in such a way that it naturally intermingles with your original system and allows natural harmonic structure to rise all the way up to the air shimmering above the music. The resultant huge, yet focused soundstage and the full-scale picture of what’s happening on stage or in studio is highly addictive. Once you take the REL challenge of hearing a system similar to your own at a dealer with and without a REL or a pair of them, you’ll never go back.

May 8, 2018 - Posted in: Reconsider