The Making of Classic 98

Retro. Vintage. Timeless.

COVID struck the US in March of 2020. It was strange and deeply troubling, was this the existential threat to humanity the W.H.O had been warning us of for decades? We all went into lockdown, working all day and I, of course, surfing at night.

Nope, not the kind with surf boards and waves. Somewhere way in the back of my lizard brain, I decided that if this pandemic was really dangerous, then I was going to treat myself to a few of those classic stereo components of my youth. When the going gets tough, as the saying goes, the tough go shopping. Or surfing. And I clearly wasn’t alone.

New product or old, civilization reconnected with the important of home, as in that place of safety, warmth and humanity that in an uncertain world made it all seem more bearable. And if we were going to be bears, hibernating in our dens, extra points were to be awarded to those that leave with the most high-end audio toys. Oh, my was it fun, a pair of magnificent, original Wilson WATTS (#’s 85 and 86 before they were serial numbered in pairs), a pair of KEF Reference 101’s from the early 80’s; still one of the finest transducers for the enjoyment of acoustic guitar playing ever built. A pair of Audio Research Classic 150 ‘s that put out an effortlessly seductive 140 watts of pure triode power. The vintage audio gluttony went on.

A couple years later, it struck me that, while I owned an original REL Strata III I still didn’t have a REL that made sense for a number of my new toys. You see, the old Strata III didn’t quite keep pace with the memories I had of that model. Too warm, too plummy and while it hit hard at 40 Hz didn’t extend anywhere near deep enough, nor play loud enough to make good on the promise of deep, effortless bass RELs deliver today.

The thought came slowly at first, then hit like a thunderclap. “How dense am I?” I thought. Why not build the new old stock REL of our dreams? Not a modern REL with all the attack, clarity and speed modern speaker’s demand. No, a true vintage model that pays respect to our long and oft-honored heritage. Vintage in design, just vintage enough in sound to steer clear of simply being a modern REL in wood clothing, and yet better than the older generation’s sonic characteristics.

We set out the priorities quickly: vintage styling, vintage sound – a little softer and more romantic but with good room filling bass–design based around the originals but easier to setup. A skosh smaller if at all possible.

It needed to retain the classic look and quiet styling of the original, with minor touches to update its detailing. It would benefit from a slight reduction in size and scale –geez the old Storms were big boxes, even the Strata was not compact by modern standards. There was no question about its hard points, after all every High Level-enabled original relied on a basic formula; a down firing 10” (250mm) paper coned driver and a medium-powered reliable amp. The crossovers used on the 1998-2004 Series III models were, um, interesting in that they supplied just 24 positions, about 6 of which were useful, but required 2 rotary knobs for setting Coarse frequencies and Fine, these modifying the Coarse settings incrementally. It took a bit more patience than Job to get just right.

The engineering team was committed to getting this perfect, to honoring the sound, styling and ethos of the originals with sensitive updates where they would enhance the ownership experience. Every time we encountered a design or sonic crossroads, we worked the problem to obtain a result that original owners would find familiar yet delivered improvements in output or deep bass extension.

The 10” driver, as always, was the key. It absolutely had to be a paper cone, but we knew a lot more about paper than 25 years ago. Eric and I whipped up a basic lightweight hot-pressed paper cone, but tuned its sound (didn’t want to duplicate our modern sound) with a soft paper amended with cotton center cap. The resulting sound is purer and more refined, but retains some of the rounder, gentle qualities of that era while steering clear of being dark and muddy.

Next up was the cabinet, where we were able to reduce cabinet size down to a manageable proportion, using the vertical rectangular shape of the affordable RELs of yesteryear. Naturally, the driver had to be down firing as were all vintage RELS. Once we had working samples in house, two things announced themselves; even though the cabinet was fairly compact, we still had too much volume inside and the cabinet itself wasn’t damped enough to exert the proper control. We solved both by inserting 15mm slabs of MDF covering the vertical sidewalls. These completely silenced the cabinet vibrations and took up the excess volume without changing the look. This worked beautifully. All that was left was to find really high-quality walnut veneer and work to ensure that the finish had no visible gloss so it retained its natural beauty.

Finally, we selected one of our most recent 300W Class D designs and coupled it with a special tuning of our PerfectFilter™ input stage. These amps have proven to be bulletproof workhorses and, in this application, it simply loafs along hardly breaking a sweat. The PerfectFilter extends the flatness of low bass and while we claim just 27 Hz, in testing using pipe organ cuts, we’re seeing respectable output at 23 Hz.

Classic 98 is a chance to revisit REL’s rich heritage. In doing so, we strove to remain true to Richard Lord’s basic principles and styling. One reviewer paid us a high compliment in saying that Richard would have been proud at how we delicately blended in just enough new to elevate CLASSIC 98’s performance to a state far beyond that of our classics but restrained ourselves from simply building a modern REL in a walnut cabinet. For us, this is high praise.

Classic 98 is a body of work that proudly embodies all those ideals and makes an ideal partner for vintage speakers –everything from older Sonus fabers, to modern Harbeths, and the entire British BBC speaker movement that is alive and doing well… And all the newer retro reissue products, I speak of the KLH-5 and 3 models, the entire Wharfedale Linton range and, course, the various generations of Klipsch Heresies. Classic 98 is for everyone who loves Mid Century Modern design but has wanted a new, ultra-reliable subwoofer to enjoy from the comfort of their Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. Slip a vinyl record of Ornette Coleman on and slip into another era.

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September 7, 2023 - Posted in: Deep Dive Setup