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Back-Issue Article

December 2003

Sub-Bass, Not Subwoofer

Sitting on my front porch, sipping a bourbon and coke, listening to the squirrels, all rowdy and rustling, as they chase each other through the autumn leaves. What could be more peaceful and relaxing? As I recline on the porch swing, the chilled fall air casts a harmonious spell over the neighborhood.

Brrrmm bappa brrm. Brrm bappa brrmm.

What is that?

It gets louder. Brrrmmm bappa brmm. Brrrmmm. Has some giant earthmover been unleashed to wreck havoc on my neighborhood?

Brrrmmm bappa brrmmm. Brrrmmm bappa brrrmmm. Perhaps the earthquake they predicted would someday destroy Missouri and the Midwest is nigh.

Wait -- it’s coming nearer. It’s, it’s -- a Buick. Around the corner cruises a large four-door sedan pulsating like some otherworldly beast. Single-digit frequencies, which could never be reproduced in such a confined space as a car, intrude upon my tranquil haven.

I hate subwoofers!

It was this phrase that kept intruding upon my mind when I heard that David Ellington of Sumiko was going to demo a couple of REL sub-bass systems for us. Sub-bass system? I figured it must be some marketing ploy to try and separate themselves from all of the other "boom boxes" out there.

Sometimes I really love being WRONG.

The day of the REL demo began with a little panic. David arrived right on time, smile on his face and a large collection of CDs under his arm. What did not arrive was the subs he had shipped UPS ahead of time. Our deliveries arrive each afternoon like clockwork. Our store is located in a beautiful turn-of-the-previous-century building in downtown Kansas City. We are the only retail tenant in the building, so security locks the front doors around 5:00 PM. At 4:30 we still had no delivery. A quick call to UPS found the truck still en route, our delivery aboard. A quick walk down the street found the truck only a block away.

Upon their arrival, we unboxed the units (a Storm III and a Q150), connected them, and let the drivers settle in a little before doing full setup. The REL Storm III is part of the ST-series, finished in a variety of gorgeous real-wood veneers and designed for the serious music listener as well as for great home theater. The Q-series is REL's compact series designed for use in custom-installation situations as well as in two-channel music systems. While the subs got warmed up, David filled us in a little on what made a REL different from a typical subwoofer.

Located inside each REL is the heart of an audiophile product. You won’t find some wimpy switching amplifier advertising tons of watts but little in the way of current. REL uses large MOSFET amplifiers with hefty toroidals capable of driving with some real current. REL subs will play loud.

The first thing to notice is how the REL connects to your system. REL insists that you connect its units via high-level inputs. Each sub comes with a 34' length of three-wire cable terminated at one end with a Neutrik Speakon connector. Low-level inputs are available via a couple of RCA connectors (more on those later), but the high-level inputs are where the magic begins. REL believes that a speaker, together with a particular amplifier, creates a sonic signature. This being the case, it would seem best to carry this same sonic signature on to the sub system to best create a seamless integration. The load is very high impedance and presents no issue to the amplifier. Simply connect the wires to the appropriate speaker posts on the back of the amp and you’re in business.

Looking at the back of the units immediately draws attention to the flexibility of a REL. Each REL has four inputs: high-level, high-level balanced, low-level, low-level +12dB. The +12dB is for additional gain if needed with extremely high-efficiency speakers. We have yet to find an instance where it becomes necessary. It’s also important to notice that the low-level and high-level inputs can be adjusted independently. This is a priceless feature for those combining home-theater and music systems.

So what’s this about a sub-bass system? Looking at the adjustable crossover section of a REL definitely hints at what’s going on here. Whereas most subs have crossovers that only go down as far as 40 or 50Hz, the REL begins in the lower 20s and moves up in very small steps. According to REL, you rarely need to set the crossover higher than about 28Hz for the system to lock in.

But wait a minute! What if your speakers only rated down to 45 or 50Hz? REL’s philosophy says, "All modern speakers have been designed with the assumption that they are full range speakers." This includes most decent two-way monitors. While their rating may say that they are -3dB at 45Hz, they load a room at a much lower frequency. Assuming that the speaker designer knew what he was doing, he didn’t design the speaker so that you would go out and cross it over at 90 or 100Hz. He designed it to run full range. REL subs are designed to pressurize your room with low bass (below 25Hz) and adjust to fit perfectly beneath your speakers’ frequency response.

Set it up, Bill

OK, OK -- that all sounds well and good, but as a veteran audiophile and somewhat jaded retailer, I’ve learned that listening to the product tells a lot more than listening to the salesperson. No offense David. I am from Missouri after all. Show me.

Having given the subs time to loosen up a little, we went back into the room with the Storm III. The speakers being used were a pair of Verity Audio Fidelios; amplification was provided by Brinkmann.

I was prepared for an hour of fuss and fidget, painstakingly taking bass measurements with the old Radio Shack meter and moving things around. Instead, David put a disc in player and instructed Al (the owner) and me to sit down and listen. He used the soundtrack to the movie Sneakers [Columbia CK 53146], but apparently anything with a repetitive low-bass signature will do. From there David simply directed us through the process.

He began with the Storm III in the corner with the most solid walls. He started the music and switched phase between 0 and 180 degrees and asked us to identify which was loudest. We settled at 0 degrees immediately.

Next he began the music again and moved the sub's orientation from front to side wall and asked which was louder. Side wall was noticeably louder.

Now David began to pull the sub out from the corner diagonally, and asked us to tell him to stop when we noticed the sub lock in to the room. This step involves finding the "axial node" of the room, where the bass will be most strongly reinforced and create the greatest efficiency. At this point the sub would again become obviously louder and go deeper. It seemed as if David were hardly moving the unit, but sure enough the change was immediate and obvious. Not only did the bass increase in depth and volume, but also the soundstage just seemed to surround you when the right spot was reached. There was no coaching needed. It was that obvious.

The last step was to adjust the gain and crossover settings. With both dials at their lowest settings, David began to first bring up the gain, one click at a time. As soon as the sub became obvious and seemed to intrude upon the main speakers, David backed off one step. Finally it was time to set the crossover. The REL allows for both coarse (A-D) and fine (1-6) adjustments. When set correctly, the sound between the main speakers and sub will sound seamless, with a deeper and more dimensional soundstage, more precise imaging, and no loss in clarity. David told us it was rare to ever get beyond the A coarse setting, and he was right. Then it was just a matter of moving between the fine adjustments and confirming our selection with a few other recordings. What perhaps amazed me most was the difference in one fine adjustment of the crossover. I’m talking a difference of only 2Hz, yet the change was not subtle. We settled in at 23Hz.

The total time for setup on our first try was about ten minutes. The only tools used were located on the sides of our heads.

The proof is in the piano

When getting a demo of what promises to be the ultimate sub-bass system, one expects to hear recordings of impossible bass torture tracks. Bela Fleck’s "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo" comes to mind. What I was not expecting was solo piano or violin. David began with a Chopin Prelude performed by Evgeny Kissin. The soundstage was incredible -- as three-dimensional as I could ask for. I could hear the reflections off of the ceiling in the recording venue. As we basked in the beauty of the performance, David slyly reached behind the sub and disconnected it from the system. The change was immediate and negative. The soundstage collapsed. The air and decay of the notes flattened out. The life was gone. Al and I were stunned. I would never have believed that a sub could have such an effect on higher frequencies.

With recording after recording the same result could be heard. Chamber music, solo violin, large choral pieces -- all were dramatically affected. David tells us that it is the deep-bass pressurization of the room that allows this to happen. The higher frequencies ride these pressure waves and allow you to hear more of the venue and space surrounding instruments and individuals. Listening to the new Reference Recordings release of John Taverner’s Ikon of Eros was a stunning example. The recording is a hauntingly spiritual choral work accompanied by a solo violin. Without the sub, you can tell how well this was recorded. The voices are balanced. The violin casts an accurate image. Yet only when the sub is engaged can you hear the reflection of the domed cathedral where the work was recorded, and note the space around the violinist against the background of the chorus. You are in the cathedral. It’s spooky.

If the REL subs had done nothing more than give you this added realism in soundstage and presence, they would be worth the price of admission. Yet I must tell you that we did get to the bass torture tracks as well, and they did not disappoint. I have never had a sub in the store that provided such tuneful and deep bass as the RELs offer.

Our inventory increases

Yes, we are now a REL dealer. We have received our initial order and have placed at least one unit in each of our listening rooms. I have yet to find a speaker that doesn’t dramatically benefit from a REL. The little Q108 ($795) turns little $400-500 monitors into speaker systems that do things out of reach for many $2000 floorstanders. The Strata III ($1295 in black; $1495 in veneer) is the entry level into the beautiful ST series. The Strata and the Storm III ($1795 in black, $1995 in veneer) seem to be the real staples of the line. We’ve tried them with many speakers ranging from the $495 Triangle Titus to floorstanders over $10,000 with amazing results. Upstairs we have a Stadium III ($2995) alternating between a pair of Dynaudio C2 and C4s. And I thought these things had bass.

At the far end of our large room upstairs sits a pair of the best-sounding speakers I have ever encountered, the Dali Megalines ($35,000). At over seven feet tall with 24 midbass drivers and floor-to-ceiling ribbons, they do things I have never heard from a speaker at any price. The only complaint we have ever been able to muster has been their somewhat limited (35Hz) bottom end. In every other category they will compete with speakers at any price. We have now eliminated the competition. The big boy has arrived. At over 200 pounds and with solid output into the single digits, the Studio III ($9000) has us tightening the windows and wedging the doors. You haven’t heard pipe organ until you’ve felt pipe organ.

The soapbox

I know I’m going to sound like a salesperson here. You know what? I am. But I will say that I have never been so impressed with what a single product can do for a system as what this REL stuff does. I keep trying new combinations, but I have yet to find a system that doesn’t dramatically benefit from a REL. I have yet to find a customer who didn’t show the same response. From the audio rookie to the multi-system-owning veteran, the response has been the same: "Damn."

I highly encourage all listeners, at any level, to seek out a dealer and audition one of these RELs. Make sure the dealer has set up the REL correctly. Better yet, have him do the set up together with you. All you’ve got to lose is a little spending money. But hey -- it won’t be the first time.

...Bill Brooks

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