In some ways I’m an unlikely choice to write a subwoofer review. (REL calls them “sub-bass systems,” which is technically accurate, but for now I’ll use the more common term “subwoofer.”) I have always had full-range main loudspeakers, from Infinity RS-1bs to Magnepan 20s, 20.1s, and now 20.7s. The large Maggies had decent low bass in their earliest incarnations, but the latest 20.7s have truly outstanding bass punch and extension, particularly for a planar panel. I’ve tried various subwoofers with all of these speakers and found glimpses of nirvana, but never long-term heavenly bliss.
I’ve read a lot of subwoofer reviews, and I’m sure you have too. For my own purposes, I’m interested in a sub that can augment a full-range high-end music system. Smaller subs for satellites or small rooms may be marvelous, but they won’t do the job in my approximately 25' x 14' listening room. Nor will they do the job for the large-scale symphonic music of which I am fond—let alone the rock and electronic music I play frequently. A “typical” review of a modern subwoofer, designed for a large system, might say something along the lines that “now, finally, we have a subwoofer that will not only shake the rafters on movies, but will seamlessly integrate with your main speakers on all kinds of music.” Kind of like the “now, finally” reviews that for years claimed that such-and-such a solid-state amplifier has bridged the gap with tubes. I’m not going to address the solid-state versus tubes issue, mostly because I have not heard in my own system many of the newest solid-state electronics. But I still like tubes.
My own prior experience in the subwoofer world, both with my systems and the sound systems of friends, dealers, and manufacturers, has been that while many high-end subwoofers definitely enhance the movie-listening experience, they’re not all good when it comes to listening to music. I have had no desire to write another typical subwoofer review, mostly because I haven’t heard a sub that truly enhances music while being “invisible” at the same time; i.e., subs always call attention to themselves in some unwanted way or another.
But REL’s 212/SEs have motivated me to share my experience, mostly because they are not what I would call “typical” when it comes to reproducing the lowest frequencies. They certainly are not typical when it comes to the reproduction of music, which is my priority and hence the focus of this review. (This is not to say I have completely ignored home theater, for which see below.)
If one has a full-range system, why would he want to mess with subwoofers in the first place? After all, full-range speakers were designed to be “full-range,” and they were probably pretty expensive. The primary reason of course for subs is that much music contains low-bass information, and we should not be afraid to try to reproduce it. Even when the instruments being recorded do not contain low-bass fundamentals, the recording may contain valuable low-frequency information that conveys the size and space of the venue.
The reality for loudspeaker manufacturers is that it is really difficult (and very expensive) to do high-quality extended bass in a single-box loudspeaker. It can be done, and is being done, but more often than not even the best full-range loudspeaker doesn’t extend much below about 35Hz. I know a number of audiophiles who acknowledge their systems do not reproduce the lowest frequencies, but have nevertheless had such difficulty in trying to reproduce that part of the spectrum they’ve simply given up trying. They are content with a great midrange and fairly great midbass—or so they say. I acknowledge the difficulties they (and I) have faced, but as long as manufacturers such as REL and others continue the quest to perfect the reproduction of low bass, we should not give up on the reproduction of truly full-range music. We enjoy bass drums reverberating through concert halls, powerful kickdrums in jazz ensembles, and hard-charging bass guitars at rock concerts. There’s no reason (other than troublesome neighbors) why we shouldn’t try to achieve full-range music reproduction for ourselves.
I have already alluded to one of the other potential benefits of a good subwoofer. When set up correctly, the low-frequency reproduction can dramatically add to the scale and depth of the recording venue, assuming the recording has been made in real space and not solely at a mixing console. This is perhaps the main reason I have returned to trying subs from time to time; once you hear it, that sense of volume and space is hard to give up. Prior to the RELs I sometimes heard other benefits of subs, as well. With better ones, set up correctly (which usually means judiciously), I often heard significant improvement in the midrange and higher musical frequencies. Saxophones sounded fuller and more three-dimensional, massed strings sounded more “massed” and less wiry, and so on.
To put the performance of the 212/SEs into perspective, I offer a very brief history of my prior forays into the subwoofer world. As noted, music reproduction is my priority. But I also have a high-def projector and drop-down movie screen and I am able to use my main sound system for movies and TV. I first tried subwoofers with 18" drivers. They were awesome for effects-laden films, but overall I found them just too slow and heavy for most kinds of music. I fiddled with their crossovers forever, to no avail. I next tried single-driver 15" subs in sealed enclosures. All of these subs, of course, contained built-in amplification and crossover networks. The smaller 15" subs still offered plenty of extension and impact in my room. They definitely sounded faster than the 18" subs and integrated somewhat better with my full-range planars. In my room, they also reproduced the lowest frequencies with ease. But even though I was more enthusiastic about these subs, I still couldn’t find one setting where I could simply relax and enjoy whatever music I decided to play. The subs would always call attention to themselves on certain types of music. After another lengthy round of incessant fiddling with crossover points and level controls, it just became too difficult to achieve seamless integration on all types of music. Ultimately I didn’t keep any of these subs in my system. And in the last few years I thought I had found a reprieve from the subwoofer wars, because the newer Magnepan 20.7s produce truly deep and well-controlled bass in my room. I shuddered at the thought of trying to integrate a sub with the big Maggies.