What makes its performance special, however, is not its obvious power, extension, and dynamic headroom. These exist to degrees that can overpower most medium-sized rooms. It’s its clarity and focus that really impress. Credit is owed to the sub/sat transition, which is so seamless that it becomes anyone’s guess where the REL leaves off and the sats takeover. For me, this is where the believability factor kicks in. For example, when drummer Russ Kunkel plays some tom-tom fills during Carole King’s “Home Again” on Tapestry, the drum-skin detail and tuning, and the resonant decay, reveal themselves in full bloom, images locked into position without a hint of the S/5 in the sonic picture. This was also true of the kickdrum positioned centerstage during Holly Cole’s “Take Me Home.” The weight of the impact didn’t pull towards the corner position where the S/5 was sitting—it remained focused dead center within the soundspace. And this wasn’t just the case with the REL augmenting my compact ATC SCM20s, either. Even a speaker like the gorgeous Kharma Elegance S7 Signature floorstander, certainly no sluggard in midbass response and speed, benefitted richly from the ministrations of the S/5.
Less obviously, the S/5 enhances the mood of a performance in the way it conveys sweeping and subtle landscapes of tonal color and timbre, gradients of shadow and light. The S/5 establishes the musical context for what is to come. For example, without the opening 30Hz organ pedal point that introduces Strauss’ Thus Sprach Zarathustra, or the deeply ominous synth note that kicks off Dire Straits’ epic “Telegraph Road,” listening to these pieces would be like listening to a Shakespearean sonnet with the opening quatrain lopped off. On the tight, crisp bass intro to Holly Cole’s cover of “I Can See Clearly” from Temptation, the REL captures the optimistic bounce and jauntiness of the instrument—character that’s pivotal to the upbeat emotion of the song. Similarly, from the opening bar onward, the forward placement of Ray Brown’s standup bass immediately signals listeners that the album Soular Energy is about the bass player as frontman, not backing musician.
Of equal importance is the ambient information that the REL reproduces. This baby can move a lot of air. Take a familiar piece like “Lux Aeterna” from the Rutter Requiem. The hall sound becomes a more active player in the performance when the S/5 is in the system. You can hear the air filling with sound around the musicians and chorus, and then hear this ambience even more clearly when the organist hits the lowest pedal points. And when the organist abruptly stops and the instrument goes silent, there is a sense of air rapidly escaping from the venue, like a balloon suddenly deflating.
A couple of tips to keep in mind: Subs do not operate in isolation. Only well-engineered main speakers with fairly neutral low-end response will excel with subwoofers. Sats with a sucked-out lower midrange and upper bass will sound a little bass-light and dynamically lean. And attempting to mask such a tonal deficit by raising the output and crossover point of the S/5 will only smear midrange detail and create a noxious midbass bump that further decreases the sense of sub/sat integration that, after all, is the desired effect. Also, with smaller compact monitors, care should be exercised in gain-matching the more dynamically limited satellite with the much higher dynamic limits of the sub.
What about value? Put it this way, if you consider that you can easily spend a $2500 on a couple of power cords, then the real value of the S/5 comes into crystalline focus.
From time to time I meet audiophiles who continue to insist that subwoofers are the bane of their audio existence. I don’t know what sort of deep-rooted, sub-bass trauma they were exposed to in their earliest high-end years, but I’m here to tell you that the only drama I experienced during my time with the REL S/5 was the emotion that its evenly weighted balance and full-range musicality brought to the fore. (Plus the separation anxiety I’m anticipating when REL calls for its return.)
In both subtle and not so subtle ways the REL S/5 completed every speaker system it partnered with. Ultimately, it’s up to every audiophile to ask himself whether he wants the whole musical picture—the entirety of the soundscape. If your answer to that question is an unqualified yes, then consider yourself warned: Don’t even think of plugging in the S/5 if you ever expect to use that outlet again. An exceptional performer in any class.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Front-firing subwoofer, with downward-firing passive radiator
Drivers: 12" woofer, 12" passive
Frequency response: 21Hz -6dB
Dimensions: 17.5" x 18" x 20"
Weight: 70 lbs.
REL ACOUSTICS NORTH AMERICA
800 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94710