The Sonus Faber SE Speakers

Even at a relatively low background level the massive Sonus faber SE speakers are immersive.

The top to bottom tonal balance is so engaging, it’s tough to write, or even have a conversation while they are playing. These speakers truly take your breath away, even before you turn the music on. Even at a modest level the SEs captivate instantly, as Bos Scaggs’ silky voice slowly folds into the mix of “Harbor Lights,” a track I’ve easily heard a thousand times over the years.

For speakers with such a massive physical presence, the delicacy that they deliver is almost tough to describe, it’s so seamless, effortless and with such gentle gradation when the program demands it, yet equally forceful when that is required. Powered by a full Burmester system, with bridged 909 Mk.5 power amplifiers for each SE (delivering nearly 2000 watts per channel) there are no dynamic restrictions here. And this is only a hint of what is to come.

The Sonus faber website says that the SE “is a limited edition masterpiece, available only by special request from premier clientele.” There’s a handful of Sonus faber dealers that you can purchase the Aida’s from, but if you want the SE, there’s only one place – LMC Home Entertainment in Scottsdale, Arizona. Owner Mike Ware is your steward to Sonus faber’s finest, and one of the top hifi dealers in the world. Ware says that his team will install and setup the SEs anywhere in the US, so you won’t have to worry about trying to move these on your own. Ware and his highly trained staff will leave nothing left to chance.

So, it made way more sense that I get on a plane and head out to see Mike. No one wants to see a pair of beauties like this get a nick, dent or scratch from shipping. Trading Portland for Scottsdale in January is not a bad idea either.

The setup

Having extensive experience with Burmester gear, also having spent time with the Sonus faber Aida a few weeks earlier, LMC’s Mike Ware saved me a ton of setup time. His main room, which measures about 25 x 40 feet, proves a much better venue for a speaker this size than my 15 x 26 foot room. Speakers this big really do need a big room to open up into.

Ware has the SE’s installed in the room about 15 feet apart and about 5 feet from the side walls, with three rows of slightly elevated theater seats. The front row center position is about ten feet back, the next row about a foot higher and the final row another foot or so higher. Because this system recreates such a true sense of scale, and fills the room so completely, depending on the performance played, you can get the immediacy of a third-row orchestra seat, the more diffuse position of the back row, or in between. It’s impressive, the way the stereo imaging holds up no matter where you sit.

Sonus faber speakers have always offered wide dispersion in both planes. Moving back to the middle row offers a slightly more homogenous feel with more room for the bass to integrate, but these speakers disappear in the room so well, it’s tough to not go back to the immersive, giant headphone like feel of the front row. Of course, you will certainly have your own preference, should you install your own pair. The best news though is that these are by no means a one-person, small sweet spot speaker. Sitting right in the center will give obvious dividends, but even sitting on the floor, off to the side, it’s still good.

The real deal

For all the naysayers that a great hifi system can’t put the real thing in your room, I say shut up. There’s something so special about these speakers in a big room, it is possible to close your eyes and be there. A perfect example of this is the “Superman” track from the Crash Test Dummies first album.  The SEs do such a precise job at recreating the performers, I feel just like I’m back at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, and Ellen Reid is resting her head on Brad Robert’s shoulder while singing backup. The spatial recreation is that convincing.

Awesome rarely comes easy and it rarely comes cheap. It certainly doesn’t here. A pair of SEs will set you back a cool $250k. Yeah. And that probably means at least another 250 or more in electronics and wire. We can have the argument till the cows come home whether this is “worth it” or not, but the bottom line is that this is what it costs to get sound this good. The rest is whether you want to play. But what a great playground.

Switching to more dynamic faire, bumping the volume on Aphex Twin’s “Minipops 67” is so much fun, even I want to get up and dance. And that’s not a medium in which I choose to express myself. Though I was given the green light to “turn it up as loud as I needed to,” the Sonus faber/Burmester combination never runs out of dynamic range, never flattening out in the slightest.

The driving bass line in the Aphex Twin tracks leads me to the back side of the SE to see where the “deep low level” setting happens to be. It is on “minimum.” According to the owners manual, this controls the output of the 15-inch, side firing woofer (with 4-inch voice coil) that is crossed over to the pair of front firing 10-inch woofers at 80hz.

Sonus faber lists the sensitivity of the SE at 92db/1 watt, and a maximum power handling of 1000 watts. Ware confirms my suspicions, that like the Aida, these speakers will play with anything, but a reserve of clean, quality wattage helps them deliver everything they are capable of.

Further up the spectrum

These woofers cross to the midrange driver at 250hz, and then again to the Beryllium dome tweeter at 2500hz. There is another one of these facing back with a smaller midrange, as part of what Sonus faber refers to as a “soundfield shaper.” This feeds a bit of the main sound towards the rear wall or corner in your room, and depending on where you set the controls, can go far at expanding the soundstage. Ware had these set on the lowest setting in his room, which makes sense considering the size.

The Aida has a similar setup around back, and when we had them here for review, we found that they helped integrate a large speaker into a smaller room better, but as always, experiment to find the sweet spot to taste.

I’d be lying if I told you I remember all the nuances of seeing the Talking Heads on the Stop Making Sense tour back in 1981, but playing the soundtrack through the SEs feels right. Their ability to reproduce the sheer sound pressure level of the live event, with the resolution, clarity, and nuance of a world class audiophile system is better than live in my book. And the way the audience response is folded in and out of the mix, feels totally real. I found a similar effect when listening to Jeff Beck’s Live at Ronnie Scotts, as I did with a number of other favorite live recordings.

The spatial presentation of these large speakers is fantastic. The energetic presentation they offer confirms a true sense of sonic reality. Sitting in the middle row of Ware’s room, the cues from people in the audience cheering, clapping, and whistling is so realistic it’s almost like listening to a full Dolby Atmos setup, not two speakers. Greg Dulli’s vocals at the beginning of Gentlemen is phenomenal. Im pulled to the edge of the seat as His textured, loud, cyring whisper drains off so gradually when he sings, “It’s in our home, baby, it’s in our bed.” Yet 20 seconds later when he begins to scream, I nearly jump out of the chair. That’s musical realism.

Big dynamics are big fun, but revisiting some of my favorite Beatles, Stones and Dylan records reveals how well the SEs lock down the musical pace, almost like a small pair of studio monitors – but a lot bigger. A LOT bigger.

A different look at detail

For many audiophiles, the word detail means a sharp-edged presentation that cuts into your psyche, often revealing the music in a harsh manner, with a forward presentation. Speakers that have a softer presentation are referred to as laid back, warm, or rounded off.

But imagine combining that level of detail, revealing the maximum amount of musical information in a way that is not the least bit harsh or grating, with a range of tonal scale that feels like a continuous gradation, that’s the sorcery that the SE presents. It’s like sleeping on 2400 count sheets.

The resolution experienced with the SEs is not so much in an ultimate sense, but in the smoothness of gradation. Sounds faded from maximum to minimum in an incredibly linear fashion, and swelled from quiet to loud in the same way. This is the last bit of realism for me.

If I weren’t listening to digital files, I’d feel almost like the music was running a tad slow, but it comes back to the way the music is rendered with such an utmost delicacy. The SEs have the necessary speed to accomplish whatever musical task is required, yet they never feel like they are “attacking the music.” The music merely swells and recedes so quickly and smoothly, there’s never any attention drawn to the speakers.

That’s the highest compliment I can pay the SEs. After a really intense seven hour listening session, I never felt like I was listening to hifi, nor did I have hifi thoughts while basking in their glory. All I could think of was what track to play next, comparing what I heard to what I’ve heard before. There’s nothing that these speakers can’t play. Big, or small, loud or soft, acoustic or electric. No limit.

And that’s part of what $250k buys.

The SEs do it all: they sound great at bone crushing levels, yet even at conversation level, they still sound fantastic. Yet they create a sound field that is so dense and full of musical information, as you slowly advance the volume level it’s easy to perceive the level at which you become totally immersed in the music – the point at which you become the music. The SEs provide a transparency and coherence of your favorite ESL, yet they have the punch of a cone speaker and the weight to convince you.

Because each pair of SEs is built to order, any special finish requirements can easily be accommodated.

The other part of the equation is the level of detail that is paid to every single aspect of all Sonus faber speakers, but even more so in the SE. The level of craftsmanship present here is unmatched by any other speaker manufacturer.

Sonus fabers’ craftsmanship is everywhere, from the leather neatly wrapped around the front and rear panels, all the way down to the suspension and feet in the base. No detail is left unfinished to epic proportions.

Ware informs us that it takes about four months to build a set of SEs, and he has a few pair in stock (in popular finishes) so if the urge strikes, you can take them home today. As mentioned at the beginning of the review, LMC Home Entertainment in Scottsdale is the sole dealer for this speaker in the United States. It’s a great place to visit, so you might want to schedule a vacation around auditioning them. Southwest Airlines is offering some specials right now…

As much as I’ve tried to fill you in on what these spectacular speakers sound like, I still feel my words come up short. Should the SEs be on your radar, it will only take about 90 seconds into your favorite track to fall under their spell. At that moment, you will know everything.

You’ve been warned.

The Sonus faber SE

MSRP: $250,000/pair


Digital Source Burmester 069 CD Player, Linn Klimax DS

Preamplfier Burmester 077

Power Amplifier Burmester 909 Mk.5 (2 in mono block mode)

Power Burmester 948 Power Conditioner

Cable Atlas Asimi

Big News From MartinLogan, Paradigm, and Anthem at ISE

Paradigm, Anthem, and MartinLogan are pleased to announce exhibition plans for ISE 2019 at the RAI in Amsterdam.

For four days in early February, the companies will showcase a broad range of advanced loudspeaker designs and cutting-edge audio electronics. Paradigm and Anthem will offer 2-channel and home theater demonstrations, MartinLogan will announce several new products, and Anthem will release details about the next generation of Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software.

For the duration of ISE 2019, Paradigm and Anthem are partnering with HTE (Home Theater Environment) and SIM2 to offer exceptional audio and home theater demonstrations. In a sound room, specially designed by HTE, Paradigm and Anthem will be demonstrating a 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos home theater system and a 2-channel audio system. Additional equipment used in the home theater demo includes SIM2’s new 4K projector and a projection screen from Screen Innovations.

Paradigm’s 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos demonstration system will feature the following products:

  • Persona 5F speakers and Persona C center channel speaker
  • Persona Sub and Defiance X15 subwoofers
  • CI Elite E7-LCR in-wall & E-80R in-ceiling speakers
  • Anthem AVM 60 audio/video processor
  • Anthem STR and MCA power amplifiers

Paradigm’s 2-channel demonstration system will feature the following products:

  • Persona 5F speakers
  • Persona Sub subwoofers
  • Anthem STR Preamplifier
  • Anthem STR Power Amplifier

In addition to products featured in the active demo system, Paradigm’s display will feature:

  • Details on the next generation of Anthem Room Correction software(a press release will be available on February 5th)
  • Persona loudspeakers
  • Prestige loudspeakers
  • Premier loudspeakers
  • Monitor SE loudspeakers
  • Defiance subwoofers
  • CI Home and CI Pro custom installation loudspeakers
  • Garden Oasis and Stylus all-weather custom installation loudspeakers
  • Anthem STR electronics
  • Anthem AVM 60 audio/video processor
  • Anthem MRX audio/video receivers
  • Anthem MCA amplifiers

MartinLogan’s display will feature:

  • A new line of CI speakers (a press release will be available on February 5th)
  • CLX Art full-range electrostatic loudspeakers
  • Renaissance ESL 15A hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers
  • Classic ESL 9 hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers
  • ElectroMotion ESL X hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers
  • Motion 60XT loudspeakers
  • Motion 35XT bookshelf loudspeakers
  • Dynamo subwoofers

HTE (Home Theatre Environment) is an Italian based company offering unique solutions to transform any room into a specialized entertainment environment, conjugating the technical demands with the design. The strong point of HTE lies in its ability to transform the environment, so it will be acoustically perfect, without compromising aesthetics, thanks to proprietary HAS Acoustic System. One of their 24-bit Performance Interior Acoustic Design will be presented during the show. For more information on HTE, please visit:

SIM2 is an Italian based company that designs and manufactures the world’s finest home cinema projection systems. Since 1995 SIM2 has designed outstanding products that offer the highest cinematic experience and perfect home integration. Premiering at ISE 2019, SIM2’s new NERO4 SD is a 6,000-lumen high-brightness DLP projector featuring the most advanced HDR video processing in the industry, a 4K compatible projection lens (capable of 92 line pairs/mm),  and a full DCI color space. For more information on SIM2, please visit:

Paradigm, Anthem, and MartinLogan will be located at booth #15 – T265.

New In-wall and In-ceiling speakers from Sonus faber

Today, from Amsterdam at the ISE show, the Sonus faber division of the McIntosh Group announced a wide range of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. They call this new line of speakers
Palladio, appropriately bearing the name of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio – a master of classical proportion.

This is fantastic news for those wishing to build an all Sonus faber system without compromise.

Sonus faber’s North America brand manager, William Kline and McIntosh Group’s Senior Marketing Manager David Mascioni gave us a quick call to fill us in on this exciting development.

For now this product that Kline refers to as “35 years in the making,” will consist of two product lines (level 5 and level 6) to compliment the Sonetto and Olympica collections, both from a sonic and aesthetic standpoints. He goes on to tell us that a lot of the core research for these speakers came from those respective lines, in both driver and crossover technology. “They incorporate everything that makes Sonus faber, Sonus faber.” When asked if this was company or market directed, he responded that it was an equal push from both sides, and that from a dealer standpoint, “A multi-channel or HT customer can now have an all Sonus faber system.”

With a total of 13 models, it will be easy to accompany your floor standing Sonus faber speakers with the additional channels required for a custom installation, or even go all in-wall/ceiling. The possibilities are greater than ever.

As you can see from the photos, these are pure Sonus faber, right down to the grilles. Sonus faber is saying that final pricing will be locked in some time in Q2 of this year, with product available in the dealer channel sometime in Q3. We will definitely have more to tell you as soon as we are able to experience these in person.

Watch the Sonus faber website for more information soon, and if you are attending ISE, stop by booth 14-C150. And tell them TONE sent you. Ciao.

JERN 14EH Speakers

With so many manufacturers of small speakers skating around the subwoofer issue, JERN (Danish for Iron, but more about that later) comes right out and tells you that their speakers are “meant for use with a high quality subwoofer.”

Meeting with JERN’s CEO and designer, Ole Lund Christensen and their representative for the US, Steve French at last year’s Munich show and again at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, these speakers put on a stunning display, with a pair of small REL T5i subwoofers. While achieving equally great results with a pair of T7is in my smaller listening room, the pair of REL 212SEs in the main listening room kept me pondering. It didn’t take long before they were mated to the big subs.

Carefully readjusting the level and crossover frequencies on the big REL’s to blend seamlessly with these super cool (but not light) small speakers was nothing short of breathtaking. While powering them with the Audio Research REF160M amplifiers in for review, along with the Pass XS Pre and dCS Vivaldi ONE made for a couple hundred thousand dollar reference system, with this tiny $5k/pair speakers as the centerpiece. They succeed brilliantly, and are not out of place.

Thanks to high quality drivers from ScanSpeak, Mundorf’s best capacitors in the 6db/octave crossover and a high density, cast iron enclosure that redefines inert, these speakers threw a massive, three dimensional soundfield in our 15 x 25 foot listening room. With the JERNs only about 6 feet away from my listening chair in an equilateral triangle, there was no real interaction with the rear or side walls and it was easy to get them aligned to perfection.

Do not do the knuckle rap test on the JERN’s unless you want to make a trip to your nearest urgent care facility for broken knuckles. This is such a unique application of a material that has been around for sometime. It manages to be completely resonance free, and while they are offered in colors, the native black is incredibly cool, especially if you can blast a few spotlights on your JERN speakers. The organic shape responds to lighting very well, looking more like sculpture than speakers.

Taking a lead from our newest writer, I used Doris Day’s voice, in “Love Me or Leave Me” to adjust the JERN’s. They utilize a thick rubber donut to go between the speaker and your stands (filled Sound Anchors did the job here) so that you can make minute adjustments to toe in and rake. They offer wide dispersion, but extra care making sure that both speakers are raked at exactly the same angle will give you the maximum amount of separation and imaging focus. You should be able to optimize this in about 15 minutes.

Be careful as these little sound pods weigh almost 30 pounds each! As our good friend Kurt at Echo HiFi in Portland likes to say “don’t play catch with them.” Those of you with basketball player hands could probably use them to knock out a set of curls though. But I digress.

Redefining the small speaker experience

Nearly always, small speakers mean small dynamics. Not with JERN. Having just come off a major listening session comparing three small speakers that I really love (the Harbeth P3ESL, the Graham LS3/5 and LS3/5A) the word stuck in my head was small. Great midrange, check. Killer, three-dimensional imaging, check. Big speaker dynamics, (even with subs) not so much.

The true magic in the JERNs, is their high level of resolution and actual dynamics; they mate better with a pair of good subwoofers than any other small speaker I’ve had the pleasure to use. Because they naturally roll off around 70hz, they can play louder than other small speakers, and the cones don’t bottom out when you play serious bass heavy music with a subwoofer like the REL, which demands running your mains full range.

Cranking up some vintage Nine Inch Nails, “Mr. Self Destruct” the REL/JERN combination paints a landscape extending beyond the speakers all the way to the side walls, which are ten feet to each side. Compared to the Quad 2812s used in the same context, the JERNs positively crank, playing so much louder than possible with the ESLs. When the track drops from maximum level, to Trent Reznor’s whisper, they follow the music truthfully, picking up layer after layer of detail.

A true Quad lover, the JERN’s and a pair of great subs eclipses the Quad experience in a lot of ways. The miniscule amount of ethereal ESL-ness that the Quads bring to the table won’t outweigh the sheer dynamics that the JERN’s offer, served with their own nuanced presentation. I’ve never experienced a pair of small monitors that deliver so much finesse along with sheer punch. Listening to Mick Jagger and Christina Aguilara duel on “Live With Me,” you can almost feel the two of them moving back and forth, taking turns with the microphone.

The model 14 is made to be used with a subwoofer and as mentioned, has a limited LF output, allowing more dynamics. Their model 12s are better suited for full range applications, much as you might use any other mini monitor. But keep in mind, they just won’t quite rock like the 14EH.

Further experimentation

The REL T7i’s make a fantastic match for the JERN’s that won’t break the bank. At just under $2,000/pair, you’ve got a $7,000 full range speaker system that will reveal a lot more music than quite a few speakers costing much more.

Those wanting to step up a bit, might even consider a single REL Carbon sub. This $3,500 sub, with its carbon fiber cone is even faster and more nuanced than the 212SE, and plays up a little higher in the frequency band without bloat. Where the 212SE’s are fantastic, when asked to crossover as high as the JERNs need to be, without a hole in the frequency spectrum, the Carbon goes that last 10hz with ease.

Thanks to the benign load a simple 6db/octave crossover presents along with a sensitivity of 88db/1 watt, you don’t need to have a pair of $30k Audio Research monoblocks. Making the Sugden A21SE (30 wpc, solid-state, single ended class A) the heart of the system along with the Mytek Brooklyn, and some Tellurium Q black cables brings the system total to about $13k, and in a small-ish room, is heavenly. We found equally enticing results with the PrimaLuna HP integrated (about 90wpc, tubes) and the Gold Note IS-1000 integrated (125 wpc, solid state).

The JERN 14EH’s provide such a high level of resolution, that the personalities of each of these amplifiers was easy to discern. Should you build your system around the 14EH, they will probably be the last thing you’ll replace if you chase down the upgrade path. If you want world class fidelity in a small room, these can easily be your final destination.

The more you listen, the more you’ll like

As with most speakers, the JERN’s are a little bit flat right out of the box. You can hear the magic, but it feels a little far away. Give them five or six solid days of play and return to the party. That’s better. Keith Richard’s “How Could I Stop?” was the track starting each mornings listening. Every day there was more separation between Richard’s lead vocal track and the backup singers, and Charlie Watts’ cymbal work picks up more texture as well. Most small monitors excel at conveying the musical pace, but the JERN’s are a step above in this respect.

The only thing the JERNs can’t do is play at near brain damage levels in a large room and present a massive soundstage. Those small cones can only move so much air. But in a relatively near field situation, your ears might just give up before these speakers do.

Ultimately, the real limitations of the JERN 14EH speakers will be your budget for ancillaries. They will sound lovely with modest amplification and subwoofers, but they offer a major helping of the best high-end sound has to offer if you mate them with world class components.

It’s always tough to add your personal bias to a review, but I loved the 14EH’s enough to buy the review pair. I think they are that good, and I’ve had the privilege to audition a number of great small speakers. With a great sub, there’s no other $7k pair of speakers I’d rather own.

The Jern 14EH Speakers

MSRP: $5,000/pair


Digital Source         dCS Vivaldi ONE

Preamplifier            PASS Labs  XS Pre

Power Amplifier     Audio Research REF160M

Signal Cable          Tellurium Q Ultra Black

Subwoofers           REL T7i, REL Carbon Edition, REL 212SE

The REL Carbon Limited Subwoofer

Tracking through Jaco Pastorius’ debut album via a pair of RELs new Carbon Limited subwoofers, there’s definitely something different from the way the low frequencies are rendered compared to what I’m used to on my REL 212SEs.

Our Product of the Year-winning 212’s provide a level of power, weight, and definition that are unmatched in their price category, the Carbon Limited throws a curve ball into the mix. The 212s weigh in at $4,200 each, the Carbon Limited’s are $3,500 each. Do you choose the mid-grade Porsche 911, or do you get the similarly priced, not quite as fast, but more nimble (and in much more limited quantity) Cayman GT4? Hmmm.

Just like Porsche’s best kept secret, RELs Carbon Limited subwoofer might end up being revered in the same way. REL has performed a similar feat of engineering with the Carbon Limited. Utilizing one of their carbon drivers from the current G-1 MKII sub, the passive radiator from the 212SE, and goosing the amplifier from the highly successful S/5 SHO, results in a compact, high performance product like no other, and nothing else in their line. Like the GT4, the Carbon Limited, due to the amount of hand fit and finish work (more about that later), will only be made in small quantities. So, if you want one, get to your dealer now and place an order.


In a recent chat with REL’s John Hunter, he reiterates a bit of information from a recent REL Blog post, telling me that this was a “what-if, dream project.” A fellow car guy, we’ve always pondered what might be available if you could go to the parts bin with unlimited access and just make exactly the car you wanted. A similar thing has occurred with the Carbon Limited.

The CL features REL’s medium sized enclosure from their Serie S subwoofers, but that’s where the similarity ends. The 12” carbon fibre cone with a full 4” of travel has excursion, dynamics, and low level detail that is unmatched by any of its competitors. Adding all the other components along with “a host of special tricks and techniques they’ve developed over the years” results in a nearly perfect solution for increasing the LF output of your system.

And if you look closer, you’ll see an even smoother, glossier, deeper finish than a standard model. As Nigel Tufnel would say, “how much more black can this be?” This black. A black that puts the black finish on a $100k GT4 to shame. Even cooler is the badge on top of the cabinet; this aluminum badge is triple chrome plated and the black of the REL logo is hand painted in the recess. You might see this kind of thing on a pre-war Delahaye, but not on a subwoofer. The shiny feet receive the exact same treatment.

In the end, the Carbon looks and feels luxurious before you even turn it on. To our quality-philes in the audience, you’re going to love it.

Simple setup

As with all REL products, setup is easy with multiple options. Should you choose not to use REL’s high level connection, which does offer the best sound and best integration with your main speakers, it can still be connected via the LFE channel, or line level outputs from your preamplifier. If you’ve never done it REL’s way, you should, it transforms the experience. Utilizing the high-level speaker output for connection, the Carbon takes on the low frequency characteristics of your power amplifier and it eliminates the signal from your preamplifier passing through another crossover network. All good things for signal integrity and the biggest possible soundfield.

Finally, you can connect to the Carbon wirelessly, using REL’s Longbow transmitter, featuring the same functionality and inputs as the ones on the rear panel of the Carbon. This eliminates the long cables from amplifier to subwoofer and has a range of about 45 feet. You can read the full definition of the Longbow system here, but suffice to say it’s the easiest bit of hardware we’ve ever used. Two switches, and you’re done.

As we’ve mentioned in other REL articles, switching back and forth between the Longbow and wired connections reveals no difference in the character of our reference system’s LF performance. The receiver is built into the Carbon, but you will need a transmitter, which has a cost of $300. The Longbow can control up to four separate REL’s in mono mode, but if you want to run a pair in discrete stereo mode, you will need two Longbow transmitters.

Once you’ve decided how to connect, the rest is straightforward. REL features excellent support tutorials on their website, but for a single-driver, cube enclosure like the Carbon, start with the sub or subs fairly close to the room corner, facing your listening position, then slowly adjust the level and crossover point until you just start to hear the sub separately, then back off. To fine tune, bring it out in the room until the bass gets too weak and go back slightly. Mr. Hunter is way better at this than I am, but long story short, when the REL disappears and all you hear is your main speakers going deeper with more definition, and you can’t hear a subwoofer anywhere, you’ve done it right.

Correctly optimized, the REL vanishes from your room. Hint: you can probably go with a slightly lower crossover frequency than you think, but with slightly more output than you think. If you are using a pair, start on the other side of the listening room with the settings determined here and fine tune to taste.

You can’t un-hear it

Hunter is fond of explaining that bass doesn’t just hit you from a small cube in your room, and this is why the 212SE is so successful, as is their stacks of larger subwoofers. Yet, because of the extremely nimble character of the carbon, it does a better job at convincing you it’s a stack of woofers than any other single cube solution we’ve tried. REL subwoofers excel at rendering bass attack and detail – real musical detail. Even when listening to electric bass players, you can tell the difference between someone playing through a vintage Ampeg cabinet and one playing through a Gallien-Krueger cabinet. Yet, way too often a home system, even subwoofer equipped, only provides a thumpy, whumpy, one note solution. Thus, the general angst towards subwoofers.

If you’ve used one of the smaller REL subs, you’re in for a treat when you queue up the Carbon. If you’re using someone else’s subwoofer, you’re in for a shock. The funky, irresistible groove in Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good” shows off the sheer texture in the bass line. Go listen on another system and compare. You’ve never heard that, have you? A similar change is enjoyed with Curtis Mayfield’s classic, “Superfly.” I can do this all night.

The other massive bonus that the Carbon offers, thanks to its incredible speed, is the ability to play slightly higher on the tonal scale without drawing attention to itself. Most subwoofers struggle to even reach 50 hz without sounding muddy and muffled, giving the haters more reason to hate. The Carbon sails through, and mates splendidly with your favorite panel speaker as well as nearly any mini monitor you can think of.

We had a blast pairing the Carbon with the LS3/5a, Harbeth P3ESR, and the recently reviewed Jern 14DS. This has never worked seamlessly with any other sub – and it is perhaps the ultimate test. That lack of cloudiness in the midbass, makes for a stronger, more defined low bass, and that’s really what the Carbon is all about. It’s more than forceful enough for your favorite EDM tracks, but subtle enough for your favorite acoustic bass-heavy tracks.

Then, shut it off. Even with music that you don’t think is particularly bass heavy. You don’t want to live without the REL effect.

Why this one?

Speaker selection is always a personal thing, but the ultimate choice will come down to the music you listen to most, how high of a sound pressure level you crave, and finally which cabinet your room can accommodate.

If you’ve ever sampled one of the world’s finest desserts and came away thinking “I only need a few bites of that,” you have the mindset to appreciate what makes the REL Carbon Edition so special – though both John Hunter and I suggest you get a pair for optimum results. If you have a similar desire for LF response, wanting the quality of the top REL reference subs, yet don’t have as much space to fill, this is the perfect choice.

We’re giving the REL Carbon Limited our first Exceptional Value Award of the new year. Get one before they are gone. The additional labor required means they won’t make ‘em forever.

Our thanks to REL for the supplied images.

The REL Carbon Limited Subwoofer

MSRP: $3,500 (ea.)


Analog Source     Luxman PD-171A turntable w/Kiseki Purple Heart

Digital Source      dCS Rossini DAC/Clock

Amplification       PASS Labs INT-60 and VAC Sigma 170i

Speakers             Quad 2812, Raidho D 1.1

Signal Cables       Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Power Products    PS Audio P20 power conditioner and Cardas Clear Beyond power cords

The conrad-johnson ET7s2

The conrad-johnson team knows tube preamplifiers, with over 40 years of experience under their belts, building coveted products which improve with each new generation.

The ET7-S2 we review here is c-j’s middle child preamplifier, sandwiched between the GAT series 2reference and their entry-level ET3. For $12,000 the ET7-S2 benefits from many sonic improvements implemented in C-J’s flagship, but at a more accessible price point.

Like all c-j products, this preamp comes with only one faceplate color. Gold. And don’t even try to convince them otherwise. The ET7 features a hefty build weighing in at 19 pounds (8.62 kg), and audio rack-friendly dimensions of 19 inches (48.3cm) wide by 15.375 inches (39cm) deep by 4.375 inches (11cm) tall.

It needs to be mentioned that because of the extensive changes between the original ET7 and the new S2, that it can not be sent back to c-j for an “update.” Lew Johnson told us that the S2 has “an entirely new PC board, and this would be prohibitively costly.”

The ET7 comes with a matching, beautifully anodized remote allowing a user to change volume or source, mute, and alter left-to-right balance from the comfort of a listening seat. The front panel offers the same functionality, with delicate silver buttons and yellow LEDs to indicate user selections.

This preamp’s face features an LED screen showcasing the volume level for each channel. When the numbers are identical, balance is centered. As balance changes, the two numbers diverge from one another.  When changing volume using the remote or the buttons on the front panel, the ET7 has a very audible click accentuating each volume step activated in the digital domain. If you are used to a component with a smooth, silent volume change this sound is a bit jarring. After a few days though, it becomes second nature.

All of c-j’s current preamps employ at least one vacuum tube. The ET7 (like the ET3) taps a single 6922 and calling it a hybrid design is simplifying things a bit too much. Mr. Johnson comments, “the important work is all done by the 6922, which handles all voltage gain. Because the output impedance of a tube voltage amplifier stage is too high for most real world applications, we use a MOSFET device as a buffer. This provides much better performance than a cathode follower (all tube) solution.”

Those who enjoy tube rolling can open the chassis and make the swap. Some tube gear gets quite hot during use, but the ET7 case does not, even when left on for a few days. The ET7 features a standby mode to keep circuitry warm, but not waste tube life when the preamp is not in use. Depressing the power button toggles the component on or off. After powering on, the mute button engages while the tube warms up for a minute. When the mute shuts off automatically, you are ready to rock.

Ins and outs

The preamp features a single-ended topology and offers only RCA connectors. The user has a choice of five sets of pre-labeled inputs, plus two sets of “main outs.” The extra outputs prove especially handy for connecting subwoofers should the owner choose to add them. The ET7 does not include a phonostage, but c-j does label one set of inputs for one if the owner wants to connect an external component there to avoid confusion.

The ET7’s ability to handle home theater pass-through is a welcome feature. While I don’t use any surround sound components in my listening space, I do enjoy the ability to use the preamp’s pass-through capability with a Sonos system. Interconnecting the ET7’s home theater outputs to a Sonos Connect’s inputs, I can extend sound to the rest of the residence with Sonos speakers playing the music from the main rig.


The preamp includes c-j’s proprietary CJD Teflon capacitors, refined over the last decade. However, they do take some time to break in fully. We gave the ET7 200 hours of operation before making any serious judgments, although it sounds mighty good right out of the box. You will not be disappointed. Its overall character is on the warmer side of neutral, but not mushy or overly-lush. The ET7’s bass portrayal renders low frequencies naturally, with the heft or sustain engineered into the recording.

The preamp’s high frequency process offers a lot of detail too. It renders the harmonically-complex, but the beautifulring from percussive elements like a triangle or cymbal with grace. It also brings a palpable life to soprano vocals and reveals the subtle sonic cues which contribute to the ET7 soundstaging prowess.

There’s a very organic quality about this preamp. The ET7 takes the sting out of edgy recordings, yet still manages to reveal the fine details within. The resulting sonic signature is akin to taking a seat in the tenth row of a concert hall rather than the first.

Soundstaging is equally impressive. Musical elements extend in all directions around the speakers but never bunch up around them. The ET7 also does a very good job placing musical elements front-to-back in the soundstage. Vocals reach forward into the room, even when the sound engineer places multiple instruments – like percussion – in the center of the musical picture too.

After enjoying all genres with the ET7 in the chain, there is little to criticize and a lot to love. Is it right for you? That answer lies with your preferred sonic signature and the gear you want to pair with it. Those who crave accentuation of every note and detail in a song may find the c-j’s smooth presentation a tad polite. A very punchy solid-state amp might be a good match in that case. Those who want to grab a seat on the sofa and dissolve into the bigger musical picture, though, better buckle in for a long listening session and forget about analyzing the music. The ET7’s highly engaging sound is beguiling, and a perfect match for my ART150 power amplifier.


The ET7 series 2 linestage preamp represents an excellent option for those who seek fantastic musical performance. At $12,000 the ET7-S2 represents an investment. However, if you prioritize music in your life start saving your pennies now. Considering the amount of trickle-down technology which the ET7 gains from the GAT design, it can approach flagship performance at half the price.

After several weeks with the ET7 in place, it certainly proved its mettle. Its natural, organic presentation is immersive. Plus, the ET7’s warmer character will help it pair well with most amplifiers – and music — of your choosing.

Yes, there will always be new components that come to market, but newer is not always better. I expect c-j has some tricks up its sleeve for future products to debut as they approach their 50thanniversary in a decade. But for now, the ET7-S2 represents a marvelous achievement, coupled with a three-year warranty backing it in the unlikely event it should fail. If you seek a preamplifier in the $10,000 range, be sure to put the ET7-S2 on your short list for an audition. You will not be disappointed.

Further Listening: Jeff Dorgay

Having lived with nearly every conrad-johnson preamplifier since the PV-1, it’s been an amazing journey with Lew Johnson and Bill Conrad. (and now new principal, Jeff Fischel, who has taken over after being involved for nearly 20 years)

Their original amplifiers and preamplifiers back from the late 70s to the mid 90s had a sound that was tonally rich and saturated, though criticized by some to be a bit warm and vintage in presentation. Yet the c-j motto “it just sounds right,” won them a legion of loyal fans the world over. Much as a fancy adjective might impress you, that tagline was always the essence of their sound.

When the CJD Teflon caps were first implemented in the early 2000s, it sparked the era of what I’d call the “modern c-j sound.” None of the midrange magic and tonal purity that I’d always loved with c-j components was lost, but c-j components now had an entirely new level of bass extension, dynamic range and lower noise floor.

This began with the ACT2 and ACT2/series 2 preamplifiers, which were my main reference components for many years, then moving on to the GAT and GAT 2. All four of these preamplifiers have received an incredible amount of awards the world over, and many end users as well as audio reviewers have called them the best in the world – for good reason. There’s still something unmistakable about the c-j experience. Few preamplifiers have this level of refinement with no shortcoming. Full circle, “it just sounds right” is as salient in 2019 as it was in 1979. That’s impressive.

Running the ET7 through its paces here, with a wide range of power amplifiers from c-j and others. Though the ET7 uses single ended outputs, it (like the others before it) has no problem driving a 30- foot pair of interconnects to a pair of power amplifiers on the other side of the listening room. Comparing the sound through the 30-foot pair of Cardas Clear interconnects and a 3-foot pair revealed no difference. The design team at c-j has always taken a less is more approach and it has always worked well.

Where there is still a substantial enough difference in sheer scale and resolution to more than justify stepping up to the mighty GAT 2, provided you have the system and can justify the expense, a quick comparison to an ACT 2 shows just how much the design team has learned. Granted some of this could be the difference inherent in the 6H30 triodes used in the ACT 2 versus the single 6922 in the ET7, but the current preamplifier has more refinement, much more. If this makes sense, the ACT 2 sounds a bit brutal now by comparison. It’s like the difference between the power delivery of a late 90s air-cooled Porsche 911 and the current car: the older car had more urge, which grabs you at first, but the new car has a much wider power band and modulation of power that it’s more useful every day.

Considering that 15 years ago, the ACT2 was a killer preamplifier at $13,500, the ET7 is an exceptional value at $12,000 today. Hence, the ET7 gets one of our first awards of 2019, and well deserved. This certainly can be a destination preamplifier for 99% of our listeners. It still sounds right.

Conrad-Johnson ET7-S2 linestage preamplifier

MSRP: $12,000


Analog Source SME Model 10 with SME V and Model 10 tonearms. Dynavector 17D3 and Denon DL-103R cartridges

Digital Sources Mac Mini, Roon Music Service, Simaudio MOON 780D DAC, Oppo BDP-103

Amplification Conrad-Johnson ART150

Speakers GamuT RS3i, JL Audio Dominion Subwoofers

Cables Jena Labs

Power Torus AVR 15 Plus, RSA Mongoose, and Cardas Clear power cords

Accessories ASC tube traps, Mapleshade Samson audio racks, Coffman Labs Equipment Footers, AudioQuest Jitterbug, Atomic Audio Labs Mac Mini stand