REL Raises The Bar

The new no.31 Reference Subwoofer is a substantial improvement.

If you aren’t paying close attention, you might easily mistake REL’s new no.31 subwoofer for one of their outgoing reference models. Upon close inspection, aside from the new super-coolio carbon fiber badge, the rear facets of the cabinet top are beveled – a further effort to refine the shape and eliminate resonance.

We often discuss break-in time in terms of days and hours, yet the difference between the no.31 and RELs past is immediate. The no.31 is faster, more nimble. If you only think of the low-frequency augmentation provided by a subwoofer as a single sonic shade, be prepared to have your paradigm reset.

Those familiar with the effect of adding one (or more) REL subwoofers to their system, will be equally impressed. John Hunter and his team have pushed the possibility of what a subwoofer can add to a high performance audio system further than ever.

$7,000 ea.

Please click here to visit the REL site, for full specifications. We’ll have a full review shortly.

The REL 212SE Subwoofer

Actually, two of them.

As REL’s John Hunter will tell you, you need a pair of 212SEs to disappear in your room, and that is the ultimate goal of a sub-bass system, to prove a transparent extension to your main speakers, never drawing attention to themselves. While the uninitiated might opt for small cubes that can be placed a bit more out of the way, Hunter explains it succinctly: “When you hear low-frequency information out in the real world, it doesn’t just come at you from off in the corner, it envelops you from all directions.” Thus, the height factor of the 212SE is equally important to disappear audibly.

After Hunter spends a bit of time optimizing my Focal Sopra no.3s for perfect positioning, blending the 212SEs into the rest of the system takes place quickly. When complete, the subs are impossible to localize, and in addition to the lower register improving dramatically, the entire presentation takes on greater depth, width, and height. The Sopra no.3s and the 212SEs work together as one. Perfectly.

As the music is playing, Hunter says, “Ok, now we’re listening to about $300k worth of gear, right?” Then with a quick flick of two switches and a wry smile, he turns the 212SE’s off and says, “Now we’re listening to $292,000 worth of gear.” The difference is staggering; the soundstage completely collapses. Considering the $8,000 that a pair of 212SEs will set you back, won’t even buy a power cord from some manufacturers, this is amazing. The delta achieved by including the pair of 212SEs in my reference system is more than just a 100% jump, I no longer can listen to the system without them in. Adding a pair of these subwoofers to get this improvement for less than 3% of the total system cost is unbelievable.

It’s not the bass; it’s everywhere

The level of depth that the pair of 212SEs adds to the mix is just as exciting as the low-frequency extension. The delicacy of the opening Fender Rhodes licks in the Springsteen classic “Kitty’s Back,” waft through space between my Focal Sopra no.3s so gently, it sounds better than when I’ve sat ten feet away from one in a club. This stunning realism is the key to the 212s presentation. As it says on the REL website, their goal is to restore midrange warmth and harmonic structure. This deceptively simple goal, nearly impossible to achieve, is a promise that has never been delivered in my listening room until now.

Tracking through myriad cuts deliberately lacking substantial LF content reinforces the initial experience. Whether listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Eddie Mercury, my system has more bloom, more dimensionality. The music comes alive in all dimensions more clearly, with more low-level information present at all volume levels. Enticing as giving the volume control a hearty spin is, it’s still good at low volume.

These subwoofers have been a serious threat to productivity. The experience they’ve added to my primary reference system keeps me glued to the listening chair, at times for hours, at times for the entire day. With so much more musical information available, listening becomes sheer joy again.

It’s almost better than real

Because of the power required, lower frequency extension and detail is usually the first thing to give up the ghost when pushed, followed closely by overall system imaging. Depending on your room, system, and available power, it happens gradually or in a brick wall fashion. For the first time in nearly 40 years, this didn’t happen, no matter how loud the music was. The REL 212SEs offer no trace of distortion, compression or fatigue. Even when hitting nearly 120db peaks in my 16 x 25-foot listening room.

Fun as this is, be careful should you attempt this at home, OSHA says you should not be exposed to music at this high volume level for more than about 10 minutes. Just enough to listen to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” in a way I’ve never experienced it – not even live. Whether you jump off the cliff for a pair of 212SEs or even one of REL’s smallest offerings, the musical force that comes with having a great sub-bass system will make it tough, if not impossible to go back. You can’t unhear it.

Inside the black box

We can go on and on about the tech inside the 212SE, but from the listening chair, it’s all about execution and level to detail. That’s why the 1.6-liter engine in a Kia makes 150 horsepower on a good day, and the 1.6-liter engine in a contemporary F1 car makes almost 900. Make no mistake, REL is the Ferrari F1 of low-frequency reproduction. Full specs are available on the REL site here:

The 212SE looks conventional from a distance, a big black box with woofers in the front. A closer look reveals that the two front-firing 12” continuous cast active drivers are paired to an additional 12” passive cone on both the rear and bottom. The passive cones use the same material as the active drivers, providing sonic consistency. REL claims that the two passive drivers not only add dimension to the bass produced giving the 212SE the equivalent of a pair of 17-inch drivers. Driving each of these woofer arrays is a 1,000-watt amplifier, optimized for its job.

Closer inspection reveals numerous fine details; the finish is exquisite. Not only is it the equivalent of anything I’ve seen on a six-figure pair of Wilson or Magico speakers, but it’s also the equivalent of anything I’ve seen on a Bentley. The gloss black on the review 212s is liquid in appearance, and this reflective quality helps it to physically disappear in the room. Even the complexity of the machined shape in the side handles reveals a level of attention that tells you this is indeed a special product.

For those not familiar with REL, they use a speaker level connection, requiring your main speaker’s run full range, so the signal going to the subs has the same sonic signature of what is going to the mains via your power amplifier. They can be used via line level inputs as well, but whenever I’ve tried this with a REL subwoofer, the results were never quite as good as doing it their way.

Should running a cable be inconvenient, REL subwoofers can also be connected via their Longbow wireless transceiver. The Longbow is a compression-free wireless system, utilizing the same speaker or line level outputs, transmitting wireless information effortlessly. While this option was not taken here, it has been used with other REL products with excellent result.

And the winner is

The combination of dynamics and musicality that a pair of REL 212SEs add to the mix is of such high quality, I had made up my mind after about 10 hours of listening (I was up until about 4 a.m. after Hunter left, the day he installed them) that this would be our product of the year. For my money, this could be TONE’s product of all time.

I’ve had the privilege to own and evaluate thousands of components in the last two decades. Nothing has ever come close to achieving so much at such a modest cost. $8,000 is by no means chump change, but when other companies are asking ten times this for wire, that they claim is a “component level” upgrade, I call shenanigans. If your system doesn’t go to 11 right now, a pair of these will get you there. And if it already does, hang on; you’re still in for a ride you aren’t expecting.

In the end, I’m not sure what freaks me out more, that a pair of REL 212SEs are this good, or knowing that there are two more models above the 212SE.

The REL 212SE Subwoofer

$4,000 each, two used in this review


Analog Source                        Grand Prix Audio Monaco 2.0w/triplanar arm, Lyra Etna

Digital Source                         dCS Rossini DAC and clock

Main Speakers                        Focal Sopra no.3

Preamplifier                             Pass Labs XSPre

Phono                                      Pass Labs XSPhono

Amplifiers                               Pass Labs XS 300 monos, XA200.8 monos

Cable                                       Cardas Clear, Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Racks                                      Grand Prix Audio Monaco

REL Gibraltar G-2 Sub-Bass System

A recurring theme in country music and, perhaps, in life is that you never realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Truer words were never spoken in the world of audiophilia when it comes to reproducing bass.  However, a subwoofer can drive you to madness, much like a high-maintenance romantic interest.  When it’s right, you’re giddy with delight and things couldn’t be better, but when it’s wrong, all you do is focus on said partner’s shortcomings—and, eventually, you both go your separate ways.

Having spent the last 20 years on and off the bus with a wide variety of subwoofers, I can highly recommend the REL G-2 for any number of reasons.  Perhaps this subwoofer’s greatest selling point, however, is that it comes with a remote.  My enthusiasm regarding this feature doesn’t (necessarily) speak to my inability to escape my listening chair’s gravitational pull; it is more to comment that having this wireless device in my hand satiates the nagging voice at the back of my mind that is always just slightly dissatisfied with the subwoofer settings.  The REL G-2 eliminates that stress completely by providing just the right amount of low-frequency (or LF) reinforcement right at your fingertips.

The G-2 is also easy to set up—that is, it’s as easy to set up as a 90-pound anything can be.  Thus, I suggest that even our more-muscular readers enlist help when moving the G-2, because it’s just big and awkwardly shaped enough to be a little tough for one person to lift.  Many users may even decide that incorporating a few of these subs into their system is necessary.  In this case, you should enlist the aid of an installer or, at the very least, a handful of burly buddies.

Sumiko Audio, the importer of REF subwoofers in Berkeley, CA, has a sizeable showcase of three G-1s flanking either side of Sonus faber’s celebrated flagship loudspeakers (dubbed simply “The Sonus faber”).  The audio experience this system provides is understandably impressive.  The LF performance is effortless, all encompassing and seamlessly integrated with the main speakers.  The bass swells up from the performance with an ease that suggests a major paradigm shift in how the lowest musical notes should be handled.

Priced at $3,495, the G-2 is slightly smaller in stature and reach than the larger G-1, priced at $4,495.  The G-2 uses a long-throw 10-inch woofer with a carbon-fiber cone and a 450-watt onboard amplifier, whereas the G-1 uses a 600-watt amplifier to drive its 12-inch woofer.  Down only 6 dB at 18 Hz, the G-2 should provide enough bass grunt for most users, either by itself or as a pair, but it can also be stacked and used as part of an array.

Major Differences

REL manages the lower frequencies differently than other manufacturers—and does so with excellent result.  While the company offers line-level RCA inputs, these should be used only as a last resort.  The supplied Neutrik speakON connector utilizes a high-level connection that goes directly to your power amplifier’s speaker outputs.  The sub’s high impedance does not affect loading of the main speakers, thus allowing the character of your amplifier’s sound to carry forward into the subwoofer.  Consulting the instruction manual and using my preamplifier’s outputs to drive the G-2 still results in decent sound.  When switching power amplifiers, from the Audio Research REF 150 to the Burmester 911 to the Pass Labs Aleph 3, a slight disconnect between main speakers and subwoofer exists.  However, during all of this, the bass reproduction does not change in character, even with these three very different amplifiers via the RCAs.  Moving to the provided speakON input reveals the variations between amplifiers more easily, with a more seamless blend between the main speakers.

Those wanting to use the G-2, or multiple G-2s, in a multichannel system will be happy to find that the sub can accommodate the .1/LFE signal from your processor of choice.  It also has a unique grounding circuit to work with class-D amplifiers or monoblock power amps.  All of this is clearly outlined in the well-written manual.

Though it adds cost and complexity, the G-1 and G-2 both use MOSFET class-AB amplifiers with massive power supplies instead of the class-D amplifiers found in many other subwoofers.  REL claims that its subs to have the fastest crossover filter networks, with a rise time of only 4 milliseconds.  I’m firmly convinced that these features, along with an additional filter with a gentle slope that removes content above 250 Hz, contribute to the level of fine detail that the G-2 offers.

REL prefers corner loading for the G-2, and that’s where I’ve had the best luck with the company’s subs in the past—so why mess with good results?  And this is where that nifty little remote control comes in handy.  As I said, fine-tuning a subwoofer, no matter what brand and by what method you choose, can make your hair fall out.  Like me, I’m sure you have your favorite tracks with deep-bass information that you use to audition any speaker, regardless of whether it has a subwoofer or not.

Now, as much as I dislike Jennifer Warnes’ “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” I’ve always seen various Sumiko employees use this track to optimize speakers to great success, so when in Rome… While this track certainly impressed, even Romans like to party, so I moved on to something with a little more oomph for my review of the G-2.  With the best balance of weight and speed achieved, “Kill Everybody” from electronica master Skrillex blew me out of my listening chair—just like the guy in the Maxell ad from the 1980s.  The G-2 gives new meaning to the term “room lock.” Should Jennifer Warnes or a real-time analyzer not be your cup of tea, a series of test tones (like those from the early Stereophile test discs) simplify the process.  As you go down the frequency range, the transition from main speakers should appear at the same level.  It should also be difficult, if not impossible, to discern the location of the subwoofer when using just your ears.

Controlling this from your listening position dramatically reduces setup time, allowing you to remain planted in the same spot while making quick, small changes without having to psyche yourself out with aural memory tricks.  But best of all, the remote allows you to fine-tune on the fly.  No matter how great the G-2 sounds with your favorite bass track, it needs to be bumped up a touch up for Skynryd’s album Nuthin’ Fancy, and then way back down for the latest Cat Power release, Sun.  The LED indicator at the bottom of the G-2 lets you know the sub’s level, frequency and phase (0 or 180 degrees).  This makes up for the tiny though stylish type on the remote.  If you have kids or inquisitive friends, be sure to use the settings lock feature.

Fortunately, you’re usually never more than a click or two away on the level control and, depending on your main speakers, the crossover frequency can even benefit from a nudge now and then.  This takes the G-2 from merely great to awesome, and the more time you spend with the G-2, you’ll notice a more immersive experience at all listening levels.

Carry That Weight

The G-2 performs well with a wide range of speaker systems; but, in keeping with the REL philosophy of a sub-bass system with the sub augmenting the deepest frequencies, it is not intended to be part of a sub/sat system.  However, it still performs incredibly well throwing said suggestion to the wind, dialing the crossover frequency up to the 50-to-60-Hz range and using it with stand-mount monitors, or even ESLs.

Crossed over at 30 Hz or below, it’s virtually impossible to place the location of G-2 in the room, but it does start to lose a bit of its stealthiness when crossed over at a significantly higher point.  I suggest a pair of G-2’s if you need to operate your system this way for best results.  Fortunately, the G-2 has more than enough speed to keep up with any speaker you pair it with.

As good as the G-2 works with small speakers or panels, a full-range speaker system allows the G-2 to reach its full potential.  Crossover frequency now lowered to 27 Hz (adjustable in 1-Hz increments) the $3,495 G-2 brings the $22,900 Elipsa SE speakers eerily close in sound to that of the $45,000 Sonus faber Stradivaris.  Even my reference GamuT S9s, which are only down 3 dB at 18 Hz, open up with the G-2—and I now find myself dreaming of six of these!

Midrange Augmentation

Properly installed, the G-2 feels practically invisible, as it should, adding low-frequency reinforcement to the main speakers.  And there remains an equal benefit through the mid-band, which REL likes to refer to as “The REL effect.”  You’ll know you have the G-2 set just right when turning it on makes the side walls in your listening room disappear and when even musical selections with minimal low-bass content spread out across the soundstage with a bigger and broader effect than before.

Using the sub in this mode, only bringing up the deepest frequencies, helps convey spatial cues present in the recording space.  Even string quartets or acoustic music with no apparent major LF content open up and breathe, with my listening room feeling much bigger than it is.  I think the fourth dimension is deep bass, and the REL G-2 does it right.

Sampling familiar tunes, the wood block in Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd” is now four feet in front of my face, where it was back in line with the speakers when the G-2 level is set back to zero.  Annie Lennox’s background vocals in “No More I Love You’s” appear way off center and down almost at floor level.  One-note bass is a thing of the past with the G-2.  Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass line in Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho,” from her album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, comes through with the healthy dose of speed and overtones that made him famous.  Regardless of musical program, having the G-2 in the system is always a benefit.

Don’t Abuse the Power

The REL G-2 works equally well in both of my listening rooms—my main room is 16 feet by 25 feet; my second room is 13 feet by 16 feet—but, like any addictive substance, one has to resist the urge to overindulge.  For the first few days, it was fun to play a lot of Deadmau5, Skrillex and, of course, the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg (who now calls himself Snoop Lion).  Finding new weak spots in my walls, I got used to the G-2 and prudence became more the rule than the exception.

Having auditioned many subwoofers over the years, the REL G-2 is now at the top of my overachievers list and is featured as a TOP TONE component in issue 48.  If you’d like to unlock your system’s full potential, you should audition one—or maybe six!

The REL G-2 Sub-Bass System

MSRP:  $3,495 (Factory) (US importer)


Analog source AMG V-12 turntable    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source dCS Paganini system    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk.II
Phonostage Zesto Andros
Speakers Acoustat 1+1    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cable AudioQuest Sky IC   AudioQuest
Power Audience aR6-Tss
Accessories GIK room treatments    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    Furutech DeMag and DeStat