John Hunter - REL
Among the speakers we can distinguish some types made for specific applications, such as center channels, wireless active speakers or subwoofers. Each has its place in a stereo or home theater, but their makers rarely focus on a particular type of speaker. Manufacturers try to satisfy every customer and offer everything, including these very specific products. There are several specialized factories among which subwoofer specialists tend to be the strongest group. REL was founded in 1990 by Richard Edmund Lord.
However, the company we know was born in 2005, when John Hunter and Donald Brody joined the business. They redefined the objectives facing REL and implemented them step by step. We asked John Hunter a couple of questions to explain the complex world of subwoofers.
Can you please tell us something about yourself and your work at REL? How did it start, and how's it going now?
I have been designing REL's products for over a decade now. Before that, I owned one of the finest distributors in the audio world at the time, Sumiko. I have 23 years of experience working with some of the best speaker designers in Europe, particularly Franco Serblin who founded and created the magic of the original Sonus Faber, taught me so much about design and development. My work has focussed on several key elements - creating faster sounding, more dynamic products by carefully reducing the moving mass of the driver. Increasing output by as much as 10 dB (perceptibly tripling the max output) through dramatic upgrading of drivers and amplifiers. Creating crossover filters that are some 2-3 times faster than a decade ago and, hopefully, making products that are much more beautiful and better finished than anything we offered previously. We always remain hungry and are always looking for ways to improve our products. Things are going very well as we have doubled the size of the company in the past 3 years and have upgraded several aspects of our company including engineering and customer service. We are committed to becoming the best audio company in the world.
When you have a stereo or home cinema system with floorstanding speakers or monitors, their frequency response will probably start at around 40-60 Hz - according to their manufacturers - which is quite nice. Some people may ask if it's worth fighting for to get to these 20 Hz acknowledged to be the limit of our perception. So is it?
Good question. I find people who have never heard a REL don't understand what we do, principally because we are lumped in together with other companies offering a category broadly called a "subwoofer". Let me state categorically, I hate subwoofers. Yet I love REL and what they do for music and cinema (it is the very reason we bought the company). Nothing else in audio improves a good system like a REL. Please understand that bass per se, is not what I hear when I hear a REL properly integrated into a good system. I hear balance, transparency, focus, precision and greatly improved soundstaging. Nothing else makes as big an improvement to an already good system as the appropriate REL. If a REL were, for example, a high end audio cables (something most audio and music lovers readily endorse), reviewers would be fighting over superlatives because the improvements we produce are massive, while most cables offer very good value early on. After that cables offer relatively incremental changes. Our subwoofers, on the other hand, produce shocking improvements, often for far less money than yet another cable upgrade. The importance of producing structural bass down into the upper 20's (something even a relatively affordable REL can supply) is profound as it restores the natural balance of music and produces a foundation under the music. Listen to a REL, you will hear the concert hall, room, bar, cathedral, recording studio present and with it, the proper context and acoustic scale.
There are only several companies in the world specializing in subwoofers. Is it a difficult art to build them? Or maybe there's not much space for such specialized gear on the market?
Another great question. Much of what we see out there is not very impressive. Let me dispel a myth that is running around Europe that REL builds Sumiko's subs. We have nothing to do with these, they are simply a vague attempt to copy our work). As you implied, great sub bass systems are very difficult to manufacture and design. Three of the hardest things to do well - drivers, amps and cabinets - we have to do all three perfectly and reliably under really terrible conditions. Basically, we have to be faster than the fastest speaker each model is likely to be paired with (or we will slow the system down), more dynamic and play louder than the best speaker in category (or we will compress the sound) and maintain perfect reliability - all packaged in relatively small, beautiful cabinet designs. Other than that, it is quite easy (laughs). There will always be a market for the best of anything. Nothing else is a REL.
Many manufacturers of loudspeakers include subwoofer in their catalogues to suit the 2.1 and home cinema systems, but don't have real experience with active speakers. Is it better to buy a completely different subwoofer even if all the other speakers are designed to work together?
Put simply, conventional speaker designers tend to relegate subwoofers to the afterthought category. This means that REL is almost always a better mate to a customer's main speakers than the same manufacturer's offering even though they come from different brands. Everything we do in engineering is to ensure our designs are transparent to the system which means they blend perfectly. But don't take our word for it, critics and reviewers all over the world have noted this unique quality for decades.
Can a subwoofer adapt to any stereo or home cinema system? How can we make sure that it will work with the speakers we already have?
Yes, but it is critical that the correct REL is chosen to support the main speakers. We guide customers all over the world and our guidance is based upon your system's scale, speed, and dynamics matched to the correct REL. We always guide based on perfect parameter matching and if you follow these, then the blend is perfect.
What elements determine the character of the sound in the lowest frequencies. Which are critical to achieve the best sound quality?
Most people, even speaker designers, give little thought to this. There are 3 areas of any bass transient and most subs only produce 1 of the 3. The first one is the initial impact - transient attack must be extremely fast and explosive. Most subs are so slow they blunt the attack, REL's seek to be faster than the main speaker. The second one is the body of the note. This is the main bloom of the note and most subs do OK but tend to boom through this. The third area is the decay of the note. REL's, because of their speed and transient abilities produce beautiful hall decay and the sense of air in music.
Some audiophiles say that improving the quality of low frequencies can actually improve the treble and vice versa. Does it really work like this or is it just our brains fooling us?
This is absolutely true, but only if you have a great sub. The ear hears full range sound in real life. In playback systems, we tend to experience bass limitations that we make excuses for. But the brain, when it is missing the lowest octave experiences a rising frequency response. REL restores the correct, natural balance to music and by doing so, restores the harmonic structure. The result is air, liquidity and an absence of bright hard sounds in the low treble that are painful because finally the brain has a full, balanced sound to process.
On your website you claim that REL remains the only company to truly study film sound and work with transfer studio engineers to unlock the promise implicit in Dolby's standard. What does it mean exactly and how does it translate into making subwoofers?
Dolby and film sound in general is an incredibly intricate, difficult thing to pull off properly and far beyond the scope of this article. But think about this - in a top flight transfer studio the engineer is listening to 5 full range speakers capable of output into the low 20s. Most large home speakers (because of room boundary interference if nothing else) begin to lose energy by 40 Hz. A single REL offers the capability of extending the bass down into the same region as the original film master and also reproduces the actual LFE track as well through a second dedicated channel built-in. Once you hear this ability, you will understand how much of theater has been missing with conventional systems.
In many cases the low frequencies are those which generate troubles with the acoustics of a listening room. Finding the right place for a subwoofer is not easy in some cases, so what do you advice?
The real problem is that most subs are designed to be flashy and make a huge amount of output in the middle bass (from 50-80 Hz), which is truly where rooms run into trouble. REL owners experience very few room boundary issues precisely because we are not marketing driven. Our designs are intended to produce truly flat, deep bass and rooms are generally not peaky in this region below 50 Hz.
Another way to get rid of the acoustics-related problems are DSP processors. Or is it? Some of your products are equipped with remote control units to tune the subwoofer right from the place where we sit during listening to music. Is it better than microphones and software?
Separate issues, two answers. We do not advocate the use use of room correction DSP as our experience is that they result in slow (taking measurements and altering frequency balance takes time and slows the impulse response), ill defined systems lacking in dynamics. We spend a huge amount of time and money teaching proper set-up and system optimization to our distributors and dealers. Getting computers out of the reproduction path results in much more fun, explosively dynamic systems than free, uncalibrated microphones being used by customers untrained in the techniques of proper use. A little common sense goes a long way. Start with re-setting your speakers to large or full range and you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much better your system sounds immediately. Remote controls - because we don't design our crossover filters by listening to the marketing department, our products can be set up properly and after the first couple of days (usually turning down the sub as it breaks in and gets louder) will be left alone. This is key since competitors start off with some pretty awful filters (this is where the boom starts) and ask the customer to turn the sub down for music and up for theater. If you're having to do this, you need a new sub. Period. The only model that offers a remote is the Gibraltar range and the only reason we went ahead and produced it this way is because we were already using digital rotary controls for precise calibration of individual frequencies (the filters themselves are pure analog) and all it took to turn it into a remote was adding an LED emitter. So it was a matter of the engineering driving this and being able to keep the costs low by doing so. But the same thing applies to Gibraltar, once you are through the initial set, you'll probably never touch it again.
Some people say that low frequencies are completely non-directional and it doesn't matter where the bass speakers are pointing and where they are in relation to other drivers. Would you agree with that?
Some people would be, um, wrong. In music and film, bass is almost always a series of transients - short, sharp and frequently high impact. These are exceptionally difficult to reproduce and make placement of both main speakers and sub critical. Best results for a single REL are generally obtained from a corner simply because this produces the longest throw in any given room. Corner to diagonally-opposite corner is generally the greatest distance in a room and experience has taught us that a sub carefully placed and toed-in toward the listening area produces the fastest, cleanest most dynamic sound.
Your subwoofers are mostly fitted with down-firing drivers. We can rarely see boxes with two woofers working in a push-push configuration or other exotic layouts. Why?
Actually, almost all of our designs these days are multi-modal with a very fast pistonic forward-firing active driver and a down (or in the case of the amazing new 212SE, both down and rear-firing). We find that exciting and driving a room hard in at least two modes results in a best of both worlds result with the forward firing active producing a speed and slam that down-firing cannot and the passive creating the lowest, floor crawling fundamentals needed for truly deep bass.
There is a strong trend on the market towards the hi-res files, which of course matters to the makers of DACs and streamers, but is it also important to you?
First of all, we are for anything that moves the art forward. But hi-res tends to get overblown by its adherents. What it clearly offers is better air, not unlike adding a super tweeter. Adding a REL to a hi-res system produces the balance and fullness that often is lacking in most systems, especially hi-res. When you take a system that is already deficient in full range sound and add yet more treble information, it can emphasize the weakness in the average audiophile system. Even mores than in a normal resolution system, REL's become critical in hi-res.
We were quite amazed by the form of the Habitat subwoofer when we saw first photos of it. Is it the future or just a nice idea for the moment? Are you planning to expand this range?
Thanks, and yes we believe in Habitat and the idea of expanding this experience that all your readers know and love to a broader audience. First and foremost, when people hear a Habitat, they are amazed at the true high end performance of this model. It is only then that high quality customers allow themselves to become excited about the form factor and getting things off the floor and integrated into their living space. Habitat spawned the Longbow wireless system that is a first of its kind. Conventional wireless sounds pretty awful, yet we have a system that produces no compression and needs no expansion and is almost 10 times faster than Bluetooth or WiFi. We have already rolled this into Serie S and the new 212SE so Habitat is a kind of laboratory for new technologies as well. This design will pay dividends for years to come.