REL Acoustics R-328 Subwoofer
So, who the hell is REL Acoustics? That’s a question you might be asking yourself if your favorite places to shop for the latest in A/V gear happen to be Sears, RadioShack, or Big Jim’s Family Pawn & Gun Shop. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those establishments (well, Big Jim’s might be a little iffy), but REL’s subwoofers are not a cash-and-carry kind of thing. As a matter of fact, REL—a British company that makes only subwoofers—claims its products “are not traditional subwoofers, but true sub-bass systems.” Starting with this slightly different concept of what a subwoofer should be, it’s no wonder that REL subs require a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary setup and that the company recommends parameter settings that are a bit unusual. As a result, REL subwoofers are found only at retailers that have silk-robed salespeople who have been trained by mystical, shoeless REL Zen Bass Masters to be highly skilled in the ancient acoustical arts of transducental bass reproduction.
Actually, I’m kidding about the REL Zen Bass Masters part. But setting up a REL is a smidgen different than setting up a traditional subwoofer, and having a knowledgeable salesperson to install it or coach you through a self-install is key. The most unusual bit is REL’s emphatic suggestion that the subwoofer be connected to your AVR/amp using the high-level speaker inputs. REL includes a special speaker cable with a Neutrik speakON connector on the subwoofer end that makes hookup as easy as pushing and twisting. Bare wires on the other end are connected to the front speaker output terminals on the AVR/amp. REL’s reason for hooking things up this way is to make sure that the subwoofer gets exactly the same signal that your main speakers do, which REL says allows you to “build forward the sonic signature of your main system, including the tonal balance and timing cues of the entire electronics chain.” It also eliminates any bass management issues (good or bad) you might experience when switching between a stereo, analog-direct source and a multichannel movie. The subwoofer output of your system also gets connected to the REL’s low-level RCA input, which is not unusual in itself, except for the fact that the REL has independent volume controls for the high-level and LFE inputs that operate simultaneously.
Cornering the Bass Market
The other part of setting up a REL is taking the time to get the acoustics right, including phase, orientation, crossover points, level settings, and, notably, room placement. These all might seem like common subwoofer setup steps, and they are, but REL has its own take on some of the specifics. Corner placement along the front wall, for example, is key because, according to REL, it “provides 9 dB of mechanical amplification and allows for the most linear, true, low-bass wave launch.” While corner placement will generally provide the most bass, the trade-off is that it can often produce the most uneven bass response. But rather than just lugging the subwoofer to a corner and plugging it in, REL suggests using a procedure that includes listening to a piece of music with a repetitive, very-low-frequency bassline (track four from the Sneakers soundtrack is suggested) while moving the subwoofer closer to and farther away from the corner until the output of the sub is strongest and cleanest at the listening position. I won’t bore you with the rest of the individual parameter particulars, but the other major setup difference is that the crossover point is usually set lower on a REL than with most subwoofers, with the volume level being higher than it is on others, with the goal in mind of generating a good sub-bass foundation.
The $1,799 R-328 is the result of a darn-near-full-on overhaul of REL’s R-Series line, in which the company’s engineers fiddled with the amplifiers, filter networks, cabinets, and drivers. The middle of three R-Series subs, the R-328 is a compact beauty with a hand-rubbed, Piano Black Lacquer finish, polished aluminum feet, a small square of aluminum on the top side, and a subtle, thin aluminum trim strip placed on the left and right sides of the cabinet. At 13.5 inches wide x 15.1 inches high x 15.2 inches deep, the R-328’s size could still be classified as modest and inconspicuous, but I think it’d be a shame for anyone to attempt to hide or conceal such a great-looking subwoofer.
Behind the black grille cloth on the front is a 10-inch, active driver that’s paired with a 12-inch, down-firing, carbon-fiber-coned, passive radiator mounted on the bottom of the cabinet. The 350-watt, internal amp and crossover (hand-built by Welsh technicians, it is said) are placed inside a separate enclosure within the cabinet. REL says this keeps them from being affected by the high pressures generated by the drivers.
When set up properly, listening to a REL subwoofer can be a sublime musical experience. Nina Simone’s version of “Love Me or Leave Me” is literally awash in bass notes that her voice rides on top of, and the R-328 filled in that underpinning flawlessly. With this piece, it was immediately apparent that the whole “let’s-do-things-differently” setup process must be worth the trouble because with the R-328 you not only feel the bass (as any subwoofer worth its binding posts should be able to do), but you feel and hear the subtle textures within the bass notes. It was especially noticeable on another old standard, “My Name is Luka” by Suzanne Vega. The R-328 did an impeccable job of bringing forward the nuances in the drum beats and guitar strings. Similarly, it was hard not to reach out and try to feel the air rushing through the pipes when listening to Chesky’s “Organ & Chimes.” The R-328 was certainly able to dig deep, and was also very impressive on “20 Hz Heartbeat.” In fact, during this selection I could sometimes hear a very faint vibration as the 45-pound cabinet’s spiked feet lifted off the ground!
REL’s emphasis on music and starting off with a great, two-channel foundation doesn’t in any way mean the R-328 isn’t ready for home theater. During a viewing of Night at the Museum, the REL certainly made its presence known as Larry flees to the relative safety of the elevator while being chased by Attila the Hun and friends. And in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the R-328 provided that same low-frequency foundation for the effects channel as it did for the music when the giant fish bowl breaks loose and rolls through (and over) the town.
More Than Just a Pretty Bass
There’s no question that the REL R-328 is a remarkably musical subwoofer that does a fantastic job for movies, too. But be advised: To really get the sensational sub-bass foundational benefit that the R-328 (or any REL sub) is designed to provide, you’ll need to spend some serious time on the tuning and be willing to place the subwoofer where it will sound best—not where it’s the most convenient or where it happens to look best with the furniture. For some people, that’s too big of a hurdle to overcome. On the other hand, if you’re willing to follow the sound of a slightly different drummer, the R-328 should make you glad that you did.
Editor’s Note: The 6.65dB peak in the R-328’s measured LFE input response is well outside our +/- 3dB threshold and would normally disqualify any subwoofer from Top Pick designation. However, REL’s design approach, as noted in the review, relies heavily on room boundary reinforcement and results in more uniform subjective in-room performance than our measurement suggests. That said, readers would do well to heed DW’s advice that this woofer’s tuning and room placement are critical to achieving the stellar performance described.—RS]