There is one obvious and one not so obvious impression to draw from the REL 212/SE subwoofer. The obvious one is the sheer size of it means it is a real earth-mover, one of those subwoofers that loosen fillings in cinemas. And yes, it can do that if that’s what you want from a subwoofer. But it’s also capable of so much more, and brings a level of clarity and openness to any good speaker system. Unfortunately, that side of it is all too easy to miss.
The 212/SE is on the big side for a subwoofer. In fact, it’s about the size of a small washing machine. This gives the sealed box 212/SE the potential for stacking two powered long-throw 300mm ‘Continuous Cast Alloy Bass Engine’ cone drive units along the front panel, with passive radiating 300mm ‘Continuous Cast Alloy Bass Engine’ cone drive units firing rearward and downward. And yet, the cabinet still has room for a 1kW of on-board amplification. It has the usual REL low- and high-level connections and controls (designed for both speaker level connection for traditional audio use, and fed by a RCA phono lead for ‘point one’ use in a multichannel context).
Those are big boy specifications for a big boy subwoofer, and that is how many might perceive the REL 212/SE. And, indeed, if that’s what you want from a subwoofer, this delivers the goods. Whether it’s playing organ pedal notes so low you feel the breath being pushed out of your lungs, tooth-rattling super deep wub-wub-wubby dubstep (remember dubstep? It was all the rage a few years ago, and even advertising agencies have dropped it like a sonic stone now), or the sounds of spaceships and gun-play so loud and bass-heavy that bits of furniture run and hide, the 212/SE can do this and more without breaking sweat. But this is not just a bass bazooka, as the REL is equally well geared toward a more tamed approach.
Used in a pure audio context, where the REL is connected to the red terminals of left and right loudspeaker outputs at the amplifier, and one of the black terminals, the 212/SE can be a deft, persuasive performer. This requires a careful hand, moving away from the ‘slam/bang’ kind of bass performance and instead toward a ‘barely audible’ gentle blend with the loudspeaker output. This is done through the medium of the level and bass roll-off control, and occasionally the phase setting should you set the speaker and subwoofer in very different parts of the room.
In fact, two important conditions should be met to show what the REL 212/SE is capable of, careful setting of the controls to match the loudspeaker notwithstanding. The first is a very precise installation of the whole system, but especially the loudspeakers and their position relative to the subwoofer. REL makes a strong case for using the ‘master set’ method of installation, which effectively ‘locks down’ one loudspeaker using tiny increments until bass integrates with treble, and this acts as an anchor when applying the same rules to the other speaker. A relatively simple track with a good bass-line is often called for (often ‘Ballad of a Runaway Horse’ by Jennifer Warnes’ from the Famous Blue Raincoat, 20th Anniversary Edition CD, Attic). This set-up procedure can sometimes require hours of careful positioning, and sometimes may even have a different toe-in on one side relative to the other if the room demands it. However, with this set-up completed, it gives the speakers the perfect balance, ideal for a subtle underpinning of REL to broaden out the performance. The other important condition is to set the sub just at the limit of audibility… and then revisit a week or two later and turn it down a notch!