REL Carbon Special subwoofer

REL Acoustics Carbon Special

This REL is equipped with so-called PerfectFilters that allow the user to adjust the upper roll-off frequency, the output level (which is separate for high level and LFE inputs) and phase. Getting all the parameters right for both the room and the partnering speakers is critical to the end result. Placement is a factor, but not as big a one as I had expected. REL’s Rob Hunt put the Carbon Special to the right of the RH channel main speaker and a little further away from the wall, connected up the high-level input and power cable and listened to the results. Setting up process starts with finding the best phase position followed by dialling in the output level and the crossover point (roll-off) by ear. A little bit of trial and error is inevitable, but, with perseverance and effort, the final result can be good and rewarding.

Rob set the Carbon Special up with Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 speakers, which have a reasonably prodigious extension and power in the bass, albeit less so than a 1kW actively driven device such as the REL. I started listening with some acoustic guitar, Gwenifer Raymond’s latest single ‘Eulogy for a Dead French Composer’ (Tompkins Square). This recording has limited low-frequency content but sounded more relaxed, and three dimensional with the REL switched on, the balance became a little warmer and the timing improved. It was more than a subtle improvement and made the brilliance of the fingerpicking all the more impressive as it brought more detail from every note. A more substantial piece of music, Schubert’s The Great (Maxim Emelyanychev, Scottish Chamber Orchestra Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major, Linn), the orchestra expanded before me creating a vast vista of sound that felt more complete and solid, yet smoother, so much so that the level could be cranked a slightly higher than usual without apparent distortion.

The Carbon Special appears to fill in the fine detail so much that turning it off creates an impression of something missing. There is a sense of leading edges being softer, and all may not like that, but this effect is accompanied by a stronger sense of timing, which, no matter how counter-intuitive, proved to be the case with many pieces of music I played during the review. On Radiohead’s ‘Decks Dark’ (Moon Shaped Pool, XL), extra low end was clearly present from the start, as well as more information higher up the bandwidth. Almost as if the subwoofer was unearthing quieter notes that the speaker was not. May seem strange, but did sound rather good. Another impressive virtue of the Carbon Special is a sense of the greater wealth of information being presented in an entirely coherent fashion. With Alfred Brendel playing Haydn (11 Piano Sonatas, Philips), the REL takes the edge of a slightly bright piano adding depth to each note. The very same thing happens with Lana del Rey, whose voice sounds spectacular on ‘NFR!’ (NFR!, Polydor). It’s usually strong, but the presence produced by the Carbon Special is off the scale, and the rumble in the chorus is sublime. I played some more voices to see if it could do the same again and, more or less, it did, like Richard Lord’s subs never did.

I thought it would be salient to try the REL with a smaller speaker, so I hooked up a pair of PMC twenty.21 stand-mount design. It was at this point that the set up no longer worked and I realised how laborious getting a seamless transition with smaller speakers can be. However, with perseverance and pulling the PMCs away from the wall to energise the mid and treble, I achieved a good result, once again using the sub was clearly preferable to not having it engaged. The effect was similar to that with the 802s; smoothing of the slight forwardness and a filling in of the gaps in its presentation, while timing also improved. Naturally, there was also a stronger sense of bass extension well beyond the main speaker’s reach, so any track with low-end power was much more substantial, but not overblown. Esperanza Spalding’s bass line benefited considerably on ‘Ebony & Ivy’ (Emily’s D+Evolution, Concord), going from a suggestion to a statement when the subwoofer was switched on.

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