Equipment Review No. 3 October 2001
Rel Storm III Subwoofer
$1795 pr. (black)
$1995 pr. (wood finish)
2431 Fifth St.
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500 voice
(510) 843-7120 fax
10" downward firing ported subwoofer; crossover from 22-95 Hz in 24 adjustable steps; high and low level inputs with defeatable crossover on low level; both crossover inputs can be used simultaneously for music and theater with independent gain adjustments; phase adjustment; 1.25" cabinet thickness; spikes for feet included; overload protection; 16.5"w x 24.5"h x 13"d; 60 pounds; 3 year warranty.
Krell KST-100 Amplifier, Meridian 568 Preamplifier/ Processor, computer DVD, Philips Transport, PS Audio P300 Power Plant, Thiel CS2.3 speakers, Audioquest, MIT & Discovery cabling, and Bag End InfraSub 18 for comparison.
The manual is very detailed about subwoofer setup including sections on hookup, setting all the controls, placement, and design. There is a quick setup procedure that has all the necessary information to set up the subwoofer in a new room with a new set of speakers in less than 15 minutes. It is called Rel set-up made simple. I was lucky because Kevin Wolff from Sumiko came over to setup the subwoofer in my listening room. At first I protested because I didn't want any preferential treatment, but Kevin assured me that the dealer would come over and setup the subwoofer in the customer's home in the same manner. He also provided me with some background on the company and the design philosophy. I had already connected the woofer to the amplifier via supplied speaker-level cable, so Kevin listened a little to the Thiels, and we began to fine-tune the subwoofer to the room and the system. I only had a chance to play the sub for a little less than a day before Kevin arrived, so it was still breaking in. Kevin suggested that I might have to fine-tune the sub a little more after the next few days, and he was right. When I readjusted the subwoofer after the break-in period, I started from scratch. I would suggest having two people present for this task although I was able to do it alone being the die-hard reviewer that I am! The Rel set-up guide is very detailed and describes exactly how to properly position and adjust the subwoofer, so I won't outline the procedure here.
One of the things that Kevin mentioned to me while he was setting up the woofer stuck with me. He claimed that by a small adjustment of the crossover it would be possible to not only change the frequency going to the subwoofer, but also allow for a change in tonal characteristic of the system. I'm not talking about the difference between a heavy throbbing bass sound or a thin sound quality that is common when the bass is clearly misadjusted. The difference became one of a leaner or warmer sound and preference was wholly subjective depending on taste. By the turn of the switch on the back of the unit I could easily change system balance in a way that was both complementary and yet different at the same time. Rel suggests that different music and taste will play into this decision and I fully agree that experimentation is necessary to get the best sound. Even after I was satisfied for a period of time, a small change left me certain that I had "then again" found the best setting. Even after a dealer has set up the system and is convinced it is perfect, don't feel bad about trying a different setting. It might be a good plan to write down the previous setting in case you muck something up.
My settings were 28 Hz crossover, 180-degree phase, and about 9-11 clicks below the top on the level for the high level input. I didn't make note of the volume setting on the low level input. I was more concerned that I would be able to use both inputs and not run into trouble with the bass being too high or low depending on the LFE content. In the end, I was fairly satisfied that the woofer could be used in this manner, however, in my system, I would be content to have the woofer dedicated to the front channels. Many of the DTS discs that I listened to that made active use of the LFE channel did not really sound much better than when I routed the bass through the front channel and drove the Storm III off the front channel amplifier. Ultimately, the front speakers will be used and the flexibility of the surround processor will determine what will work the best.
In the older days of passive subwoofers it was necessary to connect speaker wires directly from the amplifier to the subwoofer to get sound. When powered subwoofers became more popular, many subwoofers still had these speaker wire (high level) inputs. In addition, they offered line level inputs that commonly consisted of a single (or stereo) RCA jack that could be connected to a preamplifier output or a dedicated subwoofer output. The argument to NOT use the high level inputs goes like this: You already have an amplifier built into the subwoofer, so why go through the amplifier in a separate component and then have to do it all over again (from high to low and back again?) Instead you could take the line signal from the separate component and send it directly to the amplifier in the subwoofer. In audio we are always told how "less is more." It seems unnecessary to have this step when a direct connection is available.
Rel recommends using the supplied speaker wire to connect directly to the back of the main amplifier. By taking the signal right off the amplifier and using this signal to derive a line signal to feed the internal subwoofer amp, it is possible to retain the characteristic sound of the main amplifier. Rel believes that you spent time finding a really good amp and either you found something incredibly neutral in which case the sound coming out of the Rel will be neutral, or you have an amp that delivers certain qualities that veer from neutrality, and by using this signal the Rel will have a similar sonic signature.
The other concern is the use of a crossover. Where is the best place to implement it in the system? Many believe that the crossover should be located in the preamplifier or control component. If the component has enough adjustment range and flexibility then this would allow easy matching between the subwoofer and other speakers in the system. There are a few possible problems right from the start:
1 The component in question does not offer variable crossover points. This would make it difficult to take advantage of the different ranges of speakers, and best adjust the frequency based on room considerations.
2 The subwoofer has a crossover that is not defeatable. This would mean the signal would have to pass through two crossovers with varying characteristics that may impact negatively on sound.
3 The component doesn't offer different settings for movies and music that might be necessary to achieve appropriate levels for both.
Rel completely overcomes all these difficulties in the Storm III. First, the Rel allows main speakers to use all of their range, and allows careful adjustment of the crossover, phase, and level of the subwoofer. Also, the crossover is defeatable for use with a dedicated subwoofer output or LFE channel from a separate component piece. And lastly, by having two different inputs for music and movies (although they are really just line and high level inputs), the Rel offers different levels depending on program content.
Listening- Part I (Music)
The first thing that people do when they install a subwoofer is grab some bass heavy CD's and relish the amount of bass they never had before. My experience with the Rel was completely different. After Kevin had finished the set-up, I began to think about the difference between most woofers and this one. Kevin claimed that having the proper bass settings on the subwoofer would not only help to extend the low end, but also allow a more coherent musical presentation. This meant that vocals would sound more real, instruments would provide a more realistic range of sound, the recording environment would become transformed into a three dimensional acoustic space, and of course bass would be more palpable, lively, and genuine.
After the initial adjustments, I tried track 8 from Me'Shell Ndegeocello's Peace Beyond Passion. This cut has some good bass, but I was also listening for changes in sense of space, changes with the vocals, and differences in other instruments. Bass was very deep and tight. My fireplace cover began rattling and I was forced to dampen it so it would not interfere with the listening sessions. Surprisingly, voice and instruments DID improve with the subwoofer in the system. And, of course, I could feel the bass coming through the floor. Me'Shell's voice became deeper and fuller although it would seem highly unlikely that the sub was operating in that frequency range. At first I was plugging and unplugging the woofer from the wall, but when I tried just turning the level down in the back there seemed to be a difference. Perhaps the fact that the subwoofer was connected to the main amp and turned off impacted the sound. From this point on I noted the volume setting via clicks (as the control is stepped), and then returned it to this position when to hear it working in the system. I verified that there was no sound coming from the subwoofer with the volume control all the way down. When I took the woofer out of the system, the entire low frequency range seemed to be missing. The sound also seemed flatter, thinner, and almost anemic by comparison. The Thiels are great speakers by themselves, but with the sub they were even better.
I should mention that Sumiko originally picked the Storm III for me with the intention of using it along with my Martin Logan SL3's. Unfortunately, the SL3's are in the shop due to a bad power supply. However, I found the Thiel CS2.3's to work extremely well with the Rel. Rel, and Rel dealers, would be more than happy to make a recommendation for a subwoofer given a certain pair of front speakers. Room size, listening taste, and other preferences would be considered as well.
To check output capability I listened to track 16 from the Stereophile Test Disc #2. My room is 15' wide by 22' long with an opening towards the back right. The subwoofer was placed diagonally opposite this opening. This was the placement chosen by Kevin when he set up the subwoofer in the first place. I didn't really experiment in other locations in the room, although I did play with positioning in that corner. Other manufacturers have also recommended this location given a diagram of my room and the furniture layout. There was good, solid output on the 40 Hz band. At 31.5 Hz the subjective level was a bit lower and at 25 Hz I noted that I could still hear the bass, but it was reduced in level. At 20 Hz there was not much coming out of the sub although at higher volumes I did believe I felt some of the bass. Since the bass was crossed over at such a low frequency to begin with, the bass rolled off very naturally and I wasn't concerned about emphasis or humps in a particular frequency range. With a woofer that is called upon to reproduce higher bass frequencies, you may be at the will of placement, seating position, and other problems that occur when trying to get the best sound.
I tried to use a few CD's that I had listened to in the previous subwoofer review to get a feel for the differences and tradeoffs in the design. I listened to two cuts, tracks 1 and 5, from a Mobile Fidelity copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon. The throbbing sound produced by the Rel seemed to come and go more quickly than with the Bag End. There was an entirely different character to the bass produced by the Storm III. I guess I'd say that it had better definition, but less output than the big 18" Bag End. When I turned the subwoofer down I felt the resultant sound seemed almost out of balance. I had quickly become used to the bass that the Storm III could provide and now it was as if the midrange had been turned up and the bass turned down. Whenever there was deep bass content the Rel improved the sound. Even when there wasn't a good deal of bass content the Storm III seemed to improve the sound. I've heard so many systems where the subwoofer made the system sound worse at one time or another. When the Rel was properly adjusted, this was just never the case.
With track 3 from Moby's Play the bass was much more solid and extended with the subwoofer in the system. The subwoofer integrated extremely well with the Thiels, although I felt I needed to step the sub down a few notches. With the subwoofer at the previous level the bass was too heavy and it was alerting me to the presence of the subwoofer. Aside from the bass range, the sound was more spacious with the Rel in the system. The high frequency sounds that begin at :20 seemed more natural. As Rel claims, there is an improvement in overall sound with the Storm III in the system.
With track 2 from Shirley Horn's Loving You, I noted how powerful and deep the bass was-much more so than would be possible without a serious subwoofer. Low tones were sustained and you could easily hear as they shifted in frequency-no one-note bass with this subwoofer! Extension was effortless and natural. I decided that I wanted to hear another recording with an acoustic bass.
I put on track 2 from Passage Of Time by the Joshua Redman Quartet. The bass was well defined and complemented the sound of the main speakers very well. Bass appeared to come from between the two front speakers. As the bass went up and down in frequency, it continued to remain localized in the same position. The lowest ranges of the piano were improved with the Storm III playing, and deep bass sounds were really "down there" with superior foundation. It was as if the music was lifted up and given free reign to play atop the stage of bass that the Rel provided.
For a completely different type of bass I popped in Latin Hip Hop Bass Bomb Volume II and listened to track 1 and 9. I wanted to see if I could get the sub to overload. I turned the music up much louder than I normally would, and listened for some sign of distress. The Rel thumped away happily without any strain with this material. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about my room. I had to remove the fireplace cover due to rattling that I was unable to make disappear otherwise. Certain organ music caused vibrations and other sounds that seemed to come from inside (!) the wall. Luckily, this was only present with < 1% of the music/ movies I auditioned. Without the sub playing on these cuts the sound was much edgier, harsher, and was more difficult to enjoy. The sub added depth, breadth, and muscle-much of what it was designed to do and it did very well.
Playing track 2 from the Telarc Sampler #3 was a lot of fun. You really have to be careful not to stand too close to the speaker when the gun shots go off or you might end up ducking for cover. But there is definitely a lot of good low bass and exciting percussion that make it worth checking out. Like the previous track, I chose to listen at ridiculous volume levels-well beyond what I think anyone would find a comfortable listening level. There were no problems up to this point.
For the last of the two-channel music listening, I chose Stravinsky's The Firebird (Telarc 80039). I listened to the final 1.5 minutes of this piece. With the Rel in the system it was like listening to an entirely different piece of music. Although the hair on my arm stood up either with or without the sub, with the subwoofer in the system it was a different experience. I was sitting on the edge of my seat anxiously anticipating the changes in the music, and feeling the power of the piece when the thunderous bass came crashing down. Even though it may seem silly, I found myself waving my arms (as though conducting) and feeling thoroughly involved in the entire presentation.
Listening- Part II (Surround/ Video)
I wasn't really expecting any revelations listening to movie sound from DVD. After all, I put the Rel through some pretty hard testing with the two-channel music listening. However, I did want to connect the Rel to the subwoofer output on my processor and make sure that it would work fine with and without the high level cable connected. After some fumbling with my processor and switching a setting on the back of the subwoofer, I was convinced that this connection scheme was working fine. I turned up and down both the high and low level controls and was satisfied that I was not overloading the sub and that the signals going to the sub were indeed different and blended well together. I didn't do extensive comparisons with and without the LFE connected, but I was NOT convinced that the sound was that much better with it connected. If you want to make absolutely sure that you are getting all the information on the disc, then I would pick up a copy of the AVIA disc for this purpose. It has a test tone with bass information fed directly to the LFE. If you set up your processor to no sub and large fronts it would be easy enough to see if the bass is redirected to the fronts. In many cases the LFE may just be redundant bass anyway, but if your processor does not route the bass to the front, then the Rel subwoofer will accommodate both connections, so there is no problem.
I began with chapter 9 from Titan AE. Most of the comments made on the two-channel music sessions apply here. There was lots of good clean bass. The bass was powerful and controlled and in parts would energize the room. Throbbing, thumping, and booming bass sounds were present in one form or another and helped to dramatize the various scenes in the film. I tried a few chapters from The Mummy as well. Bass was not as plentiful throughout much of the movie, but when there were any heavy action sequences the sub was called into action and performed admirably.
For more common fare I listened to the THX trailer (with the blue rectangle, i.e. "The Audience Is Listening,") and the logo for 20th Century Fox from The X-Files Fight the Future. Sometimes the trailers can be more impressive than the movies themselves! Many a time when I used to go to a movie at the theater it would be not uncommon for cheering to occur after the trailers would run. Whether it would be a THX trailer or something from DTS or SDDS, the crowd would always seem to get a kick. The Rel was an essential part of the system that helped create this aura in my home. With the volume turned way up I felt that there were some sounds of distress coming from the Rel. It wasn't present for more than just a short moment, but it did give me cause for concern. I had the sound up so loud (Chapter 1) that when the alien attacked at the beginning of the film I scared myself. I also listened to Chapter 3. There were more occasions of bass present in this chapter than Chapter 1. The Rel handled this material with no trouble. I did some more testing at the end of this section to try to track down some of the overloading on the trailers.
Just for kicks I put on chapter 1 of Taxi Driver. Low bass just manages to pop up in the most unsuspected places. After listening to bombastic bass sounds from the previous selections, it was a joy to sit back and listen to the soundtrack from one of my favorite movies and hear it like I was hearing it for the first time. I can't tell you that there was tons of low bass coming out of the Rel, but with it running there was no doubt in my mind that the overall sound was much improved.
The Sheryl Crow excerpt on DTS Sampler #4 has some extreme low bass. This is the best test I've found in a commonly available disc that will test the capabilities of a subwoofer in the low bass region. With just a little bit more level on the Rel the port noise was very audible even from many feet away. When I made the sub even louder I could hear distressing sounds that resembled the woofer "bottoming out." I quickly turned the volume back down and everything was okay. Note: This was with the LFE connected. This seemed like a big limitation so I dragged the Bag End back into my living room to see what would happen. I thought, well, the Storm III is only a 10" driverso it can't really compete with an 18" sub. Well, guess what? The Bag End overloaded too. It did have slightly more output, but still gave out. I didn't have any more subs for comparison, but I will use this track from now on.
As you can tell from the review, I was very impressed with the Rel Storm III. Not only did it extend the response in the low end, it even helped to improve the sound in the upper ranges. The explanation of the subwoofer setup is very well done, and by following the text you are almost guaranteed to get the maximum performance. The sub is relatively compact and very attractive. If you were a little concerned about the comments made towards the end of the review, then I would point you to one of the larger Rel subwoofers (not tested), or possibly suggest utilizing a second subwoofer. Not everyone can appreciate the kind of bass the Rel can produce. At one point I was testing the Rel in the A.M. and while switching discs I heard the phone. It was my upstairs neighbor, Leslie, calling to find out what the heck I was doing! When I told her that I was reviewing a subwoofer she promptly said, "Tell them it works!" I always enjoy demonstrating my system for friends. You know the demo is successful when you see a big grin on the face of those who hear it for the first time. And when I'm the one who is grinning, then it makes this hobby all worthwhile. The Rel Storm III is highly recommended.
- Brian Bloom
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