As a forum with a strong focus on multichannel audio, we tend to see subwoofers mainly as a means of giving us the all-important ‘point one’ of a 5, 6 or 7.1 channel soundtrack. Subs are designed with a view to receiving a carefully decoded channel of information intended specifically for it. With this in mind, many subs have evolved to work in this context- some designs I’ve seen recently have an LFE input and that’s your lot.
In this design context, REL stands rather apart from this thinking. REL as a company dates back to 1990 and the first focus of the company has always been to design products that are intended to augment two channel audio systems as much as they are to give you a boost to films. I’ve gone on record in both reviews and podcasts that I’m not a stand-up fan of subs for music- even my recent time with SVS’s astonishingly capable SB13 didn’t leave me completely convinced. With this being the modus operandi of REL, the scene is set for a showdown. The T-7 is part of the company’s most popular range and while relatively affordable, is designed with a view to making the most of your music. At the same time, can the REL still deliver the goods for film?
The T-7 is a member of the four strong T Series, which is REL’s best selling range of subs. The range then splits into two sub groups. The smaller T-Zero and T-5 are based around a single downward firing driver. The T-7 and larger T-9 still use an active downward firing driver but partner it with a passive driver. This is a alternative method to porting for augmenting the low end extension of a subwoofer and one that brings with it specific advantages and disadvantages. The fine tuning that a passive driver allows is often superior to a port and much less likely to create audible ‘chuffing’ or room boom. The downside of the design is that it can be a tricky to make sure that the passive driver is working at peak excursion at the same time as the active one, creating a single clean ‘thud’ rather than a less controlled pair of them.
In the T-7 this driver complement is an active 8 inch unit and a 10 inch passive one. The active driver is the more business-like of the pairing. It is a stout looking piece of equipment and has an extremely large central dustcap relative to the size of the driver. Indeed, when the large surround is also taken into account, there isn’t that much driver on display. REL has designed the driver from scratch with a view to achieving a long throw and pushing the driver back and forth with the power off suggests that it will go an awfully long way. The passive driver is ironically, the only part of the sub that you can actually see. As such, it is rather more aesthetically pleasing than the active driver but still pretty substantial with an equally burly surround and a reassuringly well weighted travel to it.
The T-7 is relatively unusual in that it eschews the popular choice of a class D amp for the business of power and instead goes for a 200 watt class A/B design. 200 watts of class A/B makes demands on power supplies and internal volume that class D amps don’t so choosing one is something that isn’t undertaken lightly. The most visible aspect of the choice is the prominent heatsink on the rear panel to dissipate the heat the amp generates. Subs have been one of the main beneficiaries of class D amps (although some recent ‘full range’ products I’ve reviewed have used them too and sounded very good with it) but there are aspects of the distortion and breakup that can still be considered less than ideal and as the REL is laying claim to be a ‘hi-fi’ product as much as a home cinema one, the decision to use an amp of this nature makes sense.
Class A/B amps in subs is not that unusual but the unique aspect of the REL is the rear panel connectivity. As well as the normal LFE and line level inputs, the REL has a high level input but not one that terminates in standard speaker cables. REL has made use of their distinctive ‘Speakon’ connector since their inception and this is designed to create the optimal link to an amp for music use. The good news for anyone looking at the T-7 for use as an all-rounder is that the REL has separate controls for the LFE and Speakon inputs. With modern AVR’s also offering a ‘front channel biamp’ mode, if you were only running five speakers you could technically run the REL off those channels with no sub set on the amp and the REL handling the crossover. In case you were wondering where your nearest Speakon connector retailer is, REL supplies a cable and connector in the box.
One of the best features of the T-7 is the aesthetics. I’ve not used a REL product in rather a long time and some of their products often came across as a slightly austere box. Even when wood veneered, the results never truly blew me away. The good news is that REL has risen to the challenge and the T-7 is a rather lovely piece of industrial design. Available in black and (in the case of the review sample) white with a really impressive lacquer absolutely free of blemishes and imperfections. Combined with the entirely sensible all up dimensions and you have something that should be easy enough to place in a lounge. I maintain that the white one will be a dust magnet that will look ‘grubby’ in short order but if you like that sort of thing, REL has at least done a good job of it.
My criticisms of the design are fairly limited. With more than one volume control in play, you need to actually check what you are doing before making adjustments. As the REL might well find itself being used in more than one configuration, this would surely be a logical candidate for a remote control although I concede that this is not always easy to achieve at this price point. The REL also has no EQ facilities of its own but as the EQ fitted to AV receivers becomes ever more sophisticated, this is less and less important and also doesn’t fit easily with the REL ethos. A more irritating omission is the lack of an auto on/off- the REL is either on all the time (with an amp that consumes a fair amount of current even at tickover) or off at the back panel.
To try and get to the bottom of the REL’s claimed abilities with music, the review of the T-7 was carried out it two (or really two and a half) stages. Initially it was connected to a Cambridge Audio 751R and 752BD combination with Mordaunt Short Mezzo speakers. To start with, the connection made was a completely typical LFE one but I then switched to using the speakon connection from the biamped front channels. Then, I took the T-7 and placed it in a two channel system with a Cambridge Audio 851A, Naim ND5XS/XP5XS combo and pair of My Audio Design 1920 loudspeakers.
Material used included the ‘worst boxing day ever’ biopic The Impossible and some other BluRay material as well as terrestrial TV. Music included lossless FLAC played via the 751BD and ND5XS and Spotify played via a NAD DAC1 wireless DAC into the input of the 752BD.
As this is AVForums, I think the most important thing to say about the way the T-7 performs is that it even if you never played a note of music through it, it would warrant consideration for its performance with films. When the tsunami hits in The Impossible, (I don’t think this is a spoiler? It’s the central incident of the film), the T-7 captures the fury of the event with commendable scale and control. For a reasonably small box, the REL goes low and stays well damped and controlled while it does it. The result is a sub that doesn’t need to make any apologies to the cinephile. It isn’t able to re-write the laws of physics but in a reasonably sized lounge it generates impressive low end extension that you can feel as well as hear. While it does this, there is also the sense that there is a little more to the T-7 than giving some body to explosions and a tidal wave.
’Speed’ is a subjective term when talking about speakers and subwoofers but it stems from the way that the drivers start and stop and change direction. Too slow and there is a sense of overhang and bloat to the performance that means anything with a beat just doesn’t sound right. Even with a solid diet of films, the moment that the score becomes the centre of attention, it can show up any speaker that isn’t ‘on’ the beat. Having made no allowances for the REL and kept it connected by LFE, there was still a sense that this is a subwoofer that can show a good turn of agility.
Switching to the speakon connection on the 751R’s high level outputs didn’t actually generate a night and day difference for me- sorry to the good folks at REL but there you are. There is a sense that the bass response towards the point of crossover with the speakers (which by the by, is impressively seamless) is a little bit quicker and punchier but the depth, smoothness and control stays pretty much as is. This is no bad thing- the REL had already done enough to generate considerable enthusiasm on my part- but wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting.
When I put the REL in a stereo system though, the results were rather more significant. Connected to a Cambridge Audio 851A, the speakon connection definitely had some advantages over the pre-out and why this should be the case is something that I’m on slightly shakey ground trying to quantify. What I can tell you is that connected this way, the partnership with the standmount MAD speakers is a cohesive whole and more listenable than any 2.1 system I remember listening to recently. (about the only thing that puts up a fight is the decidedly unusual Triangle Color 123 system I reviewed last year which is a complete system and designed to work together).
This is something that breaks new ground for me and subwoofers in music. Would I swap the MAD/REL duo for my regular Neats? No- but the MAD/REL partnership is over £1,000 cheaper and more flexible in placement. Listening to them working together has proved satisfying and enjoyable in a way that I don’t generally find when a subwoofer is involved in the mix. The highest compliment I can pay the REL is that after a few minutes, I generally stopped thinking about its presence and simply concentrated on the music instead.
The REL isn’t flawless in this regard. Listening to the marvellous Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant shows that with a fast, deep and relatively complex bass line, the REL still doesn’t have that last iota of speed and agility to make this complex track really sing. The effect with more natural bass is more accomplished and full of detail but the dance and electro fiend really ought to look for a full range of speakers that can do it in one fell swoop. By the same token, if you only want something for films and don’t much care that the occasional piece of music sounds a bit wallowy, there are no shortage of rival subwoofer designs that can generate a bit more bass extension than the T-7 can although most of them are rather larger to achieve it and most of them are nowhere near as well finished.
- Fast, agile and musical performance
- Excellent build
- Handsome aesthetic
- Some limits to bass depth
- No auto on/off
- Can be beaten for pure film work
REL T-7 Active Subwoofer Review
The REL T-7 gets closer to the idea of a musical subwoofer than pretty much anything else I have tested recently. If you are looking for the .1 of a 2.1 system at relatively sensible money, this is a very good place to start looking. In many ways though, it is the way the T-7 performs as a ‘normal’ subwoofer that earns it a recommendation here. This is a subwoofer with a sensible footprint that comes finished to an extremely high standard and goes about handling the all-round requirements that you might have of a sub in an AV system with a consistent ability and effectiveness that it very hard not to like. REL has built themselves a musical subwoofer in keeping with the company tradition. More importantly than that though, they’ve built themselves a seriously good product that warrants a place on any shortlist at the price.
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