REL Acoustics T Zero MkIII Subwoofer Review
A tiny box from this legendary subwoofer brand shows that less really can be more, says Michael Evans…
T Zero MkIII
The subwoofer is an interesting component in the great hi-fi scheme of things; some love it, others hate it. Whatever your position in this great debate is, there's no disputing the prestige of REL Acoustics, which from 1995 made a name for itself as a serious-sounding subwoofer specialist. The company was later bought by John Hunter in 2005, who famously said words to the effect of: “Let me state categorically, I hate subwoofers. Yet I love REL and what they do for music!”
The US$449 T Zero MkIII is a diminutive, entry-level product that is gorgeously finished, solidly made and blessed with well-thought-out controls and high-quality innards. It feels every bit a true REL, just smaller – landing at a Lilliputian 216x241x260mm while weighing close to 7kg. It sports a (claimed) 100W Class D amplifier and a new 165mm aluminium driver cone that's said to be stiff and strong.
Designed to be easy to use, connectivity is good. You simply use the lead provided, plug it into your speaker terminals in your amplifier – assuming you have 4mm banana sockets – and your regular speaker leads piggyback with a clever splitter connector. From there, you attach the supplied Speakon umbilical lead into the REL, plug it into the mains and fire it up. Next, you'll likely want to turn up the bass controls and crossover adjustment to explore what it will do.
The answer is a lot – indeed, it can supply almost comedic levels of low frequencies. This done, you'll start edging things back to get it to work with your existing loudspeakers in your room. REL suggests setting the crossover adjustment and Hi/lo level adjustment to the ten o'clock position, but I found that twelve o'clock worked best for my system after lots of tweaking. The permutations are endless, which is why this is such a versatile product.
I auditioned the REL with a Chord Mojo/Poly DAC/streamer, Naim Nait amplifier and Linn Kan loudspeakers – if ever there was a system that needed a bass boost, this was it! Once I had got past the tweaking stage and started to do some serious listening, I was impressed with the additional low-end extension the T Zero offered without it being overly intrusive.
Listening to Mountains O'things from Tracy Chapman's first album, the REL transformed the song. A difficult tune to play at the best of times, without the T Zero, the deep bass notes were completely absent. However, switching on the REL was akin to replacing the Linn drivers with units twice the size.
Kraftwerk's Computer World album is another with some extremely low synthesised bass notes which are notoriously difficult to deliver. Once again, with the REL deployed, they appeared as if from nowhere.
The REL was utterly at home in most locations in my listening room. Being low frequency only, it is far less directional than full-range speakers, but I ended up placing it in centre spot between the speakers, mainly because it is really quite nice looking. However, I was tempted to hide it away completely and wow my guests with the colossal bass notes seemingly emanating from the tiny Linn speaker cabinets and not let on the secret to my REL magic trick.
Switching to the Synchronicity by The Police, which is well recorded but not particularly bass-heavy, the T Zero gave more subtle but no less pleasant enhancements to the sound. I found that the secret is to not be tempted to turn all the controls to maximum just to make the ground shake. Whilst this is fun for a bit, it is just way too artificial. Similarly, as heard in Chopin's Nocturnes, single instrument rendition was equally enhanced – albeit in a more constrained way compared to rock and synth music.
REL claims that the T Zero is, in many ways, the most challenging design it has ever produced due to its very diminutive dimensions. I can't help but agree with this, as it's almost counterintuitively effective despite its tiny size. This makes it a great first subwoofer, particularly if you have a small listening space and/or bookshelf speakers. Whatever your philosophical position on subwoofers is, it's hard to argue against the value for money.
A music junkie who served his apprenticeship in UK hi-fi retail in the 1990s, Mike loves the simplicity of analogue and the complexity of digital. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he’s been on a life-long quest for great sound at a sensible price – and is still loving the journey…
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