My New Reference
Let me apologize in advance. This review is unapologetically enthusiastic and may be laced with an absurd amount of superlatives. I tried to tone it down, but I can’t really seem to help it. It’s a little embarrassing, really, and for that, I’m sorry.
I’ve had a chance to hear the marvelous Pearl 2 speakers at both the Capital Audio Fest 2010 and again at my local Joseph Audio Dealer, Command Performance A/V in Falls Church, VA. I’ve commented before that I felt that these $28,500 speakers were easily best-in-show at CAF and the more I hear them, the more irritated I become. Irritated? Well, yes. $28k is a lot of money for a pair of (admittedly superior) speakers — and given that they’re not likely to come down in price any time soon and that I’m just as unlikely to win the favor of the Lotto Fairy, they’re going to just tempt me instead of be mine. Which is irritating.
Command Performance A/V’s head honcho is Jeff Fox — I’ve mentioned him in the past as the dealer who sold me my Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC. For whatever reason, he’s graciously allowed me to come spend my free time hanging out in his show room — by myself (!) — listening to whatever I want and then write it up at some point. So, obviously, I took him up on it — starting with his star speakers, the Pearl 2s.
Before I start in on the speakers, a few words are in order about this system. First, I should mention that the total price is about $100k. That’s a stunning amount of money to invest in anything, much less a music system. Second, it’s awesome. The sound quality coming from this gear, which is the same rig used to such great effect at CAF in 2010, is among the best I’ve ever heard. I suppose you could say that this is my new reference system — hee hee — and I’ll be dismantling it piece by piece over the next several reviews.
Whither art thou, Pearl?
Do a Google search on “Joseph Audio” and “Pearl 2” and “review”. Seriously. Go ahead, I’ll wait. What you got back was a lot of show info, but no actual pro reviews anywhere (I checked). For a speaker that has won back to back “Best in Show” awards at RMAF, I find this more than a little curious. I asked Jeff what the deal was — does Joseph Audio just not “do reviews” or what? Well, it turns out the answer is: no, not so much. Very curious, but I’ll have to leave it to you to puzzle out the relationship between advertising spend and professional reviews.
In person, the Pearl 2s are dead sexy. The copper on the custom-for-Joseph Audio SEAS-made drivers really stands out and mates well to the Rosewood veneer that covers the sides (you can get them in Sepele, Maple, Cherry & a black finish). They are really pretty speakers. When I first “met” them, I think I put my hands on them a bit … much. Is petting a speaker a bad thing? By they way, they’re also hefty — each cabinet stands at 43″ with an 11″ face and the cabinet has a depth of 18″. I think they weigh over a hundred pounds each, too. While I think of it, some more specs:
Impedance: 8ohms (6ohms, minimum)
System Response: 25Hz – 20kHz @ ± 2dB
The basic design is a two-piecer, with the tweeter and mid range drivers physically separated & isolated from the dual bass drivers. Think: Wilson Watt/Puppy, but not as ugly, and you’ll be on the right track.
What makes a loudspeaker a Joseph Audio is the crossover. Steven Stone has a lot of detail on this in his review of the Pulsar, so I’ll not repost all of that here. But if you’re interested in the Infinite Slope Crossover Design, Jeff Joseph himself happily recommends a little light reading: United States Patent 4771466 “Multidriver loudspeaker apparatus with improved crossover filter circuits“.
These speakers are all-Cardas, using Golden Reference wiring internally (which is also what the distributor recommends using with the speakers), and a set of vise-clamp style Cardas binding posts externally. In fact, the Pearl 2s features a whole host of these binding posts — five, to be exact — with three on the bottom cabinet and two on the top. Which means you’re going to need a lot of wire since none come with the speakers.
You need to bring the speaker cables off your amp into the bottom-most post on the bass cabinets. So far, so good. Then, you’re going to need to connect up everything else, which is going to be a bit of a challenge as the distance between the topmost binding posts and the bottom most is about a meter. You have some choices. You could just jumper the two topmost sets of posts together, which would connect the tweeter and mid range, but you’d still need to connect them to the bass cabinets, which are a full meter away (BIG jumpers!). Jeff’s solution was to get some short shotgunned speaker cables (one end with two wires and the other with only one wire) and use the single-ended side on the bass cabinet and the double-ended side on each of the top cabinet’s binding posts. This is easier and cleaner than it sounds — but note that those Cardas binding posts don’t have a lot of room underneath, so stacking thick spade connectors may be problematic — shotgunning is the more elegant (and supposedly better sounding) solution, but that means some specialty cables.
Another oddity — remember I said the bottom cabinet had three sets of binding posts? The top go up to the top cabinet. The bottom head out to the amp. But the middle ones — those go nowhere. Sort of. Actually, they’re used almost like shorting plugs — use a single jumper and connect the two terminals on that post together and you’ll tune the speaker response. Too much bass? Jumper that post — and the last half octave will disappear from the system response while “tightening up” what bass response is left. I can see how this might be a great thing for smaller, under-damped rooms — like a hotel room at RMAF, for example. Interesting option.
I’ve alluded to this already so it shouldn’t be a shock when I say that these are great sounding speakers, and I’ll confess that I’ve spent (too many/not ever enough) hours enthralled by their sound. My notes from my last listening session were uncharacteristically cryptic, but the words I do find there are: effortless, extension, holographic. I guess I was busy. Anyway, let me unpack each of these.
First up: effortless. What I mean by this is that everything seems to hang together really well. Nothing stands out; the coherence between top and bottom was totally seamless — there wasn’t any bump, lump, or push in any frequency that I could hear. The sound was big when it was supposed to be, delicate when it needed to be, and very believable.
By extension, I mean rather straightforwardly that the bass was big, tight, and clean and the treble was extended and pure and without grain or etch. As high or as low as I wanted to go, we went, and there was no boom or bloom (great room!) and nothing that kept me from turning up the volume and sitting back and tapping my toes in some approximation of the beat. I should note also that the mids were just lovely. Voices were seductive and realistic. Louis Armstrong’s vocals on Satchmo Plays King Oliver were actually shocking. I don’t have this LP, but based on that session, I’m getting it pronto.
Holography: Sound-staging on these speakers, in this setup, is among the best that I’ve heard. Anywhere. On any speakers. Jeff put on a classic album I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never actually listened to: Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (never too late!). On this album I heard some truly remarkable sound staging — I’ve never heard wall-to-wall extension before, and it was incredible chasing instruments and movements across the performance stage. Interestingly, the sound of the speakers was very good even when I stood up and moved around. Yes, the sweet spot was really magic, but sitting off to one side was still fantastic, even with each speaker toed in fully to point directly at my ears.
Did I mention I want these things in a big, ugly kind of way?
At 86dB efficient, you’d think these speakers would be hard to drive and would require some seriously high-powered solid-state amplifiers to open up. You’d also be very wrong. The Luxman amplifier we were using is only 60 wpc. Yes, it has some serious balls for all that, and even though the output doubles into lower impedances, the Pearl 2s only dip to 6ohms. While this might not scream “tube friendly”, it certainly shouldn’t scare any tube owners off. But for those of you wondering about the gloriousness of Class A solid-state, the 60 wpc Luxman was more than enough to rock the house and do so with style, class, and no hint of clipping.
Which brings up an interesting (and related) issue — the Pearl 2s like to be loud. Some of this is to be expected as the sensitivity is only middling and giving the volume knob a bit of a goose will of course bring the SPLs up and better in line with their more sensitive brethren. But that said, I still found myself reaching for the remote to tweak up the volume a bit more and ended up with a comfortable listening volume that was just shy of really loud — and louder than my “normal” listening volumes. It may be that they’re just easier on the ears, but Jeff says that the Pearls don’t really open up till you turn them up, and my own experience agrees. And as the volume creeps, so does the grin on my face — and so too does any thought of doing anything else, except listening to the music. Interesting feedback loop, there.
So, time for a word or three about listener fatigue. You don’t find much discussion of this in Stereophile these days (if you ever did), but I’ll submit that some of the most highly regarded audiophile speakers in the world are also some of the speakers least listened to by those that actually buy them. That is, what reviewers may key on — detail, separation, &c — are not necessarily the kindest to your latent ADD inclinations even if they’re doing things that are interesting to write about. When I read reviews, one of things I look for is a focus on key words like ‘detail’, ‘retrieval’, ‘separation’ (and a few others), which says to me that the speakers are doing something worthy of attention, something notable even, but not necessarily something that is good for enjoyment of the music being played. Worse, it’s often something that is as irritating over the long run as a harsh or pushed high-end, a muddy bass, or a recessed mid range. Anyway, back to listener fatigue. With the Pearls — or with the Pulsars, if you’ll pardon the teaser — I don’t have any. In fact, it’s ludicrously hard to do anything else but sit there, turn up the volume, and get lost. These speakers are terrific time sinks, so if you have a busy lifestyle and need to accomplish a lot of things on a regular basis, don’t get them.
Are the Pearl 2 speakers the ultimate in detail or speed? No. Your typical electrostat isn’t going to start getting itchy with the Pearls in the room. Ditto with efficiency — ratings in the mid 80’s have got nothing on a Lowther or a horn, and while a 6ohm minimum is great, there are speakers in the Zu Audio stable that are looking for 16 ohms. Further, I’m also quite sure that you can find speakers with a more specific or more expansive sound stage. And yes, I know of a double-handful of speakers off the top of my head that have a deeper reach in the bass.
But I can’t think of one set of speakers, of all those that I’ve mentioned (even obliquely) that does all of the things together as well as the Pearl 2s do and none that I can think of that I’d rather spend the day with. Think triathlete, rather than gold-medal champion in only one sport. These speakers do everything very, very well, and that level of performance, seen in one place at one time in one set of speakers is, in my experience, unique.
I have to say something about the price tag. At $28k, it’s up there with some of the big boys. And yes, while it can (more than) hang with them, I’m not sure that that is the point. Why do any speakers cost this much? Is it rarity or expense of the parts? Development time & effort? Marketing costs? Well, sure, all of those things go into the price of any product, but that’s not it. At this level, the final determiner will be demand and more specifically whether or not the market will support that price given that performance. Apparently, there is a market at this level — witness the well-received offerings from Wilson and Avalon. But pricing an offering based on a targeted market niche instead of tying it (even loosely) to cost makes rational discussions or understanding totally fluid and completely beyond my ken.
Look, if you can afford that price tag, you really need to hear these speakers. Not only do they sound spectacular, they actually look the part, too and I have consistently preferred their look and sound over the Avalon or Wilson speakers that they compete with.
Personally, I just wish they were less expensive because if they were, I’d own them.