Joseph Audio Pulsar Loudspeakers [updated]

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Mini-Pearl!

I just spent yet another day with Joseph Audio’s “Mini-Pearl” (thank you, Steven Stone), the Pulsar. Another very satisfying day.

If you haven’t seen Stone’s review of the Pulsar, I recommend it. Being a professional reviewer, if not a journalist, he actually did all the hard work and did those journalist-things, like actually talking to the designer and whatnot. Unlike yours truly. All I did was sit in front of the damn things, drooled a little bit out of the side of my mouth, occasionally grunted or farted and sometimes changed records or CDs. You see, I’m not a pro, so, well, you get what you get.

Ok, a word about the rig before I move on to the speakers. This review was brought to you, at least by some torturous path, by Jeff Fox, the kind proprietor at Command Performance A/V in Falls Church, VA. Jeff has been suspiciously gracious enough to allow me full, unmediated access to his Main Rig. Being a working (as in “revenue generating”) setup, I did not feel at liberty to completely dismantle and reassemble the various component combos and/or cabling. Didn’t seem prudent, though he probably wouldn’t have minded so long as everything I did was reversible. LOL. Consider this to be Reason Number 2 as to why this isn’t a “pro” review (reason #1 being that I’m not paid, not a journalist, nor do I have any audio industry credentials whatsoever).

The total cost of the associated gear is somewhere north of $100k, which is just a stunning amount of money to have invested in anything, much less an audio rack. For what it’s worth, the sound quality of the combined gear is (in a word) spectacular, and I’ve had several dozen opportunities to get lost in it, both at the recent Capital Audio Fest and of course at Command’s offices. Jeff’s generosity has been just tremendous, and the fact that he let’s me play in his listening room with no supervision at all is utterly absurd — ahh — unheard of. Of course, he does know where I live and also has my credit info on file, so perhaps he’s not entirely out of his skull. Hmmmm.

But what I did do, which may be a bit different, is spend time with both of Joseph Audio’s new-ish babies, the Pearl 2 and the Pulsar. In fact, I was lucky enough to permission to do a little a/b switching, so this mini-review will therefore focus on one thing that a pro wouldn’t touch with a 10′ extension cord: a comparison between products. [Gasp!]

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the bulk of reviewers have serious problems with comparing products. They talk about the invalidity of comparing “apples and oranges”, or talk around their desires to avoid conflict naturally engendered by such mashups, or vehemently deny that they’re shills or flacks for the industry, or some such nonsense. I, on the other hand, am mentally deficient and therefore can proceed with impunity.

More properly, I suppose I just have a different philosophy about reviewing. At the risk of filling up this article with (a thoroughly entertaining and marvelously well written, but still) an aside, let me recap. First, most reviewers claim (IMO, disingenuously) that their “true reference” is live music, and that they then hold everything they hear up against that standard. The corollary of this approach is that a/b testing is immaterial as the question you (the reader) ought to be asking is how well the product under review adheres to that standard.

This is total bullshit.

Why? Well, one, I dare say that the bulk of the music that such pompous idealists use for their torture tests they actually have not heard live. Two, aural memory (at least in us upjumped apes) is appallingly bad. There is no reason to expect that, even if one had a direct live experience of a piece of music, that that experience would in any way reliably inform any other. It’s simply, and provably, untrue. Humans are amazing at visual discrimination — we’re pattern-matching wizards. But remembering what we hear? Laughable. Three, they’re just miserable poseurs anyway.

Ok, so the One True Right Way Philosophy of Audio Reviewing (at least according to yours truly) is ad gladium. More specifically, take two products and compare them directly to see what each does and doesn’t do. Ideally, this is done when one of the comparees is a reference, but that’s not required.

See? Simple.

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Sibling Rivalry

So, in this mashup, we’ll be looking at the Pulsars and the Pearl 2s. Totally, completely unfair. I mean, really, comparing a $7,000 speaker with one 4x it’s price? Heh. Well, actually — yes, yes we are. What was most surprising is how close the two are.

The drivers on both the Pulsar and the Pearl 2 are SEAS drivers. As a commenter notes on Stone’s review, these drivers are not expensive (though $250 each hardly seems cheap). I spoke to PJ Zornosa, the National Sales Manager for Joseph Audio, about the drivers. He claims that they’re actually custom made for Joseph by SEAS, and not off-the-shelf Millennium & Excel drivers. Which is interesting, because if they are off-the-shelf, then $1000 for the drivers for two cabinets does leave you an open question as to why the finished speakers cost $7,000 a pair. Which means it’s time to refer to an aside about manufacturer pricing.

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Handsome Devil

The cabinets on both the Pearl 2 and the Pulsar are fairly similar, despite the obvious size difference. Both have a piano-black finish sandwiched between two sides of wood veneer (a variety of finishes are available). Both speakers are very pretty, and seeing them side by side is it’s pretty obvious that they’re “of a kind”, and stand out from the rest of Joseph Audio’s product line. The Pulsar is not the top cabinet of the Pearl, simply removed from it’s big bass cabinet. Though both faces are similarly faceted, the Pulsar is thinner and the face is less raked back. Supposedly, this makes it image better, though I didn’t get any sense of this.

Like the Pearls, the Pulsar is going to be relatively easy on your amp. A nominal 8ohm speaker, it doesn’t dip below 6ohms, so all of you with your mid-power amps (tube or not) are going to be in for a treat. I ran the Pulsars to deafening volumes on a 60wpc Luxman M-800A, so I suspect that you Red Wine & First Watt fans are in for a treat.

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What a pretty face

First up was some Count Basie, courtesy of the XRCD release of 88 Basie Street. I can’t get over how good these “super CDs” sound! If you haven’t treated yourself to the JVC modifications to the Redbook standard, you really haven’t heard what your CD player can actually do with well recorded/mastered material. I have a growing stack of these (though my favorite is K2HD), and I don’t see that stopping any time soon. So, with XRCD to the Pulsars by way of the excellent Luxman DU-80 SACD players, my first comment was “I can’t believe the size of the sound coming out of the Pulsars.” It’s big. Way bigger than it has any right to be, but for those of you in the know, there is just something special about the way a 2-way speaker images and the Pulsars have that magic in spades. Maybe it’s the lack of all those extra drivers getting in the way, or the simplified crossover a 2-way can enjoy, but whatever it was, the sound stage just flows out from the speakers, creating a layered 3-d space where the musicians just seem to hang there in space. It’s a kind of wonderful.

I’ve mentioned before, with respect to the Joseph Audio Pearl 2s, that there’s something seamless about the quality of the sound. The speakers just vanish and what you’re left with is sax, piano, and upright bass, all seeming to occupy the similar, but discrete amounts of space, with none of them pushed, bloated, or overbearing. Playback through the little Josephs just creates this sense of ease I find peculiar. It’s … natural.

Some notes of comparison. With my Merlin speakers, the imaging is a bit tighter, the stage a bit wider, the transients a bit faster. It’s not much. But the words I’ve used to describe the Merlins (“spooky” and “eerie”) don’t apply to the Pulsars. Stone calls the Pulsars among the fastest speakers he’s ever heard, including in that round up some famed electrostats. I think this is overstated. Don’t get me wrong, the Pulsars are very fast, but are they Quad 2805 fast? No. In my experience, nothing touches the Quads in this regard, though the new Merlins come pretty close. The Pulsars are definitely in that race, to be sure, but winning it? Well, having heard these speakers, I recommend taking Stone’s comments as illustrative instead of merely factual. To even be considered in such company says quite a lot.

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Full Monty

Bass response in a 2-way is going to be something of a challenge. Always is, and simple physics requires that a single 6″ driver — long throw or not — simply will not overcome the challenges of fully pressurizing a large room. That’s the common wisdom, anyway. Happily, with the Pulsar, something odd is going on. The bass on these guys will knock your socks off.

No, it won’t plumb the depths. They’re not meant to be home theater mains, operating without a subwoofer. They are what they are, and 40Hz is a whole lotta bass. This is, obviously, the major difference between the Pearls and the Pulsars.

Track 3 of disc 2 of the audiophile classic Jazz at the Pawnshop has some really nice bass and drum solos. Listening through the Pulsars was a very convincing experience. The kick drum had serious punch and the bass solos were very much a thing of weight and powerful expression. Play back through the Pearls showed something I didn’t even know I was missing until it was jumping out at me — depth. The bass was simply more startling on the Pearls and the images were just bigger, the sound more life-like.

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Family Resemblances

I switched from digital at this point for something a little more intimate. Switching inputs on the Luxman C800 to the Manley Steelhead, I slapped (okay, very gently placed) Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver onto the Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable and set the stylus on the Ortofon Rondo Bronze to Track One. And the soundstage leapt.

Every time I do this on this rig, it’s surprises me. That Luxman DU-80 is a nice piece of kit. Yet the Blackbird+Ortofon+Manley combo just destroys it. The sound stage leaps to the walls. All of them. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s like adding an additional 25% to the stage. I freaking love this setup.

Anyway, by the time I settle my goosebumps, Satchmo has begun to sing. 3 notes in and you’re suddenly convinced, beyond any shadow of a doubt, what made this man something of a miracle. With a voice like oiled walnut burl, the King of Jazz has me sitting straight up in the chair, leaning forward. Wow. Just wow.

Moving to the Pearls, and replaying the track, Armstrong gains weight, solidity and depth and the dirge takes on a much more melancholy air. The stage also extends deeper, it seems, than with the Pulsars. Just more 3d to the already 3d, if that makes any sense at all.

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Backside

I swapped for Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms and set the stylus for “Money for Nothing”. It’s undoubtedly a sign of my age that this song reminds me of my first girlfriend and sitting around in my basement watching MTV. Sheesh, I’m old.

Age aside, the song has some nice stuff going on that really shows off your speakers. Machine-gun like drum solos. Vocals that seem to float throughout the sound stage. Guitar riffs that sound like avalanches. It’s powerful stuff.

And here’s where I noticed something odd. Vocals on the Pulsars seem a bit bigger than they do on the Pearls. The crossover is at 2kHz, so that isn’t it. This is something down quite a bit lower, and seems to just make them a bit outsized. Ok, outsized with respect to what that same track sounds like on the Pearl, where all those vocals sit within a more natural sounding, seamless continuity. Just a quirk?

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Posts

Switching to Natalie Merchant’s 45rpm MoFi version of Tigerlilly brought me to another dead stop. I was hypnotized. Paralyzed. Heh. Anyway, this LP brought out the differences between the speakers a bit more clearly — the upper-bass/lower-mids on the Pearls are more integrated, and yes, it goes quite a bit deeper. A bit. Look, don’t get me wrong — this “mid-band push” is me nitpicking. “Carnival”, on both the Pearls and on the Pulsars, was utterly convincing and just amazing.

So amazing that I’m going to have to reconsider my personal ban on 45rpm records. What? I don’t like having to get up and change a disk every other song. So what. You got a problem with that? Besides, paying $50 for an album just seems wrong. I know. I’ll shell out $40 for a K2HD CD of something, but add another $10 to the $40 I’m already paying for new LPs and I’m outie. Yet another thing to get over, it seems. Especially for this disk.  Did I mention that it sounds amazing?

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Last

Quick aside — the binding posts on the Pulsars are a standard affair. That is, they’re Cardas clamping posts, one for the tweeter and one for the woofer. As a matter of course, I jumpered them together and wired the speaker cables into the tweeter. This is a far cry from the binding post forest on the back of the Pearls. Just thought I’d mention it.

So, time for some closing words. Are these speakers the best stand-mounted monitors I’ve ever heard?

No, they’re not, but that’s because I own Merlins. Yes, my Merlins are “floorstanders” by design, but really, it’s is a bit of a stretch. They’re monitors with integrated and fully damped stands. And, yes, I prefer the Merlins as their imaging and speed are pretty much unmatched outside of an electrostat. The Merlins also go deeper, 29Hz to 42Hz, but then, they’re also almost twice the price. But the Merlins and the Pulsars (and the Pearls, for that matter) do have the Houdini act completely down, thoroughly disappearing into a shimmer of music.

One thing the Pulsars do, perhaps better than the Merlins is off-axis response. Common wisdom has it that all speakers have a sweet spot, that is, when set up properly, there’s a place you can sit where the imaging of the speaker is at it’s best. Common wisdom also has it that this sweet spot is never large, and in the case of some of the most extreme examples of speakers (like a Martin Logan, for example), that sweet spot may be very small indeed. Ever heard the phrase “head in a vise” when someone was talking about speakers? Think: teeny-tiny sweet spot. Well, the imaging of the Pearls is one of it’s strongest suits — but sound quality doesn’t really change all that much when you get up and move around. Given this, their convenient size, how sexy they are, and how easy the sound is, I’d put the Pulsars at the top (yes, the top) of any list for a room where you’re planning to have company. Got a dedicated listening room? Fine. Put your head-in-a-vise speakers here (and yes, Merlins have more of this than the Pulsars) and stick your Pulsars (or Pearls) out in the room you spend time in. Not only will they wow the guests with their stylish looks (all that burl, black lacquer and copper will stand out like flaming beacons), which is good, because once the music goes on, everyone is going to stop and stare.

If I had the money, I’d be buying the Pearls. They’re just crazy-good. At four times the price of the Pulsars, it’s clear that your money is buying you a lot more, too. Are they four times as good as the Pulsars? Of course not. The price-performance ratio isn’t at all linear. Heard the Pearl 2s? Love that sound? Want to get close to it? Well, for 1/4 the price, you can get easily 80% of that sound with the Pulsars. And when you put it that way, the Pulsars are a tremendous value.

Editors Update: Mid-2012

I’ve really been meaning to revisit this piece on the Pulsars — for, like, a year now. Ahem. Anyway, here I am. Sorry it took so long.

I wrote this piece, above, after a dozen or so visits to Jeff’s showroom down in Falls Church back in 2010. Since that time, a bazillion things have happened. I bought a new camera. I learned how to use it (or, at least use it better). I’ve been to a mess of audio shows. I’ve learned how to tap dance and can do a pretty mean turn on a hurdy gurdy. No, not really.

I can’t remember when Jeff first loaned me his Pulsars, but it must have been early in 2011. I brought them home, swapped out my then-reference Merlin VSM-MXR speakers.

Yeah. Bad move.

You see, prior to this, I’d been rather happy with my Merlins. They were brand new — and well run-in. And I had this big pile of Joule Electra gear to run them in with. Truth be told, I was ecstatic! Sweaty, but ecstatic — those amps run hot. Anyway, I thought I had a handle on how things were in my listening room. How things ought to be.

I was a Merlin Man, and proud of it.

Whoops.

All I can say is, sometimes you get it wrong. Mea culpa.

I tried a laundry list of gear and wire. Some I owned. Much I borrowed. It doesn’t matter, because to my ears, in my system, and with all of the associated gear, wiring and the combinations and permutations thereof, the Pulsars were just better. Not “different”. Better.

The Pulsars had better clarity. Richer tone. Far better detail retrieval. Some of the most amazing integration and coherence I’ve heard outside of a panel speaker. Zero listener fatigue. Cleaner, tighter and more impactful bass. And as for imaging and speed … well, yeah, the Pulsars aced this, too.

My Merlins are now long since sold, as is all the Joule Electra gear.

I now own a pair of Pulsars. They’re my reference for stand-mount speakers.