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- Written by Graham Abbott Graham Abbott
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 January 2014 15 January 2014
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
-- Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act III (1892)
Many people who get into hi-fi spend way too much money for the sound they get. This is sometimes because they don’t know what sound they want, and sometimes because they make buying choices based on price alone, figuring that the more expensive equipment must automatically sound better. Or perhaps they don’t understand how much power and speaker a room can accommodate, or lack access to anyone, be it a friend or a reputable dealer, who can offer guidance.
I once attended a dinner party at the home of a wealthy music lover who, when he learned that we shared that passion, invited me downstairs to listen to his “big rig.” The system, set up by an “expert,” included some very expensive hardware shoehorned into a space too small to accommodate the power amplifier and the two large subwoofers and the pair of near-full-range speakers. The sound was not good -- the poor room was overwhelmed at both ends of the audioband and at many points in between. However, as nothing good ever comes from some punk audiophile scribbler offering advice after the purchase has been made, I stayed mum. He loved that system, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he could have spent vastly less and gotten far better sound. Needless to say, the sneaky bastard who’d set it up for him made a nice chunk of change.
Bass freaks never seem to have enough until there’s waaaaay too much. Asked for advice in setting up a system, I’ve told many friends to pull the bass in a notch, explaining that unless they listen only to hardcore dance or techno, or if most of their friends are tweaked-up ravers, so much bass will overload their rooms. Inevitably, they’re shocked by how much bass some smaller speakers can produce -- yet what they’re really hearing is taut, pitch-defined upper bass that has tons of snap where the mud used to be.
As I moved into a new house this summer, I thought about this a lot. My old listening room was perfectly suited to my favorite type of loudspeaker, the stand-mounted minimonitor. I love minis’ speed and transparency, and their often-sublime coherence, imaging, and soundstaging. Minimonitors also avoid the problem of something I can’t stand: mushy, one-note bass. My new room measures 14’L x 9’W, with a 9’ opening along one side into a large kitchen, and a faceted sloping ceiling with a maximum height of 11’. This was just a bit too much space for my little Red Rose Rosebud IIs ($3500 USD per pair when available) to fill, but it seemed appropriate for a stand-mounted design that was reasonably efficient and somewhat larger. Since minimonitors often need lots of power to bring them dynamically alive, and to meet their sometimes challenging impedance and efficiency specs, I had to search for a while -- until I ran smack dab into Joseph Audio’s Pulsar ($7700/pair). The Pulsar’s published specifications indicated that they’d be a fairly easy load, and with a larger cabinet volume than the Rosebud II, I was optimistic that the blend of my new room, my 80Wpc tube amp, and the Josephs would be a synergistic one.
Measuring 14.9”H x 8.9”W x 13”D and weighing about 30 pounds, the Pulsar is by no means a small stand-mount. That weight is down to the combination of thick MDF for the cabinet, and the lacquered polyester bonded to the side panels in an attempt to “hold the speaker elements still,” per Joseph Audio. The Pulsar is finished in black on the front, top, and back, and the sides are available in a real-wood finish of Sapeli, Maple, Black, Cherry, or Rosewood (the review pair were finished in burgundy-ish Sapeli). Also according to Joseph, this cabinet “is acoustically dead to absorb extraneous vibrations” and “has virtually ideal acoustical properties.” With its chamfered front and side panels, the Pulsar has a distinctively glossy appearance that I found quite attractive. My wife, on the other hand, reacted more strongly than she has to any hi-fi component we’ve ever had in our home: she loathed the Pulsars fully and completely. This had unfortunate ramifications, of which I will speak later.
The Pulsar’s tweeter and midrange-woofer are made by SEAS of Norway to Joseph Audio’s specifications. The tweeter is the same as that used in Joseph’s top model, the floorstanding Pearl2: a Sonatex dome with a neodymium magnet for lightness and faster, more agile performance. It’s designed for wide dispersion and accurate phase response, to deliver “a stereo image of superior focus and spaciousness” while remaining free of tizziness. The midrange-woofer has a 5.5” cast-magnesium cone that promises good pistonic behavior, a phase plug to achieve better dispersion, and a surround material designed to reduce ringing and breakup. According to Joseph, this driver’s motor system is especially powerful, with “copper rings to minimize distortion and impressively long throw for convincing deep bass.”
Joseph Audio’s Parallel Asymmetrical Infinite Slope crossover, developed and tweaked over many years, employs very steep cutoffs that the company says “improves stereo image focus [and] power handling” while smoothing the frequency response of both drivers. The network is designed to allow the drivers, which hand off to each other at 2kHz, to work better together by nullifying audible “driver interactions.” The Pulsar’s frequency response is 42Hz-20kHz, ±2dB, within the “listening window,” as Joseph describes it. The Pulsar is, at least on paper, a uniform and benign load with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms that never drops below 6 ohms -- perfect for tube amps.
Joseph Audio strongly recommends placing the Pulsars on stands 22-24” high (mine are 24”), 3’ from the front wall, anywhere from 6’ to 12’ apart, and with little to no toe-in. My pair ended up 46” from the front wall, as measured to the speakers’ front baffles, 20” from each speaker to its sidewall, and toed in about 5°. The Pulsar has two sets of terminals, for biwiring, but I don’t do that; I left the supplied jumpers in place. The binding posts are excellent ones from Cardas Audio: turning a single knob tightens down on spade connectors, for a very secure connection sans tools or stripped threads.
I gave the Pulsars more than 120 hours of break-in, which seemed to bring them on song. Then I switched my Cary Audio Design SLI-80 integrated amp to ultralinear mode, in which it produces 80Wpc, wicked the volume up to 12 o’clock, and slapped on “Take California,” from the Propellerheads’ Decksandrumsandrockandroll (CD, Virgin 25419/20). The bass was phenomenal, and seemingly went much lower than the Pulsar’s stated low-end limit of 42Hz. Crucially, even the lowest octave kept pace with rest of the audioband, with no huffing from the rear port, and everything from the lower-mid to upper bass range was taut, very tuneful, and beautifully paced. Even with my sound-pressure meter showing peaks of 98dB, the bass regions refused to congeal together.
Tosca’s Delhi9 (CD, G Stone K-7) has some very deep bass and bass tones that the Pulsars admirably reproduced, trading off the very lowest frequencies for a rhythmic, resonant underpinning that refused to weigh the music down. The Pulsars couldn’t replace the bass reach and solidity of a high-end floorstander, but they might fool you into thinking you’re close.
The speed of the Pulsar’s bass was revelatory with acoustic jazz. I played a lot of Bill Evans, and Scott LaFaro’s double bass sounded incredible, with all the sinewy twists and turns in his technique easy to follow -- and the pacing was perfect. That speed and clarity were perfect adjuncts to the tunes on Stoa, by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin(CD, ECM 1939), in which Bärtsch leads his band through a series of acoustic workouts. The music is at turns bombastic and intimate, the band is incredibly tight and fluent, and the sound is splendid. I played the 15-minute opener, “Module 36,” a number of times back to back. It moves from a contemplative opening to a frenetically paced climax, and the Pulsars’ pace, rhythm, and timing were riveting: kick drums and bass lines were completely distinct, beautifully articulated, and had great impact. These speakers could provide a convincing facsimile of real bass wallop.
The Pulsar’s midrange was equally excellent, with a delightful tonal and textural elegance that combined with that addictively stunning speed and transparency in the bass. Anyone who enjoys solo acoustic guitar must own a copy of Late Works, William Carter’s recording of compositions by Fernando Sor (24-bit/192kHz AIFF, Linn Studio Master). It’s a superlative recording, and the Pulsars delivered massive amounts of detail -- rarely have I heard all the subtle nuances of fingers on strings and fingerboard, and the distinct timbre of nylon strings, rendered so convincingly, or placed within so perfectly described an acoustic. Play something like Shakti’s Natural Elements (CD, Columbia 4897732), and the speed of Zakir Hussain’s tabla playing, wrapped together with guitar god John McLaughlin’s steel-string guitar, was a mind blower, never once tripping into leading-edge hardness. Even at relatively high listening levels, the sound refused to harden or flatten or congeal, always remaining wide open and incredibly quick. And the coherence! I’ve never heard another dynamic speaker with such a combination of ribbon-like coherence and the textural density and tonal fullness that the Pulsars so nonchalantly pulled off. That Infinite Slope crossover seems to be earning its keep, and the drivers are definitely up to the job.
The Pulsars imaged and soundstaged better than almost any other speakers I’ve ever heard, minimonitor or floorstander. The manual indicates that the buyer should expect the soundstage to extend about a foot in front of and behind the speakers. In my room, the soundstage began just behind the Pulsars and went incredibly deep and wide; images floated entirely free of the cabinets. Musicians and instruments were located precisely, their images nicely rounded, clearly outlined without being etched. With some recordings, the 3D effect was almost uncanny, as was the Pulsars’ ability to capture all the subtle ambient cues that make for a particularly immersive acoustic. When I played something recorded in a large hall, I heard that acoustic faithfully reproduced; and smaller spaces felt correspondingly more intimate without losing the sense of real volume. Although, like most minimonitors, the Pulsars didn’t produce life-size images, what they did produce was larger than most -- maybe 80% life-size -- and, like their bass response, could fool me almost completely with some recordings.
Before beginning this review, I searched the Internet for comments about the Joseph Audio Pulsar, and ran into quite a few grumpy folks who derided the speakers for costing so much. Their gripe -- that the parts costs don’t add up to anywhere near the retail price -- is too often used as the benchmark of value. Value, of course, is not an empirical fact; it’s a quicksilver thing. Many of these people fail to factor in a manufacturer’s experience and expertise -- or, for that matter, the cost of doing business or making a profit -- in creating a superlative final product.
The Pulsar is a great loudspeaker for $7700/pair; rather than stuff boxes, Jeff Joseph has taken time to spec drivers, build cabinets, and design a crossover network. He’s put all that together in a model that sets a sonic benchmark for me for smaller loudspeakers.
To sound their best, the Pulsars will require quality components upstream; in fact, they’re good enough to deserve the best your budget can stretch to. They’re easy to drive -- I did most of my listening with my Cary amp in triode mode (40Wpc) and had zero drive problems. The Pulsars should sound great in a room of small to medium size without physically taking it over or sonically overloading it.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Although I loved these speakers, and wanted to buy them and live happily ever after, my wife put her foot down. She listened to them and thought they sounded amazing, but their looks pushed her hate button. However, should your partner feel differently, you should try to hear the Joseph Audio Pulsars: They sound stunning. After hearing them, you, like me, will probably want to own them.
. . . Graham Abbott
- Analog source -- Nottingham Spacedeck turntable with Heavy Kit, Wave Mechanic power supply, Space tonearm; Ortofon Jubilee MC cartridge; Holfi Battria SE phono stage
- Digital sources -- Cary Audio Design 303/200 CD player-processor; Apple MacBook Pro with internal SSD and 8GB RAM, external 1TB FireWire hard drive; Amarra 2.2 player; Wavelength Wavelink USB-to-S/PDIF 24-bit/192kHz converter
- Integrated amplifier -- Cary Audio Design SLI-80
- Speakers -- Red Rose Rosebud II
- Power conditioners and cables -- Shunyata Research Guardian power conditioner; Harmonic Technology Fantasy, Yamamura Churchill Series 5000 (phono stage only) AC cords
- Interconnects and speaker cables -- Harmonic Technology Magic, Kimber Kable Hero interconnects; PS Audio Extreme Reference speaker cables
- Accessories -- 70-pound, 24”-high custom speaker stands; Stillpoints and Risers isolation devices; Final Labs ball-bearing isolators; Quantum Resonant Technology power conditioner; Lovan foam-filled equipment rack
Joseph Audio Pulsar Loudspeakers
Price: $7700 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
PO Box 1529
Phone/Fax: (800) 474-4434