FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 13
RM25si Signature Mk2 loudspeakers
as reviewed by Chip Stern
When I first encountered Jeff Joseph at the 1998 CES Show in Vegas, I was charmed by his mischievous sense of humor, won over by his devotion to all kinds of hip music (especially jazz), and beguiled by bottomless bowls of M&Ms. While other exhibitors played generic, "audiophile" fare, Jeff played selections by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Frankie "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" Lane. And while many manufacturers attempted to shoehorn loudspeakers the size of John Deere tractors into a room with the square footage of a broom closet, Jeff showcased his new, modestly proportioned RM22i Signatures. Employing Richard Modaferri's innovative Infinite Slope Crossover design and the same SEAS aluminum cone bass/midrange driver and silk-dome SEAS tweeter as Jeff's stand-mounted RM7si Signatures, these floor-standing two-way speakers coupled beautifully with the room.
I was quite taken by the sweet clarity, transparency, bass extension, and relative neutrality of these small-footprint speakers, and was curious how well they would work in my home system, so I petitioned Stereophile for a review assignment. However, during the time it took for that assignment to come together, Jeff introduced a new floor-standing design, the RM25si—which had a taller, slightly deeper cabinet featuring not one, but TWO of those self-same SEAS aluminum-cone drivers and a more sophisticated SEAS silk-dome tweeter. I was immediately smitten upon first hearing them at the 1998 Stereophile Hi-Fi Home Theater Expo in Los Angeles. As much as there was to like about the RM22si Signatures, the RM25si Signatures seemed to have more of everything I valued in a loudspeaker, and I had an emotional epiphany—these were the speakers I really wanted to review. However, the thought of broaching this change of horses in midstream to Wes Phillips, the Stereophile reviews editor at the time, seemed tantamount to inserting a thorn in the big fellow's paw, and I determined that it would be prudent to table my conjugal visit with the RM25si Signatures for another day, and explicate the charms of the RM22si Signatures.
I never did get around to the RM25s. Stereophile discouraged writers from employing gear in their reference systems that hadn't been reviewed or slated for review, so I employed the RM22si Signatures as my reference for a while, then employed the RM7si Signatures for a number of years, and reviewed speakers by Vandersteen and Meadowlark in between before alighting upon Joseph's new upscale design, the ultra-refined RM33si Signatures (a more compact, small-footprint, three-driver iteration of the technology first introduced in Joseph's top-of-the-line Pearls), which I also reviewed for Stereophile.
When Joseph subsequently introduced an Asymmetrical Slope version of its patented crossover, I penned follow-ups on the RM7si Signature Mk2s and RM22si Signature Mk2s for Stereophile. And when Joseph revised and re-voiced the crossover on the RM33si Signatures, in effect transforming them from highly refined two-ways atop very subtle subwoofers to more convincingly full-bodied three-ways, I concluded my review by suggesting that the only thing that might put these speakers over the top was to retrofit them with the same pricey, ultra-sophisticated SEAS Excel Millennium tweeter that was featured in Joseph's flagship Pearls. Lo and behold, Jeff Joseph took this suggestion to heart and rolled out a limited edition of the RM33si Signatures at the 2003 CES Show. Needless to say, I was eager to hear what Chip had wrought, so I sent back the standard RM33si Signatures I was using, with the expectation that they would return at some point in the not-too-distant future, and in the meantime I checked out a number of other loudspeakers.
However, I kept reverting to the RM7si Signature Mk2s as familiar reference points, which was utterly painless, as they remain among the best bang-for-buck speakers you can buy, and I was always entranced by the punchy, upper-bass quality their front-ported design conferred on the sound, the slightly forward nature of their soundstaging, and their depth of field—plus their clarity and pinpoint resolution, which, as I have noted numerous times, gave me "...a dependable portal through which to observe the relative merits of all the associated gear I've evaluated in the past three years."
And so, when review samples of speakers by Merlin and Meadowlark failed to materialize, I followed up on my Positive Feedback review of the Marten Design Monk loudspeakers by postponing my second honeymoon with the RM33si Signature Limited Editions in favor of a long-anticipated audition of the RM25si Signatures, Joseph's most popular design, which by this time had also received an upgrade to Mk2 status.
Worth The Wait
Brief assignations in dealer showrooms and at hi-fi expos suggest at first glance that the double-driver/tweeter design of the RM25si Signature Mk2s employs a taller, more slender cabinet with a downward-firing, bass reflex style of port, like the RM22si Signature Mk2s. As it turns out, the cabinet is the same width, but the added height makes it seem slimmer. The cabinet is also one inch deeper, which affords additional box volume for optimum bass reproduction. Just as obviously, the purpose of having two 6-inch woofers instead of one is to double the surface area, and thus offer the better bass and dynamic punch commensurate with a larger cabinet and bigger drivers (such as a three-way configured with a single 10-inch bass driver, a midrange, and a tweeter). However, in my experience, once you ascend to a three-way design, the challenges involved in balancing frequency extension with coherent driver-to-driver transitions seem to increase geometrically, which is why as a listener—a cash-strapped one at that—I've always been drawn to two-way designs and sundry variations on that theme.
According to Jeff Joseph, "...the woofers work together at the low end of the spectrum, while the upper one is gradually attenuated as you ascend to the midrange, to avoid wave interference and lobing problems. Likewise, in positioning the tweeter in the middle of these two bass drivers, the idea is that it should be as close as possible to the driver it hands off to—in this case, the lower woofer—as a large space between woofer and tweeter would upset the coherence of the speaker. We want the drivers to speak with one voice." Now, it is common to refer to all such two-driver/tweeter configurations as either two-way speakers, but as Joseph points out, that premise is flawed:
"People see symmetrically placed woofers flanking a tweeter and assume it's a D'Appolitto. However, D'Appolitto speakers are not 2 1/2-way designs. He drives the woofers with the same signal and the crossover to the tweeter is an odd, third order filter. The crossover we employ in the RM25si MKII is a bit more elaborate. The lower woofer sees the full range below the steep infinite slope crossover, the upper woofer augments it only in the lower bass, and the tweeter has a different crossover slope entirely."
I offered my aural impressions of the evolution from the original Infinite Slope Crossover to the filter network and speaker voicing that Richard Modaferri and Jeff Joseph refer to as the Asymmetrical Slope Crossover in Stereophile follow-ups on the RM7si Signature Mk2s and RM22si Signature Mk2s. For this evaluation, I asked Joseph to explain to Positive Feedback readers how the new design differs from the original, and what sonic benefits were garnered by this new refinement?
"The original crossover featured steep slopes on both the low pass and high pass sections, while the new Asymmetrical Infinite Slope Crossover combines an ultra-steep low pass filter with a gentler tweeter slope. The advantages are better fill between the drivers both on-axis and off-axis, and amazingly clean waterfall plots—which correlates nicely with pristine stereo imaging and a grain free presentation."
Otherwise, again according to Joseph, the SEAS woofers featured in the upgraded version of the RM25si Signature Mk2, are "...more robust and can go louder and lower with less distortion." Likewise, the tweeter employed in the RM25si Signature Mk2 is a more expensive, advanced version of the SEAS silk-dome design employed in both the RM7si Signature Mk2s and the RM22si Signature Mk2s. "It's got a faster decay than the other tweeter," Joseph explains, "and a lower resonance. There's also a special chamber behind the dome to absorb rear reflections." Otherwise, the construction of this slender-baffled, downward-ported cabinet doesn't really differ substantially from that of the RM22si Signature Mk2s with which I had previously spent a fair amount of listening time. It stands upon a spiked plinth, and features an internal enclosure that users can fill with sand (I did not). It is rigid and solidly built, and while it lacks aesthetic splendor, its unobtrusive mien and practical price-performance pedigree shouldn't raise any red flags with your significant other.
Reference Room Setup and System Configuration
For those who are unfamiliar with my listening space, let me offer an exhaustive reprise of the basics. I have a 14' W x 20' L x 10' H listening room in an old circa-World War I building (it was originally the dining room in my apartment). The walls are quite massive and solid, as was the standard practice 90-some years ago.
On the north wall, my couch is positioned roughly four feet in front of an old-fashioned steam heat radiator overlooking West 181st Street and, due north down Bennett Avenue, the tree-lined hills of Four Tryon Park are visible from my windows (just beyond are the Cloisters). Facing the south wall, my power amplifiers sit upon a double-decker PolyCrystal stand just behind the soundstage, and behind that, against the wall, is an old heavy timber table, where, smack dab in the middle, I've erected a stack of power line gear: Equi=Tech 2Q and Q650 Balanced Power Transformers and the Signature version Monster Cable's AVS 2000 Automatic Voltage Stabilizer.
To my right, the west wall is completely solid, immediately adjacent to the exterior wall of my building and the apartment building next door. In the southwest quadrant of the west wall is a chest of drawers with an EchoBusters' BassBuster atop it, in the corner. Further down, in the middle of the west wall, I have two five-tier PolyCrystal equipment racks at right angles to each other containing all of my source and front-end gear, with a little bit of room in the rear to play around with cables and AC cords. Finally, in the north corner of the west wall, I have a five-tier Salamander Equipment rack, atop which sits my venerable 1988 NEC CT-2070S color monitor, which is attached to my California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD-CD player with a 7-meter JPS Labs Superconductor S-Video Cable (thus, when watching DVD-V discs, I sit with my back to the loudspeakers).
To the immediate left of the area behind the loudspeakers, an old doorway to the kitchen and most of the east wall is covered by a set of six CD cases that form a right angle and extend all the way up to the ceiling. The east wall extends six feet into the room, at which point there is a six-foot-wide archway leading into the living room, where my computer setup and some bass amps block off about half of this aperture. (My speakers are always placed adjacent to the east-side wall, but behind the open archway.) Beyond the archway is a three-drawer CD cabinet on wheels, piled high with CDs in current rotation, flush up against the couch, behind which there sit a set of shelves in the northeast corner. When doing critical listening, I set up EchoBusters' Diffusive Panels in front of the windows behind the couch. Whew.
My listening room is devoid of convenient outlets. However, because I have two sets of 20-amp dedicated lines in the northwest corner of the adjacent room on the archway/east wall separating the two rooms, a 25-foot, three-outlet-equipped JPS Labs Kaptovator Outlet Center functions as a custom high-rez Extension Cord of the Gods. It extends right to the base of the massive wooden table, just behind my double-tiered PolyCrystal amp stand. In this way, everything in my system is ultimately daisy-chained into one of my dedicated 20 amp lines. Got that? Okay.
I plug the massive, 20-amp Equi=Tech 2Q Balanced Power Transformer into one outlet of the Kaptovator Outlet Center with either a 20-amp Hubble plug retro-fitted JPS Labs Aluminata or JPS Labs Kaptovator AC cord. I then plug my power amps directly into the 2Q with an Aluminata or Kaptovator of their own. This allows my amps to function at maximum efficiency, with ample reserves of pristine current, devoid of extraneous noise artifacts and harmonic currents. The difference this makes to system scale and resolution is immense. With such a gargantuan foundation in true bass—that is to say, bass energy not merely as frequency extension but as transient speed and dynamic immediacy—the depth and scale of soundstaging, image density and illumination, midrange detail and layering, high frequency smoothness, clarity and transparency is utterly lifelike and emotionally compelling. So much for the power amps.
I then connect the Signature version of the Monster Cable AVS 2000 Automatic Voltage Stabilizer to the Kaptovator Outlet Center and plug the 5-amp, super high-resolution Equi=Tech Q650 into the AVS 2000 with an Active-Shielding equipped version of the Synergistic Research Designer's Reference2 AC cord, thus conferring the benefits of stable voltages and balanced power to all of my low-current front end gear. Finally, I connect one fifteen-foot JPS Labs Kaptovator Outlet Center to one of the Q650's analog outputs, and a separate fifteen-foot run to one of its digital outputs. These extend to just behind my equipment racks, allowing me to eliminate crosstalk and noise artifacts by employing completely discrete power sources for my digital and analog gear. The sonic payoff for discrete analog and digital connections to stable voltage and balanced power sources is an extraordinarily high level of musical resolution—smooth, quiet, airy, and relaxed, with a wealth of low level spatial cues, natural detail and transparency, devoid of aural smearing and zippy digital artifacts.
My justification for all of this aural mishigas is to optimize resolution—purity of musical reproduction. Power conditioning and all of these varied neurological connections and concoctions comprise a significant set of components in their own right, and once you get a good solid foundation in power amps, preamps, speakers, and source components, you owe it to yourself to invest in these vital enhancements. Garbage in, garbage out, folks. That is to say, if your power is corrupted, you are not going to hear what your gear is really capable of—or of getting as close to the music as you would like. You are mostly going to be listening to noise. It never ceases to amaze me how many people confuse noise artifacts and distortion with high frequency detail. This affords me an electron-microscope-quality aural portal with which to deepen my involvement with music, and to create a high-resolution, level playing field for comparing and contrasting loudspeakers and audio components. I can bet my life on what I am hearing because I know my power sources are not corrupted, thus I can go rooting about for all of the nuances and subtleties our readers are listening for. As an audio reviewer, I have the rare privilege of living with gear for extended periods of time—a luxury most consumers don't enjoy. That's what we do, or at least that's what we try to do—to function as consumers by proxy, to be your eyes and ears on the front lines of two-channel audio.
My system sidebar delineates most of the other gear I have recently employed in my reference rig. I've used Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II Interconnects and Gargantua II AC cords throughout my front end for the better part of the past year, with an Active Shielding-equipped Synergistic Research Designer's Reference2 X-Series interconnect running from my VTL 5.5 preamp to my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amp, and Active Shielding-equipped SRDR2 Solid-State Reference bi-wired speaker cables running to the Joseph Audio RM7si Signature Mk2 loudspeakers. However, during a recent evaluation of the Denon DVD-2900 (with Underwood HiFi Level 1 mods) for 6 Moons (http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/denon/2900.html), I had cause to A/B several digital front end devices at once, and because my evaluation of the Dynaudio Special 25 loudspeakers (which only employ a single set of speaker terminals) continues apace, for consistency's sake (and because they sound great), I began using JPS Labs Superconductor 2 interconnects and speaker cables throughout. I continued to use a combination of JPS Labs Kaptovator, Acoustic Zen Gargantua II, and Synergistic Research Designer's Reference2 AC cords throughout the front end, which at this point is comprised of a Rega Planar 25 turntable (with a Rega RB600 tonearm and a Grado Statement Master cartridge), a Rogue Audio Stealth phono preamp (with Monster Cable Sigma Retro Gold interconnects), a Marantz PMD430 portable cassette player/recorder, and a Manley Massive Passive vacuum tube equalizer, which is really an amazing piece of gear (yes Matilda, tone controls, and I love them). The Massive Passive gives you two independent channels of parametric equalization with a wide range of variable frequency points for fine-tuning the bass, lower midrange, upper midrange, and treble response for both amplitude and Q. Again, a simply awesome piece of gear, optimized for studio mastering and tracking purposes, but incredibly quiet, musical, and unobtrusive for use in any audio system. No home should be without one (and NO, I do not have it active in the signal chain when evaluating gear).
On the digital side, for some time now I've been using the Upscale Audio Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 vacuum tube CD player (in its fully tweaked 24/192 Super Tjoeb configuration) and the venerable California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD/CD player as my main digital sources, as well as the Denon DVD-2900 (with Underwood HiFi Level 1 mods) and the all singing, all dancing Linn Unidisk 1.1 Universal Disc Player, which I currently have on loan for a Positive Feedback review. Finally, as fate would have it, I had the truly imposing McCormack DNA-500 power amp in house (for a 6 Moons review), and it saw much drive time in tandem with the RM25si Signature Mk2s.
Firing Up The Loudspeakers
What is the appeal of Joseph loudspeakers in general, and the RM25si Signature Mk2s in particular? To zero in on one particular quality, I had a conversation some years back with an audio dealer about my enthusiastic (if somewhat guarded) response to a loudspeaker he particularly liked, which was the polar opposite of the Joseph in terms of both sonics and general design. "I know what you miss," he concluded in response to certain of my oft-stated reservations, "it's the brightness."
Well, no. What I missed was the transparency. That is to say, I have always found the clarity, transparency, and apparent absence of colorations or peak-frequency happy gas to be among the most appealing attributes of Joseph Audio loudspeakers, which is why I employed the RM7si Signatures for so many years as my reference speakers. I found them to be very revealing loudspeakers that got out of the way, let the music shine through, and allowed me to zero in on the sonic attributes of the downstream components.
Chippie really liked these speakers!
Setup was simple and intuitive. Standing on their spiked plinths, the RM25si Signature Mk2s are 46 inches high, 8.5 inches wide, and 11.5 inches deep, and weigh around 70 pounds. I experimented with a few setups, but found myself positioning them a little farther forward and wider apart then I typically did with the stand mounted, front-ported RM7si Signature Mk2s: measured from the phase plugs in the center of the bass/midrange drivers, the RM25s were roughly 33 inches from the side walls and 66 inches from each other, while the back panels of the speakers were 55 inches from the back wall. My primary listening position, on a low-slung couch, was nine feet away, four feet from the windows on the north side of the room. I experimented with different degrees of toe-in, but found (per Jeff Joseph's suggestion) that a minimal degree of toe-in made for a wider, deeper soundstage, with fewer point source characteristics and better tweeter dispersion.
While the RM25si Signature Mk2s have a beautifully centered and coherent sweet spot, their off-axis response and musical veracity are such that I was not quite as limited in terms of listening position as I would have been with some other loudspeakers. Likewise, I found the Josephs very easy to drive with a variety of amplifiers, such as the 28-watt, pure Class A output of a tubed Mesa Tigris integrated amp (in its 2/3 pentode-1/3 triode mode, with no negative feedback) and the 70-watt Sim i-5 (an appealingly smooth, dynamic, warm sounding, solid state integrated with 6dB of dynamic headroom), both of which retail for around $2500. In fact, for a long time I very happily drove the RM25s with an updated version of the ultra-compact Linn Classik CD Receiver ($1500), one of the great bargains in high end audio, which is rated at 50 watts into 8 ohms and 75 into 4—very solid, honest power and a fairly conservative rating by my lights.
Thus, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms (6 ohms minimum), the RM25si presents a very friendly load to any amplifier. With a rated sensitivity of 88dB, with 2.83 volts RMS @ 1 meter, how much amp you require depends on how much absolute volume you require in your room, and how hard you want to drive the speakers to achieve greater dynamic impact. As Jeff is wont to point out, sensitivity specs can be a little misleading. He writes on his website, "When comparing this spec to low impedance (4 ohm) designs, you must add 3dB to the figure, since 4 ohm loads draw twice the current from the amplifier, providing the illusion of greater sensitivity, while placing more stress on the amplifier's power supply... true 8 ohm speakers are less amplifier and cable sensitive, and partner well with a broader range of amplifiers, including tube designs."
I've found that the MM7si, RM22si and RM25si designs all partner efficiently with more modestly endowed amplifiers, yet respond with added transient speed, punch and dynamic range when mated with more powerful amplification. It depends on your expectations, but these are speakers that can grow as your system grows, and will readily reward your sensory perceptions as you gear up with more power, better digital resolution, more highly resolved cabling, and cleaner power sources.
Having said, that, if your goal is the live impact of a full-range system, the RM25si Signature Mk2s do like more power. While I found their clarity and soundstaging performance to be exemplary with the modest Tigris, and wanting for little with the i-5 and Linn Classik amplifier stages, they seemed to really open up and reach their full dynamic potential with more power, which is why years ago I invested in a Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amp, and why I enjoyed using the 500 watt McCormack DNA-500 in the home stretch of these listening evaluations. However, the RM25si's will happily wag their tail when mated with a decent integrated amp, so fret not if this is your current situation. If you were considering something less sensitive, more expensive, more extended, and more resolving, such as the limited edition version of the Joseph RM33si Signatures, I expect you already have some beefy amplification at your beck and call. But then, the RM33si loudspeakers retail for $9000, and you would expect them to be partnered with much more refined, no-compromise gear throughout the signal chain. And while the RM25s more than held their own in my reference rig of the moment, happily purring away in tandem with a $7000 power amp, a $3500 preamp, and an $11,000 universal disc player, I'd imagine the typical budget for a system that included a $3500 pair of RM25si Signatures would be in the $5000-$10,000 range.
Having spent so much time with the RM7si's, in many different systems, my initial impressions of the RM25si Signature Mk2s were pleasing—and surprising. Like the RM7si Signatures, they're clear, transparent and revealing, musically graceful and easy to drive, cleanly extended on top and bottom, and sweetly layered in the midrange frequencies, with a spacious, realistic portrayal of soundstage details, spatial depth, and ambient space. I never enjoyed a home audition of the RM25si's in their original configuration (with the first iteration of the Infinite Slope Crossover), but I reported on the differences between the original RM7si's and the Mk2 versions that employed improved drivers and the Asymmetrical Infinite Slope crossover technology (first deployed in the RM33si) in Stereophile. Transitions between the upper mids and lower treble were rendered in a less peaky manner, so the overall presentation wasn't quite as brassy, and when pushed really hard, I no longer experienced the slight degree of dynamic compression in the bass. Overall, they had a smoother, more balanced, and muscular sound.
The first thing I noticed about the RM25si Signature Mk2s was a significant increase in bass extension. The manufacturer rates the frequency response as ± 2dB from 32Hz to 20kHz (± 2dB from 42Hz to 20kHz in the RM7si), and in employing the Stereophile Test CD (STPH-002-2), I could discern no significant dip in bass energy with a 1/3 octave warble tone at 31.5 Hz. At 25Hz, I could discern some slight bass energy, though it was barely audible. All things being equal, in listening to recordings with significant deep bass, the RM25si Signature Mk2s do not reproduce the final octave, though there seems to be some useful musical information extending down to the upper twenties.
However, while the RM25si had significantly deeper bass, and more dynamic veracity, my initial perceptions were, curiously, that the RM7si was punchier, with a more forward presentation. Perhaps when you factor in the presence of a front-mounted port on the RM7si (compared to a bottom-firing arrangement on the RM25si), this accounts for a certain mid-bass... I don't want to say emphasis, but rather presence. The RM25si, with its more sophisticated tweeter, was certainly smoother, sweeter, and more detailed in the highs, with a slightly warmer mien to the overall presentation from top to bottom, and a broader, deeper, more detailed soundstage due to the greater foundation in clean bass energy. And yet, while I initially expected that bass extension to translate into a more aggressive style of reproduction, the RM25si Signature Mk2's presentation was much more subtle and laid back.
This might take some getting used to for listeners used to speakers that wear the bass on their shirtsleeves, or with a more pronounced midrange, let alone more palpable colorations. We're getting into very personal, subjective territory here. One person's coloration is another man's humanity. What sounds like an unwelcome peak or emphasis to you might sound like soul to someone else. Likewise, the tightness, clarity, and pitch specificity of the bass, the openness of the midrange, and the smooth, airy high-frequency detail that I cherish in the RM25si Signatures might seem kind of prissy and reserved to some listeners. It depends what your expectations are, what sort of music you listen to, and the context of that listening—do you want something to politely wallpaper your sonic environment, to envelope you in a breathtaking live, natural acoustic, or to blow you out of your socks in the manner of an old Tex Avery cartoon (oooooowwwwwwooooooogaaaaaa) or the classic Maxell advertisement of our collective youth. It's also worth asking how much money you have to spend.
In my guise as an audio journalist, I cannot only function as an advocate, a defense attorney. I have a responsibility not only to voice my own enthusiasms for a product, and to address those who share my aural inclinations, but also to act as a prosecuting attorney, and to try and identify those aspects of a product's performance that would not appeal to some people. For instance, to some people, super-high-efficiency horns and low-powered single-ended triode amps are a little slice of heaven, while other listeners will never make that connection.
Given my taste for acoustic purity, small combo jazz, chamber music, and symphonic recordings, it's not surprising that I would be drawn to the RM25si Signature Mk2s. On recording after recording, driving these loudspeakers with everything from the Linn Classik to the McCormack DNA-500, these speakers were acoustically revealing, spiritually involving, and musically compelling. And while I listen to a generous helping of rock, fusion, and R&B, my expectations are for a big, live sound and concert presence, small-club intimacy and acoustic ambience. If a speaker reproduces a human voice and a piano in an honest, lifelike manner, I am content if it only minors in hard rock and hip hop.
So, what might recommend this speaker to me, but not to some of you? During my final set of in-depth listening sessions, since I had the glorious Linn 1.1 on hand, I availed myself of a big stack of SACDs: some of old analog masters, some purely Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recordings. In the process of addressing my unbridled enthusiasm (trying to zero in on what might be some of your potential misgivings), let's turn to an authentic Hi-Fi Show Vinyl Favorite, but since I don't have the LP, the SACD of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Can't Stand The Weather (Epic/Legacy) will do quite nicely. I heard Vaughan and Double Trouble live in a double bill at Madison Square Garden (opening for them was Jeff Beck's Trio with Tony Hymas and Terry Bozzio) in New York City back around 1989, and to this day, my ears are still ringing from the swampy sound and physical impact of Tommy Shannon's Fender bass. I thought at the time that the soundman should have been brought up on assault charges, but it gave me a very memorable reference point for an over-the-top amplified sound in an arena setting. I was reminded of this quality in listening to "The Things (That) I Used To Do," where the RM25si's lack of happy gas (warmth or fullness if you like) in the midbass frequencies did not render the broad, wooly spread in Shannon's bass—the flatten-the-first-thirty-rows bigness of it—in a manner that suggested what I had heard live or that I imagined would represent the kind of voicing/perspective that committed hard rockers, club hoppers, or some of my uptown peeps in their meringue mobiles might consider authentic.
That's because the upper 6-inch bass driver in the RM25si's two-driver array handles the really deep bass, while the lower driver handles the transition from the midrange into the upper reaches of the lower treble frequencies at 2000 Hz, and again, the emphasis in bass reproduction is on rendering the elemental speed, snap, and clarity of the bass, not so much as a note or as an emphasis, but as a foundation of bass, which translates into scale and dimensionality while preserving the timbre and taut presence of the bass. As a drummer, I can tell you that on the band's performance of "Voodoo Chile," the leading edge of the transient on Chris Layton's bass drum had all of the snap, crackle, and pop I could ever want (all meat, easy on the potatoes, without any butterfat overhang), while the raging immediacy of Stevie Ray's Stratocaster had a crunchy midrange authenticity that rang true to a guitarist like myself, who loves jazz but who also enjoys driving his Mesa Boogie into hard blues territory and beyond. But for me, the rightness, the tightness, the honest musicality and accuracy of the RM25si Signatures all came together on the gloriously spectral airs of "Tin Pan Alley (Roughest Place In Town)," where the speakers positively disappeared. Here the mix is less about bass energy than about bass control, with lots of body and presence in the upper bass/lower midrange transition. For all of Shannon's immediacy, the leader's voice and reverb-drenched single lines float free, easy, and unencumbered across an immense soundstage, awash in echo and spatial cues. As a musician, a devout listener, and (God help me) an audiophile, this is what I live for, and to me, while I could easily be enticed by a bigger, plumper bass or the seductive midrange lushness of a more romantically-voiced loudspeaker, I was simply swept away by the immediacy, aural intimacy, and palpable spiritual presence of Stevie Ray on "Tin Pan Alley." Sonically, I wanted for nothing, save the weight, depth and immensity of bass in that 18-30Hz region.
But could we really recommend these speakers to someone whose tastes run towards more contemporary sounds? Referencing a blues recording, even so vibrant and over-the-top a selection as Can't Stand The Weather is perhaps a little too audiophile. Unfortunately, I'm not exactly swimming in hip-hop records. I do have an old rap/reggae fusion recording that I love to reference for Cecil B. DeMille-style Bass Overkill: Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare's Silent Assassin (Island). But as big and bold as that bad boy is, it's also a fifteen-year old recording. Okay, I confess, it's not so much that I'm old school—I guess I'm just old. But lo and behold, a perfect aural experience arrived in the post. For reasons I cannot fully fathom, I seem to be receiving product from Bad Boy Records. Hmm, there's a sensitive-vulnerable hunk on the cover by the name of Mario Winans. Ball one. He's pictured on the jacket playing an acoustic grand piano, and the title of his recital is Hurt No More. Yes, yes I enthused to myself, this looked anthropologically promising, with intimations of contemporary R&B balladry. Ball two. Whoa, Nellie, the executive producer is Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs! R&B balladry mated to a hip hop/dance club sensibility—ball three. Hmmm, let's see, GUESS artists? Well, here's Foxy Brown featured on "Pretty Girl Bullshit." Hot damn! Ball four—TAKE YOUR BASS!
What was particularly provocative about this recording as audition tool was not just the expectation of enormous, house-style, low-frequency slam and bodacious sampled percussion, but how the curious juxtaposition of hip-hop aggression with acoustic details (such as the wash of Winans' grand piano and the close-miked detail of the lead vocals) made for a complex mix with lots of textural layering and dynamic variety. What was fascinating to me as a stranger in this strange aural land was how perfectly the RM25si's managed to translate the visceral power of the rhythm and rapping while capturing all of the subtle nuances of ambient synthesizer pads and hushed romantic vocals. On one track, the leading edge of an electronic bass drum transient was so rude, so penetrating, I thought I was pushing the transducers into distortion and hitting the drivers' end stops, but it was not distortion, just an obnoxious sound rendered with compelling accuracy and transient speed. So yeah, sure, I could recommend that stone hip-hop types give these loudspeakers a serious audition. Would I expect them to go for them? Not really—they're a little too pristine, too polite, too subdued, not phat enough. But for listeners who share my tastes, I tossed on one of my all-time jazz-fusion favorites, Miles Davis' "Right Off" from the finest reissue of 2003, an absolutely essential recording, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Columbia/Legacy). Miles employed this music as the soundtrack to a film biography on the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and this five-CD set documents an exhaustive compendium of the original roughs from which producer Teo Macero compiled his final edits, as well as alternates, outtakes, stillborn sonic search parties, and unreleased little gems that were recorded in a series of sessions leading up to the original LP release. Beautifully reconstructed employing 24-bit mastering technology, Michael Henderson's Fender Jazz bass has even more weight and physical presence than I remember. But once again, while one must credit the Linn for decoding all manner of acoustic cues, room sounds, and small textural details I'd never heard before (such as the ambient aura suffusing Billy Cobham's drum set, the inner details of John McLaughlin's stereo guitar, and the acoustic realism of Miles' voice-like trumpet leads), the Joseph RM25si Signatures delivered it all—big gestures and small, electric and acoustic, dynamic and ambient, with power, grace, and a genuine sense of ease and authority.
Okay, so the RM25si Signatures proved quite effective, if not exactly perfect, for blues and rock, hip-hop, electric jazz and all manner of compressed, contemporary sounds. But where these loudspeakers really excel, where they really deliver the goods, is on acoustic music. Thanks to Amanda "The Digital Diva" Sweet of Telarc, I was able to reference a really wonderful pure DSD recording of Mahler's Symphony #3 (Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra), with its warm, airy depiction of an immense hall acoustic. The RM25si did a superb job of tracking the dynamic extremes—the authoritative timpani hits towards the back of the stage, adorned with a delicate necklace of bells. The attack characteristics of those bells were so much more immediate and sharply articulated that I heard them tip-toe ever so slightly towards the front of the orchestra, in much the same way I can recall experiencing a similar effect in the 10th row at Carnegie Hall. Then there's the extreme pianissimo of a distant posthorn (looks like a cross between a stubby cornet and a baby French horn), heard as a distant echo off-stage left, mellow in the mists, yet that mellifluous mezzo-soprano vocal quality is distinctly delineated without megaphoning amidst the hall's reverberations. Very revealing. And I was completely captivated by how the laid back clarity of the RM25si's allowed me to drink in all of this recording's midrange layering and detail. In fact, seeing as how the recording and mastering engineers endeavored to present the full dynamic of an enormous orchestra in a purely audiophile manner without any of the gain/compression hot-rodding one is so inured to in contemporary recordings, I experimented with preamp levels to find the sweet spot where I could plainly make out the softest pianissimo as I might experience it from a concert seat, but not so high that when the biggest fff fortissimo came roaring out, it was balanced. I had the volume control positioned around 2:00, whereas on hotter recordings I'd normally be around 10-11:00 max. Made me ponder anew what a double-edged sword your true audiophile system is. We're so deep into the acoustic signature of a good system, and the true acoustics of live music, that when you hear how routinely engineers juice up recordings to sound extra-live and loud and full and impactful on more low-fidelity reproduction devices—a lot of which can be very artful, and which serve the music—it is obvious that they are creating an acoustic, not simply replicating it. By which I mean to relate my retarded little realization of how oddly jarring it was to be ushered back into a big hall with more or less traditional, purist microphone techniques, to experience something close to the full dynamic range of live music. End of tangent.
I mention all of this because at the big-boffo conclusion to Mahler's Third, with an extra-large orchestra throwing down like dueling chorales of male and female voices in full throat, I heard what I took to be some sort of natural compression as every reflective surface in the hall got excited and seemed to be ringing all at once. Tah-Dah Just to make sure that it was the recording and not the Josephs that were compressing, I tossed on "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "One Two Free" from another pure DSD-SACD production, Tom Jung's experimental recording of drummer Steve Davis' Quality Of Silence. These performances benefit from an artificial, subjective acoustic—again, creating sonics rather than replicating them—but there is nothing contrived or gauche about the sound. There's enormous, up-close instrumental detail, gorgeous depth of field, a richly textured midrange, and hypnotic ambience… and bass—BIG BASS. Real bass. Natural bass. In my adjoining room, I have a full set of drums and cymbals, an NS Design Electric Upright Bass Violin, and an array of electric guitars and tube amplifiers. I know what those instruments sound like live. Sure, the Jung recording is stylized, but it's not phony, and the Josephs put that guitar trio right in my listening room—hell, they put them right in my frigging FACE—then proceeded to disappear. Clear, vivid and natural, with a tautly articulated foundation of tight, clean bass.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury…
Let's call it a day. What's the point of piling it on? You get the idea. I really like these speakers. I mean, what's not to like? I listened to tons of music on this system with these loudspeakers. Of course, I spent extensive time with acoustic piano and female voices, which is where they really excel. I loved the purity, the accuracy, the sense of ease about them. I once characterized the RM22si as the ultimate white-wine speaker, and the RM25si Signature Mk2 delivers even more in the way of realistic timbres and dynamics, spatial depth, precise imaging, high frequency clarity, midband detail and tight tuneful bass.
A lot of what I've delineated for you in this evaluation was my attempt to zero in on how the Josephs handle music that is subjectively more pleasing on other speakers. And of course, if you can throw down the bucks for larger, more elaborate, full-range designs, you will surely achieve greater scale, absolute power, and depth of resolution.
Some people are not going to experience these loudspeakers as I did. They might perceive them as cold and analytical, might find that their voicing is skewered more to high frequencies than low. What I experience as natural and neutral, they might hear as colorless and odorless—a little light in the loafers. "Tight, tuneful bass, my ass—I want something bigger, bolder, and more bodacious, that I can play louder." Or, "High powered solid state amps? Not for me. Nothing has the midrange magic of my SoAndSo Speakers and low-powered, single-ended triodes." Fair enough. There are CERTAINLY loudspeakers that play louder, have more bass, are voiced to provide more subjective warmth, or are more forgiving. And some people are never going to get down with your traditional dynamic box speakers. Bon appetit.
To make things as plain and simple as possible, I'm not trying to tell you that these are the greatest speakers I've ever heard, but they are superbly musical—big, clear, dynamic, and natural. I have other speakers in my crib right now that sound substantially different than the Josephs, and which I like just as much, if for different reasons. All I'm saying is that if you have $3500 to spend on a pair of speakers, you owe it to yourself to audition them, and to hear if they suit your tastes. You may prefer something that plays louder, offers a more subjectively pleasing perspective, a different foundation in bass. Also, because they can be driven so effectively (and musically) with more modest amplification, some might choose to max out their budgets on speakers, especially when you can get by with something as musical and cost effective as the Linn Classik. For five grand, you are swinging. By the same token, with a more accommodating budget, you could max out on the electronics and digital front end, such as I also did in this reference system, with the $11,000-plus Linn 1.1 and the $7000 DNA, and come to the logical conclusion that at only $3500—and given how easily the RM25si Signatures couple with a variety of acoustic spaces—hey, maybe this is all the loudspeaker I really need. Isn't that something—a loudspeaker this forgiving of modest electronics, yet so revealing of the best components?
People like myself, who love jazz but listen to a wide range of acoustic music without skimping on fusion, funk, or rock, might find the RM25si Signatures to be very effective all-purpose loudspeakers. People who listen to mostly acoustic or mostly electric will probably want to audition a wide range of loudspeakers at this price point, to establish whether or not their reference points jive with mine.
I guess what I like best about these speakers is the sense of connection I get with the most holographic, dimensional recording experiences, such as the Ry Cooder-Kavi Alexander production of Jon Hassell's Fascinoma (Water Lily Acoustics), an immense, pastel-textured canvas that balances a host of acoustic perspectives inside an intoxicatingly ambient church space, recorded with vacuum tube electronics. There is so much soundstaging information on this recording, such a wide array of delicately articulated images peeping through the inky depths of this spooky, aquatic acoustic. Having brought me this deeply into the music, the RM25si Signature Mk2s get out of the way, making me feel less like I am listening to a system and more like I have an open window into the music, a doorway to perception. Which is what this hobby is supposed to be all about, right?
Don't take my word for it. Listen for yourself and let me know what you heard that we might kvetch about. God knows, I couldn't find much. Chip Stern