Joseph Audio RM33si Signature loudspeaker Chip Stern January 2003
For audiophiles, love is a sometime thing. It's not that we're so damn flighty or impossible to please; it's just that familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then surely a tendency toward obsessive nitpicking and analysis. A blush of enthusiasm for the new is irresistible to most audiophiles, yet, as we expand our range of reference gear, the scales shift, and we find ourselves focusing more on a component's shortcomings. And since no one piece of gear does it all, this process of calculating relative strengths and weaknesses, tradeoffs and system synergies, is part and parcel of the critical process. Which is why Stereophile encourages us to periodically reacquaint ourselves with old flames.
Which explains why, after living for the better part of a year with the two-way Meadowlark HotRod Shearwaters that I reviewed in September, I was taken aback when I returned to the three-way, $7499/pair, RM33si Signatures from Joseph Audio. I'd grown comfortable with the Shearwater's bass balance and midrange presentation, and while still enamored of the Josephs' clarity, linearity, resolution, and depth of soundstaging, I began to apprehend issues John Atkinson had raised in his January 2002 Follow-Up to my October 2001 review—particularly his lack of enthusiasm for the way the Joseph navigated the transition between its 8" aluminum-cone bass driver and 5" magnesium-cone midrange. While the RM33si Signature was still a very satisfying loudspeaker, I began to hear in my mind's ear how much better it might be.
In spring 2002, Joseph Audio's Richard Modaferri and Jeff Joseph set about improving the RM33si, spending several months experimenting with different crossover points and voicings. "The entire crossover was re-engineered and optimized for the new crossover point—which is now roughly 220Hz—and small adjustments were made to improve the midrange/tweeter integration as well," Joseph explained.
While the original RM33si Signature's midrange seemingly tracked the entirety of the baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano vocal ranges above its crossover point of 125Hz, for all its incredible clarity, I found myself longing for more punch and body. To my ears, making the Joseph's bass driver cover more of the low-end fundamentals has let the midrange driver operate more efficiently. As a result, the fill between the bass and midrange frequencies is more natural and satisfying in the new iteration, to particular effect (surprise, surprise) on vocals, which now sound more organic, more fully delineated from other images. What had essentially been a highly resolved, coherent two-way speaker with an integral subwoofer is now a full-bodied three-way—a highly refined white-wine speaker that now suggests a more layered, textured red.
Buttressed as it now is on a more convincing foundation of bass, the RM33si Signature's newfound lower-midrange plumpness lends itself to a more forward presentation with a decidedly dynamic thrust without compromising its characteristic clarity and transparency. More significant, this power-hungry speaker now seems a tad more sensitive and easy to drive. Because its midrange is no longer called on to handle a disproportionate share of low-end energy, its holographic attributes have been accentuated. And the soft-dome tweeter exhibits a real sense of ease in its depiction of top-end extension, while maintaining the RM33si Signature's top-to-bottom focus and smooth frequency response.
These improvements offer listeners a taste of the performance of Joseph Audio's top-of-the-line Pearl in a compact, room-friendly configuration at roughly a third the Pearl's price. Still, the niggling perfectionist in me longs for the fancier, more revealing tweeter employed in that no-compromise design, which conveys a more convincing, visceral depiction of harmonic detail, soundstaging height, and lateral illumination. In comparison, the RM33si Signature's tweeter, while hardly reticent, seems a touch laid-back. Obviously, replacing its tweeter would raise the RM33si's cost, but I can think of no tweak more likely to push the RM33si Signature's already exceptional performance right over the top. Until then, this latest version will do quite nicely.—Chip Stern