Joseph Audio RM7XL Special Edition loudspeaker
My experience with Joseph Audio speakers had been limited to show demonstrations, as their prices have always far exceeded my self-imposed ceiling for "affordable" speakers of, currently, $1500/pair. John Atkinson surprised me one day when he suggested I take a temporary break from my budget-speaker duties to give a listen to the latest revision of Joseph's entry-level satellite speaker, the RM7XL Special Edition ($2299/pair). I jumped at the chance to fire up the RM7XLs with my own gear.
The RM7XL is an update of the RM7si Signature Mk.2, which Chip Stern and JA enthused about in these pages (footnote 1) and which was named one of Stereophile's two Joint Loudspeakers of the Year for 2002. Like its predecessor, the RM7XL has on its front a 1" Sonatex dome tweeter, a 7" metal-cone woofer, and a port. But other than cabinet itself, every element of the RM7si Mk.2 has been revised to create the RM7XL—even the drivers: The woofer's voice-coil is now copper-clad aluminum and is 50% longer (20mm long). The magnet is also 50% larger, with a T-shaped pole-piece and a bumped back plate. The tweeter's new two-section dome assembly has been trickled down from Joseph Audio's flagship, the Pearl, and sports a new rear chamber designed to absorb the energy from the back of the dome.
Finally, while the original versions of the speaker incorporated Joseph's trademark "Infinite Slope" crossover, whose 120dB/octave rolloff ensures that any ringing of the metal-cone woofer will not be audible, the crossover has been re-engineered from the ground up and then fine-tuned. As Jeff Joseph explained to me, the RM7XL is consistent with his company's standard design priorities: neutral tonal balance, full dynamic power, wide horizontal dispersion, and a large, well-defined soundstage.
I set up the RM7XLs on my trusty Celestion Si steel stands, with their center pillars loaded with sand and lead shot. Jeff Joseph suggested I listen to the speakers with their grilles off, which he said would result in slightly greater transparency but no change in tonal balance. I tried the speakers both ways and agree.
I hadn't listened to many recordings before I'd settled on which of the RM7XL's strengths impressed me the most: its ability to unravel layers and layers of details, ambience cues, and hall sound deep into each recording, regardless of musical genre. Listening to Timothy Seelig and the Turtle Creek Chorale's recording of John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR57-HDCD), I was able to follow the solo cello lines way down into the mix. On the massed choral sections, I was able to follow the male and female vocalists separately, as the harmonic signature of each subgroup was rendered very distinctly. The holographic presence of soprano Nancy Keith was sufficiently lifelike that it seemed I could distinguish between the waveforms from her head and from her diaphragm, depending on the pitch sung. I could easily analyze her vibrato technique, and the clear decay of each vocal line helped me visualize the shape of the recording venue.
In Christer Lindwall's Earth Bow, for trombone, electric guitar, celeste, and percussion, from Rhizome (CD, Phono Suecia PSCD 154), all instruments were precisely placed across a wide, deep soundstage. The speakers disappeared, leaving the sound of the recording venue quite clear, and leaving me to revel in the inner detail and transient articulation of the performance of this difficult modern work. The RM7XL's transient capabilities—lightning-fast but never harsh or etched—sent me on a treasure hunt for recordings of mallet percussion. As marimbist Ruth Underwood performed her usual amphetamined pyrotechnics in "Approximate," from Frank Zappa's You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert (LP, Barking Pumpkin D124217), the Joseph revealed all details and pitch articulations without harshness.
The transient articulation went hand in hand with the RM7XL's organic low-level dynamic capabilities, which equaled those of much more expensive loudspeakers. In Tomiko Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), Carol Wincenc's flute and Franklin Cohen's clarinet had perfect articulation of pitch, phrasing, dynamic envelope, transients, and decay. The Joseph also excelled in rhythmic coherence. Drummer John Sand's snare and cymbal interplay in "How Am I Different," from Aimee Mann's Bachelor #2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, Superego SE 002), was tuneful, tight, and rhythmic as the RM7XL revealed all of the quirks of this idiosyncratic mix. Similarly, the interaction of the bass and drums in "At Seventeen," from Janis Ian's Between the Lines (LP, Columbia PC 33394), was tight and "in the pocket."
The Joseph's high-level dynamic performance was beyond reproach. In Morton Subotnick's seminal, 40-year-old electronic masterpiece, The Wild Bull (LP, Nonesuch H71208), the composer's synthesizer blasts emerge from a dark space to span most of the audible spectrum. Despite my familiarity with this recording, the opening fortissimo passage startled me through the RM7XL. Chris Jones' fretless bass on the frenetic "Bounce Terrain," from Attention Screen's La Tessitura (CD, Hojo HOJO110), was clear and vibrant, with natural dynamic attack, but devoid of any excess warmth.
I haven't said anything about the RM7XL's tonal balance because I could detect no coloration in any frequency range with any recording I played. I was particularly taken with the speaker's reproduction of vocals. On "We're Going Wrong," from Cream's Royal Albert Hall: London May 2-3-5-6 2005 (CD, Reprise 49416-2), Jack Bruce's voice was warm and enveloping, the RM7XL detailing all of the subtle vocal inflections Bruce employs across his broad range. The Joseph's extended and pristine high-frequency resolution enabled Eric Clapton's Fender Stratocaster to sound as it did in the live performance. (I attended the concert at which most of this set was recorded.) In fact, I loved all electric-guitar recordings with the RM7XLs. On "Becuz," from Sonic Youth's Washing Machine (CD, Geffen DGCD-24825), Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's extended, shimmering, just-tuned Fender Jazzmasters were reproduced perfectly through the Josephs.
Which brings to mind my single caveat about this speaker: Its tweeter was very revealing. I'm not saying it had any particular character, or that the high frequencies sounded bright or etched, but if there is any sort of brightness or high-frequency distortion in any recording or other component in the system, the RM7XL will reveal it. Careful equipment matching is mandatory.
The Joseph's upper and midbass performance were also quite impressive. All tracks on Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178) feature synthesized bass and drums, and all of those bass lines sounded tight, tuneful, articulate, and devoid of coloration or any overhang through the RM7XL. I'll leave it to JA to determine just how low the speaker's bass extends, but the bass drum in Antal Dorati and the London Symphony's recording of Stravinsky's The Firebird (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR90226) sounded tight, vibrant, and quite natural, though the more bombastic blasts didn't quite shake the room.
David Chesky's Violin Concerto, from his Area 31 (SACD/CD, Chesky SACD288, CD layer), brought together all of the RM7XL's strengths. The timpani were tuneful, the hall sound clear. There was a low-level bassoon figure I'd never noticed before, as well as some subtle interplay of percussion in the background. Those pizzicato strings, every little nuance of soloist Tom Chiu's bowing technique, the harmonic structure of his violin—all were quite lifelike. The accurately reproduced dynamic envelope, the harmonic integrity of the violin, and the retrieved ambience of the hall made it feel like a live performance.
None of the speakers I had on hand came anywhere near the Joseph's price of $2299/pair, so I compared the RM7XL to two leading $1000/pair contenders: the floor-standing Monitor Audio Silver RS6 and the bookshelf Amphion Helium2.
The Amphion was nearly the Joseph's equal in its resolution of detail, though I felt the RM7XL revealed more in the midrange. Low-level dynamics and transient articulation were in the same league. The Helium2's high-frequency performance was slightly less extended and detailed than the Joseph's, and a touch sweeter. The Amphion's midbass was somewhat warmer.
The Joseph RM7XL also revealed more inner detail than did Monitor Audio's Silver RS6. The RS6's highs were as extended, but the Joseph's seemed more delicate and sophisticated. The Monitor was a bit warmer in the midbass, but the RM7XL's low-bass extension and high-level dynamics were far superior.
Jeff Joseph's latest iteration of his entry-level loudspeaker, the RM7, is a detailed, sophisticated, and uncolored bookshelf model that should fit into the reference system of anyone, regardless of musical taste, and its diminutive and unassuming appearance should get high marks from décor-sensitive spouses. However, anyone who buys a pair should pick his or her associated equipment carefully to be certain that the entire system is capable of letting the RM7XL Special Edition reveal all of its strengths.
Footnote 1: John Atkinson wrote about the original RM7si in the February 1996 Stereophile (Vol.19 No.2), and the speaker's Signature edition in August 2000 (Vol.23 No.8); Chip Stern wrote about the RM7si Signature in October 2002 (Vol.25 No.10). All this coverage can be found here.