Before I get on with the show, I would like to acknowledge Pete Schumacher, who is, along with Ryan Scott, a principal of Vapor Audio. I will not be discussing Pete much in this article, as it is largely a recounting of my experience in the build out and purchase of the Joule White 3 speaker. Aside from a delightful dinner one evening during Axpona 2014 where in conversation with Ryan and Pete the subject of the Joule speaker came up, my discussions were with Ryan. I mean no slight to Pete by pursuing this course.
This article will focus on the Vapor Audio Joule White 3. There is a “Black” version, and although not delineated here I encourage prospective buyers to research both versions of the speaker.
It is a pleasure and privilege to be included in the design of an audiophile speaker system. I thank Ryan Scott and Pete Schumacher of Vapor Audio for including me in the lengthy, in depth discussions about the development of the Vapor Audio Joule White 3.
The Joule is one step down from the Perfect Storm, Vapor Audio’s ultimate expression of speaker building displayed at AXPONA and RMAF 2015. The primary differences between the two are as follows; the Perfect Storm features a 15” Audio Technology 15F woofer and the Joule uses the Audio Technology 10C77 11” driver. The Perfect Storm splits the midrange and upper midrange performance of the Joule’s Accuton C173-6-090 by substituting for it an 8” custom Accuton Vapor Audio exclusive Neo motor Ceramic driver and 2″ Accuton Cell C51 upper midrange. The splendid RAAL 140-15D ribbon tweeter is used in both speakers. Cabinet shape and construction, crossover and internal wiring elements, speaker connections and aesthetic aspects are shared across the two platforms.
New to the build of the Joule is a front baffle sloped at 3 degrees and a larger upper cabinet to more proportionately fit the bass cabinet. Upgrades have been done by moving the crossover inside the bass cabinet, the addition of new aluminum outriggers with two options for spikes (aluminum or Delrin), employment of an impedance compensation circuit for the bass, and additional “gooping” of the cabinet’s bass port.
Goop is important to Vapor as the cabinets have cavities into which a dense, highly inert filling is poured. Once it couples with the stacked ply, CNC cut cabinet the housing has inertness more like marble or aluminum than wood. Several Vapor speakers, including the Joule 3, feature multi-layer phenolic/aluminum front baffles. Vapor started out putting crossovers into pedestals for its speakers, but seems to be moving toward incorporating them into the speaker cabinet in its larger models.
A sizable aluminum panel on the back of the Joule 3 allows access to the overbuilt crossover. I would have liked a large, fancy logo and the name of the speaker adorning this plate. There were many alterations to the previous version of the Joule, and after 15 months I was tired of waiting for yet another holdup in order to have an engraved back plate. Granted, there is a well-placed logo on the black etched midrange and tweeter faceplate, but no indication on the speaker which model it is. Nor is there a serial number, “0001” to indicate these are the first of their kind. Then again, Ryan changes speaker designs so often that it may be a moot point. By the time the virtual ink dries on this report, though the Joule White 3 is now supposedly in its final form, the speaker may have yet another tweak added.
Revolving design shop
Therein lies the beauty and agony of Vapor Audio. It’s truly a custom speaker shop where designs are in the mind of the company and customer, not set down in an Owner’s Manual. To date there is no Owner’s Manual for the Joule White 3. Take a look at the models of speakers on the company’s website; these seem as much suggestions as models available. Vapor invites audiophiles to discuss preferences on a speaker build, such that nearly every speaker made is unique!
From a distance the Vapor Audio shop seems chaotic, with many more requests for builds than it can manage easily. It’s no wonder why; there’s only handful of speaker makers that give the purchaser the equivalent of a Vapor speaker at the price point. The Joule 3 currently starts at $16,895, but has a cabinet, drivers, crossover network, internal wiring, and choice of finishes not seen in many $30-50K speakers.
Upgrades and configurability are part of the Vapor speaker experience. My pair of Joule White 3 incorporated four upgrades; double gauge Verastarr internal wiring ($200), a silver/gold transformer winding for the RAAL tweeter ($300), Duelund RS capacitors ($2,500) and piano gloss finish ($1,500). To give some sense of what upgrades as this can do, I just this week replaced the stock power umbilical of the Exogal Comet DAC with a cord from WyWires ($200), and this inexpensive change afforded an additional improvement of the system in terms of increased definition, ease and openness. The central nervous system of a speaker is the wiring and crossover, so upgrades to them usually yield large rewards sonically. It would be a pity to forego the special gloss finish, but if it is a choice between it and the operational upgrades, I suggest you do the crossover and wiring upgrades.
If you want a Vapor speaker it will cost you not so much money as time. I am going to spend a fair bit of my time on this point, but when one is dealing with a different sort of manufacturing company it is important to establish proper expectations. Potential customers need to know how the Vapor Audio experience is atypical. The Joule White 3 is glamorous, but the wait was ugly. It took 16 months to get these speakers. A Vapor speaker wait is an undetermined exercise in patience, or as I have taken to saying of the experience, “I put in a lot of wait equity.” I do not anticipate the typical Vapor customer to endure such a lengthy wait, but the operative word here is wait. Then again, I have encouraged one industry insider who has a variant of the Perfect Storm on order to hang in there, as he is approaching a two year wait for fulfillment of his speaker system. Twice he was ready to pull the plug on the order, but after discussion with me he kept on waiting. To enter into a build agreement with Vapor one needs not the patience of a typical audiophile, but the patience of a saint. The reasons why the wait period was so lengthy are many, and I will delineate a few of them.
However, before I embark on this discussion I hasten to add that Vapor Audio is developing a line of more affordable speakers which will have quick fulfillment times, perhaps even in stock at a dealer. This is terrific news, as the timing issue has been a distraction for Vapor and its customers. If Vapor can provide speakers on a par in terms of sound quality per dollar as its higher models and get them into customers’ hands efficiently, this will in my mind mark the birth of a juggernaut, a new powerhouse speaker company.
The long design road
As mentioned previously, this is an entirely new Joule, every aspect of construction and performance being revisited. I happened to express interest in a pair of them after AXPONA 2014, at which time the collaborative discussion with Ryan got underway. During the process no less than four times I put a halt on delivery. Well, actually not delivery, but a “final approach to construction,” or shall we say a final phase leading to actual construction of the speaker, leading to delivery. Frankly, the entire process was temporally squishy. Conversations with Ryan would follow along these lines:
Ryan: The speakers are about ready…
Me: Excellent! When can they be delivered?
Ryan: Well, I have another idea; I could get them to you, but if I put this new feature into it the time will be extended…
Me: Time is not important. I want the ultimate expression of your speaker building skills. I want the ultimate product…
Note the indefinite nature of the process; the speakers could have been finalized several times, yet new ideas kept coming to Ryan about how to improve the design. How does one put that on a schedule? I meant what I said about the time not being important. Vapor speakers, like the atmosphere, seem to be continually swirling in development. Remember, Vapor is to be understood as a smaller custom speaker shop, not simply a speaker manufacturer of a limited number of precisely identical speakers.
Those exchanges where I halted the delivery added about six months, I reckon. There were, however, other delays not associated with my decisions on the build. One setback was the inability of Ryan to source aluminum CNC machined outriggers and spikes. At that point in the process I was thinking the speaker would be delivered fairly soon, but it was more than a half year later that it landed on my doorstep. It is not easy for a person to think delivery is near, and then settle in for an extended wait. For a while we would speak semi-weekly of the cycle of promises and let downs by shops that agreed they would produce outriggers and spikes, then renege on their promise. To his credit Ryan persevered with his vision and prevailed – at a wait equity cost of about two months.
The construction of an outbuilding on Ryan’s property that became the new Vapor shop I estimate added another two months of wait equity. It also seemed an inordinate period of time was needed to get the crossover parts into the shop and the crossover constructed. In a world where many speakers are available immediately or within defined time frame of several days, this number of delays is a rare occurrence for an audiophile to experience.
How much of the wait equity I was called upon to invest would be required of the typical Vapor Audio customer? I don’t know. I presume that if there is not an entire speaker redesign or construction of an expended shop involved, the term should be far less, but I will not promise anything in this regard. The wait times for Vapor speakers should have shrunk now. In several respects it seems I was in the right place at the wrong time. I had to consciously decide repeatedly to stick around, trusting my instincts that the wait would be worth it.
Hello. Is anybody out there?
Pink Floyd’s song “Is There Anybody Out There” epitomizes the angst that occurs when a customer seeks hand holding from a business, yet cannot connect. It’s not fun. Just as patience is required in terms of build, so also a high degree of patience is required to communicate with Vapor Audio. Spotty response to phone calls and emails does not help Vapor’s cause. Texting was the most effective form of communication. Days would pass without word in response to a phoned or emailed question, something a particular genre of audiophile might find infuriating. Ever seen those posts on the audiophile forums, “Is So and So still in business?” As I said in my previous article about the Nimbus White, this type of customer needs to buy some other speaker, preferably one which can be in their listening room in days. The Vapor crew doesn’t need the antics of people who verbally sign on to an undetermined delivery date, then become antagonistic bordering on militant when the verbal delivery date from Vapor is changed, even more than once. Then again, this type of customer doesn’t need the seeming nonchalance regarding scheduling, the silences after contacts, the soft projections and possible delivery date disappointments. So, if you want your speaker maker to dote on you like a spouse, then it’s better to not consummate a deal with Vapor than to expect split-second response times and a tight build schedule. Do I think this is good business practice? No, but it’s the reality with Vapor. You get a fresh, radically designed speaker, but you also get generalities about goals, not hard dates.
Then, as the build was nearing completion contact with Ryan became intense, discussions happening several times each week. We compared schedules to see when he could visit to deliver the speakers. As in the case with the Nimbus White a last minute (Ok, two days) cancellation on Ryan’s part added to the wait equity. I do consider the excuses offered by Ryan legitimate, and thus was I not angry, but not all customers will be forgiving. Ryan is making it an uphill climb for Vapor by having such loose dates and promises. In the end Vapor delivers, but on which day?
Because the speakers were finished a week before I took a trip to Ecuador with our church’s construction ministry, Ryan and I could find no openings for his coming in person to deliver them, something he loves to do. Ryan wants to be like an audiophile Santa; he wants to see the look on peoples’ faces when the speaker is delivered. He spends many days each year sitting in a car or van driving speakers to peoples’ homes. Several weeks after my speakers arrived Ryan was hurtling down the highway to deliver an audiophile home theater system including three Perfect Storm speakers for the owner of an audiophile website (No, it’s not Dagogo.com). Except, perhaps, for such involved setups, Ryan should be at his shop, designing and letting someone else deliver. But, Vapor is different in many ways, and I adjure that is why the speakers are different as well.
We decided to have them crated and shipped. The crate was finished two days later than anticipated and the first pickup scheduled for UPS Freight never materialized. It wasn’t until the time window was getting quite narrow that the speakers shipped. I didn’t enjoy the prospect of receiving the speakers the day before leaving on the trip, or even the day of departure, as well as having to dismantle the crates at that late hour. But, they would be here at last! Ultimately because Ryan pushed the freight delivery schedule they arrived with enough time to both nestle them into my listening room and prepare for my trip.
I can’t be too hard on Ryan, as at one point after my travel was concluded I mistakenly handed a mailer containing my new passport to Ed Rosenquist, the maker of the Nimbus White cabinet. He had visited in order to pick up my pair of Nimbus White to take them to RMAF, and back to Vapor Audio as partial payment for the speakers. I thought I would send along the supposed second mailer of Herbies Dots and have Ed give them to Ryan. The package wasn’t a set of Herbies Dots, it was a replacement passport for the one stolen in Ecuador! A previous mailer from the government had arrived in a manila envelope, so I wasn’t expecting the postal service mailer; I didn’t even check the sender’s address. Imagine Ryan’s face when he opened a supposed set of Herbies Dots and discovered my passport! Imagine my feeling of inadequacy when he called and said he sent a parcel containing my spikes and my new passport! It was turning into a case of, “All’s well that ends well.” I must admit I would have loved to see the expression on Ryan’s face when he opened that mailer!
The speakers were so new that the foam pieces to cradle them were not yet available. A combination of new furniture moving blankets and foam pieces were used to assure no harm came to the speakers. It was a good move on Vapor’s part to screw the crates for the top modules to the bottom module’s crates, and have the entire affair screwed to the oversized pallet. Perfect – no transport incidents at all. The walls of the crates were composed of thin ¼” plywood, but the clever manner in which it was constructed and mounted to the pallet assured a high degree of safety. It was also easy to disassemble them for compact storage in case of relocation. I give Vapor high marks for sensible transport decisions.
Some people “exhale” when they get married. I exhaled when the custom speakers arrived! I was able to carry the top cabinets down to the basement listening room by hand. I estimate their weight at about 80 pounds. The bass cabinets were a different matter, as they are sizable parallelogram structures. The sides have the protruding aluminum outriggers for the spikes; the top features the contoured and custom painted baffle for the top cabinet to settle into. The rear of the speaker has the twin sets of speaker posts protruding, and of course, the bass driver and painted front baffle prohibit using the front in transporting it. That left the bottom of the cabinet for potentially slipping a hand truck underneath and moving them through the doorways. Nope. With a 3-degree slope on the front and rear walls of the cabinet it was too wide to fit through my doorway. A hand truck could not be slipped under the back rear of the speaker because the bottom backside is scooted forward – remember the bass cabinet is a parallelogram. That meant moving it the old fashioned way, manhandling by two men. Thankfully my 6’ 6”, 240-pound son had not yet returned to college and we bulled the things down the stairs into the listening room. We were not unaware of the potential for fingers slipping off the glass-like finish of the cabinet due to the humidity in the air clinging to our hands. However, we were able to successfully ensconce them in the room, and I snuck in one hour of primordial listening before leaving for Ecuador.
A primer on the cabinets
Ryan is fanatical about the cabinet construction as this plays a determinant role in the functioning of the drivers and the crossover employed. The functionality of a Vapor Audio speaker cabinet is not an afterthought, but rather developed with a great deal of forethought. He gave me a thorough walkthrough of the particulars of the Joule’s cabinet construction:
-13 layer premium Baltic Birch stacked ply cabinet construction, which allows for unique shapes and adding high-density media constrained within the walls.
-A large “round over” eliminates edge diffraction. Diffraction is an exterior cabinet-induced source of sound that is delayed in time and causes distortion.
-The internal cabinet shape was designed using FEA (Finite Element Analysis) to reduce woofer back waves from bouncing internally and passing through the backside of the driver cone. Like diffraction, this source of sound is delayed in time and highly distorted.
-The front baffle is solid phenolic material, with a higher tensile strength than aluminum but with excellent damping so that it doesn’t ring or store energy. The more rigid, non-compressible the front baffle, the less energy it soaks up from the movement of the cone. The result is increased snap and life to leading edges of the music.
-The cabinet walls are filled with a ¼” thick groove of high-density media and air. Voids are cut into the CNC cut cabinet to be filled with high grain, high density media suspended in air to create pockets of alternating high and low density zones making sound (cabinet noise) transmission through them more difficult.
-The top and bottom of the cabinets are not stacked ply, but are 3” thick with a middle layer of the high-density media and air.
-A transmission line is employed, with no constant cross-sectional areas that would form resonances. The TL tapers like a funnel, which aids the woofer in being as clean and transparent as the rest of the speaker. Ports add resonances that smear the bass. The tapering TL eliminates those resonances and gives a port output that Ryan says is “textbook perfect.” The elimination of resonances results in improved perceived midrange resolution and overall transparency. The TL does improve the extension of the bass, but its primary purpose is to eliminate resonances and coloration. It also gives the speaker higher impedance, making it easier to drive with lower powered amps, such as Single Ended Triode amps.
-The side walls are 3” thick with a ½” internal void filled with the high-density inversion material. Each side panel is approximately 40 pounds!
-The top panel of the bass cabinet is angled to time align the midrange and tweeter. According to Ryan, “It is not exact time alignment, but much closer than it would be if the top section were upright.” This allows for a simpler crossover and better phase alignment, which results in improved imaging and transparency.
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