If you look on the covers of most magazines that review audio and home theater systems there exists a gap of expectations to rival the Grand Canyon. That gap is the cost of the systems most often reviewed, and the actual budget most consumers can work with. Unless you are among the 1%, or a DINK (Dual Income No Kids) then maybe 5 to 10 grand for a set of speakers is workable for you. But, I suspect that most sales are in the far more affordable range. Make a trip to Costco, for example, where you’ll see $400 - $800 home theater systems and $200 sound bars flying off the shelves.
While anyone serious about audio certainly appreciates a couple of Audio Research monoblocks, with earth atmosphere-free copper interconnect cables, the Holy Grail should always include affordable systems with great audio performance. This doesn’t mean we still don’t want to read about Ferraris and Lamborghinis, even if we are more likely driving a Honda. Still, it’s nice to consider the needs of folks actually planning to buy a Honda, or even their first car. And it doesn't mean we can't afford serious gear, but one aspect of the digital revolution is superb sound on a budget. Not that this is a brand new idea -- it takes little effort for audiophiles to conjure up the ghosts of Dynaco, GAS, or Advent's early product lines in thinking about great audio on a budget.
One of the treats of the Consumer Electronic Show was wandering the upper floors of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel (oops, we are supposed to call it The Las Vegas Hotel, formerly the Hilton, but everyone still calls it the Hilton) where just about every door opened onto one of the following tableaux:
a) A suite with a $250,000 system, lots of guys with bad backs, and a direct connection to Hoover Dam to insure steady electrical power.
b) A suite selling cables, cone shaped equipment risers, and fluids. Generally the folks in those suites have better backs.
c) Vendors showing headphones, earphones, DACs, and affordable systems. This bunch tends to be happy and smile a lot. Why? Well there isn't that much setup to do with headphones or DACs. So, they actually listen to music.
d) Turntables that float with the help of anti-gravity opposing magnets, powered by invisible and mysterious sources of energy. The chances are good that Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” is playing. Someone is always fiddling about with something small in those rooms, or using a microscope to show off the stylus.
e) Lastly, a random, an unlucky, annoyed couple who mistakenly booked a room during their first visit to Sin City, without realizing it was CES week, only to have the thumping sounds of someone’s favorite audiophile recording waking them up way too early in the morning for Vegas. This usually means Steely Dan, The Moody Blues, or Diana Krall, and (for those wearing plaid flannel and black knit caps), Mumford and Sons. Throw in a touch of the Stones and Beatles, The Pizza Tapes, or if someone is drinking bourbon, Tom Waits or Johnny Cash, and you can imagine the musical stew of those floors.
On the last day of CES, I had just finished a detailed meeting to discuss low-light sensor performance in digital cameras. As a reward, I headed to the Pioneer TAD suite to meet up with Andrew Jones, the legendary speaker designer behind the price-is-no-object Pioneer TAD line of speakers and components. As luck would have it, who was also at the door? None other than David Chesky, whose primary occupation is as a leading composer of contemporary classical music, but who many might identify with as a member of the mighty Chesky Records/HD Tracks musical industrial complex.
David asked Andrew if he wouldn't mind playing a recording of one of his compositions, and suddenly the room was awash with a combination of extraordinary music and audio perfection. And it's loud, which in itself isn't that surprising since most of these suites play music at extra high volume, almost painfully so at times. Yes, it's loud, but at that point of richness where the volume takes over the room, yet not so loud that you want it lower. And when Andrew asks if he should turn it down, David says yes, just a bit, that this is how it is supposed to be played, just as it sounds in a concert hall. I found that comment really instructive. Sitting there for a few minutes, next to Andrew, David, and the rest of the other lucky visitors, it was clear what first-rate audio recording, composition, and playback could achieve. It was a bit like sitting in a gallery with Van Gogh, and instead of Van Gogh saying, "You know, my painting needs to be a big higher on the wall..." we had David saying, "The volume is now just right..." The piece he played was “Dance of the Fish That Live in the Trees” among other tracks from his Zephyrtine Ballet, a fantasy for children from the Chesky Binuaral+ series. Rui Massena conducted the Fundação Orquestra Estúdio’s for the recording, and although ostensibly aimed at children, I’ve found it to be an enormously complex composition that challenges traditional ideas of what classical music might be. It enabled the Pioneer TAD system to revel it in all its sonic glory.
Interestingly, the Binaural+ series is designed for headphone listeners, but we were listening on the superb TAD Reference One speakers, fed by an all-TAD component chain. It was as if there were no speakers or equipment in the room, just music, with the components disappearing. When I closed my eyes, this was a case of the invisible speaker. It was the first time I’d heard that piece, so listening was as much a discovery of the unknown as it was a recognition of the equipment we where there to audition. After all, if the equipment does its job, all we should be grappling with is the music. Chesky’s work has always been a challenge for me, with layering of instrumentation coupled with profoundly thought out and deeply felt conceptual underpinnings. It engages listeners in primal musical and emotional terms, all the while reminding them of the intrinsic intellectual rigor that underpins his compositions. To refer to Chesky as a classical composer is to set aside his jazz roots and the multitude of musical influences upon which he draws. One of my favorite works of his is “Urbanicity,” which contains complex influences that manage to include rock, jazz, and funk within a classical framework.
But as wonderful as that experience was, it wasn't the reason I was there. My original intent was to discuss how Jones approached the design of a speaker that sold for a very affordable $130 per pair that, coupled with Pioneer's line of Elite AV receivers, could deliver a really satisfying audio experience that could start with a trip to a local big box store. So, how does a designer of price-is-no-object $78,000 a pair TAD Reference One speakers feel about the creation of components that he can feel good about, but that also must meet incredibly stringent price points and distribution channels? The answer was that it was a challenge, but one whose solution he felt justifiably proud of.
The Pioneer line is split into two basic categories. The Elite line is for higher-end consumer, although the Elite AV receivers start at around $700, affordable for many. The normal Pioneer branded line is lower in cost, and often gains the features and design of previous Elite models. This allows consumers to get a great deal with that product line if they are willing to wait a bit for the features and design goals to trickle down as newer models are introduced. Another distinguishing feature is that the Elite models are designed with professional installers in mind, and host the features required for a professional system, often hidden out-of-sight with remote access, and differing zones. There is also the TAD line, but that is strictly high-end audiophile, so not generally known to the big-box or Internet buying public. One reviewer referred to TAD as Pioneer’s secret Skunk Works project; with the introduction of the new surround systems, I have a hunch that more folks will be learning about TAD as they research their new purchases.
There are a slew of features, especially audiophile-grade design and component concerns that populate the Elite line. The SC-71 that I've been working with has the Pioneer MCACC® audio calibration software for audio equalization, that I found was accurate, easy to use, and took into account a multitude of room sins. Within a few minutes of launching, it was an amazing experience to sit, listen to music, and enjoy a level of audio quality that I’d never thought was possible at that price point. Want to really take advantage of the ability to play your high-resolution files? Just let the receiver's respected Asahi Kasei Model Number 4588 - 192K/24-Bit DACs handle the digital to analog conversions. One design set that stood out in the SC-71 was the use of a Class D3 amplifier design, so that all the surround channels have full output, whereas many Class A/B amplifiers at this price point divvy up the wattage and deliver when needed, instead of always being at the ready to handle demanding peaks. What’s more, Class D switching amplifiers promise more energy efficiency, which is good for the planet and your electric bill. It was my first experience with Class D, and I found that the system was capable of reproducing thunderous sonics, as well as delicate and airy passages with ease. Keep in mind that the SC-71 is their most affordable system with Class D, and you can see the future product path. Can Class D in a Pioneer branded unit be far behind?
I was curious how the system would handle the classic Telarc audiophile recording of the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. That title was legendary in the analog days due to its reproduction of the cannon blasts at the conclusion of the piece. In the vinyl version you could just stare at the grooves that were spaced so far apart that you could actually see the blasts just by looking at the album. Listeners had to seriously heed the warning label that cautioned about hearing and equipment damage. It was also one of the first audiophile digital recordings, and I remembered it as a standby in just about every high-end audio shop I visited along with the Sheffield Lab Direct-to-Disc recording of "I've Got The Music In Me" by Thelma Houston during my high-school days.
The Telarc 1812 title is now available from HD Tracks as a 176khz/24 bit or 88khz/24 bit download, so I was curious how the combination of these small, inexpensive speakers with a subwoofer would deal with the outrageous dynamics. The answer was it worked very well indeed. I played it at a moderate level the first time, worried about how loud it would be, and then a little bit louder so that the room shook when the cannons started their fusillade. There was no trace of clipping, and the amplifier certainly handled the range well. I ended up playing it in increasing volume, to the point where I was a little worried I might damage the actual speaker elements. It was clear, though, that the receiver could more than cover its own, and the limiting factor was the small speaker elements. This is very impressive performance regardless of the price, and all the more surprising because of it.
The SC-71 feature set is rich with possibilities, including Apple Airplay, HTC Connect, Spotify Connect, Pandora Internet Radio, Window 8 certification, Internet Radio, Qdeo® Video Processing, a slew of HDMI inputs, Component Video, analog stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio, and Dolby True HD, Digital Plus, Pro-Logic IIz, and 4K Ultra HD Passthrough video. The front panel hides the business underneath a folding door, and the entire system setup can be managed from on-screen menus via the buttons on the front of the unit, as well as from your laptop, iOS, or Android device. The owner’s manual is interactive, and I found myself using it on a regular basis until I got the hang of the multitude of features and how to implement them. There are times when the manual tells you what the features are, but leaves out the circumstances of when you might want to employ them. For example, one problem I had that I couldn't solve with the help of the manual was that the subwoofer worked fine with movies, Blu-ray, and DVDs, but I couldn't figure out how to get it to kick on in playing audio tracks.
Luckily Pioneer walked me through it. It turns out the speakers are considered large, full range speakers, so therefore capable of handing the low-end themselves. The solution was to go to the speaker setup and select Subwoofer Plus, which then forced the subwoofer on, and once that happened, all was well. The Pioneer MCACC® audio calibration software was easy to use: just plug in the supplied microphone, place it where your head would be during listening, and then start it up and leave the room. I used a camera tripod to hold the microphone, which has a threaded socket just for that reason. The software generates the various test tones, measures frequency response, delay, standing waves, and more, generates a graph that you can view. You can go in and really tweak the settings, but we found them to be both neutral and musical, and found little need for fiddling about.
The remote is probably the weakest aspect of the SC-71, which for a component of this caliber, should be less generic and feature more gravitas in the hand. It worked fine in practice, but we would like to see Pioneer improve the industrial design and material choices. One little known feature of these receivers is their updateable firmware. I did this, and gained Spotify Connect in the process. I asked several colleagues if they had checked the firmware level in their receivers, and none of them had. Sure, their Blu-ray players were up-to-date, since at start-up many Blu-ray decks check for updates, and offer you the choice, but this isn’t the case with the SC-71 and it was only after visiting the Pioneer website that I noticed the update, so keep an eye out for those updates!
The Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package is one-stop-shopping for the consumer. The handsome and well-finished black vinyl wood-veneer patterned speakers with black fabric speaker grills are quite large compared to the micro satellites so popular today. When we first received them they required us to rearrange our bookshelves and construct supports to hold them securely on the shelves, since they were too large for our surround rear channel brackets. I asked Jones about placement, especially since they are rear-ported, and designed for bookshelves (at least that is how they are described). His response was that it didn't matter that much as long as there was some open space in back of the speakers, and besides, the subwoofer would handle the low frequency response for the most part, so that they weren't generating a lot of bass energy. And sure enough when I set them up, he was absolutely correct. Having the larger speaker footprint does require the homeowner to reconsider their room layout, and the speakers do present a more concise audio image, especially in soundstage if carefully positioned. Pioneer offers their optional big brother front speakers which are floor standing and offer more bass if you have room for that footprint in your home.
I tried them with speaker stands, and it was then that I felt them really reveal their strengths, but ended up using them on bookshelves since we felt that was probably how most consumers would use them. While you can order the complete system, you can also order them in pairs, with the exception of the subwoofer and center channel. The speaker cabinets are curved, to reduce standing wave distortion and, it turns out, seriously complicating the manufacturing process according to Jones. The binding posts are heavy, gold plated affairs, which belie their ridiculously low price point of $129 a pair. The package includes the SW-8MK2 Powered Subwoofer which has a 100-watt amplifier, and 8-inch woofer. This compares to the SP-BS22-LR Bookshelf Loudspeakers that are used for front right, left, and rear surrounds with a 4-inch Structured Surface, a 1-inch High Efficiency Soft Dome Tweeter. The SP-C22 Center-Channel Speaker features two 4-inch Structured Surface Woofers, and a single 1-inch High Efficiency Soft Dome Tweeter.
All the systems touted a “6-Element Sophisticated Crossover” that I didn’t inspect, not wanting to take the speakers apart, but Pioneer has videos showing them, along with the components employed. The speakers were rated at between 80-90 watts. I was really surprised at the quality of the components and when I talked with Jones about this he explained that one of the benefits of a company their size is a variety of sources, vendors, and manufacturing approaches that smaller companies often can't match. So, they were able to pull off the impossible: create a wonderful-sounding, consistently engineered component at a price point that even some first apartment newlyweds could afford.
This isn’t a system designed for a cavernous room, but for most average living rooms or family rooms, the subwoofer is more than adequate, and can deliver carefully controlled bass with the appropriate amount of dynamic punch free from distortion. We did find that the MCACC® audio calibration software was particularly valuable when using the speakers. Not only did it linearize the room acoustics, and adjusted volume levels to equalize the room, it also seemed to assist in defining the accuracy of the bass response, so that it was clear and concise, yet without a trace of muddiness, and kept the treble response cleanly musical. One surprising benefit of using MCACC® was that speaker placement seemed less critical, a benefit to anyone who is struggling with limitations in their listening room. I think that the combination of the SC-71 and the SP-PK22BS speakers is a holistic combination and working together represent an extraordinary value.
The more time I spend with these speakers, the more impressive the achievement they represent. Coupled with one of the current Pioneer Elite receivers, they are the perfect system as the high-resolution digital audio download world picks up steam. For not much more than a big-box theater-in-a-box package, Pioneer offers a seriously well-thought-out and designed set of components, that will meet almost any price point, without any serious compromises to speak of. Highly recommended.
For more information on the Pioneer Elite SC-71 AV Receiver visit: www.pioneerelectronics.com
For more information on the Pioneer SP-PK22BS Speaker system visit: www.pioneerelectronics.com
For more information on the TAD Reference One speaker system visit: www.tad-labs.com
For more information on the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in high-resolution audio visit: www.hdtracks.com
For more information on David Chesky–The Zephyrtine: A Ballet Story visit: www.hdtracks.com