Atmos is an immersive-audio format that uses object-based audio to create 3D soundscapes. The technology isn’t limited to any particular number of speakers—in movie theaters, Atmos-based systems use dozens of speakers to generate a sense of immersion.
Less than a year ago, Dolby rolled out Atmos for home theater. With Atmos for the home, listeners can experience the same sense of audio immersion found in Atmos-equipped movie theaters. Additionally, a feature called Dolby Surround upmixes 2-channel and 5.1 or 7.1 content into 3D immersive sound.
You need two things to add Dolby Atmos to your home: speakers and a surround processor. As part of its first foray into Atmos, Pioneer introduced a speaker system designed by Andrew Jones—its first new Elite speakers in a decade. The new designs take the reflected-sound approach to Atmos, with upfiring drivers on top of the floorstanding and bookshelf speakers.
Pioneer’s new Elite speakers offer almost no hint of their immersive-audio capabilities. The only clue that they are Atmos-enabled is a cloth grill on top of the floorstanding and bookshelf models. Under that grill lies a new driver that forms the foundation of this innovative speaker system.
The upfiring concentric driver is the key component that makes these speakers Atmos-enabled.
The new speaker line includes the SP-EFS73 floorstander ($700 each), SP-EBS73-LR bookshelf ($750/pair), SP-EC73 center channel ($400), and SW-E10 10″ sealed subwoofer ($600). For this review, I used a 5.1.4 system that included one pair of floorstanders and one pair of the bookshelf speakers along with an SP-EC73 and SW-E10.
Pioneer’s new Elite floorstanding, bookshelf, and center channel speakers all feature the same 2-way concentric driver: a 4″ aluminum-cone midrange surrounding a 1″ soft-dome tweeter. The concentric driver also appears on the top side of the Atmos-enabled floorstanding and bookshelf models. That driver is a proprietary design, created by Andrew Jones specifically for this series of speakers.
The SP-EFS73 floorstanding speaker is a 3-way design. The conventional, forward facing part of the speaker uses three 5.25″ aluminum woofers for bass and the 2-way concentric driver for midrange and highs. It’s a bass-reflex (ported) design with a frequency response from 38 Hz to 20 kHz. Pioneer rates the sensitivity at 86 dB/W/m and maximum power handling at 140 watts.
On top of the tower, you’ll find an additional concentric driver that points upward. It has its own internal chamber and separate binding posts, operating independently from the forward-facing speaker even though it is mounted in the same cabinet. It is a completely separate system, designed specifically for use with Dolby Atmos.
The SP-EBS73-LR bookshelf speaker has specs that come remarkably close to the tower’s. It is a 3-way design that combines a 5.25″ aluminum woofer with the 2-way concentric driver. It uses a bass-reflex design that results in a frequency response from 50 Hz to 20 kHz. Rated sensitivity is 85 dB/W/m, and maximum power handling is 140 watts. As with the tower, there is a concentric driver on top of the bookshelf model that handles Dolby Atmos duties.
The 3-way SP-EC73 center-channel speaker features a passive radiator in its design—a ported cabinet would interfere with placement options. It pairs a 5.25″ aluminum woofer with a 5.25″ passive radiator and the 2-way concentric driver. Pioneer lists the frequency response from 45 Hz to 20 kHz with a sensitivity of 85 dB/W/m. Maximum power handling is 140 watts, like the rest of the speakers in the new Elite line.
The SP-EC73 does not include an up-firing driver. However, it shares the same concentric driver as the floorstanding and bookshelf speakers, and all three also share the same crossover points: 260 Hz and 2.6 kHz.
Pioneer’s Elite SP-EC73 center-channel speaker.
The speakers have black cloth grills a black wood-grain finish. On the rear, there are two sets of binding posts: one for the main speaker and one for the Atmos component. These large and easily accessible binding posts support banana plugs, which I appreciate. All speakers in the series have 4-ohm impedance ratings, and Pioneer’s Elite Atmos-compatible AVRs—including the SC-85 used in this review—are rated to drive 4-ohm speakers.
The SW-E10 subwoofer is a sealed design with a 300-watt RMS (600-watt peak) onboard power amp. It uses a 10-inch long-throw woofer to achieve a frequency response from 30 to 150 Hz. The enclosure is compact, measuring 13.2″ x 15.4″ x 13.4″, and the sub accepts either mono or stereo signals through a pair of RCA jacks. Continuously variable controls include phase, crossover, and output level, and a toggle switch lets you turn auto-standby on or off.
One of the most outstanding features of the new Elite speakers is the ease with which you can add Dolby Atmos to your home. Instead of installing in-ceiling speakers, you can place these speakers in a classic 5.1 configuration. The system will work in most rooms that have a flat, acoustically reflective ceiling.
I used Pioneer’s Elite SC-85 AVR to power the speakers—you can read that review here.The 5.1.4 system consisted of a pair of towers for the front left and right channels, a center channel, a pair of the bookshelf speakers for the surrounds, and one subwoofer.
I connected each speaker to the appropriate outputs on the SC-85 using 12-gauge Monoprice speaker cables terminated with banana plugs. That included running a second cable to each of the four Atmos-enabled speakers. Next, I set up the SC-85’s calibration microphone and selected the appropriate speaker configuration option in the AVR’s menu: 5.1.4 with Atmos-enabled speakers. Finally, I started the MCACC auto-calibration routine.
When the automatic calibration finished, I reviewed the settings to make sure there were no anomalies. I used a UMIK-1 measurement mic along with Room EQ Wizard to re-measure the speaker levels at my main listening position. I was happy to see that the SC-85’s readings were within +/- 0.5 dB of the UMIK-1’s readings. The only adjustment I made was to increase the subwoofer’s output by 3 dB—I like a bit more oomph on the low end than what MCACC prescribed.
During the setup process, I talked to Andrew Jones, the man who designed the speakers. He told me a lot about the thinking that went into the system’s design, especially his decision to use concentric 2-way driver in all the speakers. He said the key to a good immersive audio experience is precise imaging. The new driver offered the performance he was looking for in terms of phase coherence, dispersion, low distortion, and consistency of timbre.
I asked Andrew why he chose to go with a 10-inch sealed sub instead of a ported design or a sealed sub with a larger driver. He said the size of the enclosure played an important role in that decision—large subwoofers are unwieldy and thus less likely to find a place in a home surround-sound system. He also strongly recommended using more than onesubwoofer in order to tame room modes.
The Elite SW-E10 10-inch sealed subwoofer.
Unfortunately, I only had one SW-E10 subwoofer on hand for this review. As a result, at times I supplemented the Elite sub with a GoldenEar ForceField 5. However, I also listened to the Elite sub working on its own, optimized for the “sweet spot” in my system.
The new Elite speakers are tailor-made for the new Pioneer Elite AVR. For one thing, they are 4-ohm speakers. The Elite SC-85 outputs 220 watts per channel into a 4-ohm load, so there’s plenty of headroom in terms of amplification.
It’s worth noting that you don’t have to use these speakers in an Atmos system. Andrew Jones designed them to be high-quality, high-performance speakers—even when used in a 2-channel or 5.1 configuration. Andrew said he made sure these new speakers excel at reproducing music, and he urged me to pay close attention to the quality and capability of the bookshelf model when used in a 2.1 configuration. I’ll save that experience for a separate review.
I spent most of my time listening to the system in full 5.1.4 mode. A few Blu-rays offered native Atmos soundtracks, but for everything else, I used the Dolby Surround upmixing function. I found that it consistently offered a rewarding and immersive listening experience, even with stereo music recordings.
Thanks to the concentric driver shared by all the speakers, imaging was precise and cohesive in three dimensions. The system produced the requisite “dome of sound” that is the hallmark of Atmos and other immersive audio formats.
One of the best experiences I had with a genuine Atmos soundtrack was watching The Expendables 3, which I wrote about here. The movie sounded better played in 5.1.4 Atmos than it did when I listened to it with a 7.1 speaker configuration. That was also the case with the other Atmos movies I watched—Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Step Up: All In.
Most of the time, I listen to stereo music upmixed to surround sound on my system. In the past, I used the DTS Neo:X Music setting on my SC-55, but Dolby Surround changed that. In addition, with the Elite speaker system, I found that using the new upmixer made the entire system disappear from my room—and often the Atmos effect would make the room itself disappear.
Even without Atmos processing, the new Elite speakers create a great-sounding 5.1 system, and the towers put on a good show when used for 2.0 or 2.1 playback. I listened to a lot of music through the Pioneers; they have a reserved, refined, and precise character that happens to make the Beatles sound exceptionally good. I also thought the system handled classical music very well.
I’ll post a separate review that concentrates on the 2-channel capabilities of the tower and bookshelf models. When used as a stereo pair, the SP-EFS73 towers reminded me of high-quality audiophile speakers—they are polite, yet they possess an uncanny ability to reproduce difficult musical passages.
When used in a surround system, the Elite towers don’t possess the brash tactile immediacy of some high-efficiency home-theater speakers. Instead, the sound of the Elite system is smooth and civilized. These speakers offer a balanced, refined sound that can easily cross into the realm of the sublime. Clarity and precision are their calling cards, especially when it comes to creating a convincing immersive soundfield.
The center channel benefits greatly from the use of the concentric driver. Many 2-way center-channel designs suffer from combing artifacts because they use a pair of midrange drivers flanking a tweeter. The Elite center speaker’s design avoids the problem altogether thanks to its 3-way design with a single concentric driver that handles frequencies above 260 Hz. The result is a pinpoint-precise and clear rendering of center-channel audio, which is crucial to enjoying a surround system since so much content plays through that speaker.
The subwoofer is the only part of the system that left me wanting. I had little confidence that a single sealed 10″ sub would suffice. Andrew Jones confirmed that when I talked to him. However, even a pair of sealed 10-inchers can only take you so far—I’m coming from a 2000-watt four-sub DIY system that went down to 14 Hz. (It sits in my basement these days.)
Speaking of deep bass, when I added the GoldenEar ForceField 5 to the system, the speakers really shined. Since this is a speaker system aimed at home-theater enthusiasts, it’s wise to pair them with a sub that can get down to 20 Hz or so—many modern movies feature sounds that go that deep.
The GoldenEar plays much deeper and is considerably more powerful than the Elite sub, yet the two got along very well. The Elite sub never distorted, but it simply can’t handle the sort of brutal bass you find in modern movie soundtracks. I also noticed that the SW-E10 had a habit of “walking” whenever intense bass played for an extended time—I prefer subwoofers that stay put.
If you don’t push the SW-E10 too hard, it sounds tight and clean. It’s a great sub for most music genres. However, it’s not ideal for organ music, hip hop, or some electronic music where bass frequencies go much lower than what the Elite sub is designed to reproduce.
All of the speakers in the Elite system have near-identical sensitivity and power handling—in that sense, there’s no weak link, every channel can reach roughly the same output level. The vast majority of consumers will not need more quality or capability than what this system offers. The only caveat pertains to the subwoofer—one SW-E10 is not enough; the system needs dual subs to sound its best. Please keep in mind that the “two subs are better than one” rule applies to almost any speaker system.
Speaking of subs, if you do use one or more of them in your system, there’s almost no performance penalty for choosing the SP-EBS73-LR bookshelf speakers over the towers. If you must skip the sub, the towers have a decent amount of bass extension, but they are not as capable as some other floorstanding speakers in the same price range. On the other hand, those other speakers do not have built-in Atmos compatibility, so the comparison is not apples-to-apples.
Pioneer’s Elite Atmos-enabled speaker system succeeds because it provides a well-balanced blend of price, performance, aesthetics, and ease of use. It supplies a complete immersive-sound experience in the same footprint as a traditional 5.1 system. Andrew Jones and Pioneer clearly took a holistic approach to the system’s design, and the result is impressive.
Pioneer Elite SC-85 AV Receiver