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A speaker for music lovers and critical listeners

A Review On: Pioneer SP-SB23W Andrew Jones Soundbar System

Pioneer SP-SB23W Andrew Jones Soundbar System

Rated # 4 in Soundbars
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Price paid: $349.00
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Pros: Excellent tonal balance. One of only a very few soundbars that sounds good with music. Ability to play very loud. Excellent value.

Cons: Small soundstage. Height may affect some installations.

Let me begin by saying this is not the sound bar for everyone. For those looking for sound bouncing off the walls and the sound field extending wall-to-wall and behind, please look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for accurate sound at an extremely reasonable cost, the Pioneer SB-23 speaker bar should be on your audition list. If anyone is unaware, this was designed by noted speaker designer/engineer Andrew Jones and, when you consider his constraints with size and price, I consider this to be one of his more remarkable accomplishments.

First, here is what you are getting.

The speaker bar is quite compact, less than 36" width, 4" high and 4" deep. If the speaker bar is shelf mounted, the height may affect the ability to control the remote to your television. This is a very basic looking curved cabinet made of composite wood with four 3" mid-woofers and two 1" soft dome tweeters. Andrew Jones' design includes six amplifiers designed for the specific drivers with a 6th order crossover (36db per octave). If you are at all familiar with sound bar design, both the design of the cabinet and the addition of correctly designed cross-overs for the driver/amplifiers should stand out. Most soundbars make do with either a simple 1st order crossover (6db per octave) or none at all all, simply allowing all of the drivers to operate full range. And, if you have looked at soundbars in general, you never see a cabinet that appears to be designed with thought to proper accoustics or even as a proper mount for the drivers. Most are simple plastic or metal shells which contribute their own sonic attributes to the accoustic output.

The woofer is even more basic. Small 10' cube with a single 6-1/2" driver. However, don't let the small size fool you. The Andrew Jones' woofer is in a very dead composite wood cabinet (not adding any sound of its own) and powered a a single 50 watt amplifier crossed over at about 120hz with the same 6th order network as the upper frequency drivers. The woofer also contains an real tuned port which extends the effective output down to about 45hz. This is another surprise as most soundbar woofers have a port that is usually a simple hole in the cabinet and only adds somewhat to the efficiency of the unit. This is an extremely fast woofer which probably adds more to realism than sheer volume (db) or LF extension. I consider this a must for any well designed low frequency driver.

Why a sound bar (or speaker bar in Pioneer/Andrew Jones wording)? This is easy for me. Seven years ago I moved from a failry large home to a medium size condo. One of the selling points for my wife and I for the condo was the openness of the design. Our main living area is open from the picture windows at one end of the family room, through our dining area and to the back of our kitchen, approx. 60' with an average width of 24' stretching to over 32' at several points. Off of this expansive living area are a sunroom with an 8' entry directly off of the family area and my office with a 6' opening off the dining area. After you walk in the front door, you can see every room in the condo with the exception of the master bath. Also 14' to 16' vaulted ceilings throughout. The multi-channel surround system from my previous home was not going to be a possibility here. Since my circa 2005 Panasonic plasma at that time had sound best described as adequate, I was in search of something to make the audio from TV and movies at least tolerable. My initial thoughts were a small LCR unit placed in front of my TV with some type of amplification. However, as I researched on-line, I discovered Yamaha had a device called a sound projector that could offer me all of the benefits of my previous surround system in a small (really pretty large) package. Thus began a search for a sound projector, later shortened to sound bar, to fill my audio needs from my video sources. If you are searching for a sound bar, your primary reason should be improved audio from those appliances, loosely know as speakers, that accompany the majority of the beautifully thin high definition televisions now offered to the public. The second reason to look for a soundbar is, some of these offer really good sound and most have a high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).

Now some background on me. For years I considered myself an audiophile which is an abbreviation for a fool and his money. Fortunately, I had some background in engineering and enough friends with more than myself, and I never joined what many consider the lunatic fringe of audiodom. I always loved electronics and for many years thought that the warm glow of my vacuum tube pre-amp and eight vacuum tube amplifiers was extremely sexy. None of the women that I was associated with, including my eventual wife, shared my feelings towards this array of electronics. My wife also thought it was a waste of our hard-earned money to have nine devices retubed every year, so eventually, I purchased solid state and discovered that the sound was actually more accurate and never looked back (other than remembering the warm glow of the big tubes in a darkened room). As much as I like my electronics, I was passionate about speakers. My first good speakers were Dahlquist DQ-10's with Dahlquist sub-woofers in the mid-1970's. These were later replaced by Quad and Koss electrostatic panels, DCM Time Windows, Vandersteen 2C's and finally a wonderful pair of Infinity Beta 40 tower loudspeakers. The Infinity speakers of the early 2000's were truly unique in that they had an almost amplifier flat frequency response from about 40hz to beyond the frequency range of anything with less than four legs. They also possessed a wonderfully wide and deep soundstage. When my wife suggested that her decor could be improved if she did not have to four foot tall obelisks in her living area I thought that I would choke. However, this started both of us on a quest for the magical soundbar that could fulfill our needs for video sources and allow us to enjoy music that we both truly love. By the way, I don't know if she has "Golden Ears", but mine are mainly old. I have little hearing left above about 6khz, so that means that I miss most of the upper two octaves as well as some portion of the lowest octave of audio. Since these two areas are mainly reserved for sound-effects, I don't feel that I miss too much.

Over the past seven years our home has been graced with a variety of soundbars with various sonic attributes and plenty of sonic defiencies. Since I brought about $ 2,500 worth of equipment from our former home, I set my limit for a reasonable soundbar at approximately the same price and discovered the were vendors ready and agreeable to take my money. I have now owned one system with a cost approaching the $ 2,000 mark and had two others that were near that extreme pass through my home. On the low end, I replaced my most expensive sound bar with a $ 97.00 device purchased from Wal-Mart on a whim just to see what was available at that price range. I quickly discovered, as with other home electronics, dollars don't always make sense. Often times there was zero correlation between the cost of an item and the sonic results. I also discovered that the one thing that I see friends, family and those posting on the threads of this forum seeking, a surround experience from a single speaker, left much to be desired and in most cases caused audible anomalies that made some sound bars almost unlistenable to my old ears. I have demonstrated to a large number of people that the sound using two-channels vs. the virtual surround processing is not only cleaner, but can actually sound pretty good.

Initial evaluation. If you have stayed with me this long, you probably deserve a medal. I did my initial testing of the Pioneer Speaker Bar in the same manner as I have tested each and every speaker bar and a fairly large number of bookshelf and smaller speakers that has passed through my hands in the past seven years. first, I placed the soundbar on the same plane between the Infinity tower speakers. Next, I turned off any signal processing such as surround effects. Finally, I adjusted the volume to within 1db at 1khz between the devices using a sound pressure meter. Once we have a somewhat level playing field, I use test tones to check for cabinet resonances and get an overall feel for free field frequency response from the soundbar. This will usually reveal quite a few things such as peaks and valleys in nearfield frequency response and cabinet resonances, but most notably, even with some of the most expensive units, a large gap between the upper frequency drivers and the low frequency driver. Sometimes this gap between the soundbar and associated woofer appears to be as much as a full octave. After the initial evaluation, we listened to music ranging from Wagnerian opera, Beethoven and Mozart symphonies and sonatas, accoustic jazz from Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Chuck Baker or Charlie Parker and finally rock and roll from Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Steely Dan, Karen Carpenter and others. The listening tests are to gauge how well the tonality of the sound bar tracks with the Infinity speakers used as a reference.

Listening results. After various ups and downs from previously tested units, I found myself more than surprised with just how well the Pioneer Speaker Bar performed. The Pioneer Speaker Bar was set to "Music" mode. The initial testing revealed no sonic anomalies. Frequency response seemed to track quite will from the lowest octave available up to the point where I could no longer hear the test tones. These are strictly tests performed using our ears in our home listening environment and I do not mean to imply any scientific accuracy, but only what I hear. Following the set up tests, the music tests were quite rewarding. We always start with symphonic and opera and were surprised at the tonal similarities between the full range Infinity loud speakers and the speaker bar. The Pioneer was missing some of the nuance and/or detail from the upper registers and the sound stage was considrably smaller, but other than this the listening experience was very much the same. So much so, that after about three weeks of listening, it was decided that the Infinities could be retired to the closet in the guest bedroom. Although I am a firm believer in double-blind testing for electronics, I never found a satisfactory way to do double-blind testing for speakers. Our listening sessions usually involved long passages of works and recordings that we already were well acquanted with and also our sonic recollections of live music which we hear frequently throughout the year. While neither Inifinites nor the Pioneer Speaker bar would fool anyone into believing that they were in the presence of actual musicians, they were good enough to allow my wife to close her eyes and let her head sway to the rhythm and beat of the music. This is the point when you decide that a system can be enjoyable enough to allow music to sound like music and let you forget the medium to which you are listening.

After our initial tests with music, we went to our Blu-Ray player and over the course of a few weeks enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, "The Avengers", "Silver Linings Playbook", "The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937)", and many more. Never a disappointment with any. The movie mode seems to add some mid-range and upper bass presence. Once caveat for many prospective users is the small sound stage. Never did the sound stage feel that it extended more than a few feet in either direction beyond the soundbar. Most sounds seemed to be localized at the soundbar. In my listening experience, this is similar and certainly no worse than the soundstage as presented by the internal speakers included with modern TV's. If you are looking for that immersive surround experience, this is not the device for you. If you are looking for that immersive surround experience, you should probably begin your search with either a true surround system or a sound bar system that may include rear speakers like some of the models from Vizio or Sonos.

Finally, we used the Dialogue mode for some general television viewing such as "Once Upon A Time", "Grimm", "Person of Interest", "Elementary" and our favorite, "The Big Bang Theory". Dialogue mode appears to attenuate the bass by at least 10db, maybe more and possible some attenuation to the treble. No official tests and this was my perception when switching between Movie and Dialog mode. Dialogue seems to always be intelligible and crisp using this mode.

Recommendation: If you are looking for a multi-purpose soundbar that includes listening to music, and if lack of surround is not an issue, this device should definitely be on your short list. The Pioneer Speaker Bar offers excellent design and engineering plus sound that should not disappoint even discerning listeners. From the various devices that I have sampled, I believe that you would need to spend a minimum of three times the cost of this sound bar, possibly more like a factor of four or five, to experience sound of this quality.

1 Comment:

Really enjoyed your review, and I appreciate the care and detail involved. I think this will be a perfect purchase for my new Sony tv. Since I can stream Pandora with it, it will be interesting to hear how well it does despite the small sound stage you mention.
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