I sold high-end audio gear back in the ‘80s and loved it. Mirage and JSE speakers, Threshold amps, Nakamichi tape decks, VPI turntables that we set up with a test LP and an oscilloscope--it was a dream job for any 20-something audiophile. Unfortunately, that job also made me a snob. My poor-but-righteous cohorts and I felt strongly that “mid-fi” brands (this should be said with a deriding sneer), though they served the needs of 99 percent of the population, were an abomination and an affront to all that was decent and right in the world.
I’ve grown up (and out) since those days, but the stench of prejudice can still be smelled on me every so often. I was offered the chance to review the new “Andrew Jones Designed 5.1-Channel Speaker Package” from Pioneer and I was both intrigued and put off by the notion of reviewing a speaker package that sells for under $550. That’s the entire package price.
I’m happy to report that the sun still shines, my home is still standing, and my virtue is intact. This is 5/6ths of an impressive system.
The man, the myth, the . . . Okay, I'd never heard of him either. But his $80,000 TAD Reference One speakers make him an interesting choice to design a $560 speaker system.
The speaker system
The package consists of two towers (SP-FS52), two small bookshelf speakers that can also serve as surrounds (SP-BS22-LR), a center speaker (SP-C22), and a sub (SW-8MK2). The stars of this system are absolutely the towers, so let me get the ancillary components out of the way.
They're a plain-looking bunch, but you should hear them sing.
The bookshelf speakers, the SP-BS22-LR pair, really are bookshelf speakers. There’s nothing about them that makes them uniquely suited for use as surround speakers. They’re not bipole/dipole switchable, they’re not low-profile, and they don’t have any kind of mounting system on the back. In fact, given their narrower-in-the-back curved cabinets and rear-firing port, they’re not designed to be mounted on the wall at all.
Bookshelf speakers with an uncanny sonic resemblance to mommy and daddy.
But they do have the one thing a surround speaker really needs to have: a striking sonic resemblance to the main and center speakers. They do this remarkably well. So, if you have tables you can put these on, or bookshelves behind or beside you, these play really well with the other speakers in the system.
I have a small nit to pick when it comes to the center channel, though. It’s a sizable and hefty speaker, so I was surprised to remove the grill and find two 4-inch “woofers.” Why didn’t they use 5.25-inchers, like they did in the towers?
Man, when this thing hits puberty, it's gonna rock
Back in the ‘90s, when surround sound was first becoming popular, people didn’t know what to do with the idea of a center speaker. Calling it the “dialog speaker” seemed to help people grasp the function it served, since so much of what you heard from it was dialog--talking. But the reality is that the center speaker can play music, explosions, singing--nearly everything the main speakers play on most recordings. All this is to say that the center channel sounded good, though it’s a bit thin and lacks a bit of body.
Sheesh, you’d think I could have said that with fewer words.
Finally, before the main course, comes the sub.
Ugh. It’s the only piece of this system I can’t recommend. I have no idea why it’s in here. According to Pioneer’s specs, this 50-watt, 8-inch beasty plays a grand total of 2Hz lower than the towers (38Hz vs. 40Hz). I played “Also Sprach Zerathustra” (the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the theme from Back to the Future and I thought it was going to rattle itself apart. I don’t believe its defective, just completely outclassed in this setup.
While packing the sub up, I found out that the port tube had come loose and was most likely causing the rattling I was hearing. I maintain that it doesn't add much to the system and that the rest of the speakers deserve better, but I also can't really say I was able to evaluate it fairly.
Damage done presumably in shipping kept me from being able to fairly evaluate the sub.
Okay, now for the towers. Thank you for your patience. Unless you just skipped all that and jumped right to here, in which case you’re a cheater.
Captain and Maria Von Trapp--the stars of the show.
The towers are smaller than I expected, though they’re just about 3 inches taller than their predecessor, the SP-FS51. Andrew Jones says this was to put the tweeters up higher, closer to the listener’s ears--an admirable goal. The SP-FS52s are also much better looking, in my opinion, though I’ll let you be the judge.
Last year's towers were shorter (and uglier). The Danny DeVitos of the speaker world.
Like the bookshelf and center speakers, the towers are ported (dual, in this case), feature 5-way binding posts that at least look gold-plated, and have curved cabinets that give them a bit of style over the standard boxes normally available at this price. They’re wrapped in the standard-issue black woodgrain vinyl, which is definitely the smart choice for speakers costing $260/pr. Attempting anything more ambitious, I’m sure, would turn out badly.
Pull the grill off a tower and you’ll find a soft-dome tweeter, a 5.25-inch mid, and dualing 5.25-inch woofers. Yeah, it looks like a 2-way system with three woofers, but there are crossover points at 250Hz and 3kHz.
I played my usual music demos, from:
- David Benoit
- The Wailin’ Jennys
- Jennifer Warnes
- Michael Bublé
And I also played several orchestral pieces that really challenged the speakers, including the aforementioned theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the theme from Back to the Future.
"Save the Last Dance for Me" is a great demo that also has some unexpected bass about 2/3 of the way in. The towers sounded great; the Pioneer sub mumbled quietly to itself in the corner.
The first thing that struck me was their openness. You just don’t get that kind of open sound from speakers in this price range. If there are any competitors at this price, I haven’t heard them, and I’ve heard a lot of speakers. Michael Bublé sounded rich and warm, Jennifer Warnes’ title track from Famous Blue Raincoat sounded jazz-club intimate and three-dimensional , and many Wailin’ Jennys songs sounded airy, bordering on ethereal.
Wait, did I just say “many Wailin’ Jennys songs”? I did. Here’s the deal.
On the CD 40 Days, songs sung by their soprano Ruth Moody, like “One Voice,” the speakers sounded oddly boxy. But on “Arlington,” sung by Cara Luft, the towers sounded remarkably open. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that Ruth’s voice hits the resonant frequency of the cabinets and Cara's does not.
The funny thing is that this is exactly the opposite problem I faced with the $2,000/pr. Aperion Grand Verus towers. Huh.
Invoking the name of the vaunted Aperions seems like a good segue to level-setting and a conversation about value. Do the Pioneer speakers sound like they should cost two grand? No. But I seriously thought about starting this review by saying that they are an excellent value at $500, nearly twice the price of the system, and a good value at $800. Throw in the bookshelf and center speakers and you’re still well under 500 bones, so these offer some pretty amazing sound for the dollar.
So what aren’t you getting here? Well, while I don’t think they’re ugly, they’re also not what I’d call beautiful. They’re plain. The towers are short and unimpressive-looking. I think the top-end is a tad strident on some recordings, and bad recordings make that worse. And I have to address the elephant in the room: the name on the grills. If you’re willing to shell out $300 for headphones because they look cool, these speakers are not for you.
But if you have just $489 to spend on speakers (and another $300-$500 or so for a good subwoofer), and you don’t mind sharing your home with speakers that don’t have supermodel good-looks or a fancy-schmancy name, I’ve got a deal you may not be able to pass up.
Note the lack of tolerance specs (e.g., +/-3dB) for frequency response and some pretty demanding sensitivity ratings. I will draw no conclusions here, but thought they were noteworthy. I also thought that making theme all 6 ohms was an interesting choice.
 Andrew Jones is a well-known high-end speaker designer and the man behind the $80,000 TAD Reference One towers/pylons.
 I find it odd that speakers so short are able to project such a full-size image, and with such pin-point precision. They're not just open and airy, they're able to paint a sonic soundstage that I find astonishing at the pricepoint.