Mission impossible: Design great-sounding, affordable speakers
Pioneer's Andrew Jones not only designs $80,000 speakers, he has now crafted a phenomenal-sounding $499 home theater system.
Andrew Jones has a degree in physics, but his real passion is speaker design. He worked as a research engineer for KEF, Infinity and now with Pioneer, and he's chiefly responsible for their ultra high-end TAD Reference line of speakers that sell for upwards of $80,000! So a few years ago when I first heard that Jones was working on a line of superaffordable speakers for Pioneer, I didn't believe it. I said, "You mean that Andrew Jones? No way." Well, it was that Mr. Jones, and the speakers were astonishingly good. The now- , six-piece system retailed for $400.
Well, he's done it again and refreshed the line with newly designed speakers. The original series was still selling in brisk numbers, but Pioneer needed a redesign to comply with stricter regulations for the wood cabinets' formaldehyde content. They could have just changed the cabinets, but Jones saw the redesign as an opportunity to further perfect the tweeters and woofers. Then again, he could have messed up a good thing, but as soon as I heard the new speakers, those concerns evaporated. I spoke with Jones to learn more about the redesign process.
The new speakers don't look much different from the original models, but all the sound reproducing elements have been completely redesigned. He didn't use off the shelf existing drivers, Jones designed all of the drivers himself, and the crossover networks that direct the treble frequencies to the tweeter, and bass to the woofer. One new goal for the revised speakers was to make them more "sensitive," so they could play louder than the original models with the same amount of watts driving them. Jones said that was a priority because there's a good chance speakers in this price class will be partnered with low-cost/low-power receivers. Every watt counts, so he wanted to make the new speakers even easier to drive with inexpensive receivers. The new SW-8Mk2 subwoofer is the least changed model in the line.
Jones is a modest man; he thinks the real reason so few budget speakers sound good is the designers and companies aren't really trying to make great-sounding speakers. They're designed to have a certain look and fill in a price point on the lower end of the speaker line. Jones worked on the Pioneer redesign project for six months and used most of the time on research, explaining with a chuckle, "If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn't be research." He designed woofers and tweeters on a computer, had prototypes made, measured them, and revised the drivers again and again to get ever closer to his performance goals. He wasn't interested in making a speaker line with a lot of models, because he knew that only a few would really sell, so there's one tower, one bookshelf, one center speaker, and one subwoofer in the line.
The curve-sided speaker cabinets look nice, and while Jones concedes that the curves have minimal sonic benefit, the rounded sides improve the integrity and strength of the medium-density fiberboard cabinets. Jones wisely decided to make fairly large speakers; in general, all things being equal, big speakers sound better than small ones. But things weren't equal; Jones is one of the best designers working today.
I've heard the complete system and the new models really do sound better, they sound clearer, make more bass, and can play louder than the original speaker line. Yes, they're relatively large speakers, Jones' SP-FS52 tower speakers have three 5.25-inch woofers and one 1-inch soft dome tweeter, and the speakers are 35 inches high. These beauties retail for just $260 a pair, and sound as good as many speakers that sell for three times as much! The SP-C22 center speaker is 18.2 inches wide, 7.2 high, and 8.4 inches deep! It delivers the sort of natural-sounding dialog you can't get from more modestly sized center speakers. The smallest speaker in the line, the SP-BS22-LR, is 12.6 inches high; Andrew Jones, as talented as he is, can't make 6-inch-tall speakers that sound anywhere as good as these.
The new models are 25 percent more expensive than the originals, mostly because material costs are way up. Even so, they're still entry-level designs. Five hundred dollars buys the complete 5.1 system with four bookshelf speakers, the center, and sub (the 5.1 system with the towers adds $130 to the M.S.R.P.) The 5.1 systems will soon be available exclusively from the Pioneer Web site. Watch for my full CNET reviews, coming soon.