Big Japanese electronics companies like Sony, Panasonic, and JVC produce a wide range of products that never make it to our shores. Often, these products are deemed too expensive or just too exotic for the American market. That's why we were surprised to see Pioneer sell its whiskey-barrel speakers on this side of the Pacific. While most "wood" speakers are in fact constructed from medium-density fiberboard, essentially sawdust mixed with wax and resin, topped off with either real or ersatz wood veneers, the Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM speakers are constructed from solid oak--wood that just happened to spend the last half-century as a whiskey barrel, in fact. Pioneer has sold these so-called Pure Malt speakers in Japan for years, but they're now available in the States (via pioneerelectronics.com) for $600 a pair.
The S-A4SPT-PM story goes something like this: a Pioneer engineer built a whiskey-barrel prototype speaker on a hunch, and when he compared it to the same design with a conventional medium-density fiberboard (MDF) cabinet, he knew he was onto something because it produced "a mature mellow tone." That makes sense to us: a speaker's sound is the result of the total design. All of the wood in these speakers has been used for 50 years to age whiskey. The barrels' curved wood is flattened and hand-crafted into speaker cabinets--Pioneer claims the wood from one barrel produces just a single pair of speakers. Even the speaker's bass-enhancing port is made from the whiskey wood (most speakers use plastic tubing inside the speaker). Such craftsmanship would be extraordinary in a $1,000 speaker, so it's downright unprecedented in the Pioneers' price range.
Behind the removable black cloth grilles, the S-A4SPT-PMs feature a 4-inch woven fiber cone woofer and a 1-inch soft dome-type tweeter. They're pretty small speakers--each one is just 9.7 inches tall by 6 wide by 8.4 deep and weighs 8.4 pounds. They might be ideal for use in a bedroom or den flanking a TV (they're magnetically shielded for safe placement near TVs) or as a set of B stereo speakers for music from an A/V receiver. They're fitted with solid metal speaker binding posts that accept banana plugs, spades, or bare wire ends. The speakers come with a pair of 8-foot heavy-gauge speaker cables, the same thick cable that's used within the S-A4SPT-PMs' cabinet.
Mounted on our speaker stands and placed a few feet out into the room, the pair of S-A4SPT-PMs projected a large sound field, with an accurate portrayal of depth and space. Wall mounting reduced the sound's apparent depth but boosted the speakers' bass response. That said, we listened to music on the S-A4SPT-PMs on stands and were perfectly happy with the bass.