The SP-C21 center speaker's most likely destination will be shelf placement, under a TV display. Thanks to the speaker's curved bottom panel, it doesn't lie flat on a shelf, but that didn't affect its performance.
The SW-8 subwoofer is average in size for a budget system, at 14.3 inches high and 12.4 wide and deep. It has a beefy looking, down-firing 8-inch woofer, and a port on its front baffle. The SW-8 matches the speakers' black faux wood finishes, but it doesn't have the curved sides. It's more or less just an unadorned cube, and features a built-in 100-watt power amplifier with stereo RCA line-level and speaker-level inputs.
We used a Denon AVR-1912 receiver and Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player for all of our listening tests. Thanks to the speakers' large size and near full-range sound we set the AVR-1912's subwoofer-to-speaker crossover point at a lower frequency (90 Hz) than we would with most very small satellite/subwoofer systems, where we typically use 150 to 200 Hz.
The SP-PK21BS' lower crossover point reflects the larger speakers' ability to produce more bass, which means they're less dependent on the subwoofer for bass reinforcement. Of course, the exact subwoofer-to-speaker crossover setting will vary depending on taste, room size, and acoustics. We didn't have to put in a lot of time fussing with the system to get great sound from the SP-PK21BS; we were good to go in just a few minutes.
The SP-PK21BS is, without doubt, the best-sounding $400 speaker package we've heard to date. The five speakers' dynamic, powerful, and tonally balanced sound is impossible to duplicate with smaller speakers.
The "Tron: Legacy" Blu-ray's heavyweight soundtrack fully exercised the SP-PK21BS' home theater talents. The first thing we noticed was the system's low-frequency solidity, and bass definitely underpins most of the action in the film. The SW-8 subwoofer is plenty potent and blended perfectly with the SP-PK21BS' speakers. The front-to-rear envelopment of the surround mixes was exceptionally coherent and seamless, so there was no imaging gap between the front and surround speakers. That's where having the same large size front and surround speakers pays big dividends. The SP-PK21BS' five speakers filled the CNET listening room with no difficulty.
The "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray's biggest battlefield explosions and the helicopter crash's dynamic-range demands were handled with ease. The system could play louder without generating overt distortion than any comparably priced small system. The SW-8 subwoofer's bass was well controlled but was somewhat lacking in very- low-frequency extension; the Bose Acoustimass 6 Series III's much larger sub had a little more oomph down there.
The Energy Take Classic is one of our favorite budget systems, and it was not embarrassed by a direct comparison with the mighty Pioneer. The difference at quiet or moderate volume wasn't all that significant, but the SP-PK21BS still won in terms of clarity, and dialogue sounded more natural. Once we nudged the volume up, the SP-PK21BS pulled decisively ahead; its superior bass definition, dynamic clout, and effortless power make for a far more realistic presentation than the Take Classic can muster. If you like to play movies loud, or your room is bigger than 300 square feet, go for the SP-PK21BS.
Convinced by the SP-PK21BS' home theater skills we moved on to music, starting with the 5.1 surround mix from R.E.M.'s "Green" DVD-Audio disc. Michael Stipe's singing is the anchor that holds the music's focus as the band's instruments came from all around us. "Orange Crush" had great clarity and precision, bass was potent, and the drums' sound was crisp.
A stereo SACD of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," with massive tympani drum flourishes and rousing brass lines was mighty impressive, and a Mozart "Piano Concerto" CD further demonstrated the SP-PK21BS' refinement with classical music. These stereo recordings didn't need surround enhancement; the two front SP-BS21-LR bookshelf speakers and the SW-8 together produced a satisfyingly deep soundstage.
The SP-PK21BS is a big system and sounds like one, so it won't fit the bill for those buyers looking for a demure, lifestyle-oriented speaker system. But if you care more about sound than style, and your speaker budget tops out at $400, the SP-PK21BS is the one to get. It's not just amazing for $400. We'd be just as enthusiastic if Pioneer were charging $500 or $600 for the SP-PK21BS, it's that good.