The quest for high-quality home audio can get esoteric in a hurry, with speakers that are priced more like a car and $4,000 speaker cables with "Counter-Spiral Geometry" -- whatever that means. For those with a more practical approach (and reasonable budget), there's the Pioneer SP-PK52FS. For $630, you get a full-size 5.1 home theater speaker system that delivers the kind of outstanding sound quality that's competitive with systems twice as expensive. With two tower speakers up front, a jumbo center channel, 100-watt subwoofer, and two bookshelf surround speakers, it's hard to believe you're paying just a little over $100 per speaker for the package.
The big drawback to the SP-PK52FS is its size, and, to a lesser extent, its style. The speakers are unapologetically large, especially compared with lifestyle speaker systems like the Boston Acoustics SoundWare XS 5.1 ($500). The black wood-grain vinyl finish isn't ugly, but it's far from the "furniture-grade" finish on speakers like the (more expensive) Aperion Intimus 4T Hyrbrid SD ($1,350). If the Pioneer's looks and size aren't your style, we recommend the outstanding, albeit not as powerful-sounding, ($400), which remains our Editors' Choice for budget home theater speakers. But if you've got the space for the Pioneer SP-PK52FS, they're the best-sounding speakers we've heard at this price.
Design: As big as they sound
The six-piece Pioneer SP-PK52FS comes with a pair of SP-FS52 towers, one SP-C22 center channel speaker, two SP-BS22-LR surround speakers, and a SW-8MK2 subwoofer. The entire system was designed by Andrew Jones, a man best known in the audiophile community for his ultra-high-end TAD speakers that sell for nearly $80,000. (We told you home audio can get expensive.) The SP-PK52FS system is a significantly revised version of the , which was one of our favorite budget surround systems last year. The new speakers have new tweeters, woofers, crossover networks, cabinets, and speaker grilles; the subwoofer received only minor changes.
The SP-FS52 tower speaker sports a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter and three 5.25-inch "structured surface woofers"; most budget towers have single or double woofers. The three woofers' bass output is augmented with two ports on the back of the speaker cabinet, so the SP-FS52s shouldn't be placed too close to a wall. Unlike a lot of the budget surround sound systems we review at CNET, note that these are full-size tower speakers, measuring 35.2 inches tall.
The SP-C22 center speaker has the same 1-inch tweeter, but two 4-inch woofers, and two rear ports. It's unusually large for a budget-price system, coming in at 18.25 inches wide by 7.2 inches high and 8.4 inches deep. The top and bottom panels are curved front-to-back, and it comes with two small "cradles" to provide a stable base for shelf mounting over or under your TV. The cradles also allow the SP-C22 to be set up to fire straight ahead, or angled up or down to a small degree so you can "aim" the speaker's sound toward the main listening position.
Even with the cradles, positioning the SP-C22 is no easy feat. Case in point, for the photo above we had to set theTV on small wooden risers so the SP-C22 wouldn't block the screen when placed on the hutch in front of the TV. Placing a center channel is rarely easy, but be prepared for more trouble than usual with the SP-C22.
The pair of SP-BS22-LR surround speakers feature the same 1-inch tweeter and 4-inch structured surface woofer as the center speaker, but with just one woofer per speaker, and one rear port.
All of the speakers feature all-metal connectors, which provide a more secure grip on the wires than the mostly plastic spring-clip connectors seen on typical budget speakers. The connectors accept banana plugs, bare wire ends, spades, or wires terminated with pin connectors.
The SW-8Mk2 subwoofer is a flat-sided box with a port on its front panel. It has an onboard 100-watt amplifier and a down-firing 8-inch paper cone woofer. The rear panel has a 0/180-degree phase switch that can be used to improve the bass blend between the sub and speakers. Connectivity options include stereo line-level RCA and spring-clip speaker-level inputs.
Sound quality: Best you'll find without spending a lot more
The SP-PK52FS performed extremely well, sounding like a much more expensive system. We had to remind ourselves again and again of the Pioneer's very affordable price tag. It sounded fully competitive, and in some ways better than our reference Aperion Audio Intimus 4T Hybrid SD that costs more than twice as much. On the whole the Aperion's tonal balance was richer and warmer, the Pioneer's leaner, but more detailed. Then again, when we just listened to dialogue from the two center channel speakers, the considerably larger Pioneer SP-C22 center was more naturally balanced, and less "boxy" than the Aperion 4C center speaker.