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In 2014 we listened to, and very much liked, the Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2 stand-mount speakers. So much so, we gave them an Editors' Choice Award.
Less than six months later there's another contender for our favorite sub-$1,000 bookshelf speaker. The Elite SP-EBS73-LRs were submitted to us as part of an Atmos surround set that included a pair of floor-standers, but we were immediately struck by the smaller speaker's capabilities. These are no shrinking violet surrounds, but rather full-blooded stand-mount superstars.
Yes, they make the few Atmos soundtracks available now sound more alive, but it's how they handle simpler material that really makes them shine. Give these a listen and the word that immediately springs to mind is "hi-fi." It's only a slight treble prominence -- though not harshness -- that means they are less forgiving of bright or poorly mixed material.
The Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2s are still very fine speakers, but it depends on what you want. If you require something that will play "everything," including lower-quality recordings, the more forgiving B&Ws could be a better choice. But if you want oodles of crystal-clear detail without sacrificing bass performance, then choose the Pioneers.
The Elite SP-EBS73-LRs are available for $749 a pair while in the UK they are known as the S-BS73A and cost £600. Australian availability is yet to be confirmed but as a rough guide the UK price converts to around AU$1,200.
While their rivals from Bowers and Wilkins are on the flashier side, the Pioneers give off a refined elegance, with or without their distinctive domed grilles. The SP-EBS73-LR's high-end chops shine through in its build quality, and this is due to its design heritage. There's more than a bit of trickle-down engineering at play here.
The SP-EBS73-LR was designed by Andrew Jones, who was responsible for developing another "bookshelf" speaker, the TAD CE1 Compact Evolution One ($24,000/pair) that garnered raves last year in Europe and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
Aside from build-quality differences, which are very considerable, numerous core design concepts are shared between the two Jones-designed speakers. The main one is the concentric midrange/tweeter, which is used not once but twice on the SP-EBS73-LR, on the front and on top. The top-mounted driver is designed to reflect sound off your roof during Atmos movies, and you'll find two sets of binding posts at the back to facilitate this second driver.
The speakers are a decent size for stand-mounts at 7.4 inches wide by 15.7 inches tall and 9.7 inches deep, and the curved sides add to the sense of elegance. When used as stereo speakers, the SP-EBS73-LRs will sound best when placed on 24-inch or taller floor stands, 12 inches or more away from the wall behind them. The speakers' rear bass port gets down to 50Hz and can expel a good amount of air, so we recommend giving the speakers some room to "breathe."
We used a Marantz NR1605 receiver and an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player for all of our listening tests.
There's an undeniable clarity to the SP-EBS73-LRs' sound, without a whit of grit or harshness, just oodles of detail. They can project a huge stereo soundstage with a tremendous sense of depth and spaciousness.
The bass is the next thing you notice. With "Family," from Bjork's new "Vulnicura" album, the profoundly deep bass was so powerful we double- and triple-checked to make sure the Pioneer Elite SW-E10 subwoofer wasn't supplying the low, low bass, but it was not. It wasn't just that the bass went way down; the SP-EBS73-LRs' extra-nimble bass definition only added to our admiration of Andrew Jones' design skills.
At this point we decided to compare the SP-EBS73-LR with its bigger brother SP-EFS73 tower speaker, just to see how much better that speaker could be. Despite their difference in size, we found that the two speakers sounded nearly the same!
Granted, the SP-EFS73 towers' bass went a bit deeper, and they can play louder (or more easily fill large rooms with sound), but the SP-EBS73-LR, for almost half the price of the SP-EFS73, sounded awfully close! Then again, that was Jones' intention, to make all of the Elite speakers match to create seamless integration for home theater applications.
A shootout with the Bowers & Wilkins 685 S2 confirmed our very positive impressions of the SP-EBS73-LR. The 685 S2 is still a wonderful speaker, but it sounded a bit muddy next to the SP-EBS73-LR. The 685 S2 was sweet and pleasant, while the SP-EBS73-LR revealed so much more detail and depth to the sound of Beck's "Sea Change" SACD. The detail wasn't accompanied by added exaggerated midrange presence or treble harshness; no, it was just that the SP-EBS73-LR effortlessly unraveled the subtlest details in the music. Beck's vocals were set within a deep stage filled with lush orchestral strings, acoustic guitars and all manner of percussion instruments. The 685 S2 slightly defocused the details of the high-resolution recording, so they were less interesting to listen to.
It's only when listening to rougher recordings -- say, most rock music -- that trebly instruments like cymbals can stick out on the Pioneers in a way they don't on the B&Ws. That's not to say the Pioneers are harsh or bright -- they're still underpinned by solid bass -- they just elevate these details a little more.
We also watched a few movies, and the SP-EBS73-LR didn't let us down. Even with just the pair of speakers the "phantom" center channel position was rock solid, as long as we sat more or less centered between the two SP-EBS73-LRs, and this is the case for most speakers.
For "Cast Away," the scene where Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is trapped inside a doomed FedEx transport jet, we felt like we were inside the cabin with him. From the low rumble of the turbulence to the whine of the jet engines, the SP-EBS73-LRs handled extreme dynamic range assaults with ease. And when things got really rough, and the container crates break loose from their moorings to bang violently around the cabin, the plane finally crashes into the ocean and water floods into the plane, the sound was intense!
The Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR proved itself again and again as a stellar speaker for music and home theater applications. For music, the SP-EBS73-LR can be used up front as the main left and right speakers on their own in stereo, or in a multichannel system in the front flanking the matching Pioneer Elite SP-EC73 center-channel speaker. The SP-EBS73-LR can also be used as surround speakers in a multichannel home theater system with the matching Elite SP-EFS73 tower speakers.
While it's still very early days for Atmos -- only a couple of receivers can currently decode it -- the SP-EBS73-LRs are the closest you can get to "futureproof" speakers at this very moment.
Whether Atmos is a success or not, one thing is certain: audiophiles and neophytes who take the time to listen to the SP-EBS73-LR will be treated to the clearest-sounding, under-$1,000-a-pair bookshelf speakers on the planet.