When speaker designer Andrew Jones sits back on his chair, fire-a-crackling, wine-a-mulling, and looks upon the year that was 2015, he can rightly say, "That'll do, pig. That'll do."
While he may or may not be a fan of the film "Babe," the sentiment is the same: it's been an extraordinarily good run for him. In 2015, two of CNET's favorite speaker brands were headed by Mr. Jones and resulted in models such as the fantastic ELAC Debut F6 (Jones' current gig) and the excellent Pioneer SP-EFS73 floorstanders (reviewed here, one of Jones' final projects before departing Pioneer).
There was a time when the words "high-end speaker" and "Pioneer" didn't belong in the same sentence but Andrew Jones changed that, and the SP-EFS73 is an excellent example of his art. True, there are models at an equivalent price that rock harder with bigger bass -- such as the PSB X2T or the SVS Prime Towers -- but the SP-EFS73 has a deftness of touch that confidently whispers "hi-fi."
Jones has long championed value for money in hi-fi and this year he has proven to be a man of his word. ELAC's Debut series and the midtier Pioneer Atmos range offer some of the most bang for the buck in loudspeakers today. On the Pioneer side, the SP-EBS73-LR bookshelf speakers -- in the same product family -- offer an even better value, But if you have the extra cash, the SP-EFS73 gives a bigger sense of scale and even more finely honed detail. At $1,400 per pair, these tower speakers are still relatively inexpensive compared with their "high-end" competitors.
The Pioneer SP-EFS73 is a floor-standing speaker compatible with next-gen surround technologies Dolby Atmos and DTS:X (assuming, of course, that you have the compatible source material, Blu-ray player and AV receiver). This three-way floorstander comes with two sets of "CST" drivers -- essentially a 4-inch concentric tweeter and midrange driver. One of the CST drivers is forward-facing, while the second, ceiling-facing driver is designed to reproduce Atmos height effects by bouncing sound off your roof.
The speaker is medium height at a little over 3 feet tall, and the three 5.25-inch bass woofers contribute to its 7.4-inch width. Like all of Jones' Pioneer speakers, they curve at the rear to reduce internal reflections to a depth of 8.7 inches. The optional spiked base adds an inch in both directions to the bottom of the speaker. The speaker is rear-ported for both the midrange and bass chamber, so moving the speaker away from walls will cut down on the potential for boominess.
We tested the speaker as part of the Pioneer Elite System, which includes the SP-EC73 center channel, a pair of the aforementioned SP-EBS73-LR bookshelves as rears and a SW-E10 10-inch subwoofer, all connected to a Marantz NR1605 AV receiver.
Setup and calibration of the complete 5.1 system was straightforward. We did a manual speaker calibration, running the SP-EFS73 towers "full-range," and used the NR1605's bass management to set the SP-EBS73-LR bookshelves and SP-EC73 center channel speakers' crossover to 80Hz. We also tried 100Hz; both crossover points worked well.
Our first impressions of the Elite system were very positive, and the more we listened the more we liked the sound. It was neutral, not adding or taking away anything from the sound of our music or movies. That's not to say it was perfect, but compared with other highly regarded speaker/subwoofer systems that have passed through the CNET listening room over the years, the Pioneer Elite system sounds more accurate.
For example, PSB's Imagine X2T towers, which we praised for their "uninhibited dynamics, solid bass and wide-open imaging" are first rate, but with side-by-side comparisons with the SP-EFS73 towers we noted major differences in overall clarity. There was an immediacy to the SP-EFS73's presentation, while the X2T pulled back and glossed over the details. The SP-EFS73's bass was leaner and less full, but far more articulate; the X2T was more richly balanced and blunted the excitement on the White Stripes' "Under Blackpool Lights" concert DVD. Meg White's pounding drum kit sounded powerful on both towers, but more dynamically alive over the SP-EFS73s. The X2Ts projected a large and spacious soundstage, but the SP-EFS73s' soundstage was more precisely focused and had superior depth.
Moving our attention to the SP-EC73 center-channel speaker, we compared it with the PSB Imagine XC Centre speaker while listening to the "Life of Pi" Blu-ray.
The narration of the title character (Suraj Sharma) sounded similar on both speakers, though a little clearer and more open on the SP-EC73. The growls of the tiger in the boy's boat were a tad more menacing coming out of the XC Centre because of its fuller sound. Broadening our attention to the complete system for the scene during the thunderstorm, we felt the extreme dynamics of the drenching and surf more viscerally over the Pioneer Elite system.
Turning up the heat even more with the train derailment scene on J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" Blu-ray, we found the SW-E10 subwoofer's considerable brawn really made itself known. The explosions seemed more powerful and deeper than anything we've experienced in the CNET listening room before. When we played the scene again with the volume turned up even louder the Elite system didn't falter; its ability to deliver maximum home theater thrills was never in doubt.
Rather than continue to pick apart the sound of these speakers, we'd rather focus on their effortless clarity, as that's what truly distinguishes the Elite system from other similarly priced systems. There's no exaggerated "detail" or brightness to the sound, it just sounds clearer than that of other speaker systems.
Whether playing 5.1 surround or the soundtracks from the handful of Atmos titles available (and one video game), we were more than satisfied with the Elite system's ability to produce a room-filling sound. While Atmos sounds completely enveloping, it sounds so good in 5.1 you may not even worry about the addition of height information.
Priced over the magical $1K barrier, the Pioneer enters a very competitive market populated with some excellent-sounding speakers. The Pioneer Elite SP-EFS73 managed to hold its own, though, with attractive design and a sound with a winning sense of ease and neutrality. It never seemed to strain when pushed or gloss over details, while still remaining "musical." While we'd urge the budget-conscious toward the cheaper Pioneer bookshelves, for the money the SP-EFS73 are our favorite floor-standing speakers of the past few years.