It can be hard to get excited about budget audio products, with even the best sound bars and home-theater-in-a-box systems just sounding "good enough." That's what makes the Pioneer SP-PK21BS 5.1 speaker system so impressive. Not only does it sound much better than everything else in its price range, it sounds legitimately great without qualification. Its spectacular sound quality comes with trade-offs, though; the Pioneer SP-PK21BS is absolutely huge compared to any of the competing systems. The oversized speakers also lack the furniture-level finish of some other speakers, so they stick out a little more as being "audio equipment" in the living room.
If you've got the space and don't mind bulk, we can unreservedly recommend the Pioneer SP-PK21BS as the best-sounding speaker system we've heard in the budget price range. It's a phenomenal value. However, the size is a serious drawback for most buyers, which is why the smaller and more stylish Energy Take Classic 5.1 remains our Editors' Choice.
Design and features
The SP-PK21BS system was designed by Andrew Jones, a name known to audiophiles for his work for high-end speaker companies like KEF, Infinity, and Pioneer's ultra-high-end TAD Reference speakers. Jones' designs have consistently earned rave reviews in the audiophile press.
The SP-PK21BS is a six-piece system and comes with four SP-BS21-LR bookshelf speakers, a SP-C21 center-channel speaker and the SW-8 subwoofer. The satellite speakers' curved-sided, all-wood cabinets are finished in faux black-wood grain, and the speakers' sturdy metal connectors accept banana plugs, spades or stripped bare wire.
The SP-BS21-LR bookshelf speakers are 12.6 inches high, 7.2 wide and 8.1 deep; and the SP-C21 center speaker is even bigger, it's 7.9 inches high, 19.9 wide, and 8.7 deep. For comparison's sake, the satellite speakers are essentially twice as big as one speaker in the Energy Take Classic system. If you're looking for a "lifestyle"-oriented speaker system, the SP-PK21BS won't be of interest.
The SP-BS21-LR speaker has a 4-inch woofer and a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter; the SP-C21 center speaker boasts two 5.25-inch woofers flanking a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter. If you have a 7.1 channel system, extra SP-BS21-LR speakers are available for $100 per pair.
The drivers are protected by perforated metal grilles (they can be removed, but it's not easy). Wall-mounting is possible, but no hardware is provided; for our listening tests we placed the speakers on floor stands. Given the heft of these speakers (each bookshelf speaker comes in over 8 pounds), wall-mounting will require some serious finesse.
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.