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Pioneer SP-SB03 review: Speaker Base puts powerful sound under your TV

The Pioneer Speaker Base delivers some of the best sound we've heard from an affordable pedestal-style sound stand.

Ty_Pendlebury.jpg
Ty Pendlebury
Ty_Pendlebury.jpg
Ty Pendlebury Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

6 min read

Instead of going through the whole Design, Features, Performance dance, there are times in my career as a reviewer when I feel like just typing "Buy it" 500 times and pressing publish. On those rare occasions I like a product so much that it's hard to write anything at all, and just instead wave my clenched hands together in a Wallace and Gromit moment of pure glee.

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8.6

Pioneer SP-SB03

The Good

The Pioneer SP-SB03 sounds great for pedestal-style sound bar, with excellent dynamic range and impressive bass for a subwoofer-free design. It's built like a tank, supports up to 55-inch TVs, and streams Bluetooth audio from smartphones and tablets. The price is right for this level of sound and build quality.

The Bad

Massive size; doesn't sound as good with music as with movies; minimal connectivity, control options and front-panel indicators.

The Bottom Line

The hulking Pioneer Sound Base delivers some of the best sound we've heard from an affordable pedestal-style sound stand.

You can probably guess that this is one of those times.

Like the Pioneer SP-SB23W sound bar before it, the Pioneer SP-SB03 Speaker Base has recast the mold on a category of speakers, redefining how they should sound. Both were designed by Andrew Jones, whose track record of delivering excellent sound for a modest price is entirely justified, in our experience . The SP-B03 is huge and costs a bit more than some competing pedestal-style sound stands, but it's worth it.

The SP-SB03 offers excellent sound for both movies and music plus build quality the bomb squad would be proud of. It has all the features you need at this price -- one-cable connection to a TV, Bluetooth -- and the only "frivolous" extra in a wide cinema sound mode...that actually works! Sure, it doesn't look like much, but then again neither does Bob Dylan.

The only "issue" I have with the Speaker Base is that it isn't as accomplished at music as its SP-SB23W Speaker Bar predecessor, which is a more traditional "bar plus subwoofer" combo. But for a one-box system that you can plonk your TV on and forget about, there's simply nothing else I can recommend more strongly at this price range right now. It's available for $350 in the US; and while UK and Australian pricing and availability has not been confirmed, that price translates to approximately £215 and AU$390, respectively.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

A sound stand is basically a speaker shaped like a pedestal and designed to support your TV. They all owe a huge debt to ZVOX, even the Pioneer, for while this speaker's a cut above everyone in terms of audio quality it doesn't really do much different in terms of design: it's a large, black box.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Little touches show care in its construction. The Speaker Base has a composite wood housing, not plastic. There's a fifth foot raised slightly off the ground in the center of the box designed to take the weight of particularly large TVs. The front is protected by a mesh grille which doesn't obscure any of the readouts or functions. The Pioneer isn't fancy, but certainly looks the part of a proper piece of home theater equipment.

Compared to the Pioneer, the Vizio Sound Stand and others in this price bracket look like toys.

This speaker is a colossus, measuring 28 inches wide (71cm), a significantly tall 4.75 inches (12cm) and 16 inches (41cm) deep. While Pioneer doesn't specify a weight limit for the TVs it supports, the company specifies that it "accommodates most TVs 55 inches and smaller" and that you should allow "at least 1 inch [2.5cm] of clearance surrounding the stand." The stand of the 83.8-pound (38kg) Panasonic TC-P55ST60 fit without issue, and yet despite the higher-than-average weight, the middle support foot still didn't touch the table.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The front-panel "display" is minimal too, with just a couple of LEDs to indicate sound mode, analog, digital and Bluetooth. The only front panel controls are for power, volume, input switching, sound mode select and Bluetooth pairing.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

On the features list of any middling-priced speaker product is this following item: the credit card remote. The one included in the box with the SP-SB03 isn't terrible for the breed, but it's far from ergonomic, with all of the buttons smooshed together. Cleverly, Pioneer includes directions in the manual on how to teach your TV remote to control the Base, which would be preferable. Or just buy a decent universal remote.

Features

The SP-SB03 features four discrete speakers: two 4-inch woofers on the bottom, two 3-inch mid-range drivers and two soft-dome tweeters, all driven by a 160W amp. Despite missing a discrete subwoofer the ported SB03 can get pretty low, down to 55Hz. Pioneer claims it has improved the crossover network from the original speaker bar for an improvement in vocal performance.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Pioneer will support Dolby Digital via the optical input, though sadly it won't support DTS. It also comes with a 3D Audio Expansion mode for a "wide" effect during movies.

For such a large speaker you may find the number of connections a little limiting. There are only two physical inputs: digital optical and stereo RCA (red and white analog); no HDMI switching or 3.5mm inputs here. On the other hand, as with most products, we recommend using your TV as a switcher anyway, and if you do the Pioneer's connectivity is ample.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The other reason we're not sweating the dearth of inputs is that the SB03 also includes Bluetooth. That means you can stream audio from nearly any smartphone, tablet, or recent iPod Nano or iPod Touch. On the downside, it doesn't add support for the aptX codec (which can offer better sound quality for devices that are so equipped), nor does it let you "wake" the Sound Base from sleep with your Bluetooth device -- a nice feature found on most Sony sound bars.

We did verify that the Sound Base's Bluetooth stereo functionality works as intended, and doesn't suffer from the issue that afflicted some early models of the Pioneer SP-SB23W sound bar.

Performance

When it comes to evaluating sound quality, dynamics is probably one of the least admired characteristics. But when you hear how much dynamic range the SB03 is capable of you'll wonder how you suffered through the cruddy sound of your TV for so long.

Comparing Pioneer's sound bar and the sound stand against two other similarly priced pedestal-style sound stands, the Sony XT1 and the Vizio S2121w-D0 , I found the Pioneer not only capable of better clarity and dynamic thrust, but more flexible when it came to movies and music.

The Pioneer SB03 is dynamic in a way that the best TV speaker could never be. In the bridge ambush from "Mission: Impossible III," it went from the whisper of a decoded message directly to the boom of an exploding car without compressing, and in a way that is actually jolting (in a good way). Only Pioneer's speaker bar was better at this: the separate sub adds extra wallop you can't get from a unit like the SB03, which is trusted to hold and not violently shake things off your television.

When it comes to the reproduction of vocals the extra effort afforded to the crossover appears to have paid off. The SB03 is more vocally articulate than the Pioneer sound bar, with Ving Rhames' mumbling speech sounding like he's actually in the car next to you instead of calling at you from the back seat of a limo.

Activating the 3D Audio Expansion added about an extra foot to the soundstage beyond the speaker in either direction, and the effect was subtle unlike the Klipsch R-10B which added a phase-y hiss to most material.

Music replay was very good for a unit with no sub. Deep bass was always kept in control, whether it was pounding toms or sub-audible synth lines and you could practically feel it in your chest.

But depending on the song, you may find that the newfound "vocal detail" can get overwhelming. With Spoon's "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb" there was a lesser separation of instruments and a shallower stereo image with the Sound Bar. Via the Sound Base the song did become more or less a tambourine solo and the forwardness might get wearing over time. Unfortunately the speaker offers no way to back the treble off a notch or two.

Like any other Bluetooth speaker the Pioneer is constrained by the limitations of the signal, and so if you like rock music with its wide frequency ranges, then using Bluetooth on this speaker isn't for you. Compared against a wired connection, when over Bluetooth guitar shimmered and dropped out unexpectedly while cymbals jangle like a bag full of bottle tops.

Conclusion

Despite an over-enthusiasm, you might say, that this speaker has for music, I've heard no other pedestal sound stand that can mix movies and music so well for so little. If your needs are simple, and you don't have five or six different components to plug in, the Sound Base is one of the best TV-watching, Bluetooth-streaming deals available.

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8.6

Pioneer SP-SB03

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Sound 8Value 10
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