Editors' note: Pioneer has acknowledged that some SP-SB23W units have flawed Bluetooth audio playback and is offering to repair or replace affected units. Read our full story on the issue for more information.
The Pioneer SP-SB23W ($400/AU$849) sounds better than just about any sound bar we've heard. That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following Pioneer's line of Andrew Jones-designed budget speakers, which have consistently offered outstanding sound quality at modest prices. While other sound bars typically try to wow you with excessive bass or gimmicky virtual surround effects, the SP-SB23W simply strives to sound more like a set of good, balanced speakers and that approach helps explain the system's consistently natural sound. Apparently Pioneer's decision to call the SP-SB23W a "speaker bar" rather than a sound bar was a legal concern, but it's a fitting distinction nonetheless.
While the SP-SB23W's sonics are excellent, it's less impressive when it comes to design. The system won't win any style awards, although its tiny wireless subwoofer is easy to hide. The sound bar's chunky wooden cabinet is bigger than most and its 4-inch height might block your TV's remote sensor. The cheap included remote is adequate at best, plus there's no front-panel display to provide visual feedback while making volume and subwoofer adjustments. Most of those issues are slight or can be fixed with workarounds, but they're minor obstacles for buyers who just want to set up a basic sound bar without much fuss.
Still, we're willing to largely overlook those flaws for a system that sounds so good at such a reasonable price. If you care about sound quality and are set on a sound bar system, Pioneer's SP-SB23W is the easy pick, earning CNET's Editors' Choice Award for the category. Less demanding listeners may be better off with Sony's HT-CT260 ($240), which is easier to use and set up, but there's no question that SP-SB23W is the winner when it comes to sound.
Design: Room for improvement
Product design is all about tradeoffs and with the SP-SB23W, good looks are sacrificed for performance and value. It doesn't look bad, but its black vinyl finish certainly isn't stylish, especially compared with more expensive systems like the Sonos Playbar ($700) and the Sony HT-ST7 ($1,300). Unlike most sound bars, it has a cabinet made out of composite wood, rather than plastic, which contributes to the system's excellent sound, but also to its bulky stature.
The design gripes go beyond mere aesthetics. The sound bar itself is relatively sizable (39.98 inches wide, 4.05 inches high, 4.74 inches deep) and if you're setting it in front of your TV, there's a decent chance it will block your TV's remote sensor. Other sound bars, such as the Sony HT-CT260 and Yamaha YAS-101, get around this problem with an IR repeater, but the SP-SB23W doesn't offer any solutions. There are workarounds that will help -- simply boosting your TV with a small riser will work -- but you may want check the height of your TV's remote sensor before buying.
There's also no front-panel display beyond a few tiny lights, so you have to make volume and subwoofer level adjustments without knowing exactly what level you're at. Home theater purists may also grumble that the lights aren't dimmable, but that's easily fixed with some dimming tape.
The wireless subwoofer might be the smallest one we've seen for a sound bar system, an incredibly compact 9 inches wide by 10 inches high by 9 inches deep. What the box lacks in style it makes up for in "stashability." While you'll typically get the best sound by placing it close to the sound bar and a wall (but not in a corner), the sub still sounds decent with alternative placements, such as behind the couch, if you're looking to hide it out of sight.
The included remote also falls short, using the cheap, wafer-thin "credit card" design that's inferior to full-size clickers. The shape and the layout of the buttons make the remote hard to navigate by feel, and their bubbly contours fail to reassuringly click when pressed. At least you can program the SP-SB23W to accept commands from your TV's or cable box's remote, although note that some TVs display an error message when used in this configuration.
While none of these design issues are major, they do make the SP-SB23W a little harder to recommend to buyers looking for a dead-simple and easy-to-use home audio system. Sony's HT-CT260 has a better remote and a handy IR repeater, while SpeakerCraft's pedestal-style CS3 looks better sitting under your TV and avoids the remote-blocking issue altogether.
Features: Minimal inputs, plus Bluetooth
Around back you'll find a bare minimum selection of ports: an analog input and an optical input. That might not seem like much, but it's plenty if you use your TV as a switcher by connecting all your devices directly to your TV, then connecting your TV's audio output to the sound bar. You'll be limited to the number of inputs on your TV, but the upside is there's less fumbling with remotes, as you'll only need to change the inputs on your TV to switch between devices.
The one slight disadvantage to this arrangement is that most TVs "dumb down" incoming Dolby Digital surround-sound signals, outputting just a stereo PCM signal to the sound bar. That's less of an issue for a strictly stereo sound bar like the SP-SB23W, but those who are fussy about their audio won't be able to choose whether the sound bar or TV decodes the Dolby Digital signal. (The SP-SB23W includes Dolby Digital, but not DTS, decoding.) For most buyers, it's not an issue; the SP-SB23W sounds good with both PCM and bit stream signals and the audible differences between decoders are likely small.
The SP-SB23W also has built-in Bluetooth, thus supporting wireless audio streaming from nearly every mobile device. Even better, it supports the aptX codec, which permits higher-quality wireless transmission on devices that support it. Bluetooth streaming is perfect for instant-gratification listening, especially since it works with any app you have on your mobile device, including services like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, and iTunes Radio.
Setup: Sync and you're set
The SP-SB23W's only setup requirement is pairing the sound bar and wireless subwoofer, which is done simply by hitting the sync button on both devices. As always with sound bar systems, it's best to position the sub close to the sound bar, within 5 feet or less. To boost the little sub's bass response, we put it right up against the wall behind the TV, just to the right of the TV stand.
The SP-SB23W's remote offers direct access to three sound field modes: Music, Movie, and Dialogue. That last one doesn't technically "boost" movie dialogue; instead it turns the subwoofer off, which has the effect of also making the dialogue easier to hear. In Music and Movie modes, you can adjust the subwoofer volume level, but it can be a little tricky since there's no visual indication of the sub's volume level. Movie mode changes the subwoofer's EQ slightly and adds more bass, while Music mode's bass is more accurate. Otherwise, the SP-SB23W doesn't have bass or treble controls, or any way to adjust the sound or tonal balance.
Sound quality: A new standard for budget sound bars
We didn't have to compare the SP-SB23W with other sound bars to know it was special, as the sound was unusually "quick" and clear. Still, we had our doubts that the tiny wireless subwoofer would deliver adequate home theater muscle.
No worries, the sub was more than up to the job and the real charm of the SP-SB23W system was how well the sub and sound bar work together. That's because the sound bar was designed to produce more bass than a typical sound bar, with the crossover frequency between the sub and sound bar set at 110Hz, instead of the more typical 150-200Hz.
In any case, the SP-SB23W's bass definition is superb, and the deepest bass extension wasn't too far off that of the subwoofer of one of our favorite sound bar systems, the JBL SB400. That one filled the CNET listening room with more bass oomph and played a little louder, but the SP-SB23W's bass clarity is better. More important, the SP-SB23W's sub-sound bar blend was superior to the SB400's, which had a more processed and "boxy" sound. The SB400's boxiness was especially noticeable on dialogue, as voices sounded more natural on the SP-SB23W and treble detail was markedly better. On the other hand, the SB400's dynamic "slam" outpaced the SP-SB23W's on action films, so when King Kong started tossing city buses and trains around, the SB400's bigger sub made a difference we could feel.
On jazz recordings, vocals, piano, acoustic guitars, drums, and cymbals sounded more natural over the SP-SB23W. Both systems played rock music pretty loud, but we'd give the edge to the SB400 when it comes to pure volume. But there's more to sound quality than loudness and the SP-SB23W's winning combination of clarity and definition is hard to resist.
Unlike the Sonos Playbar or Sony HT-ST7, the SP-SB23W lacks any type of virtual-surround processing, so the sound is strictly stereo. There's a nice sense of depth and spaciousness, although the soundstage never gets particularly wide if you're looking for that immersive feel. For those who crave an even bigger sound, consider the 54.5-inch-wide Sharp HT-SB60 sound bar/subwoofer system, although the SP-SB23W sounds better overall.
Next we compared the SP-SB23W with Sony's HT-CT260 sound bar, which is one of our favorites this year. Here the SP-SB23W's transparency advantages were even more obvious and particularly noticeable when it comes to intelligibility of dialogue. Sure, the HT-CT260's larger sub made more bass, but it lacks the detail and crisp focus of the SP-SB23W. When it comes down to the simple question of what sounds better, it's not close -- the SP-SB23W wins by a landslide.
And that's what really separates the SP-SB23W from the pack. While other systems may pack a louder, more powerful punch, the overall sound quality isn't nearly as good. The SP-SB23W was just great to listen to no matter what we threw at it, which is rare for a sound bar, especially when it comes to music. Nothing we've heard offers better sound bar sonics, save for possibly Atlantic Technology's PB-235 ($750 street) which we didn't have on hand to compare directly, and costs nearly twice as much.
What are the alternatives?
As good as the SP-SB23W sounds, if you're really serious about sound quality you should consider full-size speakers paired up with an AV receiver or integrated amplifier. However, even a basic stereo system, such as Pioneer's SP-FS52 ($250) tower speakers paired up with the Marantz NR1403 ($400), will cost more than the SP-SB23W, so that's not an option if you're on a tight budget.
If you're turned off by some of the SP-SB23W's design quirks, the aforementioned Sony HT-CT260 and SpeakerCraft CS3 are worth considering. We think the Pioneer's sound quality is worth its annoyances, but if you're less picky about sound, those systems look better and are generally easier to use.
Finally, there's the Atlantic Technology PB-235, which we didn't have on hand for a head-to-head sound quality comparison, but really impressed us when we reviewed it back in late 2012. However, the PB-235 is even bulkier and less attractive than the SP-SB23W, lacks built-in Bluetooth, and costs nearly twice as much. It does deliver its excellent sound quality without a subwoofer entirely, although that's less of a plus considering how compact the SP-SB23W's sub is.
Conclusion: A budget sound bar that's serious about sound
Sound bars have always benefited from the absurdly low expectations set by modern TVs' built-in speakers. Swap in a sound bar and the improvement in sound is dramatic, which covers up for the fact that most sound bars don't sound that great -- they just sound a lot better than what you have.
With the Pioneer SP-SB23W, there's finally an affordable sound bar that sounds good, without grading on a curve. If all you care about is ease of use and something that sounds better than your TV, the Sony HT-CT260 will get the job done for less money. But if you care about sound quality, it's definitely worth spending the extra money for the Pioneer SP-SB23W, especially for a product that can easily last you five years or more.