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Can the designer of an $80,000 speaker also make a great $129 one?

What do Pioneer's remarkable $129 SP-BS22-LR and TAD's legendary $80,000 Reference speakers have in common? Andrew Jones designed both of them.

Pioneer SP-BS22 LR (left), TAD Reference One Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Andrew Jones has a degree in physics, but his real passion is speaker design. He started out as a research engineer for KEF in 1983, later moved to Infinity and now he's with Pioneer, and is chiefly responsible for their ultra high-end TAD Reference line of speakers that sell for upwards of $80,000! Jones not only designs speakers that sell for as much as a luxury Mercedes Benz, he's also made some of the world's best affordable speakers.

Jones, like most of the speaker designers I've ever talked to, started thinking about building speakers before he was a teenager. He loved science and built amps with his dad, and tried to build a few speakers at an early age, but never got around to finishing any of them. Later on he tried building a cylindrical aluminum speaker cabinet, but that didn't work out either. Along the way he learned how to measure speakers' sound, and finally finished building a speaker when he was almost out of college. Jones may not have been the best hands-on builder of things, but he was always interested in learning why speakers sound the way they do.

Nowadays Jones measures prototypes to see where he's going, and also listens to them. Listening is key, because as he put it, "Measurement tools are now available to very rapidly give the wrong answer." Interpreting what measurements mean, and how to proceed is a skill and an art that takes years to cultivate. If a revised prototype doesn't sound right, Jones first questions the data. The back and forth between taking measurements and listening sessions is, in essence, the design process. Jones uses recordings he knows well, and has heard on countless systems to fine-tune the sound.

Andrew Jones Pioneer Electronics

The man loves his work, so I was eager to ask why his TAD Reference One speakers sell for $80,000 a pair. Jones didn't flinch, and just said, "I do have to explain that from time to time." The economics of making and selling $80,000 cars are on a completely difference scale than high-end speakers. If the high-end audio market was big enough to support sales of many thousands of Reference Ones a year the price would surely plummet. Jones also pointed out that upmarket Mercedes share a significant number of parts with entry-level models, but nearly every part of the Reference One is made just for that speaker, and that dramatically raises production costs. When costs can't be spread over vast numbers of speakers, the speakers have to be expensive.

In fact, when Jones first started working on the Reference speaker the projected target price was much lower. Then reality set in, and it took three years to develop just one of the drivers from scratch, and hand building prototypes is a lengthy and expensive endeavor, one that's repeated over and over again, and those costs add up. The massive, 330 pound cabinet was also prototyped and refined over the years. The team of workers and engineers are drawing salaries, and those costs have to be recouped from the sales of TAD speakers, and cannot be absorbed by the Pioneer Group (TAD's parent company). If there was a way to get a lot more folks interested in speakers as grand as the Reference One they would be more affordable, but even then they would still sell for tens of thousands of dollars. I've seen and heard these speakers many times, there's no way they could ever sell for $1,000.

High-end audio is sold as luxury products, and is priced accordingly. A TAD speaker can't be judged on the same value basis as a disposable product like a tablet, phone or computer. Those things are sold in the millions and get tossed out every few years, high-end audio lasts decades, many decades. True high-end speakers are expensive because they have to be, but I'm just happy that a man as talented as Andrew Jones got to lavish his attention on Pioneer's SP-BS22 LR speakers that sell for $129 a pair.

They're a far cry from his TAD speakers, but Jones said, with a chuckle, "They're fun to listen to and they fail in a nice way." He put in long months of developing prototypes of the drivers and cabinets, but since Pioneer works with a big box retailer, Best Buy, they could plan on selling much greater numbers of units, and the prices reflect that. The speakers look rather plain, but sound fantastic for the money.

Jones' latest Pioneer project is a sound bar/subwoofer system, the $399 SP-SB23W, and it's coming soon. I can't wait to hear what Jones can do with a sound bar. We'll have one of the first ones to roll off the production line, and review it here at CNET.