The Entry Level #33
Two of the five loudspeakers reviewed in our July issue were designed by Andrew Jones: the $29,800/pair TAD Evolution One and the $129.99/pair Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (footnote 1). I did the math. You can buy 229 pairs of the Pioneer for the price of a single pair of the TAD. Which is the better deal? Which would result in more happiness? Imagine keeping one pair of the Pioneers, and delivering the other 228 pairs to friends and family. Or donating them to schools. The possibilities are great. How much fun can you have with just a single pair of speakers, anyway?
It's true that the TAD bears the more mellifluous model name, but only the Pioneer comes with Jones's signature on the rear panela significant selling point, I would think, and perhaps an indicator of the depth of Jones's affection for it. Do you remember The Joy of Painting? It ran on PBS from 1983 to 1994 and starred the gentle-voiced landscape artist Bob Ross. Bob signed only the paintings he most loved.
It's not especially unusual to find two products designed by the same person reviewed in a single issue of Stereophilejust ask Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson or Rega's Roy Gandybut I can't recall another instance when those two products were so far apart in price.
I wondered how Andrew Jones felt about that.
"I feel great about that!" he said via e-mail. "To design [the SP-BS22-LR] at the same time as designing almost-cost-no-object speakers is particularly satisfying."
I tried to get him to tell me which kid he loves more.
"Each has its own design challenges and subsequent satisfaction when completed, but the great thing is that lots of people can afford the entry-level Pioneers, and don't have to feel disenfranchised because hi-fi has become too expensive."
Just as I suspectedJones prefers the Pioneer! I asked for more detail.
"In truth, even a cost-no-object speaker has some cost objective; otherwise, as an engineer, you would never stop, and never get the design to market! It's just that the cost objectives are different, and so, the design decisions are different. In an affordable speaker, every cent spent has to be evaluated in terms of its contribution to sound quality."
Fear not: We can still find plenty of affordable speakers that entirely sacrifice sound quality to convenience or appearance. Jones is talking about affordable high-end speakers. Only with the true high-end loudspeaker is sound quality the first priority.
"In particular," Jones continued, "one is looking at what decisions can be made that have no cost implication."
Take, for instance, the surround profile of the bass cone. Decisions made here may have little effect on the speaker's retail price, but can greatly affect the speaker's sound. The surround profile of the bass cone will determine, to some extent, the speaker's crossover network, which dictates how successfully integrated are the outputs of the woofer and tweeter (and midrange, if any). This, in turn, will affect the overall smoothness of the speaker's frequency response, both on and off axis. You want a successful integration of the woofer and tweeter outputs; you want a smooth frequency response.
Listening to the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR . . . [cough, cough, cough] Excuse me, but what's up with that model name? Is it as annoying to read as it is to type? And have you tried saying it out loud? You'd probably tell your friends to buy this speaker, if only you could remember its name. I can understand skimping on a speaker's looks, but were times so tough that Pioneer couldn't afford a vowel? Please, Pioneer: Give the next version a decent namesomething we can remember and enjoy. Perhaps you can follow the example of the new crop of domestic hipster dads in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Call it Oliver or Cormac or Miles. I'm telling you, this stuff works. Watch sales soar.
Anyway. Listening to the Pioneer, I could hear no bumps or dips in the transition between woofer and tweeter. Music sounded seamless and true. I tend to listen while sitting precisely equidistant from each of a pair of speakers, which are toed in so that their tweeters point directly at my ears. Music through the Pioneers was detailed and clean, with a precision and physicality of image focus that often exceeded my expectations and deceived my senses. Apparently living, breathing musicians seemed suspended in the air above my living-room floor. Our cats, Avon and Stringer, were especially confounded, darting after invisible maracas and running into the kitchen at the pop of certain rimshots. Sitting off to one side dulled the effect, but not to the detriment of the music's tonal qualities: No matter where in the room I roamed, violins sounded like violins, cellos like cellos, guitars like guitars, R. Kelly like R. Kelly.
Compared to the Music Hall Marimba that I reviewed in June ($349/pair), the Pioneer SP-BS-blah-blah-blah lacked some soundstage width and didn't startle so much as delight. The Marimbas, though never fatiguing, are more about speed, clarity, and impact; the Pioneers gave a bit more body to their images and produced smoother, gentler high frequencies. My PSB Alpha B1s ($299/pair), though now long in the tooth, sound bigger and fleshier than either the Music Hall or the Pioneer, and their bass is a bit looser. I like big bass.
The three speakers offer three different perspectives. The Music Halls are more enveloping, creating an almost three-dimensional listening experience. With them, I hear music in front of me, way off to the sides, almost around me. The Pioneers created a carefully focused, remarkably stable stage that remained always just aft of the plane described by the speaker baffles, inviting me to "watch" as realistically re-created performances nearly materialized before my eyes. The PSBs have a way of thrusting aspects of the music toward the listener, calling attention to guitar solos or vocal harmonies, for instance, but also to themselves. Of the three, the Pioneers were the most transparent. Did they "disappear"? In their black cabinets and grillecloths, they had the stealth of ninjas.
They're not much to look at, the Pioneers. Does this matter? It does to me. I struggle daily to overcome my superficial biases, but without success. Sue me, scold me, write letters to the editor: I remain fond of beautiful things. Nothing, not even their brilliant sound, can fool me into thinking the Pioneers beautiful. I would never call them sexy. On the other hand, unlike some much more expensive speakers, they are far from hideous. The Pioneers look fine, if nondescript. Visitors to our apartment never commented on the Pioneers' appearance. Perhaps they didn't notice them; perhaps, out of politeness, they avoided the topic altogether. This was nothing like the experience of having the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1s ($349/pair) in our system. (I'm working on a "Follow-Up.") The Wharfedales are sexy. Everyone noticed. "Are those the same speakers you had here last time?" wondered Ginger Pete. "They're gorgeous," Natalie said. "They are," Kristen agreed.
"They're called Diamonds," I said with pride.
I enjoy looking at the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1s as much as I enjoy listening to them. That is, I admire the Wharfedales even when they're not playing music. Isn't that important? When the Wharfedales are playing music, I enjoy them more than I would if they were ugly. Sound isn't everything. Shoot me!
I may be superficial, but I'm far from alone. It seems to me that most people like pretty things. Again, I'm talking about normal people, the general publicthose who may have little or no interest in hi-fi but for whom the enjoyment of music nevertheless remains a worthwhile pursuit. If, for you, sound is the only thing that matters in an audio component, remember that there is at least one significant benefit to a pleasant appearance: It gets other people interested.
After seeing loudspeakers as visually attractive as the Wharfedales, most normal people will want to know how they sound. But even if they sound great, will most normal people be impressed enough to spend $349 on them? Probably not. Not immediately, at least$349 is still more than most people my age (35) and younger want to spend on traditional passive loudspeakers. As far as I know, no published statistics support this claim. I'm just making this stuff up as I go.
But $130 is a different story. Most people my age spend that much money on a week's groceriesor, on a weekend, at the bar. (Yeah, I like beer, too.)
The costing process
Why so cheap? It helps that Pioneer has such exceptional buying power. The company is able to produce their speakers in very high numbers, and can get them into many, many stores. The SP-BS22-LR has well over 50 US dealers. I wouldn't be terribly surprisedor upsetto find them at Walgreens. Compare that with, say, YG Acoustics' Sonja 1.3, which graced the cover of our July issue. Carried by 15 US dealers, it costs $106,800/pair. If you want to know who near you sells the Sonja, you must contact YGA and ask. Of course, if you're shopping in that price category, you can probably ride your private jet to Arvada, Colorado, and audition a pair at the factory.
Footnote 1: Pioneer Electronics (USA), Inc., PO Box 1540, Long Beach, CA 90801-1540. Tel: (800) 421-1404. Web: www.pioneerelectronics.com