The Entry Level #33 Page 2

Pioneer's biggest dealer is Best Buy. There's probably one in your neighborhood. "With such a large retailer," Andrew Jones explained, "we had a very clear idea of potential sales quantities with month-by-month projections. This allowed for very strong negotiations on price."

When Jones began work on the prototype for the SP-BS22-LR's predecessor, the blah-blah-blah-21-LR, he ignored general cost considerations and simply built the speaker he wanted to build. Imagine that. For a talented and ambitious engineer or artist, such freedom must be fantastic—until it becomes overwhelming. Yet once he began paying attention to costs, Jones was actually surprised by the technology he could incorporate in the design. "The designs have proven to be such big sellers that when it became time to develop [the SP-BS22-LR], the costing process was much more straightforward," he said.

Then there are tricks. When asked to list other areas where costs could be minimized, Jones mentioned the choices of cabinet, packaging, and carton size—aspects of a speaker design I would never have considered.

It's common practice among savvy speaker makers and engineers, Jones says, to shave off a few millimeters here and there. Doing so makes a difference in how many speaker cartons will fit in the shipping container. "An exact fit will reduce wasted space and shipping cost. Maybe only a few cents per speaker, but this can then be spent on performance by adding perhaps more absorption, or a [higher-quality] capacitor in the crossover."

For so affordable a speaker, the SP-BS22-LR has an unusually sophisticated, six-element crossover network. There are a film capacitor and an air-core inductor in the tweeter feed, an electrolytic capacitor and laminated steel-core inductor in the woofer feed. In his review of the speaker in July, Bob Reina discussed other aspects of the SP-BS22-LR's technical design.

Appearances may be sacrificed, but performance is not. A high-quality entry-level speaker will often sound better than it looks. A $30,000/pair speaker must look at least as good as it sounds. And it should sound amazing. It will be bigger, heavier, and fancier. You won't find one at Best Buy. I checked. Currently, the most expensive speaker in stock at Magnolia, Best Buy's specialty home-theater store, has a retail price of $5499.98/pair. (In case you're wondering, that speaker is the MartinLogan Theos; in gloss black finish, it's striking.)

When designing a cost-no-object speaker, Jones isn't so concerned with cramming as many of them as possible into a shipping container. Instead, he focuses on research and development. He looks for what hasn't already been tried, what's "waiting to be discovered, understood, and then exploited."

But which assignment offers the greater reward: the entry-level or the flagship design? Again, Jones avoids the bait. "Engineering is a game of challenging the rules while at the same time being bound by them. The rules are different for the two cost objectives, but they are equally challenging and fun. Of course, the reaction from friends and colleagues can also be fun."

Some listeners will consider the TAD Evolution One a bargain at only $30,000/pair. Others will be struck dumb by that high price.

Me? I'm at a point in my life where I can't imagine spending $30,000 on a pair of speakers. But let's see what happens when I turn 36.

Exceeding expectations
Given the choice, I'd happily take the 229 pairs of painfully named Pioneer SP-BS22-LRs, signed by Andrew Jones, and give away 228 of them—to friends, family, and schools. But not because I think the TAD Evolution One is overpriced. It isn't.

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One of the two most memorable hi-fi demonstrations I've ever experienced was hosted by Andrew Jones. It took place in a large hotel suite in Las Vegas, during the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. The system comprised nothing but TAD Evolution products, including the Evolution One speakers. Jones was the consummate host, captivating the audience with his intimate knowledge of the system's design, then shocking the room by actually playing good, compelling music—the kind we had assumed could not be heard in Vegas.

Jones's excellent demo came just weeks after I'd attended what I consider to have been the absolute worst hi-fi demo imaginable. That demo was held in a proper high-end audio showroom and was part of a special, invitation-only event marking the highly anticipated release of a $120,000/pair loudspeaker. Members of the hi-fi and mainstream press were in attendance. There were long-legged women. There were sharp-dressed men. There were wine, cheese, sushi. The speakers were concealed beneath velvety cloaks and, when finally revealed, were slowly and dramatically unveiled in a seductive striptease. But instead of providing a captivating tale of this product's development, the company representative complained, loudly and arrogantly, about chatter in the back of the room, hissing pipes, the weather. Then came the sound, which was dull, lifeless, entirely uninvolving—much like the music played, which had been chosen to highlight the speakers' strengths: a painfully long drum solo, a smooth-jazz rendition of a Doors song, Laurence Juber's version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

I wept. That demonstration embodied everything I hate about high-end hi-fi. If those speakers were indeed worth $120,000/pair, the demo provided no evidence of it. Far too often, the most impressive high-end audio products are victims of such miserable demos, which leave the listener confused, angry, disappointed, disrespected, frustrated, and/or altogether done with hi-fi.

Andrew Jones's demonstration of TAD's Evolution products at CES, however, embodied everything I love about high-end hi-fi. Sitting there, astonished by the realistic sound and moved by the beautiful music, I didn't care that the system cost far more than anything I could ever think of owning. It was something to behold and admire, like a sunset or a smile. (Gosh. Am I allowed to say such simple, cheery things? I can hear the joyless audiophiles now: "You don't belong in the company of grownups! Smiles are for babies!") The TAD system met my expectations, then exceeded them. The Pioneer SP-BS22-LR has done the same thing, but at a price just about anyone can afford.

"I think it's crucial to provide such products," Jones told me. "We need to provide products at entry prices that attract new blood to the upgrade path, so that [those customers] begin to understand that listening to hi-fi can be intensely rewarding, and that the more expensive products do ultimately justify themselves in the performance they provide. We also need to recognize how and when younger customers listen, and tailor products to their needs, while also satisfying our wish to show them a better way to listen."

Yes! Thank you. It's almost as if Andrew Jones has been reading my column.

At home, while listening to the Pioneers reproduce "Love & Light," from Sandro Perri's Impossible Spaces (CD, Constellation CST085-2), I was reminded of that TAD demo. Never had I heard this song sound so much like magic, the musical instruments and the performers nearly coming to life in my living room. I played it for Ms. Little.

"How much do these speakers cost?" she asked.

"One-hundred thirty bucks."

Her eyes sparkled with interest. "Why so cheap?"

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COMMENTS
BradleyP's picture

Stephen, you hit upon something important in this article.  A dynamite $350 speaker that gets you close to musical bliss might be admired for its looks and possibly appreciated for its sound, but only a small percentage will listen and think "I have to get a speaker/stereo like that!"  I have a big system in one room with Martin Logans and 250WPC of clean amplification, and another at my desk with the little Audioengines and an affordable tubed USB DAC.  I've wowed plenty of friends and family with music played through one or both of these systems.  How many have been interested enough to get a decent sound system, or even just drop $200 on good powered speakers?  Just two.  TWO.  Plenty had the means to buy; they just didn't care enough.  No, I didn't subject them audiophile crap that's really just sound effects with a pretense of music to provide cover for 12-year-old-boy nerd-dom in a 220 lb middle aged body.  I played outstanding music that was immaculately recorded.  (Now that I have just carpet-bombed much of this publication's readership, can I apply for a job here?  I love opining about this stuff.)

We lovers of worthy music and fine audio are a rare breed, and I'm still taken aback by how few of the horses we love leading to water are thirsty.  I shouldn't be surprised.  Craft brews are only 6.5% of the US beer market, and that's only a $3.00 difference.  Same thing.  Nonetheless, lead we do.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

No, I didn't win the lottery from my local grocery store chain.  (But the top prize was $1M in the form of a $50K/yr annuity for 20 yrs.)  What would I have done had I won it? Besides the usual responsible/sensible stuff, I figured the best bang would be to attend more live music and maybe travel more.  

Just like BradleyP, it took me too long to realize hardly anyone cares about high end gear, other than the retailer trying to sell it.  And even worse, the heightened expectations that accompany high end gear are so often unsatisfied due to a diminished benefit/cost ratio.  So, I no longer share my system or music with anyone other than my wife.  What I do do, is share more time privately with the artist on the recording who is trying to tell me something.  And that is far more gratifying.  (Yes, I do realize I'm not that private about it, given that I'm writing on the subject.)

So, it's nice to see Stephen review good cheap gear.  And, it's nice to see Kalman R in this issue talk about his travels to Europe and all the concerts he attended there.  Maybe we should all do more of the same and support the artists a little more and the gear producers/sellers a little less.

smargo's picture

just ran out and purchased them on saturday - using with a sub - the music that comes from these speakers is totally satisfying - i also have a pair of def tech mythos - about $2700 for the pair

yes the def tech does most things better - but i still connect to the music and as am emotionally involved as ever - just goes to show you what i have experienced over the last 20 years

the high end can be a lot of hype and bullshit 

nunhgrader's picture

I like your style!

sudont's picture

"But not because I think the TAD Evolution One is overpriced. It isn't."

Isn't it? I'm not being at all sarcastic when I say this - I would love to know exactly how these enormous prices are justified. Otherwise, it's very difficult not to be skeptical. How about an article about that? 

pablolie's picture

we all know such discussions become very polarized very quickly.

is a Stradivarius overpriced? is a Van Gogh?

a huge misunderstanding qhwn it comes to the proce of goods is that stuff's price is dictated by the price of the components. it isn't. even the fathers of market economy said that price is entirely dictated by what the target audience for the product is willing to pay for it.

with high end audio gear, we do enter the realm of art and irrationality, it's created by irrational enthusiast engineers for irrational enthusiast consumers.

measurably, it is clear that high end audio gear is probably merely 10-25% "better" (and often not even that) than competently put together equipment as the one discussed here. bu then there's the amount of time, research, test, optimization and sheer passion that flows into it.

and i *do* consume music with other senses, not just my ears. when i go to a great concert venue... or when i look at audio gear that excels in mechanics and design.

pablolie's picture

I must absolutely and totally concur the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR represent a mind-blowing bargain. I used to have a pair of Audioengine 5 in a small weekend cabin, but now have replaced them with the Pioneers and a Qinpu A6000. This little combo truly allows me fully enjoy the music - even when I am away from my $30k system at home. Not that the A5 isn't great in itself, but the new setup does deliver on a tad bit more resolution, and a clearly wider stage.

With a combo like the Pioneers and the Qinpu at around $450, wow, it would be tempting to dismiss high end equipment as providing very diminshing returns. However I am not ready to do that. My audio "shrine" is a tribute to the music. Sure it probably sounds (I'll same something totally subjective here) "only" 20% "better" for about 100X the cost... but the equation is totally worth it to me. Your very own mileage may vary dramatically though.

After all, this is all an irrational passion not many people subscribe to. My personal take is that (a) the love for the music comes first, (b) the passion for gear is an expression of the love for music, (c) there are few recordings that warrant spending thousands of dollars on audio equipment... but when it all comes together... oh my. What sweet emotions it sets free. And we only live once. Let's *live*. And life without some irrational passion is a sight poorer.

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