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 fantasticuntil 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 sizeaspects 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.
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 themto friends, family, and schools. But not because I think the TAD Evolution One is overpriced. It isn't.
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 musicthe 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 uninvolvingmuch 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?"