Pioneer SP-BS41-LR loudspeaker
The buzz was all over the audiophile 'net. "Pioneer has a new bookshelf speaker that's killer for the money!"
Hmm, I thought. Pioneer. Speakers?
To be fair, I've had the Pioneer brand on my mind for well over 30 years. The company was my brand of choice for car-stereo electronics in the 1970s, for Dolby S cassette decks in the '80s, for DVD players in the '90s, and for plasma TVs in the '00s and '10s. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn't focused on the fact that Andrew Jones, the very same design guru who came up with Pioneer's TAD Reference One loudspeaker ($70,000/pair), had had a hand in designing a few two-channel speaker models starting at $99.99/pair. The audio gossip was all about the second model from the bottom of Pioneer's speaker line, the SP-BS41-LR ($149.99/pair). I thought I'd better get a pair and review them.
This two-way, rear-ported SP-BS41-LR, a black bookshelf model, has an attractively curved cabinet designed to increase stiffness and reduce internal standing waves. The drive-units are a 1" soft-dome tweeter and a 5.25" cone woofer. I discussed with Andrew Jones what he'd tried to accomplish with the SP-BS41-LR. He told me he'd surveyed most of the $150/pair speakers on the market and had concluded that most were designed with cosmetics as a design criterion, but with little attention paid to sound quality. The biggest shortcoming he found was in the competition's crossovers. Most had a crossover consisting of either a single capacitor, or a capacitor and an inductor. Jones believes that it's impossible to create a seamless integration of mid/woofer and tweeter with a crossover comprising only one or two elements. He was able to design a six-element crossover using quality parts, without exceeding his considerable constraints of low manufacturing cost.
Jones also designed the SP-BS41-LR's drive-units, paying special attention to the cone profile, voice-coil winding, and magnet structure, and felt fortunate in finding a cabinet supplier who was able to execute his curved design within his cost parameters. The final step was the integration of Jones's design into Pioneer's manufacturing process. Although he and his team designed the SP-BS41-LR in the US and produced its first prototype here, he sent his team to Pioneer's factory in China to closely supervise the first production run, to ensure that the production units matched his final prototype.
I sat the SP-BS41-LRs on my usual Celestion Si stands, loaded with lead shot and sand. The speaker's attractive grilles of metal mesh, which separately protect the tweeter and woofer, are not removable.
I was immediately taken with the subtle low-level articulation and lack of midrange coloration in all recordings of voices. George Harrison's lead vocal in his "Something," from the 2009 remastering of the Beatles' Abbey Road (CD, Apple 3 82468 2), was rich and silky, with every subtle nuance of his phrasing intact. Higher up the audioband, the Pioneer rendered Jonatha Brooke's voice in "Linger," from her Steady Pull (CD, Bad Dog BDR 60801-2), with an airy and biting but elegant quality, and perfectly captured this singer's tendency to develop a "howly" quality in louder passages, as I've heard her do in concert.
The ability of the SP-BS41-LR to reproduce layers of midrange detail with lifelike low-level dynamic articulation made me want to listen to piano recordings. Pianist Marilyn Crispell uses quite a bit of silence, space, and decay in her music, which fits in nicely with the ambient sound Manfred Eicher likes to create in all recordings for his label, ECM. In the title track of Crispell's Amaryllis (CD, ECM 1742), I could hear every little detail of her phrasing, presented cleanly and with plenty of airthe rich sonority of her instrument shone through. Recordings of more challenging piano works, such as the Allegro moderato of Rachmaninoff's Sonata 1, in Robert Silverman's recording (CD, Stereophile STPH019-2), were reproduced with perfect claritySilverman's crisp phrasing on his Steinway was very easy to follow.
John Medeski's frantic upper-register improvising on Lee Morgan's "Afrique," from Medeski, Martin & Wood's Tonic (CD, Blue Note 5 25272), was reproduced without a trace of smearing or harshness, and the sense of air in Tonic, the large club where this album was recorded, was quite evident. Before the SP-BS41-LRs appeared in my house, I'd never heard so inexpensive a loudspeaker reproduce complex high-frequency transients with such realism. I therefore began to mine my jazz collection for percussion recordings, specifically those featuring drummer Paul Motian. In addition to Crispell's Amaryllis, I cued up Motian, Joe Lovano, and Bill Frisell's Time and Time Again (CD, ECM 1992). In "Cambodia," Motian's role is to provide largely arrhythmic textural colors, and through the Pioneer his phrasing on ride cymbal was as natural as I'd heard from any budget-priced speaker.