Pioneer Elite Reference Loudspeaker System (SGHT Review) Page 4

Such quibbles faded to insignificance the longer I listened to the Elite Reference speaker system. In the past, Japanese speakers have had limited success in the US—at least apart from economy-oriented, single-branded systems—but Pioneer's design team has put together a speaker package that could change a lot of preconceptions. From vocals to large-scale orchestral fare, the Elite Reference system handles musical material with ease. The Fairfield Four's I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray (Warner Bros. 46698-2) is clean throughout, with an unmuddled midbass and lower midrange. Armada (Virgin Classics VC 90722-2), a collection of primarily 16th-century music, sounds smooth and highly detailed, without brightness or edge.

The soundstage is convincing, though from the slightly off-center position I usually listen from it is not so much exceptional as merely solid and competent. The Pioneers' top end is generally sweet, but has plenty of detail, and is not overly forgiving of inherently bright material. The midrange is low in coloration.

I was particularly impressed by the way the Pioneers handled themselves on challenging bass material. One torture test I've used for years is Dafos (Reference Recordings RR-12CD, out of print). "The Gates of Dafos" is particularly revealing. At the end of this track, a large drumset falls to the floor, with much subterranean rumbling and shaking. I have overloaded some otherwise very good subwoofers with this cut. But at a reasonable yet still impressive volume level in my large home theater, the TZ-F700s sailed right on through. They also produced a most impressive deep-bass shudder, the sort of sound produced by this material only on very good subwoofers.

The Pioneer Elite Reference speaker system also performs exceptionally well on soundtracks. I sampled most of my favorites and concluded that I could happily live with the sound of this system permanently—if not for the usual reviewer affliction that requires me to constantly move on to the next challenger! The Wedding Singer sounds solid and right on the Pioneers, with excellent dynamics, particularly the well-recorded musical numbers that comprise most of this soundtrack's pleasures. (Except for Independence Day and Gettysburg, all films used in this review were DVDs.) The sound is neither too lean nor too bright.

Star Trek: First Contact is about as different from The Wedding Singer as a soundtrack can get, but it's equally outstanding on the Pioneers. The bass is solid, particularly the growling of the Enterprise's engines as it lumbers past. (I know, I know—in space, no one can hear you scream, and starships don't whoosh and rumble. But they do in the movies.) And the bass localizes in a manner appropriate to the material—not off to the side, as sometimes happens with a separate subwoofer. (Low bass shouldn't be directional, but it occasionally insists on violating this rule.) The musical score sounds silky and smooth, even without THX re-EQ engaged.

Other soundtracks are equally impressive. My Best Friend's Wedding, again auditioned without THX, has an excellent overall balance, from the title-sequence musical number to the choir at the wedding. The evenness of the Pioneers' front soundstage is clearly evident on this soundtrack. The Ghost and the Darkness (with THX) is very slightly bright, but it has an outstanding soundstage, loads of detail, and solid, punchy bass.

The soundtrack from The Mask of Zorro sounds amazing, its music vibrant and alive, its effects exceedingly crisp and detailed. Only its dialog occasionally disappoints with some variability and coloration, problems that are clearly in the original soundtrack. (They sound like typical overdubbing or looping problems, in which the dubbing stage sounds nothing like the onscreen environment.)

Even slightly problematic soundtracks work reasonably well on the Pioneers. Evita is a striking film, whether or not you care for its music-video style (it works for me). This film is very well staged, performed, and filmed. The soundtrack is something of a mixed bag, ranging from powerfully dynamic, if a little ragged and too forward, to exceptionally subtle. I've seen it more than once already, but when I sampled it on the Pioneers, I ended up watching almost the entire movie.

Could I overload the Pioneer subwoofers? With my acid test, Independence Day, I heard no protest, though the sheer grunt of the bass seemed scaled back from what is available with the very best separate subs. This points to the main limitation of the Pioneer system's bottom end: It does not quite possess the ability to convince you that your room is about to collapse around your ears. The effect certainly depends on the room, but in my large space, it takes one or more 15" or 18" subs to produce such a result. Perhaps the fact that the Pioneers' bass impresses but does not alarm is a plus for those who prefer not to have family and friends fleeing the room in terror.

Most of us lean toward discrete soundtracks these days, particularly for review purposes, but the night before I sat down to write this review, I stayed up until 2 a.m. watching sequences from the laserdisc of Gettysburg, one of my favorite films. The Pioneers handled everything superbly, from the sweeping orchestral crescendos accompanying the battle for Little Round Top to the artillery barrage preceding Pickett's Charge—still possibly the most impressive and believable bass sequence I have ever heard on film. (Note to Turner Films, or whoever now owns the rights to this movie: How about a new, high-quality, anamorphic, dual-layer, discrete 5.1 DVD transfer to replace the slightly tired, uneven, zillion-sided LD?)