Pioneer Elite Reference Loudspeaker System (SGHT Review) Page 5

Before listening to the system, I was a little concerned that the TZ-S700 surrounds might be the weak link. As the most simple speakers in the package, I'm sure they were designed to keep the overall system price under control. Why not design the surrounds with the same IRIS driver that graces the front speakers for better integration with the rest of the system?

I need not have worried. I normally prefer more diffusive surrounds of the dipole or bipole variety, but the Pioneer TZ-S700s admirably demonstrate the considerable attractions of more conventional, direct-radiating surrounds. From the flyovers and room-filling details in Star Trek: First Contact to the convincing ambience in The Wedding Singer, My Best Friend's Wedding, and Gattaca, the Pioneer surrounds get it all.

I occasionally noted a timbral discontinuity between the fronts and surrounds, but it was no more serious than I've heard from other comparably priced systems, and it was never distracting. The surround grilles don't rattle or buzz (always a concern with perforated metal), nor did I ever hear anything from the TZ-S700s that suggested strain or overload. The timbre and overload characteristics might well be tested more critically when we start getting reasonable quantities of surround recordings of music in which the rear channels are challenged as much as the fronts. (I don't welcome that idea, but I suspect it will happen.) But many surround speakers on the market might require a second look when that happens, not just the TZ-S700s.

Compared with the Polk RT5000 system we reviewed in our December 1998 issue, the Pioneers are a little more laid-back, with a slightly less crisp top end and a marginally less tight, punchy bass. But the Pioneer's smoothness is welcome, as is its lower price (by about $1500). In an even more outrageous price comparison, moving from the Revel system (SGHT, July/August 1998) to the Pioneers results in a loss of refinement and dynamics, not to mention the Revel's far more earthquake-like bass. Yet these losses are much less extreme than the difference in price. The law of diminishing returns still holds.

During the entire time the Pioneer Elite Reference speakers were in my system, I never felt a pressing desire to finish with them and go back to something else. This is not faint praise, particularly when other excellent systems are at hand, ready to be substituted for the Pioneers on a moment's whim. The bottom line is that the Pioneer Elite Reference is a compelling speaker system that performs excellently on both music and films.

There is one fly in the ointment. The TZ-F700 is not as tightly buttoned-up as it should be. On a significant number of recordings with challenging bass, I heard disconcerting buzzes and rattles from the region of the IRIS in both of our first two samples. Most of the time this was masked by other sounds in the program material, which is why it did not often interfere with the listening tests or compromise my generally favorable sonic impressions. This is also why it was far less obvious on soundtracks, which often tend to be busier than music. But once I heard it, I looked around for the sort of material that clearly revealed it, such as isolated drum strokes or continuous bass synthesizer tones.

The problem never appeared to be in the subwoofer; it seemed to originate most often from near the recessed 6.5" midrange, though it once appeared to come from the back of one of the IRIS units. The problem ranged from a subtle buzz to an outright rattle. With one piece of material, the "Large Drums" cut from Staccato 2, a sampler CD (produced by the German Audio magazine, CD 101013), the buzz emanated from a different area entirely: the region around the plate holding the power cord and power switch. A hint of buzzing also came from one of the speakers' rear ports.

We requested and received a third TZ-F700 from Pioneer, but it exhibited the same problems. My initial analysis, at least with respect to the noise heard behind the IRIS, suggests the possibility of misrouted cables vibrating against the midrange cone. But it was impossible to remove the grille covering the midrange to investigate. (The grille frame appears to be made of thin plastic, which might be related to the problem.)

Based on sonic performance alone, I have no hesitation recommending the Pioneer Elite Reference speakers. But despite my many favorable comments, I can't overlook the extraneous buzzing noises, which I heard often enough to make me recommend caution. I can't imagine that this is a design flaw; the problem would certainly have been apparent to any competent designer during prototyping. That leaves only cosmetic trim—which an acoustic designer might not have been involved with—or quality control as possible culprits.

I'm sure Pioneer will get to the bottom of this. If the problem is solved by the time you audition the system, you should be able to tell from any reasonably thorough listening test. Still, I can't make an unqualified recommendation of the system at this time. But the basic sound quality is already there.