No affordable sound bar debuted with more hype behind it than the Pioneer SP-SB23W. With the value-killer legacy of the Andrew Jones speakers for Pioneer firmly established a sound bar makes a lot of sense. When it comes to sound quality Pioneer has delivered again with good sound bar-subwoofer integration and very good music performance. Comparing it to other sound bars, including the Sony HT-CT260H, it comes up a bit short in value.
|Inputs:||Analog RCA, Optical|
|Review Date:||October 30, 2013|
Basic but Effective Design
The whole Andrew Jones speaker line for Pioneer is built on performance and value. With $130 bookshelf speakers and $260 tower speakers that sound better than their price, a $400 sound bar speaker has a lot to live up to. A quick check of the specs shows that all the features we really want to see are here: Bluetooth, Analog and Digital inputs, a wireless subwoofer, and a remote control. The exterior case is the same as the rest of the Andrew Jones line, with a black faux-wood grain look on a plain MDF box.
The larger issue is the girth of the SP-SB23W. Standing over 4” high and 4.7” deep it can obstruct the bottom of a TV screen and an IR sensor. If you are going to hang it on the wall it won’t be an issue but if it is going on a tabletop it might. It also lacks the IR repeater found in the Sony HT-CT260H. Overall the larger size means it isn’t ideal for placing on a table in front of a TV, but will be fine if the bar or the TV is wall mounted.
Compared to the sound bar, or other subwoofers, the sub included with the SP-SB23W is very tiny. The ported sub has a single 6.5” driver and 50-watt amplifier and connects wirelessly to the sound bar. More importantly it crosses-over to the sound bar drivers at a low 110 Hz. Most sound bars cross over at frequencies closer to 150-200 Hz, a frequency at which you can localize the bass. This lets you place the subwoofer for the Pioneer around the room without causing harmful effects to the sound quality.
Lacking Some Controls
The front of the SP-SB23W has a basic control screen that indicates the current input and sound mode but nothing more. Main volume and subwoofer volume are adjustable by the remote, but there is no numeric readout of the current level. If you find a preferred setting for music and movies you will have to get back to that setting by ear alone. The indication for which sound mode you are in, Movie, Music, or Dialogue, is by a colored light. Even by the end of this review period I failed to remember which color is which.
The credit card sized remote works well enough but the buttons have a bit of a mushy feel to them. It has no controls for a TV or other device, but you can program the sound bar to recognize your TV remote control. The SP-SB23W doesn’t waste any money on frivolous features but might be almost too utilitarian in design.
Pedestrian Looks, Much Better Sound
Playing back music the Pioneer SP-SB23W certainly sounds like a winner. Using a driver array of 4 midrange drivers and 2 tweeters, the Pioneer has more musical clarity than sound bars using a single driver. Compared to the Sony HT-CT260H the Pioneer sounds better when presented with better quality music. Listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged or Norah Jones Feels Like Home, the Pioneer has better clarity and detail to its presentation than the Sony.
Switch over to lower quality recordings, like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, and the Sony takes the lead. Perhaps I just prefer the harsh edges of the album smoothed over some, but on modern rock and alternative music albums I find myself preferring the Sony. Switch back to classic rock, jazz, or other higher-quality source material and the Pioneer shines.
With movies the Pioneer took the lead. Most impressively the little subwoofer kept up with the larger box from Sony quite easily. Watching repeated scenes from Heat and Kung Fu Panda, the little SP-SB23W does great with both dialogue and effects. The movie sound mode provides a bit of EQ but I kept going back to the music mode for a more neutral sound. The dialogue mode would be better classified as a late-night mode that removes the subwoofer from the equation.
Streaming audio from my iPhone or Nexus 7 using Bluetooth is quick and easy. Like almost all sound bars there are no apps streaming services in the SP-SB23W. Using your smartphone, tablet or computer you can easily send all of that content over Bluetooth instead. The SP-SB23W also supports AptX that provides a higher-quality bit rate than regular Bluetooth if your hardware supports it. I had no issues with my Bluetooth pairing or streaming, and no dropouts when used in the same room. Listening to my music server or Spotify playlists is easy to do on the SP-SB23W.
Good Performance, Fair Value
Judged just on performance the SP-SB23W does quite well. Music sounds very good and movies are well done as well. In a vacuum the SP-SB23W stands apart quite well. In the marketplace it faces some pretty steep competition, especially from the Sony HT-CT260H I recently reviewed. The price of the Pioneer at Amazon has recently dropped from $400 to $325, making it a better value than before. For $85 less the Sony offers a HDMI input and output, as well as an integrated IR repeater. The smaller size of the Sony also makes it easier to pair with a TV on a tabletop.
With higher-quality music the Pioneer sounds better than the Sony. Start listening to overly compressed audio and the difference goes away or even favors the Sony. With most people using a sound bar likely getting their music from Spotify, iTunes or Pandora and not from low compression, CD-rips the extra clarity of the Pioneer can easily go to waste. With movies my listening panel and I find the two bars performance even as well. The Sony also offers a front panel with volume levels and more adjustments to the overall sound of the bar.
I measured the Pioneer SP-SB23W sound bar using a UMIK-1 calibrated microphone and RoomEQ Wizard software. Six different positions are each measured 8 times to reduce any measurement anomalies. I average all 48 measurements to reduce room effects using the method described by Brent Butterworth.
The subwoofer will cross over at 110 Hz, which prevents bass localization that happens with many sound bars. There is a bit of a dip at 160 Hz, likely as the smaller drivers on the sound bar try to play those notes. This trade-off will keep all of those notes sounding like they’re coming from the corner of the room if you locate the subwoofer there. Beyond that the SP-SB23W is remarkably flat to 1 kHz and then has a gradual roll-off beyond that. This high-frequency roll-off will keep the Pioneer from sounding bright or harsh as so many sound bars do. Compared to the Sony HT-CT260H the SP-SB23W measures flatter, without the treble bump that the Sony has.
A Sound Bar for the Music Lover
If you want an affordable sound bar that will play back music well, the SP-SB23W is a fine choice. As recording quality improves the difference in performance between the SP-SB23W and its competitors also improves. If you spend most of your time listening to modern rock or pop music, and not jazz or acoustic tracks, the performance increase really isn’t audible.
The looks of the SP-SB23W can also deal with a bit of an overhaul. The boxy styling and fake wood look are a bit dated in a modern living room and compared to some competitors. It might have a touch more class than glossy plastic but it won’t win any awards for its looks. Overall the SP-SB23W is a well performing sound bar, but doesn’t fully separate itself from the pack.