Pioneer Elite Atmos Speakers Review
By Chris Heinonen on
Atmos was the break-out technology of the 2014 CEDIA Expo. Over a dozen companies were showcasing it in some manner with two distinct approaches. Many companies were using in-ceiling speakers, which being a custom install show should not be a surprise. Yet how many people do you know that are eager to drill and install four more speakers into the ceiling of their AV rooms? Another approach from companies like KEF, Definitive Technology and Pioneer was a reflective approach. Extra drivers on top of the front and surround speakers reflect off the ceiling to create the height channels. This means you can install Atmos into your room without needing any more speakers.
Listening to the Pioneer demo, the results were impressive. But I put little stock into a show demo since it is a different environment and often with material I don’t know. Having lived with the Pioneer Elite Atmos system in my listening room for a couple of months, I can say they are not just a good Atmos speaker. They are good speakers period. Remove the Atmos driver and you’d still want a pair of these bookshelves or towers in your system. For their reasonable price, the Pioneer Atmos speakers come with my highest recommendation.
Both the Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR Bookshelf speaker and SP-EFS73 Tower use the same Coherent Source Transducer (CST) driver. This driver handles treble and midrange for the main speaker and the Atmos speaker. This driver places a 1” tweeter in the center of the 4” midrange driver so the major frequencies all originate at the same location. Sounds from these drivers then arrive at your ears at the same time. There is no slight delay from being different distances so your ears are time-aligned to both drivers.
Like their budget speaker line before this, these Pioneer speakers are developed by Andrew Jones of TAD fame. Andrew has been a fan of concentric drivers for a long time and uses them whenever possible. Harder to design and more expensive than a separate midrange and tweeter, they are not a possibility on his entry-level Pioneer speakers. With the Elite Atmos speakers it provides two major benefits. The first is that it allows the Atmos drivers to have better sound than other companies using a single driver. The second is that the tweeter and midrange of the Atmos driver and the other speakers can be identical. Leaving aside the impact bouncing off the ceiling might have, the midrange and tweeters are identical and should sound the same. This contributes to having a completely enveloping soundstage all around you.
For the setup of the Atmos speakers, Andrew Jones himself came over to assist. We used a Pioneer SC-85 Atmos receiver, which we will review soon. The 5.1.4 channel Atmos system uses two towers, two bookshelves for surrounds, the matching SP-EC73 center channel, and the Elite SW-E10 subwoofer. The most challenging part of the setup is connecting all the channels right. As the SC-85 was designed before Atmos shipped, the labels on the back don’t account for Atmos. Moving cables around a couple times got us the correct channels, but there are a lot of cables in a 5.1.4 channel setup. We also left the speaker grills off since, as Andrew Jones told me, they are always a compromise to offer protection for the speaker over the best sound. If you have kids or pets around the speakers, you should still leave them on for protection.
The install requirements for Atmos are a bit different than most speakers. Each Atmos enabled speaker needs two runs of cable since it is two discrete speakers. To use the reflective speakers like the Pioneer Elite models, you can’t have an angled ceiling or one covered with absorptive material. In these situations you need to use in-ceiling speakers instead since the sound will not reflect.
Atmos in Action
The most important question about Dolby Atmos is “How does it sound?” Dolby Atmos itself sounds good, but most of the films out there do it no justice. Where Atmos shines at home is when you have those discrete atmospheric effects. The Dolby demo clips with thunder and falling leaves sound great. The problem is that most of the films available right now are action films filled with explosions and continual gunfire. When there is so much going on all around you, Atmos isn’t as easy to notice.
The best demo disc for Atmos is a Blu-ray from Japan called Nature. It is a BBC documentary that has some nice visuals but far more impressive audio. Beginning inside a rain forest, the sounds from the Atmos soundtrack are all around. You hear the leaves rustle above you, animals calling from every channel, and the narrator anchored in the center channel. Going over a waterfall you move from the waterfall being below you and to the side to it being all around you. These scenes work the best because you can hear the sounds moving in the sound field, with the height differences being clear. It might not be the exciting demo we all want to show our friends, but it is an impressive one.
If you want a film to watch instead of a documentary, John Wick is the best that Atmos has to offer right now. There are many, many action scenes here but they almost all just involve a single handgun or two, and not a tank or rocket launcher that overwhelms everything else. When someone is shooting from the top of a staircase to someone below, the extra height information in the Atmos mix can be picked out. Atmospheric effects, such as rain or the echoes of footsteps, provide even more immersion than without Atmos. The film itself is violent, but an enjoyable time and one your friends will want to watch when you show off Atmos.
The other films on Atmos right now include Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Expendables 3, Step Up: All In, and TMNT. This will improve soon as Gravity, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and Unbroken all come out in Atmos next month. There are many films in the theaters in Atmos but not at home, since Atmos wasn’t available in the home yet. It is likely more of those will come out on Blu-ray as well. Atmos is much more impressive than I thought it would be when I first read about it coming home. It isn’t the revolution that 5.1 was from stereo, but I think it is more impressive than going from 5.1 to 7.1 where the impact is minimal.
Excellent with Music
When Andrew Jones was here, he told me he didn’t want people to think of these speakers at Atmos speakers. Instead he thinks you should think of them as a speaker that can also do Atmos, where sound quality was the main design aim and not just Atmos. So I spent a lot of time listening to these as I would any other two channel speaker.
Compared to my Definitive Technology Mythos STS towers, the only area in which the Pioneers come up short is the deep bass. The DefTech’s have powered subwoofers so they can reach down to 20Hz and hit deep. On the opening to Dark Side of the Moon, the Pioneer cannot reproduce the deep thump of the heartbeat as well as the DefTech’s can, but that is where the disadvantages stop. Across the rest of the frequency spectrum the Pioneer speakers are Elite with clear, detailed midrange and treble that never hurt your ears.
The coherent source transducer does its job. Female vocals, piano, and guitar all sound superb. Listening to Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, or the ubiquitous Diana Krall their voices are fantastic using the CST. When an audio mix gets complex it never falls apart and pulls out all the details in the mix. Moving from Neil Young to Bob Dylan, Radiohead to Wilco, I sit back and listen to the music and enjoy it.
My notes are far smaller than they should be as I usually write down the flaws I hear, but in this case I didn’t have to record many. They aren’t as well suited to early Metallica or Orbital as the DefTech’s, but at half the price you can add a subwoofer to render that criticism moot. When listening to “So What” off of Kind of Blue, the notes from the double bass sound good, but lack the impact that larger woofers can deliver.
A subwoofer can fix Deep bass while mediocre treble and midrange will always remain mediocre, so I’ll take the trade-off that Pioneer offers. The integration of the drivers is superb, and the bass is fast and tight, just not as deep as some other towers. I spent almost all my time listening to them in Pure Direct mode without a sub or room correction and find them to be superb.
Upgrade the Sub
The only weak point I found with the Pioneer Elite Atmos speaker system is the subwoofer. It is a competent 10” box, but is the weak point of the system. At $600 you can spend $100 less for the SVS PB-1000 ported sub and get deeper bass, or spend $200 more and get the SVS PB-2000 sub like I would. If you want to stick with a sealed box the $700 SVS SB-2000 will also provide a bit more kick than the Pioneer for only $100 more.
The build quality of the speakers also shows how they manage to make them so affordable. My towers had some small imperfections on the vinyl wrap at the bottom, and they aren’t as heavy duty as a more expensive speaker is. They sound much better than they look, and the recent SVS Prime Towers that were reviewed have these beat on build quality for the price. Neither of these distracted from the sound quality, but there are always things to improve upon.
A Stunning 5.1.4 Home Theater Experience
If you are building a home theater now and want to be future-proof, going with Atmos speakers is a good way to do that. If you want to upgrade your home theater to Atmos but want nothing to do with installing four more speakers into the ceiling, the Elite line from Pioneer lets you do that. If you just want a tremendous sounding two channel system, these do that with the ability to upgrade later to an Atmos home theater system.
When Andrew Jones arrived and hooked these up, I expected them to be good for Atmos movies at home. I also expected that once I reviewed a few movies, I’d want to take them down and go back to my regular speakers, but I didn’t. Instead I left them there and kept listening for months, far longer than Pioneer wishes I did. I didn’t let the lack of Atmos titles take away from the experience, I just watch my other movies and listen to as much music as I can. Just like Andrew told me when he set them up, the Pioneer Elite Atmos Speakers are just good speakers period, even without using Atmos at all.
Very good two channel performance, Atmos effects are immersive when the content allows it, clear and detailed, compact size allows easy placement
Vinyl wrap finish makes them look worse than they sound, Atmos content is lacking today, better subwoofer options available
Even if you don't want Atmos right now, you need to listen to the Pioneer Elite Atmos speakers. They are fantastic sounding speakers for movies and music, sounding far better than their price would indicate. I don't know what Pioneer is paying Andrew Jones to design their affordable speakers, but they should probably pay him more when he turns in products like these.