Earlier this year, I was introduced through a friend to the Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer SP-BS21-LR, which proved most enlightening. As it turns out, the $99 per pair Pioneer SP-BS21-LR turned out to be very good - okay, great - little bookshelf loudspeakers. Unfortunately, when I returned to check out their floor-standing brethren, they were no longer in stock, so my introduction to the mighty Pioneer line stopped at the bookshelf speaker. Well, good things come to those who wait, for Andrew Jones is back with a new line of affordable Pioneer loudspeakers, anchored by the SP-FS52 floor-standing model reviewed here.
Read more floorstanding speaker reviews by the writers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Explore pairing options in our Subwoofer Review section.
See amplifiers in our Amplifier Review section.
For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, Andrew Jones is the lead designer for TAD (Technical Audio Devices Labratories), a truly high-end brand aimed at discerning two-channel enthusiasts with a line of loudspeakers, amplifiers, preamps and source components. Jones' TAD-branded loudspeakers have garnered numerous awards and praise from the audiophile press, though it's his lesser, or should I say less expensive, designs that intrigue me - they even intrigue Jones. In a recent interview, Jones commented that the challenge of taking all that is gleamed from his TAD designs and bringing it to the masses à la his Pioneer designs is one that excites him. He went on to say that anyone can build a good loudspeaker if given infinite funds to do so; it's designing a quality loudspeaker on a budget that's hard.
I would agree with Jones, though I believe as time passes and technology and understanding grow, we're beginning to see that, more and more, so-called entry-level products are evolving more rapidly than their high-end counterparts. As a result, what once cost tens of thousands can now be had for a fraction of the cost, allowing more and more would-be enthusiasts access to this great hobby. Access is what the Pioneer SP-FS52 is all about.
Retailing for $129.99 each (that is not a typo), the SP-FS52 is a three-way, four-driver floor-standing speaker that is available virtually everywhere, including Pioneer's own website. The speakers themselves are compact, measuring a little over 35 inches tall by nearly nine inches wide and 11 inches deep. The RF molded wood cabinet gives each speaker a weight of roughly 25 pounds. As you can imagine, a speaker at this price point and wide distribution is limited in its number of available finishes, which is a nice way of saying it only comes in Ash Black veneer. The push pin grilles cover a single one-inch soft dome tweeter mated to three five-and-one-quarter-inch woofers. Around back, you'll find two ports, as well as a single pair of binding posts capable of accepting bare spade or banana-terminated speaker cables. A note regarding banana terminations: you must first remove the plastic plugs from the gold-plated posts before inserting any banana-terminated speaker cable.
Despite having only two types of drivers, the SP-FS52 is a true three-way speaker, capable of a reported frequency response of 40Hz to 20kHz. The listed impedance is six ohms, with a stated sensitivity of 87dB. The crossover frequencies are 250Hz and 3kHz. Pioneer states that the SP-FS52 can handle up to 130 watts maximum which, when viewed through the scope of the rest of the SP-FS52's specs, makes it a prime candidate for pairing with today's modern AV receivers. However, due to their somewhat limited low-frequency capabilities, a subwoofer or two will also be required for full-range music or movie playback.
Which brings me to the rest of the SP lineup of loudspeakers, which includes a $129.99 per pair bookshelf (SP-BS22-LR), a $99 center channel (SP-C22) and $159.99 eight-inch powered subwoofer. All of the aforementioned loudspeakers use the same drivers, so you can mix and match them to create your ideal 5.1 or even 7.1 channel system, or you can purchase one of the two ready-made 5.1 systems from Pioneer that start at $499.99.
Despite supposedly being introduced at CEDIA this year, the Andrew Jones-designed speakers were available at my local Best Buy just prior to their official unveiling. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, this time I went ahead and purchased a pair of SP-FS52 floor-standing speakers, as well as the matching center. Total price on the ol' credit card? Try less than $360. Had I thrown in a pair of bookshelf speakers for rear channels, the cost still would have been below $500. Hell, I could've picked up two pairs of SP-FS52 floor-standing speakers (fronts and rears) and a matching center for around $600. Toss in another pair of SP-FS52s and you've got seven-speaker surround for well under $1,000. I did not purchase the matching sub for two reasons: first, my in-store demo left a lot of room for improvement and second, my room is a bit too big for a mere 100-watt, eight-inch anything. Insert inappropriate joke here.
Since I was so enamored of Jones' previous Pioneer efforts, I went ahead and set up the SP-FS52s and matching center in my reference system, rather than relegating them to my bedroom system, where affordable loudspeakers tend to flourish. This meant putting my reference Tekton Pendragon aside for the time being, which I wasn't keen to do, but then again, who said the SP-FS52s weren't special, either? I went ahead and connected the left and right SP-FS52s to one of my Crown XLS 2000 DriveCore amplifiers running in stereo/bypass mode, which dishes out a solid 375 watts per its two channels into eight ohms and 650 watts per into four. More than enough juice for the SP-FS52s, if I'm honest. I connected the matching center to another of my XLS 2000 amplifiers, again in stereo/bypass mode. The rear speakers in this setup defaulted to Noble Fidelity's L-85 LCRS in-ceiling loudspeakers.
Since I didn't like the sub Pioneer offered to go along with the Jones' lineup of loudspeakers, I used my JL Audio Fathom f110 in its place. Admittedly, using a JL subwoofer with speakers such as the SP-FS52 is overkill, for you could easily get away with a more affordable sub from the likes of SVS, Outlaw, Aperion or even Definitive, but since I had none of those subwoofers on hand, I went with what I knew and that was JL. My JL subs were also already EQ'd for my room using a combination of tools: the free program Room EQ Wizard and a professional parametric EQ in the form of Behringer's BFD ($109 retail).
The rest of my system consisted of my Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp, my trusty HTPC running J River for music and movies and a Sony BDP-S580 acting as a transport. All cabling came by way of Binary bulk cables from SnapAV or Monoprice.
The speakers were placed roughly in the same positions where my reference Pendragons had been, putting them approximately two feet off my front wall with three feet to either side of their outermost edges with regards to my side walls. This put them approximately eight feet apart (inside edge to inside edge) and eleven-and-a-half feet from my primary listening position. I don't put a lot of emphasis on break-in, but I did let them loosen up for a few hours before sitting down for a listen.
I kicked things off with 3 Doors Down's Acoustic EP (Universal Records) album and the track "Landing in London." Right away, what struck me most was the strength of the SP-FS52's center image indicating strong dispersion, at least inward, between the left and right speakers. I applied zero toe-in during setup and discovered it wouldn't be needed later. The vocal presence was good, far more weighted and dimensional that I believe I was prepared to accept, though the height was constrained, thanks in part to the SP-FS52's diminutive stature. I wouldn't go so far as to say the vocals were trapped, but the vocals definitely seemed to be coming from a seated or kneeling position, if I had to describe the effect. The next thing I noticed was just how smooth and sort of seductive the whole sound was. It wasn't overly warm or rolled-off - though high frequencies were definitely being rolled off at the extreme - but the whole performance seemed to take a step or two back from the speakers' front baffles. This again wasn't a terrible trait, just one that stood out to me. In context, many affordable loudspeakers have the opposite problem, in that they're too forward or excitable, two things the SP-FS52s definitely are not. I was able to breathe a bit more life into the SP-FS52s by increasing the volume to the point where the average decibel level was solidly in the mid 80s, although even then, the dynamics sounded a little constrained. When the music kicked up in complexity, I did note that the lower registers became a touch woolly and at times even a bit congested, even though the speaker's faults were more of omission rather than commission, if you catch my drift. Soundstage depth was presented in a more lifelike and natural way than was width; in fact, I found it difficult to get the SP-FS52 to venture much beyond its outer edges.
Read more about the performance of the SP-FS52 on Page 2.
Wanting to make sure that I wasn't hearing things with regards to the SP-FS52s' dynamics, I cued up Audioslave's "Show Me How to Live" off their self-titled album (Sony). I use this track a lot when trying to get a feel for a speaker's dynamic prowess and, I must say, even when throttled with decibels reaching 100dB, the SP-FS52s remained calm, cool (as in James Dean) and collected, which wasn't a plus for me in this instance. Yes, all the music, texture and detail was largely present, but that last bit that would've helped solidify and push the performance over the top - I'm talking true dynamic slam and impact - was sadly missing. The meal was good, but I still wanted dessert.
Moving on to movies, I fired up a favorite of mine, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (20th Century Fox). With the SP-FS52s' matching center now in the mix and an uncompressed multi-channel soundtrack to chew on, I did notice the whole aural canvas open up a bit. This in turn brought out a bit more dynamic oomph, which the film itself calls for and the SP-FS52 delivered. I was impressed by the front three's articulation and low-level intelligibility, especially when it came to subtle vocal cues and lyrics. During one of the early duets between Ewan McGregor's and Nicole Kidman's characters, the subtle bells and chimes danced effortlessly in space with delicate nuance and surprising air. When I took the volume up a notch or two, hitting peaks in excess of 102/103dB, there was some slight - emphasis on slight - sibilance up top, but nothing too objectionable. I've heard speakers twice and even three times the price of the SP-FS52s go to hell in a handbag way before the Pioneers did. Still, the same gripes I had with some of the vocals in my two-channel tests were present in my multi-channel ones. Due to their limited height, the performances don't always grow upward and reach physical heights necessary to match some of the grandeur onscreen. When it's just talking heads, it appears to all sit together well, but when the going gets epic, the sound doesn't "rise" to the occasion. Most probably won't be bothered by this (my wife didn't notice), as everything else the SP-FS52 does, it does shockingly well. You could easily solve the SP-FS52s' height issues by placing them atop small plinths or risers like those made for subwoofers by Auralex.
I ended my evaluation of the SP-FS52 with a new favorite, the remake of The Poseidon Adventure, this time simply titled Poseidon (Warner Bros.). I chaptered ahead to the rogue wave scene, put down my pen and turned up the volume. I wanted to see if by the end of the ten-minute-or-so sequence if anything jumped out at me enough to jot it down, or if I could simply be entertained. Well, believe it or not, a couple of few-hundred-dollars loudspeakers managed to silence my critical ear and pen, allowing me to simply enjoy the show well past the moment when the action had ceased. Viewing the sequence again, this time with pen in hand, I came away with a blank sheet, for while the SP-FS52s' performance could have been more (insert silly demand here), or more (next demand), the simple fact remains that the presentation was enjoyable. At no point was I overly or even at all aware that I was listening to cheap loudspeakers to the point that it became a distraction in any way. While I've heard better, I've heard better also sound much, much worse.
The SP-FS52 may not be the last word in dynamics or low-end detail or extension, but none of that matters, given how little they cost and just how much enjoyment they provide. On the whole, the SP-FS52 is an incredibly well-balanced loudspeaker; it does a couple of things surprisingly well given its modest price that allow you to overlook some of its shortcomings. More importantly, it affords you, the consumer, the ability to share in the home theater experience in more ways than one. While soundbars are becoming a very hot ticket in today's modern home theater space, there is still no substitute for having five or more speakers surrounding you. Well, the SP-FS52s, and the rest of the SP Series, are small enough, affordable enough and downright good enough to give those contemplating buying a soundbar a legitimate moment of pause. In even a small room, you could set up two pairs of SP-FS52s with a matching center and not feel at all like you're living inside a Best Buy. In exchange, you'll be able to enjoy your favorite music and movies in a way few, if any, soundbars can match, while possibly saving you money in the process.
For what Pioneer is charging for the SP-FS52, you have no right to expect the level of performance it affords you, nor should you ever complain - but I will. I kind of wish the SP-FS52 were more expensive, say $150 or $200 each, if only to afford a few more creature comforts, i.e., different finish options, taller cabinet, slightly better binding posts and maybe magnetic grilles (my God, the grilles are on tight). That being said, for $129.99 each, there is little to find fault with the SP-FS52s, for they are a sonic embarrassment of riches.
Still, the SP-FS52s do require a subwoofer, which drives up the total cost of ownership. Also, despite being marketed to the AV receiver crowd, the SP-FS52s need a fair amount of juice to do their thing - I'd say at least 100 if not 120 watts per, if you've got it. The issue of power as it pertains to the SP-FS52 and its crossover is the biggest knock I have against the speaker, for without power, the speaker is just a bit too laid-back and polite. Sometime you want it rough and tough and a bit edgy, and it simply takes more than I feel many AV receivers have to give to get the SP-FS52s to want to dance.
Lastly, you might want to consider investing in some form of riser or platform, even if that platform is a DIY job, just to raise the SP-FS52s' sound up a couple of inches. A little effort and maybe a little cash will reward you in spades. I'd start with maybe using a few cinder blocks with some black cloth covering them and see if that doesn't work for you before spending any real money for something made commercially. After all, with loudspeakers as inexpensive as the SP-FS52, the idea isn't to jack up the price with after-the-sale mods or accessories.
Competition and Comparison
It's at this point in the review, given everything you've read, that you're expecting me to say that the $129.99 SP-FS52 are as good as (name your multi-thousand dollar speaker here). Well, as pleased as I am with the SP-FS52s, they're not going to upset loudspeakers costing $1,000 or more per pair. But those in the sub-$1,000 range should definitely take note. I feel that the SP-FS52 competes very favorably with the likes of Paradigm's new Monitor 7 loudspeaker at $898 a pair. Other worthy opponents include Aperion Audio's Intimus 4C ($275/ea) and possibly even the 6T ($695 each). Even HSU Research's fabulous monitor loudspeaker, the HB-1 MK2 at $298 per pair, would be in the crosshairs of the SP-FS52. I'm not saying that the SP-FS52 is the outright winner in any of these comparisons, but it is definitely in the same class when judging only sound quality. In terms of build quality and finish, all of the aforementioned options will destroy the Pioneer SP-FS52, especially the Aperion and Paradigm offerings, but then again, they don't cost $129.99, either.
Now, I know I mentioned it earlier, but it is worth repeating that the SP-FS52, when mated to its matching center and possibly rears, is straight up better than any soundbar system I've heard to date. I know I 'm comparing apples to oranges a bit, but if soundbars are the new entry point into this hobby, then home theater has a new gateway drug and it is the Pioneer SP-FS52. For less than the cost of a lot of soundbars, you can enjoy discrete, multi-channel surround sound with the Pioneer SP line of speakers, and that's a good thing. For as great as soundbars are, and they are, we need more people willing to take the plunge into true discrete multi-channel setups. The SP products make that leap more affordable than ever.
For more on these floor-standing loudspeakers and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's floorstanding loudspeaker page.
I'll admit it, I rather like - no, love - the Pioneer SP-FS52 floor-standing loudspeaker. It's just good fun and a great value. The SP-FS52 is the kind of speaker that I feel every enthusiast should experience, if for no other reason than to appreciate what they have already, for the SP-FS52 proves that you don't have to spend a lot to enjoy this hobby to its fullest. Are there better speakers? Sure, but in a time when people have little (if any) truly discretionary income, the Pioneer SP-FS52 overcomes all objections by being affordable, and not being so at the expense of overall sound quality. If nothing else, a speaker like SP-FS52 gets new blood to invest into this hobby so that down the road, these people may choose to move more up market, which is something that a lot of lifestyle-oriented products and even soundbars don't do. If I were new to this hobby and wanted to try my hand at building a home theater but didn't want to go broke should things not work out, I'd start by taking a serious look at the Pioneer SP-FS52 floor-standing loudspeaker. Highly recommended.
Read more floorstanding speaker reviews by the writers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Explore pairing options in our Subwoofer Review section.
See amplifiers in our Amplifier Review section.