Look, we get it. We’ve been there. Upgrading to a full surround system is a big step. We’re not saying this to be condescending, or patronising. Far from it. Everyone has to start somewhere, including us, and the idea that you should go from one or two speakers, or maybe just your TV’s internal audio, to five or six of them dotted around your living room, is just crazy. It demands a few hours stripping speaker wire, positioning the units, moving furniture, trying not to electrocute yourself, and that’s after we talk about the hours of online research.
Fortunately, investing in a full surround system is one of the most rewarding things you can do to your ears. And there’s a speaker set that has genuinely stood the test of time. You only call something a classic once it’s been around for a few years, once its strengths and weaknesses have had the opportunity to sink in. We’re only four years from the release of the Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones 5.1 Home Theater Speaker Package, but we’re going to call it: it’s a classic.
We happened to have one at the same time as we were testing out the Sony STR-DN1060 receiver, and we were amazed at how well it had aged. So in tribute to the very idea of a classic, let’s take a look at why this system is so good, and why, if you’re just getting started, it’s an absolutely essential investment.
Power Of Five
For under $500, you’re unlikely to find a set of speakers this good. That’s an absolute. The value for money here is just staggering.
Here’s what you get. First off, you have the SP-C22 Center Channel Speaker, a behemoth of a unit with a gently curved back and cute little rubber feet to stop it rocking. Second, you get the SW-8MK2 Powered Subwoofer, which is driven by a 100W amplifier and can handle frequencies up to 150Hz. Finally, the system is rounded out with four bookshelf speakers: the SP-BS22s, each containing a main 4” driver and a 1” tweeter, as well as a rear port.
We’ll talk about the design of the system in a minute. Its distinctive enough and robust enough but it’s worth going into in a little more detail, but for now, let’s just talk about the sound.
It would be an exaggeration to say that you could tack another zero onto the price for the sound you get, but it really is extraordinary. The noise that comes out of the bookshelf speakers is beautifully detailed, with real heft and body, and it’s buttressed and given depth by the center channel. The immediate impression is of the sheer level of bass that comes out of the bookshelf units. Seriously: you could run a pair of these on their own, and you have an extremely satisfactory hi-fi system, more than capable of rattling the windows. It’s this extra low-end that gives the system its biggest asset. You can never quite place where a particular noise is coming from, but you’re aware that it’s all around you. With a little clever positioning, this system truly excels at delivering a surround experience. For lack of a better description, you genuinely feel like you’re in the middle of the action.
That’s not to say there aren’t any weak links. This is a budget system, after all, and social cuts have to be taken somewhere. That somewhere is the subwoofer. Oh, it’s perfectly competent. It will do the job. But for its size and specs, we expect a little bit more. The bass had weight, but never seemed quite loud enough. It’s a minor scratch against the setup, and is proof that just because something is a classic does not mean it’s flawless.
Andrew Jones, whose name has become virtually synonymous with Pioneer even though he’s done work elsewhere, is the man behind the speakers. He’s responsible for how good they sound, and is also responsible for their excellent design.
We really like the aesthetic. Although the fake woodgrain finish won’t stand up to even half a second running your finger along it, it looks good from a distance, and the speakers are pleasingly heavy. The ovular black grilles give a good uniformity, and it’s clear that some thought went into the design of the speakers. Even if they are as ugly as sin when you pop the hood, because no-one has ever figured out how to make a speaker driver look pretty.
This becomes more evident when you look at the back. The speaker wire connectors are not only all metal, but unlike so many other units, are easy to get your fingers around. They spin to a good height in under a second, exposing a good sized hole for the bare speaker wire. It’s such a simple thing – making accessible connectors – but we much prefer them to the spring clips that are standard on other speakers. They just work.
And as much as we malign the subwoofer for its sound, we have to appreciate the design. It’s down-firing, with a neat set of controls on the rear. These include separate power and phase switches (yes, switches, which are a pleasure to use), a volume knob, and a crossover knob. While we didn’t feel that the crossover made an enormous amount of difference in the overall texture of the systems sound, we still appreciated the fact that it was so simple and so well put-together. You also get for spring clips, and a separate connection for a subwoofer line. Unlike the other speakers, which are passive, you’ll need to plug the subwoofer in to power the internal amp.
And by the way, there’s nothing to stop you swapping out speakers at a later date. That’s the beauty of a modular system like this. If you decide you want something with a little more power, or want to try out a different subwoofer, you can.
In the four years since the system was released, it’s proven that it has staying power. Its simplicity, world-beating sound, value for money, ease-of-use and surround capabilities have beaten off all challengers in this price range. If the definition of a classic is that it can stand the test of time, then this is a true audio classic, and one we are happy to recommend. If you’re just starting to put together a surround sound system, if you’re ready to take the plunge, then this is the one you should go for. No question.
That being said, you are going to need a good receiver. Fortunately, we’ve got some excellent budget models on a handy list, and if you pick right, you can get out your living room with some of the best sound available, for under $1000. Nice, right?
Stellar surround sound, clever design, cracking bookshelf units
If design is less important than sound, if you want to spend even less than the system above, and if you don’t want the bother of tracking down a separate receiver, then the Onkyo HT-S3700 is for you.
The Pioneer might be a classic, but this is an immediate and major upgrade, featuring two floorstanding speakers that really pump out the power.
Breaking Down The Specs:
|Pioneer SP-PK22BS||$483||90 W / 6 Ω||80 W / 6 Ω||N/A||38-150Hz||No|
|Onkyo HT-S3700||$395||Unknown/ 6 Ω||Unknown/ 6 Ω||N/A||Unknown||Yes|
|Polk Audio TSi400 5.1||$793||90 W / 6 Ω||20 W / 8 Ω||N/A||Unknown||No|
Confused about these stats? Read this!