Pioneer had made quite the name for itself when it comes to premium-level A/V electronics. From its class-leading Kuro line of plasma TVs (sadly now discontinued), to its Elite-branded A/V receivers, and its state of the art TAD brand of speakers, it seems there’s very little the folks at Pioneer can’t do well when it comes to making more ambitious, high-performance gear.
Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said of Pioneer’s lower-priced wares. Until recently, its receivers have always been something of a mixed bag, often high on bells and whistles but low on performance chops. Its speakers were even worse, seemingly destined for use only in garage systems or for sale in the discount aisles of pawn shops across America.
Apparently someone at Pioneer got wind that the quality of its speakers needed improving upon and subsequently commissioned TAD’s chief sound engineer Andrew Jones to turn things around. Jones answered the call with a low-priced line of Pioneer-branded speakers, including the 5.1 SP-PK52FS, the subject of this review. With a total system price under $550, the SP-PK52FS is certainly a far cry from the premium BMW-priced, TAD-branded loudspeakers Jones usually designs. Intrigued, we decided to put this system to the test to see just how much quality this pauper-priced package delivers.
Out of the Box
Even before opening the SP-PK52FS’ sturdy and well-packed boxes, one thing is abundantly clear: Pioneer is pleased as punch to be associated with Andrew Jones, and it’s making sure everybody knows. Pioneer has emblazoned his signature all over the system’s packaging. Lest you forget just who designed your speakers, all you need do is look at the boxes. Of course, if you don’t have those handy, you can always look on the back of your speakers, too: Jones’ siggie is prominently displayed on the branding stickers on the back of each and every enclosure.
Once we unboxed all of the speakers though, we were more drawn to their shapes and sizes than their stickers. The Pioneer SP-PK52FS’ main speakers feature curved sides that sweep back to the rear panel – said panel being narrower in width than the front baffle for that “truncated boat-hull” look. While this style of enclosure is quickly becoming the standard in higher-priced speakers, it’s a welcome surprise for such a low-priced set.
Removing the grilles from the baffles, we were pleased to find some high quality-looking drivers and fabric dome tweeters pulling transducer duty. We were also surprised to find binding post wire connectors on the main speakers instead of the more ubiquitous spring-clip type terminals often found on systems in this price range.
We weren’t at all surprised, however, to see those spring clips used on the subwoofer. Since most folks hook up their subs via line-level LFE jack these days, (and a little cost-cutting has to happen somewhere) we fully expect to find even much more expensive subs going the spring clip route. Other than those clips, though, the subwoofer doesn’t have any obvious cost cutting measures and appears finished to the same high standard as the other speakers in the set.
In fact, the Pioneer SP-PK52FS is quite possibly the best made speaker system we’ve yet seen at the price. We had a really tough time finding any significant finishing flaws anywhere. Even the simulated wood-grain vinyl wrap was free of the usual seam marks and other imperfections we’d expect to see on speakers costing so little. That Pioneer was able to produce such well-made speakers for such a low price is mighty impressive indeed.
The Pioneer SP-PK52FS speaker package consists of six separate models bundled together to make a 5.1 speaker system: A pair of SP-FS52 floor-standing loudspeakers; one pair of SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers; a SP-C22 center-channel; and a SW-8MK2 powered subwoofer. All of the main speakers feature Pioneer’s Structured Surface woofers, which utilize a textured cone, oversized magnets and rubber surrounds for lower distortion and better power handling.
Each of the front towers includes three such woofers in a 5 ¼” size and dual bass reflex ports in the back; the center and bookshelf models feature a similar but smaller diameter 4” woofer. Two rear-firing bass reflex ports accompany dual woofers in the center channel, while the bookshelf speakers drop to a single woofer and accompanying port. Each of the main speakers also features the same 1”, fabric-dome tweeter for better timbre matching. The plate surrounding the tweeter is contoured in an effort to improve dispersion.
The SW-8MK2 subwoofer utilizes an 8,” downward-firing, treated-paper woofer mated to a 100-watt amplifier. The cabinet features a large-front facing port and phase, volume, and crossover controls in the rear. One set each of spring clip speaker wire terminals and RCA type line-level inputs round out connection options on the back.
Setting up the Pioneer SP-PK52FS system was fairly straightforward. All we had to do was bolt the pedestals to the tower speakers, remove the plastic safety covers from all of the binding posts, set the center channel on top of its rubber cradle footers, tweak each speaker’s position, and fine tune the sub’s level for best integration. We tested the SP-PK52FS system with a Marantz NR1602 A/V receiver, a Samsung BD-C5500 Blu ray Player, HP Pavilion G6-2320DX laptop, and a Samsung UN40C6300 LED TV.
The Pioneer SP-PK52FS is, by a galactic margin, the best-sounding 5.1 speaker system we’ve heard under $600
It’s that excellent bass response that made us first listen up and take notice. Mixing some recent release, bass-heavy electronic music into our listening sessions, such as Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City, Deadmau5’ , and Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s latest hit “Suit and Tie,” we could feel the deep, resonant bass just pounding the fun vibes into our bones.
In fact, we first spent a good chunk of time listening to the SP-FS52 towers at full-range and without the SW-8MK2 subwoofer, thanks to a setup error on our part. Even without the sub activated, the triple woofer’d SP-FS52s were still happily kicking out the jams with surprisingly good low end reach and impact.
And sure, while the towers on their own may not have had the most articulate bass we’ve ever heard, it was certainly good enough to make some much more expensive speakers more than a bit envious. If you can’t quite stretch your budget for the sub right away, have no fear: You’ll still have more than satisfying bass response running the SP-FS52s full-band.
Once we activated the subwoofer though, the low end became even more impactful. Sounds like explosions, gunshots, and jet engine rumbles were all elevated to a much more realistic level with even greater dynamic impact. The SW-8MK2 was surprisingly potent for an 8” sub, digging deeper into the nether regions than many other similar-sized subs that have graced our listening room.
In fact, busting out our fancy test equipment showed we were easily achieving low end response down into the 30Hz region in our room, probably due in no small part to some sympathetic room gain as well.
The Pioneer SP-PK52FS system had more going for it than just bass and brawn, however: It was the system’s aforementioned refinement and clarity that impressed us the most. Music of all types and genres simply sounded better balanced and more coherent from the lows to the highs than every other sub-$600 speaker system we’ve heard. Even operatic torture tests, such as Bryn Terfel’s recording of “Non Piu Andrai” from Mozart’s classic opera The Marriage of Figaro, sounded eminently listenable through the Pioneer speakers.
Better still was the Pioneer system’s fantastic imaging and wall-to-wall dispersion capabilities. The SP-PK52FS seemed to crave densely-layered recordings such as the Figaro and other orchestral works, allowing us to relish in the “reach out and touch” quality of the virtual musicians onstage in front of us. Many higher priced speakers would struggle to do half as well in this regard.
The SP-PK52FS also had a surprisingly clean and clear sounding treble region that was leagues better than its modest asking price would suggest. Instruments like bells and cymbals rang with a convincing brilliance that made less-refined speakers sound muffled and congested by comparison, Moreover, the Pioneers had an overall sense of extension that’s unheard of for speakers in its class, even if that extension was coupled to a bit of lower treble dryness at times.
…The Pioneer SP-PK52FS system sounds noticeably brighter and more strident with the speaker grilles off.
Well-recorded piano could also sound a bit distorted at times. Listening to Alfred Boe’s stirring rendition of “Roses of Picardy” from the Downton Abbey soundtrack, the accompanying piano sounded a bit glassier and tinklier than usual, and Boe’s sibilants were also more emphasized than called for. All in all though, these shortcomings were much less severe than what we’re normally used to hearing from entry-level speakers, and they detract very little from the Pioneer SP-PK52FS’ otherwise exemplary performance.
Finally, we noted some limitations with dynamics and headroom during our testing with movie material. Give the SP-PK52FS system enough volume, and eventually bombastic explosions and other dynamic swings won’t have quite the startling and effortless impact more expensive systems have in spades. Again, these criticisms are quite minor given the SP-PK52FS’ price.
We should also note that the Pioneer SP-PK52FS system sounds noticeably brighter and more strident with the speaker grilles off. Female vocals and strings in particular could sound rougher, hashier, and too far forward in the mix, so unless a very aggressive tonal balance is your thing, we recommend leaving the grilles in place.
No room for towers? No problem.
Figuring not everyone will be able to fit a pair of 3-foot tall towers into their entertainment systems, we also tried using the SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers as the front channels. We’re happy to report that they possess many of the same qualities that make the towers so captivating—same brilliant treble, same clean, clear sound, and even the same outstanding imaging.
To be sure, much of the deepest bass response was gone, and they didn’t have quite the same room-filling, wall-to-wall dispersion capabilities as the towers. But for those who can’t do floor-standing speakers up front, the SP-BS22LRs should still prove immensely satisfying while also having the added bonus of knocking off $100 or so from the system price.
We’ve poked a little fun at Pioneer for being so proud of its association with Andrew Jones, but after weeks of evaluating the performance of his beer-budget speaker system inside and out, we fully understand the source of that pride. The Pioneer SP-PK52FS really is one a heck of a fine-sounding speaker system – one that makes listening to music and movies of all genres an eminently enjoyable experience.
Of course, the SP-PK52FS has its flaws. Its treble can be too bright and strident at times, and some of the startling “jump” factor and dynamic impact found in more expensive systems is missing. But to focus on any of that is to miss the point entirely. The Pioneer SP-PK52FS offers so much for such a ridiculously low price that even those who were thinking about a small home-theater-in-a-box or soundbar system really ought to figure out if there’s any way they can fit the Pioneer package into their rooms and into their lives. It’s that good.
Bottom line: The Pioneer SP-PK52FS is, by a galactic margin, the best-sounding 5.1 speaker system we’ve heard under $600. If you’re looking for a budget home theater system, make it your top priority to listen to these speakers right away. You’ll be glad you did.
- Outstanding performance that far exceeds low system price
- Towers have surprisingly awesome bass
- Clean, brilliant treble
- Fantastic imaging
- Excellent build quality for the money
- Treble and upper mids could tend toward brightness and harshness at times
- Overall dynamics and impact could be better