We all know the old adage about judging a book by its cover. But when it comes to sound platforms, once you see those four corners, you can usually make a safe assumption the sound locked within isn’t going to knock your socks off. With few exceptions, our initial excitement about the burgeoning genre has been quelled thanks to a series of lackluster experiences.
However, Pioneer’s SP-SB03 Speaker Base ($350) isn’t your average little black home theater box. Built around a stout composite wood frame under the guidance of audio guru Andrew Jones, the SB03 offers a rich, detail-laden a succinct and attractive package. Read on to find out how the latest from Jones and Co. got us back on board the sound platform train.
Out of the box
Pulling the SB03 out of the box invoked some real deja vu, presenting a strikingly similar design to Pioneer’s Andrew Jones SB23 sound bar, from which the SB03 pulls its simple four-button interface up front, and lofty frame that rises 4 inches above its padded feet. However, while that extra height caused troubles by blocking some TVs from remote commands, the SB03’s resting place beneath the screen gets it a pass. Additionally, the ample 28×16-inch stage presents plenty of real estate to prop up today’s larger panel sizes.
Accessories riding along in the box include a digital Optical cable, a power cord, and a small card-style remote loaded with the bare essentials for basic control.
Features and design
The SB03’s speckled black finish and solid composite frame give it some premium cachet, and the unit looks pretty good on a TV stand. More importantly, the cabinet is sturdy enough to keep unwanted buzzing and resonance at bay, reinforced by robust internal bracing to keep the base from flexing under the weight of heavier displays.
The SP-SB03 has a very natural approach to music, which is a real rarity in this genre.
The input panel at the back is right in step with the SB03’s overall minimalist aesthetic, offering only an RCA analog and digital Optical inputs. The barebones front panel offers basic controls for power, volume, and source selection, and a pairing key for Bluetooth streaming from a PC or mobile device. A rudimentary LED interface is all you get, making it a pain to monitor settings like subwoofer level or volume, but given the fact that the SB03 is pretty much sonically optimized right out of the box, there’s not much to complain about there.
The speaker base’s metal speaker screens offer a sturdy guard for the system’s dual 3-inch midrange drivers and dual 1-inch soft dome tweeters. A peek underneath the box reveals dual 4-inch down-firing woofers to handle bass.. All 6 drivers are individually powered by 28-watt amplifiers for a claimed 168 watts of total system power, while active crossovers ensure better continuity and higher dynamic expression than what you’ll get from a passive crossover design.
Pioneer’s suite of DSP offers three effects modes for music, movies, and dialog, the latter of which is designed to enhance the midrange at lower volume levels to optimize late night listening. The SB03 also packs Pioneer’s “3D expansion” DSP to help the narrow spread of speakers reproduce a more expansive stereo image. Dolby Digital decoding is also included.
All of the controls are configured on the tiny remote, which tacks on play/pause and song skip for your Bluetooth device should it be out of reach. For those looking to keep the growing collection of remotes on the coffee table to a minimum, the SB03 can also learn basic commands from your TV remote.
Our first listening session with the SB03 came after a late dinner with Andrew Jones himself, who was actually in town to give us a personal tour of Pioneer’s new Atmos-enabled Elite speakers. Jones’ excitement about his equipment (and the world of audio in general) is contagious, and he couldn’t help but strike up a few tunes to show off the SB03. It didn’t take long to hear why Jones is so proud of his design.
It didn’t take long to hear why Andrew Jones is so proud of his design.
The unit has a very natural approach to music, which is a real rarity in the genre. Acoustic instruments and vocals are especially smooth and welcoming – warm, but without sacrificing detail or clarity. By his own admission, Jones’ favorite instrument is piano, but we’d already guessed that after just a few songs, as the SB03 adds just the right balance of smooth ivory attack and clear extension in the upper harmonics to bring a natural resonance to piano tracks.
When compared to our other favorite sound platform in the field, the feature-packed Sony XT1, the SB03 has a slight edge, able to produce midrange that’s more full and meaty, especially when the music turns away from acoustic tracks to something more digital, such as Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush.” The SB03 offered a full-force punch in the synths and percussion on the track, while the XT1’s smaller drivers sounded a little more pinched.
However, it was during our first listening session that we discovered some trouble in the SB03’s Bluetooth connection. While it wasn’t a prohibitive issue, the system has hiccups where the signal drops skips or drops out momentarily. While the trouble may be restricted to our review unit, we’ve had trouble with Pioneer’s Bluetooth implementation in the pass – something to keep in mind if you plan on doing a lot of wireless music or movie playback.
The SB03 handles cinematic sound better than any other system we’ve heard in its genre. The first real moment of exultation arrived early on in the first act of Harry Potter 7 with one simple word: “Obliviate.” The cottony cut of the Hermione’s whispering lips as she enchants her parents told us all we needed to know, immediately revealing that the SB03 is the real deal when it comes to dialog. When it’s right, you just know.
From then on, we simply sat back and enjoyed the SB03’s silky-smooth presentation of the expertly-mixed film. We listened with pleasure as the scenes transitioned from cautious whispers in the dark to the sputtering carburetor of Hagrid’s flying motorcycle, to ice-y cracks of lightning bursting through the sky as Potter and Voldemort’s wands clashed head to head. Perhaps most surprising was the SB03’s wide stereo field, tracing objects across the screen, and pitching sound effects like the slippery whip of Nagini’s tail far beyond the borders of the SB03’s two foot frame.
Moving through our movie collection, the SB03 continued to reveal its talents, lending granular texture to instruments in the background like violins and brass, and impressive extension in high register effects that stretched far into the upper harmonics. Power down below never shook the room, but the unit provides high caliber bass that proved itself as dynamic enough to give action scenes that all-important suspension of disbelief.
When it comes to all-in-one home theater sound, Pioneer’s brilliant SP-SB03 is the box to beat. The system’s $350 price tag helps it match up with Pioneer’s SB23W sound bar as two of the best choices in overall home theater value on the market. The system’s Bluetooth hiccups are the only thing keeping it from earning our Editor’s Choice Award. If you’re looking for a simple and affordable way to bring TV audio from mediocre to masterful, the SP-SB03 should be at the top of your short list.
- Smooth and silky midrange
- Clear extension in the treble
- Rich and firm bass
- Attractive, well-built composite cabinet
- Bluetooth hiccups
- Rudimentary UI makes adjustments a pain