Pioneer Andrew Jones SP-SB03 Speaker Base review

Andrew Jones strikes sonic gold again by designing the best sounding sound base we've heard yet.

When it comes to all-in-one home theater sound, Pioneer’s brilliant SP-SB03 is the box to beat.
When it comes to all-in-one home theater sound, Pioneer’s brilliant SP-SB03 is the box to beat.
When it comes to all-in-one home theater sound, Pioneer’s brilliant SP-SB03 is the box to beat.

Highs

  • Smooth and silky midrange
  • Clear extension in the treble
  • Rich and firm bass
  • Attractive, well-built composite cabinet

Lows

  • Bluetooth hiccups
  • Rudimentary UI makes adjustments a pain

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.

Video review 

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.

Pioneer SP-SB03 Andrew Jones speaker base review front angle 2

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.

Music performance

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.

Movie performance

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.

Conclusion

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.

Highs

  • Smooth and silky midrange
  • Clear extension in the treble
  • Rich and firm bass
  • Attractive, well-built composite cabinet

Lows

  • Bluetooth hiccups
  • Rudimentary UI makes adjustments a pain
Product Review

Step aside, Sonos: Riva's Concert is the best smart speaker you can buy

The Riva Concert series speaker is a fantastic, small-profile smart speaker with Alexa integration, truly excellent sound, and great looks, making it the perfect addition to your kitchen, living room, or bedroom.
Product Review

The 2019 Porsche Macan S is a luxurious and quick SUV, but it's no road tripper

The roster of models challenging the Porsche Macan grows annually. The German firm updated its smallest, most affordable SUV with a new engine, more tech features, and subtle design tweaks to keep it looking fresh.
Movies & TV

Out of movies to binge? Our staff picks the best flicks on Hulu right now

From classics to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Product Review

It's not the sharpest tool, but the Surface Go does it all for $400

Microsoft has launched the $400 Surface Go to take on both the iPad and Chromebooks, all without compromising its core focus on productivity. Does it work as both a tablet and a PC?
Home Theater

Phiaton’s active lifestyle headphones do noise canceling on a budget

Looking for a set of active noise-canceling earbuds that can keep up with your active lifestyle, without breaking the bank? Phiaton's new Curve BT 120 NC could be just the ticket.
Home Theater

5 sonic stocking stuffers to improve your loved ones’ listening life

Looking for some simple and affordable gifts to get the music nerd in your family? Here are five great gift ideas that will improve their listening life -- and won't cost you an arm and a leg to give them.
Home Theater

Set your ears free with the best completely wireless earbuds

If you can't stand the tangle of cords, or you're just excited about completely wireless earbuds, you're going to need some help separating the wheat from the chaff. Our list serves up the best true wireless earbuds around.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Home Theater

Block the outside world, tune into your own with the best in-ear headphones

Over-the-ear headphones offer top-flight sound, but they're not so easy to take along with you. If you're looking to upgrade your portable sound, check out our favorite in-ear headphones -- there's a model for every user and every budget.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Movies & TV

Celebrate the 25th anniversary of ‘The X-Files’ with the show’s 10 best episodes

The X-Files premiered 25 years ago, so here are the 10 best episodes of the award-winning sci-fi series. From alien-abduction drama to hilarious satires, these are the best episodes from all 11 seasons of the hit series.
Movies & TV

Can't get enough lightsaber action? Here's how to get your Star Wars fix online

Few of us want to deal with DVDs or Blu-ray discs anymore. Unfortunately, the Star Wars movies are few and far between when it comes to streaming. If you want to watch Star Wars online, check out our guide on where to find the films online.
Home Theater

Streaming services blast past networks for the most scripted TV shows in 2018

For the first time in history, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, produced more original scripted series than broadcast or cable channels, setting a new record for the number of TV shows on the air.
Home Theater

Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Amazon Prime: Battle of the streaming giants

Trying to figure out which subscription streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget? Check out our updated comparison of the big three: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu.