Pioneer Elite Dolby Atmos Enabled speaker system review

Drop that saw! These Pioneers sling mind-spinning surround without ceiling speakers

Andrew Jones has once again developed a remarkably high-value, sweet-sounding speaker system that takes surround sound to the next level.
Andrew Jones has once again developed a remarkably high-value, sweet-sounding speaker system that takes surround sound to the next level.
Andrew Jones has once again developed a remarkably high-value, sweet-sounding speaker system that takes surround sound to the next level.

Highs

  • Outstanding Atmos surround effects
  • Coherent, perfectly voice matched
  • Rich, inviting midrange
  • Solid bass response

Lows

  • Only one finish available
  • Would like more slam from floorstanders

Pioneer Elite Dolby Atmos system information: While many manufacturers like to sell surround sound speaker systems – or packages – you’ll only find Pioneer’s Elite Atmos Enabled speakers by Andrew Jones sold individually, allowing you to build a system that perfectly suits your needs. As such, we’ve broken down our system review into individual product mini-reviews click the links above for a closer look at each component, including an expanded collection of images in our gallery and individual shopping items. Enjoy!  

For a home-theater geek like me, there are few opportunities that rank as high on the awesome scale as having one of the most recognized speaker designers and engineers in the world visit to help set up and calibrate a brand-new kind of surround speaker system they’ve just designed.

I’m talking about Pioneer’s Andrew Jones and his new Elite Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. I got to spend a full day with the man in DT’s home theater as we talked speaker tech, design, and Dolby’s re-envisioning of surround sound in the home, called Dolby Atmos. It was pretty freakin’ sweet.

A speaker that doesn’t call undue attention to itself is the hallmark of excellent design, and Jones has pulled this off extremely well.

But I must cop to having entered into the meeting with a little bit of skepticism. You see, although I’ve heard enough of Andrew Jones’ speakers in the past to know the system would probably sound very good — if not damn spectacular — I had some serious doubts about this “Atmos-enabled” approach. It sounded to me like some kind of acoustic voodoo. I just didn’t think it would work very well.

I was so wrong. Turns out, not only is this Atmos-enabled approach a realistic alternative to ceiling speakers, it has its own distinct advantages, too. And it sounds great.

Since this is the first time we’ve had a chance to assemble an Atmos system and test it in-house, we’re going to talk about the Atmos experience as much as the speakers themselves, so if we go a little long, forgive us. And if you’re already well-acquainted with Atmos, feel free to skip ahead.

Wait … what the hell is Dolby Atmos?

Atmos is a new kind of surround sound developed by Dolby and deployed in big commercial theaters about two years ago. Two things make Atmos different: Object-based sound mixing, and sound coming from speakers placed above you.

In commercial theaters with a 7.1 Dolby surround system, a helicopter flying over you and to the right will have the sound of the helicopter move from the front-right speaker into the entire group of speakers along the right wall, then into a bank of speakers on the back wall. The effect has enthralled movie-goers for years. But Atmos takes that fly-by (and tons of other kinds of effects) to the next level by passing the sound from one speaker to the next, to the next, and so on. This lets your ears follow the object (be it a helicopter or whatever) through specific spaces in the room. And those new ceiling speakers make it sound like the helicopter is actually doing a fly-over instead of a fly-by.

Dolby Atmos explained

Dolby Atmos at home

Obviously, most of us can’t line our walls corner-to-corner with speakers, but many of us can add speakers above us. This home-based approach to Dolby Atmos doesn’t allow for as much discrete sound front to back, but adding ceiling channels raises the sound stage, and adds a new dimension of sound. Now, instead of a ring of surround sound, we can have something more like a dome of surround sound.

For those of us who can’t place speakers in the ceiling, Dolby proposes Atmos-enabled speakers, which use drivers placed on top of the front and surround speakers to reflect sound off the ceiling and down at the listener, simulating an in-ceiling speaker. It won’t work with vaulted or exceptionally high ceilings, but if you have a relatively flat ceiling, Atmos-enabled speakers could be your new best friend.

The speakers

The Pioneer Elite Atmos-enabled speaker lineup is made up of the SP-EFS73 floorstanding model ($700 each) the SP-EBS73 bookshelf ($750 a pair), the SP-EC73 center speaker ($400) and the SW-E10 subwoofer ($600). A system based entirely on the bookshelf speakers will run you $2,500; with floorstanders up front, $3,150. All speakers are available only in a black simulated wood-grain vinyl finish.

The shining star of this speaker lineup is what Andrew Jones calls a CST, or Coherent Source Transducer.

The shining star of this speaker lineup is what Andrew Jones calls a CST, or Coherent Source Transducer. That’s geek-speak for a concentric (not coaxial!) driver which puts, in this case, a 1-inch silk dome tweeter at the apex of a 4-inch aluminum midrange driver. As Jones explains in our video, this allows for precisely controlled directivity and time alignment of the sound. In other words, sound waves from both the midrange driver and tweeter go exactly where they are supposed to and arrive at their final destination (your ears) exactly when they should. The end result is an extremely coherent sound.

The Atmos-enabled concentric drivers get their own set of gold-plated binding posts and must be connected to Atmos-dedicated channels on an A/V receiver equipped with Dolby Atmos processing.

Though the Atmos drivers get their own terminals on the speaker, they don’t act entirely on their own in Jones’ design. Here, they dump any bass responsibility below 120Hz down to the speaker’s bass drivers, be it a single 5.25-inch driver in the bookshelf model, or the three 5.25-inchers in the floorstanding speaker. Those concentric drivers can really move, though – we were shocked at their excursion capabilities as they pulsed during our calibration routine.

The center channel benefits from the use of Jones’ concentric driver as well. Combined with a 5.25-inch active driver (left) and 5.25-inch passive radiator, the team delivers clear dialog with almost no lobing, an acoustical effect that creates “dead spots” in the room, making dialog less intelligible.

The E10 subwoofer was a pleasant surprise. Based on appearance alone, you might not expect big things from it, but this subwoofer can lay it on thick when called to do so. Still, it maintains the tight control you might expect from a sealed sub. The cabinet is a nearly perfect cube, with a 10-inch driver powered by a 600-watt peak/300-watt RMA amplifier outfitted with DSP for shaping the sound curve.

Setup

For our evaluation, we drove the speaker system (using floorstanders up front, bookshelves in the back) with Pioneer’s Elite SC-89 A/V receiver and a BDP-88FD Blu-ray player. Demo material consisted of Dolby’s own Atmos demonstration disc, and the only two Atmos-encoded Blu-rays available at the time: Transformers: Age of Extinction, and The Expendables 3. We also used a handful of our favorite non-Atmos Blu-ray movies and a selection of DVD-Audio discs and Multi-channel SACDs.

If you’ve got a relatively flat ceiling, Atmos Enabled speakers could be your new best friend.

Yes, the first movies to be made available with Atmos happen to be pretty terrible. Aside from Transformers and Expendables, options currently include Step Up All In, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Hey, at least the special edition of Gravity will offer Atmos. It’s otherwise been a slow start for Atmos demo material. Here’s hoping that changes real soon.

Getting the system set up involved allowing the SC-89 receiver run its full calibration routine. Normally, we avoid these, but since we were dealing with some time alignment concerns, we felt it was best to let Pioneer’s system do its thing to start. You can go in and manually disable anything you want afterward. In the end, we kept the speaker distance, level, and delay settings, then manually set speaker size and crossover point. We disabled nearly everything else. After some listening, we realized we needed to juice up the Atmos channels a bit, so we tacked on a good 6db of boost for each Atmos channel.

Performance

We had some real concerns going into this evaluation due to our ceiling, a plane of drop-ceiling tiles peppered with large banks of recessed fluorescent light fixtures. We expected the tiles to absorb some of the reflected sound, and they did, but not nearly as much as we feared. The lighting fixtures forced us to position our front left and right speakers a little further apart than we’d have liked (with more toe-in to compensate), but we were otherwise able to work around them.

In the end, it not only worked, it sounded incredible. All of our doubts and concerns were obliterated the second we heard sounds coming from places far away from any speaker.

Pioneer Atmos
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Dolby’s Atmos demo disc does the best job — by far — of showing off what a properly-configured system can do. The “Amaze trailer,” “Leaf trailer,” and “Red Bull Video Clip: F1 Racing” bits are especially exciting, with carefully mixed surround sound objects flying all over the room.

What we looked forward to most was the sensation of hearing objects above us – we got lots of that, and it was a ton of fun – but after spending months with the system in place, we’ve come to find that perhaps Atmos’ most impressive attribute is its ability to fill in the gaps between speakers. Even though we had a 5.1 system with no speakers directly behind us, Atmos filled in the space between the left and right surrounds surprisingly well, giving us a much more realistic impression of a car whizzing by. The same was true for effects that were panned from front to back or vice versa. And with the addition of the Atmos channels, the entire soundstage was expanded upwards.

All of our doubts and concerns were obliterated the second we heard sounds coming from places that were nowhere near a speaker.

Those benefits extended to non-Atmos sources as well, thanks to Dolby Surround processing. Dolby Surround takes a Dolby or DTS 5.1 or 7.1 mix and interpolates information to feed the Atmos channels. With movies, we preferred the Dolby Surround version with Atmos channels active 9 times out of 10. With multi-channel music, we were less consistently impressed. While the processing did add a more seamless transition from one speaker to another, and the soundstage expanded upward, we noticed the Atmos channels caused some unwanted resonances at certain frequencies, probably due to over-energizing the room.

If we set aside these speakers’ Atmos capabilities for a moment and consider their merits as standard high-performance speakers, they stand up very well. Jones still knows how to build speakers that sound great without costing an arm and a leg, though these cost considerably more than the ridiculously affordable system we checked out two years ago.

A speaker that doesn’t call undue attention to itself is the hallmark of excellent design, and Jones has pulled this off extremely well. It doesn’t take a critical ear to hear that these speakers do something extraordinarily right with their reproduction of voices and instruments. We’re sure there’s some highly technical explanations for how it is these speakers sound so accurate, open and natural, but that’s not something you think about while listening. Often during our evaluation, we found ourselves so relaxed into the music that we forgot we were supposed to be listening for little errors or quirks.

But since it’s our job to be picky: We’d like to hear some cleaner attack out of the tweeters. While they sparkle and shimmer with plenty of non-fatiguing detail, the 1-inch domes don’t execute transients with as much definition as we’d like. It never bothered us during movies, but with music we’re intimately familiar with, we couldn’t help but hone in on exactly what the tweeter was and wasn’t doing for us. But considering how good the speakers sound on the whole, it’s hard to get too riled up about it.

We had also hoped for just a bit more bass out of the SP-EFS73 floorstanding models. The bass they do produce is tight, musical, and perfectly integrated with the CST drivers (the crossover is as smooth as silk), but when you’re staring down six 5.25-inch drivers, you can’t help but want a little more slam.

By contrast, we feel the bookshelf speakers offer outstanding bass for their size. Though we’re not short on affection for the floorstanding speakers, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a full system based around the SP-EBS73.

More than any other speaker, we were absolutely tickled with the SP-EC73 center channel. This is a speaker that does dialog right, with outstanding clarity and a natural sound that will make actors as varied as Morgan Freeman and Megan Mullaly sound like they’re right in the room with you. Be prepared to have poorly recorded voice tracks stand out more than they have before, though. The Expendables 3 is a good example of a high-budget movie with dialog that sounds like it was recorded in a small cardboard box. If anything, the SP-EC73 could be too transparent, but we don’t know anyone who would complain about that.

Finally, we come to the SW-E10, which, while a fine subwoofer, we could take or leave. There are so many excellent subwoofers on the market in the $600 zone that you really have to do something mind-blowing in order for us to encourage anyone to forsake, say, an SVS or Paradigm subwoofer. In short, if you demand bigger, deeper bass than the next guy, consider getting a different subwoofer. It will match up with Pioneer’s Atmos-Enabled Elite speaker system just fine.

Conclusion

Atmos isn’t for everyone, and we don’t expect adoption to be very high for the first few years. But if you’re itching to get in on Atmos as soon as possible, Pioneer’s Atmos Enabled Elite speaker system by Andrew Jones is an outstanding choice. Not only does it deftly pull off Atmos effects that will have your head spinning, but it’s a highly dynamic and musical system, sure to please picky listeners and movie buffs alike.

Highs

  • Outstanding Atmos surround effects
  • Coherent, perfectly voice matched
  • Rich, inviting midrange
  • Solid bass response

Lows

  • Only one finish available
  • Would like more slam from floorstanders
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