What are your expectations for a $129/pair loudspeaker? Not all that high I would guess. At the very least, you’d expect it to work reliably, play reasonably loud, and not look too schlocky. But high-end sonics? That’s setting the bar way up there. And that was pretty much what I thought when the redesigned Pioneer SP-BS22 LR was presented to me for review. But there was one significant difference—the new BS22 sports a discrete signature on its back panel just above the binding posts: A. Jones.
So what’s in a name? This particular A. Jones is Andrew Jones, the British gentleman known principally for his exquisite designs for TAD Labs, the high-end wing of parent company Pioneer Electronics. However, he’s also the chief speaker engineer for Pioneer, where the demands of that global titan include a broader-based, budget-conscious market. I can’t speak for Mr. Jones’ ability to compartmentalize, but it does speak volumes about his creative range—a bit like engineering a McLaren one day and tinkering with a Mini the next. However, whether it’s designing the latest beryllium coincident transducer, or bringing the new TAD Evolution 1 ($29,000, review to come) or, in this case, the modest SP-BS22 LR to market—the influence of Mr. Jones’ design cannot be taken lightly.
To look at, the SP-BS22 LR is as conventional and unassuming as a speaker comes. It’s a two-way bass-reflex design that tips the scales at little more than nine pounds. If you imagined its driver array as something along the lines of a TAD-derived coincident driver trickling down to the sub-$150 price point, think again. Mid/bass duties are handled by a prosaic four-inch driver with a structured-surface diaphragm to aid rigidity and fend off breakup modes. The one-inch soft-dome tweeter uses a large, custom- designed waveguide to control dispersion and increase sensitivity. Construction and fit and finish appear solid, consistent with today’s “made in China” workmanship. The SP-BS22 LR speakers utilize a curved cabinet design, which adds stiffness to the enclosure and is said to reduce internal standing waves. (This last issue is less germane in small boxes than full-range enclosures.) Although SP-BS22 LR is small, its relatively low 85dB sensitivity means that it requires more than minimal power. Bass is better controlled and there’s more of it with additional watts; plus, the added power enlivens dynamics and enriches tonality.
But, like they say, the devil’s in the details, and the wildcard is the not-to-be-underestimated Jones Factor. What makes his concoction such a delight to listen to is how well he applies high-end values to such a small and (let’s face it) cheap bundle. To be clear, my point is not that the BS22 somehow dethrones every loudspeaker below, say, five grand, but that Jones has hit the bull’s-eye (it figures he’s an archery buff) in the nature and proportion of the speaker’s many inevitable compromises.
The BS22 has an honest tonal signature that doesn’t pander to the “let’s move ’em” sensibilities of big-box-store salesmen. It is remarkably free of sonic hype. From the outset I noted how quiet the cabinet was. There was little sense of a veil or cloud hanging over the soundstage, smudging images and restricting acoustic boundaries. The choristers of the Turtle Creek Chorale were firmly rooted in position during Rutter’s “A Gaelic Blessing” from his Requiem [Reference Recordings], and there was a well- defined, dimensional soundstage, albeit one that was somewhat abbreviated in depth and size.
However, the essence of the BS22’s performance is found in the quality of its midrange. Jones has fashioned a smooth, tonally ripe midband with just enough heft and weight behind vocal and instrumental images to provide reasonable dynamic and harmonic scale. The treble is surprisingly open, which lends overtones a fullness and dimensionality that are often lacking in blue-plate loudspeakers. The BS22 does roll off the top treble to some degree, giving sonics a darker and somewhat more forgiving character, but credit the waveguide tweeter for limiting dispersion at the lower end of the tweeter's passband so its dispersion more closely matches that of the upper end of the woofer's passband. As a result, vocals of either gender are tonally authentic rather than helium-breathing, Munchkin-like caricatures. On a track like Linda Ronstadt’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” from Simple Dreams [Asylum] the BS22 demonstrated canny balance, articulating low- level niceties while producing the weight and dynamic energy of the tracks’ rhythm section. Similarly Don Henley’s high harmony during Jackson Browne’s “Colors of The Sun” was fully realized with that distinctive smoky character soon to be made famous when he formed the mega-band, the Eagles, a couple years later. And again during Jennifer Warnes’ “If It Be Your Will” on Famous Blue Raincoat [Impex] the speaker managed to steer clear of peaky treble behavior and again artfully straddle the line between articulate reproduction of the graceful 12-string and the deep colors of the bass guitar. The take-away here is that the BS22 is agile enough not to bury musical delicacies beneath a slurry of low-frequency cabinet resonances.
At first I thought it might be foolish to cue up “Prof” Keith Johnson’s latest from Reference Recordings, Horns for the Holidays [RR-126, review this issue], but, beyond the obvious SPL limitations, the BS22 supplied a rich sensation of bloom from these spirited wind and brass sections with discernable contrasts in energy.
The SP-BS22 doesn’t go especially deep beyond the upper bass, but it remains composed at higher outputs. There’s bit of port/cabinet noise at its dynamic limits, but on Norah Jones’ “Sinkin Soon” from Not Too Late [Bluenote], acoustic bass was both tuneful and tight. For the most part, the BS22 avoids the midbass boom that makes potential subwoofer- matching such a nightmare.
Although not sonically cringe-worthy, there was a bit too much sibilance for my taste. When Holly Cole sings “Take me home/ You silly boy” from Temptation, there was just a small helping more “sss” than I prefer. There was also a general diminution of top-end transparency the higher the speaker went. Cymbals, for example, lacked the wide-rimmed splash and decay of the real things. And, lastly, beyond the absence of true low bass, the most noticeable subtraction was a diminution of macro-dynamics. The BS22 compresses gently but firmly, and flattens out the larger swings as if carefully measuring its own physical limitations, self-censoring if you will.
I would never have guessed at the outset that I’d be taking the BS22 so seriously when it came time to write this review, but in the right room this game little compact has in many areas turned in a performance worthy of speakers well beyond its almost laughably low price point. All courtesy of the man behind that tiny back-panel signature. The BS22 is simply one of the great buys out there, without reservation.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, bass-reflex
Drivers: 1" tweeter, 4" mid/bass
Frequency response: 55Hz— 20kHz
Impendence: 6 ohms
Dimensions: 12.6" x 7.2" x 8.5"
Weight: 9.1 lbs.
P.O. Box 1540
Long Beach, CA 90810