Soundbar Roundup Pioneer SP-SB23W
Audio aficionados know Andrew Jones, Pioneer’s chief speaker engineer, mostly as the creator of two awesome speakers: the $129/pair SP-BS22-LR and the $78,000/pair TAD Reference One. So it’s no surprise that the SP-SB23W is built more like a speaker than a typical soundbar.
The enclosure of the SP-SB23W is made from medium-density fiber- board, which damps resonance better than typical plastic enclosures. Each driver—a 1-inch tweeter and two 3-inch woofers per channel— has its own 28-watt amplifier. This arrangement enabled Jones to do the crossovers using a digital signal processor (DSP) instead of the passive components (often just a single capacitor) used in most soundbar crossovers. Thus, he could put in whatever crossover slopes he wanted without raising cost—and he could fine-tune each driver’s response, too.
The subwoofer seems to be nothing special, with just a 6.5-inch driver and a 50-watt amp. But its cabinet seems sturdier than the flimsy ones used for most soundbar subs.
Of course, Pioneer had to cut back on something to pay for such sophistication. The inputs are minimal: TosLink and 3.5mm analog only. The remote’s a sub-credit-card-sized thing that you’ll probably lose often. Fortunately, the soundbar can learn commands from your TV remote, and you can even set it up so seldom-used buttons on the TV remote can control soundbar functions like subwoofer level and surround mode selection.
The SP-SB23W does include Dolby Digital decoding, and it has three Jones-designed sound modes: Music, Movies, and Dialogue. There’s no spatial processing involved, just rebalancing of the soundbar’s tone and the subwoofer’s level.
I found in my tests that the SP-SB23W is very much a special-purpose soundbar. I loved the clean voice reproduction in music and movies; to me, it sounded more like a good desktop audio system than like a soundbar. For music listening, where there wasn’t much demand on the subwoofer, the blend between the sub and the bar was superb. When I watched U-571 through the SP-SB23W, I loved the clarity and natural timbre of the dialogue and the music.
The SP-SB23W played loud, too: 102 dB peak, 99 dB average on loud scenes. However, while I felt the sub had the best pitch definition of the bunch, I did find myself adjusting the subwoofer level often, sometimes wanting more oomph that it could easily deliver.
Geoff and Lauren felt the SP-SB23W lacked versatility. “The bass isn’t real strong, so it seems to push the midrange a bit,” Geoff said. Lauren missed the soundfield enhancement other bars offered. “The sound is confined to the soundbar,” she said. “With the others, you get a greater sense of space.” We all also noted that voices lacked a bit of body (i.e., upper bass energy) relative to some of the other bars.
We think audiophiles who value clarity and natural reproduction will love the SP-SB23W, but those who want a more exciting, enveloping, dynamic sound will probably be happier with one of the soundbars that employs a more traditional approach.
Pioneer SP-SB23W, left (purple) +3.49/–5.93 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz; –3 dB @ 154 Hz, –6 dB @ 131 Hz.
Subwoofer (blue) Normalized to level @ 80 Hz: lower –3 dB @ 48 Hz, –6 dB @ 45 Hz; upper –3 dB @ 98 Hz.—MJP