TAD's Andrew Jones Designs Surprising Sounding Budget Speakers For Pioneer (Pricing corrected)

A young reader inherited a turntable and asked about a modestly priced system he could assemble around it. We know where this will lead and we can all cheer him on, mindful of the fun and fetishing to follow. And we can all sympathize with his bank account—assuming he has one!

The speaker part of the system was easy to recommend: TAD’s Andrew Jones, a brand and name familiar to most serious audiophiles has created for Pioneer a line of remarkable loudspeakers priced where most anyone can afford a pair. For those unfamiliar, TAD is a Pioneer owned company that produces some of the world’s most respected and expensive loudspeakers. The Reference One will set you back close to $80,000. Mr. Jones had an illustrious career at KEF before joining TAD.

The latest in the Pioneer series are the SP-BS22-LR a two-way bookshelf model ($159/pr) and the SP FS52 a 3-way floor stander with a suggested list price of $159.00 each. Both can be found online and at Best Buy among other places for around $128.00/pr. and $124 each respectively.

The floor standing SP-FS52, almost 3 feet tall x 10.5 inches deep, almost 9 inches wide and weighing twenty three pounds, features the aforementioned three rear ported 5.25” “Structured Surface” woofers, a 1” high efficiency soft dome tweeter with integral wave guide and an 8 element crossover network packaged in a molded, curved black cabinet that while it won’t win any design awards, is reasonably shapely and visually gets out of the way by being plain. On the other hand, if all you’re used to are tiny computer speakers, these will look formidable.

The bookshelf SP-BS22-LR (don’t the folks in Japan have a way with catchy product names?) is approximately 8 x 7 x 12 and weights 9.1 pounds.

You could go to Ebay and buy an old NAD receiver or any of the great old Japanese ‘70s era behemoths, but Jones was kind enough to send along a Pioneer Elite A-20 Integrated amplifier and my feeling is if you’re new to this you are much better off buying something new with a warranty. The A-20 sells for a ridiculously low $299 and can be had for somewhat less online and probably at some brick and mortar retailers too.

The A-20 is rated at 50 watts per channel from 20Hz to 20kHz at 0.1%THD (total harmonic distortion at 4 ohms). It features two sets of speaker terminals that can be used for a second, remote pair or to bi-wire a speaker with such capabilities. It features six standard line level inputs including one “tape loop” as it used to be called and a MM phono input.

The A-20 also features a “loudness” button to increase low frequency output at low volume, bass, treble and balance controls as well as a ¼” headphone jack. A “direct” button disables all but the basics. Bypassing the other “stuff” provides a more direct signal path and is said to improve the sound. Oh, and it includes a remote control that can switch among inputs, activate the “direct” and “loudness” functions, choose between the two speaker terminals, turn the unit on and off and even dim the front panel LEDs. The A-20 Elite is definitely “retro” looking. By “retro” I mean it’s attractive looking in its brushed black simplicity and functionality.

Sources

I used an old CD player I had lying around and a VPI Traveler turntable fitted with an Ortofon Bronze MM cartridge. Yes, the TT was “overkill” but I didn’t have a budget Rega, Pro-Ject or Music Hall so that’s what I used.

You have certain expectations at this price point and even though I know what Andrew Jones can do without price constraints, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great budget priced product. However, in this case the results are ridiculously good. No. Great!

It’s all about the midrange. If the midrange is bad nothing can be good. First up were the floor standers. I started with CDs to see if this system could rock, beginning with Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Virgin 7243 5 7728829). Produced by transferring the original analog tape to DSD on an Ampex ATR 2 track deck, this is a very good sounding CD.

The SP-FS52 (and the A-20 of course) did a far better job of separating out the various mix elements than I was expecting. Eno’s voice had a warmth and clarity beyond what I was expecting, with just a "smidge" of sibilant “lift”. The snare hits were a bit crisp but well separated in the mix and very clean. The undulating rising and falling guitar line (or synth?) was also well-separated and the rhythm guitar line was rendered with equal clarity.

I imagined myself a kid listening to this presentation after years of plastic computer speakers and I was certain that kid would be awestruck. I was too, but mostly because of how good this sounded for the money. “Back in Judy’s Jungle” features a deep, almost cartoonish bass kick drum, stuttering snare, a chorus behind Eno and many other elements that could easily turn to mush but these speakers separated out everything, producing an impressively transparent, seamless and reasonably three-dimensional picture you could “watch” as well as listen to.

You could even push the SPLs reasonably high before the sound changed for the worse. The bass in particular suffered somewhat when the SPLs were pushed, but overall what was most impressive was the lack of the usual obvious colorations. I was expecting “boxy” and “metallic” and while there was a slight bit of lower high frequency “push”, it was mild. And because the tweeter’s response was surprisingly smooth it never turned to “crunchy.”

Switching to vinyl I played the mono 45rpm reissue of Julie London’s Julie is Her Name from Boxstar that I believe is now out of print. This is a difficult one because she sings breathy and goes deep. You’re likely to hear a bit of tubby chestiness if the designer has tried to coax more bottom end out of the system by pushing the lower midbass and there was a bit of that so that when I went to the bookshelf speakers on stands I felt that particular record sounded better on the smaller speakers.

However, it was a mild coloration not likely to bother someone inexperienced at detecting these things. Male voices fared better. I played Mo-Fi’s reissue of James Taylor’s JT and Audio Fidelity’s appropriately sweet sounding Sweet Baby James and all I could do was shake my head and marvel at the timbral vocal quality, the lack of boxiness, the appropriateness of the image size and the consistency of the presentation as Taylor moved up and down his vocal range.

Back to LPs, I played a superb sounding new all analog production by Perry Margouleff of singer/songwriter Tom Chacon (A2Z-Pie Records 1006PIE18LP). Chacon is in the Mellencamp/Dylan/acoustic Bruce school and these speakers and the A-20 surprised me again by avoiding chestiness, and acoustic guitar hollowness almost altogether. The imaging was taut and precise and set up “outside the box” as you’d expect from a far more expensive loudspeaker.

Both the floor and stand mount Pioneers produce a remarkably smooth overall sound, free of gross colorations. The floor mount goes down to the mid 40Hz region with ease, and probably lower. The stand-mounted speaker probably does 50Hz with ease. That’s lower than you might think.

So What Do You Give Up?

Just don’t play them too loud. Both the floor standers and bookshelf speakers sounded best at moderate volume, but if you’re willing to give up a bit of bass control and overall cohesion you can get party volume too.

Dynamics are only moderately good, particularly at the macro (loud end of the scale) variety but far better than I was expecting. At low levels where many lesser (and often more expensive) speakers turn to mush, these miracle workers maintain their remarkably well-focused, delicate imagery. And at mid SPLs these speakers—either pair—will put a smile on the faces of even the most hardened audiophiles because in the end, as we all know, it’s all about the seamlessness and lack of coloration in the midrange. Here, at this price point, Andrew Jones has worked a miracle. Above the mids there’s a bit of lower treble excess, “crunchiness” and prominent sibilance above and the last bit of air is in short supply. On bottom, the bass that’s there is surprisingly well-articulated, uncolored and tuneful (meaning the speaker delivers very good rhythm’n’pacing).

If you listen mostly to female vocals or small string ensembles and are not that concerned with bottom end weight, consider the bookshelf Pioneer SP-BS22-LRs. They give up the bottom produced by the 3-way speaker but are more consistent sounding in the bottom octaves (as far as they go) and perhaps even lower in coloration. You really can’t go wrong with either speaker.

Conclusion

The retro A-20 is a bargain at $299 and can probably be had for $250. It offers a reasonably amount of power, all of the flexibility you could ask for in an integrated amp and it sounds far better than it has any right to sound given what it costs. It avoids the usual hard metallic sound found in much budget priced electronics and if like the speakers it does so by shortchanging slightly the very top end where the “air” lives, so be it!

Like the speakers, the amp's errors are mostly of omission so they are easily ignored.

Both pairs of speakers performed well beyond my every expectation and both are bargains, but the bookshelf SP-BS22-LR at $159/pr. (can be had for $130/pr. or less) mean that virtually everyone can "get" what good audio is about. The SP-FS52-LR goes lower and will probably appeal to more buyers who want the bottom end heft that's deeper and cleaner and more "out of the box" than any $159 floor-standng speaker has any business producing.

I have this system set up in my fairly large living room and either pair of speakers did a very impressive job of filling the room. I listened for hours on end for a few days and left the room each time wondering how Andrew Jones and the team at Pioneer managed to do this for so little money. Add something like a Pro-Ject Carbon, a Rega RP-1, or a Music Hall MMF- 2.2 and an inexpensive CD player or even a Blu-ray player and for around $1000 you've got the floor standers, the integrated amp, a turntable and a CD player. You're in!

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COMMENTS
jeffh's picture

Michael, I believe the SP-BS22-LR is sold as a pair.  So they are half the price of the floor standers. They are currently $127.49 for the pair on Amazon.  Add to your cart to see the price.

The SP F552-LR floor standers are sold as singles and are currently $124.99 each on Amazon. Add to your cart to see the price.

Michael Fremer's picture

I wasn't adding it to a cart but I sure was confused how the price could be the same or why it would be. Thanks for catching this for me. I will fix it NOW.

Michael Fremer's picture

All fixed now, so thanks. But I went to Pioneer's website and they have both speakers priced at $159 and when I put both in their "cart" it said 1 for each and $159.00. What a mess o'confusion...

bostonhistorian's picture

I've had a pair of the bookshelf speakers for a couple of months now and have been very pleased with them as a substitute for a larger pair of speakers that can't be made to fit the room in which I listen to music.  Your criticism is well founded, especially the note about string quartets.  The clarity I'm getting from 40+ year old vinyl warms my heart.

Michael Fremer's picture

That such good sound can be had for such a reasonable price warms mine!  

StonedBeatles1's picture

I believe the young reader requesting information about putting together a system is about to enter the life long quest of audiophile nirvana!  :) 

mward's picture

I've been using the SP-BS22-LR for a couple months in a desktop setup, angled up off the desk using some Audioengine stands made for that purpose. They're look a little big, but it's mainly because they're tall. Most comparable bookshelf speakers are $250 or more. In this setting, bass was perfectly reasonable for a bookshelf speaker, especially given that they use only a 4" woofer. 

I used the Pioneers to review some small, inexpensive amplifiers, and they made for a great budget combination. They'll perform better with nicer amps, and they did well with models from Audioengine and NuForce, but also still sounded pretty good with less expensive models form Parts Express and Orb Audio. 

And the Pioneers can be found for less than their MSRP pretty readily as well. With the bookshelf Pioneers and an inexpensive amp, you'll have something that beats the pants off comparably priced computer speakers or speaker docks. 

Amazing bargain. 

greenkiwi's picture

I enjoyed reading this review about an afordable audio solution.  With both the things it does well and the compromises that it has. (As everything has compromises, even if those compromises are that you have to pay $80K for it.)

lonndoggie's picture

Michael--

Per Pioneer's website, the floorstanders are SP-FS52, not SP F552-LR (note the "S" instead of "5").  The bookshelf speakers are as you have it, SP-BS22-LR.  BS for bookshelf, FS for floorstander, and LR for "left-right", meaning you get the pair with the bookshelfs, not with the floorstanders (clue #1 about how they're sold).

And more pricing magic:  I added each model to my cart on Pioneer's site as well...and each shows as $129.99!  Listed on the site at $159, but $30 off at checkout.  Nice.

One more clue as to how many per: The FS says "speaker" in the cart description, the BS says "speakers".

It takes detective work, doesn't it?

Michael Fremer's picture

Like I sez these names don't exactly roll off yer tongue or yer fingertips. I'll fix. I swear, every time I referred to the numbers when writing that review I had to check on them and I guess I got them wrong more than a few times. But I'll ficks!

hnipen's picture

Michael, will we see your Wilson's on Audiogon now? :D

Thanks for a very nice and interesting review, well in general I always enjoy reading your reviews, would be interesting to see even more articles from your side about more affordable stuff, especially good tips about matching of affordable components to maximize the synergies.

I never paid any real attention to Pioneer but yezzz, do they have a big range of speakers, all the way up to the $10.800 S-1EX that Kal Rubinson revied in Stereophile, did you ever listen to the S-1EX Michael?, Kal suggested that it betters anything he had at home.....

Also it would be very interesting to see what Mr. Jones could do with a very affordable 3 way floorstander. ==.-)
Or if he raises the bar to $2000, what magic can he do?
Andrew Jones.... Do you read this?
Considering their inventive naming scheme Pioneer is not likely to run out of product names for upcoming speaker models....

Bix's picture

Not that I'd be upgrading any time soon since I just got the floorstanders in December and I adore them, but I'm curious: Michael, what speakers would you recommend as being the next step up above these speakers, at least in terms of sound quality differences that most people would notice?  Most reviews I've seen have put them on about the same level as other "entry level great sounding" speakers that cost at least twice as much, like the Aperion Intimus 4T.  So what would you say would be the lowest priced set that clearly sounds noticeably better?

Thanks!

Toddh76's picture

Any chance you are going to do a review on the vpi traveler.

 

i love mine had it for five months.  Love to hear your opinions.

Steelhead's picture

Never heard them and will not buy them as I love my stats but I bet they are as nice as you described and would be ideal for beginners or folks not totally ate up with gear.

I base that on hearing some of the upper level TAD compression drivers in horn configurations.  Some of the best sound I have ever heard.  Dynamic and sweet at the same time.  Love em.

If I ever get the room and coin for a second system  I would be aiming for current TAD or old school JBL for a big ballsy horn system for that "classic" rock. 

donunus's picture

I was just curious to know whether the dynamic constraints of the speakers were due more to the lack of power from the low powered integrated or the speakers themselves. Did you try hooking up the pioneer floorstanders to any multikilobuck amps to see if it was more due to a power limitation?

Kurt's picture

The bookshelf model has been $99/pr on Amazon for a few days (it goes up and down), so I grabbed a pair for the kitchen. Your assessment was spot-on. Tried them in the main system first, and they did impress me in many ways. 

CindyNorman's picture

Amazing! That is genuinely a must to all musicians or even to the others who are certainly not. - Michael Courouleau

Jim Tavegia's picture

Those teathered to their computers would be wise to audition this system with the bookselve speakers and the A-20 and finally see what great sound might be. Then if they would download some tunes from HD Tracks they might understand what most of us understood long ago. Sometimes a discovery has to be made on one's own. 

Once there a USB DAC might be in their future.  There is hope. 

filmguerilla's picture

Hello Mr. Fremer,

I've been looking for some informations about this amp (A-20). This one fits my budget but i would like to know if this amp is good enough to match with a MA BX2.

I'm also interested with A-30. I tried comparing the two but they seem to be identical. Only a few differences with both amps. Is A-30 designed by Andrew Jones as well? Should i go with this amp or i could live by with A-20? My budget is a bit tight. Hopefully i could be able to build my setup in a few months. By the way, the source would be a ATLP-120. No CD player and i'm looking for a decent sound for my budget.

Thanks!

Michael Fremer's picture

Andrew Jones designs loudspeakers not amplifiers. I know nothing about the A-30 but the A-20 sounded really good driving the Pioneer speakers. The MA BX2 claims 90dB efficiency and recommended amp power is 30-100 watts so it should be a good match.

filmguerilla's picture

I read somewhere that it would be better to match the BX2 with warmer amps like NAD etc but i'm on a tight budget. I will try to look for a dealer where i'm right now. I might check the 316bee or the 326bee. Any other budget amp you can recommend for the speaker? 

 

Thanks again. Love reading here! :)

Learning's picture

Hi Michael (and other readers),

Thank you for your detailed review. I found it to be most helpful. I have one follow up question, as I intend to purchase either a pair of the floor standing model or the bookshelf model.
You mentioned that when listening to Julie London’s Julie is Her Name, that the bookshelf models sounded better. However, when you conclude your review, you mention that one could develop a system around a turntable, cd player, and a pair of floorstanders. Are the floorstanders preferred?

Do the bookshelf speakers require stands? I have the opportunity to purchase a pair of floorstanders for the cost of a pair of bookshelf speakers (and stands included).

Is there a clear choice here?

Any input would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you!

Michael Fremer's picture
I preferred the floor standers and bought a pair. The bookshelf models will sound better on stands and NOT on bookshelves!

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