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as reviewed by Dave Clark
The Pioneer S-1EX series is the collaboration between Pioneer and Andrew Jones (of KEF and Tad to name just a few …read the interview with Andrew here). This is a merging of sorts of what Andrew accomplished with the TAD line at a more affordable price point—$9000 a pair. Well, not that affordable, but when compared to the price of the TAD line (starting at $45k) then the all-out S-1EX is rather well …affordable. After all, you are getting what makes the TAD speakers so special in a package that is quite pleasing and easy to live with …these are very beautiful speakers to look at and are equally at home in MOMA. Heck, if that is not a worthy enough recommendation, then you need to get out more and see some culture!
All right, what do you get for your $9k? Well first off, this is one heavily engineered speaker featuring a cabinet using multiple layers of laminated MDF (ranging from a minimum of 30 mm up to a generous 100 mm) to ensure that they remain inert. The curved baffle and radius edges help to create an amazingly realistic stage with exceptional clarity and focus. And that it does! They are very heavy and very dead with respect to the knuckle test. Actually, after tapping here and there just to see how solid the cabinets were, my knuckles were dead!
The speakers have an integral base featuring pod-like feet with cones that are adjustable allowing one to level or tilt the speaker as need be. Fit and finish is first class and while they may look black, there is actually a dark red wood-tone. Only the front scooped out baffles are black.
Anyhow, each speaker features concentric tweeter/midrange. The tweeter is 1-3/8 in. (3.5cm) with a Beryllium dome and the mid is a 5-1/2 in. (14cm) with a Magnesium cone. And, they are concentric. Yeah I know I said that, but this is the key to all of Andrew's designs—concentric tweeter/mids. The idea being that the use of concentric drivers and Beryllium will… ah …um …uh, …ah forget it, let me just quote from the TAD site:
Now the S-1EX is not quite the TAD version, but they have a lot in common. The S-1EX's concentric driver is a simpler version of that found in the TAD, and ...well the idea behind these types of drivers is that simply sound better! The problem is to get the full effect of this design means that they should be angled right into the listener, if not a tad before. The result here is that the speakers beam the sound at you with the result being less of a disappearing act and a narrower (though highly articulated and defined) soundstage. You can toe them out (which is what we did after Andrew left, he liked them towards the rear wall and angled at the listener as suggested, but sheesh, what does he know?), but heck man, this is my house! No one is going to come here and tell me how to set up them big boxes! I like my sound big and wide with less of that "the sound is coming from me …are you listening to me …hey listen to me" perspective. Actually a lot less.
We liked the speaker way out into the room and angled just a few inches towards the listener. For us, this offered the best sonic (make that tonal and harmonic) presentation with a wider and deeper soundstage more to our liking. On the other hand, they never did completely disappear. We had expected more of a Houdini act based on the elaborate and hefty cabinet construction, but we could always see the speakers when listening to music. Not an issue really, just what we heard.
The two woofers of the S-1EX are 7-1/16 in. (18cm) with an Aramid/carbon cone. These drivers are really cool and with the front vent (all vents should be in the front as it really addresses issues with the floor and rear wall) these speaker produce deep and powerful bass. No boom and bloom, just lots of grunt and slam. Being fast and clean, the bass from the S-1EX is quite amazing for just two 7" drivers, sounding way bigger and more powerful than they have any pretension of being! They do not go quite as low or with the impact of the Reimers, the S-1EX are more piston-like and forceful. Slam it man, slam it. They play loud and clean!
These are bi-wire-able and brother… they have to be set up that way to get them to sing as they should. We initially had them wired up with a single run of Kubala-Sosna Emotion cables using some jumpers I had made with 10-gauge copper. While it worked, that is they made sound, it was not really where we wanted to be. They just did not sound right—being rather dull and lifeless when compared to the Reimers, which sound fantastic with the Kubala-Sosna Emotions (the Reimers feature a series crossover and therefore are not bi-wire-able). Switching to a bi-wired set of Jorma 1 (about the same price as the Kubala-Sosna Emotions) really made the S-1EX stand up and play. And play they did. They now sounded considerably better in all respects—more music, more of everything ...way more better. Yeah, thanks for asking, was it the cables or bi-wiring that made the biggest difference? Well both really. I tried the Jormas as a single-run (using the jumpers as before) and things dropped considerably in the fun and pleasure zone. Meaning that the Jormas are a better match with the S-1EX than the Kubala-Sosna Emotions. Go figure, after all cables should not make any difference… wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Actually, I had several golden-eared audiophiles sitting in the room when I tried the cables and all found the Jormas to be a significant improvement when we bi-wired the S-1EX loudspeakers And yet… on the Reimers the Kubala-Sosna Emotions are simply the better of the two… HA! Yeah… go figure.
I will admit that our time with the S-1EX was limited due to other commitments—we only had them for a couple of weeks. Even so, I was able to get quite a few hours on them each day and can unequivocally say this… these are very clean speakers with no apparent tonal colorations. That is they do not impart their own footprint into or onto the music. I would characterize them as being way more linear than the Reimers—say more truthful and tonally even, with the Reimers sounding richer and fuller—no doubt more colored and in some way, flawed. With the S-1EX, nothing jumps out at you screaming for your attention. Andrew has done an amazing job of eliminating any colorations or crap that can impart (for better or worse depending on what they are and where you stand with respect to truthfulness) a signature on the sound or music. Much of this is a result of Andrew's TAD studio pedigree and desire to use what he knows about speaker engineering, along with what he as to his disposal at Pioneer to the max. Yes, the S-1EX has its own personality, sort of "this is what you get." But so what? What speaker doesn't do the same? Just depends on whether you are after what they are giving you …or not. Like I said they are linear with no obvious tonal aberrations or colorations. None of which is to imply that the S-1EX are lean, thin, and lifeless. Or that they are the pinnacle of being ruthlessly transparent and analytical—meaning that they are an un-musical transducer. I have heard many other popular state-of-the-art speakers that can do that till the cows come home. Not sure why some of these are so popular or praised by other audiophiles/music lovers as being the best …oh well, to each their own.
The S-1EX is an honest speaker that places the performers somewhat behind the plane of their baffles in very controlled environment. They offer an extremely dynamic un-compressed sound that can fill the room and, if need be, rattle your neighbor's place. Yeah, these are true lease breakers if you want to go that way, and yet they preserve their presence when played at any sane or even conversational levels—in many ways these are polite speakers that will not insult your ears or your music. They are coherent and honest top to bottom—they maintain their composure no matter what you want to toss their way. Yes, they are not something that one would consider being inexpensive, but S-1EX truly delivers a musical presentation that is equal to their cost. Meaning, they are worth the money. Hey they ain't some box with drivers ...ya' know that don't ya' honey?
Caveats? Certainly, after all, audio is all about personal choices. I would prefer a touch more color in their presentation. Like I said, they are linear and honest, but we like whatever the Reimers are adding to the sound, whether it is a result of their crossover, cabinet, or driver configuration. What that is, I am not so sure. Colorations? Lies? Perhaps, but then I don't really care. Compared to the S-1EX, the Reimers have more spirit to them, more sway and swing, more color and seasoning, more sauciness or simply that something your mother told you to stay away from when you were young and impressionable. Now this is what I would expect, as the S-1EX is more linear and accurate than the Reimers. They should be with all the design and engineering that went into them. Even so, with the S-1EX, we felt something just so was missing from our music. What I mean is that we want more angst, more turmoil, or more of that visceralnessishness that makes music edgy and something you just got to stop and look at no matter how ugly it may be. Perhaps we should be settling down as we get older, but with our music and preferences ...well, then again why not?! Heck, some days I am too tired to stay up past 9PM... and on Saturday!! But life is short and we want ...well we want something more.
All of this is not to suggest that the S-1EX is a boring speaker—that it ain't. No, they play music—that they do quite well. Perhaps it is that the S-1EX has a personality that mirrors their presence or image (their pedigree?), which (and this may be just me) has more to do with that of a studio as opposed to a home. They are simply too much of a good thing—they present a sound similar to what a studio rat wants to hear in a recording. We all have our own ideals as to what things should sound like, and in talking to Andrew Jones I know that the S-1EX sounds exactly as it should. He knows his stuff and the S-1EX is a solid reflection of his experiences. Perhaps the S-1EX is too perfect with respect to its engineering. For Carol and I, well we want something a touch more flawed. Simply put, the S-1EX is too good for us!
You should also make sure you got them where you want as they are heavy as all get out (150lbs each). Have a friend over, one with a strong back, though we were able to rock them around rather well. I am not sure as to break-in, as the speakers we had are the same ones used for shows and such—meaning they had a lot of time on them and sounded the same from the get go. They do show fingerprints quite easily, but a damp cloth is all that one needs to pass the housekeeping test. The audition pair did not come with grills, so I can't comment as to off or on, though Andrew admits that off is better.
As I said above (and a picture is worth a thousand words) the S-1EX presents an image of fast and clean. Very sexy too. As a matter of fact, drop the hyphen and the one and what does that spell?! Sex! Yeah, they are quite sexy with all their curves and stylish posture. Leaning back all mean and stealthy, they are engineered to the max. The S-1EX is a killer product. They are an honest speaker that brings the studio into your room without going too far in the wrong direction. Well maybe too far for us, but I do appreciate what Andrew has done with these speakers. The S-1EX is an engineering marvel and sounds as they should. Give 'em a listen!
BTW, while they are a Pioneer product, typical Pioneer dealers are not the source for an audition. So skip Best Buy and Circuit City. Andrew is currently establishing a series of high-end dealers across the US, so contact Pioneer to see who is local to you. They are worth the drive. Besides, it will get you off the couch and out of the house! Dave Clark