Saturday, May 3, 2008

SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver

SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
SVS SBS-01 Speaker System and Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

There are people who claim to read your future in your palm. Others reach conclusions about your income, taste, and character according to what type of shoes you're wearing. For my own part, I can look at your selection of loudspeakers and know exactly what kind of home theater person you are.

For some home theater buffs, bigger is always better. If nothing but floorstanding speakers will do, you're probably someone with lots of real estate, possibly a dedicated screening room, plus a muscle amp and a taste for accurate, well-distributed, perfectly integrated bass response. You might have gotten used to this with a high-end two-channel amp-and-preamp system, which would make you either late middle-aged, a bit old-fashioned, or both. Yours is a difficult quest because so many floorstanding speakers today are optimized for use with subwoofers and may not fulfill your bass-hungry dreams. But if you keep an eye on our lab's frequency-response and sensitivity measurements, you may get what you want.

At the opposite end of the sensibility scale is the home theater buff for whom smaller is better. If this is you, then you may be new to home theater in general and only grudgingly accept the notion of living with five to seven speakers plus a sub. Incidentally, I think this is a perfectly sane point of view. To you, speakers are an obscene intrusion into a lovingly designed room, so the less space they take up, the happier you are with them. In-walls, on-walls, and impossibly tiny satellites on metal-rod stands pique your interest. Yours, likewise, is a difficult quest, because, while there are some great sat/ sub sets out there, there are also plenty of underperformers with mediocre one-note subs. Our lab measurements might help you as well, but you're more intuitively oriented and therefore more likely to be swayed by good word of mouth or slick aesthetics.

Then there's the guy in the middle. That would be me. My reference speakers are 14-inch-tall stand-mount models with just enough bass to run without a subwoofer (and sometimes, I do run them that way). When mated with the right sub, they let out quite a roar, but they're also small enough to move out of the way when review samples arrive. In fact, they're sitting in a pile to the right of my desk as I type. This middling size category may sound like a compromise—but actually, if I weren't a reviewer, the speakers I have now would still be the ones I'd choose. They're not too big, not too small, and, as Grace Slick would say, they feed my head.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, if I were in the speaker market today, I'd be looking for something about the size of SV Sound's SVS SBS-01 speaker package. Built around stand-mount monitors, it's just the right size for me. Its mate in this Spotlight System review is the Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V receiver. As the top model in Pioneer's more affordable line, this receiver offers a nearly definitive features set at an affordable price. That's another way to define moderation.

An American company, SVS was founded in the late 1990s on the outskirts of Youngstown, Ohio. Then suffering from the decline of the auto-making industry, the region was the perfect place for a budding speaker company to take root. SVS products are assembled in the U.S. from parts sourced from both inside and outside the country.

As I write this, SVS has one existing speaker line, a second about to make its debut in late 2007, and a third being readied for 2008. SVS also has a soft spot for subwoofers, as a half-dozen more existing lines indicate, including both cylindrical and rectangular models.

The SBS-01 package is based on a quartet of the SBS-01 "bookshelf" speakers with the SCS-01 center and the PB10-NSD 10-inch subwoofer. That word gets quotation marks because shelf placement usually hobbles a speaker. In our institutional wisdom, we often refer to stand-mount speakers as monitors, unless they're bass-shy, in which case they're called satellites. Life is complicated.

Rounded side edges give the SBS-01 a distinctive gapless look, obtained with computer-controlled machining, and the textured-vinyl finish is fused onto the enclosure. An informal knuckle rap suggests that the company is telling the truth when they claim considerable internal bracing. Normally, my first visual impression of a speaker remains constant, but I came to appreciate this set's quiet good looks over time. The longer they were around, the better I liked their lack of adornment. They're rigorously nondescript in an almost classical way, saying "speaker" in the same way my beloved IBM ThinkPad X60 says "laptop."

SVS provides two grilles. The speakers are shipped (in pairs) with an installed grille that produces what the company describes as a warmer sound with less upper-midrange emphasis. But the box also contains an optional grille with asymmetrical circular cutouts that are "slightly offset for the tweeter, by design" to produce a flat response. This is for tweakers what cuttlebone is to a parrot. (When I copy-edited for a living, my boss used to hand me manuscripts and say, "More cuttlebone.") The grilles have chrome mounting pins, so you can exchange them endlessly without fear of breaking off a plastic pin. I briefly tried both grilles, preferred the installed ones, and stuck with them.

On the back is a pair of plastic-nut binding posts, two threaded mounting inserts—because these are fairly heavy speakers—and a keyhole mount. The SCS-01 center speaker, a horizontally arrayed woofer-tweeter-woofer model, also comes with a cradle that sits atop a rear-projection set and allows you to vary the firing angle.

As for the sub, what immediately jumped out at me was its brawny size. For an enclosure harboring a single 10-inch driver, this thing is big. The spec sheet says it's 21 inches long, but with its grille, it's actually 22.5. Throw in 2 or 3 more inches for jutting power and other cables, and you're past the 2-foot mark. The mere sight of the carton nearly gave me a stroke. Clearly, SVS is a believer in the advantages of a big sub cabinet when it comes to delivering strong bass.

High End of the Low End
Pioneer, like Onkyo and Sony, maintains two receiver lines. I've always been a big fan of the higher-end Elite line, which includes models ranging from $650 to $1,500. But Pioneer also offers a more mass-market line with models starting at just $199. The VSX-1017TXV-K, at $499, is at the top of that line—the high end of Pioneer's low end, as it were. Buy an Elite receiver, and you get Pioneer's heaviest build quality and best performance. Buy from the mass-market line, and you get every feature a receiver could possibly have at that price point, plus a few more you might not expect.

The VSX-1017TXV-K delivers 120 watts per channel using the Federal Trade Commission's standard method of specification. The spec sheet claims continuous power of 110 watts at a full range of frequencies or up to 150 watts with a test tone at 6 ohms. I'm not sure what our lab will make of this, but I never felt that the system lacked power. As a THX Select2–certified receiver, the VSX-1017TXV-K is guaranteed to produce sound levels up to 105 decibels with THX Select2–certified speakers in a room of up to 2,000 cubic feet. In layman's terms, with fairly sensitive speakers in a modest-sized room, this would do it.

To truly appreciate the scope of the Pioneer is to enjoy long sentences with lots of commas. This receiver has automatic setup to make life easy for newbies and room equalization to compensate for acoustic deficiencies. It's both Sirius and XM satellite radio ready, and it accommodates an iPod with an optional adapter. And if you think that's verbose, it's a distillation of an online spec sheet with 36 bullet points. I was restraining myself.

The devil is in the details. This receiver has HDMI (two in, one out—or as it says on the French side of the carton, "2 entrée, 1 sortie"). However, it is for video switching only. There is no onboard decoding for new surround codecs delivered by Blu-ray and HD DVD—in other words, no Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, and so on. But if the player has a full set of analog outputs, you can connect them to the receiver's 7.1-channel analog inputs.

His Uncompressed Master's Voice
For the first time ever, I approached a review with an extra signal source. In addition to my trusted Integra DPS-10.5 universal player, I also used the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player. The latter source component handled all video-viewing duties this time out.

As a late adopter of Blu-ray and HD DVD, I'm just beginning to realize how they can improve surround sound. Even the simplest things take on a new feel—for instance, Will Smith's voiceover as the romantic Machiavelli of Hitch (Blu-ray). As I switched back and forth between the uncompressed high-data-rate PCM soundtrack and the compressed Dolby Digital, I definitely heard a difference in overall sound quality. True, there was also a difference in levels, and the uncompressed soundtrack was louder, so I had to make the switch several times to feel certain. Theoretically, I could also have been fooled if the two soundtracks were mixed differently. But my impression was that the PCM soundtrack had superior resolution, warmth, and presence.

Disturbia is a transposition of Rear Window to suburbia—in DTS 5.1—with the original's visual virtuosity and comedy of manners giving way to Blair Witch–like video and shock effects. The latter are accompanied by orchestral poundings, which were doled out with a surprisingly restrained hand, and only at a few peak moments. I attributed this to the mix, not to the sub, which confidently conveyed low pitches when called upon.

The House of Sand uses Dolby Digital surround effects to assert what director Warner Herzog once referred to as "the monumental indifference of nature." He didn't direct this Brazilian film, and he was actually referring to grizzly bears, but I couldn't help thinking of that phrase as the sounds of shrieking, whooshing desert sandstorms poured out of all channels. The size of the soundfield was not just large but intimidating—I almost felt lost in it. Waves crashing on the beach received the right low-frequency support from the sub.

While My Keyboard Gently Weeps
When I switched to the Integra universal player, I treated myself to a rare high-profile release in the struggling DVD-Audio format. Love is arguably the most elaborately mixed tape of all time. George Martin and his son Giles pieced together this kaleidoscopic trip through the Beatles' recorded leg-

acy, including both new surround mixes of whole songs and elaborately interlocking fragments, very much in the spirit of the boys' own "Revolution 9." Played at the Dolby THX reference level of 85 dB, the loudest passages sounded a bit edgy at times. After I compared my Rotel RSX-1065 reference receiver, I attributed the edginess to the Pioneer, not to the speakers, the source material, or the player. With the Rotel costing four times as much as the Pioneer, this admittedly wasn't a fair fight. Even so, through either receiver, the Martins' surround mix of "I Am the Walrus" was an answer to my prayers, and Martin senior's new string orchestration for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" opened a whole new window into the song. Ringo's drum sound was full at the bottom and vivid in the midrange.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker: Favorite Selections is neither the famous suite nor the full ballet but an in-between, 73-minute set optimized for the playing time of an SACD (about the same as a CD). Telarc's 5.1-channel DSD recording of the Cincinnati Pops with Erich Kunzel turned this old warhorse into a frisky young pony, or perhaps I should say a series of dancing toys. It's impossible to imagine this recording sounding less than great on anything. I cross-checked again between the Pioneer and the Rotel, and I found that the latter brought out a lusher string sound and greater soundstage depth from the speakers. But with either receiver, there was still abundant detail and a strong sense of the recording venue, Cincinnati's Music Hall. The sub's integration of basses, cellos, and percussion into the orchestra was seamless.

Johnny Hartman, one of the greatest voices in both jazz and pop music history, offered the system an instrument to work with that's as distinctive as a Stradivarius. What I now recognized as the receiver's slightly forward treble emphasized the overlay of smokiness in the lungs, as well as the singer's precise enunciation. His rich baritone was well served by both woofers and subwoofers—full, not boomy.

If I have one regret about this review, it's that I underestimated the quality of the SVS SBS-01 speaker package in my first ears-on experience with the brand. No doubt, one of the higher-echelon members of Pioneer's Elite line would have proven to be a more suitable mate for what I now recognize as a stellar set of loudspeakers that transcends their $1,000 price tag. They deserve more than $499 worth of receiver. Still, plenty of folks will look at the features set and price of the Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K and find just what they need to complement an average sat/sub set—and there's certainly enough power to drive any set of affordable speakers within reasonable bounds.

So, this month's Spotlight System partners weren't meant for each other after all. But I wouldn't have missed this for the world.

SVS SBS-01 Speaker System:
• Two monitors, center, and sub for a thousand dollars
• Two sets of grilles supplied for your tweaking pleasure
• Subtle look, fine performance

Pioneer VSX-1017TXV-K A/V Receiver:
• THX Select2 receiver with auto setup and room correction
• Enough power for most speakers
• HDMI video switching

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