SMARTER THAN THE AVERAGE BAR...

It streams, it displays, it networks, it Bluetooths — Pioneer’s soundbar and subwoofer solution offers more options than most, at an astounding price. 

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Many soundbars aim to be the ultimate in simplicity — just the one connection cable and an absolutely minimum of set-up required. This soundbar and wireless subwoofer solution requires rather more in the way of cabling, but your returns on this investment expand this system’s capabilities far beyond the norm — with Bluetooth, network streaming and even a full on-screen display.

EQUIPMENT
The first sign of these extensive abilities is the pouched slab of instruction manuals that greet you when unboxing the Pioneer. These are mercifully led by a simple large-format set-up guide, and we applaud also Pioneer’s decision to recognise the supremacy of the English language by shifting all the foreign stuff into a separate 300+-page tome, keeping the English version in a more manageable 68-pager.

Also in the pouch is a full-size drill stencil handy for those considering wall-mounting the bar — note, however, Pioneer’s warnings about its weight, also the number of cables that will emerge from it (see ‘Plugging It Up’ below), and perhaps its 11cm depth, not the flushest of on-wall solutions.

The bar can be raised a few centimetres using supplied feet, or left firing horizontally from its neat silver grille, which is broken centrally by a display with subtle one-line white lettering. There are four speakers in the bar — twin 77mm cones firing down through grilles for the midrange up to 200Hz, 66mm cones firing out for the treble. The bar enclosure ports at each end.

PLUGGING IT UP
Most soundbars recommend optical as the best and simplest connection to your TV. But here there’s an HDMI socket, so the optimum is instead to have an HDMI cable to your TV, though only if your television has an ARC-compatible HDMI input. ARC is the ‘audio return channel’ within the multi-pin HDMI cable, and this allows the Pioneer to receive whatever audio the TV is playing, from whatever source. If your TV has no ARC-compatible HDMI input, you will need to use the optical connection in the normal way, but you’ll still have to make the HDMI connection as well, so you can see and take advantage of the Pioneer’s onscreen display. Once set up, you may rarely use this, but it’s essential during set-up, when changing most settings, or if you want to browse and play video from USB or the network.

So two things — firstly make sure you have a spare HDMI input on your TV, and secondly, ask your dealer if they might throw in an HDMI cable, since Pioneer supplies an optical cable in the box, but no HDMI.

There are two optical inputs, so whichever TV connection method you pick, there’s a spare socket for a further optical input from your Blu-ray or DVD player, which will potentially yield better results (and less processed surround signals) than piping the sound through the TV.

There is also networking. Give the Pioneer Ethernet if possible, otherwise you can set it up wirelessly, using the button-pairing of WPS if your router supports it, otherwise manually entering Wi-Fi security codes using the onscreen virtual keyboard.

We also made use of the IR emitter output and the provided blaster cable. These overcome the possible problem of the Pioneer blocking the IR receiver on your TV, as it certainly did for the Sony X670 TV we used during this test. This IR passthrough required activation through the extensive set-up menus, and while we were in there, we checked for a software update over the network; we found one, and it took about 10 minutes to update.

That’s all the back panel socketry — and with IR, HDMI, optical, Ethernet and mains cables all connected, you might want to consider some sort of cable management to tidy the tangle now emerging from the back of the soundbar. No such need with the subwoofer, however — we just plugged in the mains and it paired instantly with the soundbar, giving never a problem thereafter. This has a single 16.5cm (6.5-inch) woofer which fires downward and ports at the front, so the upright unit can be positioned hard up against a wall or corner. You can control its output remotely via the mini remote control — hoorah! (We like to make regular sub level adjustments.) That remote control is well stocked, and indeed is perhaps slightly-too-mini a remote, given these many buttons.

But there’s more! On the front of the soundbar are minijack and USB sockets, allowing ad hoc connection of portable players and files on USB storage (drives or sticks). The USB socket also charges devices.

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PERFORMANCE
Within an hour or so, we had plugged everything up, been through the Pioneer’s onscreen menus, done a bit of network surfing and installed a firmware update. And we had come to the realisation that this is significantly more than a mere soundbar and wireless subwoofer. It contains a fair chunk of the abilities you’d expect from Pioneer’s networked receivers.

It is, for example, the first soundbar we can recall which is also a DLNA media player — so effectively a source, actually playing video (and music) from networked devices and storage, and via USB as well. Select ‘Media Browser’ to display all your network shares using Pioneer’s onscreen display — we were able to stream movies from one NAS drive; we streamed 24-bit/192kHz Booker T & the MGs high-res audio from another. Despite the manual saying it wouldn’t stream FLAC files from the network, it was happy to do so right up to 24-bit/96kHz (we got stutters at 192k, but this will be network-dependent), along with AAC, MP3, WMA and WAV, but not Apple Lossless or AIFF.

Navigation of on-screen menus was a little prone to delays in response from the remote control, nor was there any way to speed-jump down long lists. But it’s easy to fix these issues by browsing via an app like Media Connect on your smart device, then pushing media via DLNA (or Bluetooth for audio) to the Pioneer. This proved much smoother. 

Playing these music files revealed the Pioneer’s sonic balance, and it proved somewhat boxy, with little in the way of open and airy treble but a slice of quite shrieky treble which could make certain frequencies — one example was the tambourine on Talking Heads’ ‘And She Was’ — cut through quite unpleasantly. Meanwhile the bass from the subwoofer was fairly soft and, with a high crossover to the bar around 1750Hz, tended to pull bass content to the position of the subwoofer. One mono recording emerged with the bass player positioned hard left. 

Among the buttons and menus there are many sonic variations you can enlist to tailor this sound to taste. There is one-touch remote control access to ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Night’ modes — indeed we thought these perhaps too easily accessible, except that their use is accompanied by a bright green LED on the bar (applaudably dimmable as well, as are all the front lights and display), so you’re unlikely to leave these sound modes on by mistake. There is also a dedicated button for ‘Sound Menu’, which offers ‘Surround’, two levels of ‘Sound retriever’, three options of EQ, the same ‘Night’ and ‘Dialogue’ modes and, usefully, an audio sync adjustment (audio delay only, obviously; it won’t fix leading video).

Of these options the music setting of EQ lifted the treble somewhat, and unusually we found the ‘surround’ option helped music to escape its boxy bounds and spread out more enthusiastically, though its selection also required a nudge down on subwoofer level to counter the additional bass emphasis.

We quickly discovered that the Pioneer benefits from playing quite loud, where frequency response seems to even out behind an impressively involving sound with some enormous kick — we would party with this combination more readily than we might use it for critical music listening.

More music streaming is available via Bluetooth (the Pioneer appears in your smart device’s list as an undecided SBX-N500/N700). This connection streamed whatever audio we played on our iPad 2 glitch-free, though unusually the iPad itself could not control volume via either soft slider or hard buttons, only muting. Given the softness of the soundbar’s delivery, there was no apparent drop in quality via Bluetooth compared with the higher quality of network streaming.

This bar’s ‘impressive when loud’ character served movies very well. The N700 relished being given its rein at higher levels, and this may be one reason for the unit’s relatively tame treble, since at higher levels the bar can project loudly without causing offence. In Battlestar Galactica S03E09 the switches between boxing-ring action and flashback dialogue were suitably heightened and intimate in turn, with dialogue remaining audible throughout, and no mismatch between overquiet lows and too-loud highs. The boxiness was less apparent in the rough and tumble of a soundtrack mix, though that sharp band of treble still manifested occasionally, notably in the jingles, cymbals and compressed voiceovers of game shows and ads. But it could nevertheless deliver soaring strings with sweetness if not quite shimmer over the dynamic crashes of battle in Branagh’s Henry V.

There’s no ‘learning’ here, where the soundbar learns to react to your existing TV remote’s commands, but there’s a good chance this will work anyway, through HDMI CEC compatibility between the Pioneer and your TV; it did for us with the Sony.

The Pioneer can also connect by Wi-Fi Direct and Miracast, should you be keen to stream to your TV from a smart device so equipped. We also successfully pushed content to it using the ‘Play To’ commands from Windows 7, and using apps such as TwonkyBeam and Flipps HD, with varying degrees of control over playback. Such apps can often be preferable for navigation compared with the Pioneer’s own sometimes rubbery browsing system.

There’s also a dedicated YouTube button on the remote — for us this content tended to stutter during service, but again this will be network dependent.

CONCLUSION
The price for all this is jaw-droppingly low — we had to double-check it with Pioneer because we would have been less surprised had we been told it was double the price or even more. But perhaps it does show, not in the build or the abilities on offer, but in that sound quality — we wouldn’t choose the N700 as a music system, especially at lower volume levels. But if it’s not music you’re looking for, and especially if you don’t currently have network streaming to your TV system, or a way to play Bluetooth content in your lounge, then the Pioneer brings both these skills to the soundbar party, in addition to a presentation particularly suited to high-octane movie playback.

 

Pioneer SBX-N700 soundbar & subwoofer: $549

+ PLUS: Way smarter than the average bar; Network streaming; Bluetooth; Onscreen display

- MINUS: Also more complicated than the average bar; Uses an HDMI socket on your TV; Not the best for music; HDMI & network cables not supplied

CONNECTIONS: 2 x optical digital, Ethernet, USB in, minijack in, Bluetooth, HDMI out (ARC), IR blaster out

STREAMING: Bluetooth, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast, YouTube

SOUNDBAR DRIVERS: 2 x 66mm full-range cone, 2 x 77mm woofer

SOUNDBAR DIMENSIONS (whd): 900 x 106 x 121mm with feet

SOUNDBAR WEIGHT: 4.4kg

SUBWOOFER DRIVER: 165mm woofer

SUBWOOFER DIMENSIONS (whd): 220 x 415 x 270mm

SUBWOOFER WEIGHT: 6.7kg

QUOTED POWER: 220W total (into 4 ohms, 10% THD) 

WARRANTY: 12 months

 

Product link: Pioneer SBX-N700