For more than a decade now, debates have waging ever since manufacturers pushed audio technology beyond the quintessential. In the pursuit of matching the cinema experience there’s been an overabundance of accompanying technology—whether it’s through 6.1 surround back channels as discrete or matrix codecs like DTS-ES or Dolby Digital EX (the latter originally co-developed with Lucasfilm/THX), the implementation of upmixed virtualized surround, or just investing in a true 7.1 setup. Objectively, pseudo ‘height’ enhancement was even less impressive when it debuted in Dolby Pro Logic IIz, DTS Neo:X, and even wide-range additions from Audyssey DSX further added to the confusion.
With the home theater environment rapidly evolving, there an inevitable need to introduce game-changing technology that we have to accept. To appease my curiosity, Pioneer kindly loaned me their latest Elite Dolby Atmos Speaker System to hear how traditional multichannel audio could change as we know it. And for people who don’t get the eventual opportunity, these are undoubtedly one of the most robust and clearest-sounding speakers we’ve ever tested.
Editors’ Note: This is a ‘complete’ Elite speaker set provided by Pioneer Electronics which included two SP-EFS73 floorstanding towers ($699 each), SP-EBS73-LB bookshelf speakers ($749/pair), SP-EC73 center ($399), and a SW-E10 downward-firing subwoofer ($599). Each unit is sold separately but available direct and authorized vendors.
Hi! This is Dolby Atmos
To reiterate, Dolby Atmos is billed as a revolutionary object-oriented surround technology that—at least in venues—utilize a large array of installed overhead speakers for films mixed to process sound (objects) horizontally and/or vertically. This approach equals an immersive presentation and environmental ambiance that’s dynamically freed from static channel setups, and able to support a maximum of 128 discrete tracks and 64 unique speaker feeds at once.
For the home though, things are a little different as you’ll need a compatible high-end AV receiver, upfiring or ceiling-mounted speakers for a minimum 5.1.2 setup, and Blu-Ray movies released in the format. The effect is relatively downscaled compared to the cinema, but the consumer version is theoretically capable of an impressive, and potentially insane 24.1.10 (34 channel) setup nonetheless.
The collection was conceived by engineer Andrew Jones, who has earned renowned acclaim from working with KFE to Pioneer’s premium TAD brand and their excellent CE1 bookshelf speakers that go for $24,000/pair. There’s an elegant look rather than angular and dramatic, with a gently curved body and unique domed grilles that can be easily removed on the bookshelf and tower models. The design is completed with a signature black ash vinyl look without calling too much attention to their existence.
However, each component still has underlying presence and plenty of physical weight behind them. The dimensions even for the bookshelf variety are humbly described as compact at 15.7 lbs. and measurements of 7.4 wide by 15.7 tall and a depth of 9.7 inches. The rest of the supplied ensemble is equally grand in scale with the integration of concentric driver/aluminum tweeter for extended response, and all of them also sport gold plated binding posts in the rear, with a second set top binds in the bookshelves and towers.
Getting it right for reference
The setup is familiar enough until the implementation of the upfiring speakers during the procedure, which was somewhat confusing since they utilize existing port terminals that aren’t labeled concisely. This is where an object-based system differs from standard 5.1 installations and required a little more adjustment, proper placement of the SP-EBS73-LB became necessary, and the need for at least 24-inch satellite stands becomes crucial. The effect must envelope the listener in the form of more power from above.
For our 5.1.4 arrangement (the third decimal represents the number of discreet height speakers) which is officially called a “reference setup” by Dolby, we found out that the “Dolby SP” preset through MCACC calibration consistently gave a moderate increase between +1dB to +4dB.
Immersion From Above
I’ve been enthusiastic about the concept of object-based surround when it hit the theaters, but had concerns that the setup could be a little too rigid for my environment. Our listening room was within parameters, if you ignore the ceiling fan right in the middle of the sweet spot, and the possibility of absorbed sound after bouncing off the ceiling. It did feel like a minor boost overkill at first, but only took a few minutes to realize the added compensation for energy loss during reflection. My initial doubts were immediately gone after manually tuning and comparing the top forwards (TFwL/TFwR) and top backwards (TBwL/TBwR) levels for better acoustic dimension.
We weren’t lacking for content either as we had a Pioneer SC-89 9.2ch Elite AV receiver and Dolby’s Atmos demo disc to start, along with Blu-ray movies of Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D, American Sniper, and the Diamond Luxe edition of Gravity. Each piece of material portrayed the best attributes in terms of ambiance, distance, and explosive impact. The excitement of being able to hear the exact locations of individual elements from a rainforest downpour to distant helicopters circling overhead was something of a revelation to me – it’s not only that the height objects are carefully mixed but the fact that our configuration properly filled in those absent rear surround channels pretty damn good too.
And probably—through the knowledge and intention of Andrew Jones—that could’ve been the point. Because each Elite speaker in plain form projects an undeniable essence of clarity, and all but eliminated discernible levels of harshness and distortion associated with bass response. For smoother instrumentals or orchestral soundtracks in both studio and live albums the SP-EBS73-LR handled stereo with tremendous definition, with much of that low-end rumbling and lovely bass kept effortlessly deep with just the driver; well before the supplied Elite SW-E10 subwoofer even had to kick in. Although more expressive recordings and gritty hard rock stand out considerably when evidence of treble is involved, thankfully the sensations are controlled very well and cleanly elevated instead of overtly bright.
The SP-EC73 center channel is natural when it specifically focuses on dialog, capturing the nuances of prominent vocals in The Green Mile and No Country For Old Men that demanded attention when heard. This was great for films mastered correctly but consequently brought out imperfections in material not as well-crafted to match this speakers’ capabilities, an inherent duality built into the forwardness of the drivers themselves.
I decided to save the monolithic SP-EFS73 towers and the understated SW-E10 for last because while they legitimately complete the setup, both are more of a guilty pleasure than essential pieces. To be fair, we love that the SP-EFS73s are louder and tighter to accentuate richer detail, but found the differences to the SP-EBS73-LR negligible for a full arrangement. The verdict was similar for the SW-E10 subwoofer which is a decent contender and gets the job done for low-end bass, but remains overshadowed by other powerful options already available in the $500-$700 range.
It’s far too early to tell if the world of Dolby Atmos will appeal to anyone besides audiophiles or bleeding-edge neophytes—let alone a lean number of receivers that can properly decode remains niche at the moment. But even without object-oriented capabilities in the equation, the Pioneer Elite Atmos Speaker System is an incredible all-around performer. Whether the technology catches on is uncertain, but at least enthusiasts will be treated to awesome home theater audio aimed for the future.