As one of the only areas of the loudspeaker market making any money, it’s no surprise that Pioneer is dabbling in soundbar technology. These compact, space-saving systems have really caught consumers’ imagination, bringing high-quality home cinema sound to rooms where space is too tight for rear speakers.
Pioneer has shunned the "built-in player" approach a la Samsung, LG and Philips for a straight-up speaker containing front/centre drivers, Dolby True HD decoding and 250W of amplification. It’s partnered by a wireless 100W sub, much to the delight of cablephobes everywhere.
The bar, which is designed to accompany TVs between 32-inch and 37-inch, can be mounted on the wall using the supplied fixings and looks effortlessly stylish with its curved profile, mirrored end panels and tidy display panel. The sub, meanwhile, is improbably small, which is a real bonus if space is tight.
Connections on the back of the bar include two HDMI inputs and one output - allowing you to channel two HD devices to a single input on your TV - plus optical and coaxial digital inputs for other audio sources. A useful selection but it’s measly compared with some rival soundbars, and the lack of a USB port is a shame.
The main unit can decode Dolby True HD bitstreams via HDMI, but not DTS-HD Master Audio. Thankfully it supports LPCM via HDMI too, so if you set your Blu-ray deck to decode DTS-HD MA you can still enjoy its high-res sound quality.
There’s loads of sound modes on board, chief among which is Pioneer’s Front Stage Surround, which aims to replicate the effect of rear speakers from the front of the room. It’s backed up by a bevy of Advanced Surround EQ modes, Auto Level Control (which kills sudden jumps in volume) and Advanced Sound Receiver, which boosts the quality of compressed audio formats like MP3 and WMA.
The system poses no major set-up problems, although it would have been helped immeasurably by an onscreen menu, as the front panel is a bit cryptic. You also get a credit card sized remote, which is beset by fiddly keys and a cluttered layout.
In action, the HTP-SB300 provides a busy, dynamic sound across the front of the room, and blasts out explosions with the sort of force that you simply don’t get from TV speakers. Loud high-frequency effects are sharp and clean, without that horrible harsh sound that you get from cheapo speakers, and the subwoofer is more muscular than expected.
On the downside, Front Stage Surround comes nowhere near the level of immersion or width you get from true rear speakers, even with bread and butter surround material like rain or echoes. In fact, with FSS activated the sound is a lot less comfortable on the ear, particularly with loud metallic sounds, and speech isn’t prominent enough.
It’s not great with music either, as the sub is a little too overpowering, but because the soundbar doesn’t have the bass depth to cope on its own it’s a bit of a Catch 22. Overall it’s no disaster, but not quite up to the standard of soundbars from the likes of B&W and Teufel.