Pioneer Elite X-Z9 Compact Stereo System
Every once in a while, a
product comes along that combines several related ideas or concepts in a single package.
One of them is Pioneers Elite X-Z9 compact stereo system ($1799 USD). The
X-Z9s three boxes comprise two exquisite speakers and a handsome control unit that
contains a 40Wpc class-D switching amplifier, a more-than-adequate AM/FM tuner, an SACD/CD
player, more inputs than your typical audio head might ever use, and enough smarts to know
what to do with anything connected to those inputs.
The control unit is a slim box just 15.25"W by
3.5"H by 13.75"D, finished in the typical livery of a Pioneer Elite component:
black gloss on the front and sides, with a gold "Elite" logo on the left side of
the front panel. The top is finished in a matte black that looks like leather. On the
front panel are a large volume knob, the fluorescent display, and the CD tray. Below
these, rather hidden away in a recessed area, are the Standby/On switch and 3/8"
jacks for stereo input and 3/8" stereo headphone output. The X-Z9 can be controlled
from its chunky, comprehensive remote, or via several touch-sensitive switches on the top
of the control unit: Function (inputs and more), Play/Pause, Stop, Skip Track. The front
panel also includes a hint at further pleasures -- theres a USB port.
Turn the box around for more surprises: a DIN jack for
connecting a Sirius satellite radio receiver (which is controlled by the X-Z9), and a
mini-USB port for an XM tuner. The X-Z9 is the first Ive seen thats designed
to work with tuners from both satellite radio services -- very neat.
Theres also a connector for an iPod control cable
(supplied) that allows you to operate an iPod using the X-Z9s remote, as well as
recharge the iPods battery. The coup de grâce is a LAN port that allows the X-Z9 to
be fed by a computer or other networked source.
The X-Z9 will play MP3 (16-bit quantization, 8-48kHz
sampling frequency, 8-320kbps bit rate), LPCM (16-, 20-, and 24-bit quantization,
8-44.1kHz sampling), Windows Media (.wma, 16-bit, 8-48kHz sampling, 5-320kbps bit rate),
Apples AAC (16-bit, 32-48kHz sampling, 16-320kbps bit rate), and FLAC (8- or 16-bit,
any of six sampling rates from 8 to 48kHz). That covers about 98% of anything you might
find on the Internet.
There are traditional analog inputs as well, for a
moving-magnet phono cartridge (!), an additional line-in pair with accompanying line outs,
and FM and AM antennas. Very-heavy-duty speaker output terminals and a socket for the AC
cord complete the rear-panel array. The Loudness contour adds both bass and treble boosts
(more of the former than the latter) -- its not obnoxious, but its needed only
at very low volume levels.
The specs include only
scant information about the speakers, but theyre gorgeous, finished in a piano black
of flawless gloss to complement the control unit. Each has a 5.1" (13cm) plastic-cone
woofer and a concentric 5.1" plastic-cone midrange with 1.2" (3cm) metal-dome
tweeter -- the tweeter uses the midrange cone as a horn. The concentric mid/tweeter is a
Uni-Q design made under license from KEF. For bass reinforcement, theres a
rectangular bass-reflex port on the front. Although each speaker measures only 15"H
by 9"W by 12"D, theyre extremely heavy: 21 pounds each. And while they
look identical -- theres no offsetting of drivers, as in "mirror-imaged"
pairs -- the speakers are designated "Left" and "Right."
Setup and use
I placed the X-Z9 speakers on 31"-high Sanus stands,
which put their tweeters at my seated ear level. While Pioneer includes lengths of
nice-looking 16-gauge speaker cable, I used my own 16-gauge; the wire supplied by Pioneer
was too short to use in my listening room.
At first, I felt the speakers werent up to the
quality of the main unit. Even after some initial break-in, the treble was not as smooth
as I prefer, but they kept improving. As they continued to break in over 20 to 30 hours,
they rapidly showed their character. And the fact that they matched so beautifully with
one of the most versatile head units Ive ever encountered (and the fact that,
cosmetically, they cant be surpassed) made them just that much better. Once they
were broken in, I put their grillecloths back on with no detriment to their sound.
The X-Z9 amplifiers class-D switching circuit packs a
fair amount of power into a small package. Not once during the review period did the
receiver become warm to the touch -- a pretty well-buttoned-down design. Kudos to Pioneer.
Very nice sound, with power enough for any material and loudness Id care to try.
A press of the remote controls Sound button grants
access to some pre-set equalization curves: Vivid (a bit of boost to the midbass and
mid-highs), Exciting (similar, but includes some echo), and Relaxing (which puzzled me: it
made many vocalists sound as if they were in the next room). These settings couldnt
be engaged when the X-Z9 was playing SACDs, which provides a clue to Pioneers
philosophy: other sources may need some help, but SACDs dont.
One appreciated feature: Any time you hit one of the
controls on the X-Z9s top, a microscopic LED momentarily emits a rather eerie
bright, white light, letting you know the unit received your command.
The SACD/CD player and its touch controls were delights.
Once an SACD was loaded and Id touched the Play button, there was no lag -- unlike
with a typical CD player, the sound began in less than a second. The SACD sound was a bit
cleaner and seemed to have a lower noise floor -- the reproduction of the music happened
in a truly "black" environment.
I spent one evening listening to high-bit-rate (160kbps)
MP3s and MP2s fed to the X-Z9 from a laptop via USB. As part of the evenings
festivities, I engaged one of the X-Z9s unique features: Sound Retriever, a DSP
circuit that attempts to clone back in the bits that the MP3 process strips from the
music. By and large, it did a great job, boosting the X-Z9s output by about 3dB, and
providing more solid bass and silkier highs. I also used Sound Retriever with the signal
of a local classical FM station. It seemed to overcome the compression radio stations are
forced to use, offering a wider dynamic range, stiffened bass, and extended highs.
However, Sound Retriever also made FM hiss a bit more evident, so its best to use it
with only the strongest signals. Overall, however, Sound Retriever was a welcome addition.
With some pieces I did turn down the bass slightly, as I felt the bottom end was slightly
To try the USB input with another type of file, I dubbed as
a .wav file "Belle of the Ball," from Cincinnati pianist Phil DeGregs 82hundred
Brill [CD, Strugglebaby SBD-2302]. The Pioneer X-Z9 recognized and displayed all the
folders and files on my USB flash drive. Pretty amazing! Even more amazing was the sound. 82hundred
Brill features the wonderful tone of a Bösendorfer concert grand piano; I expected
there to be no difference between the CD and the dub on the USB drive, but, lo and behold,
the bass of the dub was more solid, and dug more deeply, than did the CD. Perhaps
its the difference between moving parts and no moving parts -- I dont know. I
listened with all the DSP options and the Loudness contour off, and with the bass and
treble set to flat. I could see buying a few 4GB flash drives, now that theyre
cheap, and loading them up with music.
I then dubbed a few tunes from my computers CD drive
onto a neighbors iPod, and plugged the iPod into the X-Z9 via the Pioneers
connection cord. Very slick! It worked without muss, fuss, or bother. The sound was quite
solid -- as with the flash drive, the bass was slightly more solid and hearty than from
the CDs of the same tracks. Quite satisfactory!
One album I like is Steve Tyrells Standard Time [Columbia
CS 86006], a single-layer SACD-only release that cant be played by a normal CD
player. The Pioneer X-Z9 system gave me the first chance Id had to listen to it.
Tyrell, the former A&R director of Dionne Warwicks original label, sings as if
he gargles with razor blades, but hes a good stylist with exquisite taste in music,
and his instrumental backing here is better than first-rate. Its that accompaniment
that took the cake for me -- just wonderful sound, very lifelike. A great treat! The depth
was fabulous, and, as some other reviewers have commented about SACD sound, the background
was absolutely "black" -- there was no sensation of any sound until the music
Pioneer used to make some of the hottest radio tuners
around, and the X-Z9 proved that they havent lost their touch. The AM had good
sensitivity and selectivity, but its narrow response fell off above 3.5kHz. Thats
fairly typical of todays AM tuners, but its obvious that the X-Z9s CPU
interferes with its AM section -- lots of sonics that one wouldnt normally expect.
The FM was quite sensitive, picking up any number of
distant stations with no more antenna than the supplied +30" hank of wire. It was a
bit more sensitive at the higher frequencies on the tuning dial, but that was probably as
much a function of the short antenna as anything else: the higher the frequency, the
shorter the wavelength. My only regret is that Pioneer neglected to include an HD Radio
tuner in the X-Z9. Had they done so, the X-Z9 might have been called into duty to replace
my office system of McIntosh C27 preamp, Carver TFM-15cb amplifier, Sangean HDT-1x tuner,
and Celestion 3 speakers. Close, but no cigar. HDR is now a requirement for me: I get 24/7
jazz service from our local public classical stations HD2 channel. The X-Z9 nicely
separated FM stations 400kHz apart, and was better than Id expected at separating
those only 200kHz apart, nicely discriminating among 88.3kHz (low-power in Cincinnati),
88.5kHz (directional FM from 35 miles away), and 88.7kHz (directional FM from 15 miles
away) -- a trio that many tuners cant separate.
The Way It Is, by Bruce Hornsby and the Range [RCA
PCD1-5904], was the first CD I ever bought, and one of the best of the early ones
Ive heard. "Mandolin Rain" sounded so much better and crisper with
Pioneers Sound Retriever engaged, but it didnt sound bad totally flat, either.
The X-Z9 produced good transients from piano, and the mandolin sounded ever so live.
An exemplary exposition of cabaret singing is by the late
Pam Bricker and the still-kicking singer-pianist Rick Harris, who were jazz mainstays in
Washington, DC. This album brings back all the magic of hearing them live, and the Pioneer
proved a great vehicle. I enjoyed "Im Old-Fashioned," from All the
Things You Are [CD, Mad Romance 103], more with flat response than with Sound
Retriever, though the DSP circuit did give it some extra kick. The soundstage was fine --
not particularly wide but with excellent depth, the piano, bass, and drums nicely behind
the upfront singers.
"One Way Out," from the Allman Brothers
Bands Eat a Peach [SACD, Capricorn B0002439-36], is a live recording, and
that often means "substandard." But this is one of the best. Gregg Allmans
vocals are a bit sibilant, but the instruments have a reality that I dont hear from
the LP. And the back-and-forth of Duane Allmans slide guitar and Dickey Betts
fuzz-tone guitar is reproduced in a way my LP system can only hope to approach (I
dont have a $50,000 combo of turntable and cartridge). Listening to the SACD through
the Pioneer X-Z9, I could hear the 120Hz hum in Greggs microphone near the end of
this song. That noise is buried on my LP -- which is in pristine condition.
Last up was Steve Tyrells performance of "It Had
To Be You," from Standard Time. Again, Tyrell doesnt have a great voice
(he reminds me of a slightly less soulful Dr. John), but the arrangement is terrific, and
the backing musicians know what theyre doing. The tracks soundstage isnt
particularly deep -- the muted trumpet is pretty much on top of Tyrell -- but other than
that, the sound is incredible. The little bit of echo on Tyrells voice lends a depth
his voice alone cant. Its a great recording, and the Pioneer system reproduced
it with energy and verve.
Overall, Pioneer has put together a fabulous product in the
incredibly versatile Elite X-Z9 compact stereo system. I used it with an iPod, a USB flash
drive, a computer (both analog input and USB), its onboard SACD/CD player and tuner, and a
turntable. It didnt have quite enough oomph to serve as my main system, but
for any other purpose -- second, office, or bedroom system -- its about as good as
they come; all of the criticisms mentioned above can be filed under
"nit-picking." With its accompanying speakers, its smart looking, smart
sounding, and just plain smart. If youre in the market for a compact, do-all system,
it could be a smart purchase.
Price of equipment reviewed