A few months ago, I needed some small
speakers: something with a 5" woofer at most, and a cabinet that would easily fit on
a bookshelf. The received wisdom in speaker design says that small speakers can have deep
bass or high sensitivity, but not both. I wanted something that went below 60Hz, which
meant that its sensitivity would be low. Searching for that combination led me to
Pioneers S-HF21-LR, which has a claimed frequency response of 55Hz-20kHz, a rated
sensitivity of 80dB, a 5.5" injection-molded plastic woofer, and a 0.75"
tweeter. It stands 10.25"W x 6"H x 6.25"D, weighs about seven pounds -- and
retails for $49.98/pair USD.
The S-HF21-LRs primary US retailer is electronics
chain Circuit City, and during the week of my search CC was selling them for $30/pair -- a
deal that shows up regularly. For that price, I figured it was worth picking up a pair to
try out. After listening to them the first night, the next day I rushed out to buy a
second pair before CC changed their minds and started charging a fair price.
Pioneer's manual clearly states that the S-HF21-LRs should
be pointed directly at the listener, but sometimes that can cause speakers to sound a bit
more forward in the treble than they should. Since I noticed a bit of upper-midrange
emphasis during my listening, I briefly hoped I might soften the S-HF21-LRs' sound a bit
by adjusting the speakers' toe-in angle outward. Bad plan -- those guys at Pioneer know
their speaker. The S-HF21-LRs lost a lot when I turned them away, and by the time I had
them facing directly forward, the center image had collapsed entirely. In short: The
S-HF21-LRs direct sound was good, its off-axis sound rather bad. I definitely
wouldnt want to use them for the front channels in a home-theater setup with
multiple seats, but Ive been happy with them serving as the rear speakers in my
I experimented with removing the speakers grilles.
They were a little tight, but I slipped something thin between them and pried them out.
The sound was always much better with the grilles off, and I kept them off for the entire
review. Another problem was the S-HF21-LRs cheap, spring-loaded input terminals --
youll be hard-pressed to use any speaker cable terminated in anything other than
bare wire. It became obvious from the disassembly I did that upgrading the Pioneers to
real binding posts would be hard to do without breaking the rear panel.
The main thing that impressed me about the S-HF21-LR was
how clean its midrange sounded. Vocals came through with a simple clarity that embarrassed
some more expensive designs. One of the first recordings I played was Chris Reas
wonderful On the Beach [CD, East-West 2292-42375-2], and his voice just jumped out
at me with a richness I normally expect only from "serious" speakers. The land
of the tiny budget speaker is filled with speakers that disappoint in this area; the
Female vocals didnt fare quite as well. Listening to
Beverly Cravens Love Scenes [CD, Epic BK 57742], I was disappointed to hear
that the plentiful sibilants that fill the title track, particularly the word scenes,
were much too harsh compared to the more neutral sound Im used to hearing.
I played some other favorite female vocal recordings, but
before I even got to Annie Haslams singing on track 2 of Renaissances Scheherazade
[CD, BTM ARC 7017], I realized that the piano sounded far from natural. Haslam sounded
fine, but the mass of instruments that accompany the chorus of "Vultures Fly
High" overwhelmed the speaker, and everything sounded a little dirtier than Id
like. Complicated passages with extreme dynamics are the weakest part of this Pioneer
design -- unsurprising, given its low sensitivity. During passages with considerable bass
content, the bass disturbed the higher frequencies more than would be acceptable in a more
Nonetheless, as youd also expect from its claimed
frequency response of 55Hz-20kHz, the S-HF21-LRs bass response sounded as if it had
enough honest low-frequency extension for most music -- and went plenty low enough to make
integrating it with a subwoofer easy. But the real question at this point was how much
power this low-sensitivity speaker needed to accomplish that.
How much power?
For this test, my first tool was an old Proton D1200
amplifier, whose wattage meters Ive relied on in the past. The second tool was the
classic analog Sound Level Meter from RadioShack. I popped in light earplugs and sat about
6 from the speakers, the meter in one hand, remote control in the other, and started
to crank er up.
Playing demanding music, I was lucky to dump 25W of power
into the Pioneers before their woofers began to make frightening noises. Searching for
songs compressed enough that I might coax a bit more power into the speakers, I ended up
with Journeys Greatest Hits [SACD, Columbia CS 44493], which includes some
near-perfect examples of car-radio-friendly production; in short, nothing thats too
difficult to reproduce. "Be Good to Yourself" was an ideal test case: it has
hardly any information in the deeper bass range that might bottom out a small woofer.
Playing this track, I got the average volume level up to 90dB (about 15W on the
Protons meters), and regular peaks of 95dB (30W). I was never able to find a real
musical load that used any more power than that. With most music, the S-HF21-LRs ran out
of useful musical power handling long before they used even 30W. The 90-95dB at my
listening position was consistently as loud as the Pioneers got before I began fearing
Id damage them.
As far as playing cleanly went, I found that when I sat
6 away from them, the S-HF21-LRs upper limit of sounding good was 80-85dB.
Most of the time, when I found myself unhappy with the sound, I would check the RadioShack
meter and discover that the speakers were playing just above that range. Some really
demanding material sounded a bit congested at any volume -- though again, this was the
S-HF21-LRs main weak point. But clearly, you wont need much more than 30Wpc to
run these speakers.
Thats not to say you can use any old 30Wpc amplifier
and get good results. During my testing with the Proton D1200, I found myself losing the
initial happy feeling Id had about the S-HF21-LRs. I feared that the afterglow was
over and that Id started to dwell on the speakers limitations. I reinstated my
usual reference amp, the Warner Imaging Endangered Species ($2195 when available), and
found that Id been dead wrong. All that had happened was that Id been hearing,
as clear as day, the weak points of the Proton. The imperfections that had long ago
caused me to stop using that amp for serious listening were made perfectly clear through
the inexpensive Pioneers. Well spotted.
But the right inexpensive receiver, and a source
such as the Sony DVP NC-650V SACD player ($250, discontinued), may be a perfectly
sensible choice. I pulled out a decade-old Yamaha RX-485, rated at 65Wpc, and it was the
best match yet. Some of the rough edges that had bothered me before, such as the sibilants
on Beverly Cravens "Love Scenes" and the piano distortions on the
Renaissance album, were considerably smoothed out. It was a better partner for the
Pioneers than the Proton in terms of tonal balance, but the congestion during complicated
passages was a bit worse than with my reference amp. Still, the S-HF21-LRs now had no
problems reaching 90-95dB at my listening position, meaning that this receiver played just
as loud as the 200Wpc Warner Imaging Id been using before.
Who are these right for?
I also listened to the Polices "Synchronicity
II," from Synchronicity [SACD, A&M 069 493 606-2]. This is another
challenging mix, and when I turned up the volume, I was, as usual with the Pioneer
S-HF21-LRs, disappointed by how choppy the vocals became during the complicated parts.
Switching to the less busy "Murder by Numbers," I found myself having a bit of a
revelation. Playing that song through these speakers, from a good SACD source and with a
good power amp, sounded better than the CD version does even through my best
speakers. Some people advocate investing the majority of your audio budget in your
speakers, with only a small portion reserved for your source and electronics. For musical
styles that dont include heavy dynamics, these inexpensive Pioneer speakers strongly
argue the opposite. Id take the combination of the Pioneers and a good electronics
chain over a great speaker and awful electronics any day.
The sound quality of Pioneers S-HF21-LR is a
testament to the efficiency of modern manufacturing. That such a design can be built in
China, shipped around the world, then shipped to my local store, and bought at retail for
as little as $30/pair, is amazing. The speaker has plenty of faults. Its low sensitivity
and low maximum output level will be a deal-breaker for some. Its dynamic compression, and
the fact that it sounds right only when listened to on axis, will make it unsuitable for
some needs. But the S-HF21-LR is free of the ugly sound of many very-low-budget speakers,
and its relatively pure midrange performance makes it very useful for many people and
The S-HF21-LR is a particularly interesting option for
people trying to build a low-budget system one component at a time. I could see someone
whos just getting started buying the CD or DVD player and amplifier they really want
right now, and scrimping (for now) on their speaker investment by getting a pair of
S-HF21-LRs. I highly recommend that speaker buyers who need to watch their pennies check
Price of equipment reviewed