Best $100 speakers

Rarely will you find cheap speakers talked about in the audiophile community, but there’s been a lot of press lately about some Pioneer bookshelf speakers. The big surprise? They typically sell for 129 USD a pair! Of course, I just had to check them out.

I went to my local Best Buy store and sampled their speakers. I found the Pioneers on a shelf next to some $99 Polk speakers, as well as some more expensive Polk and Klipsch bookshelf size speakers. A nice young man offered to play them with some music that I might prefer, and we tried them all. By the way, Best Buy is a good place to check out better quality speakers like B&W; I had a very impressive demo of some small B&W speakers that sounded HUGE! They cost $480, but they’re worth it.

The Polk and the Klipsch speakers clearly had a lot more highs than midrange, and little bass. In comparison, the Pioneer speakers sounded weak and muffled in the store setup. But when we turned them up, the midrange sounded more balanced and bass was incredible for such small speakers. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to try buying the Pioneer, but a sale price of $99 made me take them home.

I’m glad I did. I knew that speakers don’t sound the same on the floor of a big store as compared to in home, and this purchase proved it. In my house, there was no shortage of very clean, crisp highs. The crossover is a good quality 2nd order filter on both drivers and uses a film capacitor for the tweeter, rare features at this price point. For my taste, I would say these speakers still favor the highs slightly, but it’s not objectionable as it is in the Polk and Klipsch (which sound like typical cheap speakers and probably explains why they are more popular than Pioneer).

The Pioneer speakers trade off efficiency for more bass, so they need more power. My 25 Watt Class D amplifier got them loud enough for me. These are small speakers, around 12″ tall, so you cannot run them at live rock concert levels. If you just want it loud and don’t care about quality (especially in the highs), buy Polk or Klipsch. The Pioneers reach much deeper into the bass, making them the only inexpensive small speakers that are truly full range. When a company makes something this good at such a low price, they deserve to be supported!

I am enjoying having these speakers in my bedroom now. They are superior to the ultra-cheap Dayton B652’s in most respects including better detail and deeper bass. I have made slight modifications that I feel has improved them a little bit. One picture shows how I cut away some of the grill framing that is in front of the tweeter, but you have to be very careful not to damage the cloth. I just used heavy duty wire cutters to cut the plastic. This mod does sharpen the clarity in the highs some, but the effects here are not huge, and you will still have an excellent speaker if you prefer not to modify it at all.

Since the bass seemed a little heavy in my bedroom, I added a little ball of polyester fiberfill into the port on the back as shown in another picture. The more you add, the more the bass level decreases. If some falls inside the box, don’t worry about, it doesn’t hurt to add a little more damping inside the box.

If you want accurate, detailed speakers of good quality but low price, these are the only ones out there that I have found. You can do better, but only for hundreds more. These speakers are a great match for a Topping Class D amplifier, and your source of music. This is true audiophile quality for cheap! It probably helps that the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR was designed by Andrew Jones, one of the top speaker designers in the world.


Best $100 speakers — 29 Comments

  1. Kent – Think your blog is great. Like you, I was into high-end equipment, life changed and eliminated time and budget. Still can’t afford to jump back in, but am looking at a pair of these Pioneers. I dond’t have the inclination to build my own equipment – any thoughts on a good quality, low cost commercially produced integrated amp or receiver to pair up with these? Either a particular model or general parameters to consider? Hope that is not an obnoxious imposition on your time and expertise.

    • You may have gotten something since last year but in case you haven’t a not terrible option is the audioengine N22. Rob at Audioboutique recommends it with the OMEGA super 3T… a pretty cool idea for a little system.

  2. Outside of the little Tripath Class D amps, I have not been impressed with the consumer amps and receivers out there, some of the Chinese made products have quality issues and most have lackluster sound. Pioneer Elite has recently released the A-20 Integrated Amp (less than $300) in this country, and with the BS22 speakers, it generated a lot of interest at a recent audio show. The A-20 is a little hard to find, but for a little more, the NAD C316 is a popular low-cost option. Sorry, I really don’t like to recommend any of the cheaper Integrated or Receivers…. You just have to take your chances on those!

  3. Just found this site. Cool. Want the pioneers. Need to get rid of something first.

    Would Kent try packing the port with straws cut to length of say 2/3 of the port instead of the fluff and say what he thinks afterwards.

    On the practical side the straws keeps mice out. Some think it also tightens bass a bit.

    • John, I would tend to worry that straws might tend to create noise with air blowing through them, but it doesn’t hurt to try it and see! There is another difference however; any kind of soft padding will create loss and dampen the sound. Straws will not dampen but slightly slow down the air in the port, re-tuning it to a slightly lower frequency in the process. This should also slightly decrease the overall level of the bass, and I suspect it wouldn’t hurt the quality at all… so it sounds like an idea worth trying to me!

      Thanks for the suggestion -Kent

  4. Tanks for this great review!
    Can you help me?
    How is this Pionner in relation to KRK Rokit 5 or 6 and M-Audio BX5 D2?
    Tks a lot!

    • The pioneer is a non-powered consumer speaker while KRK and M-Audio are powered studio monitors. I don’t have a lot of experience with pro-sound, but I have a little. The Pioneer is going to have a much flatter response than most consumer speakers (which are usually very “bright” and distorted in the highs), so they will sound more like pro monitors and much less like typical commercial junk. The KRK and M-Audio both use Class A/B amplifiers that I consider inferior to Tripath Class D amplifiers (see my post “About Amplifiers”). Using a “T-amp” with the Pioneer should give a more lively sound than either of those studio monitors while costing less.

  5. Coincidentally, I use these speakers with a Topping TP20 mkII in my second system in the kitchen. I had never heard of t-amps until last year when I was researching components for this system. The combo sounds great.

    Out of curiosity, I tried out the amp in my main system for a bit, and it sounded very good, but the bass was a bit rolled off. The spec sheet lists the watts per channel into 4/8 ohms at .1% THD, but it doesn’t specify 20-20,000 hz, so I wonder if it has less power in the low bass.

    Do you think there will be more powerful t-amps in the future? I could see me using one in my main system.

    • Topping has the TP60 at up to 80 Watts per channel into 4 Ohms (50 at 8 Ohms) which should be plenty into reasonably efficient speakers. I would not be surprised if they made a higher power version soon. I have not seen frequency specs either, but I have not noticed a problem with bass yet. However, different speaker and amplifier combinations can show these sorts of effects, even when the specs appear to be the same! Damping Factor of the amplifier and “Q” of the speaker’s woofer are primary causes. Of course, not many companies will give these specs.

      • I’d be tempted to try the Topping TP 22 in my main system (15 watts/8 ohms @0.018% THD+N), but it only has two inputs. I need 3 inputs (CD, turntable (via preamp), and DVD player) and one output (to the CDr).

  6. Great stuff…I’ve been hearing a ton of great things about these speakers for bookshelf but nothing of how well they perform as surround or surround rear speakers. I’m considering going from a Dipole suround to monopole and I’m wondering if these speakers might be the ticket. Any thoughts? Thanks!

    • Since these speakers are lower in efficiency in order to have good bass response, they don’t tend to do as well going as loud as many home theater setups. These are best for low to moderate volumes, but could work for home theater if not pushed to hard.

  7. Kent, love your site! I’ve been shopping for a system for years, and haven’t bought anything. It just seems like the specialty shop/dealer thing gets me down. That and I live in Canada and it’s very expensive here. This might be on the upper ends of what you might recommend but how do you feel about the OMEGA speakers? like the 3XRS? I’m thinking of partnering it with a Glow Audio AMP ONE. they’re 94db and the amp is 5×2 watts. was planning on listening to my FLAC files in JRiver until I can Get a good phono and TT.
    You don’t have to respond. Awesome site!

    • I like the direction you’re going! I have not seen or heard the Glow or Omega, but I know similar products and I’m sure it’s pretty good. That is outside the price range of this site, but I am about to post a review of the Fostex single-driver 4″ speaker kit that is close to the price of the Pioneer BS22. A 5 Watt tube amp is actually more comparable to a 10 Watt solid state amp (tubes don’t “clip”) and will play 94dB speakers to a good level. Have fun, Dave!

  8. Hey Kent,

    Is there much of a difference between the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR and the Pioneer SP-BS21-LR? I ask because I ended up ordering the latter. I couldn’t turn down the price of $68.40 delivered.

    Is the difference something huge or subtle with minimal audible differences?


    • The BS22 is a newer version that replaces the BS21. Some people say the newer version is better, but the two are really very similar. For the price, you’re getting quite a deal…. way to go!

  9. Hi Kent,

    I don’t believe we’ve covered headphones on this site. What is your recommendation of a cheap headphone that is worthy of an audiophile status?


    • I was wondering when someone would bring that up! I have been trying to avoid it…. It can be hard to find a low cost headphone that is satisfying to listen to and comfortable. Fortunately, there are plenty of reviews out there if you do a search like “Audiophile headphones under 100”. Read carefully, because many of even the best ones are a compromise and don’t do everything well. Many of the larger headphones (including pro studio models) can be soft or fat in the highs. Small earbuds can have great highs, but difficult to fit, leading to problems with hearing bass. Frankly, dealing with speakers is a lot easier!

      There are a few cheap models that audiophiles seem to like, you might check those out. Last year, I found an Auvio earbud at my local Radio Shack for $10 on sale, and I like it! But that model has been replaced by a product that I didn’t like at all. Should have bought a few more of the old version when I could have. Personal preference, type of music you listen to, and fit/comfort issues make it tricky to choose. I wish you good luck!

  10. I have run into quality control issues, I purchased the complete Pioneer SP-PK52FS which includes one pair of the SP-BS22-LR.
    The issue is
    1) Tinbre is incorrect, cymbals don’t sound right for instance.
    2) There is no “air” around those same cymbals.
    3) The upper mid-range is somewhere between nasal & pinched.
    By the way, as is often typical with very inexpensive speakers, they don’t start sounding good until you turn them up fairly loud.
    So beware, make sure you audition the pair you get, preferably against another pair of speakers you, or a friend already own.
    My reference is 30 years selling/installing/procuring audio. Auditions were done initially with a 55w/chan (older)NAD receiver with an A/B switch. Speakers used for comparison will be mostly “old school” to you guys, ADS 300, Onix and Paradigm. Results were confirmed with an Onix tube integrated amp and a Krell Pre/Main set up.
    All of the Pioneer speakers in the SP-PK52FS package (except the sub of course) displayed exactly the same symptoms.
    The 5 1/4″ towers were the easiest for me to accept at higher volumes, but only on the NAD which has excellent subtle tone controls, I had the treble at 3 o’clock! Still has all three problems, but less noticeable unless you A/B to another speaker.
    I have yet to check the x-overs to see if there is a freak wiring mishap that has put a coil in series with the tweeters.

    • That’s interesting, let us know if you can determine what the problem is. Of course, I would not expect the Pioneer to do as well as some of the better speakers out there (including ones you have mentioned), it’s pretty low cost, but they should be pretty tolerable. I hope they have not run into production problems.

  11. If anybody is interested, Amazon is having a sale on these speakers for $70 right now(08/12/2014). This is a steal. Hurry before sale ends or stock runs out.

    • Wish I could help you, but I have not seen a kit that I would consider. For myself, I try to avoid adding extra electronics in the path and feed players directly into an amp that has an input selector switch and volume control. Some DIYers do a passive version of a preamp that sometimes uses a transformer to get a little more voltage gain. If you need more voltage, building a box with just line switching and a volume control may be the lowest distortion route.

  12. I’m sure you’ve been hearing about the new ELAC speakers Andrew Jones designed. I’m auditioning a pair of the B5s ($229), and they are quite impressive. But I come back again to your question, “How much do you really want to hear out of a sound system?” With all that detail sometimes comes disappointment in the sound quality of favorite records. My current speakers “level the playing field” a bit, so while nothing sounds amazing, most recordings sound very good.

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