The Pioneer SP-SB23W ($399) may be in a class of its own for affordable sound bar performance, but it's not quite perfect.
Shortly after posting our review of the SP-SB23W, I noticed a couple of user reviews that mentioned issues with Bluetooth audio sound quality. Specifically, the customers found that when using Bluetooth audio, only the right channel of audio was being being decoded, resulting in mono (rather than stereo) sound.
It was an easy issue to confirm, simply by connecting a MacBook Pro to the SP-SB23W via Bluetooth and adjusting the balance control. There was no mistake: move the balance control all the way to left and the sound bar is silent.
After I contacted the company about the flaw, Pioneer acknowledged the issue and has now posted a notice on its Web site:
SPEAKER BAR NOTICE
We recently discovered an issue with the audio processing on Bluetooth music streaming with the SP-SB23W Speaker Bar. If you experience an issue with your unit, please contact our Customer Service Department at 800-421-1404.
That's not exactly the kind of straightforward promise to replace or repair affected units that a customer would hope to see. When I asked Pioneer to clarify exactly what the notice meant for SP-SB23W buyers, a representative explained that, "when the customer calls we will explain what the issue is and based on the individual situation we will either repair or replace the unit."
Of course, that assumes that customers will be aware of the problem in the first place. Pioneer certainly isn't drawing attention to the notice, publishing just a small link on Pioneer's Website with the vague title of "Speaker Bar Notice," which doesn't exactly spell out that there's a problem with the product. And it's likely many customers won't be aware that there's a problem just from listening, as it's easy to chalk up the thin sound to the inherent sonic limitations of Bluetooth.
Pioneer says that all remaining inventory will be updated before being shipped out, although it's unclear whether that applies to retailers, like Amazon and Best Buy, that currently have affected units. Neither Amazon nor Best Buy currently has a similar notice informing customers of the issue. It's also still unclear whether the issue affects all SP-SB23W units or if there's just a bad batch.
How to tell if your SP-SB23W has the flaw
If you own the SP-SB23W, you can easily check if your sound bar suffers from the same problem by connecting a Mac or PC via Bluetooth and adjusting the balance control so only the left channel is playing. (Tips for finding balance controls: Mac, PC.) If you don't hear anything with the balance adjusted, your SP-SB23W is affected by the flaw.
On iOS devices, balance control is accessible by going to Settings, General, Accessibility, and then scrolling down to the balance slider. On Android, it's little trickier, as the native music player and system settings don't appear to have a balance control, so you'll need to track down an app that offers balance control.
As Pioneer is promising to fix the issue, the SP-SB23W will remain the Editors' Choice in the category, albeit with a link at the top of the review to this story until its fixed. Pioneer will be sending CNET an updated SP-SB23W that supposedly fixes the issue, so we can confirm that Bluetooth audio is being correctly decoded. If you're considering purchasing the SP-SB23W, it may be wise to wait a few weeks until you can be sure you're getting a "good" unit or order directly from Pioneer.
In the meantime, if you have an affected unit, I'd love to hear how Pioneer's customer service is handling the repair or return of your unit in the comments.