The SP-SB23W's remote offers direct access to three sound field modes: Music, Movie, and Dialogue. That last one doesn't technically "boost" movie dialogue; instead it turns the subwoofer off, which has the effect of also making the dialogue easier to hear. In Music and Movie modes, you can adjust the subwoofer volume level, but it can be a little tricky since there's no visual indication of the sub's volume level. Movie mode changes the subwoofer's EQ slightly and adds more bass, while Music mode's bass is more accurate. Otherwise, the SP-SB23W doesn't have bass or treble controls, or any way to adjust the sound or tonal balance.
Sound quality: A new standard for budget sound bars
We didn't have to compare the SP-SB23W with other sound bars to know it was special, as the sound was unusually "quick" and clear. Still, we had our doubts that the tiny wireless subwoofer would deliver adequate home theater muscle.
No worries, the sub was more than up to the job and the real charm of the SP-SB23W system was how well the sub and sound bar work together. That's because the sound bar was designed to produce more bass than a typical sound bar, with the crossover frequency between the sub and sound bar set at 110Hz, instead of the more typical 150-200Hz.
In any case, the SP-SB23W's bass definition is superb, and the deepest bass extension wasn't too far off that of the subwoofer of one of our favorite sound bar systems, the JBL SB400. That one filled the CNET listening room with more bass oomph and played a little louder, but the SP-SB23W's bass clarity is better. More important, the SP-SB23W's sub-sound bar blend was superior to the SB400's, which had a more processed and "boxy" sound. The SB400's boxiness was especially noticeable on dialogue, as voices sounded more natural on the SP-SB23W and treble detail was markedly better. On the other hand, the SB400's dynamic "slam" outpaced the SP-SB23W's on action films, so when King Kong started tossing city buses and trains around, the SB400's bigger sub made a difference we could feel.
On jazz recordings, vocals, piano, acoustic guitars, drums, and cymbals sounded more natural over the SP-SB23W. Both systems played rock music pretty loud, but we'd give the edge to the SB400 when it comes to pure volume. But there's more to sound quality than loudness and the SP-SB23W's winning combination of clarity and definition is hard to resist.
Unlike the Sonos Playbar or Sony HT-ST7, the SP-SB23W lacks any type of virtual-surround processing, so the sound is strictly stereo. There's a nice sense of depth and spaciousness, although the soundstage never gets particularly wide if you're looking for that immersive feel. For those who crave an even bigger sound, consider the 54.5-inch-wide Sharp HT-SB60 sound bar/subwoofer system, although the SP-SB23W sounds better overall.
Next we compared the SP-SB23W with Sony's HT-CT260 sound bar, which is one of our favorites this year. Here the SP-SB23W's transparency advantages were even more obvious and particularly noticeable when it comes to intelligibility of dialogue. Sure, the HT-CT260's larger sub made more bass, but it lacks the detail and crisp focus of the SP-SB23W. When it comes down to the simple question of what sounds better, it's not close -- the SP-SB23W wins by a landslide.
And that's what really separates the SP-SB23W from the pack. While other systems may pack a louder, more powerful punch, the overall sound quality isn't nearly as good. The SP-SB23W was just great to listen to no matter what we threw at it, which is rare for a sound bar, especially when it comes to music. Nothing we've heard offers better sound bar sonics, save for possibly Atlantic Technology's PB-235 ($750 street) which we didn't have on hand to compare directly, and costs nearly twice as much.
What are the alternatives?
As good as the SP-SB23W sounds, if you're really serious about sound quality you should consider full-size speakers paired up with an AV receiver or integrated amplifier. However, even a basic stereo system, such as Pioneer's SP-FS52 ($250) tower speakers paired up with the Marantz NR1403 ($400), will cost more than the SP-SB23W, so that's not an option if you're on a tight budget.
If you're turned off by some of the SP-SB23W's design quirks, the aforementioned Sony HT-CT260 and SpeakerCraft CS3 are worth considering. We think the Pioneer's sound quality is worth its annoyances, but if you're less picky about sound, those systems look better and are generally easier to use.
Finally, there's the Atlantic Technology PB-235, which we didn't have on hand for a head-to-head sound quality comparison, but really impressed us when we reviewed it back in late 2012. However, the PB-235 is even bulkier and less attractive than the SP-SB23W, lacks built-in Bluetooth, and costs nearly twice as much. It does deliver its excellent sound quality without a subwoofer entirely, although that's less of a plus considering how compact the SP-SB23W's sub is.
Conclusion: A budget sound bar that's serious about sound
Sound bars have always benefited from the absurdly low expectations set by modern TVs' built-in speakers. Swap in a sound bar and the improvement in sound is dramatic, which covers up for the fact that most sound bars don't sound that great -- they just sound a lot better than what you have.
With the Pioneer SP-SB23W, there's finally an affordable sound bar that sounds good, without grading on a curve. If all you care about is ease of use and something that sounds better than your TV, the Sony HT-CT260 will get the job done for less money. But if you care about sound quality, it's definitely worth spending the extra money for the Pioneer SP-SB23W, especially for a product that can easily last you five years or more.