Setting up the SBX-N500 is fairly easy, although network setup could have been a little more obvious – it involves digging into the setup menu, choosing the correct 'interface' and scanning for access points. It’s fine if you know what you’re looking for, but newbies might need the manual.
And if you’re connecting via HDMI ARC, remember to select ‘external speakers’ in your TV’s setup menu and ‘TV ARC’ in the Pioneer’s setup menu. You might need to enable your TV’s HDMI CEC too (this was the case for our Samsung set).
Operating the SBX-N500 is fairly easy, too. The setup menu is beamed to your TV via HDMI and uses the serious, white-text-on-black design common to all Pioneer products. It dispenses with graphics and icons, instead using tidy lists to display its options.
When not displaying the setup menu, the SBX-N500 displays the currently selected input right in the middle of the screen. DLNA and USB playback menus are clear and informative, displaying any available metadata and cover art. The YouTube interface is slick and simple to navigate.
However, that HDMI niggle we outlined earlier makes life hard when you want to change sound modes. Some of them, like Night and Dialog, have their own buttons on the remote, but to activate Surround or the EQ presets you have to visit the onscreen Sound Menu, which involves switching HDMI inputs on your TV.
The compact remote sits snugly in the hand. All the buttons are well labelled, although they’re a little too small for our liking. There’s a central direction pad and clearly marked input selection keys at the top, including a Wi-Fi Direct button. Separate subwoofer and main volume controls are useful.
It's a decent remote, but Pioneer’s slick, well designed ControlApp for iOS and Android is even better. This lets you control the unit using a smartphone or tablet and access your music library.
The SBX-N700’s performance was marred by an overpowering subwoofer, but without it sound quality was pretty decent. With the SBX-N500, that choice is taken out of your hands. It relies on two built-in woofers for bass and a fine job they do, too.
During the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring on Blu-ray, the SBX-N500 articulates Cate Blanchett’s grave voice with pleasing depth, while the battle between men, elves and orcs is suitably loud and boisterous. Axes and swords slam into armour with a sturdy thump, while marching footsteps rumble from the down-firing drivers. And as Sauron starts swiping soldiers aside, there’s a convincing sense of heft as he lumbers forward and clobbers them.
Bass notes lack the slam and tautness of a good quality subwoofer but they’re solid and well integrated, provided their volume is tweaked judiciously. Pushed too high, low frequencies can sound flabby and disjointed.
The Pioneer is also a little wild with certain sounds like shouting crowds and roaring orcs, particularly when you push the volume up high. It lacks the poise and openness of soundbars like the Monitor Audio ASB-2 or Philips HTL9120.
But most of the time midrange frequencies are crisp and lively, lending the sort of excitement and vigour to movie soundtracks that you simply don’t get from TV speakers. It musters a loud volume and large soundstage. Surround mode does little to expand it further, although admittedly Gandalf’s fireworks feel a little wider as they whizz past the camera.
The Pioneer also teases out a decent amount of top-end detail. At Bilbo’s party the fizz and crackle of fireworks and the tinkling percussion of the band are clearly rendered, while the rustle of bushes in the woodland scenes is similarly crisp. It also communicates dialogue clearly and when watching TV material Dialog mode makes speech easier to hear.
The SBX-N500 also does a decent job with music from DLNA, Bluetooth and USB drives. Rhythms are lively and well-timed, vocals sound clear and basslines groove along nicely. Again you don’t get the silky opulence of pricier soundbars but for the money it sounds great.
Competition is fierce in the soundbar market right now, but the Pioneer SBX-N500’s generous feature list makes it stand out from the crowd.
With built-in Wi-Fi, DLNA file streaming, YouTube, Bluetooth and USB media playback, it’s packed with more cutting-edge tricks than most similarly-priced rivals, plus you’ll find Miracast and a Bluetooth transmitter for the first time on a soundbar. That’s not to be sniffed at for £250, although an HDMI input or two wouldn’t have gone amiss.
What’s more, its build quality and design are excellent for the money, while its loud, dynamic performance hits the spot despite not always being the smoothest or most detailed listen. But on balance the pros far outweigh the cons and for that reason the SBX-N500 is well worth a punt.
Its performance isn’t perfect but Pioneer’s feature-packed soundbar offers amazing value for money.
Next, see all the best option in our best soundbars round-up