Pioneer BCS-SB626 – Operation
Wall mounting the soundbar involves a 6bit of DIY, but tabletop installation is easy – simply screw on the supplied curved feet or attach the adhesive rubber pads.
In action we had no major problems with the system, although the remote is too cluttered, with row after row of identical black buttons and tiny labelling – it took me ages to spot the volume controls. The centrally placed direction pad and surrounding keys are ideally placed but it can’t save the remote from being a confused, cluttered mess. Some streamlining is urgently required for next year.
There’s also a distinct lack of excitement about the onscreen menus – or perhaps we’ve been so spoiled by the exuberant graphics of LG and Samsung’s latest systems that anything else seems dull.
To be fair, Pioneer’s more sober, sophisticated approach is effective, superimposing everything over black backgrounds and spelling out menu options in crisp white text. They’re jazzed up with monochrome images illustrating each menu category.
The layout is easy to follow, although the Web Contents menu isn’t as enticing as it should be. To access DLNA content, select Home Media Gallery from the main menu and all the available devices are displayed in a list, including any detected network servers.
During DLNA music playback, the system streams without any glitches or drop-outs, although there’s a long pause before it starts playing a selected tune. The playback screen shows track details and cover art against a black background, and pleasingly you can browse the menu system while music continues to play.
Sadly you can’t do the same while watching a movie. To make any audio tweaks you have to stop the film and access the setup menu, which is particularly annoying because you don’t know how your adjustments will affect movie playback until you start the film again. There is a built-in test tone, but dedicated level controls on the remote would have been better.
However, the system features a Continued mode, which resumes playback from where you left off – something that you can’t always do with Blu-ray discs.
Pioneer BCS-SB626 – Performance
Disc loading is fast and picture quality is impressive – the 2D Avengers Assemble Blu-ray looks remarkably crisp, with richly saturated colours (check out the blazing reds of Iron Man’s suit) and blacks so solid you can almost touch them. But there’s impressive subtlety in the picture too – from the smoothly shaded contours of Thor’s biceps to the light stubble on Stark’s face. Switch to the 3D Thor disc and the system spoils you with beautifully deep and layered Asgardian landscapes.
In terms of sound quality, the BCS-SB626 ticks most of the boxes. Its stereo soundstage is loud and lively – much more so than any TV’s speakers – putting satisfying force behind effects and producing clean high frequencies. It’s an imposing presence in the room, delivering large-scale action with relish.
The opening scene of Avengers Assemble is a great demonstration of this. Loki’s arrival through the space portal is heralded by a flurry of crisp crackling noises and shooting laser effects that whizz into the room with gorgeous clarity, while the atmospheric score and background effects during the subsequent lull generates a nice sense of tension. And when Loki starts wreaking havoc, gunshots pop and metal objects clank around without making your ears hurt.
There are a couple of foibles, mainly the muddy dialogue reproduction. Certain scenes, like the conversation between Natasha and Banner in chapter 4, are difficult to hear – we had to keep rewinding it to pick up the dialogue, and with no dedicated centre it’s hard to boost the level. Much of the time it’s not an issue, but in general it doesn’t quite live up to the same levels of transparency and clarity as we’ve heard from other soundbars.
The other issue concerns the subwoofer, which lends weight and depth to the sound but not as tightly as we’d like. Out the box it completely overpowered the soundbar, lending a boomy, resonant quality to bass tones. But after trimming the level to -3dB in the setup menu (a level, as we pointed out earlier, reached after a lot of trial and error) it integrated better and stopped drawing undue attention to itself. But even then it didn’t quite offer the punch and agility we crave from a home cinema sub.
The Virtual 3D Sound ‘Max’ setting add a splash of flavour to the stereo soundfield, expanding effects and making everything sound a little fuller. It’s not surround sound by any means, but then we never expected it to be.
Music playback is enjoyable, particularly with SACDs – seduction stalwart Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye sounds wonderfully silky through the soundbar.
Pioneer BCS-SB626 – Verdict
With an impressive range of features and a discreet, stylish design the BCS-SB626 is a superb home cinema system that solves a problem for anyone that can’t accommodate a full 5.1 system.
Built-in Wi-Fi, a couple of web apps, DLNA streaming, 3D support, an iPod/iPhone dock, SACD playback and extensive format support make up a terrific feature list, and for around £350 that’s not a bad return. Sure, some buyers might be put off by the limited web content and turn to Samsung or LG, but it’s great to see Pioneer at least doffing its hat to the smart revolution.
In terms of performance, the undisciplined bass and slightly muffled dialogue means it doesn’t quite reach the quality of other soundbar systems from the likes of Yamaha and Harman Kardon, but there’s enough drive, width and detail to ensure an engaging, exciting listen.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8