Review: Pioneer S-DJ05 active reference monitors

Pioneer targets DJs and musicians with active reference monitors (December 9th, 2011)

Pioneer may be best known for its vehicle electronics, however the company has also worked to establish its presence as a high-end brand in the DJ and music-production markets. The S-DJ05 speakers epitomize the expansion, placing the Pioneer brand on a pair of active reference monitors. In our full review, we try out the new speakers and attempt to determine if the offering is worth its hefty price tag.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Pioneer

Price: $899

The Good

  • Strong bass
  • Accurate through entire range
  • Wide range of input options
  • Easy to switch between inputs

The Bad

  • Expensive
  • Limited EQ control
  • No digital input

Pioneer may be best known for its vehicle electronics, however the company has also worked to establish its presence as a high-end brand in the DJ and music-production markets. The S-DJ05 speakers epitomize the expansion, placing the Pioneer brand on a pair of active reference monitors. In our full review, we try out the new speakers and attempt to determine if the offering is worth its hefty price tag.

Design

Each S-DJ05 speaker centers around a single five-inch woofer, which is paired with a 2.5cm soft-dome tweeter. In proper fashion for active monitors, the woofer and tweeter are driven by a bi-amplifier setup that provides independent power for each.

Users can pick from a surprisingly wide range of input options. The back panel is outfitted with two RCA connections, a balanced TRS port and an XLR input. Many studio monitors are limited to a single TRS or XLR input on each speaker, however the additional RCA ports provide additional flexibility and minimize the need for extra gear.

Pioneer has developed a unique control system that utilizes an optional control knob that simultaneously manages volume, EQ on/off, and input selection for both channels.

Aesthetics should be the last thing on a buyer's list of priorities for studio gear, however we do admit that Pioneer has produced an attractive set of speakers that brings a professional appearance without the unnecessary flashiness that can be found on other DJ equipment.





Operation

Setting up the S-DJ05s is a straightforward operation. The company provides rubber pads that stick onto the bottom of the speaker housing to minimize vibration on a desk, while two threaded holes enable painless attachment to stands or wall mounts.

There are plenty of quality reference monitors on the market, leaving little room for companies to make any significant advancements in technology, however we were very impressed with Pioneer's control system. The oversized knob offers smooth control over volume, while two buttons on the back of the base can be used to mute the speakers or quickly flip through inputs. The simple approach eliminates the need to patch cables every time a user wants to listen to a different hardware source. Six blue LEDs on the speaker housings provide a quick reference to the input selection, EQ setting and power status.

We usually raise an eyebrow when we see "reference" equipment with EQ settings, however we believe Pioneer was correct in adding a linear equalizer to the S-DJ05. As the model number suggests, the product is geared for DJs. Musicians will be looking for flat response, however DJs can attempt to replicate the poor balance that they will likely experience in a club setting. The EQ also provides a way to help compensate for speaker placement in acoustic environments that are not quite as perfect as a true professional studio.

The EQ status light and instant switching seem like minor details, but we consider them to be necessary when EQ controls are included on reference monitors. Nobody wants to spend a significant amount of time finalizing a mix and discover, when listening with headphones or a standard stereo, that the bass setting on the reference speakers was unknowingly cranked up rather than flat.





Performance

Many aftermarket car audio products tend to focus on wattage and glamour rather than acoustic fidelity, leaving us skeptical of Pioneer's approach to the professional music studio. Our skepticism did not disappear when we realized that the S-DJ05 pair retails for $900. The market for active reference monitors may be considered a niche, but it is already filled with a number of great products that are sold for $900 or less.

Rather than connecting the speakers and heading right to DJ tracks, we started off with a few live tracks from pedal steel guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph on Live at the Wetlands. We expected the speakers to show weakness as the volume knob continued to turn, however we were pleasantly surprised to find that the seemingly small five-inch drivers and bi-amp setup truly shines when pushed to the limit. On tracks with extensive use of acoustic instruments, the speakers provided a great balance that did not deteriorate as the speakers were pushed past what we expected from five-inch drivers.

The reference speakers proved equally capable when we switched to electronic music with heavy bass and screaming highs. Looking to The Crystal Method for a mix of gnarly bass and analog synths, we found the speakers to be just as impressive as they were when playing blues tracks.

After bumping electronic tracks for a while without finding any serious fault, we plugged in a MIDI controller to see how the speakers perform as the company intended. We were impressed yet again when playing Arturia's Jupiter-8v virtual analog synth and a sample-based software piano based on multi-mic recordings on a Steinway D.

After pushing the S-DJ05 speakers to the limit in a variety of situations, our initial skepticism was completely overturned. Many cheap speakers do a decent job of reproducing well-recorded tracks, but the limitations become obvious when musicians attempt to use the same speakers to make recordings. Pioneer's monitors allowed us to distinguish the subtle changes to an instrument's sound as it is processed through a compressor or other effects.

We were particularly impressed by the speakers' versatility, as many similarly-sized drivers are tuned either to put 'oomph' at the low end--sacrificing midrange presentation--or leave the bottom weak in an attempt to balance the full spectrum. Pioneer appears to have taken careful consideration when building a pair of reference monitors that prove equally useful for spinning dubstep or fine-tuning a violin recording.



Final thoughts

After extensive testing, the S-DJ05 speakers seemed to prove themselves worthy of fitting in among reference monitors carrying similar price tags. That said, many of the competing systems also provide stellar performance. We were impressed with the power coming from two five-inch drivers in a small room, however size generally does matter when considering the bottom end of the frequency response.

We've listened to Yamaha's five-inch HS50M monitors paired with an eight-inch powered subwoofer, which can be purchased together for the same $700 street price as the S-DJ05. Dynaudio's six-inch BM6A speakers are another compelling option in the same price range, as is M-Audio's DSM1. Each option provides its own clear advantages: Pioneer's control system, Yamaha's low-end punch, M-Audio's DSP crossovers, and Dynaudio's full-range accuracy.

For users who are dedicated to electronic music, or need to work in a larger studio space, moving up to eight-inch drivers is a logical move. Pioneer has accommodated this segment, though the eight-inch S-DJ08 carries a retail price of $1200 and a street price of $1000. In our small studio, however, the five-inch variant provided enough power to handle an extremely wide range of acoustic tasks. The inputs and unique control are a perfect match for small-scale studio setups, where users can produce professional-level music or spin records with little more than a notebook computer and a USB-attached DJ controller, MIDI instrument or audio interface.





by Justin King


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