Way back in 1937 Pioneer made its first loudspeaker. That's a good 24 years before legendary British brand KEF began making enclosures, yet you still probably consider Pioneer as a Japanese electronics firebrand, solely responsible for in-car audio and flatscreen TVs (deceased). But the truth is, it knows a thing or two about speaker craftsmanship, and it has stepped up to the mark again with the latest EX series.

It has at times created speakers of such sonic beauty and covetous appeal that they are raised to the level of art themselves. The brand even has a word for it, in which craftsmanship is treated almost as a religious tenet – taqumi. And that's exactly what these latest EX Series speakers are all about.

These models are actually derived from TAD's Reference One cabinets. TAD is an outfit that became a part of Pioneer in the mid-1970s. Since then it has carved itself a slice of the high-end of the professional market, based on breathtaking compression drivers for near-field monitoring in studios. It makes a mean mid-bass too…

A few years ago, Pioneer's UK-born speaker guru Andrew Jones was given the brief of melding some of the technology from theTAD side of the business into a speaker with Pioneer's name on the front. The result was the mighty S1-EX speaker system. Now Pioneer is back with the 'smaller' S3-EX.

Still huge

Not that they're small. I still had to travel to Pioneer's home counties-based campus to wrap my ears around a full EX Series 5.1 system, because it demands a certain ideal placement and my own listening room is simply too small.

These EX speakers use the same 'Precision Curve' time alignment system as their bigger brethren; mounting the drivers on a curved baffle. This allows for the creation of the circular ITU speaker placement recommendation, thereby ensuring accurate arrival times of all the sonic detail.

The result is a soundstage that hangs in the space between the speakers, zooming around the soundfield as the director's whim takes. And the sound quality is scintillating.

The same CST (Coherent Source Transducer) is used as in the £50,000 TAD Reference One speakers, but instead of being made of Unobtainium (well, Beryllium actually), for the EX models Pioneer uses Ceramic Graphite for the domes and Magnesium metal for the midbass drivers.

Meaty stands are required to hold the S-4EX rears up – I'd love to see the books you'd keep on the 'bookshelf' these are described as being for! A centre stand is also needed to align the identically-equipped central S-8EX enclosure in the same virtual sphere as the S-3EX fronts.

For bass, Pioneer offers the S-W250 subwoofer, with a quarter kilowatt amp and a 12in driver, plus a passive radiator diaphragm to give the best of both ported and sealed low-frequency performance.

Sonic integrity

Central to my listening evaluation was Ratatouille and its accompanying short, Lifted. Both have a level of sonic integrity and design that defies belief. I cranked up Pioneer's Susano amp (what else would I use to drive these monsters?) and felt a bit like Jeremy Clarkson burning tyres on a Bentley.

I found it difficult not to compare this set to the vastly more expensive KEF reference system. While the KEF system can hurt your bones, this system offers a more sane scale that feels more realistic for it. As real as a race of rats having an exodus down a river on tiny little boats can be, anyway.

And, of course, the real proof in the sonic pudding came with the revelation of new elements in the sound mix. Did you know that as poor Remy's family goes down the waterfall underground (12mins 27secs) that you can hear their cries beneath the roaring sounds of the water itself? Give it a listen.

As for the old lady's shotgun shells, the impact is seriously huge. The edges of the tinkles and crashes of breaking glass and cracking plaster are incredible. Pleasure doesn't just come from the power the EX system can muster, it's the incredible levels of tiny detail and sheer clarity of separate items in the midst of chaos.

From Pixar I migrated to Legends of Jazz (also Blu-ray, Dolby TrueHD) and Jane Monheit singing They Can't Take That Away From Me… I fell hopelessly in love with her voice the first time I heard it in the Pioneer demonstration suite at the 2008 Bristol Show, and again here. Such was the clarity, she sounded like she was right there with me. It was incredibly intimate.

All of which serves to show that when speakers are good enough and backed up by reference grade electronics, the quality of the experience is more about an emotional response, rather than how a system makes your trousers flap.

Pioneer's audio history is a fascinating one, and while I thought I had some handle on how it does things, I really didn't expect its original S1-EX speaker to have been more than a brief statement of capability. It turns out it was a far more real-world precursor to producing a speaker system of improbable performance, with filtered-down technology developed for far higher-ticket devices.

As such, I'd wager the EX Series matches any of its high-end rivals. And even given the necessary currency-and-crunch price rises of such things, it represents good value for your high-end pound. The caveat, though, is that your chances of hearing this system for yourself are limited.

Pioneer is reputedly struggling to get dealers to stock them. A shame, as they deserve to be heard. Indeed, I'd rate them as a Reference-grade bargain.

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