A few months ago we published a glowing review of the SVS SB13-Ultra subwoofer. In fact, the day we ship that thing back to SVS will be a sad one. We’ve enjoyed having the SB13 participate in a series of speaker and A/V receiver evaluations we’ve conducted in the months since it arrived, so when SVS announced it was coming out with a new series of speakers, we made sure we were at the top of the list for review samples.
SVS is not new to the speaker game. About five years ago, the company launched its S-series and M-series speakers. We didn’t get a chance to hear them, but archived reviews indicate they offered some pretty solid bang-for-your-buck. However, as they are no longer in production, we think it’s fair to say they didn’t get a wildly warm reception from the public. While the speakers may have performed well, they weren’t exactly striking from an aesthetic point of view. And though SVS is a well-known name in subwoofers now, in its earlier years, the brand didn’t enjoy the same level of mind-share that it does today.
With its Ultra series subwoofers garnering nearly-universal praise from critics, it seems like a particularly good time for SVS to re-enter the speaker market with a product that shares the same name. Indeed, the Ultra series is a complete departure from anything SVS has produced in the past – you can tell this just by looking at the speakers – but we wanted to know more, so we spoke to Mark Mason, Director of Product Management at SVS about what’s so “Ultra” about these new products.
In an interview, Mason told us SVS’ goal was to bring a high-performance series of speakers to their customers at an affordable price point. The concept of the speaker’s design – from driver compliment to driver selection – had been in the back of his head for years, so when the topic of taking another stab at the speaker market came up, Mason was way ahead of the game.
When asked if the Ultra series involved a no-holds-barred approach to speaker design as the name might imply, Mason clarified that these are not cost-no-object speakers. “We said: Ok … here’s our price point. Now what can we do to make the absolute best experience possible at that price point for our customers. And we think we’ve achieved that. Nothing in that speaker design is arbitrary, everything has a reason for existing,” explained Mason.
Clearly, SVS believes it has designed a speaker that shatters previous attempts at redefining the price-to-performance barrier. We just had to find out for ourselves whether or not that was true. Here’s what we found.
Out of the box
Sweet mother of pearl, these are some seriously hefty speakers. SVS’ Ultra Tower Surround Package arrived on a shipping pallet that could barely handle the strain of supporting what turned out to be about 230 lbs. between the two towers, two surround speakers and center channel. Had we not received the SB13 Ultra earlier, the system’s total shipping weight would have been about 330 lbs.
We make a big deal about the weight because it is a direct indicator of the Ultra Series’ superb build quality. While much of the speaker-building world considers ¾-inch think MDF to be premium material, SVS upped the ante, using up to 1.5-inch thick MDF for critical parts of its tower speakers. Adding to the heft of the wood is the weight of the large magnets and cast aluminum baskets involved in the construction of the drivers that inhabit each speaker.
Such weighty construction makes shipping these speakers a tricky proposition; you can just imagine what they must go through in the hands of less-than-attentive shippers. SVS clearly has a handle on the risk involved, as it has packaged these speakers extremely well. Each box contained enough EPE foam to keep the speakers safe from all but the most intentional of abuse.
The samples we received came with SVS’ gloss-black finish (a real black oak veneer is also available) and what a finish it is. We inspected each speaker and found them all to exhibit a uniform sheen, with no streaking or clouding.
Features and design
The Ultra towers have several unique design points to take note of. Foremost is their use of dual 8-inch, side-firing subwoofers, located at the base of each speaker. The drivers are arranged in such a way that they cancel each other out inside the cabinet while directing bass frequencies in multiple directions, both sideways from each woofer as well as to the rear via a large porthole. Additionally, the subwoofers are isolated within their own chamber in the larger cabinet so as not to negatively impact the rest of the speakers’ performance. Speaking of those ports, SVS graciously includes foam port plugs with each speaker to assist in customizing bass response to match various placement scenarios and bass needs.
Up top, we find dual 6.5-inch glass-fiber midrange drivers with a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter sandwiched in between in a MTM arrangement. The midrange drivers get their own, sealed enclosure within the cabinet for more precisely controlled performance.
The sloping back of each speaker makes for a striking appearance, to be sure, but is also functional. SVS did this to help eliminate parallel surfaces, thereby aiding the control of cabinet resonances that can color the sound of the speakers.
The towers are bi-ampable, but as we’ll soon discuss, bi-amping is not necessary to get prodigious bass response from these speakers. They do just fine powered by a single, quality amplifier.
… not only were we not bowled over by an excess of bass, we found the SVS Ultra towers were capable of remarkably quick, tuneful, and deep bass response.
The center channel is less revolutionary in its design, but plenty smart. Dual 6.5-inch woofers flank a 4.5-inch midrange driver sitting below a 1-inch tweeter. This kind of driver arrangement works to eliminate “lobing” which can create dead spots in different parts of the room. This way, everyone listening to should be able to hear the center channel clearly – an important benefit for dialog clarity and intelligibility when watching movies.
Associated equipment for this review included a Marantz SR6006 AV receiver, a Denon AVR-4520ci receiver, an Anthem Integrated 225, Sonance Sonamp 275 SE for bi-amping, Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player, and Pioneer PL-25 turntable with Ortofon OM5E cartridge, Viewsonic PJD7820HD projector and Da-Lite easy install 16:9 inch screen.
Because each speaker in this system is rather unique, we’ve decided to break our performance coverage up to address each speaker individually and as part of a whole. Let’s start with the towers.
With four 8-inch subwoofers at play, it isn’t a stretch to expect robust bass response from these speakers. We went into our evaluation expecting a lot of bass and, frankly, were a little concerned that we might get too much bass considering the moderate size of our testing room and its relatively low 8-foot ceiling. However, not only were we not bowled over by an excess of bass, we found the SVS Ultra towers were capable of remarkably quick, tuneful, and deep bass response. In fact, we worry these towers might cannibalize some of SVS subwoofer sales because, frankly, we would have been perfectly happy leaving the SB13 Ultra subwoofer out of our evaluation entirely – the towers are that powerful.
We’d best describe the Ultra Towers’ midrange response as lush or rich. We experienced a hearty amount of midrange energy, which served to fill every corner of our room with vibrant, present sound. To be sure, these are not “laid back” speakers, but they don’t get all up in your face, either. Instead, the Ultra Towers present a wall of sound that served to make live music recordings sound so real, we got a strong sense of “being there” for the concert. On delicate recordings like Diana Krall’s intimate rendition of “Let It Rain,” we experienced Krall’s smoky voice coming from dead center in the room, her vocal husk washing over us like a gushing wave of wheat. Even already rich vocal performances such as Keb Mo’s “Let Your Light Shine” were cleanly presented without any undue resonance or coloration.
The Ultra Towers treble response is perhaps its most distinctive sonic attribute. The aluminum dome tweeters don’t sound overtly metallic, per se, but they are poignant in their delivery of transients and other fine details. We found brass and string instruments were reproduced with just a little added zing, though we never found the speakers to be fatiguing in any way. Hard-core audiophiles will want to sample the Ultra Towers before making a final decision on whether the flavor suits their palettes, but movie fans haven’t got a thing to worry about. The towers’ execution of high frequencies served to add excitement to every movie scene we watched and, again, at no time did we ever feel like we needed to turn our system down – distortion was never a problem, so long as adequate power was delivered.
We found the Ultra Center Channel equally impressive. Dialog clarity was superb, but not at the expense of sonic accuracy. We were just as happy with the center channel’s rendering of movie dialog and sound effects as we were with its handling of multichannel music. The Jaco Pastorius Big Band’s Word of Mouth Revisited SACD relies heavily on the center channel for the reproduction of bass guitar, and the Ultra Center had no problem taking on the challenge. We heard exceptionally clean response with an impressive amount of low-end punch, rendering the cast of various bass players cleanly enough that we felt like we were in the studio at the time of recording.
Finally, we come to the surround speakers. Unlike a bookshelf speaker, which can be tested individually to determine its merits as a stand-alone speaker, the Ultra surrounds are meant to be used as part of a system. Indeed, the Ultra surround speakers are dedicated team players. What we liked most about their performance is that they never called attention to themselves. Instead, they always sounded as a part of a well-unified system. Transitions from front to back and from left to right were nearly seamless. Moreover, the surrounds are voice-matched to the rest of the system extremely well. If ever there were an argument in favor of voice-matched speaker systems, this would be it. In addition, we thought the surrounds did an impressive job of refracting surround back information off our rear wall when positioned off to our sides and just a bit behind our seating position. We were a little skeptical about using them as both a side surround and rear surround, but our experience has us thinking maybe everyone should be using this approach when feasible. It reduces costs and complications, and delivers an excellent effect.
The SVS Ultra Tower Surround speaker package came as close to earning a perfect 10 as any other speaker system we’ve heard in its price class. The only reason we aren’t awarding it a 10 is because we believe there is no such thing as the perfect speaker, and there probably never will be. Someone will find the SVS Ultra series too big and bulky, others may feel its high-frequency response is too forward or metallic, and others still will find some other reason to quibble. But for our money, this is the speaker system to beat this year and possibly for years to come.
For your investment, you can expect years of thrilling sound from this system. You will bathe in the glory of its wide and deep soundstage, you will marvel at its precise imaging, you will giggle at its muscular, yet nimble bass response and you will delight in its resolution of fine detail. Simply put, if you are in the market for a full-size, high-performance speaker system, you owe it to yourself to check out the SVS Ultra series. It’s just that good.
- Superb build quality
- Outstanding bass response from towers
- Deep and wide soundstage
- Very good imaging
- Nimble, dynamic response
- Treble response may seem forward or metallic at times
- Speakers are bulky and require room