SVS is one of many Internet-direct speaker companies that was conceived in the late 90s and soon after embraced by a loyal group of budget-oriented audiophiles. Policies that allowed customers to try before they committed to buy helped eliminate their qualms about buying speakers or subwoofers they’d never laid ears on. SVS quickly earned itself a reputation for building high-performance audio products, and has since enjoyed a position as one of the most respected subwoofer brands in existence, earning accolades from both customers and professional product reviewers alike.
Until just a few weeks ago, we hadn’t yet had an opportunity to formally test one of SVS’ subwoofers (though we’ve had plenty of personal experience with the cylindrical PC 12-Plus and the behemoth that is the PB-13 Ultra). To say we were giddy when the SVS SB 13-Ultra arrived at our testing lab would not be an overstatement. We were pretty sure the SB13-Ultra would be able to rattle some walls, and there was no doubt we would have a little fun showing it off to colleagues. But, we wondered: How would this 1000-watt beast fare when asked to put on a velvet glove? Could it possibly be as musical as it is muscular? We had our doubts.
We exacted a litany of brutal bass tests on this sub, taxing it with everything from the most raucous, pounding LFE tracks in movies to the smoothest acoustic double bass found on the most delicate of jazz recordings. Read on to see how this subwoofer matched up with our expectations.
Out of the box
Before we were able to give the SB 13-Ultra a workout, it gave us a workout of our own. After a hard-core carbo-loading session, we strapped on a weight-lifting belt and set about deboxing the 92 lb. sub. Now, given the SB 13-Ultra’s beautiful finish – and to help see to it that nobody gets hurt – we feel compelled to issue this PSA: Get a friend to help you set this subwoofer up. Don’t try to be a hero, fellow bassheads. When hernias and damaged cabinets are on the line, it pays to be safe.
The SB 13-Ultra is available in a black wood grain or gloss piano-black finish. We received the former and, to our surprise, we were just fine with that. Though most of the other speakers in our reference system are gloss black, SVS’ fine work with the woody-looking veneer results in a luxurious finish that is sure to please. It certainly felt at home with the rest of our gear.
This subwoofer is part of SVS’ “compact” line, but that might be overstating it. While it is a bit smaller than most of SVS’ other subwoofers, and smaller than the 12- and 13-inch subs from competing models, we’re not inclined to agree that it is compact, per se. At 17.4-inches cubed, ‘Less gargantuan’ would probably be more apt.
Features and design
The SB 13-Ultra is loaded with all sorts of proprietary technology described by the manufacturer in terms that delight audiophiles and gearheads, and alienate just about everyone else. Rather than tell you that the sub’s 13-inch driver has an FEA-optimized motor with copper shorting sleeve to reduce gap induction and distortion, let us instead impart this bit of wisdom: SVS knows what the hell it is doing when it comes to subwoofers.
SVS isn’t now, nor has it ever been, in the business of messing around. The company doesn’t just pull drivers and amps off a shelf, throw them into a box, wrap it up in shiny vinyl, mark it up to 500 percent above cost, and laugh it up all the way to the bank – the audio world has enough of that already. Rather, SVS engineers its subwoofers from the ground up.
That means SVS designs its drivers, amplifiers, and even the little pins that hold on the grill from the ground up. It makes sure the drivers it uses in its sealed subwoofer are optimized to perform under the higher pressures that exist in such a design. It even forced its amp supplier to come up with a 1000-watt amplifier because, damnit, it wanted 1000 watts! In short, SVS cuts no corners, a fact that is evident the moment you touch its subs.
The SB 13-Ultra’s custom-designed, 1000-watt RMS amp is one of several touch-points which yields both abstract and concrete benefits. It’s single-button, digital interface was surprisingly easy for us to use – even though it offered a number of custom adjustments that could have gotten really confusing, really fast, we never had a problem navigating the menu on the well-illuminated, dual-line display. The offers every type of input you could possibly want, from a single RCA jack for LFE-only input, to balanced XLR connections for high-end pre-amps and integrated amps. Finally, two parametric EQ’s and a separate room gain adjustment offer enough control over the sub’s output to allow excellent integration into just about any room.
The SB 13-Ultra’s 13-inch driver is covered by a parabolic metallic grill affixed to the sub using hefty metal pins, which are buffered with rubber grommets to eliminate any potential for noise. As grills go, this is as robust as they come – not that the 13-inch driver needs protection. We’re willing to bet money that a .22 caliber bullet fired at close range would simply ricochet off the driver’s surface, leaving nary a mark.
The bottom of our review sample came with rubber feet installed in threaded inserts. We didn’t find any brass feet in the box, but we’re not sure we would have used them anyway. The rubber feet did a great job of isolating the sub from our floor and kept it from moving around as it rumbled away during high-SPL testing.
We auditioned the SB 13-Ultra in a 12 x 20 room with modest acoustical treatments. Associated gear included a Marantz SR 6005 A/V receiver, an Anthem 225 Integrated amplifier, Oppo BDP-95 universal disc player and Aperion Verus Grand speakers.
The subwoofer was placed with the rear of its cabinet roughly three feet from the front wall of our room and roughly one foot from the left side wall. We made no adjustments to the subwoofer’s default settings, which read as pre-set for use with an A/V receiver. We purposefully ran no room correction software prior to testing in order to let us play around with the subwoofer’s built-in DSP (digital signal processing).
Once in place, the subwoofer was run at a low volume playing a variety of music and movie scenes for 20 hours prior to critical listening.
Simply put, the SB 13-Ultra is the finest subwoofer we’ve ever tested, and one of the finest we’ve ever heard. Sure, we’ve experienced subs that could play louder (just barely) and we’ve heard much larger subs get a little deeper (though not by much), but few competitors can touch the SB 13-Ultra’s lightning-fast response, explosive attack, dead-accurate decay and pure musicality. That’s right: The SB 13-Ultra is as musical as it is powerful.
Naturally, we started our evaluation with a test disc loaded with frequency sweep patterns, just to get a feel for how low the SB 13-Ultra could go. It turns out, it can go lower than we were able to hear while sitting in the same room with the sub. We had to leave the house and walk a few yards out to really hear it, but we did witness the SB 13-Ultra getting down to about 16Hz. Granted, the sub seemed to start rolling off at about 25Hz, but its operable range extended beyond that point.
Although we didn’t hear the 16Hz tone while in the room, we most certainly felt it. The room seemed to shift around us in the way that reality shifts around the characters on Fringe. For a moment, things became a little distorted, and we had to take a second to get our bearings. That would be the inner ear playing tricks on our equilibrium – and we liked it.
We turned to a few of our favorite chest-pounding movies to put the SB 13-Ultra through something that resembled a more real-world scenario. Up first was Micahel Bay’s Transformers. Fortunately, one needn’t wade any further through this horribly acted movie than the first 10 minutes to get a thoroughly satisfying rumble from the subwoofer. Peter Cullen’s voice-over as of the introduction as Optimus Prime is a telling segment, as the bulk of the voice track comes from the center channel and main speakers, with only the lowest octaves reproduced by the subwoofer. If the blend between the sub and speakers is off, you’ll know it right away. We were pleased to find the sub struck the right balance out of the gate.
The following five minutes of the flick contains some of the deepest rumbles and most explosive hits in our movie collection, and it was here that we realized the SB 13-Ultra had come to party…hard. We had the grill off for most of our evaluation and we were stunned to see the driver undulating back and forth over such a long distance. Moments before we were barely able to move it manually, but the 1000-watt Sledge amp had no problem moving the driver exactly as it wanted to, delivering extremely low bass that has a way of moving an entire room. Later, as an enemy helicopter swoops in and starts shooting up a military base camp, each and every pass of the helicopter’s blade pounded us in the chest like a heavy-weight boxer. It felt sooooo good.
We then queued up Jurassic Park on Blu-ray and zipped straight to the T-Rex’s introduction, where its footfall is felt and heard long before the beast is seen. Again, the sub delivered forceful impact with deadly-accurate decay. It was at this point that our neighbors called us up (we’re friends) and asked us what was going on. We told them what we were up to, and they came right over. It turns out, they thought the SB 13-Ultra was pretty amazing as well.
With the sub’s low-frequency prowess and potent power firmly established, we turned to something much more difficult for a sub to pull off well: music. We queued up Oscar Peterson’s We Get Requests and made our way through the entire album. As we did, we changed our receiver’s settings to tax the subwoofer with more and more of the bass region in an effort to gauge how it would blend with our main speakers when it was working up in the 100Hz to 120Hz region. We were floored by what we heard.
The SB 13-Ultra managed a superb blend with our main speakers, no matter how much we demanded of it. Its remarkably linear response from 120Hz down allowed it to sound like an extension of our main speakers at all times. Never did it sound like the booming box in the corner. Bass was taught, poignant, rich, guttural and tuneful, sometimes all at once. Ray Brown’s acoustic bass was reproduced so faithfully, it reminded us of those occasions we were fortunate enough to see him live. We heard just the right amount of wood, balanced with the droning resonance of Ray’s strings. In short, it was remarkable.
We kept trying to make the SB 13-Ultra falter – after all, what’s a product review without a little negativity and cynicism? But, for as hard as we tried, we failed just as miserably. No matter what we threw at this subwoofer, it came back with exactly what we wanted to hear.
If there is a more perfect subwoofer in production today, we haven’t heard it yet. The SB 13-Ultra’s sealed-cabinet design, robust driver, insanely powerful amp, and rock-solid enclosure combine to deliver the ultimate in bass pleasure. Our only wish is that this subwoofer was a little more affordable. Don’t misunderstand us, SVS asks a very reasonable price for what it is offering. It’s just that $1,600 is a big chunk of change, and we wish that everyone – especially those of more modest means – could enjoy what truly excellent bass is all about. With that said, this sub is worth saving up for. And if you do, you can thank us later.
- Deadly-powerful amplifier
- Highly percussive and violently explosive
- As musical as subwoofers come
- Natural attack and decay
- Rock-solid build quality
- Slightly large, despite its relatively compact form factor