SVS, long among the top manufacturers of subwoofers, is an interesting example of a 21st-century business. As chief designer Mark Mason said to me, “SVS has a very virtual organization structure. Our president is located in Maryland, I’m in Toronto, our director of marketing is in San Francisco, and our director of [customer service] is in New York. We all congregate monthly at our warehouse in Girard, Ohio, outside of Youngstown.” And SVS speakers are manufactured in China.
Recently, SVS launched the Ultra line of full-range speakers for music and home-theater systems: the Bookshelf, the Surround, the Center, and the subject of this review, the Ultra Tower. In his feature on the Towers in our coverage of the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, publisher Doug Schneider pronounced that he was “blown away by the way they sounded -- rich, detailed, exceedingly clean, particularly through the midrange, and notably extended in the bass.”
After spending several weeks with them, my feeling is . . . “What he said!”
The Ultra Tower is an imposing beast that reminds me a bit of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It stands 45”H x 13.8"W x 16.25"D and weighs 75 pounds. While a pair of them make for two bulky packages, SVS coddles them so well in their boxes that they arrived at my door unscathed.
Unpacked, the Ultra Tower is a six-sided column whose rear panel, not its front baffle, is slanted. SVS chief designer Mark Mason told me that the slope helps minimize standing waves inside the cabinet. The two enclosures, one for the woofer and one for the mids and tweeter, are internally isolated from each other. One reason the speakers weigh so much is that their enclosures are mighty sturdy. Mason said the walls of the woofer baffle are 1.5” thick, with the midrange/tweeter baffle being 1” thick. The cabinets are also horizontally braced.
Each 3.5-way Tower has five drivers: two long-stroke 8” woofers, one on each side panel; two 6.5” midrange cones of composite glass-fiber; and a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter. All are built to SVS’s specs; no off-the-shelf drivers here. Although the two 6.5” drivers look identical, the lower cone’s response tapers off at 700Hz, while the upper cone’s continues up to hand off to the tweeter at 2kHz. The woofers are crossed over at 160Hz.
The review samples were finished in a Gloss Black that approaches what one sees on a Steinway concert grand; the Ultra Tower is also available in a Black Oak real-wood veneer. It comes with a black fabric grille that SVS says is acoustically transparent, and optimized using finite-element analysis. This attaches to the speaker with pins that fit into rubber-lined cups that are nearly invisible when the grille is removed. I left the grilles off for most of my listening.
The Ultra Tower’s claimed frequency response is 28Hz-32kHz, +/-3dB; its sensitivity is 88dB with 2.83V input at 1m. SVS recommends amplification of 20-300Wpc; Mason states that “a high-performance 20Wpc amplifier driving the speakers in a small room will result in a great listening experience for many customers. Some customers prefer to listen at higher SPLs in larger rooms, and they may find that more than 20W is required.”
The speaker is delivered with its elastomer isolation feet installed, but metal spikes and spike plates are included. I tried the spikes but felt they weren’t necessary, so instead used the isolation feet. Also included are a very well-written owner’s manual (you can preview it on the SVS website), and two foam plugs. The latter are for the rear-firing, 3.5"-diameter bass ports; their purpose is to reduce the overall bass output in smaller rooms, where the Towers’ bass might overwhelm, or for those who like a little less -- but tighter -- bass response. I tried the speakers both ways and found that I preferred the sound with both ports open. The Ultra Tower’s sturdy gold-plated, five-way binding posts make possible biwiring and biamping.
SVS stands behind the Ultra Tower with a five-year warranty against defects in parts and workmanship, as well as a 45-day in-home trial period.
Straight out of their boxes, the Ultra Towers sounded full, smooth, and robust -- in a word, superb. I then gave them a few days of break-in (facing each other, wired out of phase, and reproducing FM interstation noise), but noticed little change other than, perhaps, a slightly more open top end.
I began my serious listening with “Bali Run,” from Fourplay’s Fourplay (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Warner Bros./HDtracks), and with more anticipation than usual -- I was anxious to hear how well the Ultra Towers would reproduce this track’s fast, percussive bass line. The result: next to nirvana (the state of mind, not the band). I can’t recall any speaker I’ve reviewed -- even those paired with subwoofers -- that have done as good a job as the Ultra Towers with this music. Nathan East’s bass line was well articulated and deep, with absolutely none of the Johnny One-Note resonance one sometimes hears. The sound of Bob James’s electric piano and Lee Ritenour’s guitar was stupendous: bright but not brassy, detailed but not strident. And the sound of Harvey Mason’s snare drums had admirable snap.
Next up was one of my favorite vocal groups, Manhattan Transfer, and their recording of “Birdland,” from The Definitive Pop Collection (CD, Atlantic/Rhino R2 74111). If you aren’t familiar with this cover of Joe Zawinul’s composition, the engineer had some fun moving the four voices around in the mix. First a voice is in the upper left, then lower right, then someplace else. When all four voices are present, they form a smooth line across the front of the soundstage. At all times, the band is behind the singers, as it should be. The Ultras reproduced this aural smorgasbord brilliantly, with precise positioning of each voice and instrument on the soundstage. The voices sounded natural throughout -- the Ultras produced a neutral balance throughout the vocal range -- and the kick of the kick drum was visceral. The same held true for two other tracks from this album: “Four Brothers” and “Until I Met You (Corner Pocket).”
Another frequent visitor to my CD player during speaker reviews is “Money for Nothing,” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (CD, Warner Bros. 47773), which features drummer Pick Withers, whose own arms must be the world’s longest: the sound of his drum kit extends from the farthest reaches of the left channel to the hinterlands of the right -- with the SVS Ultras in my setup, a distance of about 7’. The smack of the toms and the whump of the kick drums were well-nigh perfect -- tight and timely -- and guest singer Sting’s famous cry of “I want my . . .” was almost ethereal. Flipping over to “Sultans of Swing,” from Mark Knopfler’s Metroland soundtrack (CD, Warner Bros. 47006-2), two contrasting details stood out: the delicacy of the hi-hat and the solid, meaty bass. Knopfler’s guitar riffs had a bite that worked very well, and that I’ve noticed through only a few other speakers, my Acoustic Energy Radiance 3s among them.
It was time to smooth things out a bit. I cued up Frank Sinatra’s Francis Albert Sinatra/Antonio Carlos Jobim (CD, Reprise 46948-2) to check out “I Concentrate on You,” a fabulously lush recording with Claus Ogerman conducting his own orchestral arrangement. Jobim’s guitar is well in the background, but suitably so. Sinatra still had his voice in 1967, and it was front and center through the SVS Ultra Towers. In fact, Sinatra sounded as good as I’ve heard him -- warm but with a slightly stand-offish attitude in his presentation. I can’t actually chalk up that to the speakers, but it wasn’t something I’d often noticed before. Ogerman’s strings were very well reproduced, with no shrillness.
Then I listened to the same song sung, to a similar arrangement, by someone who was warmth personified: Rosemary Clooney, with guitarist John Pizzarelli on her album Brazil (CD, Concord Jazz CCD 4884-2). Unlike Sinatra, Rosie recorded the song late in life, and so had to make up with phrasing and inflection what her voice could no longer do. It was magical -- one of those “she’s in the room with me” experiences, with Pizzarelli by her side. Clooney is closely miked, and the intimacy of the sound was reproduced perfectly by the Ultra Towers. Excellent!
Speakers that put out solid bass tempt one to pull out pipe-organ recordings. A recent organ recital, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, reacquainted me with the sound of a magnificent instrument in a huge space. And I’ve recently received as gifts a couple of CDs by a fabulous organist, Joan Lippincott. On her recording of transcriptions of concertos by J.S. Bach (CD, Gothic G-49275), she plays the Paul Fritts organ at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Concerto in G Major, BWV 592, gave me some of what I want from a pipe organ (thundering bass), but mostly a well-balanced performance on a terrific instrument. Where the recording plumbs the depths, the Ultra Towers came through (they’re claimed to have legitimate output down to 28Hz, after all). But I didn’t expect the delicacy of the organ’s high reeds -- a pleasure!
I then dug out an LP that I’ve treasured for nearly half a century: French Organ Masterpieces of the 17th and 18th Centuries, performed by Pierre Froidebise on the organ of the Church of St. Laurent d’Alkmaar, in the Netherlands (LP, Nonesuch H-71020). Louis Couperin’s Chacone en Sol has a fairly complex interplay of manual and pedal work. The Ultras may not be able to reproduce the very lowest frequency of Saint-Saëns’s Symphony 3, “Organ” (supposedly 16Hz), but with the pedalwork in everyday organ works, such as the Chaconne, they did just fine, thank you. The reeds of this organ, too, came through beautifully; the SVSes presented them faithfully.
The Ultra Towers far outperformed my Acoustic Energy Radiance 3s ($3000/pair) in the bass. In that range, the SVSes were much smoother in response and much more dynamic. Both pairs of speakers were superb in the mids, and very similar in their neutrality. Both reproduced voices, acoustic instruments, and percussion with great accuracy. The Radiance 3s, however, have a very slight advantage in the highest frequencies, from high violins and the like, with an ease of sound that wasn’t quite there with the Ultras. Even so, this wasn’t something I noticed unless I was listening for it.
The Ultra Towers liked a lot of power. At high volumes, they regularly moved the needles on my 100Wpc Carver amplifier up past the 100W mark. But when I wasn’t running them at lease-breaking levels, the Ultras were served just fine by the Carver.
It has been my supreme pleasure to review a sizable number of good speaker systems over the years. In the recent past, the Acoustic Energy Radiance 3 beguiled me with its exceptional mids and highs and its OK bottom end. The SVS Ultra Tower is nearly the AE’s equal in the highs, absolutely the AE’s equal in the mids, and betters the AE in the bass. Over my extended period of listening to the Ultra, I found everything Doug Schneider said in his RMAF coverage of the Ultra Towers to be the case. The SVS Ultra Tower is a phenomenal accomplishment at the price; there’s just nothing I’ve heard for $2000/pair, or even for significantly more, that comes close.
. . . Thom Moon
- Sources -- HP Pavilion dm4-1160 laptop computer, HP 1TB external hard drive, HRT Music Streamer II+ DAC; Dual CS-5000 turntable, Shure M97-xE cartridge; Cambridge Audio 650C CD player
- Preamplifier -- preamp section of Linn Majik 1-P integrated amplifier
- Power amplifier -- Carver TFM-15cb
- Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 powered subwoofer
- Interconnects -- Linn (CD player), Straight Wire (DAC to preamp), Dayton Audio (USB and preamp to amp)
- Speaker cables -- AR 14-gauge with Dayton Audio banana plugs
- Power conditioner -- Panamax 1000+
SVS Ultra Tower Loudspeakers
Price: $1998 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and workmanship.
6420 Belmont Avenue
Girard, OH 44420
Phone: (877) 626-5623