SVS Ultra Tower Review by Tarunvir Bains

Discussion in 'Loudspeakers' started by GranteedEV, May 28, 2013.

  1. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    Introduction


    SVS has been a heavy-hitter in the internet-direct subwoofer market for over a decade, and has now given its statement-piece “Ultra” designation to a pair of tower loudspeakers (as well as their relevant HT siblings). Unlike earlier SVS offering designed by Philip Bamberg, these Ultra speakers were designed in-house by Mark Mason, who formerly designed speakers for PSB, a well-known Canadian brand. I have personally never had the opportunity to sit down and critically listen to PSB or SVS speakers, so I didn’t really know what kind of tonality to expect, although measurements indicated those earlier speakers as neutral.. or at least some version of it (cue painful 50 Shades of Gray reference).

    Certain nuances in timbral accuracy and presentation can affect the emotional connection to the listening experience, so listening is crucial before I can judge any well-measuring speaker – although you may know that I will quickly discard anything measuring poorly.

    SVS claims sensitivity of 88db/2.83v/m and according to Mark, they do dip down to the ~4 ohm range, but otherwise sport a nominal impedance of 8 ohm. Based on this information, the SVS Ultra speakers should be a moderate load to an amplifier’s output stages. Low-power tube amps may lack dynamics, but realistically, I think 80 watts at 8 ohms from any decently designed equipment is probably sufficient for most end-users in reasonably sized rooms. More power never hurts, but even quadrupling that would only give 6 db more in theory, and possibly less in practice. I used the Crown XLS2000 for the sake of headroom, but I doubt it worked a sweat often. Here's my review, spread out over the next five posts.

    Specifications


    Rated bandwidth: 28 Hz-32 kHz (+/-3 dB).
    Sensitivity: 88 dB (2.83V @ 1 meter full-space, 300-3kHz).
    Nominal impedance: 8 ohms.
    Recommended amplifier power: 20-300 watts.
    Dimensions: 45" (H) X 13.8" (W) X 16.25" (D).
    Weight: 75.4 pounds.
    Real black oak veneer and piano gloss black finish options.
    Last edited: May 28, 2013
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  2. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    First Impressions


    The Ultra Towers were shipped via freight, which was a new experience for myself as my first online towers were relatively light enough for ordinary shipping and my others speakers use a modular approach for weight distribution. It was a reassuring feeling to know that the speakers would arrive on their own pallet, and also hinted at some fun to be had.

    I couldn’t be home to receive the Ultra Towers myself within Fedex’ tight delivery-schedule, so I asked my dad to receive them. I was elated to open the garage as I got home to see the SVS boxed “towering” over the vehicles.

    [​IMG]

    I jogged on over to the box and began to carry it out into the sun when I realized something – these boxes were very awkward and bulky for a single person to carry. I called over my trusty sidekick, my little cousin, to help me carry them down to my listening space. As I went to open the box, I had trouble finding out where exactly to open it correctly. Given that these were pricy speakers, I was rather uneasy about accidentally dinging the speakers upon opening, so I contacted SVS Customer Service, who explained to me that the best approach would be to lay it down first and pull it out of the box, then stand it up and walk it out. So that’s what we did.

    [​IMG]

    The Ultra Towers were packaged well enough to avoid major cases of shipping damage, which is big for online retailers to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if SVS performed drop –tests. I was however disappointed to find the speaker covered in a “speaker sock”. I imagine these things exist to protect the gloss finish from handling damages, but they make me feel uneasy personally.

    [​IMG]

    Upon removing the sock, we were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the Ultra Tower. Our initial opinion based on online pictures was crushed by the gorgeous Piano Gloss finish; the aluminum tweeter faceplate looked awesome and the odd shape was all of a sudden beautiful thanks to the clever chamfering of the baffle. The chamfer is presumably not just an aesthetic touch, but serves in reducing measurable diffraction effects.

    [​IMG]

    As far as grilles go, things were pretty standard fare. Personally in a high end speaker, I kind of get excited about the possibility of magnetic grilles, but this is a higher-value oriented product, and so those were not present. I also noticed that the woofer grilles appeared permanently in place as they were very difficult to remove, and one of the woofer grilles had shipped slightly “off” compared to the other three. In my correspondence with SVS however, I discovered that the woofer grille can in fact be leveraged out with the use of a pin.

    As I rolled to the backside, I saw a large-diameter, flared vent begging me to… stick my arm inside. So I did. By my guess, this vent extended as much as 12 to 14 inches into the cabinet; this suggested to me that the Ultra Towers’ tuning was a key factor leading towards their tapered aesthetics – this vent could simply not be placed in a narrow speaker without a convoluted twisting scheme. If that’s not your thing, of course, there were supplied port plugs to turn this into an aperiodic or sealed system.

    [​IMG]

    The five-way binding posts came in the bi-amping / bi-wiring flavor. Personally, I’m not a fan of passive bi-amping as I believe that it can create problems, and I think bi-wiring is a waste of time. But I’m going to assume this was a case of “we don’t want to deal with customers who don’t know a thing complaining about how they can’t run the tweeter off single-ended triodes while the woofers are run off of 1000kg amps”. Do make sure to tighten the binding posts so that they snugly connect the brass jumpers together.
    Last edited: May 28, 2013
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  3. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    [h=1]Close Look[/h]
    First and foremost, I gave the Ultra Towers a knock test. The result was nothing to complain about – while they could have been deader, that would not necessarily have had audible consequences. They surely did not seem resonant though. The website mentions finite-element analysis in the optimization of the bracing, and I can see that. It’s easy to just throw mass and money at a cabinet, but that’s probably not a very economical decision.

    The Ultra Tower is advertised as a 3.5 way speaker, which would mean that both midrange drivers are high-pass filtered to prevent them from dealing with bass frequencies. It also means that only one of the two 6.5 inch midrange drivers is playing in the upper mids and lower treble, while the other one only rolls in the midrange and upper bass, increasing output. This does result in a different interference pattern compared to the typical MTM speaker, although the jury’s out on whether that’s a preferable choice.

    The narrow bandwidth of the midrange drivers could mean that you probably could get away with some cheap ones… but in my opinion SVS didn’t cut too many corners at all: Not only do both mids have their own individual sealed compartment, the drivers are quality – an aluminum cast frame with a fairly large ferrite magnet. Although neodymium might have had lower distortion, it is much more expensive these days, and the difference in higher order distortion products is notably controlled thanks to an aluminum Faraday ring in the motor, which acts as a short circuit path to modulate the flux.

    [​IMG]

    The cone material used is a pulp-impregnated glass-fibre composite. According to Mark, this keeps the breakup well outside of the driver’s intended bandwidth and benign in its characteristics. I also really liked the use of inverted dust-caps from an aesthetics standpoint. Speaking of which, the drivers are flush-mounted using a custom mounting plate that just looks stunning.

    The tweeter is an aluminum dome with what appeared to be a ferrite magnet. I don’t know too much about it from a technical standpoint, but it comes with a permanent grille and a diffusor. At the very least, I can say that you won’t have to worry about “fingers”!

    All that’s great… but SVS is known for bass. They’re calling these speakers their statement piece and claiming they run with speakers double, triple their price. What does that mean? It means that you’ve got not one, but two long-throw woofers in a push-push configuration mounted near the floor handling the low end. They too use ferrite magnets, aluminum shorting rings, and supplement that with large voice coils to handle any amplifier. While the port will be handling the low end, they’re still expected to deal with the regular bass… and that’s where their long throw comes in. I asked Mark Mason, and he told me that linear excursion (xmax) is 11mm one-way as limited by BL product, or 22mm peak-to-peak. Translation…with two of these beasts you’ve basically got built-in subwoofers.

    [​IMG]

    Drivers are great and all, and cabinets are important, but that will never mean anything without a well-designed and well-constructed crossover to integrate them all together. That goes double for something as complex as a 3.5-way speaker – you’ve got three separate low-pass filters, two high-pass filters, all acting in the bandwidth between roughly 100hz to 3khz. The SVS website mentions air coil inductors, but I’m going to assume that this was a reference to the tweeter circuit, which I don’t think I found (I wasn’t doing surgery here! Just a quick peek!). To me it looks like the woofer circuit (and probably lower-midrange) low-pass sections use steel-laminate inductors rather than air-cores. Whether this has any meaningful effects in terms of audibility or measurable distortion is debatable. What we do know is that this saves cost, weight, and room.
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  4. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    [h=1]Listening Impressions[/h]
    *Disclaimer* Results can vary depending on room – but the room interaction can be affected by speaker design too. Always give a test audition in your own room. Much of the listening was done with the speakers toed-in toward the center, although I later listened with them firing straight forward. The listening room is roughly 22 x 16 x 10 give or take, with the speakers having about a meter to the sides for sound to travel and reflect back towards the listener. I mentioned earlier that SVS is known to bring the low end, and I’ve never even had a chance to try one of their subs. Since the Ultra Towers are deep-reaching tower speakers - all listening was done in “Source Direct” mode with no subwoofer.

    [​IMG]

    I started with Nas and Damien Marley’s track “Naw Mean”. I definitely experienced chest-hitting bass, plenty of clarity, fantastic stereo imaging on the “Yo, Yo, Mr. Minister” part, and a surprising smoothness to the lower midrange.

    Next I threw on Monica’s “For You I Will”. The chorus sounded great, but I suspect individual vocals might have been more distinct in a more acoustically dead room. The cymbals in particular really hit with aplomb, resulting in a very believable presentation that could be able to draw emotion.

    It was then time for a pair of tracks I will always use when auditioning speakers: Dvorak’s “From the New World movements III and IV as performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. Starting with “Scherzo molto vivace”, I turned the lights off and listened. Low level instruments were fairly clear and distinct. Around the 1:45 mark I could make out the chimes which I love so much, but I did think they were lacking in fervor. They honestly sounded a bit weak to my ears. The tweeter really shone here, maintain composure around the 5:09 mark during a rather complex passage. This is not only a sign of a good tweeter, but also a sign of a well-implemented crossover by the designer. I also thought the scale of the dynamics near the end was just startling!

    As Allegro con Fuoco began, I asked myself whether the horns were “epic”-sounding. The recording itself is very epic sounding, but combined with a great sound system and it can be jaw-dropping. Things were pleasant for the most-part, but I did detect restraint in the presentation of soundstage – it lacked a certain depth and width that I am accustomed to. I believe that I heard a strange “vinyl” colouration to the otherwise beautiful clarinets; making them sound deeper in character than I would expect.

    In a switch-up from that came Shakira’s “Waka Waka K-Mix (This time for Africa)”. I like this song and love it loud. I’d be damned if I knew hakf of what she was singing, but Shakira can just get me smiling, and on these speakers she sounded great. The bass in the track… was very tight, although I felt it lacked the sheer weight a true subwoofer would provide. The guitar in particular was precise and ever-present… awesome stuff.

    I moved on to a track called “Rose” by Anna inspi’ NANA. Overcompressed (Japanese) punk rock… in other words this song should have sounded somewhere between awesome and awful on great speakers at high volumes. Well… how did the guitar sound? Perfect. For the first time I thought to myself “I want to buy these speakers”. To be honest though, I did encounter a bit of trouble making out the bass guitar on the right, but it was present. I really noted the loudness that the tweeter is capable of. Despite all the compression, I never felt the need to tap out listening, and that’s how I like it!

    I let Monkish54 on these forums know of a track a few months ago called Naruhodo Ruuichi - Objection! from the Phoenix Wright soundtrack. I think his comments to me were “New reference track!”. The bass was tight and tactile. The bass clarinets sounded natural to my ears, but I felt the chimes and xylophone had a relatively dull sound to them, despite the excellent tweeter. I again felt the soundstage lacked width and depth although the imaging around the 1:30 mark showed decent instrument placement. In my second round of listening without toe-in, I felt that the soundstage width had expanded greatly.

    Next came Kanye West’s Amazing. Ah, 808s and Heartbreak. On paper so detestable, yet in execution, some kind of awesome. The processing on Kenye’s voice in this track has a fascinating “flat as a sheet of paper floating in an infinitely deep space” effect on the soundstage when I listen on my other speakers, so I was very interested to see what I would hear on the SVS Ultras. The song honestly sounded a bit more typical… the aforementioned effect did not appear to be present. The Ultratowers did have an outstanding synergy with the autotune abuse, and the bass was nothing short of dramatic.

    A track I really enjoy, which I felt was a bit of a switchup from everything so-far, is “You won’t see me coming” by Jean-Jacques burnel. I thought the decay on the guitar here was just perfect, accompanied by energetic highs and mesmerizing vocals. I truly thought the drums were right there in the room with their tightness and snap.

    I had the honour of seeing the Legend of Zelda concert live at the Jubilee auditorium here in Calgary last year. Sitting there I came to the conclusion that the presentation and timbre my speakers gave was so similar to what I was hearing live, that my opinion on “Type of Soundstage” a speaker should have was greatly biased in that direction. So how do the SVS Ultra Towers fare?

    On “Gerudo Valley” from the 25[SUP]th[/SUP] Anniversary Collection, I could not help but feel that the brass sounded dull and muffled to my ears. The xylophone did not “float in the void” that way I have come to expect not only on my main speakers, but also from my little EMP E41-Bs. This was to me a clear tradeoff in exchange for the smooth listenability I had thus far experienced. The bite and openness were simple gone.

    That’s not the only track I use from that disk though. I freakin love “The Main Theme Medley”. Upon listening, I again heard a lower pitch to wind instruments that just didn’t sound “right”, although it was perfectly clear. The deep bass didn’t quite blow me away, which a true subwoofer can do. But beyond that, percussion was overall stunning in its replication. Choral parts sounded a bit too smooth however to my ears, without the dynamic snap that I thought should have been there.

    Another one of my favorite demo tracks is also from a soundtrack – “Baf Baf – Do you love being so… fired up?” from Gurren Lagann. I know this track like the back of my hand , so I discovered that the percussive element in the upper midrange beginning at the 2:45 mark was almost completely blurred and lost in the mix, and what was left had a dark tonality to it. If I didn’t know what to listen for, I may have never noticed its presence entirely.

    Also from Gurren Lagann is the track “Libera me from Hell”. What is it? A foreigner rapping in broken English overtop of a beautiful keyboard loop and absolutely epic opera performance! I have heard lesser speakers – particularily basic bookshelves, royally choke and die when subjected to that combination, yet at its finest this is just jaw-dropping. The Ultras sounded very smooth at earbleed levels, just as I desired. I was a bit scared of blowing a tweeter on some notes, but they were just cruising along. The keyboard, bass, and vocals were all simply coherent. Lyrics were mostly clear and easy-to-follow, and the opera just made me grin. Near the end I did detect some loss of composure though… which was admittedly a pure torture test to cap off a long listening session.

    I had to squeeze one last track into this review, and that is “Too Many Rappers” by the Beastie Boys and Nas. That’s because the bass synth, for lack of a better word, sounded off-the-wall. The soundstage, with the speakers facing straight forward, extended well beyond the horizontal plane of their placement. That said, the aforementioned “dark vinyl coloration” reared its ugly head and compounded with the poor recording quality, so vocals were tough to decipher – they were more clear on my other speakers.

    In my Blu-Ray, sports, and video gaming, not once did I experience anything objectionable. Freedom from chestiness to male announcers and sibilance was never a problem. This might seem like a short add-on to a long music-listening section, but you can effectively weigh this equally to all of the above. These are fantastic speakers for “ordinary everyday stuff”.
  5. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    Measurements


    On-Axis Frequency Response:
    [​IMG]

    Ignore anything below about 300hz as you’re getting into the room modal region and I could not drag these outdoors to measure their bass. The SVS speakers appear +/- 2db between 200hz and 5khz, but the shifts in response are wide in bandwidth, which I suspect is what led to the dark tonality I felt I heard at times. I’m not sure what causes the dip around 6-8khz, and it’s possible that it was my fault as a measurer and not actually there. Also don’t mind the dropoff in response above 16khz as that is entirely related to my ghetto mic.

    15 degree Horizontal Frequency Response
    [​IMG]

    This, and subsequent measurements, are going to look a bit worse than the 0 degree measurement in terms of squigliness, but try to focus on general trends.

    30 degrees off-axis
    [​IMG]

    15 degrees above the tweeter
    [​IMG]

    These two are still considered part of the listening window.

    15 degrees below the tweeter
    [​IMG]
    The null near the crossover region suggests to me an odd-order crossover. Mark Mason mentioned the use of third and fourth order acoustic slopes, so a third order tweeter-mid crossover, probably for the sound power response benefits, is probably what I am observing. This null is aimed at the ground and this is likely on purpose as this is generally the earliest arriving and possibly more objectionable reflected sound.

    45 degrees off-axis
    [​IMG]

    60 degrees off-axis
    [​IMG]

    70 degrees off-axis
    [​IMG]

    The last three may seem to be overkill to measure, but consider that they may in fact be the first reflection in many rooms. Depending on your room broadband treatments could help tame the flush tweeter.

    Distortion
    distortion.png
    I took this sweep at around 95+ db – in other words earbleed levels. Still, the low level stuff is probably contaminated by outdoor noises which I could not prevent. My setup is not an anechoic chamber. Distortion remained below 1% even at these sound levels, which was impressive, because I had to plug my ears during the tests. The well-behaved fourth harmonic indicates that the aluminum shorting rings referenced on SVS' website do indeed do their job.

    Impedance
    impedance.png
    The two speakers display good consistency. Although it is specified as a nominal 8 ohm load, I think its current draw in the power-hungry 100 Hz- 500 Hz region sets it as closer to a 4 or 6 ohm speaker. The phase angles are all benign, which is quite the accomplishment for a passive 3.5 way “reference” tower. No need for a super-hero amp, but just be sensible. The dual-peak in the bass shows a vent tuning frequency of 28hz, which is perfectly low for a compact $2000/pair speaker.
    Last edited: May 28, 2013
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  6. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    Conclusion


    I had a lot of fun with the SVS speakers. Their smoothness on contemporary music and their limitless bass output made me want to listen to them a lot, especially on anything with a hard cymbal crash. I would recommend giving them the SVS 45-day in-home audition, and highly recommend listening without any toe-in. Their aesthetics are fantastic and their value is pretty damn good considering their bass capabilities. In my opinion they aren’t quite free of coloration, but that may not be a problem if you’re not obsessed with French horns and brass like yours truly, but if you are, you may want something with a bit more bite in its harmonic structure. These speakers are very listenable which makes them amazing for non-critical everyday listening. SVS is known for its customer service and they come with free shipping… what’s not to like? Does that mean that I personally would shell out 2 grand for them? That’s tough to say because I’m not in the market, and my preferences don't equate to anyone else's. but they would definitely be on my short-list. There are a lot of things they do much better than any speaker in their price range, and of course there are aspects where they may fall short of similarily priced offerings.

    Appearance – 8/10
    Treble – 7.8/10
    Midrange– 7.5/10
    Bass – 8.9/10
    Imaging – 8/10
    Soundstage width – 8/10 without toe-in, 5/10 with toe-in
    Soundstage depth – 6/10
    Dynamic range – 10/10
    Fit and finish – 9/10

    8.1/10 – Superb!
    Last edited: May 28, 2013
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  7. Adam Audioholic Jedi

    Adam
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    Wait...your name's not Grant? :confused: :eek:

    :p :D

    Very nicely done! After reading through all of your listening experiences, I got the impression that you feel the Ultras are lacking in their ability to bring that "I'm there" feeling. I'm probably saying that wrong, but it seems like they weren't creating an emotional response to some of the music like you were wanting. Am I correct? If so, do you attribute any of that to your room or other equipment, or do you think it's the Ultras? We can all see the Phils in the background :), so we know that you have a pretty impressive point of comparison that might help you know if it's due to things other than the speakers.
    Adam,
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  8. GranteedEV Audioholic Ninja

    GranteedEV
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    Lacking wouldn't be the right word. They don't go for a "you are there" feeling... they shoot for a "they are here in the room" feeling. They do it well enough, but that may or may not be someone's preference.

    Some music. Of course, the Phils for example are less suited to creating an emotional response to other music. The warm/dark voicing has its pros and cons and it really boils down to source content. Don't get me wrong though - there was no point where I didn't have fun with the Ultra Towers.

    The room's not perfect, but I definitely think that what I heard was mostly the character of the speakers. The measurements show that they do have decent power response.

    By the way, I was looking my the graphs this morning, and I noticed that the ~6-8khz response dip dissapears above the tweeter axis. It's possibly a cavity effect.
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  9. agarwalro Audioholic Ninja

    agarwalro
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    +1.
    When pitched against your setup, a score of 8.1 is truly superb!

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