SVS Ultra Towers
Many non-audiophiles tend to think that the most important money you can spend on a stereo should go to the speakers. This belief tends to be contradicted by the so called ‘garbage in – garbage out’ school of thought which argues that the front end sets an upper limit on sound quality. I can, conveniently, accept both positions with a calm Zen-like tolerance of ambiguity. Poor speaker choices will never let you even approach, never mind hear, the limits of your front-end choices. It’s fine to put the money up front to ensure you don’t start with garbage, but if you end up short-changing yourself on the speaker side, you’ll never hear the quality that nice new DAC or table can really provide.
Once willing to consider something other than is found in a big-box store, the choices for speaker purchasers become overwhelming and indeed expensive. There seems to be no end of new, state-of-the-art designs that are beyond the reach of most people. Open any glossy audiophile magazine and you will find models that hit six-figure prices routinely reviewed. At last year’s RMAF, I concluded that $30k had become the new-normal, the price point at which so many good, new speakers from established companies seem to be aimed. Again, for most people, this is an unreasonable amount of money to spend on a pair of speakers. Further, even if interested enough to learn about them and consider their purchase, a typical buyer nowadays has an extremely difficult time even hearing a pair for themselves in an environment that allows them to listen seriously.
Against this backdrop arrives SVS. Claiming their designs will deliver more than a taste of the high end at budget speaker prices, the company is also making it easy for an interested purchaser to try a pair in their own home for 45 days with full-return privileges. SVS has been around for 15 years, originally specializing in subwoofer designs, but lately they have offered a range of speaker solutions, from surround packages, bookshelf monitors, and now, the Ultra series which are aimed squarely a those seeking audiophile quality sound on a budget. Sold singly at $999 each, one could assemble a multiway system from these easily but as an old-fashioned audiophile, I don’t do home theater or surround, just stereo, so my review is solely concerned with how much musical satisfaction it is possible to get from a $2k pair of loudspeakers.
Unpacked and in position, there is much to admire here. Each speaker contains a 1” aluminum dome tweeter, two 6.5” midrange drivers, and dual 8” woofers positioned in opposition to be side-firing. Full details of the drivers are provided on site (www.svsound.com), so I won’t repeat the details here other than to say that inspection suggests parts quality is high. The side-firing dual woofers per tower arrangement is particularly interesting. SVS describes this as a “ForceFactor” array which purportedly results in mechanical cancellation to provide lower distortion and consequently cleaner bass.
Of further note is the very impressive visual design. The dramatic trapezoid shape, designed to minimize cabinet standing waves, gives the speaker a serious, sculpted look, and the pair I received for review were finished in a quite beautiful gloss back. At 45” height, with a deeper lower base and slimmer top, the Ultra Towers are likely to be quite at home in any decor. They solicited quite a few comments from visitors to my room who all wanted to examine the lines and finish up close. Keep a polishing cloth handy, people want to run their fingers over these in admiration. A rear-firing port mid way up comes with a ready made sponge-style plug that owners can use to tailor the bass responses somewhat and make room placement easier.
Speaking of which, placement is easy enough with one person. First, they arrive in a clever box design that amply cushions but allows for side opening and relatively painless removal. My pair of speakers offered a choice of footers, rubber (pre-installed) or spikes. Moving them slowly in steps was no great problem, even at 75lbs each, and this gave me the option to play with positioning. I tried them near the wall, where the plugs helped a little, but I found the bass too unresolved there for my taste and ended up with them well out in my room, some 43” from tweeter to rear, and more than this from each side wall in my 25′ x 18′ room, with no toe-in, after which I used them ‘unplugged’, so to speak, for most of the review. Here, the soundstaging seemed best, the centre image clearly free of the speakers and the bass nicely balanced from the listening chair. All told, this is a relatively easy speaker to locate but like everything in audio, it pays to experiment. Since the rubber feet fit cleanly and flush with my hardwood floors, I did not install the spikes during my review period.
Let them play
For the time the SVS Towers were in my house they became the main speakers in my reference rig, biwired with speaker cables from either a single stereo Spectron Musician III or with a pair in mono configuration. For a brief two day interlude I also tried a BAT VK 500 power amp. Other gear is listed at the end, the most noteworthy part of this being the imbalance in cost involved, with the SVS speakers being the most affordable part of the system, notwithstanding an interconnect or two. Over the course of two months they played all sorts of music for me without fuss and gave me a real sense of what they can and cannot do compared to my reference Von Schweikert VR5SEs.
What these speakers can do well is give you the levels of resolution and timbral accuracy that to my ears separate genuine high quality speakers from the multitude of also-rans on which you can spend your money. Any decent speaker will give you music and allow you to hear something of the frequency extremes but when you invest in a pair of high-end speakers, you are trying to obtain the level of reproduction that is closer to live instruments and can create at least a partial illusion of the real thing in your space. The threshold of realism varies by listener but as you listen to more and more speakers, you develop an expectation below which you find it hard to be satisfied. The Ultra Towers cross my threshold easily from the first notes.
Resolution is something we all listen for in a component change. Do the small details you know exist on a recording come through? Do they come through as well or even better? Are you hearing new details that you missed before or has something been lost with the change? Regardless of price, I always want to hear instruments sound like instruments I know: guitars are stringed instruments, drums are sticks on skin and metal, saxophones have breath and rasp, voices must sound like they come from throats, not microphones, you get my meaning. Only after this do I really consider how well the bass is resolved or if the soundstaging is impressive. You may weigh these factors differently but without timbral accuracy and resolution of detail, I tend to be dissatisfied with any speaker.
As with all reviews, I start with stock recordings I know well, and with speakers this always includes concentrated sessions with Ronnie Earl, Janos Starker, Holly Cole, and Tord Gustavsen. What I look for here is the general quality of sound reproduction, particularly as compared to my long-standing reference. The first impressions give me some sense of how near or how far apart one gets with a different speaker (or component). In this regard, I was quite impressed.
The opening bars of Ronnie Earl’s cover of Coltrane’s Alabama involve solo piano notes, sparse drums, both fading away to make room for Earl’s unaccompanied Stratocaster, with reverb, making the most of space to create a haunting, contemplative soundscape. To work well here, a system must reproduce the atmospherics and intimacy of the playing, which evokes a late night, small setting with the players up close. This track ends quickly, running almost straight into Ice-Cream Man, which kicks the music up a notch, adding organ, bass, and sax in a repetitive rhythmic drive. Taken together, these first few minutes of the recording tell me quickly how much difference a component change provides. With the SVS replacing my VR5SE’s, the change was not as a dramatic as the price difference might suggest. Guitar sounded like a real stratocaster, the subtle percussive details added by drummer Per Hanson came through without obvious loss, and the characteristics of intimacy in this particular track were preserved by the SVS.
From the mid-range up, one gives up little with these speakers. Where differences are more apparent is in the bass region. The Towers play deep, there is no mistaking it. You feel bass coming through and the speakers sound truly full-range. At first listen you might even think you are getting more bass reproduction than other speakers, so obvious is the bass when it kicks in on some recordings, like Ice-Cream Man from Ronnie Earl, or on the trio recordings of Tord Gustavsen. This helps to give the SVS a slightly warm balance which is likely to be very pleasing to many listeners.
On more bass-demanding music, I found it easier to identify the limitations of the SVS Ultra in comparison to my reference. For example, on Holly Cole’s Temptation album, acoustic bass is employed as a percussive and instrumental voice, and the album (and indeed any well-recorded acoustic bass) has a way of revealing the limitations in any system’s reproduction. Here, while there is no doubt you are getting plenty of bass from the SVS Ultra Towers, the speakers can sound a bit congested, with the bass strings being unevenly reproduced on triplet and quarter-note runs. The full impact of the acoustic bass’ wooden body is reduced in terms of air and decay compared to the best speakers I’ve heard. Now this is less pronounced with the plugs removed and the speakers having space around them to breath but in my rig, I felt the quality, if not the amount, of bass on offer was not quite at the level of my references. Worth noting here however, that this is only an observation based on acoustic bass. On cello recordings, such as Victor Uzur’s fabulous recording of solo pieces, entitled unsurprisingly, ‘Solo Cello’ utilizing Kimber’s IsoMike recording process, there is little sense of restriction, and the body of the cello is present. Further, with electric bass, and the more processed sounds of rock and blues, bass delineation is excellent.
This Cole recording raised a small concern about the ultimate resolution of the Towers too. On Train Song from this album, there’s a little interchange at the end of the track between Holly, laughing, and the drummer, who rubs the snare in response. It was probably only with my reference speakers that I became readily aware of this as it was masked on my previous speakers and is not clearly reproduced, even knowing that it is coming, on the other speakers I have in my house (the venerable KEF 103/2s and a pair of budget champion Pioneer BP21s). To these I must add that it is also a bit masked with the SVS Towers in my reference set up. You won’t miss them if you are not aware that these details are on the recording, but if you know them and listen for them, their absence or reduction feels like something is not quite as resolved as it might be.
These minor criticisms aside, other impressive aspects of the sound are worth noting. Transients and dynamics with the Ultra Towers are particularly good. The music can explode from these speakers in a lightening quick fashion that might surprise you. In this regard, I put them up with the best I’ve heard. Soundstaging is good, at least in the left-to-right plane, with reasonable depth, as much as any speaker can reproduce it from most recordings, in the front-to-back plane. On a range of recordings, from Johnny A to Deep Purple, I found myself tapping my feet and grooving along with the rhythmic drive of the music. The new Purple album, Now What, is a real surprise release for these old geezers, a Bob Ezrin produced prog-rock delight, full of light and shade, instrumental virtuosity, and fist-pumping rock. This is the type of recording that comes through in all its glory with the SVS Ultras, Roger Glover’s bass underlying and counterpointing the guitar and keyboard layers of Steve Morse and Don Airey with precision, and not a hint of restriction or uneveness.
At around $2-3k I’ve recently reviewed some very different speakers (Legacy Studio HD, Harbeth P3ESR, Von Schweikert VR22). All of these are good sounding, but only the diminutive Harbeths come close in terms of looks, and there’s a lot less of them to look at for your money. Sonically, I’d probably stretch to the VR22s if i had the means given their superb resolution but they cost $1k more than the Ultra Towers (and seem to have put little of that cost into looks) so they are really not the fairest comparison. I prefer the SVS to the Studio HDs on most parameters, but the choice between the Towers and the Harbeth comes down to what you require and admire in a speaker. The Harbeths are a near-perfect monitor to my ears but they will always seem too small to those who want full frequency extension, loud volume, and a speaker that is visually prominent in their room.
That the SVS Ultra Towers can compete with those other models, and can work so well with components that cost far more, says it all really. There is so much about the Ultra Towers to like that I am confident many people will find these to be a fine speaker around which to build their audio system. Obviously, the Towers do not have the ultimate resolution and sense of open air of my reference speakers but then they cost less than one-tenth of the price. At no point in my review period did I think these speakers producing only one-tenth of the sonics.
When you spend money on any component you are buying design expertise, parts quality, looks, and costs of assembly and transport. Given the expertise put into these, the very obvious parts quality and the super looks, you have to wonder about the profit levels SVS are making on this line. Right now, that’s not a problem you have to solve, rather it is a situation of which you can take advantage, but don’t be surprised if this speaker goes up in price in the future. Impressive value, great looks, and easy set-up; the cost of entry to full-size high end speakers is lower than ever.
- SME 20/2, SME V, Dynavector 10×50, Whest 0.3RDT phono stage, PS Audio PWT/PWD combo,
- SMcAudio VRE-1 preamp
- Spectron Musician III Mk 2 Monos (also run as single stereo amp), BAT VK500, Naim Nait 2 integrated
- Von Schweikert VR5SE speakers, KEF 103/2, Pioneer BP21
- Absolute Fidelity, Wywires, PS Audio, Pagnea power cords, Elrod and Von Schweikert speaker cables; Harmonic Tech, Absolute Fidelity, PS Audio, High Fidelity, interconnects.