SVS Ultra Speaker System
The debut of the SVS Ultra speaker line prompts me to reconsider a question that’s been lurking at the back of my mind for years: Is SVS one of the great American speaker brands?
As a company founded in Ohio and initially operated out of a garage, SVS has all the right narrative elements of a great speaker brand. The company has built a reputation for making brilliantly unorthodox subwoofers and pretty good speakers—versus the scads of respectable brands that put most of their brilliance into speakers and treat subs as an afterthought. In the past few years, the story has added a few new chapters, with new heavy-hitter personnel in management and product design and a manufacturing move from Ohio to (where else?) China.
Those last few details might have made the story less compelling. However, after having spent some time with the Ultra Bookshelf, Center, Surround, and SB12-NSD sub, I now find the story more compelling. The new guys know what they’re doing, and, as with a lot of companies these days, the move to Chinese manufacturing has given them even more control over the quality of the final product.
I had come to this conclusion on the basis of listening alone before receiving a statement from new president Gary Yacoubian confirming that the move to a Chinese factory “has improved the quality and consistency of our products. We are able to closely supervise every aspect of the manufacturing process, and if anything, our standards are more exacting and rigorous now than they ever were in the past. The economies of scale factor into the process, improving assembly efficiency and reducing labor costs.”
In this latest chapter, it looks as if SVS has finally reached its moment of greatness.
SVS products are still designed in North America, with drawing boards at the company’s base in Youngstown, Ohio, and measurement and tweaking in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council in Ottawa. The products are sold factory-direct, making them an excellent value. Shipping is free, both ways if necessary, with a 45-day evaluation period. So you have little to lose by trying SVS.
The company’s product lines continue to emphasize subs, including its unusual and formidable cylindrical models. Outside of subs, in fact, the Ultra is (at this writing) the only SVS speaker line. It includes the three models reviewed here: the Ultra Bookshelf ($499/each), Ultra Center ($699), and Ultra Surround ($599/each). There is also an Ultra Tower ($999). Its unusual trapezoidal shape stands 45 inches tall and utilizes dual 6.5-inch midrange drivers with a 1-inch aluminum-dome tweeter; horizontally opposed 8-inch side-mounted woofers handle the bass.
The Ultra Bookshelf evokes the Tower’s shape, but in a subtle way, without precisely mimicking it. It has a similar 6.5-inch composite glass fiber-coned woofer and 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter as the Tower. In the Ultra Center, you’ll find the same tweeter, similar woofer (in duplicate), and a 4-inch composite glass fiber-coned midrange driver. The Ultra Surround features dual pairs of the same tweeter and a slightly smaller 5.5-inch composite glass fiber-coned woofer. It can operate in bipole mode, with each pair of drivers operating in phase; dipole mode, with drivers out of phase; or Duet mode, which allows each pair of drivers to function as a separate speaker. The latter option allows the speaker to handle both side- and back-surround channels simultaneously. My demos used the bipole mode.
My colleague David Vaughn had previously reviewed the outstanding SB13-Ultra subwoofer ($1,599, Home Theater February/March 2013 and HomeTheater.com), so we tried out the more affordable SB12-NSD sub instead with this system. It packs a 12-inch driver into a sealed enclosure of less than 15 inches all around. It is the only speaker in the set with a perforated metal grille—the others have fabric grilles—though it does share the same finishes, including the attractive Piano Black Gloss of our review sample. DSP enhances the 400-watt RMS amp, and all controls are digital in lieu of the usual volume pot and other analog parts.
Associated equipment included a Pioneer Elite VSX-53 A/V receiver, Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player, Micro Seiki BL-51 turntable, Shure M97xE phono cartridge, and Onix OA 21s integrated amp serving as phono preamp. All movie demos (and the first music demo) were Blu-ray Discs with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks.