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September 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
SVS Ultra Tower Floorstanding Loudspeaker
Whilst not the last word in performance, you get quite a bit for the money.
Review By Tom Lyle

 

SVS Ultra Tower Floorstanding Loudspeaker  As I am slowly approaching the grizzled vet stage of my audiophile career, I often have to stop myself from starting a sentence with "back in my day..." It's not surprising that when I heard about the less than $2000 a pair 45" tall five-driver SVS Ultra Tower I would have similar thoughts. I might start thinking of high-end makes and models that would demand one to max-out one's credit cards to get anywhere close to the  specs that these speakers possess. But time marches on, and I mean this in the best way, especially when reflecting upon the evolution of speaker design.

 

Subject
When many people mention the brand SVS, the subject is usually subwoofers. Which certainly makes sense to me because the last time I had an SVS product in my home was in the early 2000's, and yes, it was a subwoofer. But SVS has been producing more than just subs for quite a while now, and the SVS Ultra Tower sits at the top of their speaker line. SVS is awfully proud of their Ultra Tower, proclaiming that it "delivers a deep and detailed soundstage with incredible resolution, absolute transparency, and amazingly rich and articulated bass". Well, that's all fine and dandy. I guess if only some of that were true, they still are impressive looking speakers. At 75 pounds each they certainly weigh enough to impress, and the trapezoidal cabinet and unique styling yields a fairly modern look. SVS says, and I tend to agree with them, that that the Ultra Tower "creates a dramatic visual statement". I used the speakers in the second system in a common space of the first floor of our home, so I was a bit concerned that my wife wouldn't care for the appearance of these rather large speakers since I thought they dominated the room a bit. She actually thought they looked OK. Whew.

SVS also claims that the Ultra Towers have exceptional sonic traits, "outperforming other brands costing two and three times their price". There might be some truth to this claim since the SVS Ultra Towers are only available factory direct, avoiding the mark ups that comes from passing though the hands of distributors or importers. There are often advantages to the consumer that come from purchasing an audio product from an authorized dealer; one of these advantages is of course auditioning the product. But SVS offers to their customers a generous 45 day in-home trial. Plus, SVS does not charge for shipping, to your residence, or in the case of return, back to SVS.

Drivers housed in a rectangular box are becoming a rare breed. Like many other contemporary speakers the SVS Ultra Tower has non-parallel cabinet walls that help reduce standing waves in the interior of its cabinet. Non parallel cabinet panels often lead to a less colored sound because it helps eliminate the coloration from these standing waves that occur, usually due to sound waves reflecting off the interior wall of the cabinet in the same direction in that they originated. The Ultra Tower also has a wedge-shaped front baffle and flush-mounted drivers that lessen diffraction, and so the on-axis frequency response is improved. Although SVS claims that their grilles with a pin/cup retention system are designed to be as transparent as possible, I didn't take any chances so I left the grilles off during the entire audition period.  I thought the speakers looked better without them. To minimize interaction between the drivers, the Ultra Tower is designed with two separate sealed midrange enclosures. This is a nice touch, as without physically separating them there is likely to be a great deal of interaction between the drivers.  These internal baffles will eliminate at least some of the problems that are caused within the cabinet of a speaker with so many drivers.

 

Proud
SVS Ultra Tower Floorstanding Loudspeaker TweeterEven though I'm about to lift the bulk of the following facts straight from SVS's website, I think it again proves that SVS is very proud of their product, regardless of some of their hyperbolic claims that accompany specifications of these sub $2000 per pair speakers. The SVS Ultra Tower uses a 1" aluminum dome tweeter, a pair of 6.5" midrange drivers, and two 8" woofers -- one on each side of the lower half of each speaker cabinet. They label the 1" aluminum dome tweeter with an "FEA-optimized diffuser", claiming to deliver a "very open 'airy' presentation" and "extremely unveiled" highs. I'd rather not repeat the fanciful claims they make about the soundstage and life-like sound that comes from their midrange drivers, and hold off the discussion of their sound for later in the review.. The baffles used for the midrange and tweeter are 1" thick, and this thickness increases to 1.5" for the woofer baffles.  The midrange driver is made from a composite glass-fiber with an "excellent stiffness/mass ratio that they said was designed to improve sensitivity, and also has excellent pistonic behavior because it is over-built. The vented voice coil in the midrange driver was designed to minimize air compression artifacts at high volume, and an aluminum shortening ring to reduce gap inductance, lower distortion, and improve the highs. The cast aluminum basket they use aids in the "precise alignment of critical components and enhance heat sinking capacity". SVS makes similar claims about their 8" woofers in the Ultra Tower, such as that it features a long stroke motor and suspension, and a heavy duty vented voice coil.

SVS says the arrangement of the woofers in the Ultra Tower have a "unique" ForceFactor horizontally-opposed dual woofer configuration. I suppose this is another way of saying that the speaker has two 8" woofers on both sides of its cabinet, which makes it possible for not only one of the woofers to fire to the side walls, but one of them to fire towards the woofer in the other speaker across the room. They claim that this results in mechanical force cancellation, which reduces distortion and makes for a cleaner and tighter bass response. They say it also eliminates cabinet vibration which could upset the mids and treble, and that in turn makes the soundstage stable and clear. And because the woofers fire in different directions the "acoustical loading and modal density" in the listening room is increased, which makes it possible for the bass to be free of room anomalies regardless of seating position.

Having five drivers in one cabinet is a good thing for a number of reasons, but also a challenge to make all these drivers work together as one. SVS uses their SoundMatch 3.5-way crossover featuring a "tapered array" that supplies each midrange driver with an optimized frequency band. The upper midrange driver is the only one of the two that crosses over to the tweeter at 2 kHz. The midrange driver positioned below it is tapered at 700 Hz, which SVS says minimizes "off-axis lobing" in the important midrange-to-tweeter crossover frequencies. This aids in "smoother" in-room frequency response and overall radiation and volume, and a larger sweet spot with a better soundstage.  SVS insists that their crossover network uses "premium-grade" capacitors, air-core inductors and "heavy-trace" printed circuit board "to endure pure signal transmission.

 

Driving
SVS Ultra Tower Floorstanding LoudspeakerJudging by their looks alone one would assume that the Ultra Towers would run into trouble if one attempts to drive them with a flea-powered Single Ended Triode (SET) amplifier. Correct.  Still, despite the Ultra Tower's five drivers and relatively large cabinet, they didn't present a very difficult load. My resident PrimaLuna DiaLogue Six tubed monobloc power amps at 70 Watts each had no problem driving these speakers with a sensitivity of 88 dB and a stable impedance of 8 ohms, so I never had to turn the volume control very high if I desired very loud and clear program material to blast forth from these speakers. The sources I used to audition the Ultra Towers were exclusively digital a Squeezebox Touch, which was recently discontinued without warning nor explanation, which read FLAC files from the music server over the wireless network, and an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal player which spun the occasional silver disc. Both of these sources fed from their digital outputs via DH Labs D-75 digital cable either a Benchmark DAC1USB, a Wadia 121 Decoding Computer, or an M2Tech Vaughan DAC. All three of these digital-to-analog converters have a preamp section to control the volume, so I did not use a separate preamp in the conventional sense for the system, other than a very affordable Peachtree NovaPre preamplifier, which has an internal DAC, so the term "conventional" might not apply to this component.  The unbalanced outputs of the DACs were connected with DH Labs Air Matrix interconnects to the PrimaLuna power amps, and a short run of DH Lab Q-10 Signature speaker cables were connected to one pair of the Ultra Tower's gold-plated 5-way binding posts. All the equipment's power cables were connected to a Panmax MAX 5510 power conditioner which also used to DH cable to connect to the wall's AC.

 

Nice
SVS includes a nice pair of jumper straps with the speakers, as well as a hefty set of threaded metal spikes for use in carpeted rooms. My listening room's floor under the speakers is hardwood, so the Elastomer Isolation feet that were pre-installed in the bottom of the speakers held them in place very well, indeed. In the cartons of the Ultra Towers were also two rather large foam port plugs that fit inside the 3.5" flared port on the rear of the cabinets. The manual suggests using these plugs for "smaller tightly enclosed listening rooms", which mine is not. So I did not use the port plugs. If anything, this 18' x 12' room with an 8' ceiling is also a bit on the live side. But with the furnishings, non-parallel walls, small area rug, Roman shades over the windows, and the various furnishings the acoustics are not only very acceptable, but also extremely familiar.

Setting up the Ultra Towers didn't take too much time at all. It probably took less time to position them than the time it took to get them out of their cartons, move the cartons to the basement for storage, and then shimmy the speakers into the room. They ended up flanking the unused fireplace about two feet from the front wall on either side of the Metro Commercial shelving that supported the system's front end. I ended up with them firing straight into the room, about six to eight feet from my listening position. When I'm listening while seated in the leather Wassily armchair our dog usually comes into the room for affection, but leaves soon after I crank the volume to a suitable level.

 

Program
The Ultra Towers took a while to break in, although to break them in I didn't play program material when not at home because I'd rather not waste electricity or the amp's tube's lifespan. But since this system is in a common space in the house the speakers were used quite a bit playing music while listening off-axis. Anyone that was on the same floor as this system can hear it very well. After some time the greatest improvement was in the bass -- as the woofers loosened up they increased their reach into the lower frequencies, and just as importantly, the low-end's overall sound improved. Although the changes weren't as great there was an improvement in the sound quality of the midrange drivers and the tweeter, as the midrange became more transparent and the highs subjectively more extended.  I suppose it took about a month before the speakers were fully broken in, therefore the 45 day audition period SVS provides should be plenty of time to for customers to hear the speakers at their best before making the decision to keep them or return these speakers to SVS.

SVS Ultra Tower Floorstanding LoudspeakerH

Soon after I thought the speakers were fully broken in, I sat down to listen to a high-rez version of Joy Division's Closer downloaded from HDTracks.  It took a while before I acquired what I thought were reference quality versions of this masterpiece. My original UK pressing on Factory Records is excellent, but I have two that are at least comparable and perhaps a bit better: an early 1980s Japanese pressing and a relatively recent 180 gram re-issue by Rhino, although I have my doubts that the analog master was used for the Rhino. Digitally, the most recent CD re-masterings have sounded perfectly fine, although I couldn't imagine the newly released 96kHz/24-bit version by HDtracks being bettered even if I was lent the record company's tape to master it myself. And this HDtracks version is what I listened to through the Ultra Towers.

Closer is a tricky album to use as a review sample because it challenges the listener with the different studio effects on each track, altering the band's and vocalist's sound. There is no doubt in my or many other's minds that the late producer Martin Hannet was a genius. And with this came the notion that he considered himself and the studio as members of the band. Closer, Joy Division's second album released shortly after lead singer Ian Curtis' death in 1980 is probably his best work. This is Joy Division's best work in my opinion. Although I would hardly call many (most?) of the sounds on this album "natural", I've been listening to it almost constantly since shortly after its release and so I can easily judge whether a speaker can or cannot reproduce it to my liking. The opening track "Atrocity Exhibition" has a rather unorthodox arrangement, though it is rather typical for Joy Division. Unlike other "rock" tunes, its instrumental backing is not led the guitar but the bass guitar, and on this tune the beat laid down by the drummer is created not by the usual alternating kick/snare, but by a repeating theme on the toms and hi-hat. Ian Curtis' vocals are not as altered as many of the other band member's instruments, with only a bit of delay applied to bring it forward in the mix. There was a bit more sibilance and hardness on the vocal track than I was used to; and I suppose I could hear a bit of metallic twinge in its upper treble along with this, but all in all, I'd say that the SVS Ultra Tower did a fine job at reproducing this track. The mids were quite transparent sounding; which certainly made the vocals sound more "realistic", and the reverb trails from the drums fading into the blackness were easy to follow as it mixed with the heavily effected guitar fermentations. The lowest frequencies were taken up by the bass guitar. It sounds odd, and although it still sounds like a bass guitar, it sounds like it is a mix of what would come through an amplifier and what one would hear if standing next to bassist Peter Hook in the room while he heard it coming through his headphones. The Ultra Tower made clear what was coming from the bass, and also this song also demonstrated that the speaker can reach to what appears to be the lowest levels that are on the recording. Best of all, turning up the volume was a blast (pun intended), as it shook the floor and the window frames in the listening room.

The third track, "Passover",  was even better at displaying the character of the speaker. The song's bass reached even deeper, with an overdubbed bass guitar accentuating the lowest notes of the tune. Plus, the guitar sound is more "normal" here, sounding as if coming from an actual guitar amp rather than from the right hemisphere of the producer's brain. The drum's overdubbed toms are, like the guitar, also more natural sounding. The drums, overall, made me sense that I was hearing a semblance of what was heard in the studio control room that night or nights when they mixed the album, although I doubt very much that the pro studio monitors had the same qualities as the Ultra Towers. Even though the instruments were fed through numerous studio effects, the sound was quite natural sounding, in that I could hear through the studio haze to sense that these were real instruments being played by real people. The cymbals, in particular, had a natural metallic ring to them that their monitors could most likely not even come close to reproducing. Studio monitors are notorious for being able to play loud, but unless they were using the huge horn-loaded Urei Model 813s that were popular in some of the more well-healed control rooms I doubt the lower frequencies were nearly as intense as the Ultra Towers. But I think this song also demonstrated that it sounded as if there was a light scrim over the speakers, and they have less soundstaging and imaging prowess than many speakers that have occupied my listening room. But I often had to remind myself that my reference speakers that I normally use in this system cost about three times as much, but don't have nearly the amount of bass and overall speaker driver area as the Ultra Towers.

 

Audiophile
SVS Ultra Tower Floorstanding Loudspeaker CrossoverOf course if an audiophile spent the same amount of money on a, say, a pair of two-way stand mounted speakers there would certainly be a more developed soundstage, imaging, and other refinements. The Ultra Tower's soundstage was not as wide or deep as my reference, and the images didn't stray to far from the Ultra tower's speaker drivers.  But is also a fact that one is getting quite a bit for their money with the Ultra Tower.  The volume I was able to produce in my listening room even with "only" 70 Watts a side was impressive, to say the least. Even at the highest volumes I could endure there was no distortion or compression evident that was the fault of the speakers. I'd bet that if I had a more power on hand, perhaps a higher power rating from transistors rather than tubes there could have been even a higher volume produced in my listening room. But I'm not sure I'd need, or want that. Yes, I listen to my share of power orchestral music, and let's not forget all the hard rock, metal, and electronic music I listen to. The Ultra Tower never let me down regardless of the type of music I played, and never let me down regardless of the insane volume I would subject my ears.

And for many listeners, it is the Ultra Tower's ability to handle all types of program material and play that material at any volume asked of it that may be all that is required from this speaker. It is, after all, one of the speakers that are included in SVS's Ultra Tower surround package for home-theater systems, which also includes a center speaker and a pair of two-way surrounds. If one were to choose a sub to go along with this package, it would most likely be an SVS. In any event, I think it's important to realize that I auditioned the speakers in a system that is most likely a cut above where most Ultra Towers will end up. But not all of them, as they performed admirably in my listening room with my ancillary gear. That's why I hooked up the Peachtree gear that was still in my listening room that I reviewed in the June 2013 issue of Enjoy The Music.com. The Peachtree Audio novaPre preamp/DAC and Peachtree220 power amp is more in line with gear that would be a part of an affordable two-channel system that one would might use with the Ultra Tower. This system sounded great. The Class D Peachtree220 has on board 220 Watts per channel, its bass response being one of its strongest suits. The amp was able to coax a slightly deeper bass response from the speakers. These lowest tones were also a bit tighter sounding, with its transient response displaying a bass that was a bit more in keeping with the fact that one might not even need an external sub-woofer if using the Ultra Tower in a home-theater set up, or could at least one might be able to postpone the purchase of a sub down the road a bit until more funds become available. The novaPre's DAC section wasn't nearly as refined as the much more expensive outboard DACs that I was using beforehand, but combined with its tube/solid-state hybrid preamp section it smoothed the sound out a bit to keep the Ultra Tower's tweeter from being too hot sounding. All things considered, the $999 novaPre and $1400 Peachtree200 is a perfect match for the comparatively priced SVS Ultra Towers.

 

Rendering
Along with the Ultra Tower's rather transparent rendering of the musical material, they were very sensitive to changes upstream and which speaker cables I used. About half-way through the review period I upgraded the budget speaker cable I was using to a run of Furutech cables (review forthcoming). The Ultra Towers were definitely able to take advantage of these choice cables, as a result there was even more of a sense of the speaker's direct connection to the source, and especially their ability to reproduce real instruments in a real space with a more lifelike character. On the Bad Plus tune "Big Eater" from their second album These Are The Vistas it was of course Ethan Iverson's piano that took center stage, as he begins this album with some of his best playing. Yet the Ultra Towers seem to highlight David King's drums and especially his cymbal work. His playing is extraordinary, and with the new speaker cable installed it was not difficult to realize this. I could now more clearly hear each type of cymbal he was playing, and King's impressive percussive technique was exceedingly obvious. I found the same type of magnetism  on Miles Davis' Nefertiti album, the best digital version on my copy of the Quintet 1965-'68 that not only includes all the remastered albums from this period, but includes plenty of out-takes and other material. The drums on Tony Williams' cymbals sounded great, as the drum stick hit the cymbal there was a lifelike sounding ping that not only demonstrated that this was the best digital version of this album I've ever heard, as the rather "dead" sound of Columbia's 30th Street Studios transformed itself into a sonic benefit rather than a detriment.  Miles' horn was also transformed from a mere signal on magnetic tape to rendering of a human being playing a real instrument.

 

Bargain
The SVS Ultra Tower is not only a very, very good speaker; it is also a bargain at less than $2000 a pair.  Although not the last word in any sonic category, one is going to get quite a bit for their money with these speakers. They are a very large, five-driver speaker with impressive looking cabinet and even more impressive specifications.  Its mids were surprisingly transparent, it has not one, but two side firing 8" woofers, and its treble, while not world-class, was surprisingly lifelike on most material.  The only downside might be that they are available only factory direct, which might translate itself into a benefit for those who don't live near an audio dealership, but also for those that wish to save a ton of money on a pair of speakers. SVS also gives one a 45 day home-trial, after which I doubt very much the Ultra Towers will be make the return trip to Ohio.

 

Ratings: (I tend to rate equipment very conservatively. A five note rating is reserved for the best I have ever heard regardless of price) .

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise
Enjoyment

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: 3.5-way floorstanding speaker
Drivers: 1" tweeter, two 6.5" midrange and two 8" side firing woofers
Crossover: Midrange to tweeter is 2 kHz
Bottom Midrange Taper Frequency: 700 Hz
Dual Midrange-To-Woofer Crossover: 160 Hz
Frequency Response: 28 Hz to 32 kHz (+/-3 dB)
Nominal impedance: 8 Ohms
Sensitivity: 88dB/W/m 
Recommended Amplifier Power: 20 to 300 watts
Dimensions: 45" x 13.8" x 16.25" (HxWxD)
Weight: 75.4 pounds.
Available Finishes: black oak or piano gloss black 
Price: $999 each

 

Company Information
SVSound
6420 Belmont Avenue
Girard OH, 44420

Voice: (703) 845-1472
E-mail: custservice@svsound.com
Website: www.SVSound.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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