SVS Sb13-ul­tra Sub­woofer

NOVO - - PRODUCT REVIEW - Mal­colm J. Gomes

For the long­est time since the advent of the home theatre cat­e­gory of prod­ucts, for many peo­ple, the two big­gest dif­fer­ences be­tween the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing a movie in a well equipped theatre com­pared to en­joy­ing a movie at home, was the size and res­o­lu­tion of the pic­ture, and the qual­ity of the bass re­pro­duc­tion.

The largest avail­able screen sizes of tele­vi­sion sets have grown steadily from the stan­dard 21-inch screens of the early 1980s to the 100-inch and even larger sets that you can ac­cess to­day, with ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter res­o­lu­tion, al­beit at a price that is not ex­actly within ev­ery­one’s reach. By us­ing pro­jec­tors, you can ob­tain an even larger pic­ture that runs into sev­eral hun­dred inches, al­though you would need to be liv­ing in a man­sion with a pur­pose-de­signed home theatre to op­ti­mize this lux­ury.

On the qual­ity of home theatre bass re­pro­duc­tion, things have been dif­fer­ent. Dur­ing the 1990s, we saw the sub­woofer be­come an in­te­gral part of the home theatre au­dio pack­age and even bud­get priced mod­els were con­sid­ered in­com­plete with­out hav­ing at least a mod­est sub­woofer. This made the sub­woofer quite ubiq­ui­tous while at the same time gar­ner­ing them a rep­u­ta­tion of de­liv­er­ing boomy and turgid bass that did not ex­actly har­mo­nize too well with the rest of the au­dio de­liv­ery.

We then saw many spe­cial­ist speaker com­pa­nies in­vest more of their R&D into sub­woofer tech­nol­ogy which re­sulted in the in­tro­duc­tion of much higher qual­ity sub­woofers. Over the past decade many sub­woofer mod­els ap­peared in the mar­ket that de­liv­ered bass per­for­mance that came amaz­ingly close to what you would ex­pect to ex­pe­ri­ence in one of the bet­ter com­mer­cial theatres. The prob­lem with th­ese high-end sub­woofers was that they car­ried price tags that made your heart sink as low as the fre­quen­cies that they were able to de­liver. For those with­out deep pock­ets, it was there­fore a real Hob­son’s choice if you wanted true high-end bass per­for­mance.

Luck­ily, we saw a few spe­cial­ist sub­woofer man­u­fac­tur­ers emerge into this en­vi­ron­ment. Th­ese com­pa­nies were able to bridge the gap be­tween af­ford­able but lousy sound­ing subs, and high-end subs, which thrilled your ears but drained your bank bal­ance. They in­tro­duced subs with per­for­mance that com­pared well to their ex­or­bi­tantly priced coun­ter­parts while main­tain­ing prices that were not ex­actly cheap but def­i­nitely a lot more af­ford­able to home theatre fans with­out deep pock­ets.

One of th­ese brands is SVS, which was founded in 1998 by a cou­ple of au­dio­philes with a re­fresh­ingly dif­fer­ent motto - give the cus­tomer a truly high-end bass per­for­mance at an af­ford­able price. Their prod­ucts ac­cu­rately re­flect this fo­cus, which is why they have very nicely filled the hith­erto va­cant ‘good per­for­mance/ great-value’ niche in the sub­woofer mar­ket. This be­ing the case, I was not sur­prised to see their prod­ucts quickly gain in pop­u­lar­ity and re­spect not just with the ca-

sual home theatre en­thu­si­ast but also with the afi­cionado crowd who were look­ing for the best bang for their buck and quite weary of pay­ing ob­scenely high prices for thor­oughly sat­is­fy­ing bass per­for­mance.

de­sign | fea­tures

The in­tro­duc­tion of the new SVS SB13 Ul­tra sub­woofer ($1,599) cre­ated quite a few waves in the mar­ket and prompted many read­ers to write me, re­quest­ing that I re­view this new model to see if it mea­sured up to the buzz that it has caused. I con­tacted SVS and was sent a unit to re­view for CANADA HiFi. I was also pleas­antly sur­prised at the prompt­ness, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and friend­li­ness with which my re­quest was han­dled. It is ob­vi­ous that th­ese guys love what they do and are proud of the prod­ucts that they of­fer. Their drive to achieve max­i­mum cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion is am­ply re­flected in the tool that they of­fer on their web­site called “Mer­lin” which helps you se­lect the most suit­able sub­woofer from their line-up based on the front speak­ers that you use or in­tend to use. All you need to do is to en­ter the make and model of the front speak­ers and “Mer­lin” dis­plays the SVS model that will be the best match. Sigh! If only on-line match-mak­ing sites were as quick, sim­ple and ac­cu­rate as “Mer­lin”.

While un­pack­ing the SB-13 Ul­tra, what im­me­di­ately struck me was the build qual­ity and the fin­ish of the unit, which be­lies the fact that it is made in China. SVS are one of the few com­pa­nies that I know of, who have man­aged to take ad­van­tage of the cost sav­ings of man­u­fac­tur­ing in China, with min­i­mal com­pro­mise in build qual­ity and fin­ish as com­pared to units man­u­fac­tured in Europe and North Amer­ica. This got me quite ex­cited be­cause it made me won­der if this also ap­plied to the per­for­mance of the unit. But to get to that stage, I had to get this very heavy sub into my lis­ten­ing room, which is eas­ier said than done. The ship­ping weight is a back­break­ing 100 pounds plus and the courier will only help you get it from the truck to the in­side of your front door. I am not as young as I used to be so I did not want to tempt fate, flirt­ing with a po­ten­tial her­nia by car­ry­ing it alone. On the other hand I was too im­pa­tient to wait till my son re­turned so I called up a neigh­bor who very kindly helped me carry the sub up a flight of stairs to my home theatre. The clever pack­ag­ing elim­i­nates the need to lift the sub out of the box. In­stead you open the top of the box and flip it so that you can then just lift the box off the sub. Very help­ful in­deed.

I put the unit through 100 hours of breakin while I pe­rused through the tech­nol­ogy and spec­i­fi­ca­tions. The SB-13 Ul­tra is a sealed de­sign box made of thick CNC cut panels to in­crease rigid­ity and min­i­mize res­o­nance. It mea­sures 17 inches on all sides and uti­lizes a 13.5-inch front fir­ing driver unit that is driven by a 1000-watt RMS (3600-watt peak) Class D am­pli­fier. It de­liv­ers a fre­quency re­sponse of 20 to 460 Hz plus or mi­nus 3 dB, weighs a chunky 92 pounds and of­fers a 5-year un­con­di­tional war­ranty that is a good re­flec­tion of the con­fi­dence that SVS has in their prod­ucts. You can choose from a real wood ve­neer black oak or a pi­anogloss fin­ish. My re­view sam­ple was the lat­ter and I must say it is im­pec­ca­ble. The grill is a truly in­no­va­tive de­sign in that it is curved and made of me­tal. It does give the SB-13 Ul­tra a unique and very dis­tinc­tive look. It may not be to ev­ery­one’s taste but it did ap­peal to me.

The driver unit is op­ti­mized for a sealed en­clo­sure ap­pli­ca­tion and has a spe­cial mo­tor geom­e­try and voice coil with a cus­tom gap ex­ten­sion plate to give it higher ther­mal power han­dling and more sym­met­ri­cal force/dis­place­ment pro­file, lower dis­tor­tion and in­creased lin­ear stroke. The am­pli­fier is com­pli­mented with a well planned DSP con­trol with a whole host of menu op­tions which are ac­cessed via a sim­ple one but­ton/ knob in­ter­face and a back-lit LCD dis­play. This fea­ture is more than I have seen even in subs at twice the price of the SB-13 Ul­tra and is great for in­te­grat­ing the sub with your main speak­ers. It even of­fers a high-pass fil­ter with a de­lay op­tion to com­pen­sate for the group de­lay if you place your sub fur­ther away from your lis­ten­ing/view­ing po­si­tion as com­pared to your main speak­ers. The roll-off pro­file lets you take ad­van­tage of the avail­able room gain and un­der the right cir­cum­stances can ex­tend the per­for­mance to around 15 Hz, which are fre­quen­cies that you can feel more than you can hear. The con­nec­tions on the rear in­clude stereo line-level RCA and bal­anced in­put and out­put.

I uti­lized bal­anced con­nec­tions be­cause of the long run of ca­bles. Mer­lin Mu­sic front, cen­ter and sur­round speak­ers were used for the re­view and I used the “crawl around” test to de­cide the lo­ca­tion of the sub­woofer in the room. The de­lay in the high-pass fil­ter com­bined with the DSP con­trols were very use­ful in har­mo­niz­ing the SB-13 Ul­tra with the front and cen­ter speak­ers.


I be­gan the re­view with the usual sus­pects in terms of movies. First up was ‘Mas­ter and Com­man­der’ and the first can­non shots were so star­tlingly real, they made me sit up in my seat. I fol­lowed this up with War Horse and that did not dis­ap­point ei­ther. I also viewed pas­sages from the Die Hard, Ter­mi­na­tor, Juras­sic Park and the Trans­form­ers movie se­ries. In ev­ery case the bass was taut, au­thor­i­ta­tive

and vis­ceral. What was very pleas­ing is that the SB-13 Ul­tra did not call any at­ten­tion to it­self like some lesser subs do. It added great di­men­sion to the movie view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and added a lot of au­ral sound­stage depth to com­pli­ment the pic­ture on the screen. It proved that a lot of spa­tial cues lie in the bot­tom oc­taves of the au­di­ble fre­quency spec­trum.

Gaug­ing from the way this sub shook my room; it be­came quite ob­vi­ous that a lot of sub 20Hz en­ergy was be­ing gen­er­ated. I could feel th­ese sub-sonic fre­quen­cies go through my whole body and could feel the im­pact in my bones. Try as I might, I could not make the SB-13 Ul­tra lose its com­po­sure even when my trusty Pyle SPL me­ter read 110 dB, which at sus­tained lev­els could re­sult in hear­ing loss. At th­ese sound pres­sure lev­els, ev­ery other sub in this price range that I have re­viewed hurt my ears. The SB-13 Ul­tra was dif­fer­ent. This goes only to show that if your ears hurt, it prob­a­bly has more to do with the dis­tor­tion rather than the loud­ness in the sound re­pro­duc­tion of a sub.

The sec­ond round of the re­view com­prised movies with my favourite mu­sic sound­tracks. Th­ese in­cluded ‘Cadil­lac Records’, ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Ray’. Here again the SB-13 Ul­tra did not dis­ap­point. The bass was not just deep, co­her­ent and pow­er­ful but also un­usu­ally tune­ful for a sub in this price range. Bey­once Knowles’ por­trayal of Etta Jones, Jamie Foxx’s de­pic­tion of Ray Charles and Joaquim Phoenix in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Johnny Cash de­liv­ered many goose bump mo­ments and the SB-13 Ul­tra had a lot to do with it. I can con­fi­dently say that I have not heard an­other sub at this price that made view­ing mu­si­cals so in­cred­i­bly en­joy­able. The pace, rhythm and tim­ing were spot on and I found my head bob­bing and my feet tap­ping as if they had minds of their own.

At $1,599, the SB-13 Ul­tra is not ex­actly chump change, but the value it de­liv­ers in terms of build qual­ity and per­for­mance at this price is, in my opin­ion, un­matched. In terms of fea­tures, it of­fers more than many sub­woofers at twice and even three times the price. This fea­ture set will re­ally come in handy if you do not have the coin to in­vest in a sep­a­rate out­board cross­over, where the bet­ter units cost sig­nif­i­cantly more than the SB-13 Ul­tra.

So how does SVS man­age to de­liver such great value for the ask­ing price? I sus­pect that it has a lot to do with the fact that the prod­ucts are man­u­fac­tured in China, even though all the R&D is done at the ul­tra mod­ern SVS fa­cil­ity in Ohio, United States. Their di­rect to con­sumer/ end-user sales and mar­ket­ing model must also help in es­tab­lish­ing and main­tain­ing their sta­tus as the value leader in the sub­woofer seg­ment.

If you are in the mar­ket for a sub with a bud­get of $1,600 to $2,500, you would be well ad­vised to give the SB-13 Ul­tra a try. I would be very sur­prised if, af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing first hand what this sub can do, you de­cide to re­turn it. I sus­pect that SVS also know this, which is why they of­fer a guar­an­tee of sat­is­fac­tion or your money back, and they pay for the ship­ping both ways. This makes it a to­tally risk free op­tion and a true win-win sit­u­a­tion in ev­ery sense of the word.

Edi­tor’s note: SVS will demon­strate its line-up of sub­woofers and speak­ers for the very first time in Canada at the Toronto Au­dio Video En­ter­tain­ment Show (TAVES) 2013, this Novem­ber. This will be a great op­por­tu­nity for all of our read­ers to hear SVS prod­ucts in per­son – so be sure to check them out at the show!

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