If you ask most mainstream consumers to name a high-end audio brand, their first response is often Bose, which was the first company to introduce the concept of small satellite speakers that deliver better sound at an accessible price. If, on the other hand, you ask most high-end audio consumers about value, they might very well name SVS, which has built its business on delivering high value in high-end audio. The company began selling reference-quality subwoofers under $2,000 at a time when similar offerings from high-end competitors cost ten times that price.
A few years ago, SVS decided to expand into the speaker realm, and the Ultra line, with its tower speaker priced under $2,000 per pair, was a smash hit among consumers and critics alike. Recently, SVS decided to find out how much performance it could cram into a speaker line that's half the price of the Ultra line...and so the Prime speaker line was born. At CES earlier this year, the company debuted the tiny Prime Satellite speakers, priced at $135 each. Upon hearing the demo, I knew these were speakers I just had to review, so I requested the complete Prime Satellite 5.1 package, which includes the SB-1000 subwoofer for $999.99.
The Prime Satellite weighs 6.5 pounds and features a one-inch tweeter and 4.5-inch midrange/woofer. The cabinet size is less than nine inches tall, five inches wide, and six inches deep. In spite of its small stature, the Prime Satellites offer a rated frequency response down to a respectable 69 Hz, which should make it pretty easy to pair with any reasonable subwoofer. The binding posts are a simple, versatile design, easily accommodating all of my Wireworld cables with banana-plug terminations. Unscrewing the cap exposes an opening to allow either bare wire or spades.
In the package, the Prime satellites are paired with the SB-1000 300-watt subwoofer, which features a 12-inch front-firing driver. The cabinet size is at or less than 14 inches on any given dimension and weighs in at 27 pounds. Just big enough for good quality bass, but small enough to fit unobtrusively into any room's décor. Although this is the company's entry-level subwoofer, pricewise, it is loaded with features. Volume control, phase control, and a low-pass filter give you options when such functions are not available in a receiver/source, or you otherwise want more flexibility with bass management. Line-level RCA inputs and outputs, as well as speaker-level inputs, give you plenty of options to connect to a variety of devices.
I still had the Yamaha Aventage RX-A3040 receiver on hand and used it to drive the satellites for this review. The Oppo BDP-105 served as my source for music and movies.
Starting with music, I fired up the classic album by Queen, A Night at the Opera (DVD-Audio, Hollywood Records), featuring a DTS 96/24 surround encoding. With all speakers firing, the sound on the SVS system was surprisingly large. Closing my eyes, I could not hear the telltale signs of sound coming from small speakers. In fact, the soundfield was amazingly even throughout the room. I actually got up walked around and sat in different seating positions to test this. On "Bohemian Rhapsody", the a capella vocals sounded holographic. Freddie Mercury's lead-ins and solos in between the band harmony segments were stunning. This piece has a lot of punctuation involving hard starts and stops with silence in between, and the SVS Prime Satellites got them down perfectly, without a hint of the bleeding together that you often hear with smaller, cheaply designed drivers that just can't cut it. Brian May's grungy power chords and wailing guitar riffs with his circa 1975-era distortion was clear and had just the right tonal balance.
Next, I queued up some classical music with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra's performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 (DVD-Audio, Naxos). Reproduction of the texture and tone of Scherbakov's piano was excellent and natural sounding. I could even hear a lot of the nuances of the resonances in the piano's cabinet. As with the Queen recordings, attack and decay were flawlessly executed. With the full orchestra playing, the sound was big, and I got a sense of scale that I didn't expect from little satellite speakers. Of course, I'm not saying that they compare to the front soundfield I get from my reference Salk Soundscape tower speakers, nor should one reasonably expect that considering the drastic price difference. For what they are, though, the Prime Satellites are nothing short of impressive. When listening to two-channel material with only two of the satellites and the SB-1000 subwoofer firing, the volume isn't quite enough to fill the whole room. Still, the SVS system performed head and shoulders above most satellite speakers I've heard at this price point in this regard. Separation of different instruments was quite good, as I could accurately locate the various sections within the orchestra.
Switching to video, I ran through season one of Daredevil (Netflix Streaming, Marvel/Netflix), Netflix's new series about a blind lawyer by day, a vigilante with superpowers by night. With smaller speakers, I often hear the dialog coming from exactly where the center speaker is located, instead of a big panel of dialog sound that's anchored to the center but sounds as big as the front wall. Not so with the SVS. Even in quiet passages as Matt Murdock whispers to his clients, you get a big front soundstage filled with Murdock's calm, deep voice.
That ability to start and stop sounds on a dime, which I alluded to with the music selections, shone through in spades with the Daredevil soundtrack. Because the titular character Matt Murdock/Daredevil is blind, his superpowers involve super-hearing. In a number of scenes, when Daredevil focuses his hearing, this is demonstrated by taking a large canvas of sound--like a gritty New York street traffic scene--and fading to hone in on a single sound, like an innocent victim's cry for help. In the broad scene, the Prime Satellites did a great job of capturing individual elements like cars honking, people shouting, etc., while also keeping the whole scene as a coherent picture. Then, deftly controlled, the soundstage would gradually collapse to a single point source locating the victim's voice that Daredevil focused on. Or, in the now famous hallway fight scene in episode two, the sound pans left, right, and even rotates along with the perspective of our hero as he maneuvers around tight corners in a narrow apartment building hallway while fighting through a gang of thugs to save a kidnapped child. Obviously, the work of mapping these types of pans lies with the source material, and controlling its gradations is the realm of the preamp and amplifiers--and the Yamaha unit certainly did a fantastic job here. However, the difference between the average speakers you find with home-theater-in-a-box packages is that they don't respond well to this level of control--which means, at some point (or at many points during a film or TV episode, depending on how bad the speakers are), you will hear very noticeably the limitations of the speakers themselves drawing your attention and pulling you out of that fictional world that you've been engrossed in. The better speakers perform whatever feat the source material calls for, keeping your attention on enjoying the music, film, or whatever.
In the final scenes of the season finale, during the main villain Kingpin's escape from federal custody, as helicopters blaze above and car chases happen on the streets below, I was just in awe of how big the whole package sounded. The subwoofer blended perfectly with the satellites throughout all the material, without any gaps in coverage between the speakers and the sub. Even sound was distributed throughout the room, never giving away their location like low-cost alternatives often do.
Granted, in scenes such as this, compared with my reference setup with Salk Soundscape speakers across the front and the SVS PC-13 Ultra sub to support, what the Prime Satellite speaker system noticeably will not deliver is that added depth and reality you get from really powerful high-end speakers. You also don't get that chest-pounding, floor-rumbling, wall-shaking bass that accompanies. But no speaker package anywhere near $1,000 will deliver that (even if their marketing language seems to lay claim to it). With the SVS Prime Satellite home theater speaker package you get as much value stuffed into your $1,000 as you possibly can. Clean, accurate speakers that deliver more volume than they should at their size, matched perfectly with a strong sub delivering great, even bass. It's a strong home theater package delivering performance that rivals competitors at double the price.
As is common with any speaker sporting a single 4.5-inch woofer, one issue is how much sound they can fill the room with. If you have an exceptionally large room, especially with open spaces, and you like to listen to two-channel music with only the front left and right channels firing, the Prime Satellite system may not give you the sense of scale that bigger speakers with bigger drivers can--although I tested everything in my moderately sized theater room at reference levels and heard no significant issues.
My one wish is that SVS would go that extra step to compete with the "everything you need in a box" options and include some basic cabling. Nothing fancy...just enough to be able to plug the speakers right into a receiver and start playing music and movies.
Comparison and Competition
At the same price, the Bose Acoustimass 10 system won't hold a candle to the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 package, but it does come in an all-in-one package where you don't have to buy your own cables to connect them (regardless of what you may think of the quality of those provided cables). Anthony Gallo Acoustics' entry-level 5.1 Micro system costs more than 40 percent extra at $1,429, and I still think the SVS system is better. The Hsu Research Value-1 5.1 system retails for $1,029 and will be much closer in both performance and value. This system includes front and rear pairs with larger 6.5-inch drivers, and it should (at least on paper) be able to cover a slightly bigger room. As I mentioned earlier, though, I had no problems getting room-filling sound from the SVS system in my reasonably sized home theater. Also Hsu Research specializes in horn-loaded speaker designs, which give off a very different sound from that of speakers with traditional drivers. The Hsu center channel features dual woofers that may provide a slightly larger sound for movie dialog, but the Hsu package's subwoofer is significantly smaller and less powerful. And finally, the HSU bookshelf speakers are not satellite speakers; they're much larger, so you'll have to audition for yourself to discover what's more important to you.
Like many of you, I'm often annoyed when non-audiophile friends reply with the common "Oh, you mean like Bose?" when I talk about my interest in high-end audio. But what's more frustrating is not being able to provide said non-audiophile with an alternative that beats Bose in sound quality but is just as small AND as reasonably priced. Well, now I have that answer, finally. For the same price as a Bose Acoustimass 10 system, the Prime Satellite 5.1 system offers a subwoofer with real power and five satellite speakers that are comparably small in footprint and provide not just good but great overall sound performance that the most discriminating audiophile would be proud to show off. SVS has redefined value for the satellite speaker category by packing an astonishing amount of sound quality into a very small speaker cabinet, at an extremely aggressive price. The SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 home theater system is the best satellite speaker surround sound system I know for under $1,000. Congratulations, SVS. The old king is dead, long live the new king.
• Check out our Bookshelf Speaker category page for similar reviews.
• CES Delivers Higher-Quality Audio at Lower Prices at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• SVS Prime Tower Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.