SVS is an American audio company known mainly for its subwoofers, one of which I recently had the pleasure of reviewing. What is not mentioned in my review is the fact that I was so enamored with the sub's performance that I ended up buying it. As you'll soon find out, I had a similar experience with SVS's Ultra Bookshelf speaker.
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These speakers are actually part of a full line of SVS speakers, which includes the Ultra Towers, the Ultra Center and the Ultra Surrounds. The Ultra Bookshelf retails for $499 each; while my review sample featured a compelling high-gloss piano black finish, it's also available in a black oak veneer (real wood). It's a two-way monitor comprised of a one-inch aluminum dome tweeter with an FEA-optimized diffuser, which according to the SVS site is said to provide an "airy and unveiled presentation." FEA is a method of computer-modeling the design in order to produce a very specific type of performance. The key is that this happens prior to manufacturing. (That's an oversimplified explanation; you can certainly Google it if you want to learn more.) The woofer is a 6.5-inch composite glass-fiber cone and considering its performance, it was obviously a focal point for the SVS engineers. Frequency response is 45 Hz to 32 kHz; nominal impedance is eight ohms and sensitivity is rated at 87 dB. The Ultra Bookshelf measures 14.9 inches high by 8.5 inches wide by 10 inches deep, and each speaker weighs a stout 19 pounds.
The first thing I noticed, beyond the Ultra Bookshelf's exemplary finish, was the angular, wedge-shaped design of the cabinet. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, the shape provides more accurate sound across the frequency spectrum. I began the hookup by stand-mounting each of the Ultras in place of my Epos ELS 3s. While the speakers come with jumpers attached for bi-wiring or bi-amping, I went the conventional route in hooking them up to my modest two-channel listening rig, which consists of an NAD C325BEE, an Oppo DV-980H and a MusicStreamer II DAC. For streaming from my music library, I used a MacBook Pro. As you make your way through this review, keep in mind that I paid $400 for the NAD, $170 for the Oppo and $150 for the DAC. Some of you might be asking if this gear is up to the task of reviewing a pair of bookshelf speakers that retail for about $1,000, and the answer is, unequivocally, yes. This is a compliment to the Ultras, as they're not the least bit power-hungry and played plenty loud with the rated 50 watts per channel that the NAD puts out. My USB cable came courtesy of WireWorld, and the analog interconnects for the DAC and OPPO were SVS's SoundPath cabling. For playback software, I used a combination of Amarra (for Apple Lossless files) and Decibel (for hi-res files). After about 14 hours of break-in time and some positioning experimentation, it was time to start the listening party.
To begin, I did a bit of A/B testing between my Epos ELS 3s and the Ultras. I noted that the Ultras exhibited much stronger bass and a marked advantage in terms of balance. While the Epos speakers were a bit thin in the lower frequencies and a bit etched in the upper, the Ultras were the polar opposite. Sure, one can argue that there's a significant difference in price point ($400 vs. $998), but the Epos speakers are highly regarded in their own right, winning Absolute Sound's Budget Component of the Year way back in 2003.
Read more about the performance of the SVS Ultra bookshelf speakers on Page 2.
My first bit of source material came from the Redbook CD of Matchbox 20's newest album North (Atlantic), featuring a very catchy track entitled "She's So Mean". The first thing that stood out to me was the bass response, which was nothing short of exemplary. You're going to hear me come back to this again and again, as I was simply blown away by the control and depth that the 6.5-inch driver was able to provide. The Ultra's tweeter is certainly airy, as SVS describes in its marketing material, but I wouldn't characterize it as overly bright; rather, vocals were smooth and detailed. Also, despite their size and the fact that they are bookshelf speakers, the Ultras threw a wide and compelling soundstage, which was present in each of my listening sessions.
As I was digging through my music library, I saw that Apple was temporarily streaming Daft Punk's new album Random Access Memories (Columbia) for free, so that turned into my next listening session. While I know iTunes Match streams your music library to you at a somewhat respectable 256 kbps, I was unable to determine at what resolution Apple streams its free promos. Regardless of the quality of the stream, I was again floored by the speakers' performance. On the nine-minute track "Giorgio by Moroder," I realized that their bass response had the gravitas of a floor-stander. By putting your hand near the rear port, you realize that this speaker moves copious amounts of air. This is a busy, psychedelic track, and I was impressed by the sweet, neutral sound of the midrange, which remained consistent and controlled, even at high volume.
Moving on to higher-quality audio via the combination of Apple Lossless and Amarra, I cued up Awolnation's "Sail" from their album Megalithic Symphony (Red Bull Records). While the track itself is epic and quite the torture test for audio gear, the video is awful. Here's a link in case you feel like wasting four minutes of your life.
The Ultras absolutely destroyed this track, and I mean that in the best way possible. The bass was punishing, and the Ultras maintained their composure even when I really drove the volume. My ears started giving out before they did. I can't imagine anyone but the most devoted bass junkie wanting to use these speakers with a subwoofer. Once I had a concept of their low-end prowess, I assaulted them with bass-heavy songs from The Crystal Method, Flo Rida, etc., and the bass remained taut and precise. Flo Rida's "Low" from Mail on Sunday (Atlantic) did make them sweat a bit at high volume, but that's true of most speakers with this track, as it truly plumbs the depths. The more I listened, the more I enjoyed the sonic signature of the tweeter, which can best be described as sweet. It has an open yet balanced sonic signature that's adept at handling many different genres of music.
Speaking of different genres, I decided the Ultras had passed the rock and pop music tests, so I moved on to high-resolution jazz in the form of Madeleine Peyroux's "The Kind You Can't Afford," from her album Standing on the Rooftop (Decca), which I downloaded in 96/24 resolution from HDtracks.com. While I was already sold on the sonic prowess of the Ultras, listening to this incredibly well-recorded track took the experience to the next level, illustrating the ability of the SVS Ultra Bookshelf speakers to convey something very close to a live listening environment. From the exemplary imaging to the broad soundstage and transparent delivery of Peyroux's stunning vocals, it was a transformative experience. The guitar play was rich, detailed and full of character. I simply closed my eyes and soaked it in ... more than once.
It was at this point that I also realized the speakers' nature, which is revealing, although not so much so as to be deemed clinical. They're forgiving enough that I still enjoyed listening to lesser-quality and/or compressed audio files. Don't get me wrong, the speakers won't pull rabbits out of hats; MP3s are still going to sound somewhat flat, at least comparatively speaking. To get the most out of these speakers, you're going to want to use quality source components, solid cabling and audio files that are at least CD quality. As I've explained, though, that doesn't mean you have to spend a ton of money. In this case, if you include the NAD integrated amp, the DAC, the Oppo and associated cabling, you're looking at well under $1,000. Of course, this doesn't include the computer, but you sure as hell don't need a high-end Mac to put together a solid two-channel rig.
For my final listening session, I played the 96/24 version of Paul Simon's "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," from his most recent album So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music). While not the sonic equal of my reference Focal 836Ws in terms of resolution and transparency, the Ultras again had me smiling. I know this track inside and out and was absolutely floored by how well the SVS speakers conveyed the opening guitar and drum instrumental. This track also gave me the best sense of their imaging potential, as it had been somewhat lacking on other tracks, especially those that weren't high-res.
While the soundstage, coherence and resolution remained strong regardless of the source material, I did notice somewhat inconsistent imaging from track to track - although this was solved, or at least lessened, with further positioning experimentation. Also, I consider the grilles to be somewhat nondescript, especially at this price point. They're decidedly vanilla and take a bit of coaxing to mount correctly. That said, the speakers look and sound better sans grilles, so it's certainly not a game-changer. While neither of these issues would steer me away from the Ultras, they're good to know about when you're considering dropping $1,000.
Competition and Comparison
I can give you the names of several bookshelf speakers that I've researched in the last year that are in this price range and worth your time, beginning with GoldenEar's Aon 3s, which rival the Ultras in terms of bass response and resolution and are the exact same price at $998 per pair. While cruising the high-end suites at the 2012 CES show in Vegas, my co-worker and I were simply blown away by the Aon 3, which features a ribbon tweeter, a seven-inch mid-bass driver and two eight-inch low-frequency radiators. Paradigm's Signature S1 is another speaker that comes to mind that gets rave reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com reviewers and beyond at $1,500 per pair. Lastly (and I know this is a broad stroke), I've yet to listen to a Klipsch speaker that disappointed me, and the company makes plenty of bookshelf speakers, although you'll certainly get varying degrees of performance from model to model. If you'd like to access all of our bookshelf speaker reviews, simply follow this link.
Reviews are so much easier to write when you truly enjoy the gear. The strongest statement I can make about the SVS Ultra Bookshelf speakers is that, about midway through critical listening, I started scheming for a way to buy them. Yes, they're that good. From my experience, SVS is starting to become one of those companies that you know is going to offer up a solid product, regardless of what it is. Furthermore, considering the somewhat modest associated listening gear I used for this review, I would imagine that the sky is the limit in terms of what you can get out of the SVS Ultras by mating them with more exotic source components. If you happen to be a skeptic or maybe a bit of an audiophile snob, put this review to the test with SVS's generous 45-day in-home trial. Then you can let us know about your experience in the Comments section or on our Forum. For anyone who is looking to add a two-channel listening rig or maybe has a standout system in a den or extra bedroom, this is a great place to start. Put simply, these are well-engineered, aesthetically pleasing speakers that sound just fantastic.