While SVS may be better known for its subwoofers, that hasn’t stopped the Internet-direct company from venturing into the often crowded waters of home theater loudspeakers. SVS’ prior loudspeaker efforts were largely praised by both enthusiasts and the press alike, though they never really caught fire in quite the same way SVS’ subwoofer offerings have. SVS has recently gone back and completely redesigned its loudspeaker line, coming up with a whole new offering in the form of the Ultra Series. Aimed at providing consumers with a truly high-end-sounding solution, albeit at an affordable price, the Ultra line is the finest loudspeaker SVS has made to date and, as a result, it’s the only lineup of loudspeakers the company now offers. So the Ultra Series represents SVS’ entry as well as its flagship effort.
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The Ultra Series is anchored by the Ultra Tower reviewed here. Retailing for $999 each, the Ultra Tower is the only floor-standing loudspeaker in the line, which includes the Ultra Bookshelf (499 each), Ultra Center ($699) and Ultra Surround ($599 each). Like all SVS products, the Ultra Series comes with a full 45-day risk-free, in-home trial with free shipping, both ways. Not bad. Additionally, they come with a one-year “no lemon” guarantee, as well as a one-year performance guarantee that accompanies the five-year unconditional warranty and one-year trade-up policy. The no lemon guarantee means that if your product malfunctions three times in the span of one year, SVS will simply replace it or give you full credit toward the same or a similar product. The one-year performance guarantee states that if SVS improves upon a product that you’ve purchased within a year of your original sale, then the company will update your product to current spec at no charge to you. The trade-up policy simply states that you can upgrade to a more expensive SVS product and receive the full credit of your original purchase towards the new product, provided you upgrade within the year and still have all the factory packaging. It’s what SVS calls, “Your SVS Bill of Rights.”
Getting back to the Ultra Towers, they are striking in their physical appearance, what with their high-gloss, piano black finish (black oak veneer also available) and chrome-accented drivers. The speakers themselves are not your typical boxy affair, but rather a sculptural collection of planes that taper and slope to create an interesting geometric statement. The angles, along with the cabinet’s internal structure, are designed in such a way as to break up or otherwise reduce standing waves and coloration, both inside and out. Because the Ultra Tower isn’t wholly symmetrical through and through, its measurements are a bit all over the place, though its footprint is constant at just under 14 inches wide by 16-and-a-quarter inches deep. The Ultra Tower is 45 inches tall at its highest point, which is just above the topmost driver. Weight is stated to be 75 pounds each, and having dragged both pairs up a full flight of stairs, I don’t doubt SVS’ claims.
The front baffle plays host to a pair of six-and-a-half-inch midrange drivers, with a one-inch aluminum dome tweeter between them. Down toward the bass of each Ultra Tower rest two eight-inch woofers, one on each side. Note I didn’t say “subwoofers,” as the dual eights are not. Around back there is a single rear-firing port, which further helps to augment the Ultra Tower’s low-end performance. With regards to connection options, you’ll find two pairs of gold-plated five-way binding posts.
Behind the scenes, the Ultra Tower’s driver complement is good for a reported frequency response of 28Hz to 32kHz, with a nominal impedance of eight ohms. Sensitivity is stated to be 88dB, making the Ultra Tower suitable for amplifiers and/or receivers ranging in power from 20 to 300 watts or more. Yes, I said more.
Unboxing the Ultra Towers from their triangular-shaped boxes is a job for two, though it can be done solo if need be. The speakers themselves are well packed to ensure the utmost safety from their point of origin to your doorstep. Storing the un-used boxes is something of a consideration, given their unique shape and sheer amount of Styrofoam. Still, I’m not here to critique the speaker box, but rather the speaker itself.
For the purposes of this review, the Ultra Towers replaced both my reference Pendragons, as well as my newly acquired JBL Pro 3677 cinema monitors. Thankfully, the Ultra Towers seemed to work best (in my room) in roughly the same physical position as both the Pendragon and the JBLs. Physically placing them in my room went fairly quickly, with each Ultra Tower resting roughly 18 inches from my side walls and a full three feet off my front wall, putting about six-and-a-half to seven feet between them. SVS sent me the company’s entire Ultra speaker line, meaning I paired the Ultra Towers with a matching Ultra Center, as well as Ultra Surrounds. Briefly, the Ultra Center is a three-way design, utilizing dual six-and-a-half-inch woofers on either side of a single one-inch aluminum tweeter sitting atop a four-inch midrange driver. The whole speaker is good for a frequency response (reported) of 45Hz to 32kHz, with a sensitivity of 87dB and an impedance of eight ohms.
The Ultra Surrounds are a bit different, in that they can be configured in one of three ways: as a bi-pole or di-pole speaker or as two discrete speakers, meaning it is possible to have a seven-channel setup from only five speakers. I experimented with all of the above setup options, including treating the Ultra Surround as two discrete loudspeakers and found that I preferred the Ultra Surround configured, more or less, like a dedicated rear speaker. This meant that I had to then position the Ultra Surrounds further back along my side walls, so that their angled, forward-facing drivers were aimed directly at my listening position, so as not to result in surround information “appearing” in front of me. In truth, I ended up using the Ultra Bookshelf speakers for rears longer-term, as that was just my personal preference, though they’re not wall-mountable, so I had to rely on my trusty Sanus stands, which isn’t ideal but is still sufficient in my room. Regardless, the Ultra Surround is a dual baffle design, each with its own five-and-a-half-inch woofer mated to a single one-inch aluminum dome tweeter. The speaker is good for a reported frequency response of 58Hz to 32kHz, with a sensitivity of 87dB and an impedance of eight ohms.
The center speaker was placed atop two Sanus speaker stands side by side in order to accommodate its rather large size – 22 inches wide by 10 inches deep – and was placed between the left and right mains. The Ultra Surrounds were hung from my ceiling using Monoprice ceiling brackets, though I had to fashion an adaptor out of wood in order for the mounting points to align with my Monoprice brackets. It should be noted that SVS does give you brackets with the Ultra Surrounds; it’s just that the brackets didn’t work for my unique setup.
Because SVS is a primarily a subwoofer company, it should come as no surprise that I would use one of its subwoofers during this review as well. The sub I chose was the SB13-Ultra, which writer Sean Killebrew reviewed earlier. While you can read his review of the SB13-Ultra for a full breakdown of its performance, let me just say it’s killer, easily besting my (former) reference JL Fathom f110s. While the two aren’t exactly a fair comparison to one another, the SB13-Ultra manages to do more for less than the JL’s asking price, especially when you consider that the JL sub truly comparable to the SB13-Ultra is the JL Fathom f113 that retails for around $4,000, depending on finish. That’s good value on the part of the SVS SB13-Ultra. While the SB13-Ultra does have parametric EQ functionality (2), I ended up needing two more bands, so I EQ’ed it using Room EQ Wizard feeding my filters, then into my Behringer Feedback Destroyer Pro before passing the signal onto the sub itself.
All of the speakers were connected to their respective amplifiers, which in this case were Parasound Halo A21 (stereo) and A31 (three-channel) amplifiers, via 12-gauge speaker cable from Binary, a SnapAV company. The sub was connected to my Behringer via a 10-foot balanced cable from Monoprice, with an additional one-meter balanced interconnect from the Behringer to my Integra DHC 80.2, also from Monoprice. Source components included my Oppo BDP-103 and the Dune-HD Max, both connected to my Integra via one meter HDMI cables from Monoprice. With everything set up and the levels matched inside my Integra, it was time to get down to business.
Read about the performance of the SVS Ultra Tower speaker on Page 2.
I began my evaluation of the Ultra Tower with some two-channel music, beginning with Alanis Morissette’s newest album Havoc and Bright Lights (Collective Sounds) and the track “‘Till You.” On their own, the Ultra Towers possessed enough bass to be pleasing, if not wholly satisfying, with two-channel music, though I did ultimately end up employing the subwoofer throughout my two- and multi-channel tests. I crossed the SB13-Ultra over at 50Hz, as that’s what sounded best to me in my room. Still, the mid-bass prowess of the Ultra Tower was incredible as was its speed and detail, something that was only aided by my taking the bottom octave off its plate, so to speak. This added mid-bass heft helped to ground the midrange, which in turn lent a truer sense of scale and dimension to the vocal track.
The tone of Alanis’ vocals felt right, though I’m not certain I’d call the Ultra Tower neutral, but rather just a touch beefy, though don’t mistake that for laid-back or romantic, for it is neither of those things. The Ultra Tower’s high-frequency response was good, possessing clear detail and air, though at the extreme, things were a little one-dimensional and susceptible to some sibilance at higher volumes. I could (mostly) eliminate this by taking the treble slider down 2dB, which is a fine solution for me, though the thought may anger some purists. With a hint of the top end cut off, the performance was for me very nicely balanced. While weighty, it made for some very easy long-term listening.
Moving ahead to the track “Celebrity,” I was immediately struck by the Ultra Tower’s soundstage reproduction, which I found to be both cavernous and well-defined. I jotted down in my notes, “Sounds like bi-poles at times.” I also very much appreciated the Ultra Tower’s midrange and upper midrange articulation, as the Ultra Tower is a speaker that forges ahead and tries to get more than just the broad strokes right. Dynamics and impact were solid and effective, though I’ve heard snappier transients, not by wide margins but rather by degrees of subtlety.
Because SVS is a company that knows bass, I went ahead and fired up Elle Goulding’s “Lights,” but the Bassnectar Remix off their album Divergent Spectrum (Amorphous Music) is far more bombastic in its low-end delivery. The resulting sound was wall-to-wall fun from start to finish. The Ultra Tower’s rendering of space was infectious, bordering on truly three-dimensional. Again, the impact, articulation and speed were impressive, though the high frequencies struck me as a little flat at times. Nothing that was too distracting, but also not best in class.
Wanting to give the Ultra Tower a bit more to chew on, I opted to leave the two-channel realm and dive into multi-channel waters, beginning with Godsmack’s concert DVD entitled Changes (Zoe Records). I cued up the epic drum battle, “Batalla de los Tambores,” set the volume for “stun” and braced myself for impact. What followed was a wholly enjoyable, completely convincing portrayal of two larger than life drum kits being wielded like weapons by their respective drummers in an all-out assault on my senses. The Ultra Towers mated with the matching Ultra Center, as well as Ultra Surrounds, is a match made in multi-channel heaven. The sound, in terms of tone, was seamless across all five speakers, though I found the center to be a touch more directional compared to either the Ultra Tower or the Ultra Surround. The level of detail and inflection captured and put forth by the Ultra Series speakers was incredible. The high-frequency performance improved slightly with the increase in resolution from the source material, though I’d still say it wasn’t up to the standard set by the Ultra Tower’s midrange and bass performance. Again, not bad, better than average even, but not exceptional. The soundstage was so composed and the sense of space so well-defined that, despite having a 10-foot image of the action in front of me, I could close my eyes and sense the physical space.
While this is primarily a review of the Ultra Tower speakers, we don’t review center channels on their own, so I’ll have no other opportunity to comment on the Ultra Center except for now. I’m generally critical of center speakers, as I don’t find them to be on par with most stereo mains. So while the Ultra Center was tonally virtually indistinguishable from the Ultra Tower speakers, its dispersion and slight lack of sensitivity were somewhat noticeable. I cued up the thriller Outbreak (Warner Brothers) and chaptered ahead to a scene between stars Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, where they’re arguing inside an Army trailer over the handling of said outbreak. This scene has many wide shots that feature Freeman sitting lower left corner of the screen, with Hoffman opposite and above in the upper right. The mix is such that not much of the dialogue is carried over to the left and right main speakers, so it’s a relatively good test of a center speaker’s dispersion; I found the Ultra Center to be merely average in that regard. There were instances where the sound didn’t fully venture over to either of the far reaches of my 10-foot diagonal screen. Was it a deal-breaker? No, as I’ve heard plenty of speakers perform much the same, some even costing far more than the Ultra Center. What was interesting, at least for me, was that when I substituted an Ultra Bookshelf speaker in for the center, I found the sound to be more of a match through and through with the Ultra Towers. It even exhibited greater horizontal dispersion. Center channel speakers are good, for they allow for HDTVs either above or below, but if you can accommodate, I’d almost always recommend either a matching bookshelf or third main speaker for your center channel, as the sound will then be truly seamless. Minus my hyper-critical look at the Ultra Center, the rest of the film played out beautifully and in a completely convincing big cinematic way.
I ended my evaluation of the Ultra Series speakers, specifically the Ultra Towers, with (arguably) the finest Blu-ray available today, James Cameron’s Titanic (Paramount). Chaptering ahead to the iceberg sequence, the resulting surround sound performance all but cemented my view that the Ultra Towers, when utilized as part of a larger Ultra Series multi-channel setup, were nothing if not astonishing when it came to recreating a true cinema experience in the home. The boiler room scenes especially were so brilliantly portrayed that at times they could be overwhelming, in a good way. With everything firing as one, the top to bottom coherence was incredible, not to mention completely seamless. And while I may have had some issue with the center channel’s dispersion, its tone and way with vocals was nothing if not completely natural. With the Ultra Bookshelf speakers serving as rear channels, the surround sound information was rendered with such precision and depth that I still question the need for seven channels when five will do brilliantly. Obviously, the bass was prodigious, thanks in no small part to the marvel that is the SB13-Ultra. Simply put, the whole experience was fantastic. What more can an enthusiast on a budget ask for?
I couldn’t think of anything.
I very much enjoyed my time with the Ultra Towers, as well as all the other Ultra Series speakers, though there are a few key things I think are worth keeping in mind before deciding whether or not to purchase. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, while I may not have completely fancied the Ultra Tower’s look, I realize my criticisms are subjective. That said, the finish, more specifically its effect upon your listening/viewing space is not subjective, as the multi-faceted cabinet is a reflection magnet. Dulling things down to SVS’ black oak finish does help (the SB13-Ultra subwoofer was finished in black oak), but it doesn’t eliminate it. It’s not that this is an issue exclusive to the Ultra Tower, but due to its unique and often sloping shape, it’s harder to combat, for you can’t simply drape a piece of black cloth over the top, as it won’t stay put without some sort of adhesive. Yikes. Some may view this criticism as the price of beauty, while others may simply think I’m being crazy, but in any case, it’s worth noting.
While not a knock against the Ultra Tower, the speakers aimed at accompanying it don’t quite match its performance benchmarks. Are they bad? No, not at all, but if given the choice (and the ability), I’d forego the Ultra Center in favor of the Ultra Bookshelf as the center speaker, as well as for the surrounds. Admittedly, the mounting options are more limited with the Ultra Bookshelf speakers, as opposed to the Ultra Surrounds, which may be a factor for some. If you need a dedicated center channel under or above your HDTV, because that is simply how your setup has to be (it’s okay if it is), then I recommend aiming the Ultra Center square at your listening position if at all possible.
Lastly, while not too critical of components, the Ultra Tower is a bit more critical of placement, due to its side-firing woofers and large rear port. Give ’em some space to breathe and you’ll be aptly rewarded, though place them too close to your room’s boundaries and things can quickly become a bit bloated.
Competition and Comparisons
Among the offerings from other Internet-direct companies, the one speaker I’d directly compare the Ultra Tower to would have to be Aperion Audio’s Verus Grand Tower Speaker at $999 each. The speakers are targeted squarely at the same customer and check a lot of the same boxes in terms of performance, making choosing one over the other a matter of personal preference. Elsewhere in the AV space, the Ultra Tower must contend with stalwarts like Paradigm’s Monitor Series and Bowers & Wilkins’ 600 Series. If you’re willing to spend just a bit more, the doors open for speakers like Tekton Design’s Pendragon to enter into the conversation, which in my opinion represents a jump in quality for not that much more money. Needless to say, the Ultra Tower doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as it more than has its fair share of competition out there. For more on these great speakers, as well as other floor-standing speakers like them, please visit Home Theater Review’s Floorstanding Speaker page.
I more than enjoyed my time with the new Ultra Tower speakers from SVS – okay, I really kind of dug the whole line. I may not have been the biggest fan of the Ultra Center or Surrounds, which isn’t to say they’re bad, but rather the victims of some of my own personal proclivities. While the look of the Ultra Towers (or the Ultra Series) wasn’t one hundred percent my cup of tea, I didn’t hold it against them, for it’s hard to justify one’s criticism when so much of what the product does elsewhere is so great and so affordable. Is the Ultra Tower perfect? No, it’s not, as its high-frequency performance could be a bit better, and as refined as, say, its mid-bass prowess. Nevertheless, the Ultra Tower and Ultra Series on a whole are wonderful achievements and very much worthy of consideration. Given that SVS is willing to extend to you a 45-day in-home trial with free shipping both ways, what do you have to lose? If I were putting together a multi-channel setup from scratch, there are far worse places to start, and few better.
Read more floorstanding speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com’s writers.
Explore more reviews in our Subwoofer Review section.
Find pairing options in our AV Receiver and Amplifier review sections.