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.
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