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THE GREAT PRETENDER?
Let's start out by quoting the SVS Owner’s manual: “The SVS series loudspeakers were designed for audio enthusiasts, by audio enthusiasts with over fifty years of experience in the high-end audio arena, with a relentless passion for designing a stunning, acoustically impeccable loudspeaker that convincingly conveys the emotion of live music and home theater. The SVS Ultra series delivers a deep, detailed soundstage with incredible resolution, absolute transparency, and amazingly rich and articulated bass, outperforming speakers two to three times their price.”
When I read bold claims for an audio product, especially at this price level ($2,000/pr.), I usually dismiss them as so much advertising hype. But having read Bruce Brown’s recent review in these pages of the Shelby Kroll Reference, a $13,000 speaker system that openly takes aim at $100,000 plus speakers, SVS’s claim that the Ultra Tower outperforms speakers in the crowded $4,000-$6,000 field seems quite modest in comparison. If the SVS Ultra Tower could even just compete with speakers in that range, well that would be welcome news for value conscious readers looking for an overachieving speaker. Is the Tower then the overachiever that it is claimed to be? Just where does it reside on the spectrum of audio fidelity? Read on for the answers.
To be honest, I doubted that SVS Ultra Tower would be up to the task. SVS touts its line of speakers for use in home theater systems, where mid-fi receivers and DVD players are the order of the day. Although I have nothing against home theater systems, home theater sound, in my experience, has more to do with whiz bang effects such as exploding ordinance, airline crashes, hovering helicopters, etc., than with the natural sounds of musical instruments. Have you ever heard a violin or piano accurately reproduced on your average home theater system? I’d say probably not.
There was another reason I doubted that the Tower could satisfy my audiophile sensibilities – my reference Wilson MAXX speakers. The MAXX handily dwarfs the Tower in size and cost. Weighning in at 75.4 pounds. The Ultras are 45" (H) X 13.8" (W) X 16.25" (D).
Weight: 75.4 pounds. The MAXX has ruled in my system for seven years and suddenly along comes the upstart Towers. How dare they take up residence in the same room as these behemoths! As I relegated the 450 lb. MAXX to the corners of the room to assume spectator status, I swear they cast an intimidating stare at the Towers. Fortunately, the Towers did not cower and they stuck around for the duration of my review. I’m glad they did.
Being unfamiliar with SVS and its products, I gobbled up the press information provided by SVS. SVS, it seems, cut its teeth producing subwoofers for the home theatre market. Founded in 1998 in Ohio, SVS sold both ported and sealed subwoofers to much commercial success, allowing it to expand to full range speakers. SVS produced its first full range speakers in 2005 followed by its first “audiophile grade” speakers, the “M” series in 2007. The SVS Ultra Tower is its latest offering in the “Ultra Series” line, and is the company’s “flagship” speaker. Funny, but when I think of a flagship speaker, I think of pricey speakers selling from 50-200K, not one that sells for only $2,000 a pair.
I was struck by the passion invested in the design of the Tower, one that was certainly fueled by the Tower’s designer, Mark Mason, and new CEO, Gary Yacoubian. Both joined the SVS team in 2011 and set about developing the Ultra series. Mark brought with him some serious credentials. In addition to his background in subwoofer and pro-audio design, Mark for years was a designer of full range speakers at PSB, a company well known to audiophiles on a budget. Many of Mark’s designs for PSB have received critical acclaim in the audiophile press. Gary is a 20 year A/V veteran and serves as the Chairman of the Executive Board of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). You may know the CEA as the body that puts on the Consumer Electronics Show every year in Las Vegas.
The Tower incorporates many features that promise superior performance at its price. Starting with the enclosure, the Tower features an upswept trapezoidal shape and flush mounted drivers, to reduce edge diffraction. The sloping back design of the enclosure is said to eliminate internal standing waves - no four square box here. In addition, FEA optimized bracing is employed to reduce cabinet resonances, along with the 1” thick midrange baffle and a 1.5” thick woofer baffle. All of this attention to cabinet construction had me thinking that SVS may have something here, and my pulse quickened a bit. My MAXX was un-impressed.
Moving on to the drivers (all made to specification for SVS), the Tower employs a 1” aluminum dome tweeter with an FEA optimized diffuser. Metallic tweeters have a mostly undeserved reputation for sounding bright and brittle. I harbored no preconceptions about the Tower’s tweeter. My MAXX uses a metallic tweeter (titanium) and don’t tell it that its tweeter sounds like a tin can. I now sensed that the MAXX’s contempt for the Tower was giving way to mild curiosity.
The Tower’s tweeter resides in between dual 6.5” midrange drivers mounted in MTM or D’Appolito fashion (above and below the tweeter). The midrange drivers are made of a glass- fiber composite material, chosen for its excellent stiffness/mass ratio and pistonic behavior well beyond the pass band of the driver. Guess what - the MAXX uses an MTM type array. The MAXX began to warm up to the Towers as if it had just discovered a distant cousin.
The Tower’s most interesting feature is its 3.5 way crossover that SVS calls the “SoundMatch Crossover Network”. The “network” includes a top midrange driver (mounted above the tweeter in MTM fashion) that crosses over to the tweeter at 2 kHz, and a bottom midrange driver that does not cross over to the tweeter. Instead, the output of the bottom midrange driver is “tapered” starting at 950 kHz. SVS claims that this minimizes the potential for the off axis (tweeter level) lobing in the midrange inherent in MTM design. The sonic benefit is said to be a “smoother in-room frequency response and enhanced radiation of total sound power, along with a more generous sweet spot in the vertical axis for a convincing and stable soundstage.”
I asked Mark to elaborate on the “Network”: “Two 6.5” drivers will exhibit off-axis vertical lobing due to the path length difference between the two sources at higher frequencies. The lobing reduces the height of the sweet spot and the smoothness of the sound power response in the room. When only a single 6.5” driver is crossed to the tweeter, the path length difference between the two sources is substantially reduced and the frequency at which the lobing would occur is not in the pass band of the midrange driver. Again, the overall frequency response in a room is consequently smoother.” What all of this means to the listener is that the “sweet spot” has been enhanced so listener height is less critical. I made it a point to determine if that indeed was the case during my listening sessions. My MAXX insisted.
The Tower comes with a detachable grille with pin/cup retention. I listened with the grilles off for the most part, and found the difference with them on to be negligible. I suspect most audiophiles will listen without the grilles. Indeed, the self- respecting audiophile may feel the urge to bare all and show off the handsome façade presented by the Tower’s flush mounted array of drivers. The Tower’s profile on the other hand left me a bit cold, its straight back angle reminding me of a gridiron back-stop.
The enclosure is available in black gloss or, as in the case of the review sample, black oak veneer. The black colored drivers blend in with the enclosure, giving it an understated look, which will probably sit well with one’s significant other, as will its small footprint. The black gloss finish is said to be a real looker but the oak veneer is quite attractive too, enhanced by the near impeccable fit and finish of this speaker. To look at it you would not believe that it costs only $2,000/pr.
The Tower’s gold plated, five-way binding post is 5/16” in diameter - cables terminated with a ¼” spade lug, like my Transparent cables, will require the use of banana plugs or a change in spade lugs. I ended up using banana plugs, which is not my preferred mode.
Mark voiced the Tower at Canada’s world renowned National Research Council facilities using an anechoic chamber and an “ICE 268-13 standardized listening room”. Additional voicing was by listening tests in multiple rooms using Bryston and Classe amplification, a move that augers well for the Tower’s high end aspirations.
SET-UP AND LISTENING SPACE
The Towers are delivered upright and banded together on a single pallet. Two sturdy backs will be necessary to unpack and set up the Towers- each weighs 75 lbs. and is awkward to move around without help. SVS makes things a bit easier by using a box from which the speakers are removed laterally. With the box upright as delivered, (the shape of the box corresponds roughly to the shape of the speaker), cut open the side flap, and the speaker can then be removed upright. Nice touch. Once in position, SVS provides a set of spikes to properly ground the speakers.
The SVS owner’s manual recommends placing the speakers so they present a 60 degree window to the listening position. Mark suggested that the Tower be placed no closer than 2 feet from the side and back walls and that long wall placement was not advisable if the room width is less than 12’. Those considerations aside, Mark insisted that the Tower was designed to be forgiving about placement. My dedicated listening room is rather large (30’L x 18’ W x 8’6’’ H). I ended up locating the speakers 67” out from the short wall, and 37” from the side walls. I found that some experimentation with the distance from the back wall was necessary to obtain a subjectively smooth response, especially in the mid-bass.
Anyone with experience knows that realizing linear in-room bass response can be a challenge to say the least. SVS has addressed this challenge with the Tower’s side firing woofer array which uniformly loads the room and reduces amplitude variations caused by room nodes. For smaller rooms subject to excessive bass (“room gain”), SVS supplies foam inserts for the rear port. The inserts roll off bass response by creating “a low Q sealed acoustic alignment”. As suspected, the inserts were not necessary in my large listening environment. Kudos are due SVS however for its attention to speaker/room interface. The buyer can expect a better than average chance of achieving optimal sound in his or her listening room.
The Tower’s minimum impedance is just under 4 ohms, and its phase angle is a benign 5 degrees. Along with a sensitivity rating at 88db (2.83V@ 1meter), the Tower will be no more than moderately sensitive to partnering amplification. I used both tube and solid state amplification (both rated at 100 watts/channel) with excellent compatibility.
Enough with the description of the Tower’s make-up, and on to the music to see (hear) if the Tower is indeed the overachiever it is touted to be. My MAXX cast a doubting glance as if to say, prove it!
THE REAL DEAL
In my 30 plus years in this hobby, I have owned more than a dozen speakers - small, medium, large; dynamic, planar, electrostatic. All had a distinct sonic personality. While it is true that speaker design has matured dramatically in the past decade through technological advances in parts quality and testing methods, there still is no such thing as a completely neutral transducer and that elusive goal may never be realized. Speaker design remains, and in my mind should remain, a confluence of art and science. The goal of the speaker designer is to ensure that a speaker’s residual personality does not get in the way of communicating the emotion and impact of music.
Consider my MAXX speakers, pictured below. As many readers know, Wilson speakers have their admirers and detractors. Those who fall in the later camp decry their high cost and analytical bent, among other things. Despite minor shortcomings that contribute to its “personality”, the MAXX is capable of prodigious dynamic range, lifelike sound staging, and tonal and textural sophistication - when properly set-up and partnered with like-minded amplification. The MAXX communicate the emotion and excitement of music to me on a wide range of material.
So what personality can we ascribe to the Ultra Tower? Does it have, as I postulated at the outset, a personality that caters to home theater sound – that is, accentuated highs, hyper-articulated vocals, and exaggerated bass? The answer to that question was forthcoming early on in my listening sessions – and it is a resounding no! The sound of the Ultra Tower was not goosed up or idiosyncratic in any way. Surprisingly, it took me a while to ascertain its sonic character, a remarkable statement for a speaker at this price. However, one thing was clear from the outset – SVS’s claim that the Tower is an overachiever is no mere hype.
Starting with the high frequencies, the Tower’s aluminum tweeter sounded sweet, extended, and lacking any artifacts that would call attention to it. If you want to get to the heart of a tweeter’s intrinsic character, throw on any well recorded material featuring a large percussion ensemble. Such a recording will reveal a tweeter’s tendency toward etch or hardness, in addition to its way with transients.
You may question its musical merits, but I find that The All Star Percussion Ensemble II (Golden String GSCD-13) does the trick. This CD features 66 different percussion instruments from around the world. The Tower’s tweeter handled this veritable assault on the ears with finesse. Cymbals have the right of amount of shimmer and bite; hard struck drums had impact; bells had that difficult to reproduce combination of percussive clang and overtones; in short, the Tower’s tweeter was able to differentiate between a plethora of high frequency loaded percussions instruments, a testament to its intrinsic neutrality. If pushed, I would say that there is a hint of softness in its reproduction of transients, giving the Tower a slightly forgiving quality, which is a good thing when dealing with overcooked recordings.
I was skeptical about the claims made for the Tower’s 3.5 way network. I understood the concept, yet I harbored a suspicion that something would be amiss in the midrange. I need not have worried. The Tower’s glass/fiber midrange drivers integrated well with the Towers’ tweeter to present a cohesive whole with no audible seams. I use the Ginastera piano sonata No. 1 (Wilson Audio) to assess a speaker’s coherency across the mid-band and into the treble range of the tweeter. Hyperion Knight traverses the entire span of the 9 foot Steinway and is spectacularly recorded by Wilson Audio. The Tower’s octave to octave balance was smooth and evenly developed, its network giving no hint of discontinuity. Moreover, I was able to confirm the claim that the “sweet spot’ has been enhanced by the 3.5 way crossover. Listening height does indeed become less critical. Vocals, for instance, retained their intrinsic character within a range of a foot above and below the tweeter level, and they did not become nasal or strident with head movement. Thank you SVS. I really don’t want to listen to Frank Sinatra sounding like Geddy Lee, or Peggy Lee sounding like Rickie Lee Jones. No worries with the Tower. You can sit back, relax and listen without fear that your favorite vocal artist will undergo a sonic makeover as you move about.
Given the attention devoted to reducing diffraction, it is not surprising that the sound stage and imaging capabilities of the Tower are first rate. The Tower simply disappears as a sound source, leaving before you an open stage populated by sharply focused and proportionately sized images. The Tower’s imaging prowess was driven home while listening to a nugget of a recording that fellow reviewer Dr. John Richardson brought with him when he paid a visit to give the Towers a listen (John was impressed with the Towers). This recording on the Lyrita label is stunning in its reproduction of a string quartet playing Welsh chamber music in a lovely acoustic. You can clearly hear the positioning of the players being informed by the acoustical setting. Likewise, the Towers delineated in 3D fashion the myriad orchestral forces in Chesky’s Area 31 SACD. Of course, the Tower could not recreate image height like the much taller MAXX, and images overall were smaller. But within those limitations, the Tower excelled in its reproduction of images within a defined space.
Allied with the Tower’s “disappearing act” is its transparency, which for a $2,000/pr. speaker system is very good, if not in same the league as far more expensive systems. The Tower was adept at depicting the sympathetic acoustic of Columbia’s famed 30th Street Studio – check out Analogue Productions superb 45 rpm reissue of Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Listen to how Joe Morello’s drum solo in Take Five excites the room and defines the studio’s space - you should be able to hear the sound of his bass and snare drums bounce off the studio walls. The better the system, the more likely you will experience the “time machine” sensation of “being there” with this cut. The Tower give you this sensation, but not to the same degree as with my reference Wilson speakers and other far pricier systems.
When we consider a component’s resolution, we usually think of its ability to capture minute details, especially sounds at the pianissimo level – a singer inhaling, a feathered pizzicato, the delicate keying of a saxophone; etc. I would argue that resolution is also about the accurate reproduction of timbre, that is, an instrument’s or a vocalist’s characteristic sound heard live. A highly resolving system will let you hear, for example, the difference between a coronet and a trumpet, or a Steinway and a Bosendorfer, or a cello and a viola played in the same register. Enclosure resonances and internal standing waves can conspire to mask detail and color the sound of a speaker. The MAXX is capable of outstanding resolution in large part due to the heroic efforts of Wilson Audio to eliminate enclosure resonances.
One would not expect a $2,000/pr. speaker system to be the resolution champion of the world, and that would be true of the Tower. But the Tower comes closer to that goal than it has a right to at its price. The Tower let me hear, for example, the different skin tones on Joe Morello’s toms in the Everybody’s Jumping cut from Take Five, and his cymbals rang true, with the overtones I hear live (I should know - I am a drummer). Listen to Stolen Moments from Oscar Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and you will hear the subtle differences in the tonal hues and textures of the alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. For me, the acid test for accurate reproduction of the timbre of acoustic instruments is the Cisco reissue of the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Recorded in 1956 by Capitol Records on two-track in a dry acoustic, the sound of brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion is laid bare as if an aural magnifying glass was placed upon them. The Tower was not far off the mark in reproducing lifelike timbres, and if it could not quite match the textural sophistication of the MAXX and other far more expensive speakers, its performance was still remarkable for a $2,000 speaker.
As I was writing this review, Janos Starker passed away. The master cellist and music educator was famous for his technique, particularly his understated vibrato. Listening to his Bach Sonatas on Mercury Living Presence SACD, Starker’s way with vibrato was clearly revealed by the Tower, as was his overall dexterity. I reveled in the ravishing sound of his cello heard in a sumptuous acoustic. Fingering details were present as well as the characteristic bite of rosin on string. In short, the Tower’s resolution let me enjoy Starker’s artistry, and I didn’t feel like anything was lacking.
Perhaps I am selling the Towers short when it comes to resolution. Frankly, I was amazed at the level of detail present at this price. The Towers will perform well enough with modest partnering equipment (they sounded quite nice indeed with my budget Parasound amplifier), but you may be selling them short by doing so - they will flourish with upscale equipment. Switching back and forth between the Parasound and Audio Research amps revealed the greater transparency and resolution of the Audio Research. Late during the review period I received Redgum’s 20th anniversary Magnificant preamp and 400W/channel monoblocks, a 19K combination. The Tower was not embarrassed by the association- it let me appreciate the combination’s outstanding transparency and dynamic prowess (review forthcoming).
The Tower’s dual horizontally opposed woofers produced bass that was taut, textured, and to my ears, linear down to about 40 Hz. In Oscar Peterson and the Bassists, Montreux ’77 (Pablo 2308213), Ray Brown plays a traditional bass line with a big round tone, juxtaposed by the bright, sprightly playing of Niels Pedersen. The Tower revealed the slightly different tone and technique conjured up by these superlative bassists. While listening to this recording, I thought I detected a slight opacity in the mid-bass; however, that anomaly may have been room related, and it did not distract me from enjoying the frenetic interplay of the bassists. The Tower’s bass response was sufficiently quick that it maintained the pace and timing that is key to enjoyment of this recording and jazz in general. If you are an organ aficionado, the Tower may not completely satisfy those who demand pants flapping, subterranean bass. Not to worry - SVS offers a line of well-regarded subwoofers for the 16 Hz head-banger.
I consider a component’s ability to reproduce the unfettered dynamic range of live music essential to my complete enjoyment of the music. I know full well that no recording or system can recreate the full impact of live music. Yet some are better than others and it is always a thrill when it gets close. In my large listening room the SVS was able to play loud and without stress, but it lacked the dynamic alacrity and slam of the larger Wilson system. You can only expect so much headroom from a speaker of this size and configuration. This is not a fair comparison, of course, and I suspect the Tower will have you jumping out of your seat with suitable material in smaller or medium sized rooms. The wide dynamic swings in Holst’s The Planets (Zubin Mehta conducting) and Rutter’s Requiem (Reference Recordings) were reproduced to good effect, if not with the same degree of drama and breathtaking impact when played through the MAXX. On the softer end of the dynamic spectrum, the Tower exhibited finesse in reproducing the staccato strings in the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (Telarc LP), missing only the last iota of delicacy that I hear through the MAXX and electrostatic speakers I have owned.
I see that my sonic dissection of the Tower’s performance does not fully convey its magical way of drawing you into the music making without calling attention to any particular aspect of its performance. No extrovert, the Tower doesn’t shout out – hey, listen to what I can do; rather, it’s understated and even handed manner coddles you and invites you to relax and become immersed in the music. Indeed, its catholic disposition begs you to pull out most anything in your music collection and enjoy it, as I did, much to the chagrin of my MAXX. The Tower was equally at home with Miles, Mahler, the Beatles, AC/DC, the Duke, the Count, Joan Baez, Al Dimeola, Higdon, Frank Zappa, the Remains (the Remains?) and a host of other artists that I enjoyed listening to through this remarkable speaker.
Should you rush to SVS’s website and order a pair of the Ultra Towers without further ado? That, of course, is a personal call, and I for one would hesitate to purchase any audio equipment solely on the basis of a review. In this instance, you need not fret about making the right decision. SVS makes it easy for you with its generous 45 day risk free trial period. If the Tower does not suit your tastes, you can return it, no strings attached. SVS even picks up the shipping both ways. Given the excellence of this design and its extraordinary value, I doubt SVS will be getting many returns.
Mark Mason and the crew at SVS must possess a finely tuned set of ears, for they have crafted a beautifully voiced speaker that will be appeal to all manner of musical tastes. If you are looking for an affordable speaker that can do justice to a large and varied musical collection, the SVS Ultra Tower easily fits the bill.
Be aware that on their website the speakers are priced per "each", not per pair.
The Tower’s parts, engineering, innovative design, exquisite fit and finish, and more importantly, its sheer musicality, are what you would expect from a speaker two-three times its price. To answer, then, the questions posed at the outset of this review, yes, the Ultra Tower is an overachiever, and no, it is not just for the Home Theater enthusiast. It is, quite simply, an astonishing achievement and an outstanding bargain!
REFERENCE SYSTEM AND RECORDINGS
VPI Classic 2 turntable; Benz Micro SM and Grado Reference cartridges; Denon DVD 2910 SACD/CD Player; Anedio D1 DAC; Alexis ML 9600 Masterlink High Resolution Recorder; Audio Research LS 25 Mk II Linestage Preamplifier; Audio Research PH3 SE Phono Preamplifier; Wilson Audio MAXX speakers; Cabling - Nordost and Transparent.
Time Out, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Analogue Productions CS 8192 (45 rpm).
The Planets, Gustav Holst, Zubin Meta/LA Philharmonic, London LP CS 6734
Bach Sonatas, Starker, Mercury Living Presence, SACD 470644-2
Chesky, Area 31 SACD.
Blues and the Abstract Truth, Oliver Nelson, Impulse 45 rpm reissue.
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Cisco (Capital) reissue, ACIS 8373.
Ginastera, Sonata No. 1, Wilson Audiophile LP, W-9025.
Rutter, Requiem, Reference Recordings RR-57CD.