As I am slowly approaching the grizzled vet stage of my audiophile career, I often have to stop myself from starting a sentence with "back in my day..." It's not surprising that when I heard about the less than $2000 a pair 45" tall five-driver SVS Ultra Tower I would have similar thoughts. I might start thinking of high-end makes and models that would demand one to max-out one's credit cards to get anywhere close to the specs that these speakers possess. But time marches on, and I mean this in the best way, especially when reflecting upon the evolution of speaker design.
SVS also claims that the Ultra Towers have exceptional sonic traits, "outperforming other brands costing two and three times their price". There might be some truth to this claim since the SVS Ultra Towers are only available factory direct, avoiding the mark ups that comes from passing though the hands of distributors or importers. There are often advantages to the consumer that come from purchasing an audio product from an authorized dealer; one of these advantages is of course auditioning the product. But SVS offers to their customers a generous 45 day in-home trial. Plus, SVS does not charge for shipping, to your residence, or in the case of return, back to SVS.
Drivers housed in a rectangular box are becoming
a rare breed. Like many other contemporary speakers the SVS Ultra Tower has
non-parallel cabinet walls that help reduce standing waves in the interior of
its cabinet. Non parallel cabinet panels often lead to a less colored sound
because it helps eliminate the coloration from these standing waves that occur,
usually due to sound waves reflecting off the interior wall of the cabinet in
the same direction in that they originated. The Ultra Tower also has a
wedge-shaped front baffle and flush-mounted drivers that lessen diffraction, and
so the on-axis frequency response is improved. Although SVS claims that their
grilles with a pin/cup retention system are designed to be as transparent as
possible, I didn't take any chances so I left the grilles off during the entire
audition period. I thought the speakers looked better without them. To
minimize interaction between the drivers, the Ultra Tower is designed with two
separate sealed midrange enclosures. This is a nice touch, as without physically
separating them there is likely to be a great deal of interaction between the
drivers. These internal baffles will eliminate at least some of the
problems that are caused within the cabinet of a speaker with so many drivers.
SVS says the arrangement of the woofers in the Ultra Tower have a "unique" ForceFactor horizontally-opposed dual woofer configuration. I suppose this is another way of saying that the speaker has two 8" woofers on both sides of its cabinet, which makes it possible for not only one of the woofers to fire to the side walls, but one of them to fire towards the woofer in the other speaker across the room. They claim that this results in mechanical force cancellation, which reduces distortion and makes for a cleaner and tighter bass response. They say it also eliminates cabinet vibration which could upset the mids and treble, and that in turn makes the soundstage stable and clear. And because the woofers fire in different directions the "acoustical loading and modal density" in the listening room is increased, which makes it possible for the bass to be free of room anomalies regardless of seating position.
Having five drivers in one cabinet is a good
thing for a number of reasons, but also a challenge to make all these drivers
work together as one. SVS uses their SoundMatch 3.5-way crossover featuring a "tapered
array" that supplies each midrange driver with an optimized frequency band. The
upper midrange driver is the only one of the two that crosses over to the
tweeter at 2 kHz. The midrange driver positioned below it is tapered at 700 Hz,
which SVS says minimizes "off-axis lobing" in the important midrange-to-tweeter
crossover frequencies. This aids in "smoother" in-room frequency response and
overall radiation and volume, and a larger sweet spot with a better soundstage.
SVS insists that their crossover network uses "premium-grade" capacitors,
air-core inductors and "heavy-trace" printed circuit board "to endure pure
Setting up the Ultra Towers didn't take too much time at all. It probably took less time to position them than the time it took to get them out of their cartons, move the cartons to the basement for storage, and then shimmy the speakers into the room. They ended up flanking the unused fireplace about two feet from the front wall on either side of the Metro Commercial shelving that supported the system's front end. I ended up with them firing straight into the room, about six to eight feet from my listening position. When I'm listening while seated in the leather Wassily armchair our dog usually comes into the room for affection, but leaves soon after I crank the volume to a suitable level.
Soon after I thought the speakers were fully broken in, I sat down to listen to a high-rez version of Joy Division's Closer downloaded from HDTracks. It took a while before I acquired what I thought were reference quality versions of this masterpiece. My original UK pressing on Factory Records is excellent, but I have two that are at least comparable and perhaps a bit better: an early 1980s Japanese pressing and a relatively recent 180 gram re-issue by Rhino, although I have my doubts that the analog master was used for the Rhino. Digitally, the most recent CD re-masterings have sounded perfectly fine, although I couldn't imagine the newly released 96kHz/24-bit version by HDtracks being bettered even if I was lent the record company's tape to master it myself. And this HDtracks version is what I listened to through the Ultra Towers.
Closer is a tricky album to use as a review sample because it challenges the listener with the different studio effects on each track, altering the band's and vocalist's sound. There is no doubt in my or many other's minds that the late producer Martin Hannet was a genius. And with this came the notion that he considered himself and the studio as members of the band. Closer, Joy Division's second album released shortly after lead singer Ian Curtis' death in 1980 is probably his best work. This is Joy Division's best work in my opinion. Although I would hardly call many (most?) of the sounds on this album "natural", I've been listening to it almost constantly since shortly after its release and so I can easily judge whether a speaker can or cannot reproduce it to my liking. The opening track "Atrocity Exhibition" has a rather unorthodox arrangement, though it is rather typical for Joy Division. Unlike other "rock" tunes, its instrumental backing is not led the guitar but the bass guitar, and on this tune the beat laid down by the drummer is created not by the usual alternating kick/snare, but by a repeating theme on the toms and hi-hat. Ian Curtis' vocals are not as altered as many of the other band member's instruments, with only a bit of delay applied to bring it forward in the mix. There was a bit more sibilance and hardness on the vocal track than I was used to; and I suppose I could hear a bit of metallic twinge in its upper treble along with this, but all in all, I'd say that the SVS Ultra Tower did a fine job at reproducing this track. The mids were quite transparent sounding; which certainly made the vocals sound more "realistic", and the reverb trails from the drums fading into the blackness were easy to follow as it mixed with the heavily effected guitar fermentations. The lowest frequencies were taken up by the bass guitar. It sounds odd, and although it still sounds like a bass guitar, it sounds like it is a mix of what would come through an amplifier and what one would hear if standing next to bassist Peter Hook in the room while he heard it coming through his headphones. The Ultra Tower made clear what was coming from the bass, and also this song also demonstrated that the speaker can reach to what appears to be the lowest levels that are on the recording. Best of all, turning up the volume was a blast (pun intended), as it shook the floor and the window frames in the listening room.
The third track, "Passover", was even better at displaying the character of the speaker. The song's bass reached even deeper, with an overdubbed bass guitar accentuating the lowest notes of the tune. Plus, the guitar sound is more "normal" here, sounding as if coming from an actual guitar amp rather than from the right hemisphere of the producer's brain. The drum's overdubbed toms are, like the guitar, also more natural sounding. The drums, overall, made me sense that I was hearing a semblance of what was heard in the studio control room that night or nights when they mixed the album, although I doubt very much that the pro studio monitors had the same qualities as the Ultra Towers. Even though the instruments were fed through numerous studio effects, the sound was quite natural sounding, in that I could hear through the studio haze to sense that these were real instruments being played by real people. The cymbals, in particular, had a natural metallic ring to them that their monitors could most likely not even come close to reproducing. Studio monitors are notorious for being able to play loud, but unless they were using the huge horn-loaded Urei Model 813s that were popular in some of the more well-healed control rooms I doubt the lower frequencies were nearly as intense as the Ultra Towers. But I think this song also demonstrated that it sounded as if there was a light scrim over the speakers, and they have less soundstaging and imaging prowess than many speakers that have occupied my listening room. But I often had to remind myself that my reference speakers that I normally use in this system cost about three times as much, but don't have nearly the amount of bass and overall speaker driver area as the Ultra Towers.
And for many listeners, it is the Ultra Tower's ability to handle all types of program material and play that material at any volume asked of it that may be all that is required from this speaker. It is, after all, one of the speakers that are included in SVS's Ultra Tower surround package for home-theater systems, which also includes a center speaker and a pair of two-way surrounds. If one were to choose a sub to go along with this package, it would most likely be an SVS. In any event, I think it's important to realize that I auditioned the speakers in a system that is most likely a cut above where most Ultra Towers will end up. But not all of them, as they performed admirably in my listening room with my ancillary gear. That's why I hooked up the Peachtree gear that was still in my listening room that I reviewed in the June 2013 issue of Enjoy The Music.com. The Peachtree Audio novaPre preamp/DAC and Peachtree220 power amp is more in line with gear that would be a part of an affordable two-channel system that one would might use with the Ultra Tower. This system sounded great. The Class D Peachtree220 has on board 220 Watts per channel, its bass response being one of its strongest suits. The amp was able to coax a slightly deeper bass response from the speakers. These lowest tones were also a bit tighter sounding, with its transient response displaying a bass that was a bit more in keeping with the fact that one might not even need an external sub-woofer if using the Ultra Tower in a home-theater set up, or could at least one might be able to postpone the purchase of a sub down the road a bit until more funds become available. The novaPre's DAC section wasn't nearly as refined as the much more expensive outboard DACs that I was using beforehand, but combined with its tube/solid-state hybrid preamp section it smoothed the sound out a bit to keep the Ultra Tower's tweeter from being too hot sounding. All things considered, the $999 novaPre and $1400 Peachtree200 is a perfect match for the comparatively priced SVS Ultra Towers.
(I tend to rate equipment very conservatively. A five note rating is reserved
for the best I have ever heard regardless of price)