SVS SB13-Ultra Subwoofer Reviewed
SVS is an Ohio-based manufacturer of subwoofers, speakers and other assorted audio gear. Though the company’s focus is on affordable, high-performance subwoofers that are sold directly to consumers, its product line is of the something for everyone variety in terms of design and budget, featuring cylindrical enclosures that save space, as well as ported and sealed enclosures. The focus of this review is the flagship of SVS’s “compact” sealed cabinet line, the SB13-Ultra ($1,599). I put compact in quotes, as there’s some irony in associating that term with a sub that weighs 92 pounds, measures just over 17 inches on each side and just over 20 inches when you add the grille. Speaking of the grille, I must comment on the design, as it’s edgy and aesthetically pleasing, with a metal finish and aggressive lines. It’s a curved design, which is exaggerated as you pinch it to fit the holes on the cabinet, making it sit out a few inches from the driver. With so many sub manufacturers sleeping through their grille design, it’s nice to see SVS go the extra mile here.
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In terms of the size of the sub, we audiophiles care a hell of a lot more about performance than we do compactness – if it sounds good, we’ll make room for it. That said, there are those incredibly annoying matters, such as room size limitations and spousal approval, which must be considered. Being a direct to consumer business, SVS does offer a generous 45-day in-home trial (most manufacturers offer 30), so you can test the waters in terms of size, performance, etc. The last point I’ll make related to the design is that the real wood veneer (black oak in the case of my review sample) is well-crafted and commensurate with the $1,599 price point. SVS also offers a piano black gloss finish. In terms of power, amplification comes courtesy of a 1,000-watt Sledge STA-1000D amplifier, which powers a 13.5-inch high-performance Ultra driver. As you’ll see later in the review, this is a match made in heaven. While the technical specifics are too plentiful to list here, a quick trip to that section of the SVS website reveals that equal attention is paid to every aspect of the subwoofer design, from the cabinet to the amplification to the driver. I will tell you that, while frequency response is listed at 20-460Hz ± 3dB, with proper room gain, the SB13 can plumb the depths below 15Hz. While you won’t hear it at that level, you’ll sure as hell feel it.
The packaging of the SB13 was more than adequate and secure, with everything intuitively packed in a manner that one would expect at this price point. I connected the SB13 to my reference system, which consists of the Cary Cinema 12 processor, an Integra DTA-70.1 multi-channel amp, an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, a Cambridge Audio DacMagic, a MacBook Pro and a Music Fidelity V-Link USB to S/PDIF converter. My front left/right speakers are Focal 836Ws and the rest of my 7.1 system consists of Episode 700 series in-walls. All of the cabling came courtesy of WireWorld. While I used an RCA cable from my processor to one of the line-level inputs on the sub, it’s worth noting that the SB13 also offers XLR, or balanced, inputs as well. SVS subs actually offer a host of connection options to cover just about any type of system. This extends to the feature set as well, which includes both high- and low-pass filters, a high-pass delay, and room compensation for those without bass management built into their systems. I started out by placing the sub in the corner of my listening room, but ended up going with my tried and true sweet spot, which is just to the left of my front right speaker and spaced about five inches from the wall. While the SB13 does offer a parametric EQ, in my experience, you’re better off trying to get the placement right with a subwoofer before moving to digital solutions. It’s worth noting though that I’ve spent quite a bit of time finding the right spot for a subwoofer in my listening room. I’ve gone so far as to place a sub directly behind my home theater chairs (miserable failure). That said, it’s nice that SVS offers not one but two EQs on the SB13, as all rooms are created differently and sometimes an EQ can be a major ally when you’re trying to tame boomy bass. Once connected and set up using the only Radio Shack product I own (a sound level meter), and disabling all room correction/EQ functionality, I let the sub break in for a good 24 hours. Then the fun began.
Typically, I’ll start a subwoofer review with music, but I didn’t have the patience and dove straight into the 3D Blu-ray of Titanic (Paramount). The best way to convey how visceral and game-changing this experience was would be to invite each of you readers over to my place for a demo. Since that would equal divorce and a loss of sanity, I’ll simply say that I’ll never go back to a lesser sub. The SB13 provided powerful, textured, fast and I’ll go so far as to say refined bass. In five minutes of listening, I knew that serious attention had been paid to this sub in terms of research and development. I also knew that I had been cheating myself in this department for years. While I had heard amazing subwoofer demos at shows and in the home theaters of friends, I’d never had something of this caliber in my system. Live and learn, I guess.
Read more about the performance of the SVS SB-13 Ultra on Page 2.
Moving on to music, I cued up Bob Marley’s “Jammin (Long Version)” from the Deluxe Edition of Exodus (Island Records). First of all, if you’re a Marley fan and don’t own this disc, I implore you to buy it. Secondly, let me say that this version of “Jammin” opens with a bass-heavy three-minute instrumental – perfect for testing the transient response of a sub. I found the bass to be authoritative, while at the same time complimentary to the mids and highs. From the bass guitar to the djembes and piano, every low-frequency element was well fleshed out and engaging. The sub, while truly upping the ante in terms of engagement with the music, didn’t draw attention to itself. This is what I had hoped for when moving from movies to music: that the bass would remain refined and provide yet another sign of solid engineering and exemplary versatility. At this price point, hell, even at lower price points, most people are going to want a sub that will bring both their movies and their music to life, and that’s what the SB13 delivers with aplomb.
Having had so much fun with Marley, I decided to stick with music and found another bass-heavy track in the form of Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, from a recent DTS demo disc. This track has made its way into quite a few feature films and it’s easy to understand why. It begins with a musician banging on what I can only describe as the world’s largest bongo (someone call Guinness), then morphs into him cranking on an equally massive gong. All of this was conveyed with stunning realism, accuracy and definition. Despite pushing the sound to ear-crushing volumes, the sub held up and delivered taut, punishing bass. Again, the thought that ran through my head as I played this track back several times was that I could never return to a lesser sub. You simply miss too much of what the sound engineer on a given piece of music or film wanted you to hear.
Okay, back to movies in the form of an old favorite and truly clichéd demo, the Blu-ray of U-571 (Universal Studios). If you’re sensing a pattern in my demo material, it’s because my first critical listening experience with the SB13 (Titanic) made me want to revisit just about everything in my collection, especially old and familiar favorites. Of course the chapter I used in U-571 was “Depth Charged,” as that has the most molar-rattling low-frequency material in the film. As you might imagine, the SB13 brought this scene to life in a way that I hadn’t experienced since seeing the film in the theater. The depth charges were thunderous, putting you right in the middle of that creaky WWII submarine. It also likely had my neighbors thinking that the world was about to end. Though this is what home theater is supposed to do – piss off your neighbors and recreate a movie theater experience at home. Regardless of the source material, the SB13 simply ties the experience together with brilliantly deep, taut and compelling bass. It literally made some commercials worth watching.
It turns out that the timing of having the SB13 connected and broken-in was quite good, as I hosted two parties, one for the USC/UCLA game and one for Pacquiao vs. Marquez 4, which turned out to be the best fight I’ve seen in years. In each case, the subwoofer was the star of the show, not counting booze, of course. In terms of the football game, it rendered every hard tackle with authority, realism and bravado. My friends were truly stunned by the performance and quite a few wanted to know details such as driver size, amp size and, of course, price. While some were a bit taken aback by the price, these same people can afford $1,600 for a sub and I consider at least a few of them converted. Once again, I’ll mention the in-home trial program SVS offers, as I assume you’ll have the same game-changing experience I did. No, I don’t work for SVS, and no, I won’t get any sort of kickback for writing an effusive review. I’m simply trying to compel you, dear reader, to take the company up on its offer and experience movies, music, sporting events, etc. on an entirely new level. Just be sure to mate the sub with commensurate components. It doesn’t need to be mated with $7,000 worth of separates – simply do your homework and you’ll be in business. All I ask is that you don’t cheat yourself on the sub; it’s just too damn integral to the experience. How’s that for a soapbox? As for the fight, when Marquez blasted Pacman in the third round, that’s right, the third round, not the knockout in the sixth, the punch came through the SB13 like a freight train. The room erupted and I was already rewinding the fight as my friends started calling to see and hear it again. We played it back four or five times and it was just this crazy, dramatic thud that made the experience transformative.
Well this isn’t easy, but this is part of every review, so I’ll try to come up with a couple of things that could dissuade certain buyers. One factor would be the size, especially with the grille on. Don’t kid yourself or get caught up in the way this sub is categorized on the SVS site: it’s a beast. But it’s a good-lookin’ beast, sort of like a Lamborghini Aventador. Why am I comparing a subwoofer to a Lambo? Because it’s fast, large, good-looking and performs well. I’m racking my brain trying to come up with another negative and I simply can’t. There’s no reason to dig for something that isn’t there.
Competition and Comparison
It’s always good to have choices, and if you’re considering spending roughly $2K for a subwoofer, you have plenty. Paradigm is one company that has enjoyed a successful foray into the subwoofer realm, specifically with the SUB 12, which retails for $1999. What does the extra $400 buy you? While there are many design similarities between the SB13 and the SUB 12, power is what separates them, as the SB13 has one 1,000-watt Class D amp and the SUB 12 has two 850-watt Class D amps – hello! This one might come down to budget and/or room size, but that’s why an audition is so important. Another subwoofer manufacturer worth looking at is JL Audio, and those who are into car audio know the company well, but it’s fairly new to the home theater game. JL Audio’s Fathom f110 subwoofer was reviewed by our editor Andrew Robinson and it’s somewhat similar in design (sealed enclosure) and power (900 watts) to the SB13. Believe it or not, this is JL’s entry-level subwoofer, which starts at $2,100 and goes north, if you want to add gloss finish. Considering the performance of the SB13, you’d be hard-pressed to get me to spend an extra $500 for the JL, but that’s the beauty of this biz – there is something for everyone.
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With a sub of this caliber, you’ll surely make enemies of your neighbors, but you’ll have so much fun doing so that it’s totally worth it. The bottom line is that the SVS SB13 is a meaningful audio component that’s worth every penny of its $1,599 asking price. Considering the sub’s performance, I’ll go so far as to call it a bargain. It doesn’t matter if you’re a movie nut, a music enthusiast or both (like me), the SB13 will take you exactly where you want to go – which is low. With a 45-day in-home trial period and currently free shipping from SVS, what do you have to lose, except a decent chunk of change? I’d be happy to hear from anyone who auditions this sub to see if his or her opinions match mine. If a subwoofer can make a Chrysler commercial exciting and fun to watch, then it clearly adds significant value to your home theater or audiophile system.
Read more subwoofer reviews by the writers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Explore pairing options in our Bookshelf Speaker and Floorstanding Speaker sections.
Explore reviews in our AV Receiver Review section.