At the most recent CES, I sat down for an audition with the SVS crew, who bowled me over with a bang-bang demo of Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought it sounded great, but movie sound is mostly artificial; I was interested to hear what SVS was capable of with music, not just movies, and asked if HRAC could review a representative system that could be used in either a stereo or surround application. The team was happy to comply with a set of Ultra Towers ($999 each), Ultra Bookshelves ($499 each), and two different center-channel speakers — the upscale Ultra Center ($699) and the more budget-friendly Prime Center ($349). For this review, I’ll focus on the Ultra Towers.
Out of One (Box), Many
My personal listening preference is for a full-range speaker that handles low bass without the need for a subwoofer, particularly for music listening. Few musical instruments have fundamental tones below 30-40 Hz, and, in my opinion, the synchrony advantage of a well-designed full range outweighs the subwoofer’s advantage of producing the lowest notes possible. With a claimed frequency response extending down to 28 Hz, the Ultra Towers promised big bass without the need for a sub. Extending on the upper end to 32 kHz, where ultrasonics are felt more than heard (all manufacturer’s specs ±3dB), these speakers seemed made for hi-res listening.
Standing 45.6 inches tall and 13.8 inches wide, the base of the Ultra Towers is 16.8 inches deep at the bottom, but slopes forward to only 7.5 inches deep at the top. This angled shape moves the tweeters and midrange drivers further out into the room if you’re placing the speakers near or against a wall. There are two side-mounted 8-inch woofers at the bottom; up front, the midrange is provided by dual 6.5-inch glass-fiber cone drivers, and the highs by a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. The dual woofers, which are accompanied by a rear-facing port, are capable of prodigious bass that can easily overload a room, depending on its size and acoustics. To provide flexibility for the low-frequency performance, SVS includes an acoustic foam plug for the rear port that, when inserted, essentially makes the Ultra Tower into a sealed-box design.
A word about the cabinetry and the build quality is in order. There is serious internal bracing in these heavy and inert 75-pound towers. To minimize interaction and distortion, the midrange drivers each get their own separate sealed internal enclosures. These baffles (and the similar one for the tweeter) are 1-inch thick, and the woofer baffle is even heavier at 1.5-inch thick. You feel a tremendous solidity just in handling the Ultra Towers. As mentioned, you also feel plenty of heft, and will want to finalize and tweak their placement well before you go ahead and attach the included floor spikes. Once they’re on, these won’t be easy to move.
I thought the Ultra Towers made a surprisingly pleasing visual statement. The glossy, piano-black finish is accented by angled surfaces up front that fool the eye into seeing less than is really there. (The Ultra Towers are also available in white.) While these long bevels are actually designed to reduce sonic diffraction, they also add an aesthetic touch that feels modern and deluxe, Yes, these are sizeable black tower speakers and thus not for every home, but to me, they would not detract from a nicely decorated space with a contemporary feel. I thought they looked even cooler without the grilles, which is how I did all my listening.
I auditioned the Ultra Towers in two different spaces with low-ish 9-foot ceilings; an 18 x 30-foot living room for home theater and music, and a bedroom-sized area strictly for 2-channel. In the larger room, I was able to leave the rear ports open, but these speakers can put out so much low-frequency energy that in both rooms, I preferred using the supplied acoustic seal. Since room dimensions and acoustics vary so much from home to home, I think giving the end user the choice was a smart decision by SVS, even in an age when cheap home-theater receivers are able to perform (some) room correction.
While the Ultra Towers performed brilliantly for home theater, which I’ll describe in a later review detailing the Ultra Bookshelves and the SVS centers, I was most interested in what they could do for straight-on 2-channel music. I powered them through both an Anthem MRX 710 receiver (120 watts) and a Bryston B135 SST integrated amp (135 watts), bi-wired (an optional choice) with Canare 4S11. Digital sources were served from a Sony HAP-S1 digital music player and an iMac via S/PDIF digital out feeding the DAC on an Oppo BDP-105D universal player, which was also used for disc-based material.
Given the design and my earlier exposure, I fully expected that the Ultra Towers would be muscular enough for rock music and other high-impact listening. Too many high-end speakers fall disappointingly short with the simple yet energetic demands of the rawk, not to mention funk and other music that needs to convey visceral feel in order to work its magic. The qualities you’d be wanting for this kind of listening — an ability to slam convincingly, especially on percussion; to keep pace and definition in the low registers without smearing; to project wide dynamics that are enjoyable at both soft and loud listening levels; and to be able to reproduce high-energy music at realistic volumes — were all here in spades.
For the rock listening, I started with Gang of Four, both in hi-res and Red Book files. For the former, I got my first taste of Technics’ new UK hi-res download site, which offers lots of free hi-res samples worth checking out and looks like it could be a comer when it hits the U.S. The band’s big-beat skronk-funk on “Isle of Dogs,” from What Happens Next (Technics; 96/24, UK/DE only), had plenty of the aforementioned slam, but not at the expense of instrumental sharpness. I could easily listen to the guitar and bass trade off of each other to collaborate on the driving beat. On “It’s Her Factory,” from A Brief History of the 20th Century (Warner Bros.; 44/16 AIFF), Hugo Burnham’s kick drum, which drives several passages nearly solo, was astonishingly real; perfectly rounded from a tonal standpoint and with a crystal-clean attack and decay. I felt like I was in the studio behind the glass, even at CD quality.
The Ultra Towers’ ease with dynamics and timing gave the music an excellent sense of pace that really drew me in. I can honestly say I’ve never heard a better “Sympathy for the Devil” (HDtracks; 176/24 FLAC) than the remastered Hot Rocks played through the Ultra Towers. Keith Richards’ bass bobbed and weaved like a boxer in a well-lit ring. The maracas up top were clear and newly present, and a solidly staged Mick Jagger conducted the band to an unbearable tension that genuinely exploded with the guitar solo. Outstanding stuff. I mean, how many fresh listening experiences do you get from music you’ve been hearing for 40+ years?
In fact, all the rhythm sections that I threw at the Ultra Towers seemed to enjoy themselves. On the newly remastered hi-res Physical Graffiti (HDtracks; 96/24 FLAC), Led Zeppelin’s Jones and Bonham tandem could have driven a hole through my floor on “Kashmir” if I’d have given them the volume. Moving on to a more introspective groove, all the nuances of Dave Holland’s acoustic bass and Marvin Smith’s pointillistic beats sounded right in front of you throughout Extensions (ECM; 44/16 AIFF). Every bend and accent came through clearly, with palpable space for the sax and guitar to take the lead when it was their turn.
In judging the Ultra Towers’ midrange and high-frequency performance, I very much enjoyed their ability to distinguish individual instruments within thick arrangements that easily turn opaque on lesser systems. This made for exciting listening with Yes’ treble-forward rhythm section on the remastered Close to the Edge (HDtracks; 96/24 FLAC), another Steven Wilson special. As the band moves throughout their odd-duck shifts of timing and dynamics, the guitars and keyboards create thick washes of sound that, through many speakers, become an undifferentiated mass, rather than deliberately layered textures. The slow “Eclipse” section of “And You And I” is a good example — here, Steve Howe’s treated guitars and Rick Wakeman’s Minimoog imitate each other while exchanging leads over a thick Mellotron melody. I’ve heard these passages many times over the years, and it was really fun to hear them with new hi-res shine, which the Ultra Towers easily reproduced.
On to acoustic music. The Ultra Towers did a very nice job with the Bill Evans Trio and the beautifully remastered hi-res version of Waltz for Debby (HDtracks; 192/24). Evans’ otherwordly impersonation of Claude Debussy as a lounge lizard was lit up in Technicolor; every rich chord felt natural and harmonically full. Just as important for my kind of listening, I could easily isolate and focus on the subtleties of drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro when I wanted to, both of whom are often deep in the background on this jazz classic.
Voices also sounded smooth and present through the Ultra Towers. I started with the basics; if you can’t make Aretha Franklin sound right, you don’t do vocals well. “Baby I Love You” (Sony [via Atlantic]; 96/24 WAV) not only sounded heartfelt and punchy, without grain, but the Towers also gave a nice presentation to the backup singers, making them the most of their 20 feet from stardom. On a more subdued note, Marta Gomez, backed by spare acoustic guitar, sounded sensual and immediate though “Eso Pido Yo,” from the beautifully recorded Cantos De Agua Dulce (Chesky; 44/16 AIFF).
I tried a few difficult choral discs to see if I’d get the same kind of separation I was experiencing with rock and jazz. Few musical pieces generate as many clustered harmonies as Antoine Brumel’s Earthquake Mass, performed by the Tallis Scholars (Gimell; 44/16). The Ultra Towers retained the otherworldly beauty of the massed voices, but you could still hear inside them. It was not a wall of sound, but a choir of voices — a distinction better experienced in the hearing than the describing.
Which kind of personality do you like from your speakers — Assertive? Seductive? Outgoing? Circumspect? And which do you like better — a sound that draws you in, or one that demands your attention? What sounds forward to one listener sounds present to another, and what sounds warm to one audiophile sounds dull to the next. So much of audio satisfaction is subjective that expectation and imagination should both be classified as components.
Being a chameleon for a wide variety of music and movie tastes is a challenge for any high-performance speaker, particularly if cost is a consideration. Overall, I was impressed with how many things the Ultra Towers did right, how many things they did very right, and how many different personalities they could convincingly assume, depending on the music.
As a speaker for rock, pop, and hip-hop, the Ultra Towers are among the best values I’ve heard at this price point. As a speaker for classical lovers, they’re more than capable of the big stage for realistic symphonic listening, and can convey enough intimacy for small ensembles and soloists. If you like jazz, you’ll find that they can effortlessly deliver the bottom foundation on the upright or electric, give you the all the spit you want to hear from the brass, and let you hear the slide on the drum brushes. Speed, detail, and bass weight are powerful sonic calling cards.
That being said, the Ultra Towers need enough room to thrive. Dual 8-inch woofers were a good design choice in my opinion, hence the low-end articulation. However, four of them working in stereo, coupling with the floor and likely a rear wall — all extended by a rear port, results in a lot of low-frequency energy. In a smaller listening space, overload could be a problem, even with the rear port sealed. Room correction would obviously take care of this, and I doubt that bedroom-sized 2-channel rooms are the target application for these speakers anyway. I had no problems enjoying them at once in the larger room; in the smaller space, placement tweaks took longer.
You’ll also want adequate amplifier power to make the Ultra Towers sing. The company claims 88 dB/watt/meter sensitivity, which is relatively efficient for an 8 ohm speaker this size. As a result, SVS says you can power the Ultra Towers with as little as 20 watts, but I didn’t have much luck using the 32-watt HAP-S1’s internal amplifier, which yielded feeble results until the volume was cranked. Much better sound came from the higher-powered amps, which revealed the Ultra Towers’ speed and gleam. I also found that 2 inches of toe-in resulted in the best imaging and coherence.
SVS speakers are available in a limited number of retail outlets, and also via the web with a 45-day return policy, which includes shipping costs. That makes an audition of the Ultra Towers relatively risk-free. I say “relatively” because the boxes are the size of small coffins, and, should you change your mind, it’s not like you’ll be casually dropping them off at the post office.
That said, the web model makes the Ultra Towers easy to audition in your own space at your leisure, with adequate time for break-in (the sound improved appreciably after what I’d guess was 50 or so hours of play), and under realistic conditions in your own room with your own electronics and your own music. At $1,998 for the pair, the SVS Ultra Towers give you a lot of bang for your buck. They handle many different types of music extremely well, easily pull off the big boom for home theater, have a chic high-end look, and give you all this without costing as much as a car (or a condo!).
Hats off to the SVS crew for introducing what may turn out to be a classic loudspeaker model, and making it easy to own. The Ultra Towers are most definitely HRAC Approved.