HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Picture courtesy of SVS
By Jim Wilson (theJman)
The subject of this review is the SV Sound (SVS) SB16-Ultra. The SB16-Ultra is a sealed subwoofer that utilizes a 16" front firing driver. Relative to the size of this driver the enclosure is not terribly large, measuring in at 20"x19.5"x20" (HWD). The overall weight is about 120 pounds, so it's quite heavy given those dimensions. The amplifier is one of SVS's proprietary Sledge Class D models, and in this form it's rated at a stout 1500 watts RMS. That number represents what a lot of subwoofer amplifiers have as their peak rating, but SVS takes it a step further; this particular version of the Sledge amp is listed as having a peak capacity of 5160 watts! Think that's a typo? It's not, because this thing is actually rated by the manufacturer to over 5000 watts. Frequency response is quoted as being 16-460Hz ±3 dB. Just like the power rating, 460Hz is considered very high for a subwoofer.
Several years ago I would have been able to say that SVS is a garden-variety Internet Direct (ID) company, one who sells their products straight to the end user. While they still do that, this company has branched out so much further now. In the United States you can purchase SVS speakers and subwoofers at well known places like Magnolia (Best Buy), Crutchfield, OneCall, Electronics Expo and Audio Advisor. Outside the US you can find authorized SVS dealers in countries where you would probably expect to - France, Germany, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom to name a few - but they've even setup distributors in smaller countries like Belarus and Luxembourg. Another area where SVS differentiates themselves from other ID companies is with their Bill of Rights.
The SVS Bill of Rights is quite literally the most comprehensive and generous set of customer policies offered by any audio company. It starts with their 45-day trial period; you can audition any SVS product for up to a month and a half in your own home. Don't like it for some reason? No problem, you can send it back to SVS free of charge (they cover the cost for return shipment). There's 60-day price protection assurance, so if what you bought ends up costing less within 2 months of your purchase they'll refund the difference. You also get a 5-year unconditional warranty and a 1-year trade-up offer. SVS even has a performance guarantee, which stipulates that if they improve the product you bought within 1 year of the purchase date it can be upgraded to the new standard free of charge. Some limitations apply however, so all the benefits granted by the Bill of Rights may not be available to everyone (especially if you live outside the US). It's best to contact SVS if you have any questions about your particular circumstances.
Finished in a high gloss black paint, which the review unit was, the SB16-Ultra costs $1999.99. It's also available in black oak veneer.
I frequently get very large and heavy products to review, so I've devised several methods to unpack and maneuver things around that don't put my back in jeopardy too much. I avail myself of various aids of course - like a hand truck, wheeled dolly and those pucks used to move furniture - but in the end it's just me and something unwieldy. Much to my surprise, SVS came up with an unusual approach to one of my least favorite problems; how to unpack a subwoofer.
Cutting flaps, flipping over 150 pound (or more) boxes, wrestling the carton off and fighting with some type of form-fitted foam protection might not sound like a big deal to you - and for the person who does that infrequently it probably isn't - but if that's a regular occurrence in your life it can get a bit tiring after awhile. So why am I rambling on so long in this prelude? Simple; SVS packed the SB16-Ultra in a rather unique manner, and due to their innovative approach to this somewhat cumbersome task it wasn't a problem to get their 120 pound subwoofer out of its packaging and into my preferred spot. Here's how it works...
First off, position the carton so it's within 8-10 feet of where the subwoofer will live. Yes, that close - trust me on this one. There is both an outer and inner box to contend with, customary for a subwoofer costing 2 grand. Where things start to get interesting is with the flaps you open; typically, they're on the top and bottom, but in this case they are on the sides. There's no seam down the middle to cut either - it's along the entire perimeter - so in the end you have flaps laying on the floor and out to the sides instead of open toward the ceiling. Unpacking instructions are printed on the inside of one flap. If you happen to open the opposite side by mistake you'll see a message that says "unpacking instructions on the other side". You need to open both sides of the outer carton anyway, so it doesn't really matter where you start. Once that's done you can access the inner box, which is a conventional shipping carton, only this one is laying on its side. Cut open the flaps on both sides of that and you have everything ready for the next step. Now go get the kids because this is where things become comical.
The subwoofer sits on a cardboard tray/cradle, and the best way to extricate it from the inner box is to use your feet. No joke. Basically you sit on the floor opposite where you want the subwoofer to go, hold onto the shipping carton flaps and use your legs to slowly push the sub out of the inner box. It sounds a bit convoluted, but it works a treat because the entire thing slides out with ease. Once freed completely you'll find the SB16-Ultra cradled in 2" medium density foam on the top, bottom and driver side. On the amp side is the grill, contained in a plastic bag and firmly nestled in a custom slot cut into the foam. The subwoofer itself was inside a plastic bag, with the finish protected by a thin sheet of foam wrapped around the entire perimeter. Because I was able to position the cardboard cradle within a few feet of where the SB16-Ultra was going to go I simply pulled it out of the bag, removed the foam sheet and 'walked' it side-to-side right into place. It doesn't get any easier. I then turned around, slide the cradle back into the inner carton, slide that into the outer carton and I was done. Easiest way to unpack a subwoofer weighing close to 9 stone that I've ever encountered.
Accessories include the power cord, a Quick Start Guide, Owner's Manual and a small remote control. More on those to follow.
"first impressions are lasting impressions" and "you only get to make a first impression once" are sayings I believe in. It's amazing how many times you can tell whether something - or someone, for that matter - is either good or bad in the first few minutes. SVS started this party off right with their novel packing method, and it only got better from there.
While doing an evaluation I find that a surprising number of times a theme presents itself. It could be about anything really, but a common thread starts to tie things together as I convert my notes into the published article. In this case it was 'something different', and the catalyst turned out to be the way the SB16-Ultra was packed. The manner in which they went about that got me thinking how this company has historically done things differently.
You could start with the fact SVS were one of the very first Internet Direct companies. A business model that hinged entirely on selling direct to consumers was a risky proposition back when SVS first launched, yet it's turned into a multi-million dollar industry. Trailblazers are different. Then there's the Bill of Rights, which no other company has. Unique, by its very definition, means different. While everyone else was using 12" drivers these folks went with 13". Now that 15" drivers are prevalent, what does SVS do? They go with 16" of course. Bucking the system is surely different. This companies take on subwoofer drivers is analogous to a line from the movie Spinal Tap; "these amps go to 11, which is 1 better than 10". Spinal Tap is different, no doubt about it. And let's not forget the cylinder subwoofers, sometimes described as carpeted water heaters. Household appliances that produce bass are most definitely different. Bottom line is SVS is not afraid to veer off in their own direction, march to the beat of a different drummer if you will. Remember "different", as I'm not done with that theme.
Personally, I like the way the SB16-Ultra looks. A few years ago I owned its predecessor, the SB13-Ultra, but if I'm being honest its appearance was a bit too generic for my tastes. There was nothing offensive about it mind you, but I felt a company's premier offering should have some pizzazz. It never lacked in the sound department though, which is really why I bought it in the first place. The SB16-Ultra has the same general profile that the SB13-Ultra had, but there is one subtle change that makes a world of difference (there's that word already); the front control panel. By gently tapering and indenting the top lip of the cabinet - and adding a small display - SVS turned a seemingly minor alteration into a noticeable difference (twice in the same paragraph?).
There are two aspects of the SB16-Ultra's appearance I'm not completely enamored with however - both of which are personal preferences - but I'll mention them anyway. Don't count me as a fan of high-gloss paint, and it's for the same reasons most others don't like it; the finish reflects light and attracts fingerprints/dust like a magnet. If you do fancy this type of finish you'll absolutely love this one because the application was impeccable, with not a single flaw to be found anywhere. I even used an LED flashlight to look for imperfections, but to no avail (auto detailers know exactly what I'm talking about). I've also never been fond of SVS's football-helmet-facemask style of metal grill. To me it looks out of place on a top-level product. But again, that's personal preference. I ended up leaving the grill off the entire time I had the SB16-Ultra, which is not my typical practice; I prefer to use a grill because I feel it makes for a more finished appearance. It wasn't all bad leaving the grill off though because the driver has a rather menacing look to it, so being able to watch it work was pretty enjoyable. Speaking of the driver...
SVS went a different (what, again with that word?) route and created an industry first; the driver in their Ultra Series subwoofers uses a whopping 8" voice coil. The voice coil in this driver is literally the size of some entry-level subwoofers entire driver cone! Quite frankly, it's a remarkable achievement. In theory, a large voice coil mitigates the bane of driver performance; distortion. By reducing heat, and in the process thermal compression, you can lower overall distortion. The additional motor strength imparted by the massive voice coil means SVS is better able to control the cones movement, thereby realizing even greater precision. Managing this beast are 4 massive ferrite magnet slugs attached to an FEA-optimized (Finite Element Analysis) cast aluminum basket. The cone itself is constructed from a glass fiber laminate reinforced by a paper-composite substructure. If you think that was a mouthful to say, wait until I try to describe the amplifier.
The one used in the SB16-Ultra subwoofer is the newest variant of SVS's renowned Sledge series. At its core the Sledge employs a class D architecture, but this particular version has been injected with steroids. During normal day-to-day operation it puts out approximately 1500 watts, which by any measure is an awful lot of power. Crank up the volume however and it can provide over 5000 watts! Other than "staggering", what adjective can be used to properly describe that?
While I'm tossing around superlatives, I need to come up with one for how many configuration and customization options SVS gives you with this amplifier. Let me think about this for a moment... I suppose I could use... nah, that won't work... how about... forget it, that's not descriptive enough... maybe I could... nope, that's not going to do it either. OK, after careful consideration I decided to go with "incalculable". Sound too over the top? Well, let's see if it is. Here's what you get with an Ultra series subwoofer:
- Low Pass Filter (30-200Hz, in 1Hz increments)
- Low Pass Filter Slope (6dB, 12dB, 18dB, 24dB)
- Phase (0-180°, in 1° increments)
- Polarity (positive, negative)
- Parametric EQ - Frequency (20Hz; 22Hz; 25Hz; 28Hz; 30-200Hz, in 1Hz increments)
- Parametric EQ - Boost (-12.0dB - +6.0dB, in 0.1dB increments)
- Parametric EQ - Q Factor (0.2 - 10.0, in 0.1 increments)
- Room Gain Compensation - Frequency (25Hz, 31Hz, 40Hz)
- Room Gain Compensation - Slope (6dB, 12dB)
I tried to determine the total number of permutations that many options might yield, but I don't know how to do that type of computational analysis so I'll leave it to the folks with a math degree. What I do know is the resulting number will be really large, and due to that most people would probably find it very beneficial if the SB16-Ultra were able to remember the unique configurations they worked so hard to perfect. No need for concern because SVS thought of that already; they include a way for you to save 3 different setups (wait a minute, different again?). What this means is you can create sound profiles specifically configured for things like TV sports, gaming, weekend parties or whatever else you might want. Of course it's not necessary to change any of these setting in order to enjoy the SB16-Ultra, but if you do like to tinker you'll be in heaven.
For people who love to adjust every conceivable setting - yes, that would be me - this level of customization is not at all intimidating, but for others it certainly could be overwhelming. If you're the type of person who would rather not tune all those parameters fear not, because SVS has you covered. Under the Presets menu they include both a Movie and Music configuration that make adjustments for you. Simply pick the one your ears like the most and all the settings will be changed automatically. Easy peasy. I can't believe I just typed that.
Of course you need a way to access all those settings, and like everything else about the SB16-Ultra, SVS went to the extreme. You have three methods available to you: the keypad on the front panel of the subwoofer, a credit card sized remote or a smartphone app. Yup, a smartphone app. That's certainly uncommon. And what does uncommon mean? Different! (surely you didn't think I was going to let that one slide)
The app works with both iOS and Android. It has a two-way feedback loop with the amplifier, so if you change a setting using the app then the front panel display updates accordingly. Same thing happens if you change a setting from the keypad, the app gets updated to show the new config. That means no matter how you make adjustments everything stays in sync. Pretty slick.
The included remote isn't quite as impressive unfortunately, seeming a little chintzy when compared to everything else. The buttons are slow to respond, there isn't much of a tactile sensation and the IR is directional; if you don't aim it almost straight at the subwoofer nothing happens. From across the room - which in my case is about 14 feet - the blue characters on the display were difficult to read. That's not due (entirely) to my age however, as it has been proven many times that blue lighting on a black background is not a contrast the human eye easily adjusts to. Something more toward the white side of the Kelvin scale would be much better.
Like the amplifier settings, connections are plentiful. There are XLR and RCA ports for both input and output. This allows you to not only hook up the SB16-Ultra using whatever method your processor supports, but you can also couple multiple subwoofers together in order to achieve additional output. The inputs are labeled Left and Right, so if your signal chain supports stereo output for subwoofers you can accommodate that too. The XLR inputs have been engineered to work with professional gear as well, which means if any of the upstream electronics is not typical consumer-grade you won't have to hassle with matching input levels. There's one final connector, and that's a 3.5mm jack for the 12v input. You might think with so many cabling options the amp panel would look overcrowded, but it's not the case; despite all the choices it doesn't look the least bit congested.
My only real complaints about the amp are it took a bit of a nudge to wake up, and it also had a tendency to go into standby while watching material that didn't contain a tremendous amount of bass (some sports, for example). Due to that I ended up leaving it in the On position for the duration of my review. While inactive the Sledge amp generates almost no heat, so I wouldn't be the least bit concerned about longevity if it were left on 24x7x365.
The included documentation exemplifies what you get from a flagship product. Let's begin with the Quick Start Guide, which can only be described as excellent. There are sections for setup, placement, connections, control (the phone app and remote) and calibration. That's only the overture for the piece-de-resistance though, because the Owner's Manual proved to be one of the best I've ever seen. There is literally nothing SVS doesn't cover, and in extreme detail no less. Specifications, driver and amplifier features, connections, benefits/liabilities of various room placements, menu settings, safety instructions, warranty information, it's all here. There's even 2 blank pages set aside for you to jot down notes. SVS didn't miss a thing, not a single thing. Even the language translation is spot-on, which is not something I see very often (sorry, but that's a pet peeve of mine). Like the subwoofer itself this owner's manual is a benchmark, executed to near perfection.
My living room is 13x17x8 (1768 ft^3), so it's not terribly large. The main seating position is approximately 14 feet from the subwoofer. All testing was done after the unit had been broken in for at least 20 hours.
The SVS SB16-Ultra proved to be no wallflower. You know this subwoofer is playing - you clearly hear it - yet in spite of what could be misinterpreted as a negative, what I just said is anything but. The SB16-Ultra skillfully supported the bottom end, be it a movie soundtrack, the rhythm section of a song or even a simple TV show. Regardless of the source it was present, but never ostentatious. Masterful at producing significant amounts of high quality bass, the SB16-Ultra excelled at almost everything. Always apparent, yet not unpleasant or the least bit uncivilized.
At certain points during the movie tests I was able to get the driver pulsating like the piston of an internal combustion engine running at 8000 RPM - which was a lot of fun, if I'm being honest - yet the bag never moved. Wait, the bag? Yes, the bag.
In a number of my earliest reviews I had a habit of taking all the documentation and putting it inside the bag it originally came in, and then would place that on top of the subwoofer for the duration. I did that to test how inert the enclosure was. My reasoning being if a plastic bag did not 'walk' across the cabinet during heavy use it was solid enough that it was unlikely to color the sound due to panel resonance. SVS sent me an SB16-Ultra with high gloss black paint - which is as slick as any politician ever was - so I decided to resurrect the 'ol bag trick.
I didn't hold out much hope. Realistically speaking, a plastic bag + a smooth painted surface = movement no matter how resolute the cabinet, right? Not right - the stupid thing stayed put, it never moved an inch. To some that might seem like a pointless observation to make in a review, but it's not as ridiculous as it may initially sound. At the end of the day, do you want to hear bass from the driver or vibrations from the cabinet? I know my answer, and I'm betting I know yours as well.
TRON: Legacy (blu-ray)
What can you say about this movie? It's still considered a feast for the eyes and ears over 6 years after its initial release, which is something that doesn't happen often in the 'what have you done for me lately' word of cinema. TRON: Legacy somehow melds stunning audio and visual effects in equal doses, effortlessly transporting you into a weird alternate reality. Speaking of "transporting", that's a perfect segue to where I started; scene 4.
Sam Flynn - the son of inventor and entrepreneur Kevin Flynn - is visiting his father's old arcade, a place from where the elder Flynn disappeared years earlier. While messing around with an old computer system Sam mistakenly invokes a program that transports him to the parallel universe of TRON, the exact same place his father has been trapped since he vanished. That transportation special effect comes at you hard and fast - well, it comes at your sub hard and fast anyway - and the sheer magnitude caused my hallway closet door to rattle. Occasionally I encounter a subwoofer powerful enough to do that, and the SB16-Ultra certainly proved up to the challenge.
Scene 5, The Games, is very difficult for any subwoofer to reproduce cleanly (key word). There was no overhang at all from the SB16-Ultra, everything sounded clear and precise. Daft Punk's relentless soundtrack can be obnoxious when played through something unable to keep up, but there was no such problem here; impacts were solid, rumbling undertones created an ominous sense of doom, everything blended perfectly. Definitely one of the more accurate renditions of this scene I've heard to date.
Continuing on to Scene 7 (Lightcycle Battle) you find that things get no easier for your subwoofer. It opens with exploding fireworks and a pounding musical score, and from there it only gets worse due to the multitude of explosions and engine sounds as the Lightcycle battle rages on. The audio track in this movie borders on overbearing in several places, and with a lesser subwoofer that quickly diminishes the experience. Droning or bloated bass is not enjoyable and can easily draw your attention away from the screen. No such problem here as the SB16-Ultra rendered everything superbly.
War of the Worlds (blu-ray)
Another go-to movie for a subwoofer evaluation, War of the Worlds (WOTW) is renowned for how abusive it can be. If your sub doesn't have sufficient protection mechanisms you're likely to find out in a hurry when you crank the volume while watching this one. Try as I might I was never able to unsettle the SB16-Ultra. And believe me, I tried.
Scene 4 has those fierce lighting strikes, which doesn't sound all that intimidating until you realize just how much deep bass content the audio engineers embedded into them. The 'whack' generated during impact was intense, yet it blended perfectly with the sharper tones that accompany them. Those were merely a prelude for what was to come though; the next scene is where the first pod emerges and begins its assault.
The alien invaders had their attack vessels buried on Earth for who knows how long, but one thing is certain; they exert a tremendous amount of force to free themselves from their subterranean lair. In so doing it challenges your subwoofer to a duel, and it's winner take all. The punishment doesn't happen all at once, the intensity builds progressively while the scene unfolds. Nevertheless, no part of it seemed to faze the SB16-Ultra because it just kept adding more and more until the final crescendo, when the beast stands upright and bellows out a menacing roar. From start to finish, the whole thing was very enjoyable.
I kept watching the movie, but didn't begin taking notes again until scene 7. This is where the gasoline tanker truck gets blown off the bridge by the aliens. It lands, rather unceremoniously, right on top of Ray's house (Tom Cruise), at which point it violently explodes. Sometimes it's nice to be watching a movie using a subwoofer I don't own because I get to experiment with impunity. In simple terms that means I'm able to test the limits and feel no remorse. Well, almost none; I probably cranked the volume during this scene more than I should have because some of the content is awfully taxing. Even though I lacked prudence the SB16-Ultra didn't seem to mind as it reproduced the tanker explosion with incredible authority. There was no drama whatsoever, just a lot of smiles from me.
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (blu-ray)
Given that SVS's own marketing department borrowed a line from The Lord of the Rings movie to describe the Ultra series of subwoofer - with their "One subwoofer to rule them all" slogan - how could I not include something form that series in my review? Truth be told, I almost didn't in spite of the tie-in. I had something else chosen for the 3rd flick that I felt would work great, but I wasn't able to get the LOTR connection out of my head. After debating back and forth I decided there was simply no way I couldn't incorporate one of them. So which did I ultimately choose? My all-time favorite of course, Fellowship of the Ring.
You probably already know what I used for a test; scene 30, Bridge of Khazad Doom. This has become one of my favorites because of all it entails; there is deep bass, layered sounds and mayhem. What more can you ask for? It starts out with a foot chase, which isn't very exciting, but from there the action quickly heats up and your subwoofer comes into play.
While the intrepid Fellowship of Men, Hobbits an Elf and a Dwarf are fleeing from a horde of Orc's their footsteps didn't prove to be a challenge for the SB16-Ultra. Most of the subwoofer work during this part is actually just a rumble or two from the soundtrack - not from any of the things that go bump in the night - but then a Balrog joins the party and it all changes. This is a demon from the ancient world and he has a baritone growl that came across every bit as menacing as it should have been. Scary as that was, the real punishing material was yet to come.
As the Balrog chases the Fellowship further into the mines of Moria they encounter a crumbling staircase, which unfortunately is their only exit. They quickly traverse the broken levels as the creature bears down on them, but he is never far behind. His immense footsteps cause parts of the structure above to collapse, and it was here that the SB16-Ultra earned its keep. As the stairs disintegrate and huge boulders rain down on our intrepid group, the bass pounded away with incredible authority. I've used this scene many times in past reviews, and this was easily one of the best presentations to date. Quantity and quality are tough to achieve at the same time, but the SB16-Ultra did that very thing with ease.
After all the testing had concluded I checked the amp to see how much heat it was generating, but there was nothing. As in, the thing was barely warm. I deliberately cranked some of those movies with juvenile glee, yet in spite of that the SB16-Ultra simply refused to be overworked. I must be losing my touch.
Alright folks, here we go; the acid test section. Anyone who has read my past reviews knows this is unquestionably the most important part for me. Music is my constant companion, day in and day out. I play it in my car, I play it in my house, I use high-end earbuds at work to drown out distractions. While typing everything you've read there is music in the background. A bad year is if I see a dozen bands perform live, a good year is three dozen. Of all the sins a subwoofer can have, not faithfully reproducing music is the biggest of them for me. You already know this because you've undoubtedly read some variation of this paragraph in one of my previous reviews. I didn't re-write that just to take up space however. Remember every word you just read as it will soon become obvious why I felt compelled to say it again.
G3: Live in Concert, Going Down (CD)
Given my passion for live music, how could I not start off with something from that genre? Perhaps a tune from Joe Satriani, who certainly puts on a good concert. Or maybe Eric Johnson, a technician if there ever was one. Oh wait, how about Steve Vai? You never know what you're going to get when that man takes the stage, but it's always good no matter what. So many choices, but why should I be forced to decide when I can hear all of them? Enter G3.
G3, which is an acronym for "Guitarists 3", is the brainchild of Joe Satriani. It's basically a touring band Joe occasionally puts together that features himself and two other distinguished guitarists. The lineup varies, but Joe is always one of the three. Generally, his band is the rhythm section as well. They do some live gigs and then go their separate ways. Over the years there have been multiple lineups that comprised the band G3, so it's always fun for me to see who Joe opts to include in every permutation. Some of the guitarists previously involved in the project are luminaries such as Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Brian May (Queen), Gary Hoey, George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Michael Schenker (UFO, MSG), Tony MacAlpine and Yngwie Malmsteen. For this type of music that's quite a who's who.
Going Down is an old Don Nix tune, a song that has been around for decades. Similar to the Kinks You Really Got me, it has been covered by almost everybody. I like it because of the rowdy vibe and head-bobbing rhythm, traits which make it a natural for a live song. Due to the composition it's also a perfect choice for a band with multiple guitarists because there is a section toward the middle where they can trade licks, and of course that's what happens in this case. With Joe, Eric and Steve going back and forth it would be easy to focus on them, but since this is a subwoofer evaluation I was paying more attention to the rhythm section (Stu Hamm on bass and Jeff Campitelli on the drums).
I couldn't help but goose the volume some, and thankfully the SB16-Ultra didn't seem the least bit perturbed when I did. For the most part the drumbeat is simple; Jeff is active, but seems more content to simply keep time. Stu, on the other hand, wants in on the action because he's far more lively. If you closed your eyes it was as though you could almost see him plucking away at the strings. It's impressive when you can clearly identify each musician in spite of the fact there's a stage full of people. The SB16-Ultra rocked this song as hard as the people on stage did.
Seal the Deal, Volbeat (CD)
Let's keep the vigorous tempo going, and we'll do so with the only song on this list that's currently in rotation. The title track from their 2016 release, Seal the Deal is the Danish bands 6th studio album. Too much of Volbeat's music sounds the same to me, but this one stands out because it's the quintessential "Jim song"; a high energy tune that is guaranteed to become a raucous staple of their live set. Try sitting still while this one plays. Bet you can't.
Bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen replaced original member Anders Kjølholm sometime toward the end of 2015, so this album is his first with the band. Interestingly, this is perhaps Volbeat's most subdued offering to date; a lot of their music tends to be more aggressive than the songs on this disc. A different bassist, a different attitude. (notice how I slipped in that theme again? you're impressed, admit it) Is it a coincidence some new blood changed the sound? Maybe. Volbeats drummer has always been Jon Larsen, who shares the same last name as the new bassist. Another coincidence? Again, maybe. No matter, the rhythm section of any band needs to have more going for it than happenstance. Thankfully these guys do.
From the opening note to the very end this one rocks. I dare you not to crank it. Like most Volbeat songs, the vocals and guitars are recording high. The bottom end isn't totally absent though, and the SB16-Ultra made sure that I knew it was ready to contribute. Changes were crisp, pace was fast, bass and drums played in unison but never smeared into one indecipherable sound. Take the type of song I love, play it through a subwoofer that makes everything sound good, and what do you get? A lot of time spent listening to music instead of writing. You know what? I'm going to play this one again. Go busy yourself, I'll be right back.
This Broken Heart, MSG (CD)
Most people think MSG stands for "monosodium glutamate" - and if you're talking about food it does - but we aren't discussing anything edible. No, in this case MSG is the Michael Schenker Group (hey wait a minute, wasn't Michael Schenker already mentioned as a member of G3?). This quartet is not to be confused with the MSG that was the McAuley Schenker Group, which also featured Michael Schenker on guitar. The McAuley Schenker Group version of MSG preceded the MSG that was the Michael Schenker Group, with the latter frequently designated as M.S.G. to differentiate themselves from the former variant that was MSG. Stick with me because the madness continues. This Broken Heart is from an MSG album titled... wait for it... M.S.G., which was the last album from the group MSG (not an album from the group known as M.S.G.). Confused? Join the club. Only a rock band could get away with something that absurd. If you think it was hard to read that, try being the person who had to type it! I sprained at least 3 fingers to get it right.
Despite the unique nature of MSG Michael Schenker is a man with pedigree due to having stated two other bands, both of which have a prominent place in rock-n-roll history; UFO and the Scorpions. His twists and turns are not restricted to just MSG however. When Michael left the Scorpions guess who took his place? Why none other than his older brother, Rudolph Schenker! Is your head ready to explode yet? Yea, mine too, and I've known all of this for decades. Be that is it may...
This Broken Heart is a blues song from an 80's hair metal band, groups known more for their power ballads than the blues. I chose to include this one because the original mix was done surprising well, with a distinct emphasis on the bottom end. When testing a subwoofer that can prove rather useful, and use it I did. That, and the volume knob.
The rhythm section featured Jeff Pilson on bass and James Kottak on drums, and this duo was recorded with authority in the final mix. That makes it sound good on a lesser system, but what happens when your subwoofer isn't weak or lacking? In the case of the SB16-Ultra, good things happen. Kottack's kick drum had plenty of weight, which unceasingly pounded away at my eardrums. Jeff Pilson's bass line is not very demanding, but it compliments the underlying rhythm perfectly. Despite his somewhat tame nature, it was never subsumed by the outlandish force of the drums. Call this song cheap if you must, but the SB16-Ultra made it worthy of a listen or two. Maybe even three. I'm not telling you how many times I played it.
Breed, Nirvana (CD)
A 4th song? Yup, a 4th song. Remember my intro to the Music section? Apply it here. While evaluating speakers or a subwoofer I always listen to far more than the 3 songs I typically include in my published article. When you see a 4th show up in the final cut take that to mean I've encountered a rare product, one capable of exceptional music reproduction. The SVS SB16-Ultra warrants a 4th song.
Breed is from Nirvana's ridiculously successful 1991 album titled Nevermind. Contrary to popular believe, Nevermind was not their debut album; that one was called Bleach, but few have ever heard it. This is also the first album to feature their new drummer, a guy by the name of Dave Grohl. Nevermind attained the exceedingly rare status of 'diamond' by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). That means sales in excess of 10 million units. It's reputed to have sold well over 25 million copies. By any measure, this was a blockbuster.
There is a lot of material on this disc for a subwoofer evaluation. Among the potential candidates are such radio hits as Lithium and Bloom, not to mention the multi-platinum Smells Like Teen Spirit. I went with the lesser well known song Breed instead. This one is unruly, a 3 minute blast of raw energy, no holds barred. Yea, this will do just fine. Where's the remote? I need to add some volume.
Krist Novoselic (bass) and Dave Grohl keep a pretty straightforward beat for the most part, but their energy is certainly evident. I like energetic songs (surprise!) which means I'm on board from the word 'go'. Butch Vig did a fabulous job during production by emphasizing the two of them, so even though the vocals and guitar of Kurt Cobain are prominent it's the rhythm section that seems to dominate. Volume brings this song to life, and as I continually upped the intensity sound just kept pouring out of the SB16-Ultra. We're not talking only quantity here though; at no time did either the bass or drums step on the other, each remained distinct and easily identifiable throughout. As I inched closer to my limit, the SB16-Ultra seemed unfazed. Would you have it any other way? Me neither.
What on earth is this section all about? I'm going to deviate slightly from my usual format and head down a different path (different? different?! enough with different already!!). Normally the Conclusion section would be after the Music section, but not this time. Why change from the evaluation template I've used for years? Because I wanted to challenge one of SVS's claims. I also wanted to have some fun, so let's go on a little journey together.
While looking over the info on the SB16-Ultra webpage one specification immediately jumped out at me, the quoted frequency response. They list the lower range as 16Hz, which seemed like it might be a touch optimistic, but certainly not impossible. That didn't cause me to do a double-take however, it was the upper range that caught my attention; SVS claims this subwoofer is able to play as high as 460Hz! That's nothing short of astonishing, and while my measurements didn't indicate it was able to extend quite that high, what I did achieve means the SB16-Ultra will work with pretty much any speaker on the market.
Being that my ears are very sensitive to 'chesty' male voices I decided to test that statement by pairing it with tiny speakers. Not just any old speakers would do though, it had to be something physically unable of playing below 100Hz with any reasonable amount of output. The least capable set I own can easily handle an 80Hz crossover, so I clearly needed something else. I could have just set my AVR to use a crossover of 100Hz and been done with it, but that would have defeated the purpose. Instead, I took to the interweb to find myself some new speakers that fit the bill.
After searching for several hours I eventually spotted something interesting; the Micca COVO-S. The COVO-S is a tiny speaker that uses a 3" wool/paper cone midrange driver with a concentric .75" PEI dome tweeter. Micca claims a frequency response of 90Hz-20kHz "Typical In-Room" (their words, not mine), but that strikes me as hopeful. Either way, it satisfied my needs on multiple fronts.
I happen to be a big fan of concentric drivers - I own several different speaker systems and one of my favorites is the Bag End M6, which are concentric studio reference monitors - so the fact Micca made something so tiny that uses the same type of driver alignment was very intriguing to me. Another thing that caught my eye was the cone material used for the midrange driver, which is a wool/paper blend. One of the smoothest speakers I've ever heard used a midrange driver made from the same composite materials. The COVO-S can be oriented either horizontally or vertically, so that was an attractive feature seeing as how they were going to be used as LCR and surround speakers. They're dirt cheap too. Decision made, so I clicked the buy button.
I won't bore you with minutia but I will say that I did run the COVO-S speakers with the SB16-Ultra for over 2 weeks as my full-time system, crossed over at a lofty 120Hz no less. In the end what I found was with 2.1 material this setup wouldn't have been my choice for everyday use - sometimes it sounded a bit too thick for me - but when the soundtrack used more than 2 channels the results were surprisingly good. I soon forgot that I was using speakers the size of a baseball connected to a subwoofer the size of an end table. The combination certainly looked odd, but the sound was anything but. Suffice to say, if your speakers can handle at least 100Hz then the SB16-Ultra has you covered.
Do I even need to write a Conclusion section for this review? After reading through my evaluation is there anyone who doesn't already know what I'm going to say? If it's not painfully obvious at this point let me spell it out; I love the SB16-Ultra. SVS has outdone themselves. This is a 'move the bar' type of product for them. It does everything exceptionally well, never revealing a single legitimate weakness. This subwoofer expertly blends precision and power into one cohesive package, remaining composed at all times. Some may consider it pretentious of SVS to bestow a product with the label 'Ultra'. I lived with the SB16 for over 2 months, and because of that would respond to the naysayers with an old adage; "it ain't bragging if it's true".
Please use the SVS SB16-Ultra Discussion Thread for questions and comments
Some pictures courtesy of SVS.
These measurements were taken using an Omnimic V2. The SB-16 Ultra was positioned in the middle of my listening room with the microphone 1 foot from the center of the driver cone. Gain was set to 0dB (maximum), LPF off, sampling range 5Hz-200Hz. Each set of graphs represents a different Room Gain Compensation (RGC) configuration and is noted accordingly.
Frequency response and Spectrograph with RCG disabled.
Frequency response and Spectrograph with RCG at 25Hz, 6dB Slope.
Frequency response and Spectrograph with RCG at 31Hz, 6dB Slope.
Frequency response and Spectrograph with RCG at 40Hz, 6dB Slope.
Frequency response with RCG disabled and a 5Hz-500Hz sampling instead of 5Hz-200Hz. This was done to test the 460Hz upper range.