When we review tech here at EFTM, it’s not often that it arrives on a pallet via forklift – not least when it’s something meant for the lounge room.
But that’s exactly what happened when American outfit SVS delivered us three of their revered, but seriously enormous – and incredibly heavy – home theatre subwoofers.
The Ohio-based audio specialists offer an outstanding line of loudspeakers but made their name in the sub game, where they’ve found success sticking to a simple mantra: exceptional sound doesn’t have to be “ridiculously expensive”.
Cheap, however, these are not. A ticket on this subterranean bass train will set Aussie buyers back at least $1,499, and that’s for the smallest cube of the lot. At the higher end, how does a cool $4,499 sound?
Yes, spicy numbers indeed. But in truth, they are actually quite reasonable when you consider the competition. SVS has built their heady international reputation on providing arguably the industry’s best bang for your buck, occupying a space that’s stratospherically above average mass-produced audio products you’ll find down at Gerry’s place, and getting very close to (and in some cases, surpassing) elite, reference level gear reserved for the uber wealthy (Exhibit A: If you have a spare $21,000, feel free to pick up Thor’s Hammer for your next movie night).
So, with expectations high of some great performance down low, we set about unboxing the maniacal thunder cubes now occupying a fair chunk of my 1,800 cubic foot basement.
First, the SB-2000, a sealed design boasting 1,100 watts in quite an attractive (and relatively small, in this company) package. Minimal effort was needed to transport this little guy downstairs to the viewing area. The SB’s frequency response – essentially, an indicator of how deep and forceful your sub can reproduce source material – is rated at an impressive 19-240 Hz. Featuring a Sledge STA-500D DSP amplifier powering a 12-inch driver, we’re told its power rating is conservatively rated.
Next up, the SB’s bigger brother, and until recently, SVS’s flagship sealed sub: the SB13-Ultra. Weighing in at 41kg unboxed, it’s best moved with a pal, and once in place resembles an SB-2000 on roids. Of course, under the hood is some serious hardware that befits the ‘Ultra’ pedigree. The obvious difference is a huge bump in power; the SB13 is rated 1,000 RMS but will hit 3,600 watts at peak, and beyond. But power isn’t the only area it raises the bar. A raft of driver refinements and premium manufacturing materials combine to create a super-strong sub built to withstand brutal punishment at reference level listening, taking us way down to a gnarly 15hz. Of course, at $2,999, it’s brutally punishing on your wallet too.
Finally, the ‘mac daddy’ of the lot – the terrifying PB16-Ultra. A ported design weighing in at a ludicrous 78kg, this behemoth can pump out 5000 peak watts, providing, from all reports, a window-shattering LFE signal that’ll shake your house’s foundations. We’d heard and read things about this sub – but nothing can prepare you for seeing that enormous 16-inch driver – which, mind you, is capable of an astonishing 96mm of excursion – wrapped in a mini-bar like enclosure. It features an 8-inch edge wound voice coil, the largest ever in a consumer subwoofer, sitting above three giant ports. A technological tour de force, the PB-16’s gargantuan spec sheet is complemented by some very handy accessibility upgrades, such as a remote control for fast, easy tuning, and an excellent smartphone app. Being sure to lift in sudden, jerking motions, two of us eventually got the thing down the stairs and could only stare and giggle at its gloriously over-the-top proportions.
So, 9,000 watts of power, in a relatively small 12 x 20ft test room. Overkill, you say? We think not. Because in truth, it’s hard to overstate the impact a quality subwoofer can have on your surround sound experience at home.
While cheaper units can provide some blustery boom to your movies to add depth and a sense of occasion, they quite simply do not compare to the fast, tight, powerful response that a quality sub brings to the equation. The name of the game in home theatre is immersion, and there’s simply no other component that can deliver it in spades and make you feel like you’re in the scene, rather than watching it. Many consumers will never consider spending more than $500 on a subwoofer, let alone thousands, but we’re betting a great deal would change their minds if they heard a good one in action.
So, with that in mind, we thought we’d test three different models, all of varying spec, size and price, to see if it’s worth the upgrade from the cute little excuse for subs that usually come in typical home-theatre-in-a-box setups.
With 160kg of reference-grade, low frequency beef finally unboxed and sitting menacingly in my basement lounge, we got to work.
First though, a few disclaimers. As much as we love great sound at EFTM, we don’t consider ourselves ‘audiophiles’, so you won’t find any graphs or analysis in this yarn on frequency response, peak power levels, phase rotation, group delay, or any of that jazz.
What you will find, though, is a real-world application of what is accessibly-priced hardware capable of transforming your home theatre experience. Speaking of which, we’re assuming if you’re reading this you already have, or are in the process of purchasing, at least a 5.1 or 7.1 channel surround system running via an AV receiver. You get that a sub’s ability to go loud and low is only worth as much as its capability to do it without distortion or overhang. You also get that reviewing any audio component, particularly a subwoofer, is a subjective exercise and that nothing compares to using your own ears to suit your own taste. If you’re not sure what the hell I’m talking about, it’s best you hit the back button on your browser riiiight… meow.
For our test, we used our Denon receiver’s Audyssey feature to control the majority of all settings. However, we enforced a 120hz crossover point (the frequency cut-off at which our receiver would cease sending bass to the front speakers, and send signals any lower directly to the subwoofer) and maintained a circa 50% volume level for all three units (ok, we lie, we pumped them up at various stages for kicks). Actual movie volume was near reference level (bloody loud!).
With the three subs unboxed and lined up, the first thing that is abundantly clear is these things are beautifully built. SVS have always been known for their build quality, and it’s clear they’ve left no stone unturned in the fit and finish department. We opted for the Piano Black Gloss finish (Oak Veneer is also available, and some models also come in Piano White Gloss) which looks exceptional.
Starting with the smallest sub of the three, we hooked up the SB-2000. Even before firing it up, its small form factor stood out as a huge positive. It’s easy to place in the room and integrate into décor, giving the (typically male) buyer a strong Wife-and-Girlfriend (WAG) approval rating boost from the outset.
Our reference scenes for the test were U-571’s depth charge scene, Edge of Tomorrow’s beach invasion battle, and Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attack scene – still one of great subwoofer tests, 24 years after the seminal film’s original release.
The little SB didn’t disappoint. From the outset, we were amazed at the unit’s ability to pressurize our test room and provide the low frequency grins we were hoping for. With the 12inch driver jostling about in its housing during U-571, there was never a hint of it being overwhelmed. In fact, from subs we’ve heard, the SB-2000 sounded remarkably good for its price. Its bass was clean and tight, and the punch emitted at the low-end of the spectrum was impressive for a sub of this size.
At $700 USD, with such a compact and attractive form factor, it set the bar high to start, but we’ve got to admit that we were still yearning for some true chest-rattling power that it couldn’t quite achieve. Our only other gripe was the unit’s bright blue LED light located on the front face. It’s not an issue if you use the protective, perforated steel grille that comes with the unit, however if you prefer the driver-on-display look, the light is quite intrusive in a dark room.
Swapping out the SB-2000 for its bigger brother, the SB-13, we weren’t sure what to expect, given the quality of the first test. But our opinions of what “high performance” bass meant were soon re-calibrated after a viewing of Edge of Darkness’s beach invasion scene. The SB-13’s excess of power was on show, and it was beautiful.
As choppers went down and mimics attacked, all we could do was sit there entranced as the scene took on new life, seemingly within our own bass forcefield, oblivious to the creaks and rattles now echoing from the hallway walls. But try as we might, we simply couldn’t find a sequence where the SB-13 couldn’t handle the business with aplomb.
Keen to examine the sub’s ability at the more delicate end of the spectrum, we spooled up a 4K version of The Revenant. Here, the SB-13’s pinpoint accuracy and response – a hallmark of excellent sealed subwoofers – took centre stage.
The action sequences are impressive, but it was the film’s Grammy-winning score from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto that we were most interested in, with its poignant, sweeping orchestral sound something to behold on even the most basic of systems. To our surprise, the effect the SB-13 had on the soundstage was nothing short of transformative, adding tremendous depth to what is an already absorbing soundtrack.
Satisfied we’d heard a level of performance that couldn’t possibly be bettered by anything more than a trivial margin, we unplugged the ultra-impressive SB-13 Ultra and rolled up our sleeves to move the big kahuna PB-16 into place. Its bright blue front LED screen lit up and flashed at us angrily, as if it sensed our insulting apprehension. We ran the Audyssey setup once again, patiently waiting for it to finish so we could unleash $4,499 of beast-mode-sub upon our senses. Of course, we were kidding ourselves to have ever questioned what this meshing of sheer power and engineering could deliver, because what followed was a level of ear carnage none of us had experienced since Daryl Eastlake took over the commentary box.
With the volume bumped just a bit higher than needed, we fired up Jurassic Park and were immediately transported to the confines of a non-functioning SUV, alongside two intolerable kids who – in a decision no one in two decades has been able to fathom – decide to put on a flashlight at the first sign of trouble. Seriously though, had we had glasses of water present, we’re pretty sure the contents would have resembled a mini spa-bath, such was the ferocity at which the PB-16 punched out T-Rex’s thunderous footsteps.
Each step felt like it was putting a splinter in the basement windows or a crack in the overhead joists. It was magnificent. Not just the incredible output, but the PB-16’s ability to deliver it in a way that makes it makes it overwhelming without being overwhelming. Intense, but never to the point of discomfort. Seconds later, the T-Rex’s piercing scream erupts, and while the footsteps flaunt its raw power, it’s moments like these that showcase its impressive ability to be – for lack of a better word – delicate, and simply underline and support the main front channels.
So, in conclusion, which to buy, if one at all?
In our view, you can’t go wrong with either of these SVS subwoofers. The difference in soundstage and immersion is quite staggering when comparing to your average HITB sub. An added bonus is SVS’s industry-acclaimed customer service. In the USA, customers can try the product for 45 days and return it at no cost, no questions asked – but unfortunately not offered to Australian buyers. The company’s support team is first class and happy to answer any questions – or even help you tune your sub for ideal integration into your system – via email or phone. And the company’s Australian distributor also honours SVS’s 5-year warranty. So, in the end it really comes down to your budget, the size of your room, and what you’ll be listening to.
The SB-2000 stands out for its hugely versatile form – a neat, beautiful looking design that will easily integrate with home décor, which is a big consideration for a lot of us (most of us) who don’t have dedicated home theatres. But its relatively small size belies its potent capability – we were seriously impressed with its output and response. A terrific option for those with 5.1/7.1 channel systems looking to transform their viewing experience, at a very reasonable price.
The PB-16 Ultra is the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and it’s only really necessary for rooms larger than 2,000 cubic square feet. Any smaller and you’ll be buying excesses of power you’ll never use. But then again, since when has the word ‘necessary’ been a fixture in a home theatre conversation? The PB-16 Ultra offers mind-blowing performance (at a mind-blowing price) and experiencing it is something you’ll never forget. Could you live with it every day? In this reviewer’s mind, that’s a tough one to answer. If you have a dedicated room separate from your lounge room for your home theatre pursuits – absolutely. Otherwise, its gigantic floor presence and price is probably too much of a deterrent unless you’re getting really serious about your HT gear.
Which brings us to the SB13 Ultra, in our view, the stand out performer in this test. The beauty in the SB13 is its reasonable form factor (think a larger version of the SB-2000, but not too big), its incredible output capability, and its versatility. Its ability to deliver lightning fast response for music (where a sub’s biggest enemy is overhang on punchy bass-lines and drum beats), as well as its ability to punch deep and low for even the most demanding of action movies, makes it tough to beat in our books and well worth the money.