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SVS SB13-Ultra Compact Home Theater Subwoofer Review
Bet Your Bottom Dollar
I often hear from friends and family members seeking my advice on a home theater upgrade. In most cases they're looking for a new TV, a new Blu-ray Disc player, or a new streaming device (e.g. Vizio's Co-Star or some flavor of the Roku box). Not surprisingly, all of these devices fall under the "video" umbrella. For some reason, when you ask the average consumer what's more important to them, audio upgrades tend to take a back seat to video. And when the priority list is confined to that unjustly-marginalized audio category, the subwoofer - without a hint of irony - usually finds itself at the very bottom. The sad fact is, when it comes to home theater, the subwoofer is often the last component to get added and the last to be upgraded. Thankfully, the SVS SB13-Ultra is here to remind us that that's a low down dirty shame.
For too many folks, the subwoofer is an "also included" product. It seems as though a lot of people go shopping for a soundbar or a "surround sound system," and as long as some form of subwoofer is included in the package, that's the end of it. After all, the subwoofer is just an ugly, black box you're gonna stuff in the corner, right? Bass is bass. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that attitude is why nine out of ten subwoofers, and particularly those that come as part of a Home-Theater-in-a-Box (HTiB) system, fail to impress. As a rule, these sub-par woofers tend to yield bass that's muddy, ill-defined, and/or boomy. In other words, they suck.
That's not to say there aren't a few diamonds in the rough in the bargain woofer market. There's definitely some high value bass to be found amid the lower price points. However, stepping up to a top shelf subwoofer such as the SB13-Ultra - a speaker built from the ground up to navigate and faithfully reproduce the nuances of the low end - well, frankly the difference is night and day. Given the opportunity, the SB13-Ultra will single handedly demonstrate to your ears all that they've been missing. In fact, SVS is so confident you'll agree, they even offer a 45-day in-home trial. (Not that you'll need it.)
Web-savvy audiophiles are no strangers to SVS, an internet-only loudspeaker manufacturer that's been selling direct to consumers since its arrival on the scene in 1998. The company changed hands in 2011, but thankfully not much seems to have changed - from the customer side at least. SVSound.com should still be one of your first stops when shopping for a high quality, high value subwoofer. Word to the wise though: you might want to tip your UPS guy when he finally wrangles that SB13-Ultra off the truck. If you're lucky, he might help you carry it to your theater. Considering this sub's 92-pound weight (unpacked), you'd be wise to take all the help you can get.
The SB13-Ultra subwoofer features a compact, sealed-cabinet design and measures a modest 17.4 inches in each direction. Although for some, 17.4 inches may hardly qualify as "modest," compare that to the 47" tall cylinder subs that made SVS famous - which they still sell - and you'll understand why this is accurately categorized as a "compact subwoofer." A subwoofer after Henry Ford's heart, the SB13-Ultra is available in two finishes: piano gloss black and real wood veneer black oak. Protecting the front-firing, 13.5-inch driver is an attractive, curved metal grille (also black).
It's a Set-Up!
As I suspect most owners will, I connected the SB13-Ultra to my A/V receiver (Integra TX-SR805) using the AVR's subwoofer pre-out and the low level input on the SVS. As I do with most subwoofers in my basement theater, I placed the SB13-Ultra in the front right corner of the room (a time-tested location for most subs in this room) and fired up the Integra's Audyssey MultEQ XT audio calibration program. As is often the case in my room, my seven Noble Fidelity in-wall speakers were identified as "Large." I changed these to "Small" and established a crossover of 80Hz - the frequency below which the SVS would assume bass responsibilities for the main channels.
As an aside, it's worth mentioning that SVS has a helpful web-based tool to help owners find the right subwoofer and configuration settings to match their particular speakers. It's called Merlin and you simply plug in your brand and model of main speakers to find an ideally-suited SVS sub and the recommended crossover frequency for optimal blending with your main speakers. Not surprisingly, I didn't find my Noble Fidelity in-walls in the list, so I used the handy "Tell us!" link there on the page. Imagine my surprise when my speakers were added the very next day, complete with a helpful email from SVS. (And that's not just because I'm a reviewer. That's just how SVS rolls.)
During my first run through the Audyssey calibration, the resulting "Level" on the AVR's subwoofer channel was its lowest possible setting: -15dB. Setting your level at the min or max like this is not ideal, since who's to say it shouldn't be dialed back further? Consequently, I used the "Volume" setting on the SVS to dial the sub back 5dB and re-ran the Audyssey program. This time, I ended up with an auto-calibrated level of -11.5dB, a much more comforting number; if reducing the subwoofer level even further was necessary, it could and would have done so.
Since I've had good results with Audyssey, I didn't play with the parametric EQ that SVS builds into the SB13-Ultra. If you have the patience and interest it's nice to know it's there, but most consumers will be thrilled with the SB13-Ultra's default settings when paired with a proper calibration from the likes of Audyssey or one of its room EQ brethren.
With everything dialed in and ready to go, I first pulled out my Avia calibration DVD and played a frequency sweep that brought the SB13-Ultra down well below 30 Hz. It rolled off and became inaudible around 25Hz, but I could still feel it down as low as 20Hz - a sensation confirmed by the vibrating baseboard heater on my theater's rear wall. These numbers jive with the 20Hz SVS claims as the low end of the SB13-Ultra's published frequency response.
Big Bada Boom
As luck would have it, Sam Mendes' Skyfall - one of my new favorite Blu-ray reference discs - arrived shortly after getting the SB13-Ultra set up. Although it wasn't the perfect 10 James Bond film I was hoping for, Skyfall on Blu-ray does look and sound absolutely spectacular. The opening chase sequence, which features some inventive (if not absurd) excavator-on-train action, is nothing if not a delight for the senses. The SB13-Ultra grabbed my attention when this chase got going and the debris started flying; I quickly realized I was in the presence of greatness.
TRON: Legacy was up next and even the T-Rex couldn't adequately prepare me for the pervasive and thunderous bass put forth by the SVS' rendering of Daft Punk's killer TRON soundtrack. Even before getting to the meat of this scene - death by frisbee - the pounding bass line and the roar of the arena had me absolutely smitten with this compact powerhouse of a subwoofer. Listening to these two scenes, I began to make a mental list of all the movies I couldn't wait to revisit with the SVS in the room.
As a final test, I threw in a pair of DVD-Audio discs (remember those?) to see how well the SB13-Ultra integrates with music. In both "Enter Sandman" (from Metallica's Black album) and "The Chain" (Fleetwood Mac's Rumors) I was amazed not just at the depth of bass made possible by the SVS, but by how much more detailed and robust the mid-range sounded with the assistance of the SB13-Ultra.
- Incredibly deep and richly detailed bass
- Relatively compact footprint (as monster subs go)
- Integrated parametric EQ
- Great value, but at $1599, this is still an expensive subwoofer
- Good luck moving it on your own
- Doesn't do laundry
There's no other way to say it: I love this subwoofer. It is far and away the deepest and most detailed sub I've had the pleasure of listening to in my home theater. When you're ready to get serious about the bass in your home theater, SVS has your short list right here. Highly recommended.
Manufacturer's Contact Information:
6420 Belmont Avenue
Girard OH, 44420
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