Back when I joined AVForums in the late Cretaceous period, people who were in the market for a large subwoofer basically had a choice of two options. They could have a look at the largest model from the manufacturer of their other surround speakers if one was available. Alternatively they could consider an aftermarket subwoofer from a specialist manufacturer. Two brands that have been in the public eye for almost the entire time I’ve been a member here are Velodyne and SVS.
Historically these two brands had rather different ways of going about the business of rattling your internal organs. Velodyne typically produced smaller designs (although ‘small’ is a relative term when dealing with an American subwoofer) with advanced servo assisted drivers and sophisticated room correction at a time where setting up an AV system involved prowling around a room with an EQ meter and a tape measure. SVS conversely offered a more ‘route one’ approach to the business of bass. Their designs were larger and less sophisticated and more often than not were cylindrical rather than cuboid but offered pretty fearsome value for money.
Fast forward a decade, and the subwoofer you see here is very definitely a cube rather than a cylinder and it makes use of a driver that utilises of a number of bespoke design features. Around the back it boasts a menu driven control system featuring EQ options and DSP control. Despite this, the badge on the front very clearly states that this is an SVS. The SB-13 Ultra is part of a new wave of products from the US manufacturer designed to keep the same ethos with more real world flexibility. Does this more sophisticated take on a subwoofer still deliver the sheer energy we’ve come to expect from SVS subwoofers?
The first thing to contend with when confronting the SB-13 in the flesh is that if you go looking for it on the SVS website, you will find it under the compact subwoofers. Now, in comparison to a fridge or a perhaps a tumble dryer, the SVS is indeed ‘compact‘ but as a single loudspeaker, you will need to give it a bit of space. At 17.4” cubed and weighing a substantial 45kg, the SVS is a big lad. Compared to the cylinder designs, the SB-13 has a larger footprint but a lower profile which means that if you can site it, you should have an easier job of hiding it.
As the name suggests, the SB-13 disposes of a 13 inch ‘Ultra’ driver mounted in a forward firing arrangement. This driver is - as you might expect - a seriously substantial piece of equipment. It makes use of a three inch voice coil and two ‘spider’ driver mounts and the sort of rubber surround that wouldn’t be out of place on deep sea driving equipment. The cone itself is a Rohacell composite and the whole ensemble feels hugely and impressively beefy.
Power comes from a class D ‘Sledge’ amplifier disposing of the all important 1,000 watts. To be absolutely clear about the generation of bass, power is important but not an absolute decider of performance. Given my background is as much about two channel audio as it is AV, I have on a few occasions heard subwoofers (I’m sure their builders would prefer ‘bass augmentation units’ but you get the idea) that use exceptionally sensitive drivers in large enclosures to generate impressive bass with amazingly low power outputs but when it comes to the business of selling relatively high end subwoofers power matters. The difference in absolute extension between an amp outputting something in the high hundreds and one that delivers a kilowatt won’t be that significant but it does allow you to say - should anyone ask how much power it has - "only one...kilowatt." I’d be lying if I said it isn’t fun to explain.
The rear plate also contains the controls for the high pass filters and EQ settings. This is controlled by a small display and a push and twist interface. This is a good and a bad thing. The controls are impressively straight forward (although the pass filters took a little bit of thinking) and the interface is good but unless the sub is in free space, you will almost certainly wind up leaning over the top of it trying to use the controls upside down. I’ve no doubt in America that you can easily reach the back panel but in our feeble European lounges, it may be difficult to have the SVS in free space. Given how clever the EQ features of many amplifiers are these days, you can also turn them all off and have the SB-13 receive all EQ information from the amp.
The connectivity is good. The SVS has balanced and unbalanced inputs and looped outputs (you know, for when only one kilowatt leviathan isn’t enough for you). There are also switches to change between input types and to switch between auto on and permanently on (which as the voltage from LFE outputs becomes sufficiently weedy to sometimes cause issues with auto on, is a useful thing to have as an option).
The build and overall design of the SB-13 is extremely impressive. The review sample was finished in the gloss black option and looks suitably imposing. The problem for any manufacturer covering an object as large and flat sided as the SVS with a high gloss finish is that any imperfections show up like an iceberg in the Mediterranean. There is not a single one of these imperfections anywhere on the chassis and this is impressive. Moreover, underneath the gloss, this is a seriously substantial cabinet. It seems almost completely inert and feels immensely solid when you tap the side of it.
The only slightly discordant note is the absolutely enormous metal grille. This will undoubtedly protect the driver against most things - children, pets, small arms fire etc. - but it isn’t the most attractive piece of engineering going and is pretty much the only part of what is otherwise a very domestically acceptable subwoofer that lets the side down a bit. It might be a nice touch if the metal grille was an option and more conventional fabric one was supplied instead.
The size of the SB-13 rather limited the locations in my lounge that I could try it out in. I wound up using it off to the side of the front speakers and slightly forward of them. It was connected to a Cambridge Audio 551R and used with both a set of the new Acoustic Energy 3 Series speakers (the review of which will follow in due course) and my more usual Mordaunt Short Mezzo surround set. Source equipment included a Cambridge Audio 751BD Blu Ray Player, Sky HD and a Stream Magic 6 network audio player. As has been the case for many subs in this room, a 2dB cut at 44Hz, flattened the response nicely.
As well as using various fixed Blu-ray and DVD test sequences, the SB13 ran constantly and was used with a variety of TV material with an even spread of Dolby Digital and stereo material. I listened to music from the UPnP library including lossless and high res FLAC and material from Spotify.
Before we go any further, I need to make a few things as clear as I can. I live in a terraced house. I have an excellent relationship with my neighbours and they know how I earn a living but even so there are limits to what I can do in terms of absolute testing. As such, if you want to know what the SVS does at full tilt, I can’t help you - sorry. What I can tell you is how it performs in real world usage. How it goes about this is arguably more impressive than the notional performance for AV enthusiasts who live on the Outer Hebrides.
The first aspect of the performance of the SB-13 took a little bit of getting used to. For significant sections of the performance between the 60Hz crossover I had set and the minimum cut off of the SB-13’s performance, it is genuinely subsonic. You can feel things happening but there is no accompanying sound unless the soundtrack actually calls for an audio event at the same point. I had first encountered the SB-13 at Bristol where it was demonstrating the train crash sequence from Super 8. Running at show demo levels in a concrete room the result was vaguely akin to shock and awe but used in my lounge at a lower level, the results were arguably even better. The arrival of the train is felt rather than heard with the chatter of the diesel exhaust handled by the speakers. As the impacts begin, this effect continues- what should be heard is heard and what should be felt is felt. The way the SB-13 goes about low end exertion is so utterly convincing that going back to most other devices seems like a bit of a letdown afterwards.
This astonishing ability continues when you stop asking the SVS to project face bending explosions and move to more subtle aspects of reproduction. Again, there is a sense of effortlessness to the way the SB-13 goes about its business that is utterly compelling. It does something that really we should be looking for in most pieces of audio equipment in that it gets out of the way and allows us to focus on the presentation as a whole rather than what any one component is doing. During the more restrained scenes of Super 8 the effect of the SVS is imperceptible right up until the point where you turn it off when you realise that parts of the performance you could have sworn were being done by the speakers are in fact courtesy of the sub.
This is effectively what the last ten days of films and TV has been for me. I’ve enjoyed a huge variety of material and all of it has benefitted from bass that is absolutely right for the volume levels required being used at the time and has a sense of limitless power in reserve that is rather addictive after a while. The effect is akin to the difference between driving a car that is capable of twice the legal limit at 70mph and one that only has another 20mph to go. My domestic requirements place little demands on the upper echelons of the SVS and the result is fantastically unforced. If you are looking to assemble a high end but still lounge based AV system and you are weighing up the pros and cons of using something as large as this, you probably have to try it and see what you think - I know that I’m more of a convert than I thought I’d be.
So is it perfect? Objectively, this is probably one of the very best subwoofers I have had the pleasure of spending time with and the performance is very hard to criticise. My only partial gripe with film and TV use is that every now and again, the SVS seems almost too civilised. I’d really like a ‘drunken idiot’ switch on the back that means after a few beers, when I want to watch something really stupid that the SB-13 could be made to misbehave a bit and produce the sort of slightly uncontrolled low end that isn’t ‘right’ but can be wildly entertaining under the right circumstances. The SB-13 can feel almost too controlled at times but really, I can’t easily ask for a manufacturer to design and build something this accomplished and then at the same time give me the ability to make it less capable.
The other tiny chink in the SB-13’s armour is music reproduction. To be very clear, by the standards of other subs capable of moving this much air, the SB-13 is amazingly agile. There is precious little sense that a driver as large as this one is at work and there is very little lag or overhang to the performance. On balance though, once my Neat floorstanders were in situ instead of the smaller Mordaunt Shorts, for almost everything I listened to via the Stream Magic 6, I was happy to trade off the last half an octave and let the faster isobaric bass arrangements of the Neats work on their own. The SVS is seriously good but that last few percent of integration matter and I’d rather rely on a stereo pair of speakers to do the job without additional assistance. The SB-13 gets closer than many other designs but there is still potentially room for improvement.
- Superb low end extension
- Seamless integration
- Beautifully built
- Ugly grille
- Controls slightly inaccessible
- Not actually compact if you live in Europe
SVS SB-13 Ultra Subwoofer Review
I’ll be blunt about this. As I write this, my unwilling but ever helpful ‘packing partner’ is turning up in an hour or so to help me put the SB-13 back in its box - doing it alone will break you. If there is any way that my tattered finances could stand up to me buying it, I would be doing so and keeping it in place. This is a seriously accomplished subwoofer that is capable of staggeringly visceral bass when required but more importantly, even in a slightly small UK lounge, it produces a day to day performance that is absolutely magnificent. It provides seamless augmentation of film and TV material and does so in a way that is utterly unobtrusive and perfectly integrated.
It isn’t perfect. It's rather large, I think the metal grille is somewhat inelegant and the controls really ought to be on a visible surface rather than the back. If I am an audiophile (and I hate the term personally), I’m not completely convinced about how it performs with music but given I have yet to be convinced by any subwoofer, I don’t think this is too big a detriment to the SB-13. The competition is hotting up too. The clever stacking subwoofer system from Ken Kreisel is a similar price for your first box and offers the ability to keep adding more to deliver what I can only assume is an act of controlled demolition. Elsewhere, the quality of many speaker manufacturer subs is improving too. Despite this, the SB-13 is a fantastic subwoofer that goes a long way to being almost all things to all men. Anyone lucky enough to own one is likely to have a blast.
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