SVS SB12-NSD Subwoofer Review

Any colour you like, as long as its black.

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Best Buy
SVS SB12-NSD Subwoofer Review
SRP: £580.00

SVS (SVSound to give them their full nomenclature) are one of the original darlings of the on-line-only marketing model, in the AV world at least. Initially only available in the United States, the internet buzz that surround the performance of their products, allied to razor sharp pricing in comparison to the high street alternatives, meant that it was only a matter of time before the first personal imports into the UK. Conflicts now raged across the internet on this side of the Atlantic, as the old guard defended their entrenched positions in the established order against the internet upstart from the States. The hysteria proved to be largely founded by independent testing and the appointment of a UK distributor, completed the transition of SVS from new kid on the block, to 'here to stay'.

Actually, there's nothing particularly revolutionary about what SVS did, even if the prices they delivered were an eye opener. Big, deep, high SPL bass delivered with low distortion, requires lots of air moving. This is best managed by large drivers, in large, efficient ported boxes with enough amplifier power to run the driver as close to it's limits as is sensible. Simple. But there's not a huge market for large, ported subwoofers in the UK (and much of Europe) as we lack the carpet real estate to accommodate a coffin sized box unobtrusively. It follows therefore, that with such a limited market over here, the sub bass drivers to match such designs would also mostly be from 'over there' too and so few European manufacturers have attempted to compete on that particular playing field.

SVS, on the other hand, decided that the bigguns would continue to sell to those few willing to park a small car (or five foot high furry toilet roll, but that's for another time) on their carpet. This left a clear an opportunity to attack the smaller portioned Euro subs, as the same large, long throw drivers could be shoe-horned into smaller sealed boxes. The SVS SB12/Plus (Sealed Box, 12" driver from the Plus series) was born and jolly good it was too.

The SVS subwoofers break down like this; the small(er) Sealed Box SB Series, the large Powered Box PB Series, plus their derivative Powered Cylinder PC Series. This is further subdivided by the level of driver specification. The range topping Ultra, the mid level Plus and the base model NSD. Not all drivers are available in all boxes or cylinders and some driver sizes are specific to certain models, but it does result in a naming system that, if not the stuff of Shakespeare, is eminently logical. As such the SB12/NSD under scrutiny here is the base model in the line up, with the smallest box, smallest driver and least power. Base, small and least are all relative terms though, especially when taken in the context of the current - Pound to Euro exchange governed - price of £575.

SVS SB12-NSD

Technical

Initial impressions are good, with the customary SVS double carton, ample foam protection and a material sock, meaning you stand a better than average chance of receiving your sub as it left the factory. Beyond the sub, there are Euro and UK power leads of decent lengths and the instruction manual.

Turning to the SB12/NSD itself, there are two finish options, culled from the Henry Ford colour selector. Your choice is black, be it matt or gloss, the latter attracting a £45 premium. Gloss, rather than Piano Black is accurate, because whilst the gloss is mirror flat and flawless, it's not eight coats of piano lacquer deep and so £45 is a fair hike in my opinion. All of this is fronted by a curved and perforated metal grill. The invisible magnetic fixings of the more expensive models, make way for a traditional plastic pin and rubber cup, but as they are mounted square, you have a choice of whether the grill curves side to side, or up and down, even if the badge doesn't rotate to match. Don't knock that idea until you've had a two year old peer down at your shiny stuff! The grill itself; I initially didn't like. I know it's a purely subjective opinion, but I'm not a fan of metal grills, simply because they look to hard, unyielding and 'tech' to soften the visual impact of a blunt box, but the way the perforations follow the outline of the driver is a cute styling cue that grew on me. Combined with the radius applied to the fore/aft edges of what is otherwise an innocuous 14" cube, the end result is a subtle, but classy look.

Turning the box around, you find the plate amplifier. SVS defected from their previous Indigo 'Bash' Amplifiers when Canada based Indigo decided to move manufacturing to the Far East, quality control concerns being the stated motivation. The now incumbent 'Sledge' amplifiers are still far eastern sourced, but SVS cite a greater degree of access and control over standards as their reason for comfort with the switch. No matter, the basis of the technology is the same, the Sledge amps still being a Pulse Width Modulation 'Digital' amplifier which to you or I means, low power consumption and cool running.

SVS SB12-NSD

The NSD subs make do with the basic set of controls you would expect – Gain, continuously sweepable phase and crossover frequency which defeats at the top of its range – plus a couple of features, I wish you saw more often. There are no high, or speaker, level inputs, but the stereo RCA phono input is matched by a couple of stereo RCA phono outputs. The first is a simple pass-through, that simply allows you to either daisy-chain more subwoofers, or pass the stereo signal through from your pre-amp to your power amp. The other is a 'High Pass' output that basically passes the signal through in much the same way, but minus the sub bass frequencies which are rolled off below 80Hz with a 12dB/octave slope. This latter connection, when it is available, is offered with stereo only listeners in mind, as stereo pre-amps often only have one pair of pre-outs.

That said, the stereo only fraternity will tend to shun such filtered pass-throughs on the grounds of placing an extra set of crossover components (of unknown quality) in the way of the signal. I personally feel this is a touch short sighted as most people don't have the first clue as to what crossover component does what and what its effects might be, whilst ignoring the significant distortion advantages. When your power amp and main speakers are relieved of reproducing current hungry, high excursion distortion inducing bass, you gain a significant amount of transparency, not to mention dynamic headroom. To each their own, but I would recommend you actually try it, before dismissing it out of hand, purely on the basis of hi-fi dogma.

The remaining feature is a separate Auto ON/OFF toggle which simply switches the signal sensing auto on, on or off as there is a separate power on/off switch by the three pin IEC power socket. I'm not generally a fan of signal sensing circuits as they always seem to go to sleep too soon and wake up half way through the big sound effect when it finally arrives. I never noticed this happen once and not even at late night listening levels. This seems to suggest the sensitivity is very high and thus, it only really switches the sub off once you've removed the signal by turning your amp off. This is exactly as it should be and I left it set to Auto ON, for the entire duration of the SB12/NSD's stay.

SVS SB12-NSD

The driver is SVS's in-house designed, if not always in-house built. Drivers are the foundation of the marques sub bass reputation. SVS are obviously tight lipped about the exact construction and performance parameters of their drivers and why not? It's not like they're off the shelf. In the raw metal, we are dealing with a 12" nominal diameter driver, comprising aluminium cone with inverted dust cap, suspended by a hefty rubber roll surround. The basket, somewhat unfashionably, is a pressed steel affair with no venting under the spider. Hanging off the back of the basket on the other hand, is a double stacked motor structure with vented pole piece that owes more to the current Plus motor than it does to the previous NSD motor. Unfashionable it may look, but large it is and SVS have a track record of putting the expense where it's needed rather than where it looks good. Funky cast baskets are lovely, but I'd personally trade that for a tighter tolerance and/or more copper in the motor as that has a greater bearing on upper bass performance. More later.

Setup

As I run sealed subs, the SB12-NSD was placed exactly where sealed subs work best in my room, that being just inside of my right speaker. As I never run a subwoofer without EQ, subjective comparison is irrelevant if the subject isn't to be EQ'd too. Five bands from a Behringer Feedback Destroyer were ample to deliver a ruler flat and short response that my ear favours. Some may call it a bit light, but I prefer the terms dry and tight. An interesting point is that at test tone levels, the SB12-NSD had quite a bit more bottom end output than my resident, considerably larger sealed subs. This indicates that the natural response of the sealed sub has been shaped using internal DSP to extend the bottom end of the subwoofer at lower levels. As you turn it up, the natural driver excursion limits, in concert with the power available mean that the output tends back toward the 12dB/octave natural roll off that is natural for a sealed subwoofer.

In practice this means that at normal levels, you will get a very deep response. When you have the house to yourself and you start to turn the wick up, there will come a point when the deepest notes stop getting louder and the further you crank it, the higher up the frequency spectrum this SPL limit happens. This is absolutely normal for a sealed sub as there is only so far the driver can travel and that is the absolute limit. Take the internal response tailoring out and you're still left with the same limits, but the response won't sound so deep at lower levels. Most commercial sealed subs do exactly this, so it's not a negative, just a point that seldom gets commented on. No, the true measure of a subwoofer is how high the levels get before this phenomenon is noticeable and, believe me, I've seen “award winning” subs where this effect kicks in BELOW test tone levels. This is not one of those subs.

Back on track, the kit used was my usual Audiolab/Cinepro pre/power amplifiers and XTZ 99.26 speakers all round, albeit the MkIIs at the front left and right, of which more in my next review.

SVS SB12-NSD

Listening

Although a while ago, I've had a fair bit of experience of listening to and setting up the now defunct SB12-Plus, a subwoofer that, should it still exist, would be one rung up the ladder from the NSD under test here. It theoretically had the better Plus driver and another 25W of power. A house move means that the SB12-NSD is being tested in a larger and altogether more testing room than it's predecessor, which makes ultimate comparisons a touch tricky. However and at the risk of short cutting the review conclusion; Blimey, I wasn't expecting this little spud.

I'm not going to kid you that the SB12-NSD is a replacement for the sheer 20Hz grunt a big ported box can deliver; 100dB+ in the teens of Hertz isn't on the cards here. I was surprised how close at normal listening levels it gets, with only the approach of Dolby Reference Level listening finding out its inability to go where the big boys tread. It was still capable of shaking the furniture, but it stopped short of the pressurization that delivers the deepest of effects in the infrasonic, sub 20Hz frequencies. The fights in Kung-Fu Panda punched hard at all levels and but for the mighty finale that is 'Skadoosh', you'd be hard pressed to wonder if you needed more.

What was also deeply impressive was the transparent way in which the NSD ran up against its limits. Whereas you normally find a point where you can hear a sub that is starting to try hard, be it the amp clipping, or driver starting to run out of travel and therefore back off, the NSD seems to just continue playing unfazed. I asked Ed Mullen, (SVS Chief Operating Officer and all round technical guru) about this accomplishment and it's probably best if I simply quote the response:

The DSP chip and associated control software is the most sophisticated design on the market, allowing almost unlimited adjustment of the limiter/compressor. There are also other features and tools we've incorporated into the DSP architecture/menu which contribute to graceful overload characteristics. We spend a great deal of time dialling in the DSP settings on our subwoofers for exactly the reasons you observed - no audible overload artefacts or motor-boating (like analog limiters do) at the limits.

Job done I'd say and the confirmation of internal DSP confirms the response shaping suggested earlier, albeit in an altogether more advanced way than I had suspected.

Back on more subtle ground, I've noted in the past that whilst SVS subs tended to offer up prodigious, clean bottom end output, this hasn't tended to be matched by their nimbleness further up the range. This was put to largely to bed by the arrival of the top end 13" Ultra driver, but the Plus and NSD subs, whilst pretty good, always seemed to sound slightly detached with music. It must be said this is a relative judgement and one that, unless you are lucky enough to have an acoustically brilliant room able to avoid EQ, you would find swamped by other issues. However, no matter how hard I tried as a critical music listener, I was never able to quite get to the point where I wasn't left feeling that their upper bass response wasn't lagging the speakers by a barely perceptible n'th of a second. They played tunes, did it with low distortion, but just lacked the icing of the toe-tap-o-meter, something I seem to notice and as a music boy, want.

I'm happy to report and pleasantly surprised as a result, that the SB12 seems to have now nailed this issue for me at the budget end of SVS's range. Even messing about with 100Hz and higher crossovers failed to cause me any worry, making me wonder what, exactly, SVS have done to their new drivers. Normally, I'd point a finger at the driver having a curtailed upper frequency response, which in turn defines the limits of the transient response. It doesn't seem to matter if you're using a 80Hz or lower crossover, drivers with a limit in this area never seem to cut it in my musical book. So, with no insider knowledge, I'm wondering if SVS have committed a bit more copper to the motor structure to this end, but no matter; Whatever they've done, works.

Kick drum delivers a slightly more defined and urgent thud, rather than the slightly more thumpy experience of yore and the texture of bass guitar in particular seems a little more finely etched. Use of words like 'slightly' and 'little' are justified, because this is all it takes to elevate a standard of already good reproduction, to a level that becomes excellent for the money. The demo version of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes off the 25th Anniversary re-issue of Paul Simon's 'Graceland is a simple electric bass with (awful) vocal overdub, but as a bass quality and integration tester, it's cosmic. The rapid, dynamic plucking, picking and slapping of the bass have real kick on the right subwoofer and any dragging of feet will be instantly found out. The old PB12/Ultra couldn't do it, the PB13/Ultra can and now, so can the little SB12-NSD. Impressive delivery that lives with some expensive competition on this test.

So, it's all good, very good in fact but no £6-700 sub is perfect and the SB12 is no exception. The only real criticism I have is aimed at the new Sledge amplifier which seems to be a bit noisy. Not in the mechanical sense of a humming transformer, but in the sense that there is a barely perceptible background hiss, which I would liken to pink noise. It is low in level and doesn't increase (or decrease) with the gain setting, but it is there.

To put the noise in context, if you live near to a road, have the central heating running, or are watching a movie, then it's not noticeable. In fact, it was entirely masked by the fan noise of my OPPO BDP-83 or my Virgin V+ HD box, neither of which I find particularly intrusive when in use. I make sure both are off when I'm listening to music and as I live away from a main road, in a very rural village, it's possible to get down to very low levels of background noise when the family are out. Under these circumstances, 10 feet distant from the sub it was possible to hear it and I imagine that if you sit closer, it would be a bit more obvious. That said, turning the sub through ninety degrees to make use of the directionality of such a large cone at higher frequencies rendered the noise all but inaudible. I must emphasize that it is a non-issue under most circumstances and if my musical taste didn't swing from heavy metal all the way back to solo acoustic jazz guitar, then I'd probably have missed it and it still wouldn't put me off owning one. Not by a long chalk.

Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

The Good

  • Rugged in build and in use
  • Music performance now matches it's movie prowess
  • Compact
  • Fit and finish
  • Good looking in an understated way

The Bad

  • The option of a fabric grill offered further up the range would be nice
  • Limited colour options
  • No high/speaker level inputs

SVS SB12-NSD Subwoofer Review

When L-Sound offered me any SVS sub I wanted to try, it's now clear why they were so keen it should be the cheapest, theoretically least capable sub of the SVS bunch. People dream of the big boxes, but practicality and budgets mean thousands more of the little SB12-NSD are shifted in reality. Products like the SB12-NSD show this is increasingly less of a short straw than it once was.

Other than the lack of speaker/high level inputs and the colour choice, which is a case of shiny or not, there's not a lot to criticize and definitely a lot to like. Build and operation is smooth and apparently bomb proof, the finishes you're allowed are superb, it's looks distinctive without being overly extrovert and it's pleasingly compact. All of which is good, but ultimately it's the performance level achieved that sets the SVS SB12-NSD apart from it's price equivalent competition. For £600 you can't go lower, louder, as cleanly as well as doing it all in such a musical fashion, with such impact, in such a small box.

You can tick some of those boxes for less. You can hit all of points for more, but at the penalty of a much larger box and probably a much lighter wallet. As a blend of attributes, at it's price, the SVS SB12-NSD carries the considerable flag of it's fore bearer proudly and if anything, higher than before. That's clean cut Best Buy material, that is.

Best Buy

Scores

Value For Money

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Build Quality

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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