The Audiophile Apartment

The SVS SB16-Ultra Subwoofer

After listening to the SVS SB16-Ultra for some time now, it’s still been tough to put into context, yet a recent test drive of the latest 650 horsepower Z06 Corvette brings the point home clearly.

Sometimes nothing floats your boat like sheer, pavement melting horsepower. Maybe the Z06 lacks some of the finesse of the current offerings from Porsche or Ferrari, but when you put the pedal to the floor and light up the tires, you can’t help but smile. There are a few things the Vette does that it’s more refined European cousins don’t and that’s it’s magic.

For $1,995 you just can’t beat the SB16-Ultra, though if a 3db down point of 16hz still isn’t enough LF extension for you, the even larger PB16-Ultra ($2,499) will take you down to 13hz. I remember hearing a 10hz tone once, and it felt like someone was pounding a nail through my head, so proceed with caution. Cranking up a long playlist of Aphex Twin has me convinced that the SB16-Ultra delivers the goods in a big way. Tracking through my favorite bass heavy cuts from Fink, Infected Mushroom, Snoop Dogg and even Pink Floyd prove tons of fun. 40 years later that heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon just rules. The SB16-Ultra pumps it out so hard, you feel it in your stomach, you feel it in your soul.

It’s easy to get used to the SB16-Ultra until you shut it off. Then, the opiate center of your brain that is excited by major bass experiences immediate withdrawals. Much as I enjoyed my time with the SB16-Ultra (and contributor Ken Mercereau bought one as well) I really love it in the context of a theater/gaming system. While many subwoofer experts agree that you should have a pair of subs, a sole SB-16 gets you rocking in a big way, in a hurry. Barely bigger than a dorm fridge, it’s easy to find a spot.

Easy to love

One of the toughest parts of owning a subwoofer is integrating it with your main speakers as seamlessly as possible. SB16-Ultra makes this a breeze, thanks to the best app I’ve ever had the chance to experience. But first, take a bit of time getting the best sound you can from your SB16-Ultra the old-fashioned way; move it around. Don’t let the compact 20-inch cube fool you, unless you are super buff, keep in mind it tips the scale just over 120 pounds, so here’s a suggestion: grab a piano dolly. I like the “Milwaukee” ones from Home Depot.

You’ll have to decide on corner or mid room placement, and this will probably be determined somewhat by what you have to work around and how much flexibility you have in room placement. All things being equal, corner placement offers the most reinforcement from the floors and corner. I’d suggest the corner if you’re SB16-Ultra is being used for movies and games, where you want those cannons to embed you in the couch.  Should your listening be weighted more toward music, you might consider placing a sole SB16-Ultra just off center from your speakers and starting there. We’ll get back to this in a minute. You’ll also need a pair of interconnects to go from your amp or receiver, if you connect the SB16-Ultra via the line level ouputs. RCA or XLRs will work just fine. The SB16-Ultra has right and left inputs, or if you are doing a strictly theater setup, it has a single LFE input as well.

The coolest app ever

Fine tuning a subwoofer is tough, constantly getting up from your listening position, making adjustments and then sitting back down to listen and evaluate. First world problems, I know, but you want it to be awesome, right? SVS makes it easy with the absolute best app I’ve ever seen for this kind of thing. Better yet, the app explains and walks you through all the adjustments, and they do such a great job, even if you’ve never done anything like this, you’ll be rocking in no time.

Should you want to skip the “tune it by hand” part of the setup, the room gain feature of the app utilizes the digital signal processor (DSP) inside the SB16-Ultra, to compensate for being too close or too far away from room walls or corners. This eliminates that boominess that gives subwoofers a bad name. Once all parameters are set to taste, merely save your results as a custom preset. Done.

Getting into it

After spending about 30 minutes making small movements out and back from the wall in room two, with a pair of MartinLogan ESP9 speakers, the app makes it easy and fun to fine tune the system. Starting with the “music” preset, the first adjustment on the list after setting the level is the low pass filter frequency, and as the ESP9s go down past 40hz with ease, setting the sub to 35 hz, selecting a 24db/octave slope to get it out of the way quickly. Working with the Graham Audio LS5/9s, a gentler curve works better. The wide range of adjustment offered makes this easy with a little practice and patience.

Once you get used to going this far, move on to the room gain and parametric EQ settings. Again, SVS lets you vary frequency and “Q.” The Q setting varies how wide the frequency you select has an effect and the app lets you see this in real time. If you want a gentle bump to the bass, you can adjust the Q thusly. If you want a very narrow bump or cut, this can also be accommodated. If new to EQ settings, go at this with broad strokes at first to really get a feel for how the filters and EQ affect the sound.

This is why the SVS app really rocks; whether you are new or experienced, it’s so easy to experiment with all the settings, just to see how they affect your system’s tonal balance. And it’s so easy to back in and recalibrate, the more seat time you have. It makes hifi fun. It’s also worth mentioning that for the MartinLogan owners out there, the curved front metal grill matches the ML aesthetic perfectly.

Off to the movies

Moving the SB16-Ultra into my home theater system, with a set of Dali Fazon speakers (enlisting that dolly again) and an Anthem MRX-520, it is even easier to dial in the sub, letting Anthem’s built in ARC room correction do the heavy lifting. Still, I did a bit of fine tuning and depending on the program material, it was nice to have the app to use more as a tone control. Just like with musical selections, not all movies are mixed equally, and it’s nice to have the option of easily goosing, or cutting back the bottom end a bit to taste.

Even though my Dali’s have fairly small woofers all the way around, the SB16-Ultra does a great job integrating that big 16-inch driver with all these small 4-inch woofers, a testament to its design. Streaming London Has Fallen, I got more than my share of shooting, the minute I tuned into Netflix. Cranking up the volume to nearly movie theater levels and watching a barrage of car chase scenes from the Fast and Furious franchise, everyone came away convinced that the SB16-Ultra adds a sense of realism that you just can’t get without a moving serious air.

On top of that, service

In the event you can’t get your SB16-Ultra performing to what you feel it’s potential is, the SVS staff is there via phone or chat to help you back on the path. I tried the chat feature with excellent result and had my wife give them a call too. Both times, we were rolling in no time and this speaks volumes about the SVS staff. They really go out of their way to lend a hand, and in a day of customer service being nearly non-existent, I give SVS major kudos here.

All SVS products have a 45-day trial period, so if you just don’t like the damn thing, or the roommate you thought you could sneak that subwoofer past gets snarky with you, you can return it at no risk – SVS even covers the shipping. But I doubt you’ll want to part with it.

After living with the SB16-Ultra for some time now and using it in a variety of different hifi systems, I happily report excellent results in all circumstances. Whether you are working with a pair of minimonitors, your favorite panels, or massive floorstanders, the SB16-Ultra delivers stunning bass performance. With 1500 watts of power on tap, you’ll most likely bottom out your main speakers way before you push the sub too far. We certainly couldn’t no matter how loud the cannons blasted, the buildings blew up or the beats dropped.

All this, with major support and a no-risk return policy adds up to an Exceptional Value Award in our book. And, should you jump off the cliff and get a pair, SVS gives you a $200 discount. The holiday season is on the way, treat yourself! Highly recommended.

The SVS SB16-Ultra subwoofer