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SVS SB-16 Ultra Review (3 Viewers)

JohnRice

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The Philosophy.

An HTF member recently posted a truism about audio enthusiasts. It states that they tend to fall into one of two categories. Those who buy music so they can play it on their stereo, and those who buy a stereo so they can listen to their music. I definitely lean toward the latter group, and ever since my early teens have been an audio enthusiast, because I love music. An interest that would soon evolve to include movies. That interest often involved buying whatever equipment was available right now. What I could afford right now. So, like a lot of enthusiasts, money was often spent on gear that didn’t stick around all that long. I actually owned my first pair of “good” speakers (JBL 4311s) from when I was too young to drive until I graduated from College. That was a decent investment. Then as I entered the working world, the changes came more often. A pair of Mission 707s for a year or two, followed by Klipsch Fortés for about three more years. It was at that time I decided to take a different approach, since my goal is focused more on enjoying what the equipment brings than on the equipment itself.

This different approach was to seek out the best speakers I could find and manage to afford. It involved saving everything I could, and traveling around Connecticut, where I lived at the time, auditioning everything I could find. Ultimately that journey led me to the (then) recently released Thiel CS 3.6 speakers. I’d never heard of Thiel before. Costing $4,000 1992 dollars, they were quite a bit more expensive than I had planned on, but after months of listening, it was clear they were the one to go with. It was a guilt-inducing amount of money to splurge on such a frivolous item. The bright side of the tale is that splurge has brought me years of enjoyment, which continues to this day. The bottom line? If I was to calculate the cost of that splurge over the more than 28 years I have continued to enjoy those speakers on a daily basis, it would average out to less than $12/month. That’s what I call a good investment in something I have enjoyed immensely for nearly 30 years.

The point is, speakers can and should last a long time. So if this is a long-term interest and something where the best audio reproduction that can reasonably be afforded is a priority, speakers are worth some extra effort to get the best possible and keep them for decades. That includes subwoofers. In fact, the subwoofer that was being replaced in my system is an early SVS model. A PB12-Plus/2 that I’ve been using for about 18 years. Another good investment. This leads to what I’ve come to call “The Thiel Rule.” Some things are just worth it in the long run, and going cheap is often ultimately the most expensive option. So, when it’s something that brings enjoyment, it’s worth extra effort, investment, or whatever is needed.


The Search.

A couple years ago I bought my first sealed subwoofer, an SVS SB-2000, to replace the BIC F-12 in my living room system. It was part of a complete upgrade of that system. The common belief is that sealed subwoofers are better for music, but less desirable for movies. While the new sub is definitely more controlled for music, the fact is I found it to be better for everything. Of course, the new sub is a more expensive model than the one it replaced, at three times the price. Still, the SB-2000 is a lower end model and I was surprised by what an improvement it was. What impressed me the most is the fact that it never gets “sloppy” sounding. Even when it’s being driven to its limits. That’s just an inherent benefit of sealed subs. There’s also no chance of “chuffing” or any type of port noise at high levels, since there are no ports. It can be argued that sealed subs have an inherent weakness, which is lower potential output. While that is true, it can be overcome with larger drivers, more drivers and more power. So when I decided to start searching for a new sub in my HT room, I decided it would be a sealed model. I was almost determined it would be one with dual, opposing 15” drivers like the Seaton SubMersive HP+, Rhythmic G25HP or PowerSound Audio S3012. Coincidentally, PowerSound was founded by Tom Vodhanel, who designed my current SVS PB12-Plus/2, and is the “V” in SVS. I wasn’t actually considering a current SVS model.

I went around in circles for months, then the pandemic hit and I became engulfed in other problems. But I kept perusing various options, and saving up. There are several dual sealed 15” options I considered, with both drivers on the same side, which makes for a smaller footprint. A tall, narrow subwoofer would be easier to get down the narrow staircase of my ‘50s ranch home. During that time, I became convinced of the value of dual subwoofers, thanks to the… encouragement we’ll call it… of HTF co-owner Dave Upton. The science of incorporating subwoofers into a room is actually extremely complicated. A dive into Room EQ Wizard (REW) and response curves with my living room system was an eye opener, as I moved the SB-2000 around and analyzed the results. Fortunately, my HT room is perfect for what is usually the best implementation of dual subwoofers. Opposing corners. In my case, the front right and back left corners of the room. So I decided to do a little rearranging of the room to facilitate locations in the front right and rear left of the room.


The Final Decision.

After those months of going around in circles on which model to get, I finally decided to abandon my plans for dual driver models and decided instead on the SVS SB-16 Ultra. Part of this decision is due to the obvious over-engineering of this model. I want these subs to last me at least 20 years, and they’ll be subjected to a lot during that time. A lot of the over-engineering of the SB-16 Ultra involved the driver itself. It is an SVS designed 16” model, with a shallow bowl shaped cone made of a fiberglass resin composite. The shape of the cone is somewhat unusual in that the bowl shape has no flat areas like regular drivers do. So it naturally has greater rigidity, which is important to maintain its shape as massive forces are being applied to it by the amplifier. In addition to the cone, the driver incorporates an enormous 8” voice coil. Other consumer drivers of this size have 3-3.5” voice coils. The benefit of this large a voice coil is that the forces being applied are at the mid diameter of the cone, rather than toward the center of it. That might not make a difference in the real world, but I anticipate it can extend the life of the driver over years of demanding use. With that much more voice coil, it will also stay cooler which should result in less dynamic compression from being strained. Subwoofer drivers are subjected to some pretty extreme strains, and the fact SB-16 Ultra driver weighs over 60 lbs. all by itself indicates it’s really built to last. Incidentally, showing SVS’s attention to detail, the drivers for the sealed SB-16 and the ported PB-16 are slightly different. Each is optimized for the specific needs of sealed or ported enclosures. They could have made things simpler and used the same driver for both, but they went the extra step.
 
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JohnRice

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…And They Arrive.

The SB-16 Ultra has a relatively compact cabinet (for what it is) that’s roughly 20” cubed. Their weight is a somewhat less manageable 122 lbs. In fact, the compact size of these subwoofers ultimately became a consideration in my purchase, since I had to get them into the basement of my ‘50s ranch home. Doors aren’t very wide and the stairway is narrow, with a 90 degree turn at the top and a very small landing. Some planning was still in order to figure out the logistics of getting these into place. That started with a sturdy hand truck and tie-down straps, which got the subs into the living room.

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Once they are in the house, SVS has created an ingenious way to get the subs out of the double box, allowing the user to open them on the side and slide them out of the box on foam skids. Once that was done, I used two of the side foam segments to protect the subs while I strapped them (unboxed) to the hand truck, ready to take down the stairs. I used a utility knife to cut a wedge of foam off the corners to assure they didn’t touch any part of the driver surround once the tie-down straps had been tightened.


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It might seem absurd for me to describe these subs as compact, but here is a comparison of the SB-16 Ultra with the PB12-Plus/2 they replaced.

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While these photos show the subs with the grills removed, I install the sturdy metal grills to protect the drivers.


Finally…

…the two subs were in place, which didn’t happen until the following day because, to be honest, getting both of them into the house and one of them downstairs completely wore me out. I did a quick level match, to get both subs at the same sound level at the main viewing position. It’s important to get dual subs balanced with each other, though for many users the built-in calibration of their receiver or preamp can do this. My setup is a little unusual and I need to do this myself. After a few days of use I set into analyzing their performance and worked on adjusting their internal EQ to obtain that flattest in-room curve I could. I won’t go into details of that right now, but I was able to achieve a much flatter in-room response using the adjustments of the subs internal EQ. It’s not as flat as can be achieved with a MiniDSP, but the improvement is still quite obvious. Without getting too much into the weeds, the final result is flat in-room response down to 15Hz and less than 10dB down at 10Hz.
 
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JohnRice

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Now For The Fun Part

Finally… I get to sit back and just enjoy. Before I go into that, I want to point out that it soon became obvious the subs were getting more refined as they broke in. I know that speaker break-in is a controversial topic. I wasn’t expecting to actually hear a difference in the first week or two of use, but there most definitely was. I would say this continued for the first month of pretty strenuous use.

One of my priorities was so see how the SB-16 Ultra handled some of the things which were problematic with the PB12-Plus/2. this was mostly the tendency for the old sub to lose control on some of the most demanding passages. This includes both extremely low frequencies and just generally extreme amounts of bass. A great test for the latter is almost anything from Billie Eilish’s first album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Several tracks on it made the old sub sound like it was going to fall apart. With the SB-16 Ultra, no matter how loud I played it, even when I “juiced” the levels, it didn’t even break a sweat. Never did it sound slightly stressed, and it’s dynamics never compressed. Movie tests included Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, when the pods emerge from underground, pretty much all of Cloverfield, Dredd and several other standard tests. In particular, the footsteps during the opening of Cloverfield, and when a bad guy is given slo-mo and pushed off a balcony early in Dredd, have extremely deep extension. The SB-16 Ultra was universally deep and controlled without ever a sign of slop.

That took care of loud, deep, sustained bass, but an even more important factor of a subwoofer is its ability to be clean and dynamic. During general movie viewing, the first moment that impressed me, floored me really, was in The Hunger Games, when Katniss detonates the cornucopia with an arrow. That was my first “Holy Shit!” moment. The test of a scene like that is the sub’s ability to hit you between the eyes, and stop on a dime. A sealed sub, or one with servo control, is going to have a natural advantage with dynamic bass, where hitting fast and low is enhanced by the ability to stop instantly. Other moments like that were to come, including a scene in Insurgent, when Tris destroys a military vehicle. Still, the true capability of the SB-16 Ultra wouldn’t come for a few months, until I watched the Sci-Fi movie Passengers. Late in the movie there is a sequence when the ship is at risk of destruction and there’s a constant barrage of dynamic, powerful, low-end explosions. Even though I'd had the new subs for almost four months, I was still stunned. I’ve watched Passengers several times, but it was never like this.

Of course, for me and a lot of others, music is extremely important. Sure, a sub might be great with movies, but will it be sloppy with music? While the bass in Billie Eilish’s music is extreme, it isn’t natural. It’s digital. On the rock side of things, my favorite tests are from A Dramatic Turn of Events by Dream Theater and Fear Inoculum by Tool. The percussion on these albums is often fast, hard and dynamic and the SB-16 Ultra handled them all in stride. A couple favorite Classical music tests are the complete Tchaikovsky Swan Lake performed by Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic, as well as a collection of Saint-Saëns tone poems performed by Neeme Järvi and The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The frequent and aggressive bass drum in these recordings is reproduced with all of the natural power intact.


Conclusion.

I’ve now had the dual SB-16 Ultras in my system for 4 1/2 months. Not once have they demonstrated inability to easily handle and reproduce everything I’ve thrown at them. Often exceeding my greatest hopes. They are so powerful that I was prompted to replace the metal vent covers in the room with wood ones that have plastic mechanisms, because the metal ones would vibrate at certain frequencies.

With their degree of over-engineering and capabilities, I fully expect the SB-16 Ultras to fulfill my expectations and perform beyond satisfaction for a couple decades, or more. There are definitely more expensive subwoofers as well as ones that perform better on paper than the SB-16 Ultra. No doubt there is another 5% of performance to be squeezed out, but at what cost? You can spend over $30K on a Wilson sub, and still need to buy an amp to power it. It would be disappointing if that didn’t perform beyond the SB-16 Ultra, but at some point it stops being worth it. In any case, I expect the bullet-proof construction of the driver itself, which goes far beyond any consumer driver I’m aware of, from any manufacturer, should result in a lifespan that surpasses anything else. I feel confident I won’t have the slightest temptation for any change in subwoofers for a good, long, time, if ever.
 
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kalm_traveler

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Wonderful write-up John, many thanks!

My takeaway here is that I should replace both VTF15H-Mk2's and this SB 3000 with 3 SB-16 Ultra subs. :biggrin:

Now do I pay off the rest of my 2nd car, or buy 3 more subwoofers hmm decisions decisions...
 

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Great review, John. Though, frankly, calling it merely a review does it a disservice. You've provided a very nice analysis of your purchase process.

I'm looking to upgrade my "sub situation" and I've been looking at going with two SB-16s as well. Really my main "concern" is the lights. Can you turn the display off completely? I absolutely hate all "gear lights" and actively avoid gear with "always on" lights.

My other personal issue is that we are demolishing our home next year and rebuilding from the dirt up (even pouring new foundation). Ideally, of course, I would wait until the space is completed before auditioning new gear. However, I'm thinking that if I went with something like two SB-16s it's unlikely that they would be out of place in their new home.

Thanks again for the piece!
 

JohnRice

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Really my main "concern" is the lights. Can you turn the display off completely? I absolutely hate all "gear lights" and actively avoid gear with "always on" lights.
You can set the display to illuminate briefly when a change is made, then turn off. That should do the trick. You can also dim it, which is what I do, because the display is the only way to know they are on.

I also don't know why the coming change in your home would necessarily discourage you from upgrading now. I mean, if nothing else, you'll know what you have and be able to plan better as needed.

BTW, SVS prices are going up 10/4...
 

Josh Dial

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You can set the display to illuminate briefly when a change is made, then turn off. That should do the trick. You can also dim it, which is what I do, because the display is the only way to know they are on.

I also don't know why the coming change in your home would necessarily discourage you from upgrading now. I mean, if nothing else, you'll know what you have and be able to plan better as needed.

BTW, SVS prices are going up 10/4...

Thanks very much. That illumination setting sounds perfect.

For the upgrading, it's not that I'm discouraged from upgrading (in fact I'm itching to upgrade now)--more like I'm seeing if anyone can talk me out of it :)
 

John Dirk

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She's a movie lover, too. Anything that improves the experience!
You are a blessed man. My wife thinks I'm nuts whenever I go into Home Theater topics. If there is sound and a picture she feels as if there should be no room for improvement.
 

John Dirk

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Excellent writeup, John, although I agree with @Josh Dial . You didn't just write a review, you chronicled an experience from start to finish. Great read!
 

Josh Dial

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For what it's worth--and partly fuelled by John's original post--I've ordered two SB-16s. The price increase has already hit up here in Canada, but thankfully my retailer was willing to sell them to me at the old price.

They should be here within a week or so.

Thanks for letting my piggy back on your thread, John. I'm looking forward to putting these through their paces.
 

JohnRice

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I mentioned in my review that one of my favorite bits of test music is a complete recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. I simply can't overemphasize how outstanding this recording and performance is, and it's just a fabulous, and very long, work. This is one of the greatest things I've ever heard. It's available on HD from HDTracks, and I highly recommend anyone with the ability to play back 96/24 music files to give it a try.

Here's a nice excerpt. Just keep in mind, the entire work is about 2 1/2 hours long, and this is just a very low res YouTube version. This is a tight performance, and an outstanding recording.

 
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Josh Dial

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Thanks for the suggestion, John. I'm always on the hunt for great Tchaikovsky recordings. I'm going to order this album (I stick with physical media) tonight.

My personal favourite Swan Lake recording is from Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony (Mercury Living Presence recordings). Perhaps not coincidentally, my favourite recording of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty Ballet is also from Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony (and also from Mercury Living Presence recordings). Here's the cover art if you have an inclination to seek it out:

R-7755076-1448113629-1926.jpeg.jpg
 

JohnRice

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Thanks for the suggestion, John. I'm always on the hunt for great Tchaikovsky recordings. I'm going to order this album (I stick with physical media) tonight.

My personal favourite Swan Lake recording is from Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony (Mercury Living Presence recordings). Perhaps not coincidentally, my favourite recording of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty Ballet is also from Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony (and also from Mercury Living Presence recordings). Here's the cover art if you have an inclination to seek it out:

R-7755076-1448113629-1926.jpeg.jpg
I have a complete Sleeping Beauty with Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orch.

There's just nothing quite like a pristine 21st Century recording, and the Järvi boys are aggressive with the material. BTW, there is also a Chandos complete Sleeping Beauty which I also recommend, also with Neeme Järvi, and the Bergen Philharmonic. I'm telling you, these recordings, the ambiance of them, is the best I've ever heard. Especially the Swan Lake.
 

Josh Dial

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I have a complete Sleeping Beauty with Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orch.

Is that on Philips Classics? The art features an orange staircase? If so then I have that recording myself and it is indeed terrific.

I'll check out the Chandros recording as well.
 

Mike2001

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I mentioned in my review that one of my favorite bits of test music is a complete recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. I simply can't overemphasize how outstanding this recording and performance is, and it's just a fabulous, and very long, work. This is one of the greatest things I've ever heard. It's available on HD from HDTracks, and I highly recommend anyone with the ability to play back 96/24 music files to give it a try.

Here's a nice excerpt. Just keep in mind, the entire work is about 2 1/2 hours long, and this is just a very low res YouTube version. This is a tight performance, and an outstanding recording.

I believe these recordings were originally released as multi-channel SACDs. Do you listen multi-channel or stereo?

You've inspired me to give these a shot. I just ordered from Amazon the 2017 release which is a reissue that includes the SACDs for Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Nutcracker. Should be here Thursday.
 

Josh Dial

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My two SB-16 Ultras came this morning.

Unfortunately it's Canadian Thanksgiving weekend so I may not get a chance to play much if at all until next week.
 

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