Ultra Tower Loudspeakers
as reviewed by Victor Chavira
The impact of internet commerce on the world of high performance audio is growing significantly. Even though the majority of transactions still occur at the local audio shop level, many established companies have opened eStores for purchasing products directly from the manufacturer. Over time I have acquired various tweaks, parts, accessories, and even a pair of powered desk top speakers. Which leads to the following question; would I "click to buy" a pair of speakers for $2000 on line without having heard them first? The purpose of this review, however, is not to discuss the pros and cons of purchasing audio components on the web, but rather to evaluate the speaker before me vis-à-vis other speakers I have experienced within the price range.
The speakers before me are the Ultra Towers from SVS. SVS is an internet only company that made a name for itself with a range of highly acclaimed subwoofers. SVS products are designed in North America and manufactured in the People's Republic of China. The 45 inch tall 75 pound Ultra Tower is solidly braced and finished in black oak or high gloss veneer. Each tower contains two eight inch horizontally opposed low woofers near the bottom. These low woofers operate from 28 - 160Hz and vent into a large rear mounted port. The next 6.5 inch mid-woofer handles the range from 160 - 700Hz. The 1 inch aluminum dome tweeter starts vibrating at 2kHz and extends all the way to 32kHz. Another 6.5 inch mid-woofer driver nearest the top serves frequencies 160Hz - 2kHz.
The mid-woofer's cone material is noteworthy. With the naked eye, the cone material appears to be black plastic with an embossed texture. Closer inspection with a jeweler's loupe revealed the cone to be constructed from very fine thread woven poly glass material. This is very high tech stuff for a speaker in this price range. The material was chosen above others for its light weight, stiffness, and self dampening properties but I'm sure it must be complicated and costly to manufacture.
For a speaker that will probably be delivered via truck directly to your place of residence, the cabinet must be ruggedly constructed to endure the rigors of the road without suffering a high mortality rate. Too much mass, however, adds to shipping costs and makes setting up difficult for the customer. Therefore, the Ultra Tower's unusual shape is intelligently designed to maximize rigidity while minimizing unnecessary weight. Like radar diffracting stealth fighters, the speaker's multifaceted surface area is designed to function without detection. If there is a right angle on the cabinet, I have yet to find it. Again, it must be noted that such a cabinet must be complicated and costly to manufacture.
With a speaker a large as the Ultra Tower, unboxing and setting up is best accomplished by two people. Common audiophile wisdom involves the rule of thirds for locating the speakers but I tend to follow the rule of fourths. That is, I prefer speakers about one fourth of the length into the room and one fourth of the width away from the side walls. After some experimentation, I located the Towers about four feet from the facing wall and seven feet apart in my 20" by 13" living/listening room. Customers can call the SVS hotline for help with optimal set up.
The primary source for music was my Apple Mac Mini with no additional software enhancements. The data traveled through a collector's edition Locus Design Axis USB cable to my award winning Bel Canto C7R receiver. The C7R delivered 60 watts into the 88dB 8 Ohm Ultras. Speaker cable was my long term reference single run Analysis Plus Oval 9. About ten percent of my listening experience was conducted with my Linn Axis turntable with Linn Adikt MM cartridge.
Breaking in a pair of new speakers is one of the least appealing duties as audio reviewer. I know of one colleague who places speakers facing each other in his garage connected to an old receiver and covers them with a heavy blanket. Unfortunately, I have no such arrangement so the speakers were broken in for about a week with loud hip-hop and dance music FM radio while I was away at work during the day. After this period, I began listening with solo classical piano as per my usual custom.
Chopin's Prelude No. 15 in D Flat Major, Opus 28 (Raindrop) as performed by Jean-Francois Latour on ATMA Classique had the distinction of leading off my critical listening. Immediately, I was impressed with the Ultra Tower's command of the entire frequency range and resolution. I felt as if I were listening to the complete full scale image of piano rather than a compressed facsimile. The Ultra's struck just the right balance of room resonance and direct sound from the piano to immerse the listener in Jean Francois' tender and heartfelt interpretation of Chopin's eternal melody.
As previously mentioned, SVS produces an acclaimed series of subwoofers. One would expect their flagship speaker to get the bass right and the Ultras did not disappoint. With about 200 square inches of surface radiating area from the four 8 inch woofers, the Ultra Tower's bass response was both bountiful and balanced. I don't normally do this but just for fun I played 49Hz test tone from the Chesky Frequency Sweep and Burn-In LP. With the volume set to moderately loud, test tone unleashed a wave of energy that caused picture frames to vibrate on the walls throughout the house. On another occasion I tried a frequency sweep from a test CD. The signal descended in brief decades from 20kHz to 20Hz. Once again, the lowest perceivable sounds sent things rattling. At the moment when I could no longer hear the tones, I suddenly felt a rumbling under my feet as the windows started to shake and pots clattered in the kitchen! All the while, the Ultra Towers remained serenely composed without a hint of stress. Color me impressed!
Such bass prowess was put to good measure with Blu-ray disc of The Hobbit. The Gregorian chant inspired song "Misty Mountain" sounded natural with clearly delineated voices. Special effects such as the scene of fighting rock giants were immediate and impactful adding to our enjoyment of the movie. The quick transient response from cannon fire in "Les Miserables" was lightning fast. Rain sounded like drops of water striking a surface rather than ill defined hiss. The performer's voices were superbly rendered in both speech and song.
The bass is user adjustable with a foam plug about the size of a can of beer for the port. Inserting the foam plug has the effect of attenuating low bass output and reducing depth of perception. I experimented with the ports both plugged and unplugged. My advice is to find the best location in the room where bass has the smoothest response without the foam inserts rather than use the foam plugs to ameliorate poor placement. Over the course of the review period, the SVS Ultra Tower demonstrated some of the most balanced, integrated, and well defined mid to low bass I have experienced in my home for quite some time.
"Undisclosed Desires" by Muse is a song with a deep subsonic synth line layered under slapped electric bass. Added to this foundation is a string quartet plucks their strings with fingers rather than bows. The Ultra Towers rendered strings with realism and delicacy while at once outpouring thick synth and funky bass. "United States of Eurasia" is another fine Muse tune from The Resistance CD. With influences from the Beatles' "A Day in the Life", Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", and Led Zepplin's "Kashmir" the meandering five and a half minute song ends with an excerpt of Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9 No. 2 with the faint sounds of children playing in the back ground. Just as the song fades out, a sortie of jet fighters thunders overhead towards the horizon in the distance. They affect is riveting and convincingly portrayed by the SVS Ultra Towers.
My Afro Cuban / Latin Jazz iTunes download recommendation for this review is "Piano y Violin" by Guillermo Rubalcaba. The song has a prominent tumbao bass line and jazzy piano accompaniment that recalls the late Ruben Gonzalez' work with Buena Vista Social Club. If the song doesn't motivate you to play air percussion, check your pulse. And while you're at it, download The Gerald Wilson Orchestra's version of John Coltrane's "Equinox". After listening to "Equinox", friends will notice a subtle change in your demeanor and recognize the coolness of your newfound swagger. Both of these performances were well served by the Ultra Towers solid foundation and clear uncluttered mid band response.
Yet, in spite of its impressive bass performance, the SVS Tower would not be a speaker worthy of your consideration without an accurate and uncolored mid range response. Recall that the mid woofer closest top of the speakers is responsible for reproducing the most critical range from 160 - 2kHz. The secondary mid-woofer below the tweeter acts to augment the transition from mid to low bass. In other words, the top mid-woofer operates well within its comfort zone. For the duration of my time with the SVS Ultra Towers, I could not press them to sound "shouty" or distort in any manner. In fact, the more I juiced the Towers, the better they sounded. Specialist in All Styles is a 2002 recording by the Senegalese Afro-Cuban group Orchestra Baobab. This is a favorite CD I have heard numerous occasions on numerous systems. Astonishingly, I had never noticed how the "Jiin Ma Jiin Ma" begins with a chuckle off stage before the musicians played the first chord of the song until I listened with the SVS Ultra Tower.
One evening, I invited an esteemed colleague with over thirty years of experience in audio arts. He brought a vast variety of songs on his music dedicated laptop. Each song played inspired different song or another direction and on it went for several hours into the night. Finally, towards the end he asked about the price of Ultra's and he shook his head and smiled in disbelief. "I know!" I said.
As for the Ultra Tower's high frequency response I offer the following disclaimer. Over the years I have had the good fortune to experience every type of tweeter on the market: ribbons, ceramic and diamond domes, horns, et al. These exotic tweeters have ethereal and magical properties. However, the wholesale cost of some of these units exceeds the total price of a pair of Ultra Towers! The Ultra's metal dome tweeter does an admirable job of casting a wide and deep soundstage without imparting listener fatiguing artifacts such as excessive edge definition or shrillness. Several live recording were very well reproduced with audience claps sounding like actual cupped palms coming together rather than ill defined hash. Cymbals on the tune "Up in the Playroom" by Detriot organ jazz trio Organissimo sounded crisp, cohesive, and easily identifiable as the rhythmic sticks moved from hi-hat, to ride, and crash.
When I was first given this assignment by my editor, I was concerned about how ten individual transducers might not speak with one voice. Like a group of virtuoso musicians performing together for the first time, it took a while for the players to relax and truly express the communicative properties of music rather than just stiffly play notes on the page. There is a reason SVS offers a 45 day home audition. It was on or about the 40th day when I came home quite tired from work and the commute. Rather than carry on with my normal routine, I cued up the third movement (Presto) of Beethoven's 7th symphony, sat back in the listening chair, pressed play, and immersed myself in the music completely detached from the devices that were reproducing it. A broad window of sound materialized before me into which I could view all the different sections of the orchestra and the energetic pace of the movement never lagged.
Therefore, based upon considerable experience with speakers in this market sector, the SVS Ultra Towers deserves your attention. If the speakers were veneered in polished exotic wood, one would not think twice if they retailed for double their $2000 price. The SVS Ultra Towers deliver solid high fidelity virtues and house party levels of fun. Highly recommended. Victor Chavira
End of Review
For those prospective owners who want to maximize the Ultra Towers capabilities, a high quality set of jumpers should be considered mandatory over the stock gold plated metal strips. After my final observations were completed, I inserted a set of Nordost Bi-Wire Jumpers. The positive effects were not subtle. Musical images focused more sharply and the soundstage became more coherent. Voices and instrumental timbres gained a measure of purity and dimensionality that although present with the stock jumpers, just not in full bloom as with the Nordost jumpers. Victor Chavira