There are some things in life you can’t say no to. Threesomes. That’s a good one. A ride on a private jet. A chance to meet Samuel L. Jackson. Courtside seats to a play-off game. While it’s entirely possible to turn these down, you’ll spend many sleepless nights staring at the ceiling, wondering if you should’ve said yes. So when SVS, makers of fine home theater gear, got in touch and offered us the chance to spend a month with a subwoofer capable of putting out 5000 watts at full power, we said yes. Automatically. Because if we didn’t, we would have spent many sleepless nights staring at the ceiling, too. Did it matter that our testing room was comically undersized for such a beast? Did it matter that it was unlikely to endear us to our neighbours? Did it hell. We wanted the PB16-Ultra from the moment we clapped eyes on it. And for the past month, it has come to absolutely dominate our lives. We are not exaggerating when we say we’ve never tested any piece of audio equipment quite like this.
Normally, we’d put this section at the bottom. After all, just how interesting is the box something comes in? Then again, we’ve never had something arrive in a box that takes two people just to get it into the building, and which takes whole minutes to get through the front door. We’ve never had something arrive in a box that actually comes with un-boxing instructions, and very seriously recommends the help of a friend to get the contents out.
SVS are, it seems, aware of just how ridiculous this subwoofer is, and have planned ahead to minimise the pain. Flipping up the back lid reveals a clear set of un-boxing guidelines, and the subwoofer itself, packed in huge, rigid foam inserts. Actually sliding it out the box takes more than a few minutes of grunting, swearing, and sweat. Never in the history of this website have we had to recommend having a bottle of water and possibly a chiropractor nearby when removing a product from its packaging, but you could certainly do worse than have those available here. It makes for an interesting afternoon.
But despite the effort, there’s no denying that the sub has been packed with care. You can see our efforts to get out the box in the Video Review below. An ordeal it might have been, but pretty soon, we had the SVS PB16-Ultra set up in our living room. Now the fun could really start.
The first thing you need to know about this subwoofer is that it is heavy. Monstrously heavy. 174.5 pounds, to be precise. The traditional way of finding the best placement for a subwoofer is to put it in your listening position, turn it on, then crawl around and listen for where the bass is most pleasing. That…is not going to happen here. You are never, and we mean never, going to get this thing into your listening position. Not unless you’re prepared to throw your back out.
It’s 25” high, and 28.3” deep: a big, black beast of a thing that is impossible to look away from. Corner placement is best, but you can also slot it next to your front speakers, or at the side of your room. Wherever you decide to put it, it’s best to have an idea of the placement beforehand. You are not going to want to move this thing once it’s out. This isn’t just because it’s heavy: the smooth sides and frictionless texture make getting a proper grip quite difficult. The glossy black finish attracts fingerprints, too, as well as dust. These are very minor issues, to be sure, but would it have killed SVS to add handles?
Fortunately, outside of a few niggles, the design is top notch. The front end of the subwoofer is dominated by a gigantic 16” driver, fiberglass resin, hard as rock, with a subtle SVS logo in the center. Beneath it are three ports, designed to either be left open, or sealed off with the included foam inserts (we’ll talk more about what this does in the Sound section below). There are also six slots for an included metal grille, which you can use to hide away the driver and ports. We much preferred having them exposed, just because we really enjoyed how they looked, but we can absolutely see that some people will prefer to use the grille. It’s well built and substantial, and easy to remove and replace.
At the top edge, recessed in a smooth, sculpted hollow, is a digital control pad. Next to it is a simple four-way button controller, which allows easy and intuitive use to any of the functions found in the SVS mobile app. We didn’t use this very much, other than adjusting the volume – we preferred to rely on the excellent app itself – but when we did, it worked extremely well.
It’s worth talking a little bit about the inside of this subwoofer, even if you’re almost certainly never going to see it. When something is this intimidating, this intense, it’s kind of fun to dig into the insides. That 16” driver is only able to do what it does because of an equally massive 8” voice coil, slotted into a high-density aluminum basket. The whole lot is wired to a very precise machined motor, designed to generate huge amounts of energy. The amplifier inside is a Sledge STA-1500D, a 64-amp 200-volt MOSFET behemoth, and the audio passes through an Analog Devices Audio DSP with 56-bit filtering before it comes out the front. The cabinet is acoustically-inert MDF. The subwoofer might shudder at high levels, but it doesn’t affect the sound, even a little bit.
Round the back is a very straightforward set of ports. For most people, a single line level input to a receiver will be all that is needed, but you get plenty of options for connecting things up. There are both line level inputs and outputs, a 3V-12V trigger input (for turning the subwoofer on when you activate another piece of equipment) and a pair of balanced XLR line level inputs and outputs. For such a beast, it’s surprisingly straightforward to connect up. There’s also the option to connect multiple PB16s – what SVS referred to as “Going Dual”. We can’t even imagine what it must be like to have two of these things vibrating away. The very fabric of reality would turn to dust.
SVS allow a 45 day home audition for prospective buyers, and a generous five-year warranty, as well as free shipping.
It’s not often that we dedicate a special section to a mobile app, but the one SVS have developed deserves a closer look. It’s one of the best, most intuitive, most comprehensive examples we can think of. It’s available for both iOS and Android, and connects in seconds to the subwoofer via Bluetooth.
It packs an absolutely tremendous amount into its drop-down menu. You can adjust the lowpass filter, switch the phase and polarity, apply a bespoke parametric equaliser, adjust room gain compensation. You can create presets, and dialling back to them is the work of moments. Even if none of this means anything to you, each section features a comprehensive, straightforward tutorial, making it easy to get to grips with what you’re seeing. The individual sections are well designed, each available on a single screen, with no scrolling. Using the app was a pleasure, and although tuning the system to our liking took a little trial and error, it wasn’t because of a failure in technology.
In the comprehensive manual accompanying the PB16-Ultra, SVS include a section on volume, noting that the subwoofer “should not draw attention to itself, but should simply make the system’s low end seem more extended and accurate.”
Haha. Ohahahaha. Ooooohahahaaaa.
The first thing we did – the very first thing, even before we’d done any tuning – was find the gnarliest, bassiest track we could think of, and pump the volume as high as it would go.
You really cannot comprehend what it is like to sit in front of an SVS PB16-Ultra turned to maximum levels. At 1500 watts continuous power and 5000 watts peak, it does not mess around. Even at lower levels, you can put your ear close to the speaker and hear a menacing, subsonic thrum, as if the subwoofer is only sleeping. And this isn’t like being in front of a big speaker stack at a club. This is more personal. The damn thing is looking right at you, and it wants to eat your brain. At top volume, it all but vaporises it.
At -15dB, we could feel the sound waves vibrating through the couch. At -10db, The windows were starting to shake, and glasses on the shelves were beginning to rattle in a way that suggested they were deeply unhappy. At -5dB, we swear we could see the walls start to bend backwards. At -3dB, our eardrums began to bleed. At 0dB…well, the fabric of reality turned to dust. We woke up two hours later with a head that felt like a car crash and a new, superstitious awe for the giant, Biblical beast sitting in our lounge.
It was, as we’ve said, completely and totally inappropriate for our testing room, which is not the biggest in the world. We didn’t care. Within minutes of testing it for the first time, we loved it unconditionally.
Our comfortable operating level was at a relatively sedate -22dB, a range which satisfied SVS’s goal of making the low-end feel more extended. It’s at this level, where you’re aware of the bass but not overwhelmed by it, that you can truly appreciate how good it really is. Watching a movie through a 5.1 system with this sub, or listening to music, is revelatory. The sound floats on a giant, dark ocean of bass: never overpowering, crystal-clear, with lightning sharp definition. Explosions and punches have serious weight, but never startle. Basslines and kick drums sound smooth, tight, and controlled. Even that first time, when we jacked the sound and melted existence, there was almost zero distortion. The PB16-Ultra might be complete overkill in the subwoofer category for most people, but there’s no denying that it puts out some genuinely stunning low-end. In terms of comparison, we’d say the closest we could think of would be the PSB SubSeries 450, which has similar pinpoint articulation and depth, if not quite the absurd volume.
It took a little while to get there, though. While it’s great to have the option to tune everything from polarity to phase and room gain compensation, it did mean that we spent a lot of time fine-tuning the exact sound. This is by no means a bad thing, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this is definitely not a product that works to its full potential directly out of the box. If you want the good stuff, you have to put the work in. This includes playing with the three vented ports at the bottom of the unit. You’ve got the option to plug these ports with foam inserts: plugging all three ports lowers the overall volume, but enhances clarity, while leaving them open does the opposite. We found that leaving all but one of them open was a good balance. It’s a strangely analogue system in such a digitally complex machine, but it works extremely well. It was impossible not to experiment, to see how the subwoofer would treat a certain song or movie scene, to see where its limits were. It was impossible not to revel in just how rich and full things sounded.
What it comes down to is that SVS have remembered something that so many other companies have forgotten: bass is supposed to be fun. And the PB16-Ultra is some of the best fun we’ve had with a piece of audio equipment. Ever.
Outside of the grille, the thick acoustic foam inserts and the power cable, the main accessory for the PB16-Ultra is the remote. It’s one of the few things about the subwoofer that we didn’t like. It works perfectly fine – it has volume buttons, controls for the digital display, a switch to turn the display on and off, and preset buttons. But it has a couple of design issues that frustrated us.
For one thing, it’s extremely small and light – small enough for us to regularly misplace, or to drop in between couch cushions. We also found a strange problem in using it, in that we kept trying to control the subwoofer while pointing the wrong end of the remote at it. We’re not entirely sure why we did this so often; there’s a prominent SVS logo at the front of the remote, and it’s not as if the buttons are hard to interpret, or not marked clearly. But it kept happening – something we think is down to the symmetrical nature of the remote. It’s a very minor problem, but a perplexing one.
Unless, of course, the initial experiments with maximum volume had really and truly scrambled our brains. In which case, forget it.
There’s no question that the SVS PB16-Ultra is vastly overpowered for most peoples’ setups. For small apartments, or basic 5.1 systems, 5000 watts is serious overkill, and the sheer space needed for the subwoofer and the effort it takes to get it into place will likely make it impractical for many people - not to mention expensive, at $2500 (although you can buy two at once, for $200 off).
The thing is: you don’t get a subwoofer like this because it’s practical. You get it because you want to have some of the best fun it is possible to have with a piece of audio equipment in 2017. If you have the budget, the space, the sheer cojones to pull the trigger on this purchase, you’ll get to experience something truly special. Because make no mistake: short of spending $21K on a Wilson Audio Thor’s Hammer, the SVS PB16-Ultra is the single best home subwoofer available today. It’s the dinner with Samuel L. Jackson, the private plane ride, the threesome-with-twins of subwoofers. Buy one, and you get courtside seats to the greatest show on Earth.
- Titanic volume.
- Clear, rich, sumptuous bass.
- Fantastic app.
- Easy to connect and integrate.
- Very, very heavy - so not for everyone!
- Fiddly remote.
- Black finish attracts dust and fingerprints.
If you don’t have the cash or space to stretch to a 16, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t pick up a PB13 Ultra, the 16’s predecessor from SVS. At only 1000 watts continuous, and 3600 peak, it doesn’t have the raw power of the newer model. But it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, and is still a very viable alternative.
It incorporates a lot of the technology used by the new sub, including the vented ports, as well as a superb DSP and some excellent driver technology. For those wanting a slightly cheaper alternative, or just something they can integrate into an existing setup such as a 5.1, this would be a very good subwoofer to take a look at. And it sounds magnificent.
PSB aren’t nearly as storied as SVS – they are better known for their in-wall speakers than anything else. But they do a nice line in subwoofers, too, and this 450 model is probably the closest match to the PB16-Ultra in sound, if not quite in volume.
The NAD Electronics Class D amp, 12” driver and excellent DSP create some seriously deep, characterful bass that is highly addictive. At $1500, It’s also a good grand cheaper than the PB16-Ultra, making it a viable budget alternative when you don’t need earth-rattling volume.
We freely admit to being huge SONOS fans here at TMS. The combination of excellent audio quality, value for money, and sheer ease-of-use is hard to beat. Their SUB, designed to fit into their existing home theater setup, is a terrific sub-$1000 model that puts out hugely pleasing audio quality and a decent volume level.
You do have to be aware that buying this subwoofer means you’ll be locked into the SONOS ecosystem – no using it with a third party A/V receiver, for example. But if you can get past that, you’ll find yourself at one of the most enjoyable subs on the market.
|SVS PB16-Ultra||$2,500||28.3" x 25" x 21.7"||16"||Front-Firing||1500|
|SVS PB13 Ultra||$2,000||29.9" x 22.5" x 20.5"||13.5"||Front-Firing||1000|
|PSB SubSeries 450||$1,500||16.5" x 16.25" x 15.75"||12"||Front-Firing||400|
|SONOS SUB||$941||15.8" x 15.3" x 6.2"||6" x 2||N/A||Unknown|