There are some things in life you can’t say no to. Threesomes. A ride on a private jet. A chance to meet Samuel L. Jackson. 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 offered us the chance to spend a month with a subwoofer capable of putting out 5,000 watts at full power, we said yes. Automatically. In this review, we break down the PB16-Ultra’s sound, design, packaging and accessories, specs and more. To see how it stacks up, see our list of the best subwoofers.
Power and Volume
In the comprehensive manual accompanying the SVS 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 1,500 watts continuous power and 5,000 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, or a big set of floorstanding speakers. 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 vaporizes 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.
Low-End (Bass) Clarity
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. Which is not bad at all, considering it costs around $1,000 less than the $2,500 PB16-Ultra.
EQ and Room Correction
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. It's a feature we are delighted to see in this price range – several other models, including more expensive ones, don't actually offer it. The Funk Audio 18.0C is an excellent example, and at around $7,200, it's stratospherically more expensive than the SVS by far.
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.
Size, Weight and Build Quality
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 - and bigger than almost sub in this price range, save for monsters like the JTR Captivator 118HT. 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?
Drivers and Technology
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. This is an option SVS have used before, in their Ultra Tower speakers (full review here) 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.
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 (if you want to get slightly technical, here’s an explanation of what that means). 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.
Controls and Connections
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. 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”. You get a discount of $200 if you buy both together. 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.
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.
Newer SVS Subwoofers
Although the PB16-Ultra remains the biggest subwoofer that SVS has ever produced, they've also released several models since. Their 4000 series is a complete reboot of their subwoofer line. It takes all the lessons learned in the PB16-Ultra, and applies them to a whole new range of subs. None of them are quite as powerful as the PB16-Ultra, but they are all excellent, and all provide superb bass. Our choice is the SB-4000, and we go into this in more detail below.
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 also 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.
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.
What We Like
- The PB16-Ultra has absolutely titanic volume and power, and delivers clear, rich, sumptuous bass.
- The app for the subwoofer is phenomenal, with excellent design.
- SVS make it easy to connect and integrate the subwoofer.
What We Don’t
- The sub is very, very heavy - so not for everyone! It’s also a little too expensive for most people.
- The remote control is fiddly, and feels unnecessary, especially with the app.
- The PB16-Ultra’s black finish attracts dust and fingerprints.
|SVS PB16-Ultra||$2,499||28.3" x 25" x 21.7"||16"||Front-Firing||1,500|
|SVS SB-4000||$1,599||20.9" x 18.3" x 17.8"||13.5"||Front-Firing||1,200|
|PSB SubSeries 450||$1,500||16.5" x 16.25" x 15.75"||12"||Front-Firing||400|
|Sonos Sub||$699||15.8" x 15.3" x 6.2"||6" x 2||N/A||Unknown|
|ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030||$700||18” x 17” x 17”||12"||Front-Firing||500|
If you take one thing away from this review, it's that the SVS PB16-Ultra producers some of the best bass you'll ever hear. Well, OK, that's not the only thing we want you to take away from this review – the second thing is that the PB16 is vastly inappropriate for smaller spaces. If you do have a smaller living room, or slightly less cash to spend, then it may be worth looking at an SB-4000. It has less wattage (1,200 RMS, versus 1,500 for the PB16) and lacks the open bass ports that help really extend the sound. But it also incorporates the SVS app, and has a fantastic DSP. And it's a hell of a lot cheaper, at $1,599, which means you'll save nearly $1,000.
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 their SubSeries 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 $1,500, 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.
If you want something fully wireless, and already own some of the seriously popular Sonos home speakers, then we recommend the Sonos Sub as an affordable alternative to the PB-16 Ultra. It costs $699, and its unusual design means that it's much easier to place. It helps that the sound quality is solid – not nearly as powerful as the PB16-Ultra, but still damn good. 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.
Let's highlight another budget option. Right now, one of the best subs – at the time of writing, we think it's the best sub - is the ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030. For $700, we don't think you're going to find a model that gives you more. This front-firing subwoofer delivers exacting and controlled bass, and while it isn't the loudest model available, it makes up for it in so many ways. Given the competition in the subwoofer world, what ELAC have done here is quite extraordinary. This should be your first choice for smaller subwoofers.
Because 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. If you’re insane). 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 2018. 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 $20,000 on a subwoofer, 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.