Mark Henninger checks out a new 3.5-way tower from SVS. In a world awash with competent speakers, does the Prime distinguish itself?
SVS is no stranger to AVS Forum members; its subwoofers are a popular choice for both music and home-theater applications. Recently, the subwoofer-centric company introduced its Prime series of speakers that promise high performance at a reasonable price.
For this review, I decided to see how the $1000/pair Prime towers perform when used for stereo music playback in both 2.0 and 2.1 configurations.
The Prime tower is a 3.5-way design, which assigns a different crossover point to each woofer in order to minimize lobing. The speaker includes a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter, a 4.5" polypropylene midrange driver, and a pair of 6.5" woofers that use a long-stroke suspension. Each woofer operates in a separate vented chamber, isolating it from the other drivers.
The cabinets on my demo units feature an immaculate black piano-gloss finish, which adds $200 to the price of a pair. The Prime towers are substantial in both size and weight, tipping the scale at 40 pounds each and measuring 36.6"x8"x11.6".
SVS claims a frequency response of 30-25,000 Hz (±3 dB) for the Prime tower. Rated sensitivity is 87 dB/W/m, and each speaker handles up to 250 watts with 8 ohms impedance. There is no provision for bi-amping or bi-wiring, but the binding posts are easily accessible and accommodate banana plugs.
The Prime towers arrived carefully packed and in mint condition. There was no assembly required; even the rubber feet come pre-installed. I've never liked the look of speaker grills, so I performed all my listening and measurements with the grills off. Unfortunately, the grills do not attach magnetically, and at $1000/pair, I think they should. By the way, that's the biggest complaint I have about these speakers, and it's decidedly minor.
I used a Pioneer Elite SC-85 AV receiver
—rated at 135 watts/channel into 8 ohms—for my testing. It includes Sabre32 DACs and sounds great with numerous different speakers, including the Elite towers. I used no EQ for this review; in fact, I set the SC-85 to "pure direct" mode for all of my listening.
I wired the towers using a pair of 12-foot, 10-gauge speaker cables. My source was a Sony Vaio laptop connected to the Elite SC-85 AVR via HDMI.
I placed the towers four feet from the back wall and two feet from the side walls, in an audiophile-approved equilateral triangle configuration with my main listening position. I included an SVS SB2000 subwoofer in the mix for 2.1-channel listening, since some of my favorite music dips well below the Prime towers' rated frequency response. Adding the SB2000 extended the bass response down to 16 Hz or so.
For comparison, I used a pair of Pioneer Elite SP-EFS73 towers. I've had the Elites for over a month, and I'm used to their sound by now. They are notably good at stereo imaging, and they have a smooth, subdued quality that flatters deeply layered music. While they do cost a bit more than the Prime towers, that's partly due to their Atmos compatibility, which I'll discuss in an upcoming review.
It's worth noting that the Pioneer Elite towers are less efficient, have lower power handling, and offer less bass and treble extension compared with the SVS Prime towers. The Pioneer Elites don't claim to outperform the Primes spec-wise, but there's no doubt the Elite towers excel at other tasks—in particular, they are very precise thanks to their time-aligned concentric tweeter/midrange driver. Besides, when you add a subwoofer to the mix, it levels the playing field quite a bit.
The Prime towers are lively and dynamic speakers; that much was clear the moment I plugged them in and hit play. As far as full-sized towers go, they are not very efficient, yet they offer a visceral and therefore very involving performance.
In my 11'x19'x9' space, the SC-85 AVR provided more than enough power to make the Primes shine. The first thing I noticed is how they energize the air in the room, even at a modest volume. These speakers disappear when music plays, and the imaging they provide is precise—it's easy to visualize individual instruments in the mix.
A pair of quick measurements confirmed that the Prime towers perform within published specs from 30-20,000 Hz, at least in my room. At frequencies above 20,000 Hz, my UMIK-1 measurement mic ceases to be accurate, but it did measure output above that frequency.
When used without a sub, the Primes still manage to muster a fair amount of deep bass. It's been more than two decades since I started using multiple subs with my system, and there's no going back for me. However, if you skip the sub with these speakers, you'll still get a lot of satisfaction out of them. Importantly, the bass produced by the Primes was always tight.
The SVS Prime towers presented an interesting contrast to the Elite towers. That difference has to do with character—the Primes are assertive speakers, and they put the music right in front of you. The Elite towers are comparatively subdued, with a tendency toward greater precision and imaging accuracy than what the Primes could muster. However, the Prime towers counter with their engaging dynamics—the payoff is that live recordings sound live, not recorded.
DJ Shadow's "Monosylabik, Pts. 1 & 2" from the album The Private Press is a great track for testing how well speakers image. It includes some fancy phase shifting that creates the illusion of sounds circling behind your head, and the Primes pulled off the illusion perfectly. Compared to the Elite towers, the Primes did not image quite as precisely, but they compensated for it with a fuller sound. Audiophiles will not be disappointed when they sit in the sweet spot and take a good listen.
Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" often makes my demo playlist, thanks to its near-ubiquity, even at high-end audio shows. It has a relatively simple, straightforward mix—drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, and vocals. But the production itself is impeccable. It sounded good without a sub, but the bass line was a bit buried in the mix—which is highly inappropriate for funk. Adding the SB2000 sub made the song sound sublime. If you get the Primes, do yourself a favor and pair these speakers with a good subwoofer, you won't regret it.
If I have a go-to track for judging a system these days, it's "Cotton Tail" from the album Duke's Big 4. It earned its spot through sheer repetition; I've memorized how it sounds on over a dozen different systems, including more than one six-figure 2-channel rig. Near the end of the track, there is a drum solo that sounds as real as any recording I've heard when played on a good system.
Without a sub, the Primes delivered a perfectly passable rendition of "Cotton Tail." But with the sub handling deep bass, the speakers made it sound like the band was in the room with me. I know, that's a tired cliché, but when a pair of speakers combines good imaging with engaging dynamics, that's the impression you get.
"I Am the Walrus" and "Baby You're a Rich Man" by The Beatles proved to me that the Prime towers have a lot to offer 2-channel listeners. The superb production comes through; the music sounds fresh and resolute. Also, in this case, a subwoofer added little to the music.
Classical and opera fans will be pleased to know that the SVS Prime handles these genres well. I own five different recordings of "O Fortuna," the best-known song from Carl Orff's epic opera Carmina Burana. My favorite among them is a 1991 rendition by the San Francisco Symphony—I've owned a copy since it was first released and played it on every stereo I've owned since then.
The tympani hit that starts the track immediately startled me, which was a good sign. Then the choir comes in, just above a whisper. Anyone familiar with the track knows that it builds to a tremendous crescendo, and the Primes handled that transition—from quiet and delicate to huge and forceful—effortlessly. I was surprised to hear so much depth to the soundstage; with the right production, these speakers can create the illusion of a stage.
On "O Fortuna" in particular, the Elite towers did a better job of rendering the depth of the stage; I found their presentation very appealing for the genre. The recording seemed to flourish and bloom with beauty, whereas the Prime towers were more literal in their interpretation. Still, I'd say it's more of a subjective choice than it is a quantifiable difference.
If a speaker survives Meat Beat Manifesto's "Return to Bass," that alone is enough to earn it my recommendation. The genre-spanning electronic masterpiece is a parade of triangle, square, and sawtooth waves coming at you from all directions. Deep and brutal bass provides the foundation for this HiFi torture track.
The Primes excelled at reproducing "Return to Bass." When I describe them as visceral, it's because they offer a hint of the feeling you get in a club with a million-dollar PA—it tingles afterward. In "Return to Bass," you can hear and feel the music's textures rendered with startling clarity. The Pioneer Elites did not come close to offering the same sort of satisfaction from that track, with or without the help of a sub.
Overall, I think SVS got many things right with its new Prime towers. Any fault I found in their performance is more of a subjective judgment rather than an objective criticism. They played all the music I threw at them with a level of fidelity that I found satisfying and engrossing. They make music sound exciting, which is one of the best things a speaker can do.
In my tests, I never managed to stress the Primes before the overall volume became uncomfortably loud. I also know that I left 3 dB of headroom on the table—the Prime towers can handle up to twice the amount of power that I fed them. I could have used a Crown XTi-2002 to run them to the maximum, but I think I'll wait for the 7.1 system review before I do that.
I know some AVS members who own far more powerful speakers, and I know what it's like to listen to those systems. These speakers are not for that kind of listener. But in the real world, where space matters, aesthetics matter, and preserving your hearing also matters, the Prime towers get plenty loud in a normal-sized room—even when powered by an AVR. Also, while I always recommend adding one or more subwoofers to any stereo system, the Primes do quite well without one.
This review is only half the story. My next SVS-related review will include the Prime towers as part of a full surround system, and that will include movie soundtracks in the mix. This review is about using the Prime towers as a stereo pair, and they excel at that task. If your taste in speakers runs toward lively and dynamic, as opposed to polite and precise, you should consider auditioning a pair of Primes.
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