Pros: Impressive performance on LFE content. Nice finish. Reasonably priced. Solid warranty. Includes free one-way shipping.
Cons: Large for a sealed design. Music capability is good but not exceptional.
Disclaimer #1: What I like in sound fidelity versus what someone else will like can be polar opposites. I can only talk about how these subwoofers performed in my home environment with the equipment I have for various movies and music that I like to showcase. How either of these subwoofers will perform in your home environment could be quite different, since environment and equipment play an important role in sound reproduction. I will also state that I am far more critical about music reproduction than I am about movie LFE.
Disclaimer #2: I'm not a home theater enthusiast. I don't own 5.1 anything. Other than movies, I don't watch much TV. My home entertainment comes mainly from music (at least a 4 to 1 ratio over movies, and probably higher). I also don't have to worry about sound from a subwoofer covering multiple seats, and while my rooms aren't small, they aren't cavernous either (approximately 3500 cu. ft. each and not closed off).
Disclaimer #3: I don't listen to movies or music at what is referred to as "reference levels". I assume reference levels means 100 dB (peak concert level) to 115 dB (peak rock concert levels). I will usually bring ear plugs to indoor rock concerts. I rarely push past the lower 90 dBs on peaks in my home and closer to the mid to high 80 dBs on most peaks. I consider that extremely loud. And guess what I found out? One doesn't need 100 plus dBs to shake the walls to silly putty. Actually one can shake walls at surprisingly low dB levels. For instance, on Poulenc's Organ Concerto in G minor, Tempo Introduction, Largo (a very low volume piece of music on my Saint-Saen's Organ Symphony SACD), the two minutes of sustained low pedals at or near 16 Hz rumbled with silent authority throughout the house rattling any and everything not nailed down. My dB readings on this piece averaged upper 40s to low 50s dB. And yes, it did indeed pressurize several rooms, and enough so that one would have to yawn to "pop" the ears. A weird sensation.
End of disclaimers.
While I purchased the SVS SB13-Ultra to enhance my stereo system, I also tested the Ultra on movies and was extremely impressed with its LFE capabilities. I thought it might be time to consider upgrading my current subwoofer that I use in the TV room with something that has a lot more bite. Unlike my stereo setup, the equipment for watching movies is rather meager, but certainly suitable for my needs:
1. Samsung 42-inch LCD
2. Zvox 550 platform speaker system
3. Oppo BDP-83 blu-ray player
4. BIC V1220 12-inch down-firing ported subwoofer (which the XS30 replaced)
Equipment in music room:
1. 19-inch Samsung LCD (for displaying DVD-A content)
2. Magnepan 3.6 Planar-Magnetic floor-standing speakers
3. Oppo BDP-95 blu-ray player (used only for music)
4. SVS SB13-Ultra subwoofer
5. McIntosh MC2205 Amplifier (yeah, it's 37-years old)
6. McIntosh C48 Preamplifier (just replaced the venerable C28 last year)
7. dbx 3BX Dynamic Range Expander (for vinyl only)
8. JVC Quartz Lock Turntable with Shure V-15 Type IV cartridge
9. Yamaha TX-350 Tuner
10. BIC Beam Box FM-10 (Indoor FM antenna)
11. VPI HW-16.5 Record Cleaning Machine
I've auditioned the following sealed subwoofers:
1. JL Audio F212 Fathom (in Covina)
2. Paradigm Sub 1 (in L.A.)
3. SVS SB13-Ultra (in-home audition)
4. Hsu ULS-15 (at the Anaheim Hsu Research facility and in-home audition)
5. PSA XS30 (I'm in the last week of my in-home audition)
All of the above, except for the PSA, were subwoofers I had auditioned for my music system. While I didn't care all that much for the Hsu's musical capabilities, I was very impressed with its movie LFE capabilities and decided that it would be a great subwoofer to use in my TV room, especially considering its fairly compact size. However, things didn't quite work out as planned and I returned it to the Hsu's facility just prior to the ending of my 30-day trial. This is where PSA comes in.
Music (Ultra = solid 10 out of 10 / XS30 = marginal 7 out of 10): Music and movie LFE are two completely different animals. One looks for subtleties as much as the more visceral elements in music. One also needs the subwoofer to completely disappear and never call attention to itself. The Ultra performed wonderfully on every CD, SACD and DVD-A that I have played. Just as importantly, it didn't add anything unwanted. The Ultra is a clear and easy choice and it does an incredible job in enhancing my music system.
Like the Hsu ULS-15, the XS30 performed very well on some music, but not quite as well on others. The worst offender was the music from Mike Oldfield (pretty much any CD -- Mike loves his ultra deep synthesized bass). One particular track, "Shabda" from "Music of the Spheres" clearly showed the XS30's inability to reproduce this with the solidity needed on these powerful, wall-shaking passages (although I rate it above the Hsu). I did get the XS30 to perform much better on that track, but by doing so it exaggerated the underlying bass on Oldfield's other music. The XS30 did its finest job with the SACD of Saint Saen's Organ Symphony, which I found quite impressive, and it reproduced those 16 Hz pedal notes with wall-rattling ease. I consider the XS30 only slightly better than the Hsu ULS-15 for music in general. However, if you don't listen to Mike Oldfield, the XS30 performs well to very well on most music (so did the Hsu), at least on the limited number of selections I tested it with. After all, the XS30 is my movie LFE subwoofer, not my music subwoofer.
Movies (Ultra = 8 out of 10 / XS30 = 9 out of 10): In movies, one looks for the visceral far more than the subtle. If it doesn't shake walls, your seat and you, it's not doing its job. Both the Ultra and the XS30 are impressive for movie LFE (as was the Hsu). I feel the Ultra is a hair more detailed in its presentation, but for pure aggressive brute force and deep rumbling impact, the XS30 is my subwoofer of choice for movies and I'm very happy with its performance. One scene in particular had me searching for rattles everywhere, and I thought I had taken care of all the rattles when auditioning the SVS and the Hsu. It's the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Fox's trailer descends underground and comes to rest where they had stored a nuclear fusion device. I thought the sound would bring down the walls -- everything was banging and rattling.
But every movie I have played seems more impressive. There are many top LFE movies, but Battlestar Galactica continues to be one of my favorites. Between the deep rumbles inside ships, the rapid explosions and the heavy drum beats … and all going on one after another or at the same time, it's a subwoofer's dream or nightmare. If a subwoofer is going to cough, it will be on Battlestar. The XS30 has sailed through everything I placed in front of it with apparent ease. This surprised me because I don't consider a 725 watt RMS amplifier a powerhouse considering we are talking about it moving two 15-inch drivers.
Aesthetics: The Ultra is relatively small and quite elegant in its piano black finish. I also really like its stylized front metal grill. It's unique, bold and makes a statement. The XS30's black sand-textured finish is a whole lot nicer than the photographs indicate. I'm quite pleased with the finish. Unlike the Ultra, which comes in only piano black or black oak, the XS30 comes in several different wood grain finishes (along with the sand-textured black, but alas, no piano black). However, the XS30 is much, much larger than the Ultra and has the ubiquitous standard black cloth grills. I'm still not use to such a big, black rectangular box, and I've tried to hide some of it with a large plant on top (I think I'd need closer to a forest). And while I am now just beginning to make peace with its size, I much prefer the Ultra's aesthetics.
Amplifier controls: No contest. The Ultra wins hands-down. It comes with a digital panel with a lot of control options that are far more exact and easier to use when dialing in your sub. It also has balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. The XS30 has the basic controls one would expect, but that's it. Also, there are no balanced inputs / outputs, and like the Ultra, no high-level inputs / outputs. And other than hash marks, there is nothing to delineate settings on its basic controls. Guessing is the name of the game here. I don't quite understand why numbers couldn't be silkscreened on, unless the linearity of the controls are so inaccurate that numbers would have little or no meaning (but then neither would the hash marks). However, I had very little problems setting up the XS30, so the controls turned out to be a non issue for my situation.
Summary (Ultra = solid 9 out of 10 / XS30 = marginal 8 out of 10): I feel I have precisely what I was looking for. I have an elegant and superb subwoofer for my music in the SB13-Ultra (I rank it as one of the top 10 subwoofers produced today), and a surprisingly impressive LFE subwoofer for movies in the XS30. Different brands in different rooms performing different tasks. The XS30 is significantly less expensive than the Ultra, but one can easily see and hear where SVS spent the extra dollars, and I consider both subwoofers to be a bargain. Both SVS and PSA offer best in class 5-year warranties (with SVS the leader because of all their other perks).
Final note: There are a lot of excellent subwoofers in the market these days, so it is not at all easy to make a choice. And just because I may think that the Ultra and the XS30 are outstanding in their categories, it doesn't mean there aren't better subwoofers available, because obviously there are. Trying to find them within the same price ranges is another story. I had intended to audition the Rythmik F15HP-SE, but there is a 6 month back order on this model in piano black, so sadly I had to drop Rythmik as an option (Rythmik has a great reputation and undoubtedly makes great subwoofers). Funk Audio (a true custom subwoofer shop) was also on my list, but I decided to go with a more price-conscious approach.