There are those of us among the Audio Writing Brotherhood -- long since committed to the no-fewer-than-five-speakers-plus-subwoofer realm of home audio and the bigger-is-better onscreen dustup complete with the loudest friggin’ explosion ever -- who yearn for the golden days of yesteryear, when all that mattered was the high-quality reproduction of simple two-channel recordings of music. The gods -- or, in this case, my editor -- have heard my silent prayers and have had delivered, like manna from heaven, this humble little stereo system from SVS: a pair of Prime Satellites and an SB-1000 subwoofer. And while it hasn’t yet transported me to audio Nirvana, this unassuming rig is testament to the amazing advances made in the manufacture of high-fidelity speakers since the days when two-channel stereo ruled our realm with an authority as unquestioned as it was unchallenged.
The Prime Satellite ($134.99 USD each) is finished in a lovely Polished Piano Black (Black Ash is also an option), measures 8.75"H x 4.9"W x 6"D, and weighs a surprisingly hefty 6.5 pounds. It sports a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter with FEA-optimized diffuser, and a 4.5” polypropylene-cone midrange-woofer in a cast basket of ABS-fiberglass composite. There’s a circular, 1”-diameter port with a wide flare on the rear panel, just above the wall-mounting bracket, which is right above the connection receptacle and its five-way binding posts. The Prime Satellite has a claimed frequency response of 69Hz-25kHz, +/-3dB, a sensitivity of 85dB/W/m, and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms.
The SB-1000 sealed-box subwoofer ($499.99) is a near-cube at 13.5”H x 13”W x 14”D; it weighs 27 pounds. Its business end is a forward-firing, proprietary 12” cone driven by a Sledge STA-300D class-D internal amplifier with a claimed continuous output of 300W RMS. The sub’s rear panel is populated with the usual options: Volume control, 0-180° Phase control, Low Pass Filter/Crossover Frequency control, Audio/Standby toggle, Trigger input to permit control by another component (for HT applications), Line Level In and Out (one dedicated as a sub/LFE amplifier channel), High Level Speaker Level inputs, an AC receptacle, and a master On/Off switch.
It’s difficult to imagine the SVS Prime Satellite plus SB-1000 combination in an environment in which it would be required to fill with sound a medium-size room, much less a large one. However, it could very well serve as the prime audio system in a small, confined, and/or particularly cluttered space. The components are designed to be unobtrusive and easily tucked away. My guess is that they’re also designed for the user who’s less than hungry for power -- someone who wants quality audio at a competitive price without a lot of bulky boxes to futz with.
With that in mind, we put the Satellites and SB-1000 in our living room, which is full of furniture and comfy accoutrements -- precisely the kind of venue that one would decidedly not consider a high-end environment. Ordinarily, the room is outfitted with a modest audio system: Sony DVP-NC800H five-disc carousel DVD/CD changer, Audioengine N22 integrated amplifier, and a pair of venerable Celestion 3 speakers. It’s our bow to ambience -- music for a quiet Sunday morning, or background for dinner in the adjacent dining room or screened porch. At 22Wpc RMS, the N22 has just enough oomph to interfere with polite -- even impolite -- conversation, and we can load up the disc changer with four or five hours’ worth of music that can be switched out, depending on our mood. (Eventually, the changer will be replaced by a file server such as the dee-lish Bluesound Vault, but that’s still a few thousand CD-to-FLAC conversions away.) We put the Satellites on 29”-high stands about 4’ apart, astride a bump-out that used to be a fireplace, and about 9’ from the listening position. We tucked the sub into a corner with the other gear, still close enough to ensure fairly smooth integration with the Satellites.
I set the SB-1000 subwoofer’s crossover to 80Hz, to provide some overlap with the Prime Satellites’ claimed low-end limit of 69Hz. This proved fortuitous, because I was soon reminded that not in every instance will a speaker go as low as its manufacturer says it will. With the sub’s crossover set to 100Hz, the bass overpowered the Satellites. That said, right out of the box, the Satellite/SB-1000 combo astonished me with its depth and clarity. Plainly, the sub’s and the Satellite’s sounds were engineered to blend seamlessly. SVS might have something special here.
Sea Wolf is Alex Brown Church’s nom de bande -- he pretty much writes, plays, and produces everything on Sea Wolf’s Leaves in the River (CD, Dangerbird DGB 023), which sounds poppy and upbeat despite such downer titles as “Song for the Dead” and “The Cold, the Dark and the Silence.” Church and his co-producers have dialed into his voice plenty of echo, an artifact the Prime Satellites rendered well, allowing the wealth of percussive accents (shakers, glockenspiels, bells, etc.) to punctuate the mix on cue. Like many one-man-band recordings -- Sam Beam’s first few Iron and Wine albums come to mind -- Leaves in the River can tend toward a sameness of sonic palette; sometimes, you just need other musicians on a level field to let different sorts of light into the creative process. That said, the album is accomplished and rewarding.
Andrew Bird’s 11th album, Break It Yourself (CD, Mom & Pop MP048), is his usual collection of propulsive rock songs, quirky uses of familiar instruments -- mostly his violin -- and lots of whistling. If there’s one aspect of sound that you want any speaker to get right, it’s the midrange, and Break It Yourself throws into the midrange a mess of things the human ear can easily distinguish. This album’s mélange of guitars, drums, keyboards, violins, voices, and whistling could easily be smooshed into an unholy chaotic stew, but the Prime Satellites kept each in its proper perspective, producing a neutral, clear midband. There’s not a lot of soundstaging on this album, nor were the SVSes paragons of transparency, but they got out of the way and let the music come through. Bird’s sonic taste tends toward the trebly, which meant that Break It Yourself was right at home with the Prime Satellites.
Ah, yes, HF. If there’s one part of the audioband that can trip up today’s speakers, it’s the treble. I have yet to hear a speaker made in the last ten years or so that doesn’t boast extension to 22kHz and above. Yowsuh. A/V applications demand HF extension, and, as a result, too many satellite speakers designed for A/V configurations of 5.1 or more channels are perilously tipped up in the highs. Since the Prime Satellites are also, um, the prime satellites in SVS’s three Prime 5.1 A/V systems, it should be no surprise that they lean just a skosh toward the treble. That extends frequency range of film sound effects, making them more, well, prominent. With music, however, HF overemphasis has two consequences. First, certain instruments -- electric guitars, violins, brass, some reeds -- can sound harsh and strident, and jut obtrusively into musical space that should be the province of the upper midrange. Second, percussion, especially hammered instruments (xylophone, glockenspiel, bells), attacks in the treble, and things that are mostly intended as punctuation, intrude into what should be more nuanced musical space.
One recording that challenges the entire audioband is Joe Jackson’s Rain (CD, Rykodisc R-10921), which reassembles the remnants of the original Joe Jackson Band from the era of “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”: Jackson on keys, Graham Maby on bass, Dave Houghton on drums. (MIA is guitarist Gary Sanford, who was in the original and reassembled JJB for Volume 4 in 2004, but was reminded, by the ensuing grueling tour, why he’d left the band in the first place.) The Rain band resembles a rock version of a classic jazz piano trio, and demands from a system some of the same things (e.g., the timbral integrity of each instrument) and some quite different things: a rock trio is a lot louder than the trios of Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett. Through my Big Rig -- Onkyo CD player, AVA Omega III EC preamp, Sunfire amp, and a pair of original Legacy Classic speakers -- the sound of Rain is as disparate as it is sumptuous. Jackson’s piano is as wide as the soundstage; Maby’s bass hovers in the background at left; Houghton’s drums occupy a space in the right rear. The Prime Satellites’ soundstage -- mostly, I think, because of where they were positioned in the living room -- was expectedly smaller, but not at the expense of instrumental clarity. Even if the spaces between instruments considerably overlapped, there was none of the congestion you might expect from such small speakers. Moreover, “Rush Across the Road” challenged the Prime Satellite/SB-1000 combo with generous doses of deep bass, especially sharp drum attacks, and Jackson’s restrained singing over his delicate piano. No matter the change of dynamics or tempo, the SVS combo handled it with distinction. I was especially impressed with how they managed the transition from the upper midbass to the deep bass -- a testament to the seamless integration of the outputs of satellites and sub.
For a band that’d been around 15 years, I Am Kloot had made barely a ripple until Elbow’s Guy Garvey produced their fifth album, Sky at Night (CD, Shepherd Moon SM002), which includes the lovely “Fingerprints.” This is a simple, almost spare track -- a voice over acoustic guitar, soft bass, and softer drums -- until the chorus slams in with piano, strings, and some weird vocal effects. Lesser speakers would trip over the unexpected dynamic surge, but the Prime Satellites and SB-1000 handled it with ease. Garvey’s magic culminates in the final chorus, when he places John Bramwell’s voice behind a string trio -- a shift not all that unusual, but in this case unique for the sheer beauty of Garvey’s arrangement. I found the reproduction of “Fingerprints” by the Satellites as engaging -- and perhaps as riveting -- as my Big Rig’s.
The SVS Prime Satellites and SB-1000 subwoofer seem to have been engineered primarily for home-theater use -- that’s how SVS markets them on their website -- so their performance as a music system, in my view, had some hurdles to clear. First, they had to sound musical, faithful to the artists’ intent. Second, they had to avoid the tipped-up treble that plagues too many HT-engineered satellites. Third, I’m skeptical of small speakers costing much less than $250/each. Even given the almost otherworldly advances made in speaker technology over the past 20 years, something had to have been sacrificed to keep the Prime Satellite’s price so low.
Disposing of those hurdles in reverse order: Third, at $134.99 a pop, the Prime Satellite is one of audio’s bona-fide bargains. I’ve heard speakers costing $250 each that struggle to keep up with the Satellites, as well as $135 speakers that can’t come close to the cleanness and accuracy of their sound. Second, although the Prime Satellite does somewhat favor the treble, it didn’t sound strident or harsh, and its sound had no brittleness and didn’t break up when something rocketed into the stratosphere. And first and finally, for a small system in a setting with limited space -- our living room -- there was no questioning their musicality. The Satellites’ integration with the SB-1000 has been so artfully accomplished that the transitions between the lower midrange and midbass, and the midbass and low bass, were inaudible.
The SVS combo of Prime Satellites and SB-1000 subwoofer should be terrific for any environment challenged by too little space and/or too much furniture, and that rewards nearfield listening. The Satellites’ sound was clearly articulate, squeaky clean, and utterly faithful to the music, and SVS has artfully managed their integration with the SB-1000 subwoofer to create a listening experience that is coherent, cohesive, and musically engaging. At a total price of $769.97, I’m not sure there’s a better value today in audio. Got a small space that begs for music? A dorm room? Give the SVS Prime Satellite/SB-1000 sub combo a listen. And don’t forget to thank me for the tip.
. . . Kevin East
- Integrated amplifier -- Audioengine N22
- Source -- Sony DVP-NC800H DVD/CD changer
- Speakers -- Celestion 3
SVS Prime Satellite Loudspeakers
Price: $134.99 USD each.
Price: $499.99 USD.
System Price: $769.97.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
6240 Belmont Ave.
Girard, OH 44420
Phone: (877) 626-5623