Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
One thing I’d like to see more of in reviews of extremely expensive high-end audio components is a comparison of the sound quality of the expensive product reviewed with that of real-world gear that doesn’t require its buyer to earn a salary of six or seven figures. For example, while I can appreciate that a $20,000 pair of speakers might sound really good, as a real-world consumer, I’d like to know how those speakers sound in comparison with something that costs a tenth as much. Any reader looking to buy one is unlikely to consider buying the other. But it would be nice if the reviewer of $20k/pair speakers at least had a pair of well-designed, more affordable speakers on hand as a point of reference to provide some context for how much better the pricier speakers sound -- if, indeed, they do.
In my own experience of reviewing high-end gear with high-end prices, such comparisons have brought me back to earth more than once. It’s easy to get excited and gush over costly electronics or a flagship speaker, only to realize that, when listened to alongside some much cheaper competition, the difference in sound quality is in no way reflected by the difference in price.
Which brings me to the subject of this review: SVS’s new Prime Pinnacle tower speaker. Priced at $799.99 USD each in Premium Black Ash (add $100 each for Piano Gloss Black), the Pinnacle is a good example of a solidly engineered, high-performing speaker that can serve as a real-world reference against which more costly competition should be compared.
Before the arrival of the Prime Pinnacles, I knew of SVS only as a maker of subwoofers -- I hadn’t known that they offer a wide range of loudspeakers that includes a model for just about every application. The Pinnacle is the biggest, most expensive model in the Prime series, sitting one notch above the Prime Tower. In the hierarchy of all SVS speakers, the Prime Pinnacle is below the Ultra Tower, introduced in 2012, which has a drastically different cabinet design and driver complement.
SoundStage! Access recently published an interview with Smith Freeman, SVS’s director of product management. In that conversation, Freeman told our Diego Estan and Doug Schneider that when SVS set out to design the Prime Pinnacle, they expected it would be fairly simple -- essentially, their goal was to build a bigger version of the Prime Tower. But the team kept experimenting with driver positions, ports, bracing, and other things, and by the time the Pinnacle was finished it had undergone five major redesigns. Each time a change was made, it had to be evaluated in listening tests against the Ultra and Prime Towers; Freeman described the process of getting the voicing right as “really arduous.”
Even a quick glance at the Pinnacle hints at the complexity of its design. It has five drivers -- a tweeter, a midrange, and three woofers -- in a cabinet with no fewer than three rear ports. In this three-way speaker the tweeter is crossed over at 2.1kHz to the midrange, which in turn hands off to the woofers at 300Hz, both transitions effected via second-order slopes (i.e., 12dB/octave).
An interesting aspect of the Pinnacle’s design is the positioning of its midrange driver above its tweeter. Although this driver configuration isn’t unique -- PSB has been doing it for years in their flagship speakers, and most recently in their entry-level Alpha models -- it’s not common. When SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider asked Freeman whether the decision to do this was motivated by sound or appearance, Freeman indicated that it had been for acoustic and mechanical reasons. Part of the objective was to put the tweeter at a height that would help it produce more coherent aural images. Furthermore, after subjecting the Pinnacles to many listening tests, SVS found that voices “sounded most honest and transparent” with the midrange above the tweeter, something Freeman attributes, at least in part, to “better diffraction qualities.”
The tweeter is a 1” aluminum dome with a diffuser, optimized using finite-element analysis (FEA), that SVS claims broadens the dome’s dispersion to produce a wider soundstage. The Pinnacle’s 5.25” midrange, based on its counterpart in the Ultra Tower, is a composite glass-fiber cone held in a cast basket of ABS-fiberglass composite. The midrange has its own separate, sealed enclosure whose angled internal bracing is designed to diffuse standing waves and shift them outside its operating range.
The three 6.5” woofers have cones of polypropylene in baskets of the same composite as in the midrange, and long-stroke motors and suspensions designed to handle high output. Each woofer has its own enclosure and its own 2”-wide, flared, rear-firing port, each port tuned for smoothness and accuracy. If you’re keeping count, this means that each Pinnacle cabinet comprises four subenclosures. Tapered edges on the front baffle are there to minimize edge diffraction and soften the speaker’s appearance when viewed from the front.
SVS specifies the Pinnacle’s frequency response as 29Hz-25kHz, ±3dB, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and sensitivity of 88dB/W/m. Those specs represent a relatively easy load for an amplifier; I suspect that buyers could get sufficient volume from even a good-quality home-theater receiver, and indeed, SVS recommends 20-300W of amplification -- these speakers can handle a lot of juice. Based on my experience with them, I expect the Pinnacles could fill even a large listening room with high volumes. Power is delivered to each speaker through a single set of gold-plated five-way binding posts that can accept banana plugs, spades, or bare wire.
Each Pinnacle measures 40.5”H x 8”W x 13.4”D and weighs 57.1 pounds. It comes supplied with cloth grilles and two footer options: threaded metal spikes for use on carpets, and elastomer isolation feet for hard surfaces such as wood or laminate flooring. All feet are threaded, making the speakers easy to level on uneven surfaces. I used the elastomer feet, and was impressed with their spongy feel, which indeed seemed likely to minimize the transfer of energy from speaker to floor.
The Prime Pinnacle is a handsome speaker whose high-quality Piano Gloss Black belies its $1799.98/pair price for that finish. If you told me that the Pinnacle retailed for twice as much, I’d have no trouble believing you, based solely on its appearance. My only complaint: Unless a manufacturer specifically says to do so, I never use grilles on speakers, and I wasn’t a fan of the 30 screws and eight holes for the grille pegs piercing the front of each Pinnacle -- it makes for a busy-looking baffle. This won’t be a problem for those who use grilles, but I prefer a more minimalist appearance, especially given how otherwise attractive I found the Pinnacle’s cabinet.
I hooked up the Prime Pinnacles to my Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier with AudioQuest Comet speaker cables. Digital content was provided by an Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana software, feeding a Bryston BDA-2 DAC through an AudioQuest Forest link (USB). The BDA-2 fed the B135 SST2 via Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects (RCA). Vinyl was played on a Thorens TD 160 HD turntable with a Rega Research RB250 tonearm and a Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge, in conjunction with a Lehmannaudio Black Cube phono stage. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator.
When our measurements of the Prime Pinnacle are published alongside this review, I’ll be curious to see them, but I expect a fairly even frequency response. The SVSes didn’t really jump out at me the way some speakers do. In fact, when I began playing music through them, I was a bit underwhelmed. They didn’t sound bad; they just didn’t grab me.
It wasn’t until I sat down one night to take some listening notes that I experienced what I’d felt like hearing them for the first time. While enjoying some 17th-century choral music -- Allegri’s Miserere, from The Essential Tallis Scholars (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Gimell) -- I heard an amazing amount of stage depth and an impressive ability to re-create clear aural images. Through the SVSes, the voices of individual choristers were well resolved, and their positions in front of me were readily perceptible. It was as if the sounds of the singers’ voices emanated from three distinct places: the foremost was in line with the plane of the speaker baffles, while a second group slightly farther back had a touch more reverb to help accentuate their distance. The third group of voices were apparently singing to me from beyond the front wall of my room, conveying an illusion of so much depth that I seemed to be sitting in the rear pew of a large cathedral. For someone who places resolution and a coherent soundstage high on a list of sonic priorities, the SVSes tick the right boxes.
“Hold On,” the not-so-hidden track that follows a cover of Tom Waits’s “Ol ’55” on Sarah McLachlan’s EP The Freedom Sessions (16/44.1 AIFF, Nettwerk), sounded sublime through the Primes. As acoustic versions go, this one works really well. Aside from the performance itself, the rawness of the recording is what makes it so authentic, providing the proverbial clear window on the music that comes from that sense of being there. In terms of transparency, this isn’t the best speaker I’ve had in my room -- that honor belongs to Revel’s PerformaBe M126Be ($4000/pair), which I’ve just reviewed -- but I’m confident the SVS would hold its own against much of its more expensive competition in this regard. “Hold On” was carved out with exemplary precision: Brian Minato’s bass possessed a warm, pleasing thump, and Ashwin Sood’s cymbals splashed with their crisp, characteristic ringing. This provided a backdrop for the focal point of the track, McLachlan’s voice. It still sounded as if recorded in a studio, but managed to engage with an eerie presence that was lifelike and tangible.
With “Fade Into You,” from Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See (CD, Capitol CDP 598253), the SVS Prime Pinnacles generated a big soundstage across the front of my room, on which the outlines of the instruments were well delineated. This is hardly an audiophile recording, but I’ve always admired how it was mixed, due largely to the washed-out, reverb-laden voice of Hope Sandoval, so integral to this group’s distinct sound. I tend to listen to this album through headphones, but the SVSes reminded me how enjoyable it is to hear it through a big system in a room in which its sometimes cavernous sound has space to breathe. For example, the tambourine in “Five String Serenade” seemed to float behind the left Pinnacle, on a stage extended well past the front wall; the ringing of its metal zills contributed to the commendable sense of depth before me.
When I listened to “Moon,” from Björk’s Biophilia (16/44.1 AIFF, Nonesuch), the plucked strings of four harps sounded admirably clean. Each harp occupied its own distinct position on the stage, and, much like the layered voices, helped create a big sound with an impressive sense of space. The bass was warm and lucid, and did a nice job of underpinning the track and filling out the sound. Once again, the Pinnacles showed themselves to be wonderfully articulate in their ability to convey detail while maintaining a full-bodied sound that should envelop listeners in even large rooms. At their price, I was taken aback by the sense of scale they could produce. Granted, lots of speakers can play big and loud; it’s the ability to do so while remaining composed that separates great speakers from those that are merely good, and in this regard, the Pinnacles were firmly in the former category. I particularly appreciated the explosive dynamics of “Crystalline,” which were delivered with superb power and precision through these seemingly unflappable towers.
To have some fun with the SVSes, I played “General Patton,” from Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (16/44.1 AIFF, Def Jam), and cranked the volume as high as I could stand -- not to annoy the neighbors, but to hear how the Pinnacles would reproduce this track’s low end. The bass was amazingly tight and disciplined -- rather than taking over and dominating the rest of the audioband, it was nicely balanced with it. If you like a fat, slightly loose low end, these speakers won’t be your cup of tea; their bass reproduction is far too controlled for such shenanigans.
The SVSes would be well suited to a large room, where they could be played obscenely loud, their sound remaining clean while doing so. I was reminded of this as I listened to “Cheerleader,” from St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy (16/44.1 AIFF, 4AD). With this song, the wall of sound the Pinnacles delivered was tremendous, and conveyed with such lucidity that I couldn’t help playing it louder -- even so, I heard no increase in distortion, as if I weren’t even close to reaching their upper limit of volume. The Pinnacles’ effortless dynamics was another strong selling point of their sound, and definitely added to my listening pleasure.
I listened to the SVS Prime Pinnacles alongside Revel’s Performa3 F206 speakers ($3500/pair). The Revel is a four-driver, three-way tower model with a 1” dome tweeter, a 5.25” midrange, and two 6.5” woofers, the dome and all three cones made of aluminum. The F206’s curved cabinet tapers from front to back, giving it a less boxy look than the more conventional-looking Pinnacle. In terms of looks alone, I prefer the sleeker, more modern style of the Revel, though the fit and finish of both were commensurate with their prices.
Their sounds, too, had some things in common. First, both speakers sounded well balanced throughout the audioband, with little character of their own. Neither is voiced to editorialize on the music, but rather to let the recording speak for itself. For me this is a plus, though many people don’t mind speakers that color the sound to emphasize certain aspects of music.
Both speakers produced clean sound. With Vivaldi’s Cantata RV679, “Che Giova il Sospirar,” a recitative and aria that appears on Bellezza Crudel, performed by soprano Tone Wik and the period-instrument ensemble Barokkanerne (16/44.1 FLAC, 2L), the SVSes conceded little to the more-than-twice-as-costly Revels. Strings sounded open and crisp through both pairs of speakers, each pair delivering with aplomb the vitality of this performance. The F206es communicated a touch more openness and space, particularly noticeable with the solo violin at the beginning of the cantata. The air around the instrument seemed more apparent, the notes emerging into a slightly larger space.
I was curious to hear how these two midsize floorstanders would reproduce the fat bottom end of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (16/44.1 AIFF, Aftermath/Interscope). Overall, I preferred the sound of this track through the Prime Pinnacles. The Revels sounded great, and produced relatively deep bass with excellent clarity -- but when I switched over to the SVSes, the bass was every bit as clean and well controlled, and now dug substantially deeper, to lay an even firmer foundation for the music. I’m in awe of the quantity and, far more important, the quality of the bass the Prime Pinnacles could produce for $1599.98/pair. Perhaps SVS’s pedigree in subwoofers reveals itself a bit here, but whatever the reason, I’m not sure I’ve heard another pair of speakers costing less than $2000 that could produce as much clean, clear bass in my room as these did. Until now, I wasn’t sure it was even possible.
To say that I was impressed by what I heard from SVS’s Prime Pinnacle would do them a disservice. This speaker is ridiculously good. Its sound indicates a company that knows how to deploy stellar engineering in the execution of sound design principles, while keeping sticker prices low enough that regular folks can aspire to own their products.
The Prime Pinnacle is also a speaker that people who review expensive audio gear should keep on hand as a benchmark for real-world performance. I’m not suggesting that, as one spends more money, one might not experience better sound. But to gauge just how much better that sound actually might be, one needs to keep a pair of speakers like these on hand as a measuring stick.
The SVS Prime Pinnacle is an important reminder that no one needs to spend a small fortune to achieve great sound. Bravo, SVS.
. . . Philip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Monitor Audio Silver 200, Revel Performa3 F206
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B135 SST2
- Digital sources -- Panasonic DMP-BDT210 DVD player (as transport), Bryston BDA-2 DAC, Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana
- Analog sources -- Thorens TD 160 HD turntable, Rega Research RB250 tonearm, Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output MC cartridge, Lehmannaudio Black Cube phono stage
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Comet
- Interconnects -- Kimber Kable Tonik
- Digital links -- AudioQuest Forest (USB), NexxTech (TosLink)
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
SVS Prime Pinnacle Loudspeakers
Price: $1599.98 USD per pair; add $200/pair for Piano Gloss Black finish.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
260 Victoria Road
Youngstown, OH 44515
Phone: (877) 626-5623