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SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System review: Small speakers plus big sub equals theatrical thump

The SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System is a force to be reckoned with, thanks in large part to its potent subwoofer, and sounds tremendous with movies.

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Ty Pendlebury
Steve Guttenberg
5 min read

Often when buying a home cinema system you'll have to work out whether to ultimately choose style or performance. Both options come with their own compromises. Style-first systems may blend with your decor but lack the physical size needed for decent sound quality. When performance is the ultimate goal you may with massive hulking speaker boxes placed throughout your room.

7.4

SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System

The Good

The SVS is a nicely styled, compact 5.1 system which offers great build quality. The 12-inch subwoofer puts out tight yet plentiful bass. The system's sound was characterized by excellent integration between all of the satellites and powerful punch on blockbuster soundtracks.

The Bad

It can sound a little too cold and bright with music; dialing in proper sat-sub blend can be a chore.

The Bottom Line

The sleek, compact SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System sounds tremendous with movies, thanks in large part to its potent subwoofer, but lacks warmth with music.

The SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System sits somewhere between these diametric opposites. It offers smaller, somewhat attractive speakers but is also correspondingly limited in its sonic capabilities.

The system's real star is the subwoofer, which is both compact and a competent performer. To our ears, the satellites would work better as surrounds rather than supplying the entire soundtrack, especially when it comes to playing back music as opposed to movies

The system starts at $999 in the US for the black ash version, which costs £950 in the UK and AU$1,899 in Australia.

Design and features

Sarah Tew / CNET

The SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 is SVS' first budget system and follows its more expensive Ultra offerings. The Prime system uses five identical satellite speakers -- for left, right, center and surrounds-- plus the SB-1000 subwoofer. Both are available in black ash or piano gloss; the latter, which we received, will cost an extra $200 for the system.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Each satellite features a 4.5-inch polypropylene driver is conjunction with a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter which is incidentally also used on the Prime Towers .

Sarah Tew / CNET

The speakers are ported and feature a frequency response of 69Hz-25kHz (+/-3 dB). They come with a cloth grille and also include a rear bracket for wall-mounting.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Meanwhile the SB-1000 subwoofer ($499/£449/AU$699 separately for black ash, $599/£529/AU$799 for piano gloss) is a sealed design with a 12-inch "lightweight" cone which offers a 24Hz-260Hz frequency response. It's paired with a 300W amplifier and comes in a compact box only 13 inches square.

Setup

Systems that use small satellites and large subwoofers require careful setup, and we invested a bit of time with the SVS ensemble getting it sorted out. The mighty SB-1000 sub made its presence known, and the Prime satellites' sound crisp and clear, but achieving a smooth blend between sub and sats took some time. A Sony STR-DN850 AV receiver was put into service for all of our evaluations.

Listening to music with a lot of bass we heard a gap in the sound between the sub and the sats. Deep bass was all there, but the upper bass was too lean, so the satellites sounded separate from the sub. Ideally, the sub should disappear as a source of sound, and all the bass should appear to come from the speakers. That's what we were shooting for.

As SVS claims the satellites' bass reaches down to 69Hz, we started listening with the Sony STR-DN850's bass management set to 70Hz, and the bass gap between sub and satellites was severe. So we pushed the sub-to-sat crossover point up in 10Hz increments, and eventually settled on 120Hz. As we made the changes, we also adjusted the subwoofer volume level. Those two variables -- crossover settings and sub volume -- leave room for a lot of subjective calls.

All of our adjustments were handled on the STR-DN850 receiver's manual speaker setup menu, but if you'd rather not fuss with the settings, go ahead and try your receiver's automatic speaker-calibration routine; it might provide perfectly satisfactory results in a matter of minutes. Or not -- we find these programs often give inconsistent results. Even so, start with the auto setup, and take it from there.

After watching a few movies, we noted male voices on the center speaker sounded too "chesty," so we nudged the center channel crossover down to 100Hz. With crossover settings of 100Hz or higher we like to place subs within three or four feet of front or center speakers for best sub-sat sound integration.

Performance

Play "Avatar" or a "Star Trek" Blu-ray and you'll quickly discover the Prime Satellite 5.1 System likes to push its weight around. No doubt the hefty 12-inch subwoofer is largely responsible for the massive dynamic oomph that smaller subs never match. We're not just referring to the amount of bass -- the SB-1000's tightly controlled bottom-end is never lacking in detail.

The Prime Satellite 5.1 System can play loud without strain, and a film with a great surround mix like "Gravity" the front and rear sats created a seamless, truly enveloping sound. That's a key benefit of using identical speakers for all channels. The Prime sats also added a sense of height to the soundstage, the sound sometimes seemed to come from above the actual locations of the front speakers.

Swapping out the front left and right Prime Satellites for the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers, the sound grew warmer, fuller, and sweeter; in comparison the Prime Satellites have a brighter but leaner tonal balance. That's not surprising -- the SP-BS22-LR is a much larger speaker (though less expensive), so it produced smoother sub/speaker bass integration than what's possible with the Prime Satellites. Size matters but if you crave small speakers, the Prime Satellites, mated with the SB-1000, are worth considering. The complete Pioneer SP-PK52FS six-piece system with tower speakers for the front-left and -right positions has larger speakers all around, but the smaller Pioneer sub is no threat to the SB-1000.

We played Annie Lennox's new "Nostalgia" album to see how the Prime Satellite 5.1 System handled stereo music recordings. Lennox is fronting an orchestra, so the album has a big sound with great depth and scale. Returning to the SP-BS22-LR speakers, her voice filled out and was more natural. As we played through a few other CDs, the Prime Satellites sounded too bright, and that detracted from our enjoyment.

The Prime Satellite 5.1 System fared better with movies, so we watched "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," and the film's many brawling scenes loomed large. Body blows were viscerally communicated, and the hard-boiled story narration that adds so much to the film's vibe was deftly presented.

Conclusion

The Prime Satellite 5.1 System's home-theater skills are impressive, the big sub and crystalline speakers convey large scale dynamics with ease, but we were less happy with the system's sound with two-channel music. As "lifestyle" systems go, it's compact and likeable, but systems like the cheaper Definitive Technology ProCinema 600 offer compelling alternatives.

If you can afford to stretch to the SVS Prime Towers, adding this package's satellites and sub plus the $349 Prime Center would make an excellent system for just under $1,700. Alternatively you could discard the sub and then you're looking at $1,200.

7.4

SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Sound 7Value 8