Three-way speakers have been around about as long as hi-fi itself, and divide up the three components of sound -- bass, midrange and treble -- with each frequency range getting its own driver in the pursuit of greater fidelity. They're a lot more complicated to engineer than the more common two-way design, and not every company gets it right.
With the new Prime Towers, speaker manufacturer SVS seems to have nailed it. These are a beautifully finished set of tower speakers that look -- and sound -- a lot more expensive than they are. In the US they're $499.99 each; the company has international distributors, including for the UK and Australia, which can provide pricing information elsewhere.
They are more detailed and more "hi-fi" than anything we've heard at this price before. If you are looking for detail above all else then you could consider the Prime Towers an audiophile bargain.
But this extra fidelity can come with a downside: while we never found the SVSs to be harsh, they could sometimes lack intimacy, particularly with vocals. If you are instead looking for something more "fun" or even "warmer," then the Klipsch RF-62 II towers or B&W 685 S2 bookshelves might be a better alternative.
Even before we played them for the first time, we knew the SVS Prime Towers were something special. Our review samples' impeccable black gloss finish (an extra $100 per cabinet) gave the speakers a high-end sheen.
The speakers are moderately tall at 36 inches and measure a modest 8 inches wide and 10.8 inches deep (91.5cm x 20.3cm x 27.5cm). The drivers include a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter with a protective grille, a 4.5-inch polypropylene midrange and twin 6.5-inch woofers.
SVS actually characterizes the speakers as "3.5-way" instead of three-way because the two bass drivers are set up with different crossovers. The bottom is a true bass driver and the second is a bass/mid.
We noted one small caveat: the Prime Towers have dual bass ports, so the speakers need at least 12 inches of clearance from the wall to sound their best.
The Prime Tower is a prime example of the advantages that the better big speakers have over any little speaker: superior bass, power, dynamic range and being capable of filling large rooms without sounding like they're working very hard.
Hunkered down in CNET's modestly sized listening room, we found the Prime Towers' transparency and resolution of fine detail were clearly better than those of the other tower speakers we compared them directly against, namely the Klipsch RF-62 II, the PSB Imagine X1T and the bookshelf Bowers & Wilkins 685 S2. We used a NAD C356BEE, an 80-watt-per-channel stereo integrated amp, for all of our listening tests.
Joel Fan's "Dances for Piano and Orchestra" handily demonstrated the Prime Towers' key strengths. With Charles Wakefield Cadman's track "Dark Dances of the Mardi Gras," the snare drums and other percussion instruments were correctly placed far back in the orchestra, and neither the RF-62 II or X1T could match the Prime Towers' ability to recreate a concert hall acoustic space as accurately. The drums' crisp attack and the other percussion instruments seemed to float above the orchestra with the Prime Towers, while the other speakers dulled the presentation.
Similarly, the full measure of U2's densely textured "Achtung Baby" album lit up the Prime Towers. The complexity of producer Brian Eno's spacey mixes shone more brightly. By contrast the X1T lost much of that sound, and the RF-62 II's bigger, bassier bottom obscured detail, its soundstage being nowhere as spacious. Still, if you crave maximum bass oomph the RF-62 IIs trounce the Prime Towers, which provide a leaner, but better defined low end.
Listening to the Artic Monkeys' "R U Mine," first over the Bowers & Wilkins 685 S2 bookshelf speakers and then the Prime Towers, the difference wasn't just that the bigger speakers made more bass (duh!). The Prime Towers opened up the sound in ways the 685 S2 could not. The little speaker is excellent, but the Prime Towers' midrange driver clarified the sound of the Monkeys' soaring vocals, fuzzy guitars and thundering drums in ways the 685 S2s or few two-way speakers of any size can match.
Stress-testing the Prime Towers with high-impact scenes from Blu-rays of "Super 8" and "Avatar" demonstrated the speakers' dynamic range agility. Dialogue was clear and natural, and the Prime Towers' big soundstage was also a plus. The Imagine X1T towers lacked that bass and treble extension, but they were warmer- and fuller-sounding than the Prime Towers.
When using sparsely recorded material, such as the The Mountain Goats' "The Sunset Tree" re-release from HD Tracks, the Prime Towers lacked the confessional quality summoned by its rivals. For this song, we found the SVS pushed the listener away in spatial terms rather than drawing you in. Compared with the "rock 'n' roll" Klipsch RF-62 IIs, John Darnielle's close-miked vocals lacked intimacy and sounded like they were situated deeper back in the room. With Ben Harper's "Widow of a Living Man," the singer was still in your ear but more spitty and ethereal-sounding than from the more grounded B&W 685 S2s.
The SVS Prime Tower is an audiophile-grade speaker that will appeal to anyone who craves big, highly transparent sound for music or home theater. For 2.1, or 5.1 and beyond, they can be paired with SVS's matching Prime center, bookshelf/surround speakers or subwoofer or both.
Compared with our favorite standmounters, the B&W 684s, there is no competition: the floorstanding SVS Prime Towers sound bigger, go deeper and offer better insight into a recording, and for only a few hundred dollars more. While they're not the warmest or most "rocking" speakers you'll hear for the money, they do offer audiophile-like levels of performance for less money than you'd expect.