The BIG Picture Review:

Sponsored in part by:

SVS 20-39PCi Powered Subwoofer

Reviewed by Jeff McNeal

A small company that thinks BIG!

Recently, I was contacted by Ron Stimpson, Co-Founder and Director of Sales for SVS Subwoofers LLC, centered in Youngstown, Ohio. Ron was, quite understandably, surprised and I dare say it alarmed that our West Coast review facility should be limping along with an older, outdated and underpowered Klipsch 100 watt powered subwoofer, and smelled an opportunity for a hardware review by The BIG Picture.

Sure, we know that our sub is probably the weakest link in our audio chain, but once we discovered its limitations many moons ago, we simply set it up as to those limits of performance and kept ourselves distracted with projectors, screens, receivers, and other speakers. Well, that worked most of the time, but certainly not all of the time. On more than a few DVD's, when we had the volume cranked, our poor little Klipsch just couldn't keep up with the action and would let us know with an unnerving C-C-CRACK-K-K sound.

Our solution was admittedly not the best: We just walked over, turned down the volume on the sub a bit more and got on with the show. But generally speaking, we were more or less content with the status quo. The underpowered sub wasn't preventing us from doing our work around here -- just preventing us from enjoying our work to the greatest possible degree. Something that we tried to simply ignore. Low vibration nirvana simply wasn't our greatest priority.

SVS saw a need and wanted to fill it. Mainly, they wanted to knock our socks off. In several e-mail correspondences with Ron Stimpson and the guy they call "sub-human" Tom Vodhanel (R/D Chief and the other SVS co-founder), I was taken with the genuine enthusiasm and affable manner from these SVS staffers. I cautioned them that their blatant confidence in their product was setting me up for disappointment if their product failed to meet the high expectations they created. Undaunted, the guys at SVS were eager to have The BIG Picture try their wares.

One of the really neat things about SVS is that since they are a small company, the entire experience of dealing with these guys seems more personal and hands-on. Even their owner's guide is written in a folksy, non-technical style that makes it easy for anyone, even a home theater novice, to correctly set up and obtain the best results from their products. Mr. Stimpson even encourages customers to contact him personally via e-mail, printing his address in the manual. This is not only good business, but it's clever marketing as well. Enthusiastic customers tend to want to share good news with their friends.

After asking us about our room dimensions (roughly 17' X 23') Ron suggested sending us the "mid-sized" 20-39PCi to evaluate at our leisure. We briefly discussed, then discarded the notion of dual subs in a room our size. While SVS markets even larger (and pricier) subs, we agreed that it would be best for us to review this truly affordable mid-range sub in their line-up for two important reasons: Our room doesn't require the same firepower as a larger space might require, and more significantly as I explained to Ron, thebigpicturedvd.net has always been about alerting consumers to what we consider to be the greatest value for their home theater investments.

In short, we're generally not interested in reviewing hardware that we wouldn't be prepared to purchase for our own use. That is, without dipping into our home equity line of credit or taking out a second mortgage.

PCi, by the way, stands for "Powered Cylinder, improved".

When the box from SVS arrived, I must admit to being somewhat taken aback. This thing is positively HUGE. At 39 inches tall and 16 inches in diameter, the sub looks like a scratching post for a Lynx. We have two cats that roam our screening room like they own the place, and at first, I was genuinely concerned that they might mistake this black velvet fabric covered monolith as a new toy. Fortunately, the felines are smarter than I give them credit for and they've left the 20-39PCi alone.

I should mention that the unit was packed extremely well and arrived in perfect shape, even though the UPS man was huffing and puffing and sweating bullets when he dropped the thing off. The construction is impressive. It's well-built (though the fabric wants to crawl a bit if you try lifting the subwoofer by grasping the sides) and heavy. We're assuming the 12" downward-firing driver must have one mamma-jamma of a magnet on it. One of the things that always concerned me about our old box subwoofer is that a visiting child might shove small objects into the bass port on the side. The 20-39PCi seems fairly impenetrable, which is nice. I can't see how anyone or anything might accidentally damage the driver. There's no way one could easily tip this unit over, either, thanks to the slightly wider base and it's low center of gravity, and a resonance-free metal grill (specially dampened to protect against any harmonics) prevents anyone from mistaking the top port opening for a very stylish and expensive wastebasket.

Besides their BIG subwoofer, SVS also included a BIG 3-D sign with Plexiglas lettering, suitable for any home theater wall. They also included a rather ugly t-shirt, which will come in handy when I'm working on the car. Hey guys, two out of three ain't bad!

One omission in the documentation that I found rather odd is the technical specifications for their product. However, in the final analysis, all those numbers don't matter much anyway unless they can be independently verified. What really matters is how the thing sounds. And in all candor, the rest of the valuable information contained in the 12 page guide more than makes up for the lack of printed specs, which can be found on SVS's excellent website, anyway. For example, after the setup procedures, in which all of my questions were handled, SVS lists a broad range of popular DVD titles and where you can find great "bass demo" material. I thought this was a really terrific, consumer-friendly touch. There's also the ubiquitous "quick start" sheet for those who are anxious to get the party started.

But for the purpose of this review, here are the general "techno-geek" numbers:

320 watt RMS BASH flush-mount amplifier
20 Hz tuning point
+/- 3 dB 20 Hz-100 Hz

Output Power Measured @ THD + N = 1%,
22 Hz to 22 kHz Measurement Bandwidth,
40 Hz Sinusoidal, Line voltage = 120 V
Into 4ohms 320 Watts

Resistive Loading
THD + N < 0.01 % Measured @ rated output (200 Watts / 4 Ohms), 22 to 22 kHz Measurement Bandwidth,
40 Hz Sinusoidal drive, Line voltage = 120 V
Damping Factor > 500 Referred to 4 Ohms @ 40 Hz
Signal to Noise Ratio Un-weighted/A-weighted: 81dB / 105dB

22 Hz to 22 kHz Measurement Bandwidth, Relative to 300 W / 4 OhmsVol. and Freq. controls set at maximumVol. and Freq. controls set at maximum
Input Configuration / Impedance: Line Level 10 k Ohms

Left and Right RCA connectors provided
Gain - Line Level 40dB With one input driven, & x-over freq. @ max
Gain maximum at 29 Hz
Panel Controls: Phase Switch, Frequency, Volume, 0 and 180 degrees, 40 to 120 Hz, Min. to Max. Panel mounted toggle switch, Variable low pass crossover frequency

Variable gain, - ¥ to maximum


AC Power Requirements: Line Voltage

Standby Input Power: Input Power at 500 W output, 120 V / 60 Hz, 220 V / 50Hz

18 VA, 450 VA Jumper Selectable (Factory) Nominal line ( 120 V )

SVS strongly advises the purchase of a sound pressure meter from Radio Shack to correctly calibrate all speakers prior to use, including the sub. SVS recommends keeping the subwoofer output on the receiver relatively low, and using the knob on the subwoofer gain more aggressively. So that's what we did. Eventually. But like most people reading this, we were anxious to hear this daddy blow.

After unplugging the Klipsch and moving it out of the way, the first thing I noticed is that SVS is smart enough to prevent ground loop interference by providing a two-pole plug only. I had to install an adapter plug on the 3-pronged Klipsch to avoid a nasty hum. Another difference that is much appreciated, is that with the SVS sub on "auto", I cannot audibly detect when the subwoofer amp kicks in. And the response is instantaneous. Before, I had grown used to hearing the bass "kick in" after about a two second delay.

My first obstacle to overcome was that when I fired up the sub, the nearby windows began rattling and making an awful racket. This alone should tell you something, other than the fact that our windows could probably use more insulation... I decided that it would probably be best -- for several reasons -- to relocate the SVS sub to the opposite corner of the room, up front and just right to the edge of the screen. As you probably already know, low frequency sound, unlike high and mid range, is not directional. It is virtually impossible to tell precisely where low frequency rumbles are coming from, but generally speaking, it's commonly accepted that for best results, you should place your subwoofer in the corner of the room for technical reasons that I won't go into here.

SVS was kind enough to ship me out a 6-meter Better Cables subwoofer interconnect, and I moved the 20-39PCi as far away from the windows as possible to the other corner. For the last couple of weeks, I've listened to a wide variety of source material including DAS BOOT, TITANIC, THE PATRIOT, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, ROY ORBISON BLACK AND WHITE NIGHT, STEELY DAN: TWO AGAINST NATURE, several music CD's and various other movie DVD's and topped off my evaluation with a command performance of AIR FORCE ONE, which features outstanding 5.1 sound with plenty of low frequency rumble. It's cool to feel each pulse of the machine gun fire without actually having to duck for cover.

Bass shakers? We don't need no stinkin' bass shakers! Not when we've got a tower of power like this one to handle the low frequencies.

I found that for the best results, I needed to turn off the crossover all together, since I have the receiver setup already to divert most of the bass frequencies to the sub channel anyway. I think it's only fair to divulge that I've been connected to professional audio production for over 20 years, and own my own recording studio. In short, I know a little bit about sound and know what I like -- and don't. My goal was to find the sweet spot in the 20-39PCi that allowed tight, clean, and musical bass lines to swell up and blend with, but never overpower the rest of the frequency spectrum. I've never been a fan of overly aggressive, oppressive bass, which is one reason I was able to tolerate the underpowered Klipsch that I've used for so many years. I personally abhor "splashy" or "boomy" bass. To my ears, it just doesn't sound natural. And that's important to me. At the same time, I want to be able to feel the bass. On the surface of the couch and in my chest cavity. Talk about good vibrations!

I'm happy to report that I found what I was listening for in the 20-39PCi, while acknowledging that if cavernous, sloppy and distorted bass is your thing, you can probably attain it also by cranking up the volume on the sub's generous 320 watt amp past reasonable limits. But I would advise against it. My point is, SVS gives you more than enough rope to hang yourself if you're so inclined, but with a little care in setup, your ears will be rewarded with surprisingly clean, taut bass that extends down to close to the lowest levels your ears are capable of hearing (about 20 hertz).

While I generally found it necessary to re-adjust the sub volume down a bit when listening to music-only CD's versus DVD video with sound (as is typically the case with most any subwoofer I've ever encountered), I was very pleased with not only the power, but the tonal quality of the SVS sub. I listened to some favorite CD's from Michael Franks, The Isley Brothers, and others, with strong bass presence, and marveled at the warmth the 20-39PCi added to the mix.

But the real excitement was discovered during DVD watching. It was tough to find pockets of time to listen at levels I needed to really push the 20-39PCi, but I found enough of them and was never disappointed. The 20-39PCi was easily able to handle whatever I dished out. As mentioned previously, SVS provides a listing of several titles both in their manual and on their website for great demo discs, but one need only look as far as our Premium Picks listing here at The BIG Picture and look for the five globe awarded titles. The Panzer attack near the bridge in the final chapters of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN rattled dishes in another room, and brought those rumbling tanks right on top of me. I also noted that a picture was hanging crooked on a wall upstairs. Almost like there had been an earthquake. That's after watching AIR FORCE ONE, which contains one of the best 5.1 tracks you're likely to find anywhere. During THE OTHERS, I would swear that heavy steps were thundering across the roof in my attic and there's no doubt that the 20-39PCi contributed greatly to my goose bumps. This is a solid performer in an attractive package. If you desire commanding bass at an affordable price -- and have the space to accommodate the size, the SVS 20-39PCi is a subwoofer that will make a BIG impression on you, too.

The 20-39PCi retails for under $550 excluding shipping and taxes and is backed by a 3-year material and workmanship warranty for the speaker and the amp, even though my documentation stipulated a lesser warranty on the electronics. It seems that SVS has improved their warranty since the paperwork that arrived with our test unit was printed. Thanks to the modular design of the amp, swapping out a defective one with a replacement can be done by the consumer in just a few minutes, which you'll be glad to know if and when you should ever need to cross that bridge. Packing this behemoth up for shipping is a task that just about anyone would dread, so it's nice to know that it can be avoided if the amp needs servicing at some future date.

SVS also provides a 45-day money back warranty, excluding shipping charges. Considering what I paid for my underpowered Klipsch with a smaller driver in 1996 dollars, this SVS subwoofer honestly represents an outstanding value to performance ratio that deserves serious consideration. It is so far superior to my old cube (which is now being used as an end table) that it isn't even funny.

If you have more questions and would enjoy further objective discussion about the SVS 20-39PCi, enter our General DVD & Home Theater forum here at thebigpicturedvd.net and let's talk about it! For additional product specs or to order direct from the manufacturer, visit SVS on-line.

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