A Beauty in Sight and Sound: The Salk WOW1 Mini-monitor

Tyll Hertsens's picture

The WOW1 in Bird's Eye Maple.

Salk WOW1 Speakers ($1199)
The term "internet direct", as it pertains to audio gear, was once a hot topic on many of the audio forums. Internet direct meant companies that sold exclusively over the internet, direct to the consumer, sidestepping the traditional dealer network distribution model. The idea was to remove the extra (rather large) dealer markup, thus offering a far better value than what traditional brands could possibly hope to achieve. But there's no free lunch—these savings came with some downsides, chief among them the lack of ability to demo the gear in person before making a purchase. That's not such a big deal when talking about a small headphone amp which maybe costs $20 to ship, but speakers are another matter, and speakers tend to be a major category for the internet direct model. Even a fairly compact monitor speaker can be rather expensive to ship, and what if the customer doesn't like it? Who eats the return costs? The initial savings of the business model can quickly disappear if the customer is responsible for shipping, and it may prove unsustainable if the manufacturer carries the cost. The way around this, of course, is to sell such excellent speakers that very few customers will be disappointed.

Fast forward to 2013, and "internet direct" isn't really a big deal any longer. I think most reasonable audiophiles are willing to give respect wherever it is due, whether it be to an old-school store-bought brand like B&W, Harbeth, Focal, or PSB, or to one of the many internet direct companies like Axiom, Hsu Research, Tyler Acoustics, Aperion, and others. And the line between the old business model and internet direct is even beginning to blur—NHT, a traditional brand found in brick and mortar stores for decades, is now only available direct. Other brands like Anthony Gallo Acoustics and Legacy Audio offer a sort of hybrid experience, relying chiefly on direct sales but also keeping a small dealer network throughout the country, with identical pricing no matter where the customer decides to buy.

A fine example of an internet direct speaker company is Salk Sound. Having been in business for a number of years, Salk has built a strong reputation for quality, amassing what almost seems to be a cult following across several prominent audio forums. Their offerings tend to be on the bigger side—tower speakers or fairly large stand mount designs, neither of which really qualifies as "personal audio" which is our main focus at InnerFidelity. But recently that changed with the launch of Salk's WOW1 compact monitor ($1199). I decided to give them a spin and boy am I glad I did.

DESIGN
You've probably heard the term "bookshelf speakers" used to describe a smallish monitor speaker. I dislike the name, since a large majority of them will sound terrible when placed in an actual bookshelf. This is mainly due to their rear ported designs which need some room to breath, room which a bookshelf doesn't provide. The WOW1, on the other hand, uses a front mounted slot port and is specifically designed with the idea of being mounted in a bookshelf or up against some surface. But I still prefer to call it a mini-monitor because that just sounds better.

With respect to size, the WOW1 straddles the line between something you'd use as a stand-mounted monitor in a larger setting and something more suited as a desktop monitor used with a computer setup. And this the main reason why it fits at InnerFidelity. At 7" wide, 9" deep, and less than 11" tall, it's just barely larger than the Emotiva Airmotiv5 and the Audioengine A5+ which are popular choices for desktop audio. Yet the WOW1 can perform very admirably in a larger room, competing and, in my opinion, surpassing plenty of speakers in its price range. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The WOW1 derives its name from the compliment of drivers used: a Seas Excel W12 4.5" magnesium cone woofer, and a Hiquphon OW1 3/4" soft-dome tweeter. See that? W + OW1 = WOW1. Clever. Now I'm sure Salk gets better pricing than the average DIYer but even still, these are definitely not cheap quality drivers—they're surprisingly common among "high-end" speakers. Combine these quality drivers with a properly designed fourth-order crossover and you've got the makings of a great speaker.

Yet drivers plus a crossover don't really do much without an enclosure. And that's something of a specialty for Salk Sound. Rather than outsourcing to China as most competitors do (internet direct and brick & mortar brands do this regularly), Salk custom makes all enclosures in their own Michigan facility. Now don't get me wrong here, I've seen some phenomenal looking Chinese-made enclosures. I'm not playing the patriot card where nobody does it better than the home team...and neither is Salk. But there are some inherent advantages that come with controlling the entire process from start to finish and doing it locally. We'll discuss those specifics on the next page but for now I'll simply put it this way: You'd be hard pressed to find a speaker of any caliber or price that puts the Salk offerings to shame. Yes, the WOW1 enclosures are on the "boring" side in terms of being rectangular instead of using some swoopy curved design, but that's really the only criticism I can possibly think of. In exchange for that, we get a spectacular real wood finish that looks simply breathtaking. My review sample came in Curly Walnut which is one of several "standard finishes" available for the base price. There's nothing "standard" about it as I attempt, but probably fail, to show in my pictures. It's rich, glossy, and beautiful.

Salk_WOW1_Photo_WOW1_MappaBurl

The WOW1 in Mappa Burl.

Curly Walnut not your style? How about Red Oak, White Oak, Mahogany, Curly Cherry, or Curly Maple? Those are all available at the $1199 base price. Salk offers custom finishes like Pepperwood Burl and Birds Eye Maple for an additional fee, and can even accommodate most custom requests. Want a specific type of binding post? Need pre-drilled holes for stand mounting? Have some other crazy ideas? Just ask. Owner Jim Salk is known for being approachable and easy to work with.

Speaking of Jim Salk, he was great at quickly and efficiently answering my endless questions. In fact, rather than continuing to ramble on, I thought it might be illuminating to have Jim explain things in his own words. Read on for that....

Company Info
Salk Sound
40 West Howard Street
Suite 204
Pontiac, MI 48342
info@salksound.com
(248) 342-7109
Article Contents
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Comments
mward's picture
NHT

Unless I've missed something recent, NHT still has a dealer network, which an arrangement like what you describe for Anthony Gallo and Legacy—NHT sells direct, or you can buy through a dealer, but pricing and dealer pricing is identical, aside from discounts negotiated with dealers or occasional short-term sales direct from NHT.

John Grandberg's picture
You're right...

Back in early 2009, a big deal was made about NHT closing their doors. Speculation was that they had gone under. But then they came back as an internet-direct company, as was widely reported (example). Either that reporting was inaccurate at the time or else they decided to pick up some authorized dealers between then and now. Either way, I'm glad they are still around, as I have fond memories of some of their older models. Haven't heard much of their new stuff though. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Just wanted to say....

....I loved this review, John.

I see InnerFidelity's #1 job as finding great gear and telling people about it. This review haz it! My biggest thought as I did the edit/post was, "Damn! I want to hear these!" The perfect reaction! Thanks...

...and I'm jealous. Looks like a pair of speakers I'd love to have. 

 

(Pouts walking away to listen to his Harbeth HL P3ES-2 speakers.)

mward's picture
Amps

So I reviewed a bunch of desktop-friendly amps while back. Most were inexpensive T amps and such, and probably wouldn't do the WOW1 justice, but I was really impressed with the NuForce Dia and Audioengine N22.

Testing was with the Pioneer SP-BS-22LR speakers, which are not in the same class as the WOW1, but were impressively revealing of the differences between apps. The Dia (which has a built-in DAC) sounded great, but the N22 paired with a DAC such as the DragonFly tops it. Both are great buys at $199. I'm sure the amps Tyll used for this review do a better job driving the WOW1, but these two models have very small footprints.

Impulse's picture
Hmm...

Well, the N22's an AB amp... What t-amps or class D did you compare them with? I'm just curious, as it seems almost none of the reviews I've ever found for the N22 will actually compare it against anything else whatsoever... I've been thinking of getting one for my desk/room for my lowly Infinity P163's (which will probably be replaced by HSU HB-1's in the living room), will probably just end up getting something like a Topping unit for comparison's sake and end up reselling whichever I like the 'least.

Edit: John wrote this review btw, not Tyll, 'least that's what the byline says. Tongue

Cami's picture
Nice review!

I'm currently out for a pair of active speakers or a pair of monitors for near and midfield, and these could be a good pair of candidates for their reasonable price. I'm also really interested in GENELEC's 8040Bs, which double the cost of the SALKs, but being active monitors include Amps and offer flexibility for room correction, etc. I also find Emotiva Pro Stealth 8s a bargain for the bang they deliver. Have you had any experience with the GENELECs or Emotiva's Stealth 8s? Any chance of upcoming reviews of GENELEC monitors?

Cheers

John Grandberg's picture
Thanks!

I've heard various Genelecs over the years, and all have impressed. I am interested in covering one of the new G series models, maybe the G Three. But I'm still unsure about their availability since I don't see them at any of the usual Genelec dealers online. Maybe they aren't quite released yet? The 8040 should be fabulous though. The only issue might be the port being on the rear. You'll ideally want some space behind them.

I have yet to experience the new Emotiva Stealth models. The 6 is already pushing it for me, and the 8 is definitely too large. They are also rear ported but I find the top slot port to be less of an issue than a round port in the middle or bottom as some other models have. But if the Stealth are better sounding versions of the Airmotiv then they are quite good indeed. You probably can't go wrong with any of these choices - it comes down to looks, features, price, etc. 

Cami's picture
Thanks for your answer

I was also originally interested in the newer G series, but they don't appear to be much available out there, unless you're buying from a couple of Swedish hifi shops. So instead I checked out the 8000 series studio monitors, as opposed to the G series, intended for home use. To my surprise, the G Fours feature the exact same specs as the 8040Bs, and the correlation extends to the G Threes and the 8030Bs, and so on (with exception of the 8050Bs).

The real differences lie in the extra RCA input of the G series and the substantially more versatile active crossover control panel of the 8000 studio series. This is kind of weird, since a living room is probably a lot more challenging when it comes to room correction, than a studio setting. The difference in price, as far as I could work out from Swedish Crowns, is around $500 USD in favor of the 8000 series, which means that the name of finnish industrial designer, Harri Koskinen, probably also comes on the bill. The name of Koskinen is associated to the G series in the advertisement, but not so to the 8000 series, that look exactly the same. Hmmm...

In my opinion, the 8000 series makes a better buy than the G series, if one is looking to get the accuracy, neutrality and imaging capabilities of active studio monitors for the living room. They offer the same specs as the more expensive G series and more versatility when it comes to the active crossovers.

The Emotiva Pro Stealths appear to be another good option for a small living room, as the two built-in 200W power Amps should deliver even more SPL than the Genelec 8050Bs, and extend further in the lower frequencies, making a sub woofer almost redundant.

I would like to take my "personal audio" experience to my livingroom, and enjoy the advantages of room correction and active bi-amping, not to mention saving space and some cash. I wrote to both Genelec and Emotiva, and both agree that for the 8-10ft distance from the speakers that I want to listen at (in a 50-55 square meter living room) is ideal. Emotiva also informs me many of their customers use the powerful Stealth 8s in stereo rigs, and the pair goes for some $200 USD more than the cost of just one 8040B. That's pretty damn hard to beat.

I also hope to see the release of the fully balanced 24/192 Stealth DC-1 DAC, that Emotiva has been exhibiting their Stealth 8s with, and which should go for 699. That would be a cool future review Wink.

Cheers

Jhl1963's picture
Great review for a great speaker

Excellent review, I've had my wow's for about 8 months and just adore them. They are a great compliment to my JWN tube amp and they sound remarkable, for any size. Jim is also an absolute pleasure to work with.  My wife will probably never let me have floorspeakers again after hearing what these guys will do. 

Here's some pics of mine: 

http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=111609.msg1200408#msg1200408

John Grandberg's picture
WOW!

Thanks for posting the link to your pics - that's quite a nice looking setup you have there. Nice to see an example of the WOW1 "in the wild". 

zobel's picture
Nicely detailed review

And nicely detailed speakers, evidently! I really enjoyed your descriptions, comparisons, gut reactions, value appraisals, conversations with the manufacturer, and your inspired pros......Haven't heard these yet, but for little ported speakers, they must rock. I have been designing and building speakers seriously for the past 18 years, and I love reading about successful designs. I want to see the x-over! 

ednaz's picture
Wood porn

Growing up in a family of wood workers (brother carved, father made custom furniture) I have a serious weakness for lovely wood, and the speakers on the front of the article gave me a serious case of cravings.  I call photos like that "wood porn". 

I'm significantly intrigued in them for a whole range of other reasons - made in the Detroit area (born and raised there, and I root for any business that can make it there), custom options available, and the very sensible design decision to port on the front.  The realities of homes and work spaces aren't very friendly to all those speakes out there with ports on the back, which means all that work that goes into the speaker design gets trashed by a near-wall placement.  I've had children, and still have medium size dogs, and the idea of speakers on a stand situated four feet away from a wall is just an invitation for testing the speakers' bounciness when they get knocked over by wrestling dogs. 

John Grandberg's picture
Good points

I do find it humorous when I see somebody who spent big money on a very serious speaker, only to back it up into the wall and totally diminish its performance. Wouldn't it be better to buy something specifically designed to work in that situation, even if it was a seemingly less ambitious or prestigious speaker? 

IgAK's picture
Beyond That...

"So while, on average, 5 - 8 watts is sufficient, if you want the cleanest possible performance, the more watts you have, the better. So while these small "T-amps" are quite inexpensive, many of the lower power amps won't have the muscle required to control the woofer in the bass region."

Agreed, entirely, but rather short of mentioning the most important thing, dynamics. Dynamics are the single most important quality that defines a live "you are there" feel to reproduced music, and a large dynamic transient takes an enormous amount of power in relation to the average power needed. Those little T-amps are inadequate for even vaguely realisitic reproduction of music less than disastrously trampled with compression with any speaker of much less than around 95 dB efficiency, much less the 84 dB of these.

John Grandberg's picture
I think he implied it...

... just above the part you quoted, where he mentioned the much higher requirements for transients. But thanks for helping clarify - I completely agree. 

discokachina's picture
WOW1

I have a pair of these that I have placed in the upper right and left corners of my HT for front high speakers in my 11.2 setup and they sound totally awesome. They match very well with the rest of my setup that is a mixture of Monitor Audio, B&W, and Boston Acoustic speakers. Working with Salk was a dream, their website allows you to follow your custom built speaker through the process so you really feel like part of things. And then of course the icing on the cake is when you hang them and play them for the first time. And then things only get better as they break in. I would not hesitate in recommending Salk to anyone looking for small or large floor standing speakers, they really do a fantastic job on everything they make.     

branon's picture
 John  Really enjoyed

 John

 Really enjoyed reading the review. I was wonderingif you could kindly elaborate a little more on the living room tests- how large is the living room ? You mentioned that in the living room you placed it a few feet away from the wall. Did you try placing it closer? 

  The review was incredibly helpful for me. I am trying to move to a more lifestyle friendly setup in my living room. I am replacing a pair of Vienna Acoustic Mozart Grands with a set of Era (peachtree) D4's and a Rel R205 Subwoofer (Incrediblye pleased with how well the latter set can substitute the former). Given that I am still in testing mode, I am now very tempted to try out the Wow1. I tried the PSB imagine minis too - they were great but they were no match for the D4 (at least in my room) which also seemd to integrate better with the Rel.

 Thanks

 Branon 

John Grandberg's picture
Placement, etc

The living room is about 15 deep by 30 wide, because it opens into a connected (smaller) dining room on one side. The ceiling is vaulted, topping out at around 13 feet or so. There's also an opening on the other side leading to an entry way. Clearly not a room designed for good audio! But I think most would call it something between a medium and large room, factoring in the hight and all the openings.

I was able to put the WOW1 pretty close to the back wall without too much penalty. They sounded somewhat less open that way but definitely still enjoyable.

Unfortunately I have no experience with the D4. Looks like the WOW1 sit somewhere between the D4 and larger D5 in terms of driver and cabinet size. That rear port could be a factor as compared to the front slot on the WOW1. The Salk obviously looks quite a bit nicer, in terms of finish. But that's about as far as I'd go without hearing the D4.

Imagine Mini is a great little speaker but imho it requires just the right size (small) room to shine. It's not ideal for desktop use due to the rear port, unless you have an open desk with no rear wall. I can see how it would not work out as well in your situation. 

Keep in mind the "lower priced" Salk speakers come with a 30-day in home trial. You'd just be out shipping costs if you didn't like them. 

branon's picture
John,  Thanks for taking the

John,

 Thanks for taking the time out to reply. My living room is certainly smaller than that so I will have to try out the WOW1's.

Based on what you wrote, I will give the imagine minis a try in my study.