A Beauty in Sight and Sound: The Salk WOW1 Mini-monitor
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 lunchthese 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 blurNHT, 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 sidetower 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.
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 driversthey'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.
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....