A Beauty in Sight and Sound: The Salk WOW1 Mini-monitor Page 2

Salk_WOW1_Photo_WOW1_PepperwoodBurl

The WOW1 in Pepperwood Burl.

The following is basically a pieced together interview with Jim Salk. I say pieced together since at the time my questions were a barrage of random topics. But Jim was a good sport and gladly played along.

Q: I used the WOW1 in my living room and also in a near field desktop situation. Results were excellent in both applications. Many speakers which sound good in the living room, don't do as well in near field. Or sometimes it goes the other way around. Why would you say the WOW1 is so versatile, from a technical perspective? I'm trying to nail down the parameters which make an otherwise enjoyable speaker fail in one area or the other.

A: The W12 has excellent off-axis response. So it is capable of throwing a very wide and deep soundstage. And it is the perfect size for accurate and detailed midrange response. Also, the front slot port makes this a very versatile speaker in terms of placement.

Q: Your enclosures sure look nice. But so do some others I've seen that are sourced from China or wherever. What advantages do you bring to the table by doing all your own construction and finishing in house? I'm sure it costs more than the alternative so I'd like to explain to people the benefits involved.

A: Due to lower labor costs, almost all speaker cabinets, regardless of brand, are manufactured in Asia these days. The quality can range from poor to very good and delivery times can be very long. But manufacturers are willing to deal with these issues as the costs for finished cabinets is relatively low.

Many years ago, I read a book by Faith Popcorn on future trends. In it, she outlined the benefits of individual customization and noted that companies that were able to customize products for customers on an individual basis would always out-perform companies that could not. This idea stuck with me over the years.

While Asian cabinets are less expensive, there is no way to provide individual customization ordering cabinets six months in advance of when you will need them. Sure, you could order all kinds of finishes, but there is no way to predict which ones will be needed in what quantities. So about all you can do is select a small range of finishes and produce them in quantity. This, naturally, limits customer choices.

Our philosophy has always been that we are producing a customer's speakers and not our own. And the customer should be able to have any finish they want. This meant that mass producing cabinets in Asia was not an option. While building cabinets in the US is more expensive, it allows us to offer virtually unlimited finish options. It also allows us to customize our speakers to fit a given customer's needs. For example, if they have only 7.75" available for a center channel that is normally 8" high, we can build a custom cabinet and adjust the dimensions to accommodate.

Since we sell direct and avoid the 50% markup required by audio dealers, even when you add the increased cost of custom cabinets, our speakers cost about 1/2 the price of a comparative retail model that offers no custom finish option. We're obviously bucking the trend here, but I think it gives us a real competitive advantage. Very few speakers companies are capable of doing what we do and offering customers so much choice.

Q: I don't see much about the WOW1 listed on your site in terms of specs. I guess it does list the cabinet size and the F3 but I'm interested in the impedance characteristics. Not necessarily looking for a complete frequency vs. impedance chart but it would be nice to know how low they dip, and how the phase behaves - basically trying to see how difficult a load they are.

A: I have attached an impedance plot for you. The WOW1's are an 8 ohm design and they are about 84 db sensitive.

Salk_WOW1_Graph_Impedance

Q: Tying in with the above - desktop users don't typically have space for a massive amp. They tend to use compact units with relatively low power ratings, with Class D implementations being more and more common. Any comment on amplifier matching with these speakers?

A: Today, the trend in speaker design is to develop smaller and smaller speakers that play deeper and deeper. The problem is, the laws of physics dictate that the resulting speakers will be somewhat insensitive and will require more power to drive. But since that is what speaker manufacturers want to produce, most of the R&D for cutting-edge drivers these days is focused on insensitive drivers that play deeper in smaller cabinets. So if you want to use the cutting edge drivers (which we do), the models you develop will tend to be lower sensitivity. They will require more power to drive, but will be more accurate and exhibit higher sound quality.

At the same time, amps are becoming more powerful to address this need. This is especially true of Class D amplifiers. These provide a lot of power at a very reasonable price and are very efficient as well. While some people feel that Class D amps are not quite ready for prime time and can be a bit analytical, they are certainly accurate and provide a lot of performance for the money. Plus, they run cool which is another advantage.

As for the small class D amps, these are quite attractive cost-wise, but don't work all that well with low sensitivity speakers. Years ago, some friends did some interesting experiments at the Rocky Mountain Audiofest. They set up both average power meters (RMS) and peak-reading meters and monitored the power levels while playing music. While the RMS meter registered 5 - 8 watts, the peak-reading meters hit peaks of 200 - 250 watts during instantaneous transients (drum hits and the like). 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. So I'd pass on trying to marry them up.

Q: I found the WOW1 to do a great job even when placed up against a wall. I know giving them room is probably still desirable, but from a technical standpoint how bad is it to push them against a boundary?

A: There are two issues here:

First, the closer you get to the wall, the more mid-bass frequencies become reinforced. So a speaker will tend to get somewhat "boomy." With the WOW1's, the first thing we do is move the slot port to the front of the cabinet. This prevents the lowest frequencies from being directed into the rear wall, compounding this effect. Also, since the speaker plays down to about 48Hz, it is less susceptible to becoming boomy than a speaker that plays deeper. So, by their very nature, the WOW1's can be located closer to rear boundaries than many other speaker designs.

The other issue has to do with human hearing and how it deals with reflections. So let's look at how a speaker performs if it is backed up to a surface.

When sound leaves a speaker, it travels in all directions. So part of the energy travels around the speaker and bounces off the wall behind it. Some of these reflections end up being directed back to the listening position. If these first reflections arrive at the listening position at a time that is in close proximity to the time the sound coming directly from the speaker arrives, human hearing will not identify these reflections as room-related. Instead, they will be interpreted as coming from the source and will "smear" the image. If the speaker is farther from the wall, these reflections will be interpreted as room reverb and will not interfere with the sound coming directly from the speaker.

The critical distance here turns out to be about four feet. Reflections from surfaces closer than four feet will be interpreted as coming from the speaker and will "smear" the image. Reflections from surfaces father than four feet will be interpreted as room-related and will not be an issue.

Of course, in most cases, people do not have the option of placing the speaker four feet or more from room boundaries. So what can be done to address this issue? Simple. You can use acoustic panels in the proper places to kill these early reflections.

You have probably heard that the "angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection." If you sit in the listening position and have someone move a mirror along the side and rear walls, every place you can see the speaker reflected in the mirror is a first reflection point. If you use acoustic panels to kill the reflections at these points, you will hear a marked improvement in sound quality because any reflections you do hear will arrive late enough to be interpreted as room reverb.

Q: Would you ever consider doing an even smaller speaker or is this about as small as it will go without compromising too much?

A: We have done some smaller speakers. The problem is, you can only get so much bass extension out of smaller drivers. When you get down to 3" and even 2" woofers, you simply can't get much bass extension. So you really need a subwoofer in order for these designs to make sense.

We may do a design as some point with a nice 8" subwoofer and some very small, but high quality, monitors. This is about the only way you can design a system with speakers that are smaller than the WOW1's.

Later, when wrapping up our discussion, Jim added this comment:

The only question I struggled with is your question about the speaker sounding good in large and small rooms. When designing speakers, we basically design for the best phase relationship in the crossover, the best off-axis response and a few other things. If you get this right, the speaker should sound good almost anywhere. If anything, because the WOW1's do not play terribly deep, there are fewer problems with them in a small room and in less than ideal situations than with a larger, ported speaker that plays deeper.

And there you have it - a nice bit of background as to the design methodology of Salk Sound, as well as some of their general business philosophies. One last thing to mention is the excellent order tracking system. Once an order is placed, the customer can go here to get real-time updates on the build status. Tracking the progress bar as it moved from one stage to the next, I felt a deeper sense of appreciation for the amount of time and effort it takes to build these speakers. Wanna check it out? Click the link, use my invoice number 2353 and my last name Grandberg, and see for yourself. It obviously shows 100% complete by now but you get the idea.

Read on to see how all this technical discussion translates to actual sound quality....

COMPANY INFO
Salk Sound
40 West Howard Street
Suite 204
Pontiac, MI 48342
info@salksound.com
(248) 342-7109
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
mward's picture

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

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

....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

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

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. :p

Cami's picture

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

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

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 ;).

Cheers

Jhl1963's picture

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

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

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

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

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

"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

... 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

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 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

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 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.

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