A Beauty in Sight and Sound: The Salk WOW1 Mini-monitor Page 3

Salk_WOW1_Photo_WOW1_Walnut

The WOW1 in Walnut.

SOUND QUALITY
For a bit of background, I've had quite a few monitor speakers rotate through my system, ranging from the usual suspects Paradigm and Dynaudio and Definitive, to slightly less common brands like Usher and Canton, to downright obscure names like Penaudio and Osborn. Each of them had a certain charm in one area or another. But after much listening I ended up choosing the oddly named but fantastic sounding Sjofn HiFi (the clue) as my favorite. The Sjofn monitors are significantly larger than the Salks, and are able to play deeper and louder than any other monitors I tried, without losing compusure. Yet here come the smaller Salk monitors, able to nearly match them in extension if not quite overall heft. The WOW1 is the first speaker I've heard that gave a serious challenge to my reference—not just in low frequency performance, but across the board. The Salk is to the Sjofn as the HiFiMAN HE-500 is to the Audeze LCD-2 - the former being more energetic up top, more detail oriented, and probably more neutral overall, the latter being richer, smoother, more dynamic and "fun". They all have their place and I enjoy each one for what it is.

I started out by using the WOW1 monitors in my living room system. I placed them on Sanus NF30 stands positioned a few feet from the back wall. For starters I powered them with a Marantz SR6006 receiver as fed by my Blu-ray player, which I think is a good representation of a decent quality system that isn't beyond the reach of a normal person. The WOW1s immediately impressed me with their neutral presentation. Highly revealing yet not annoying like some monitors I've tried, the little Salks were surprisingly full bodied, with clean bass extension that really satisfied. And I don't just mean "for their size", as I've heard numerous monitor speakers that were unable to match this level of performance, despite having larger drivers and enclosures. Unfortunately, some overly-eager audio reviewers present—as a common occurrence in small monitors—that most of them supposedly handle bass drums or pipe organs without breaking a sweat. In my experience that just isn't the case. Don't worry, I won't trot out the tired cliche about bass hitting so hard I was compelled to check my subwoofer to see if it was active. What I can say is that the WOW1 is capable enough to handle the majority of my favorite music in a convincingly full manner, to the point where I rarely found them dynamically lacking. And I'm not just dealing with extension but texture and realism and, for lack of a better word, "slam". It's a very impressive performance that, when combined with the clear mids and neutral, accurate highs, contributes to a thoroughly satisfying experience. "WOW" indeed.

Next I switched to a more "respectable" audiophile setup: a JF Digital dedicated music server feeding a Resonessence Labs Concero DAC, with an Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 tube preamp and a Parasound Halo A23 amplifier. The Salks opened up and became that much more transparent in the critical midrange area. With this setup I became more aware of details like the somewhat nasally tone of Norah Jones on "Come Away With Me" (did she have a slight cold when recording that?), or the subtle interplay between the three master congueros on the 24/96 release of "The Conga Kings". With the upgrade in both amplification quantity and quality, I heard more convincing impact from the spectacularly dynamic Reference Recordings HRx version of Stravinsky: Firebird Suite - Infernal Dance. With this track, I can definitely understand what Jim Salk was talking about regarding instantaneous transients needing more power. With the WOW1 being a low efficiency speaker (84dB), adequate power becomes more of an issue if your room is larger or you prefer higher volumes. It's the kind of thing where you may not notice any deficiency, until you add more power and hear for yourself how much better it can get.

To test that theory, I swapped out the preamp/amp separates for a Consonance M10S tube integrated which is rated at 12 Wrms when operating in Ultralinear mode. For my tastes, this relatively low powered amp did a fantastic job, but I can see how it might be underpowered if the room was much bigger than mine or if the listener preferred very high volumes. As it was, the Consonance/Salk combo treated me to delicate vocals, smooth, fatigue-free ride cymbals, and a general clarity of tone in the midrange that was rather intoxicating. Yet I found myself sticking to "smaller", less dynamically demanding music on this setup.

To top things off, I tried one more system configuration: the same music server, paired with the NuForce DAC-100, driving a NuForce STA-100 amp. The little STA-100 is rated at "merely" 80W x 2 into 8 ohm loads (and higher for peaks), but it felt easily as dynamic and muscular as the bigger Parasound. I don't know if it was the switch to Class-D amplification, or the direct drive capability of the DAC-100 (with 32-bit digital domain volume control) which allowed the removal of a preamp from the signal chain, or maybe it was just the general sonic character of the NuForce components mating well with the Salk speakers. Whatever the cause, this setup just did it for me. Tonal accuracy was startling, and it felt even more transparent than the Consonance integrated (with expensive NOS valves). The Seas Excel woofers are limited in size but apparently not in capability, as they simply refused to run out of steam at high volumes—easily outlasting the sensitivity of my ears and the tolerance of my wife. Dynamics are certainly not a problem despite what I assumed based on first glance. That's not to say one would never pair these with a subwoofer, just that they do very well on their own. I did briefly try my aging Dayton Titanic DIY sub and was easily able to blend it with the Salks. That brought the combo a notch higher at the expense of some living room real estate, and presented a viable full range alternative to big floor standing speakers.

DESKTOP
The WOW1 makes for a great monitor in a traditional 2-channel setup. But so do many other speakers. The thing that pushes the WOW1 over the edge for me is their versatility. I placed them in my desktop setup, in a space formerly inhabited by the Emotiva Airmotiv5 and the Serene Audio Talisman. The Salks are larger than the Talismans but not by a huge amount, and are very similar to the Emotivas. Granted, some people don't have the space for any of these, and are limited to something tiny like the UFi UCubes. I enjoyed the little UCubes but if you've got the room, go bigger.

I could have kept the NuForce combo of DAC-100 and STA-100, since they don't take up all that much room. But it seemed like overkill, so I replaced both with the Nuforce DDA-100 which acts as DAC and integrated amp in one. With 50 Wrms per channel the DDA-100 is no slouch, and this setup offered all the headroom I could ever need in a nearfield environment. I mounted the WOW1s up off the desk and tilted them towards my face (an important step with any desktop speaker), queued up the 24/96 release of Conrad Tao's album Voyages, and marveled at the enveloping sound that emerged. With the tweeter just a few feet from ones ears, the quality (or lack thereof) really becomes an issue. I played everything from Lou Donaldson to Justice to Bolt Thrower to Kristin Andreassen, and the WOW1s handled it all with a sense of ease and grace. The nearfield presentation is a bit more direct, but retains a low-fatigue feeling thanks to the lack of grain in the presentation. The sound had slightly more "oomph" to it thanks to reinforcement from boundaries, but ultimately it remained surprisingly similar compared to my earlier results in the larger room. I can definitely confirm Jim Salk's statement about treating the first reflection points. The great thing about nearfield use is treatment becomes a real option—in many cases it only takes a few small panels. Contrast that with a larger room where far more material is required, increasing both the expense and the likelihood of being shut down by a spouse.

This mildly treated desktop setup with the $595 NuForce DDA-100 and $1199 Salk WOW1 ranks up there among some of the best speaker experiences I've ever heard, at any price. The presentation was downright holographic, which is not something I had anticipated. The rich sense of layering and depth was accompanied by very accurate imaging, which subsequently made some tracks stand out for their lack of spaciousness (a fault of the recording, not the speakers). My Emotiva Airmotiv5s have that smooth sounding AMT tweeter which I continue to enjoy, but it was no match for the Salk which had more sparkle, more air, more definition, yet still remained free of grain and harshness. It's the difference between a really good speaker and a really great one. My Serene Audio Talismans with the full range drivers are highly coherent and throw a massive soundstage. But again, the Salk WOW1 beats them at their own game, and makes the Talismans sound downright slow and thin in comparison. The Airmotiv and Talisman sets are both very high performance <$500 models and in my experience generally hold up pretty well against more expensive competition. In this case they just get trampled.

Let's be realistic—it's a small subsection of people who are interested in this sort of thing. Certainly the value proposition, the most bang for the buck, remains somewhere around the $500 range. Yet I'm happy to see one more option be added to the "extreme performance" category. And that's just the term I'd use for these little gems. Other contenders: the Magnepan Mini ($1490), which looks very compelling but is something of a different animal as it uses a 2.1 configuration—and being a Maggie requires more precise setup and may not work at all on some desks. The WOW1 still sounds plenty good even just haphazardly places on a desktop with no real optimization. Then there are various high-end studio monitors from Adam, Genelec, and a dozen others. Those can sound exceptional, and are definitely worth considering. But with the right amplification, the Salks are sonically competitive, with vastly superior aesthetics. And I can see the WOW1 migrating to living room duty where most people wouldn't consider running active studio monitors for various reasons. In that respect the WOW1 is a more versatile option than any other I've experienced.

CONCLUSION
A key factor to building an uncompromising monitor speaker is low frequency extension—the Salk WOW1 is down by 3dB at 48Hz. Many other well respected monitors are down 10dB or more by that point. All other things being equal, the speaker that plays lower will sound more convincing every time. To solve this problem, some designers go big—larger enclosure, larger woofer(s). This can be effective, but at some point it loses sight of why a customer would choose a monitor speaker in the first place. Salk goes a different route, with a smaller than average enclosure and woofer, yet somehow manages to extract extra large performance to the point where I didn't miss my subwoofer one bit.

But the WOW1 is no one trick pony. Its presentation is strikingly capable from top to bottom, its abilities just as evident during nearfield use—perhaps even more so. It's easily revealing enough to show strengths or weaknesses in a signal chain, yet steers clear of the grating, overly clinical sound chosen by some designers for its "accuracy". Factor in the stunning finish and impeccable build quality, throw in a generous helping of great customer service including real-time build updates and easy access to the company founder, and I really can't think of anything else Salk could add to improve upon this experience. Having sampled much of the competition in this price class and beyond, I'm comfortable placing the WOW1 at the top of the heap, whether in a traditional setup or a desktop system. Highly recommended.

RESOURCES
Salk Signature Sound home page, and WOW1 product page.
AVSforum lengthy thread.
Salk forum on AudioCircle.
Salk Blog, full of interesting and educational info.
They even help you sell your current Salk speakers when moving up the family to a higher end set - how cool is that? They tend to sell quickly and fetch some nice prices, meaning your initial purchase was a better investment than most.

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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