A funny thing happened when I called Jim Salk and inquired about reviewing a pair of his loudspeakers. He immediately refused my request. I had called requesting a pair of Salk Signature Sound Veracity HT-3's (starting at $4499 per pair). There was no hesitation. "Nope, not gonna happen" I was told. I was somewhat taken by surprise. When I asked why, Jim explained that he had not been able to hold on to a pair for himself, which they always seemed to be sold before "his" pair was completed. If he could not have a pair, neither could I. I chuckled. I had never imagined that the president of an audio company did not have his top of the line offering in his home, should he desire. "Seems fair enough" I said. The call was fruitful however, as I was offered a pair of one of his latest creations, the SongTower QWT ($1795 per pair.)
Salk Signature Sound
Salk Signature Sound sells speakers factory direct only. While quite a few electronics manufacturers operate a factory direct sales model, I cannot think of many speaker manufacturers that do. Sure, there are a few, but factory direct speaker manufacturers are in the minority. I spent 10 years on the retail side of the audio business, and I can give you a few figures to consider. The first one is 50, as in a 50 percent profit margin. Traditionally, speakers in a retail store are priced at twice what the manufacturer charges the retailer. The other number to consider is 20. Usually, the actual cost to manufacture the speaker is 20 percent of retail. In other words, an $1800 pair of speakers in a retail store cost the retailer $900, and that same pair of speakers cost $360 for the factory to build.
Before I get all kinds of nasty email from people in high end retail, I need to point out a few things. No one is getting rich in the industry. That markup is not profit. Out of the markup, both the manufacturer and dealer have to pay rent, salaries, insurance, taxes, utilities, and on and on. Both the manufacturer and dealer are lucky to clear 20 percent profit at list price. People, by and large, are in the audio business for the love of music, not money.
By selling his speakers factory direct, Jim states that up to 40 per cent of the price of his speakers is the raw materials themselves, wood, drivers, capacitors, etc. Above the 40 percent, there is still labor to consider. Using the above numbers, the SongTower QWT would cost approximately $3600 per pair if they were offered through retail outlets.
Selling factory direct also offers Jim and his customers something special besides value- personal contact. When one calls Salk Signature Sound, chances are Jim will answer the phone, unless he is tied up, in which case his wife Mary answers. Do you want a special finish? Not a problem-all Salk Signature Sound models are custom built to order, one pair at a time. Try that is a retail environment. Overall, this makes a compelling argument for bypassing the middleman.
The SongTower QWT (Quarter Wave Tube)
In a nutshell, with a Quarter Wave Tube enclosure, the amount of fill, cabinet dimensions, as well as the size and location of the mass loading port tune the cabinet to the drivers used within it. In other words, the cabinet becomes more than "just" a cabinet; it becomes another component that makes up the loudspeaker. For example, a driver that may normally measure 10dB down at 40 Hz may measure only 3dB down in a Quarter Wave Tube Enclosure- also known as a type of Transmission Line enclosure. The enclosure was designed using the measurements and research of Martin King. More information on Martin King's work can be seen at this link.
The front baffle of the SongTower has a couple of design features designed to reduce tweeter diffraction: the baffle is curved at the edges, and the tweeters are offset, rather than placed in the middle of the baffle. SongTowers should be set up with the tweeters facing inward. Around back is a relatively large port, part of the tuning process. The large port also insures that there will be no port noise or "chuffing." Above the post are the binding posts.
The SongTower's drivers are high quality Seas CA15 5 inch woofers from Norway, the tweeters are Hiquphon OW2s. (Please note that the review samples were fitted with the slightly more expensive OW4, electrically identical, but slightly different in appearance to appeal to the Asian market. No matter — Jim says there is "no significant audible difference between the two." I'll take his word for it The crossover was designed by Dennis Murphy, who has designed crossovers for a number of loudspeakers, both in the consumer and professional markets. Most notably, Dennis designed the crossover for the Ellis Audio 1801; a highly regarded stand mounted two-way loudspeaker.
The on axis frequency response is excellent. There is a slight rise from 200 to 300 Hz, and I can only presume that this rise continues below 200Hz. (Not pictured) This will impart a slight warmth to the music. The rest is essentially flat all the way to 20kHz, and the tweeter still has appreciable output at 30kHz. While humans cannot hear to 30kHz, these frequencies do affect those that we can hear. This also indicates that the tweeter is not operating at at the limits of its capability until far outside the audible spectrum. These measurements are excellent for a speaker at twice the price (or more) than the SongTower QWT.
Even more impressive, in my opinion, is the frequency response plot is still pretty smooth all the way to 15kHz, where it drops off rapidly. The high frequency extension at 60 degrees (!) off axis is phenomenal — most manufacturers do not disclose this information, and those who do tend to disclose a more forgiving angle. All of the measurements of other loudspeakers that I have seen performed by the National Research Council of Canada, an independent testing facility, "only" go to 30 degrees off axis. Not only does this indicate an excellent design, but also that more people in the listening area will be able to hear most of the music, rather than those seated in the "sweet spot." The off axis response also indicates that the SongTower QWT should image quite well.
The impedance plot shows an easy load on the driving amplifier (red trace.) The green trace (phase) shows a dip at 2.2kHz. This indicates the crossover frequency, and is well outside the critical 1kHz range.
Unpacking and Setup
Next, the beautiful finish is far more visually appealing than I expected, especially considering the price. Jim calls it "furniture grade." That doesn't quite get it- after all, they sell furniture at Sticks and Stuff. Think "Ethan Allen Furniture Gallery grade" or something along those lines. Definitely high quality, with a gorgeous, even finish on all six sides. Comparing finish quality to other speakers, B&W's far more expensive Nautilus series comes immediately to mind- the SongTowers' fit and finish are that good. The review pair was furnished in "Honey Locust", an attractive yellowy blonde.
As I have limited apace in my listening room, I situated the speakers in the same place as my reference Infinity Kappa 6.1s — on either side of my equipment rack, really the only place I have. I positioned them approximately 6.5 feet apart, slightly toed in with the rear of the cabinets approximately 15.5 inches from the front wall. While this placement falls a bit short of the manufacturer's recommendation in respect to both distance from the front wall as well as each other, I heard nothing that indicated placement issues. I have since read elsewhere that the SongTowers are not fussy as far as placement.
Once placement was complete, all that remained was to connect them to my power amplifier, the Bella Extreme 3205 Signature. That is when it hit me- there are no markings whatsoever on the SongTowers, no manufacturer name plate, no model indication, no impedance marking, nothing. Which output transformer tap to use, 4 or 8 Ohms? I checked the information supplied with the speakers, nothing. A quick phone call to Jim, and I had the answer- 4 Ohms. While I had Jim on the line, I asked him why there were no nameplates on the speakers. He told me that due to the tight profit margin, he decided to forgo them, as each Salk Signature Sound nameplate would add unnecessary expense. In other words, one is paying only for what one needs, and nothing they don't. I like that.
One thing I did not like was the fact that, while the SongTowers came with stylish conical spikes, they did not come with any type of protective cup for the spikes to rest upon to prevent damage to expensive wood flooring. Of course, this will not be an issue for those with carpeting. The slim markup giveth and taketh away.
Also included with the speakers are a pair of cloth grilles that attach magnetically over the drivers. Jim seemed rather apologetic of their quality and appearance. He told me that when he came up with a better design, he would send a pair of new grilles. The new grilles never arrived, so I assume either he was busy building speakers for others, or that he never came up with a better design. It is not a big deal- the grilles he supplied are fine.
My system drove the SongTowers mostly "as is." Mostly, except that I decided early on to exchange the Russian Sovtek 6550 tubes in the power amplifier for a quad of Chinese Shuguang KT88s, which to my ear, are smoother and offer more bottom end grunt. If I had waited for the SongTowers to fully break in, I may not have felt so compelled to change the output tubes, but in the JoLida JD502 (which the Bella Extreme 3205 series is built upon) I have always preferred the KT88, so a quad of them was going to be installed at some point anyway. The only other change was the recent arrival of a pair of KECES DA Converters, the subjects of an upcoming review.
When I first unpacked and setup the SongTowers, I was immediately impressed at the midrange clarity and extended top end. While I thought the lower frequencies were fast and clear, I thought they were a bit lacking in output in relation to the rest of the frequency spectrum. Then I remembered the speakers were not yet broken in, they were factory fresh (unlike the last pair of speakers I reviewed.) When I asked Jim how much break in the speakers required, he caught me by surprise: he said that the drivers themselves reach normal operating temperature at 15 minutes, and don't change appreciably from there. Of course, the capacitors in the crossover break in, so there is some change there. Then he said the reason most speakers have an in home audition period (Salk Signature Sound offers 30 days) is so the buyer becomes acclimated to the speaker. An honest answer, and probably scientifically correct, but there are other matters to consider besides operating temperature, such as the spider and the surround, in other words, the speaker's suspension. Just like an automobile engine, assemblies have to both "bed in" and loosen up, which takes time. Jim disagrees here as well, stating that the drivers are mechanically broke in after 20-30 minutes and never change after that. Maybe it was all in my head, literally, as I believe in break in. To me, the SongTowers sounded fully broken in with no changes in performance around 400-500 hours of use.
When the SongTowers were introduced over on the Audio Circle discussion board, the statement was made that they "can play a 38 Hz tone at high enough drive levels to set off rattles from loose objects in a typical room." Initially, before the speakers were fully broken in, I thought the bass response was quite good considering the diminutive size of the woofers. Early on, the midrange clarity and speed as well as the articulate, extended top end captivated me. I thought however, that the "38 Hz" statement was a bit of wishful thinking, which was okay — with all the things the SongTowers do right, and especially considering their price, needing a subwoofer to plumb the depths of the music was not necessarily a bad thing. As the speakers ran in, however, they not only went deeper in the bass, but had increased bass levels as well. I am here to tell you, as unbelievable as it sounds, the 38 Hz statement is true, at least once the speakers are run in for a couple hundred hours. Their low frequency ability is so good, and the response so seamless and even from bottom to top that I would not recommend the addition of a subwoofer. It has been my experience that most of the time, subwoofers are set up incorrectly: most set the output too high. They should be setup to integrate seamlessly with the main speakers, and should really be unnoticed. The low frequency extension is deep, clean, and loud enough to satisfy all but the most insane bass heads.
Let us start with the bass, shall we? A CD that I have owned for years has really caught my attention- Dire Straits live album Alchemy. I had forgotten a couple of things with this double disc. First, the music is fantastic, and makes me regret not seeing the band before they broke up. Sound quality, especially for a live album, is stellar. When the kick drum comes in at the beginning of the opening track "Once Upon A Time in the West", the SongTowers threw a big, fast and totally believable recreation of the original event, with the amplified kick drum reproduced with the proper slam, the band in perfect scale. I spent the rest of the evening listening to the recording the whole way through- something I had not done in years. The speakers actually remind me of a high quality three way- deep bass is not localized to the drivers themselves, rather, like the A.R.T. Audio Stiletto 6 ($5,000 per pair) that I recently reviewed, deep bass seems to emanate from below the drivers, on and from within the front of the cabinet. Midrange and high frequencies sound as if they are coming from an individual driver, rather than three drivers. This indicated not only an excellent match between the drivers themselves, but also skillful crossover design.
Another great album is the late Albert Collins' Cold Snap. Listening to this with the volume level elevated just a bit over my normal level, and I was transported to a small smoky bar, captivated as Collins cajoled all kinds of different sounds from his electric guitar. When my wife came home from work, I had her sit in the sweet spot, and we were both amazed at the real natural sound of the SongTowers. The speed of the Hiquphon tweeters excel at not only musical reproduction, but also allow more of the sound of the original venue to come through as well.
Jim may be on to something with the attention he has paid to reducing tweeter diffraction. The SongTowers not only have excellent imaging in front of the speaker cabinets but also reproduce information behind the cabinets as well. One night, I was listening to one of my favorite Grateful Dead albums on my PC Audio front end, From the Mars Hotel. The third track, "Unbroken Chain" features chimes, which at times, can sound eerily close to running water. Running water? Uh oh... where's the puppy? It sounded as if Murray, our Boston Terrier, was doing his business behind the right loudspeaker. I got up from my listening chair and checked. Nope, just chimes. Good dog.Great loudspeaker.
I had the pleasure of seeing a band from Argentina ,Otros Aires, a few weeks ago. A friend had been one of the people responsible for organizing a recent music and film festival here in Orlando, and the band played downtown on the opening night. While the performance was marred by bad sound reinforcement, I heard something special in their music- infectious melodies, and an innovative way of mixing newer South American and Spanish influenced music with the old, by tastefully sampling clips of music dating back to the 1930s. I ended up buying both of their releases after the show, an heartily recommend their second release, Dos. They certainly didn't waste any imagination on the title. Listening through the SongTowers, I really wish the sound at the live show had been better. The tapestry of sound on the CD was amazing, from the deepest bass, to the most sparkling highs. The male vocals caught and kept my attention, although I speak Spanish just well enough to eat, drink, and ask for a restroom. My wife, Leslie, who was born in Puerto Rico, tells me they are love songs. Whatever, the CD is fantastic. The CDs are not available through the usual suspects in the United States, but can be purchased from this link.
I was reminded of a far more expensive speaker that I nearly purchased a number of years back, the Cliffhanger Audio Bulldog ($4000 per pair in 2002) which I reviewed for another publication. Overall, considering the Bulldog was power hungry, at just 86dB/watt/meter, and required a change in amplification, they were one of the finest "reasonably priced" loudspeakers I have had the pleasure to hear. Powered properly, the Canadian loudspeaker had a very special quality- the harder they were pushed, the closer to the music one became. Listening at low volume, and they sounded as if I was outside the concert hall. Push them more, and I found myself opening the door to the rear of the hall. Harder still, and I was seated in the middle of the hall. I don't know about you, but when I attend a concert, I prefer to sit close to the stage. So it was with the Bulldogs- I found myself listening at high volumes nearly all the time. I realized this was not going to work for me as one cannot always listen loudly for numerous reasons, most importantly, the risk of hearing loss. With the SongTowers, I found that I could hear all of the music, all the way down to the deepest bass at very low levels, which I value. Do they have that special "move closer to the stage by goosing the volume" effect? No, but I will trade that any day for a loudspeaker that I can enjoy at all volume levels, not just "11". For those who want to listen at high levels, the SongTowers played as loudly as I would ever listen, which was loud, with no signs whatsoever of compression or distress.
Not everything is perfect with the SongTowers, however. One night, for whatever reason, I decided I wanted to hear "Carrie Ann" by The Hollies. What the SongTowers offered up was cold, harsh, and bright. As this band's music was primarily played on AM radio when it was originally released, I figured I was possibly hearing the mixing job, rather than the music. When I listened to other music from the same era, I had no complaints. I believe that if there are frequency response aberrations in the recording, the openness and accuracy of the SongTower are really just letting them through. The vast majority of the time, the SongTowers were extremely enjoyable. Many times they offered a revelation. Occasionally, however, the revelation they offered was unbearable. Oh well, I don't like "Carrie Ann" all that much.
While I only had the opportunity to audition the SongTowers with vacuum tube gear during their residence in my system, I have no doubt that they would be equally suited to solid-state gear due to the impedance curve. While Jim Salk also sells factory stock JoLida vacuum tube gear, at home he listens to his creations through Audio by Van Alstine solid-state gear fed by a Slim Devices/Logitech Squeezebox. Incidentally, Audio by Van Alstine is another bang for the buck factory direct firm from Minnesota and Frank Van Alstine owns two pairs of Veracity HT3s. My wife made the comment that she would have liked to have heard them with the Naim gear that I reviewed last year. I concur.
Remember these loudspeakers are marketed as "Home Theater" speakers. They do movies quite well, as expected, and their tower design allowed the soundtrack to integrate well with the video from my wall mounted Sony LCD monitor.
Salk Signature Sound has hit an out of the park home run with the SongTower QWT. The build quality and performance is both top shelf, easily topping any loudspeaker that I can think of at $1800 per pair. In fact, they easily compare with speakers priced at two times their quite reasonable cost of admission. What I find incredible is that the SongTower QWT is handcrafted in the United States, yet costs less than "comparable" speakers imported from other countries.
I bought the review samples, right? Not exactly. My SongTowers will be in a different finish. Jim has graciously offered to leave the review samples with me until my pair is completed. My Infinitys, which I have owned since 1993, are heading to retirement- the longest I have held on to any audio component. I am looking forward to the next 15 years with the SongTowers. The SongTowersare completely and unconditionally recommended. Bravo Jim!
I certainly understand comments about "home theater" systems. All too often, these speakers are designed with little regard for music reproduction. On the flip side, many "music" speakers are optimized for bass extension and do not have the midrange clarity required for intelligibility in a home theater application. That has led to the popular conception that home theater speakers do not make good music speakers and vice versa.
The SongTower design, like all of our speakers, began with an emphasis on accuracy and detail in the midrange. This is where 80 percent of the information is contained both in music and home theater. If it doesn't happen in the midrange, it will simply never be a great design. While important, top end transparency and bottom end extension are just icing on the cake.
A design that excels in midrange reproduction, lends a certain magic to musical reproduction. The clarity allows instruments to sound "natural" and come alive. This same attribute lends itself to home theater applications in that intelligibility is very high.
The SongTowers were designed as a speaker primarily for music reproduction. But the midrange performance, in our opinion, makes it a great speaker for home theater applications as well. So after it was developed, we went right to work on a center channel, surround speakers and a matching subwoofer. The design was so strong; we didn't want those looking for a superior home theater set-up to miss out.
While most all of our speakers are available as part of a larger home theater system, they all start out as speakers designed primarily for music reproduction. We feel we have been able to demonstrate that, despite what many people may think, a truly great speaker will work equally well in both environments.
On another note, your comments about edge diffraction abatement are well noted. However, I feel credit needs to be given to an aspect of the design that is probably more influential where the overall results are concerned. As usual, Dennis Murphy has done a phenomenal job with the crossover design. The phase accuracy in the crossover region is probably the single most influential aspect of the design as it relates to the seamless integration of the drivers and superior imaging. While the driver quality is very high, it is this aspect of the crossover design that makes it all happen. We have worked with Dennis on quite a few models over the years and this is what we feel sets his work apart from many otherwise talented crossover designers. Kudos to Dennis.
Finally, special thanks are in order to Paul Kittinger. Paul utilized mathcad programs based on the pioneering work of Martin King to model the SongTower cabinets. Without his efforts, the SongTowers would not produce the quality bass response that is so surprising for a speaker with 5" drivers.
Design: Midrange, tweeter, midrange 2-way QWTL
Drivers: Hiquphon OW2 tweeter (optional Vifa DX19 also available), two Seas CA15RLY midwoofers
Box Alignment Quarter-wave transmission line
Frequency Response: 42Hz to 20KHz (+/-3dB)
Impedance: 4 Ohms (nominal)
Dimensions: 44.5 x 8 x 11.5 (HxWxD in inches)
Cabinet finishes: walnut, cherry, maple, or black satin lacquer (for a limited time also available in honey locust)
Price: $1795 per pair