Salk Signature Sound Song Tower Review

Bookmark and Share

by Sean Fowler on February 15 '09


For those of you unfamiliar with the company, Jim Salk, the owner of Salk Signature Sound, has been offering high quality loudspeakers via the consumer direct business model since the beginning of the new millennium. Until recently, the bread and butter for this Detroit-based company has been the ‘Veracity’ series, a small line of transducers that boast of premium parts, handsome cabinetry, and sublime performance courtesy of crossover guru Dennis Murphy. What’s made this company stand out all these years has been the stunning quality of woodwork offered by Jim Salk. Most of the loudspeakers that leave the Salk shop are a custom job, tailored to the owners taste with a level of craftsmanship that would make any museum showcase proud. Of course, this sort of exotica comes at a price, and while the lucky owners of Jim’s Veracity speakers will be quick to trumpet the products value, the bottom line is that these offerings still inhabit a price range that’s beyond the pocketbook of many audiophiles. 

The loudspeakers that almost never happened

If you read lots of product reviews, odds are know where this is heading, something about a new series being built to offer a more accessible way into a name brand. Although there is merit to that statement, the truth is that Jim initially had zero intention on deviating from the path his company was already on. To quote the man himself:

“It is interesting to note that development of the original SongTower design was not customer driven.  This was a project Dennis Murphy dreamed up.  When he first approached us, I can honestly say I was not all that interested. After all, we developed our company based mainly on high-end designs and the SongTowers seemed like too much of a departure.  It was more of a mass production speaker.  

"Over a period of about eight months, Dennis kept lobbying for the SongTowers.  Finally, I agreed to build a pair just to give them a listen.  Within thirty seconds of hooking up that first pair, there was no question that this was going to be a new offering.  This speaker performed far better than I would ever have anticipated and deserved to be heard.  It was just too good.  And, thus, the SongTowers were born.”

Jim would not be alone in his admiration for the SongTower. In a time when many manufacturers in this business are struggling to push out enough goods to make ends-meet, Jim has been back ordered on the SongTower’s since their release over a year ago. Now a two-time 2008 Product of the Year award recipient from two separate webzines, his new product has become known as the tour de force in their highly competitive price class. Now it’s time for SonicFlare to take 'em for a spin.

A Crash course on the SongTower QWT

Price: $1695/pair ($1795 as reviewed)
Sensitivity: 88 db
Impedance: 4 ohms
Response: 42Hz - 20kHz (+/- 3db)
Dimensions: 47.75” H x 8” W x 11.5” D

Instead of attempting to reinvent the wheel, Dennis Murphy opted to utilize existing knowledge and available parts to piece together a loudspeaker capable of performance uncommon within its respective price range. Special emphasis was placed on mastering mid-range reproduction and a general balance of trade-offs inherent to speaker design. Attaining these goals turned out to be a year-long undertaking that involved precision in driver selection, cabinet design, crossover work, and the painstaking process of melding them all together to create a final product. The end result of this effort is the SongTower QWT (Quarter Wave Tube), a two-way loudspeaker using a mass-loaded quarter wave transmission line cabinet to extract the most from its general design. 

“Speaker design is all about balancing trade-offs.  No aspect of the overall design can be determined in a vacuum.  Choices may not have been made in this order, but a rundown of how all the pieces fit together would go something like this:

"The Hiquphon OW2 dome tweeter is a higher sensitivity version of the well-respected OW1.  This tweeter would allow you to design a speaker with a sensitivity rating in the target area.  The OW2 is a 3/4" dome that performs extremely well at the limit of audibility.  The trade-off is it cannot be crossed as low as a typical 1" dome tweeter.

"This means that the woofer must be capable of playing high enough to cross with the OW2.  This would generally point to a smaller mid-woofer, in this case the Seas CA15RLY. The advantages of the CA15 are that it performs extremely well in the all-important midrange.  Since it is a smaller driver, it also has dispersion characteristics that are superior to most larger woofers.  The trade-off is that, as a 5" driver, it cannot play as deep as a larger mid-woofer normally would.

"That is where the transmission line cabinet comes into play.  A transmission line uses quarter wave cabinet tuning to allow the drivers to play deeper than they would in a standard ported cabinet.  So whereas the CA15 would probably play to the mid to low 50's in a ported cabinet, they can play down to about 38Hz in the SongTower's TL cabinet.  The SongTower cabinet design is based on the pioneering work of Martin King who developed a set of MathCad formulas to calculate TL cabinet design and tuning.

"The final part of the equation is an excellent Dennis Murphy crossover design that is extremely phase accurate in the crossover region.  The driver integration is about as good as it gets.

"The result is a speaker with a narrow front baffle and small footprint that results in a high spouse acceptance factor.  It features extremely accurate and detailed midrange response, a wide and deep soundstage, a gorgeous top end and bass response that belies the fact that it uses 5" drivers.  And since it is an MTM design, distortion levels are extremely low and the design is 88db efficient - an easy load for almost any modern amplifier.

"All speaker projects start with a great deal of promise.  Some work out and some don't.  In this case, the total far exceeds the sum of the parts.  This is truly a design that exceeded its initial promise.”

Performance Summary

Each listener has their own personal take on what attributes make for a solid loudspeaker. For some, the mark of a good speaker resides within its ability to unearth detail hidden within a recording. To others, it’s about attaining a wide, deep, and immersive sound stage. For Jim Salk, the single most important aspect of performance rests within superior midrange reproduction. Not so surprisingly, this is precisely where the SongTowers excel the most.

The SongTower’s combination of speed, clarity, spaciousness, along with an ever slight hint of warmth, leads to a wonderfully engaging midrange that is uncommon within their price class. Although they will not ooze organic texture in the same way some of the famed BBC styled-monitors are known for, what the SongTowers will give you by direct contrast is a presentation that’s far more linear. Fans of vocals, acoustic guitar, electronic/ambient, and saxophone centered pieces should absolutely love the way the SongTowers play music. While many manufacturers often boost up the midrange in effort to give an illusion of fullness, the SongTowers reproduce the midrange section with incredible natural ease in a way that creates the illusion of a much more expensive set of loudspeakers at work.

Extending from the midrange is a very solid treble presentation that boasts of the same rich texture and balance. The first thing I noticed about the treble was the wonderful marriage between the Hiquphon OW2 tweeter and the SEAS CA 15RL woofer. Dennis did a fantastic job matching these drivers, so much so that I honestly cannot imagine them being used in any other configuration. 

Overall, the SongTower’s treble can be summarized as even keeled. Unlike most similar priced loudspeakers, the highs on the SongTowers do not edge towards either the “laid back” or “forward” side of the sliding scale. Instead, what you get is a sound that’s sandwiched in-between, offering all the attributes we audiophiles enjoy while at the same time being tame enough to work with non-audiophile approved recordings. I noticed that I listened to a lot more pop, rock and electronic music whenever the SongTowers were playing, which to me is a good thing. Still, the tweeter is very detail oriented and may come across as bright in either ultra near-field situations or on electronics that already consist of tilted up treble. 

Anchoring the entire presentation is tight, articulate and surprisingly dynamic bass. Of course, speed and articulation from a set of 5” woofers is nothing new. The driver’s small size gives them a distinct advantage over their larger counterparts, namely in the form of speed. Naturally, this additional responsiveness allows the driver to produce extremely detailed bass notes with greater precision and clarity than their larger similar priced counterparts. From electronic, r&b, and rock to various forms of jazz and classical, I never once found the SongTower to struggle in keeping pace with very complex pieces. Everything about the way the SongTower reproduces bass is quick, linear, and most importantly, tuneful.

That said, there is no replacement for displacement, especially when it comes to reproducing visceral impact, extension, and raw output. The bottom line is that if you want deep, gut wrenching bass, you’re gunna have to move lots of air. While the SongTower’s 5” woofers expectedly lack the ability to rattle walls and troll to sub-woofer depths, what they do manage to dish out is quite impressive. Although I never took in-room measurements, I swear they were hitting well into the mid 30Hz range (with the help of room gain). Still, we are talking about small woofers here. Even though I felt no need to throw in a sub into the mix on most of the music I listen to, I felt that the SongTowers could benefit from a sub with bass centered music. Take R&B or electronic for example. Although it was easy to hear the bass riffs on every track, the visceral low end heft was absent. I found this to be true of just about anything under the 50Hz mark. North of 50Hz however, the SongTowers proved capable of delivering great amounts of acoustic energy. Though they may not be able to go loud and clean enough to crack window panes like a set of Cerwin Vegas, I feel that they earned their mettle during my louder listening sessions. The SongTowers showed no strain as I put them through their paces with demanding classical and heavy metal content. After a number of high SPL listening session, I can in good confidence say that the SongTowers are one of the few affordable high end loudspeakers that even a metal lover could get into.

Still, when you get right down to it, individual perspective will determine your final impression of the SongTower’s bass. If you evaluate their bass purely from the physical size of each loudspeaker, you may feel that the performance is only where it should be. On the flip side, if you were to evaluate the bass according to the totality of the design and the use of 5” drivers, than its easy to walk away quite impressed with what the speakers can do. On a personal note, I walked away admiring the combination of attributes the SongTowers offer, those being sublime integration, exceptional speed, good extension, dynamics, and great SPL prowess. 

The last aspect of reproduction to cover is the soundstage. It’s one of the first things a trained ear listens for, and may be one of the few things the average non-audiophile muggle will recognize during an audition. During my evaluation, the two most salient attributes of the SongTower’s soundstage was its excellent recreation of image-depth, along with an acute ability to center that image between the loudspeakers. While they will not envelope you with a holographic wall-to-wall field of sound, they are able to deliver a sound that allows you to visualize the performers and the space that they occupy on the recording. When you sit down and listen to a properly set up pair of SongTowers, you will hear a sound-stage that is locked firmly into place, making localization a breeze. 

Ultimately, all of the above assets when entwined together add up to one excellent all-around performer. The real cherry on top is how easy the SongTowers are to work with. They are among the least fussy floor standing loudspeakers I’ve encountered during my tenure in this hobby. The combination of linear accuracy, easy and stable impedance load, and the quarter-wave-tube cabinet make for a speaker that can be used near walls, away from walls, on low power tube amps or on high power solid state devices. The Songtower’s balanced presentation allows you to match them with a wide variety of electronics, instead of the usual routine of being confined to using them with amps and preamps of a specific topology. Although I personally found the SongTower to sound best when fed some tube love, it really doesn’t take much effort to attain great sound from them. Combine this ease of use with excellent sound quality, and you’ve got a speaker that’s hard not to enjoy.

The Yin and Yang (The compromise)

To gain a desired asset, you must trade one virtue for another. In a hobby that’s dictated by yin and yang, the SongTowers manage an impressive balancing act that almost bucks tradition. Close though as they may come, they too have a number of noteworthy shortcomings.

Let’s get the most obvious bit out of the way, the SongTower is a box loudspeaker. Subsequently, that’s exactly what it sounds like – a box.  While it is capable of throwing a good soundstage, the SongTower does not sound free of its own enclosure. For most listeners, this will not be an issue, as many stepping into this territory have never experienced anything otherwise. However, if you thirst for a loudspeaker that is less restricted to the boundaries of its physical confines, there are other alternatives worth checking out – to include most flat loudspeaker designs.

My other main quip has to do with the treble. Although the SongTowers well-rounded and likable high end is easy on the ears, it lacks natural bite and grit that real instruments have. Those who place high value on frequency extension, detail, air, and desire to have a lively presentation will want to go with the upgraded ribbon tweeter – which is available from Salk Sound at an additional charge.

Salk Sound SongTower versus the Totem Acoustic Sttaf

Like choosing your favorite color, loudspeaker preference has been and will always be an intensely personal thing. For years, my own personal reference at this price point has been the Totem Acoustic Sttaf ($1695/pair). When comparing both products, it was obvious that aside from price, good looks, good sound, and being of two-way stalk, the speakers couldn’t be more opposite of one another. Instead of riffing on for three to four paragraphs, I will instead break the comparison down into chart form for easy reading and on-the-fly comparison.

The SongTower

- Is the more neutral speaker and boasts of greater integration of the main frequency bands
- Possess a more open and organic midrange
- Has superior power handling capabilities – offers cleaner, less distorted output above 90dB
- Showcases superior dynamic range – this is particularly noticeable with drums
- Has a better sense of precision at the center of the soundstage
- The speakers smooth top end allows it to be less sensitive to poorly recorded material
- More versatile, particularly when it comes to room placement

The Sttaf

- Has a warm sound, throws a more holographic soundstage that sounds relatively free of its own box
- Possess better off-axis response – enabling a more linear musical experience throughout the room
- Has a more forward sound which gives the music a greater sense of immediacy
- Has superior low level resolution
- Is able to capture sharp transients (detail and air) with a greater sense of realism
- The Sttaf's seem more capable of rendering 'life-like' timbre, particularly on excellent recordings 

In the end, both speakers are stellar performers that appeal to two different types of listeners. If you’re in a small to medium sized room and like a warm, holographic, more immediate presentation, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy the Sttaf. If you tend to prefer a more neutral sound that has strong dynamics, spots a killer midrange and a more balanced presentation, then the SongTowers will be for you. 

The Wrap Up

When the SongTowers surfaced over a year ago, I, like many other casual onlookers, were intrigued by the unwavering passion-filled testimonials submitted by satisfied owners across the virtual audio circles. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to spend two months with them, I understand why. Though they are not perfect, the SongTower’s combination of great (American made) build quality, first rate performance, versatility and over-all value all add up to an exceptional performer that is very easy to recommend. Great stuff!

Jim Salk
Phone: 248 814 8062

The following components were used to assess the performance of the SongTower:

Docet-Lector CDP 0.6 MK III, Karan Acoustic KA I-180 integrated amplifier, Lamm Industries LL2 Deluxe pre-amplifier, H2O Signature 100 amplifier, McIntosh MA6300 integrated amplifier, Vista Audio i84 integrated amplifier, Harman Kardon 3470 stereo receiver 

blog comments powered by Disqus