Salk SongTower RT
When I first began my journey to find the “perfect” speaker I set a few requirements and guidelines to explicitly follow, and I admittedly broke one of those requirements, that being price. However, I did find my “perfect” speaker, and you just can’t put a price on that in my opinion. My “perfect” speaker is the Salk SongTower RT, the first ribbon tweeter version of the already popular Salk SongTower.
I first gave the Salk SongTower’s a listen at a small get together at Craigsub’s home in Erie, PA last fall. I walked away from that trip astonished that, at the time, the best speaker to my ears was not the most expensive, not to mention it was the one I knew the least about. I also left Craig’s home with a pair of Rocket 850 Sig’s and bigfoot center, of which has been the front three in my home theater since. Well, after months of listening to the Rocket’s I still couldn’t get the sound of the SongTower’s out of my head. The more I thought about them and their detailed midrange, the more I realized I should have made Craig an offer on them even though they were already spoken for. Well, I am glad I didn’t because I recently received the first ever ribbon tweeter version of the SongTower’s, of which I feel is superior to the “stock” unit which uses one of the best dome tweeters I’ve ever heard (the Hiquphon QWII).
Although the Hiquphon QWII tweeter sounded amazing to my ears, having heard well implemented ribbon designs in the past I couldn’t help but wonder what one would sound like in these speakers that had recently won me over. Right around the time that I pulled the trigger and ordered my own pair of SongTower’s I had a conversation with Dennis Murphy (one of the crossover designers used by Jim, and a great guy to boot). He happened to have read a comment I made in which I inquired what it would sound like if the ST’s had a ribbon and told me it was a possibility. Naturally I was ecstatic and got in contact with Jim to get his blessing. Much to my delight he agreed but said it was dependent on what Dennis’ final results were. Fortunately for me Dennis was very happy with the design and sent it off to Jim for the final touch-ups. The wheels were in motion at this point and the only difficulty for me was waiting and keeping quiet about “project hush,” of which I quickly nicknamed the situation. Well, the wait ended up being a few months longer than I thought due to the extra measures that needed to be taken and because a new baffle design was being implemented, but the wait was worth it – boy was it worth it!
I received the SongTower’s Tuesday the 5th of August. They came in one large box packed very well, so it took me quite some time to meticulously unpack them. I also received a smaller box which included the grills, stands and a few extra goodies such as a custom CD created by Jim to show off the abilities of the ribbon ST’s and a birth certificate complete with a born date and the signatures of Jim and his team (or so I assume). After installing the stands and spikes I hooked them up for a quick preliminary listening experience. They immediately wowed me, but I decided to let them run for a little while before I listened critically. After a few days and a long weekend in Ohio, I had finally put in enough time on these babies to write up an honest and legitimate review, though I am still not done critically listening and messing with setup and calibration (my room is not the greatest).Track Listing
The tracks my wife and I used to do our critical listening should pretty much well cover the bases as far as the popular musical genres go, and they also were tracks we were both very familiar with…well, except the underground heavy metal tune.
I wanted to use Stravinski’s “Firebird,” but it’s just too intricate, long and I could basically write a review for that one piece as long as this one will be, so I opted against it. I will include my wife’s small review of each song as well. I’ve always been told that women hear “better” or at least differently than men, so I thought it would be nice to get her perspective. She has no bias and was totally honest and open about what she liked, disliked and heard overall.Patricia Barber - Gotcha
Patricia Barber’s “Gotcha”
from her album Live: A Fortnight in France
was the first track to kick things off. As noted in one of my previous reviews, "Gotcha”
has great macro and micro dynamics and has a lot of instrument work going on all throughout. It is a good tune to use for testing female vocal clarity and accuracy, and also has a lot of symbol and bass work to put a speaker through the paces.Dream Theater – Innocence Faded
Dream Theater is one of my favorite bands because they are like a modern day version of some of the older rock bands I fell in love with when I was younger. In my opinion they have some of the most talented musicians on the planet. They are a progressive rock/heavy metal band and can virtually play anything and then some. If you want an idea of what they sound like, think Pink Floyd, Journey, Yes, Deep Purple and Metallica all wrapped in one. Although some of their music is not recorded the best, it is a good test of a speaker’s ability in the macro and micro dynamics, soundstage, imaging and separation of instruments departments.Chris Tomlin – Indescribable
Chris Tomlin is a Contemporary Christian artist with a great set of pipes. His music is well recorded for the most part and was used to test out how well the ST’s handled male vocals.
Mercy Me – Word of God Speak
Mercy Me is another Contemporary Christian band, one of which my wife has seen a number of times, thus serving as a reference point for her. Their music is also well recoded and is very vocal heavy with a lot of different instrument work ranging from guitar and piano to synth and some symphonic stuff. This served as a good piece to test bass response as well as imaging and separation of instruments.
In Flames – Wayfaerer
In Flames is a Swedish metal band that tickles my aggressive itch. They have lots of heavy guitars with melodic elements entwined all throughout their music. Many of their melodies can be overlooked or simply unheard when played through poor speakers, so this song was chosen to test out the speaker’s abilities to pick up those subtleties and nuances. Plus I wanted to hear how the ribbon ST’s would handle highly distorted guitars and a rather poor recording.
Blue Man Group – I Feel Love
This track was included on the CD that Jim Salk included with my order. I had never heard it before but totally got into it after hearing it. They use a lot of odd, perhaps custom made instruments in their music, of which is also a good test of the bass capabilities of one’s speakers. Really cool stuff here guys!
Santana – Migra
This track was also included on Jim Salk’s CD, but was one I was already thoroughly familiar with. Santana is an awesome guitarist but also brings that Spanish theme to his music. This track even has some horns in it – perfect.
Patricia Barber’s “Gotcha”
started out with a solid bass line, and bass there was folks! When I first heard this tune on the SongTower RT’s in my crappy room I was simply amazed that the bass was powerful and musical. I could actually feel it, more so than I could with my Rocket 850 Sig’s (for some odd reason). It also decayed quickly and didn’t linger or overpower the rest of the FR. Patricia’s voice was large and full coming through dead center at my listening position. I heard every little breath and nuance and it sounded very natural. I could envision her sitting on a little stool singing softly into her microphone, as if singing just to us. It made my wife and I feel like we were in a small nightclub getting a personal show from Ms. Barber herself. The drums sounded spot on with great sibilance from the cymbals. The high’s were airy and extended and seemed to continue on into eternity; just what I was looking for. Barber’s tune created a large soundstage, extending well beyond the boundaries of the speaker cabinets. Imaging was superb as well. But most of all, every detail on this recording was captured and reproduced effortlessly. At the very end of the track before the audience applause there is a quiet muted symbol tap. Whether intentionally captured on the recording or not, I easily heard it.
My wife could also easily pick out the different instruments and thought the imaging was superb. She said the recording was pleasant, calm and easy to listen to, but yet very personal. However, she did think some of the sibilance bordered being too “in your face” at times (the S’s were border line annoying). She pictured herself sitting at the second or third table back from the stage, dead center and mentioned that the soundstage was wide.
While I sat centered and listened, my wife sat off to my left and listened as well. Then we swapped positions so we each heard the track twice, once off-axis and once on (we did this with every track). While listening to “Gotcha” off-axis my wife and I both agreed that the vocals moved to the left side along with the bass and piano, though the piano not as much. However, the snare drum, cymbals and high hat stayed more focused. Also, while standing during this tune, as expected, the vertical dispersion of the thinner ribbon tweeter was edged out by the stock Hiquphon dome tweeter, at least to my best memory and knowledge. The dome seemed to stay more focused, where as the ribbon’s high frequencies remained below my now 6 foot tall ears. I expected this to be one of the trade-offs with replacing the dome with a ribbon, and I was accurate in that assumption. For what it's worth, this same thing happened with every track we listening to.
The next track on our list was Dream Theater’s “Innocence Faded.”
It starts out with a very beautiful guitar solo followed by a pretty groovy bass line. The guitar presence was huge through the SongTower RT’s! It had a very wide and large presence, like a wall of sound. The bass guitar was always easy to hear and separate from the rest; very articulate. While listening I pictured myself in an arena of medium size sitting centered and a little closer than half way back. The sound extended well past my ears and was very enveloping. Throughout the track there were ever-present keyboard harmonies which were easy to hear, but quieter than the drums and guitars. Vocals were centered and focused, dispersing higher than wider. James Labrie’s words are sometimes hard to pick out when he sings due to his style, but I could easily pick out what he was saying, sometimes hearing his breaths in between. Finally, the drums were powerful and enveloping, though not as much as the guitars. The sibilance and decay of the symbols was a little hissy to my ears, probably due to the recording.
All in all I really loved this tune, but it did quickly become apparent that this recording was not as well done as the Patricia Barber tune. This was no surprise, but the difference was noticeable nonetheless. Still, the Dream Theater song was easily enjoyable, losing me to sheer enjoyment a number of times. I’ll admit that with certain songs it was heard to stay in “critical listening mode” because my emotions flared up or I just got caught up in the presentation. But hey, that’s what I want to happen.
My wife also felt that the guitar presence was big and wide. She noted that the vocals were quieter than the rest and sometimes hard to pick out, but she could still occasionally hear the breaths in between lines. She too felt as if she was in a long auditorium sitting centered near the half way up mark. She mentioned that it was easy to pick out the different cymbals but that the snare drum sounded a little off center. She too thought the cymbal sibilance was a little piercing.
Again, off-axis the vocals and the higher frequencies shifted over, but the remainder stayed focus. The soundstage become a little lopsided off-axis in comparison to the Hiquphon dome tweeter, but this was another trade-off I saw coming, but one I was willing to make. This occurred with each and every track, so I will not mention the off-axis performance again. It still sounded very good, just not as focused and precise.
Our third tune was “Indescribable”
by Chris Tomlin. Again I instantly noticed the difference in recordings between the Dream Theater tune and this one, with the latter being much better. The soundstage was again huge with the acoustic and bass guitar providing an enveloping sound. The acoustic guitar sounded incredible, from easily hearing the sliding of fingers on the strings to picking up on the different harmonics. This was the first track in which the stereo imaging of the ST’s really shined. The acoustic guitar on the left was laying down the rhythm of the tune while the guitar on the right added harmonies in different keys – very cool stuff and easily distinguishable. The bass guitar was also easy to pick out from the rest of the instruments. It was very full and extended pretty deep when it needed to. It blended perfectly into the midrange, again making me aware of how good the recording was. And the vocals – WOW! Chris’ voice sounded just as it does live, clear, concise and very natural. The vocals emanated in a powerful and large manner, extending high into the air. I’ve never heard the human voice sound this natural in my own home, ever! Finally, the high frequencies were perfect to my ears. The sibilance was good without ringing and too much hiss. “Indescribable”
through the ST’s had that open and airy high frequency that I crave; very extended and spacious sounding - awesome!
The wifey really got into this track and said she just wanted to sing along because she felt like she was there at the live performance. She noted the wide soundstage and the “I’m there” presence of the music. She thought the cymbals sounded life-like rather than a little bright as in the Barber and Dream Theater tune. The vocals captivated her and were extremely powerful and enveloping. She could easily pick out each instrument separately but felt they also blended very well together. The one thing she didn’t appreciate was what she described as a high pitched hiss coming from the right side of the sound stage. I did not hear this annoyance, but she said it was very distracting. She heard nothing of the sort with any of the other material, however.
At this point the difference between the ribbon and the Hiquphon dome were becoming more and more apparent. The ribbon filled out the rest of that third dimension and added that open and airy sense of spaciousness. The high frequencies were detailed yet delicately extended into a never ending abyss – really cool stuff! The one minor drawback was that the off-axis response suffered a little in comparison to the Hiquphon dome tweeter; a sacrifice that I am happy I made because I got that final 10-15% in high frequency transparency that I was craving. In other words, the added transparency is worth it. I now feel I am missing nothing on top, and perhaps even sensing some of the higher frequencies that my ears cannot hear. Call it what you will, but I’m in love with it.
After a short break our listening session commenced and the next song up was Mercy Me’s “Word of God Speak.”
Immediately I noticed how life-like and real the piano sounded. I hear piano played on a weekly basis, so I have a good idea about how it is suppose to sound, and this is the closest I’ve gotten in my home. I could hear the vibration of the notes and keys and was impressed by how well the sound filled the room. It extended well beyond the boundaries and passed right through and beyond me. It was an enveloping experience! The bass was also powerful and enveloping. Again I had to wonder how such small drivers could produce such full and deep bass, something I have to attribute to the transmission line design. Once you hear transmission line bass, you immediately know something is different. Whether it is your forte or I not I don’t know, but I’ve become very accustom to it and appreciate it more every day. Never is it boomy or bloated, but always musical and powerful, decaying quickly when it needs to. Everything in this song came through in an enveloping way, especially the vocals which were very large and full, extending wide and high. I heard every detail in the singer’s voice including the smacking of his lips and the breaths in between lines. The way this song was presented through the Ribbon ST’s gave me chills; what a feeling!
My wife’s perspective was similar to mine. Again she just wanted to sing along, but she focused and said she could hear the piano notes and keys vibrate easily. She liked how enveloping the sound was, especially the vocals which she said were “huge and powerful.” She too agreed that the pronunciation of each word was heard with ease. This tune gave her goose bumps and sent shivers down her spine (she loves vocal heavy music, probably so she can sing along
). At this point I could tell she was very happy with our purchase, even if the wood grain wasn’t as red as she had hoped.
Next on the list was a very heavily guitar biased track that was not recorded very well at all. Yes folks, I have a wild side to me that can be quenched by brutally heavy and distorted guitars, if done well, of course. The tune chosen was “Wayfaerer”
by a Swedish band called In Flames. It is an instrumental piece with a lot of guitar harmonies and overlaying melodies, many of which I’ve had to strain to hear in the past. Well, this was not the case with these speakers. Immediately I noticed the poorer recording again, but I also heard a sense of ambiance and space that I’d never heard before. Perhaps this was just the poor recording coming forth full blast, but I felt it made the song more listenable than on some of the other speakers I’ve played it on. The first thing I noticed, though, was how easy I could hear the harmonies and subtle nuances in the background. I heard little harmonics and melodies that I’d never experience before, and I could hear the rattle of the bass guitar strings. The guitars were very crunchy and powerful, and I could distinguish the different distortion of the two guitars’ different pickups. The soundstage was smaller in comparison to the other recordings, but the sense of airiness and spaciousness was still present. The recoding is very bright but was somehow smoother and more enjoyable on the SongTower’s, something that surprised me. I thought for sure that it would be unbearable (as it many times can be), but this time it walked the line rather than being clear cut across it. A poor recording actually sounded better on the SongTower’s? Well, I guess it would seem so. How you ask? I honestly don’t have an answer, but I am happy with the results.
Though my wife doesn’t like this type of music, she sat through it, God bless her soul. She too noticed the smaller soundstage and said it felt like a smaller venue, more directed at her. She said the kick drum had a nice punch, but it wasn’t like a subwoofer or anything. She felt that the recording did cross over the line onto the bright side, but only at times. She could easily pick out the different guitar harmonies, something she has had troubles doing in the past. Finally, she said that this was the first song that wasn’t enveloping, possibly due to the recording quality. Regardless, she couldn’t “get into it” but at least was able to be more analytical listening to this track than the others for that reason.
Our second to last song ended up being one included on Jim Salk’s compilation CD. The song is “I Feel Love”
by Blue Man Group. Until recently (at Warpdrv’s home) I had never heard any of Blue Man Group’s music. I always thought “if they look that odd it can’t be good.” Well, boy was I wrong! After watching some live tracks I was immediately a fan. I’d never seen nor heard music like this before, but I was hooked; how new age and creative! Well, my enthusiasm for this newly discovered talent didn’t diminish while listening to “I Feel Love”
on the SongTower’s. The bass was ever-present, full and enveloping. Thank God for the transmission-line design, because this track has a lot of different bass frequencies and they all came through powerful and deep, yet easily distinguishable. I am sure I was missing some of the lowest of the lows, but what I could hear was punchy and involving. And when the notes hit lower than the speakers could handle, rather than chuffing and struggling they just didn’t produce. Nice! Imaging was superb all throughout the track, encompassing me and involving me many times, sometimes tricking me into thinking there were rear speakers in our listening room (there were not). The vocals were clear and concise, though a little soft. The vocal harmonies were picked up easily. From the moment this song started to the moment it ended, I was completely engaged. Blue Man Group sure is talented in my opinion. They may not be for you, but check ‘em out and find out.
My darling wife doesn’t care for this style of music, but she was actually engaged while listening. She could hear each individual instrument with ease and noted that the different cymbals really stood out. She, as did I, felt as if there were multiple drum sets and percussionists, as this was a very bass and drum heavy tune. She appreciated the stereo imaging, or “transfer back and forth” as she called it, and said she picked up on some spoken words in the background at one point, something I failed to notice. All in all, we both were very entertained by this track through the SongTower’s. If you have any doubts about their bass capabilities, listen to this track –just awesome!
The final track played was Santana’s “Migra.”
Santana is a very talented guitar player and entwines Spanish themes throughout his work. “Migra”
has a lot of guitar, vocals and even some horns. Throughout the track the guitar was very large and powerful, seemingly louder than the rest. On the other side of the spectrum the voices were quiet but clear and clean. The imaging was superb on this track and the soundstage was pretty darn large as well. Sometimes finding the “sweet spot” between superb imaging and a large soundstage is hard to achieve, but it was a breeze with the ribbon SongTower’s. The speakers are slightly toed in so the sound is focused just behind my head, and this consistently produced superb imaging and
a large soundstage with all the well recorded music I’ve feed the ST’s. I was easily able to pick out the bassline from the rest of the music, and it was pretty groovy to boot.
Separation of instruments was a cinch as I was easily able to pick them out. The horns sounded a bit odd, but they always have on this recording. They lacked a little depth and fullness and have an odd tonality to them, but I assume this is how they were recorded because I’ve never heard them presented in an “accurate “or “realistic” manner (solely on this track I mean). At the very end of the song there is a guitar “waah” followed by a tambourine and both were clear and easy to distinguish.
My bride’s final thoughts on that last track were that it had great imaging and she was able to pick out each individual instrument easily. She felt the vocals were softer than the rest of the music but was able to resolve every word. She said the song didn’t reach out and grab her but it was still involving. I think she was worn out by this point. Conclusion
In summary the Salk SongTower RT’s are incredible! The ribbon tweeter adds that last 10-15% and gives one an idea of what the word “transparency” really means. I am now able to sit in my listening room, fire up some tunes and hear music fill the room rather than speakers trying to produce music, if that makes any sense. These suckers completely disappear into my room, even with the poor listening environment/acoustics. It took me some time and breaking a requirement or two (found in the first post of this thread), but I finally found and acquired a spectacular pair of speakers to be used for 2-channel listening. The bass is very solid, especially for such small drivers! Sure, you’ll want to use a subwoofer for movies, but for music it’s almost completely unnecessary unless you’re forte is pipe organ music or something similar. Transmission line bass must be experienced; it’s that good in my opinion. I now understand what people mean when they use the term “extremely musical bass.” As for the midrange, wow…I can’t say enough. If you truly want to know what is on the recording and “hear it all,” these speakers will not disappoint. With that said, and with all the talk about the detailed midrange that the SongTower's are known for, I intentionally got very familiar with the audition tracks in order to ensure that I wasn’t hearing something that wasn’t on the recording (I listened to them in the car, on my Rocket's, on my father's Canton's and on a buddy's Polk's). In other words I wanted to ensure the detail I heard was not some sort of coloration, distortion or resonance being created by the speakers themselves, thus coloring the signal. To my ears, with those tracks and over the past few days I have confirmed that the detail everyone speaks of is not artificial or a flaw inherent of the speaker; it’s simply a very well designed speaker that resolves everything on the recording. Finally, the addition of the ribbon tweeter finalizes the synergy that I’ve been looking for. That spaciousness, airiness and detail that I’ve always craved is now available and the SongTower RT’s provide it in spades. You know how you can tell you are looking out through a window because of the little flaws, the smudges and the way the light diffracts through the pane? Well, with these ST’s it’s as if the pane of glass isn’t there; the highs are that convincing to my ears, in my room using my equipment. Sonic bliss!
The combination of drivers chosen, the crossover design, the transmission line tuning and the rest of the engineering involved in these pair of SongTower RT’s creates a synergy that I have not heard any speaker touch at this price. Period. Are they the best speakers I’ve ever heard? No. However they are top 5, and at this price point they are untouchable in my opinion. I am extremely happy with my purchase, as is my wife (which speaks volumes because she normally couldn’t give two hoots about this audio video stuff). In lieu of everything I’ve written here today and based on the requirements I set almost a year ago, I have in fact found “my perfect speaker.”