Jim Salk’s story does not begin with an illustrious tenure at one of the big names like JBL or Canada’s NRC – instead it begins thirty years ago with a recording engineer who wanted to build his first studio. When Jim approached his various architects and contractors, none of them knew a thing about acoustics. That was the beginning of Jim’s self –driven education in acoustics, loudspeaker design and electronics.
Jim’s philosophy at Salk is a simple one – keep overhead and margin low, and throw all those savings into better materials, better drivers, and better construction methods. Unsurprisingly, this means Jim is able to deliver a hell of a lot of speaker for the money. While the SongTower is the current internet darling amongst Jim’s products, I requested a review of the slightly larger HT2-TL, which is a simple offset MTM design featuring Jim’s Transmission Line cabinet – a design optimized for low frequency extension and accurate bass reproduction. Since we’re a home theater site, I requested (and Jim generously agreed to send) the matching MTM HT2C center channel.
The Purchase Experience
From the start, Jim wanted to treat me like a real customer for the purposes of this review. He asked what finish I was interested in, at which point I asked for Santos Rosewood. After generating my “receipt”, Jim added my order to his online order tracking system, which shows how far along your speaker build has progressed. This is an amazing feature – because it reinforces how each pair of speakers are hand built for the customer. Some weeks later when Salk had finished a particularly busy period, he began work on my review set. The build process progressed fairly quickly – a matter of about 3 weeks to my recollection. On the final day before shipment, Jim sent me some images of the speakers, boxed them up – and provided tracking information.
Fit, Finish & Specifications
The speakers arrived in heavy duty boxes made by Salk at their factory. Upon hauling them inside – I was pleased to see a remarkable level of attention to detail in the packaging. Each box contained 2-inch Styrofoam boards that had been cut to interlock into several layers. The top layer contained the manual, plinth and spikes. Upon removal of this layer, another cardboard layer protected the actual speaker, which was covered in foam sheeting for protection.
I should note that I have had the pleasure of reviewing hand built speakers in the past – so was somewhat prepared for the quality of finish I was going to see upon the arrival of my speakers. What I was completely unprepared for – was the quality of the veneer. Top quality veneer with rich grain pattern is very costly and can be tremendously difficult to source. Jim had found some amazingly beautiful veneer for my speakers, and the end result was absolutely gorgeous – finished to a level that exceeds anything I have seen close to the price point.
Setup & Calibration
With their transmission line design, the HT2-TL’s require a little breathing room to optimize bass response. At first, I positioned the HT2-TL’s in the same location I leave my personal speakers; 2.5’ from the rear wall and approximately 3’ from the side wall. With Audyssey off, I played back the included CD Jim sends with all of his speakers and proceeded to tweak positioning. With the HT2-TL’s in their original position, bass was less defined than I would prefer and I wasn’t getting the imaging I expected. Eventually, I adjusted the speakers away from the rear wall another 6” or so, while adding another inch of toe-in. This snapped the imaging into focus and also gave the HT2-TL’s a surprising capacity for realistic bass reproduction. The sweet spot was not exceedingly large in this configuration, but large enough for 2 listeners to enjoy the full experience.
Having achieved what I considered to be optimal response in my seating position without Audyssey, I proceeded to run a full eight point calibration. I ultimately selected a crossover for home theater of 50Hz for the HT2-TL’s and 80Hz for the HT2C. Since my receiver offers a mode that bypasses the crossover for stereo playback, I was able to switch back and forth very quickly between 2.1 and 2.0 listening.
The HT2-TL is a very capable speaker, a true full range monitor. While I’ll admit to being skeptical when I first unboxed them, they truly did sound much better for most music as a stereo pair without the subwoofer. In my room, the HT2-TL’s were capable of playing flat down to 31Hz – which is more than sufficient for most music.
For electronic music and heavy metal, I did find the subwoofer a necessary addition, but not nearly as much as I am used to with the majority of non-monolithic loudspeakers I review.
It’s become a bit of a family joke that whenever I finish dialing in new speakers, I will drag my wife and anyone else in sight away from whatever they’re doing for a quick demo. In this case, I had my sister in town from Canada and dragged both she and my wife along for some listening.
We began with a play through assorted tracks from the Salk demo disc. A great compilation that I suspect Jim uses when he is building and tuning his speakers.
Almost instantly when I hit play, I was aware that there was something special about these speakers. If there is a defining attribute of these speakers, it would be that they convey a sense of sonic realism that is almost impossible to describe. As I continued to play Jim’s demo disc, I continued to be awed by the authenticity and natural timbre of these loudspeakers. Whether it was the sound of a guitar string being plucked or the gravelly signature of Louis Armstrong’s vocal, this was the most lifelike reproduction of sound I had yet heard from a speaker at this price point.
My wife almost immediately commented that the treble had better clarity and less sibilance than what she normally experiences with a conventional dome tweeter. With what I consider an almost supernatural sensitivity to any kind of anomaly or emphasis in upper range, my wife is a very selective speaker critic, and she was very pleased with the sonic signature of the Salk’s. My sister on the other hand is about the furthest thing from an audiophile there is. None the less, her untrained ears heard what the rest of us did: real music reproduced with the kind of holographic imaging and silky smooth presentation that can't help but envelope the listener.
After I had exhausted the patience of the ladies, I spent as much time as possible over the next few days listening to every album and lossless track I could get my hands on. I must have moved through two dozen genres of music over the following weeks, yet not once did I find a poor match for Jim’s speakers.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was a fantastic experience as the HT2-TL’s capacity to throw a concert hall sized sound stage transformed this recording to a near life-like experience.
Classics such as Credence Clear Water Revival - Willy and the Poor Boys may not have the benefit of modern recording technology behind them, yet still came to life with incredible realism through these speakers.
Modern lossless recordings can often display an even deeper degree of competence in a loudspeaker. In those situations I love to listen to the work of Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Records, a pioneer in high resolution multi-channel recording and an all-around great guy. Mark was kind enough to provide HTF with some samples of his latest Blu-ray releases which arrived just in time for a play through with the Salk system. In the envelope I received was Primavera by The Banda Brothers and Rita Coolidge’s Play Something Sweet. Both albums are authored on Blu-ray, and feature video of the recordings, in addition to lossless audio.
For those unfamiliar with The Banda Brothers and their album Primavera, I strongly recommend any fans of Jazz give it a listen. This is a superbly recorded album demonstrating excellent musicianship, a rich full bodied sound and lovely imaging thanks to Dr. Waldrep’s recording technique. Vocals are full bodied, warm and among the most authentic I’ve heard.
Multiple time Grammy award winner Rita Coolidge needs little introduction. Her album Play Something Sweet is a tour de force with superb instrumentation backing up Coolidge’s famed vocals. While not my personal genre of choice, I still found myself tapping my foot throughout this album. The guitar and piano steal the show, with a mellifluous authenticity that is almost impossible to ignore.
Comparing these albums from the Salk system to my normal speakers (Paradigm Studio), I would characterize several sonic differences. First, it should be noted that the Salk sound is one that is warm, natural and extremely neutral, while the Paradigm is slightly brighter on the top end with a little less fullness in the midrange.
Imaging on both systems is excellent, but I would give the edge to the Salk speakers here also. They manage to convey a sense of spaciousness and dimensionality that is hard to describe. A quality I would attribute to the excellent SEAS W18 and RAAL ribbon tweeter – two transducers well known for their performance.
Home Theater Performance
Any loudspeaker that images as well as the Salk HT2-TL is going to have a fairly easy time with home theater, provided it can play at decent sound pressure levels. In the case of these loudspeakers, neither playing loud nor clear proved to be an issue.
Particularly impressive to me, was the effortless integration between mains and subwoofer that I experienced. In a long listening session or during movie watching, I will occasionally encounter some degree of directionality in low frequency sounds at the crossover, however this didn’t happen even once with the HT2-TLs, their transmission line design allowing them to produce more visceral bass that much more closely resembles that of a subwoofer.
The HT2C, despite being very moderately sized is an outstanding center channel, capable of crystal clear dialogue reproduction. There was never even a hint of the “boxiness” I have found typical of other smaller center channels.
Over the course of my time with the HT2-TL’s and HT2C I watched at least a dozen Blu-ray films, each of which sounded incredible. Pixar’s Brave was remarkably clear and coherent, with the fine atmospheric detail in the soundtrack eerily well positioned. This disc, authored from a Dolby Atmos mix, contains some of the finest three dimensional audio I’ve encountered. Other highlights with this system include Les Intouchables a brilliant French film that features a piano driven score by composer/pianist Ludovico Einaudi . The opening sequence in particular resonated with me when reproduced by these speakers. It is a soulful melody called Fly, one that conveys a sense of sadness, peace, and unrest at the same time. The recording is one of the richest piano presentations I have heard, and comes to life in a way that is hard to describe through the Salk Veracity system.
Having done my fair share of internet browsing, I am well aware of the cult-like following that Jim Salk’s products have developed. I entered into this review both skeptical and hopeful, wondering what on earth could make a product engender such a strong following. While the obvious answer to my question is that Jim’s speakers sound good, there is an emotional and visceral aspect to loudspeaker performance that has to be heard to understand in a meaningful way.
When I did hear the Veracity HT2-TL and HT2C in my own theater, I too was convinced that Jim Salk builds a great speaker. More than that, I was convinced that Jim understands something about music and its reproduction that many other designers do not. He understands that music must be capable of establishing an emotional impact, but recognizes that this is achieved through more than a flat on and off-axis frequency response. The simple fact that Jim named this series of speakers “Veracity”, really says it all. These speakers are true to the source in a way very few speakers can be, and they do so at a price point that is amongst the lowest I have seen for such outstanding performance. For a higher price, I have heard speakers more capable than Jim’s Veracity HT2 series. Speakers that image more impressively, extend lower and will blow your socks off if you let them. Funnily enough, I couldn’t call these other speakers better. If I sit back and ask myself which loudspeaker is the more natural, true to the music and the most fairly priced – the Salk Veracity HT2 series wins. Highly Recommended.