Soundscape – the name is evocative of the experience which is being created, the merging of millions of musical minutiae into one image, the audio “picture” created for the listener. I like listening to musical landscapes, and I like the music the Salk Soundscape 10 makes.
Jim Salk’s (No relation to Jonas Salk; too bad, as I may have pondered that rarest of afflictions Audiophilia Nervosa and potential cures.) claim to fame in audio is a result of desperation – he needed a job. After being let go from a corporate position he relocated to the Detroit area for, he found himself scratching to make ends meet. One month after 9/11 he was unemployed. Yet, always the audiophile, he recalls, “I wanted great speakers but didn’t think it wise to spend a lot of money when I was unemployed. But I did have time on my hands. So I decided to build speakers.” You’ve heard of turning lemons to lemonade. Jim is a living example of turning layoffs into loudspeakers.
The Van Alstine/Salk Connection
Salk Sound is a company I have had my eye on for several years, hearing the speakers at shows in favorable setups for about the last five years. It is no mystery to show attendees that Salk is regularly seen with Frank Van Alstine’s electronics. This has produced a propitious sound generally, one good enough to entice me to write up the Soundscape. The timing for this review was set when, after approaching Jim about the article, I learned that he and Frank were heading to a demo nearby. We coordinated, and for a couple days I had the show pairing in my room. I had intended to work with both the Van Alstine and Salk offerings, but after New Year, Frank seemed inundated; that’s what happens when you update your circuit and put lovely looking faceplates on components. Good for you, Frank!
An uncharacteristic lull in my reviewing schedule – the first authentic quiet time in more than five years – had the Soundscape working solo with all my personal and review electronics. It afforded a great way to hear the speaker with a wide variety of gear in several systems. This was appreciated as I had not yet the opportunity to test a speaker bearing a ceramic mid and ribbon tweeter in my room.
What a difference a decade makes, 87,660 little hours… Ten years later Jim was getting established as a high-end speaker manufacturer with the Veracity HT3 top-line model selling well. He decided it was time to build a “personal best” speaker. What is a “personal best” speaker? It is one that you build without regard to whether it sells. As Jim says, “…I wanted to see what we could do if there were no limits placed on design… And if we would have never sold a pair, that would have been fine with me. I had the speakers I wanted personally.” Of course, he says that now, well after the fact of the popular acceptance of the Soundscape! Thankfully, the Soundscape is not only Jim’s personal speaker but is available for all.
The design is not solely the work of Jim, but is a team effort. Jeff Bagby was solicited to optimize the bass delivery of the Soundscape, and Dennis Murphy designed the crossover network. In this article I will refer to Jim’s design, but mean no slight to these other team partners.
The Soundscape experience is expressed in the line of speakers consisting of the towers, the largest with 12” woofer ($15,999 in standard finishes) and the one on review here with a 10-inch woofer, as well as the Soundscape C center-channel, the Soundscape M7 monitor and the recently introduced SoundScape 8’s with dual 8″ woofers in a single cabinet. All other drivers are the same. The Soundscape 10 ($11,999 in standard finishes) is a three-way full range offering, with front mounted bass, 3” (7.6 cm) ceramic midrange and RAAL treble driver, and side firing opposed 12” (30 cm) passive radiators. The midrange and tweeter are housed in their own cabinet, and the two are linked via a cable emerging from the woofer module and connected via a Neutrik Speakon connector.
Looking at the front, one immediately sees the fine cabinet work of the speaker; Salk offers speakers with exotic veneers. This California Audio Show pair was in burled Walnut and was met with some ambivalence by show goers. It seemed that Salk speakers have gained a reputation for sensibility and the non-traditional veneer was a bit much for some. Not me; I love the radical departure from the mundane! Kudos to Jim for stepping out and showing what a high-end speaker should look like, a statement piece! In my room with largely cream and tan tones in the paint and carpeting, the Soundscape 10 looks splendid. If not for the unusual wood the Soundscape becomes more visually indistinct from other two-module floor standers. What surprises is the listing of standard veneers; curly maple, curly cherry, curly walnut, red oak, white oak and straight mahogany. Pictures on the website of some of these finishes show these speakers are gorgeous!
The driver configuration of the Soundscape 10 is eclectic, touching on four driver materials – pulp for the radiators, aluminum bass driver cones, ceramic mids and the foil ribbon tweeter. This reminds me of the variety expressed in the driver selection of the Legacy Audio Whisper and Helix models. Some speaker makers avoid mixing such disparate materials and technologies while others embrace them. It aids the audiophile to determine for his- or herself in general which philosophy of speaker building is more appealing. In most instances I have not worried too much about which materials are used but rather what, in my ears’ estimation, those drivers are doing! There are some speaker systems which derive zombie-like performance from homogenous driver sets, and other speakers with seeming Frankenstein collections of drivers which yield “living” sound.
Beginning with the lower woofer module, at its top is found a 10” aluminum-coned subwoofer driver. An extension of the work conducted on the Veracity HT3 project, this driver was selected as it plays high enough and flat enough as a bass driver to suit Jim’s goals. Coupled with side-firing passive radiators the Soundscape plays down to 23Hz +/- 1.5 dB. I appreciate these tight specs, and prospective owners should note them. Any speaker manufacturer can put sloppy specs on a speaker to make it appear they can delve the lower part of the spectrum, but a conscientious manufacturer lays it all out. What you should note is that if the tight spec is 23Hz, you can be assured this speaker will give decent output at about 17-18Hz, well into subwoofer territory; the speaker itself is fit for HT use, organ music, and electric or synthesized bass.
Not much is said by Jim regarding the side-mounted opposing passive radiators, except that they are “tuned” at the shop. These 12” heavy paper coned drivers have a pole internally connecting them, and in place of normal dust caps have screwed on caps similar to that of a plastic storage jar. These caps are turned and set in final position at the factory to tune the passive radiators. Normally I would adjust such devices to see what would happen, but in this case I left them at the factory setting. Had I moved them I would have marked the precise location of the factory setting prior to adjusting them to assure that I could return to it. I wondered what would result if I removed the cap, but thought better of it. Obviously, it is not recommended for you to adjust the caps. (Per Jim Salk: “Actually, the caps Douglas is referring to are removed to allow for the increase or decrease of mass attached to the cone. This is how the passives are tuned and it allows re-fining tuning after the speaker has been assembled. There is no point for customers to make any changes here, but that is the way these particular passive drivers were designed.” -Pub.)
The midrange driver is a 3” Accuton ceramic which replaced the relatively short-lived FAL driver. The flat FAL had agreeable dispersion characteristics but was not as detailed as some others tested. In addition it was found to have a resonance from 1,100Hz to 1,200Hz, as Jim states, “… the voice coil would actually vibrate against the magnets producing this sound.” Even though FAL re-tooled the driver it still had the curious buzzing on a select few music test tracks. At that point it “FAL out of favor” and the team moved along to settle on the Accuton ceramic 3” mid.
The criteria for this driver were accuracy, detail and power handling, as well as superb performance in an open baffle design. In this regard the Accuton was ahead of the FAL driver. Salk had built several pairs of the Soundscape with an assortment of midrange drivers. Audiophile associates and friends were invited over for a listening session to determine the best sound. In the end every member of the listening group selected the Accuton as the best sounding candidate.
Regarding the tweeter, RAAL, based in Serbia, was new on the scene when the Soundscape was being developed. I recall being surprised at both the appearance and the performance of the avantguard RAAL Requisite Eternity Speaker, as well as the funky RAAL lifestyle speaker seen at CES 2009, which visually could have been mistaken for a contemporary floor standing lamp! Yet, both of these designs produced intriguing, engaging sound, not in the least due to their pristine, extended high frequency response. Though it is not listed on the Salk website, the RAAL unit utilized in the SoundScape 10 is a custom version of the Amorphous Core 70-20 RAAL, which is not available as a DIY design like the 70- 10 is. I can appreciate when Jim looks back in regards to testing the RAAL ribbon tweeter, “We were so impressed, we decided to rework all of our ribbon-based speakers to incorporate the same custom RAAL used in the Soundscapes.”
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