All Salk speakers are custom made to order. This gives the consumer great flexibility in defining the look and the sound they are going for. It’s the personal touches that matter and Salk even sends along a gilded birth certificate with each new pair of speakers they ship!
In terms of the Exotica 3’s, the midrange and tweeter are top of the line SEAS drivers that are supported by a high tech dual 8” servo-controlled, internally powered woofer section. These speakers impressed me time and again with a very accurate rendering of the musical experience. Plus they show their custom pedigree with a solid, well made and downright beautiful cabinet.
Salk Signature Sound Exotica 3 Floor-standing Speakers
- Hand crafted
- Extremely communicative
- Ultra low distortion
- Gorgeous finish
- High efficiency
I remember getting the press release from Salk leading up to last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The release announced Salk’s most ambitious speakers to date – the Exotica 3’s. I have admired Salk speakers for quite some time. By all accounts their speakers are extremely well made, packed with high end components and stunning in their appearance.
4-Driver, 3-Way Floor-standing Speakers with Servo-Controlled Self-Powered Woofers
20 Hz – 20 kHz, ± 3 dB
1” SEAS Exotic T35 Silk Dome with Alnico Magnet
8″ SEAS Exotic W8 Paper Cone with Alnico Magnet
Two 8″ Long-Throw Self-Powered and Servo Controlled (Sealed Box)
Internal Subwoofer Amplifier:
300 Watts RMS per Driver
1.8 kHz, 110 Hz
Sensitivity (2.83V @ 1 m):
Recommended Amplifier Power:
10+ Tube Watts, 50+ Solid State Watts
1 Pair Gold-Plated Binding Posts
43.5″ H x 10.5″ W x 16″ D
$12,995/pair USD (for Standard Finishes)
Salk Signature Sound, Exotica 3, Floor-standing Speakers, Main Speakers, Full Range Speaker, Servo
Similar to past Salk designs, the Exotica 3’s are built around some of the best drivers on the planet. They differ from past Salk efforts in that they feature servo-controlled, sealed bass units with dual 8” active drivers in each channel.
I love clean and tight bass so I was very excited to audition the new models at the show. I liked what I heard so much that I didn’t waste any time requesting a review sample. It took a while for the review units to come in because of a backlog due to the very high demand for these speakers. I was quite excited when they did come in and I was thoroughly delighted with the hefty construction (~133 lbs/each) as well as the incredible Maple Raspberry Burst finish. Oh and the sound did not disappoint, by the way.
The idea behind the Exotica 3’s was born about the time Jim Salk built a pair of custom monitors for a particular customer. That customer wanted a two-way monitor utilizing the best drivers SEAS had available – the Exotic W8 mid/woofer and the Exotic T35 soft dome tweeter. According to Jim Salk, the speakers he built with these drivers sounded amazing in the midrange and treble but lacked deep bass response. So he set out to find a matching bass solution that could keep up with the SEAS drivers.
Before I go there, though, I would like to give everyone a very quick rundown on SEAS. Founded in 1948, SEAS is based in Norway just a bit south of Oslo. They are one of the world’s most highly regarded manufacturers of speaker drivers. Many high end speakers incorporate their drivers. SEAS also builds spec drivers for several major manufacturers. And they remain a darling among DIY speaker builders.
The SEAS drivers in the Exotica 3’s feature Alnico magnets. Alnico is an iron alloy of aluminum, nickel and cobalt. It was the material most commonly used for permanent magnets in speakers before rare earth magnets came to the fore in the ‘70s. Many audiophiles clung to Alnico drivers for many years citing better sound quality than the upstart rare earth magnets. Salk and SEAS claim the use of Alnico is an important reason for the stunning sound quality of the Exotic drivers.
SEAS put in a lot of R and D effort to optimize the Exotica drivers and Salk has pointed out that they have much smoother response characteristics than typical high-sensitivity drivers. They also tested with ultra low distortion in my bench tests below. This meant that Salk needed to work pretty hard to find a bass solution that would mate with what was happening up top.
SEAS put in a lot of R and D effort to optimize the Exotica drivers and Salk has pointed out that they have much smoother response characteristics than typical high-sensitivity drivers.
The solution that rose up was a dual 8” powered subwoofer module by Rythmik. This module is driven by 2 x 300 watt internal power amps. That is a total of 600 watts RMS per side so there is plenty of power to spare.
This is also a servo-controlled package . . . but not really. Typical servo controllers use accelerometers to feedback the cone’s action to the controller, but Rythmik uses a slightly different approach. The Rythmik drivers have dual voice coils. Since they are being run in monophonic mode, the extra voice coil gets used as the sensor. The amp reads the back EMF produced by the unused coil to determine the cone’s position at any given point in time.
The subs are loaded in sealed boxes so the result is that you get some very tight and clean bass from this system.
So the Exotica 3’s are similar to many other high end speakers in that there are two separate units working together. The mid and treble box up top (which is also sealed) with a woofer module down below. Salk could have made these wholly different enclosures but they did not. Instead, the outward appearance is continuous with one of the most beautiful finishes I have seen on any pair of speakers that I have evaluated. They are gorgeous. And since they are custom made you can order virtually any finish that you can imagine.
The Exotica 3’s are heavy, weighing in at around 135 pound each, net. That is some serious mass. They come with separate plinths that the user attaches and then there are some massive floor spikes that can be threaded in place if you want to use them. The floor spikes are not adjustable and since our floor is not perfectly level, I used metal washers as shims to get the speakers leveled.
The speakers shipped with black, magnetic grilles that I used most of the time.
I placed the Exotica 3’s in the usual position in my listening room, firing straight ahead as suggested by Salk. I later wound up with a very slight toe-in and I think this improved the imaging and treble extension a little bit.
Before moving on to the next section, I want to reinforce that these speakers are highly sensitive. The top drivers are native 94 dB in free air and the finished speaker has a rating of 92 dB at 2.83 V at 1 meter. This is possible due to the powered subs built into each tower. So these speakers can be easily driven by modest tube amps if you are so inclined.
So what was the characteristic sound of the Salk Exotica 3’s? As far as the mids and treble are concerned, I don’t know for sure. Most speakers have two, three, maybe four traits that are easily grasped and described but not the Exotica 3’s. They were extremely elusive in revealing their true character.
Ben Webster – Soulville
“Soulville” was originally recorded in 1957 but over the Exotica 3’s it sounded as if it had been released just yesterday. This was obvious when listening to Side 2, the better side in my opinion. Listening to this side over the Exotica 3’s literally left me speechless. I was beginning to believe the speakers were an enigma that couldn’t be explained, only loved. Except for one persistent issue – I was longing for a stronger voice in the midbass.
The Exotica 3’s are factory set for flat frequency response. This means the controls on the woofers’ amps are factory set and then sealed behind a stout metal grille. I removed the grille and adjusted the crossover and the gain to try and fill in the mid bass void I was hearing. (The plate amps have other controls such as variable phase; low pass roll-off slope, bass extension, etc. I didn’t play around with any of these other controls just the crossover frequency and gain.) I wound up raising the crossover frequency to around 180 Hz (up from ~110 Hz) and then I raised the gain by an indeterminate amount. The response I ultimately got was very flat from 200 Hz down to around 64 Hz where there was a room-induced suck out and then the response rose to around 7 dB over the midrange level from 40 Hz to the low frequency roll-off which was around 22 Hz.
Now we all know how the bass you get is largely influenced by your listening space. So I am not sure if you would go up or go down with your adjustments. I am just reporting what I did to improve the sound in my room. The bass boost below 40 Hz proved to be problematic throughout the review and I strangely enjoyed the Exotica 3’s most with a subwoofer crossed over around 60 Hz.
Danger Mouse – Rome
So, besides having some difficulty getting a perfect balance in my room, what did the bass sound like? I wrote about this while listening to the LP of “Rome” which is a Danger Mouse production featuring Nora Jones and Jack White.
Here the bass was very clean and tight. Perhaps one might say the bass was “polite”. To my ears, this was representative of a case where the system before me was probably better resolving than what was used during the mastering process. Paradoxically, this did not always sound as great as you would think and may well explain why I preferred a subwoofer. The outboard sub lent a rounder shape and more growl in the bass. Maybe the sub I used wasn’t the most accurate component but in some strange way it seemed to better convey what the recording engineer intended.
Elsewhere in the upper registers, I heard a very pure tonality in the midrange. This was the most prominent of the Exotica 3’s good qualities – the detailed and transparent midrange. The treble was likewise fantastically clean and extended.
The staging was stable across the front – instruments did not waver side to side. But the overall width of the stage was not as expansive as I have heard with different systems in my room. All in all, the sound quality of the Exotica 3’s brought me great joy and satisfaction while listening to this album.
Nine Inch Nails – Downward Spiral
One thing I found with the Exotica 3’s was that they wanted to be played louder than I am accustomed to but I was unaware of how loud it actually was. I know this because of the many times other family members would emerge from another room and request me to turn it down. This very thing happened one evening while I was enjoying the SACD of Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral”.
On this album, the percussion and other transients could be felt as well as heard. The Exotica 3’s are so good at the ole “stop and start” that the music tended to take on a surreal tactile quality. So this was a great experience to enjoy. Salk says the Exotica 3’s are “analog” speakers. I understand what they are trying to say but I started to think they could be digital speakers too, but with a 32-bit word length because of the vast amount of information they could convey.
On “Downward Spiral”, though, I once again felt that the servo controller was acting like something of an unrelenting dictator. At normal listening levels the bass was deep and tight, properly supporting the soundscape inviting me to turn it up. But then I kept cranking it and the bass seemed to be left behind. This is how I got to the point of playing my music too loudly – I wanted to get more bass with all the other goodness I heard but it didn’t flesh out at the higher volumes as I was expecting.
Unfortunately I did not have a tube amp on hand to try with the Exotica 3’s. I think they would sound their best musically with a tube amp. And Salk regularly uses tube amplification in their product development so this would be a great way to experience the speakers.
I did watch a number of movies over the Exotica 3’s and one night I especially remember watching the Blu-ray of the Hobbit adventure, “The Desolation of Smaug”. I had a 15” powered sub in the system that was crossed over at 60 Hz to the mains.
This set up completely blew my socks off! We sat there with the gain on a very high setting – no compression, clean transients, full range response, and on and on. This was quite simply the best sound I have gotten in my listening room in the last five years. I mean it is impossible for me to explain just how fine the sound was.
So this is when I decided that using a sub with the Exotica 3’s was right for my listening space. From this point forward, I used a sub in this way and enjoyed spectacular performance – so much so that I really did seriously consider buying the review units basically every time I sat down for a listen. They are that good.
All below measurements are in-room response. The frequency response tests were performed with the microphone on axis with the midrange driver and spaced 1 meter from the phase plug. The distortion measurements were on-axis near field measurements with the microphone tip precisely 1’ from the driver under test.
The above plot is the on-axis frequency response. The Exotica 3’s were extraordinarily flat from 80 Hz to 15 kHz. Notice the room-induced suck out around 60 Hz as well as the elevated shelf in the response below this point.
The 30 degree off-axis test retained a smooth response curve with the treble rolling off at a slightly lower point than the on-axis plot as one would expect.
I got less than 0.3% THD at 1 kHz and 100 dB. This is very low distortion for a loudspeaker and may explain why I so loved the SEAS drivers in these speakers.
This plot was also 100 dB but at 5 kHz. The THD remains quite low at 0.37%.
Testing the tweeter at 10 kHz and 100 dB yielded the lowest distortion I have ever measured from a tweeter: 0.03% THD. It doesn’t get any purer than this!
Moving down the scale, I measured less than 0.1% THD at 100 dB and 500 Hz. I need to verify for sure but I believe this is now the lowest distortion I have ever measured on any midrange driver yet. This is less distortion than what you might get from a typical tube amplifier. And it is in the frequency range where the real magic happens in your music. This further supports my love affair with the midrange qualities I heard.
The THD measurement at 100 dB and 100 Hz was also quite clean at just 0.34%. Notice how all harmonics are more than 50 dB below the fundamental. I don’t think anybody could actually hear that.
Even more impressive would be the measurements at 30 Hz – 100 db at 0.65% THD+N. This distortion profile would also be inaudible.
I was able to get 100 dB at 24 Hz with distortion below 5%. This is a very good result but the distortion rose rapidly at higher SPL’s.
SALK SIGNATURE SOUND EXOTICA 3 is the Best Looking Speakers for 2015.
- Articulate and communicative midrange and treble
- Low distortion
- Moderately high efficiency
- Gorgeous finish
- They are heavy
- More Mid-bass Slam
- The speakers “disappear” more often
- Lighter in weight
I thought about buying these speakers pretty much every time I fired them up. They are a sight to behold with a very gorgeous finish and an outwardly solid build. I have never heard speakers that can communicate more information than these babies.
They would make a great reference pair due to their accuracy in the mid and treble region. And as a reviewer their efficiency makes them flexible enough to use when reviewing amps of all power abilities from very low power to very high power. But as a reviewer they would be of little use when evaluating the bass qualities of a power amp because of the built in amps. So I will have to return them to Salk and hope they find a loving home soon.
Sure I had some difficulty getting a proper bass balance in my room and wound up using a sub woofer for the low bass most of the time. But the bass was vastly better in the room at RMAF and so I am going to chalk this up as a room-dependent issue. Your mileage may vary.
My final thought is that the Exotica 3’s are worth serious consideration for those who are looking for exactness in the reproduction chain or even for those who just want to hear all of their music and I do mean all of it!