Jim Salk, Founder of Salk Signature Sound

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Jim Salk, Founder of Salk Signature Sound

What ignited your interest in the high end? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side?
My first exposure to audio was as a five-year-old watching my father build Heathkits. His hobby ignited my interest and I caught the bug very early on. In my teens, I became a professional musician, playing on the road and working on a range of recording-studio projects. So I guess I came to it from both sides.

What kind of education did you receive?
I took every electronics course offered while attending college. They weren’t required for my major, but my interest was fueled by my love for high-quality audio.

Do you recall your first high-end system?
While in college, every penny I earned as a radio disc jockey was invested in audio gear. But I can’t say this ever resulted in a “high-end” system. While still in college, someone asked what I would do for a career if there were no limits. I told him I would build a recording studio as I loved nothing more than creating radio jingles and commercials. Two weeks later, he informed me he’d sold his house and had the money to fund a studio project. Suddenly, what started as a theoretical question became reality. The studio included Altec-Lansing monitors, an Altec mixing console, a pair of Scully 30ips quarter-inch two-track recorders, and an Ampex half-inch, four-track recorder. Throw in a couple of turntables, a wide assortment of mics, and racks of processing gear, and the result was a sound system that was the envy of all my audiophile friends.

What does the expression high-end audio mean to you?
The goal of high-end audio is to create the illusion that you and the performers are actually in the same space. Obviously, we will never quite attain that goal. But that is the challenge that keeps us motivated.

Is the final voicing of a Salk loudspeaker first about establishing tonal neutrality?
Very much so. A speaker is not a musical instrument and should not impart its own signature to the sound. It should not be “warm” or “cool.” It should simply reproduce whatever it is fed, nothing more or less.

What are you typically listening for?
There is no one single thing I listen for. But if a speaker calls attention to itself, something needs to be addressed. Perhaps the top end is a little bright, or vocals are too forward, or there is a lack of detail in the midbass. What is drawing my attention away from the music? That is what I need to focus my attention on. Ideally, speakers should disappear and leave only the music.

Analog or digital—do you have a preference and why?
Great sound is the goal, regardless of whether it is analog or digital. So I don’t necessarily have a strong preference. I do work almost exclusively with digital, however, due to the fact that I need to listen to a wide range of music and quickly switch between tracks. For listening tests, digital is simply more convenient.

How do you explain the staying power of the LP in a digital world?
Part of the enjoyment of high-end audio is tweaking a system to exact its ultimate performance. Analog provides far greater opportunities in this regard. Anyone can play a digital track. But setting up and tweaking a turntable requires a higher level of skill and knowledge. There is a greater level of involvement required with analog playback, and the rituals involved add to the reward.

Going forward, what are the greatest challenges confronting the high end?
Education is the key to the future of high-end audio. For the first time in the evolution of sound reproduction, the development of MP3’s resulted in a giant step backward. Music download and streaming sites continue to promote the format due to its small file size. So entire generations are being educated to accept inferior sound reproduction. Our job will be to show them what they are missing.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?
Running a business is pretty much a 24/7 proposition. So I don’t have time for much else. But I do play tennis a few times a week and am on a number of traveling USTA tennis teams.

What still inspires you about your work?
There is no such thing as a perfect speaker. Speaker design is all about balancing trade-offs and there is always room for improvement. The same holds true of every other aspect of our business. From design to manufacturing, marketing, and customer service, our goal is to constantly improve upon what we do. There is a great deal of satisfaction every time we are able to raise the bar.

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