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the horn shoppe
the Horn loudspeakers
as reviewed by John Mazur
Anymore, I'm the type of guy that likes to buy a piece of stereo equipment and shove a dollar back in my pocket. When it sounds great and it doesn't cost mega millions, that's a bonus. I have traveled the path from budget gear to stratosphere and back. Sure, when you get that piece of high-end jewelry, it is supposed to sound good. At the same time, it is still a leap of faith. And, after the honeymoon is over? What are you going to do for me now, baby? The search is on for next piece of gear to be dazzled by and adorn the rack with its beauty.
My quest lately has been to find speakers that aren't as dominating as the Magneplanars I showed the door to last autumn. After talking to Ed Schilling, owner of the Horn Shoppe, I reluctantly agreed to audition a set of The Horns. Reluctant in the fact that I'm not real wild about looking at a set of drivers stuck on the front of the cabinet unadorned without grill cloth. If anything, Ed is a man of conviction and passion. His passion was the clincher in getting the trial going.
Ed set out to make a single driver speaker that didn't require the housekeeping and maintenance of other single driver speakers, where the drivers have to be rotated to prevent sagging, and the motor assemblies cleaned on a periodic basis. He also was not happy with the loading techniques used in other designs. The result is The Horn, which uses a 4-inch, Fostex 108 Sigma driver that is housed in a rear-wave, folded-horn cabinet, derived from the Buschorn, according to Ed. The cabinet is small, measuring 30 inches tall, 11.5 inches deep, and 6 inches wide. The sensitivity is rated at 94dB, with an impedance of 8 ohms. Since Fostex quit making the original 108 drivers, Ed dopes the cone material on the 108 Sigma to achieve the sound he is looking for. Ed doesn't deserve all the credit on the product. Some recognition goes to his Dad who builds Ed's designs, and Ed's wife and kids for having to put up with his notions.
The Horns that were sent to me for the 30-day trial showed up in a single carton that had plenty of Styrofoam to keep the traveling partners from butting heads. They were constructed from 5mm birch plywood and finished in a light color. Construction was not furniture-grade, since none of the panels were mitered at the corners. Plywood laminate is visible from the sides. At the same time, they still look handsome. The fact that the drivers were visible was not as bothersome as I thought it would be. The small size of the cabinets however, was of concern. Remember, I previously had speakers nearly the size of doors in my listening room, and The Horns were so diminutive in comparison.
Anxious to get a taste of what they were all about, I set them up in my room well out from the front wall, at a distance of about 7 feet. This sacrifices some bass but gives better depth and imaging. The Horns are supposed to be corner-loaded to augment bass, which presented a problem in my room since I only have one corner. I am listening from the mid point into the bottom of an inverted "L" shaped room; thus, no left corner. I figured I would worry about placement details later. I just wanted to get a sense of how they sounded.
So, how did they sound?
The following is part of a phone conversation I had with Ed Schilling:
Ed: (In his southern accent) "Hello?"
Mazur: "Ed, John Mazur. I got the speakers in."
Ed: "Are you breaking them in?"
Mazur: "No, not yet. But these things are the worst speakers I have heard. Usually, you get an idea of how a speaker sounds, even right out of the box. But, these things, they're horrible!"
Ed: "It's like I told you on the phone, you have to give them time to break-in. I promise you, they will sound nothing like what you are hearing now. You will know when it happens."
And so it went. I took them upstairs into my recently married daughter's vacated bedroom and hooked them up out of phase and placed them face-to-face. I put the CD on repeat and threw heavy blankets over them to muffle the sounds. They needed to be muffled as I dialed-in the hip-hop station and closed the door. Ed insists on material that is transient heavy in order to loosen up the cone surrounds. He also says not to play them constantly because giving them a rest period helps too.
This went on for two weeks. After that, I brought them down into the listening room figuring they had enough time in the torture room. Upon hooking them into the main rig, I was preparing to be brought into the Land of Oz. That was not the case at all. The speakers still sounded confused. I thought this had to be a joke. My friend The Audio Junkie came over that night and listened to them. He came to the same conclusion.
I left them on for the night and into the rest of the next day. As I was passing by the following evening, the sound caught my attention. Something had changed on these speakers in a big way! I sat down and listened intently. I was amazed at how they were transformed. They now had a soundfield with imaging and depth, having most of the attributes a system can give you. Ed had told me that I would know when it happened, whatever it is. Finally! Now, on with the show.
The Horns were used with my ATI amp, the First Watt (see John's review here), F1, along with a Golden Tube Audio SE40, a single-ended triode tube amp that I bought on Audiogon. The speakers were placed 7 feet away from the front wall and 6 feet apart. The side-to-side placement of the speakers sometimes had to be adjusted by as little as ¼ in. to achieve rock solid center image on different material.
At this point, allow me to carp about preamps that don't have balance controls. There are so many things that affect the balance of the left-right signals that, in my opinion, eliminating the balance control in the pursuit of "audio purity" is a lot of crap. Room imbalance, tube imbalance, recording imbalance, broadcast imbalance, etc.—they all add up. A simple balance control allows a listener to fix such problems with ease. Designers, please take note.
Anyway, after I achieved the room positioning, the front of the speakers were canted back on one-inch tall Audio Points so they would fire up to ear level. The cabinets were toed-in so the sound path crossed over just in front of me. Surprisingly, the speakers sounded great with the ATI amp. There was a coherence and togetherness that allowed me to listen into the performance. The ATI was light and quick, with an engaging, if somewhat distant, laid-back quality. The First Watt, on the other hand, gave the presentation more body and quickness, along with bringing the sound just a bit more towards me. Bass was better with the First Watt, as well. Hearing The Horns on the ATI was like tasting a white wine; light, with tones that ride on top of the palate. The First Watt was like a red wine; deep tones, more earthy and contemplative.
With the Golden Tube amp, I was drunk! Imaging had body that was rounded and dense. I just kept thinking of how butterscotch tastes, thick, with such intense, luxurious flavor. When I put on Nickel Creek, This Side (Sug SACD-1969), the performers were in my room; the image density and placement was that good. The height of their voices was above the speakers, without having the appearance of Munchkins performing in front of me. Transient speed was good allowing guitar picking to snap and twang. Bass was now fuller and better, in my opinion, with the SE40. The richness and texture were testament to why there is such a following for single driver speakers used with single-ended triode amps. There is so much more meat on the bones. The Horns also managed to pull off a disappearing act, melting away and leaving a soundscape with depth and extension beyond the cabinet edges.
The speakers did not have the extreme highs that I am used to with the Decwares (see John's review here), but they reproduced the remaining high frequencies so well that I did not miss them. It was actually surprising how well The Horns reproduced this part of the sonic spectrum. At the other end of the rainbow, the bass was subdued, not having the final octave or so of response. However, The Horns did manage to give me a taste of the low end sufficient to paint the picture. As a matter of fact, Ed says that with some customers there is too much bass. If that is the case, it can be solved by stuffing the mouth of the horn with Dacron polyester that is used for pillows, "like you get at Wal-Mart." (I had fun with Ed pretending that I didn't know what Wal-Mart was.)
There was coloration on female vocals however, that sounded like a cabinet resonance. As the performers would sing lower notes, the imaging of their voices lost height, being drawn lower towards the cabinets. This lead me to think that a cabinet resonance was indeed the cause. Overall clarity was good provided that volume was used judiciously. For example, I could hear the studio echo from Diana Krall, The Look of Love (Verve 314 589 597 2). While she did not have the husky, breathy sound that I heard so often on the Maggies, she was all so engaging being in front of my eyes. I will have to admit that I am tiring of using her recordings in my latest speaker evaluations.
On orchestral music, Mahler, Symphony No. 6, Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony 821936-0001-2) there was a mid-hall perspective. Kettledrums sounded full, while the speakers provided good startle factor when called for. I guess details can be called "good" when you hear performers sniffling. The spread of the orchestra in front of me was good with a three-dimensional picture to the corners.
Rock music did sound loud, but did not fill out and seemed just that much more compressed because of it. Metallica, Creed, and ZZ Top were summoned to see what The Horns could do. Because the low bass was missing, the music did not have the requisite propulsive drive that carries it.
I will throw in a word of caution here: You need to use these speakers and not leave them too long without playing. I had an unfortunate situation where both my sources went down during the evaluation. In the nearly 3 weeks that the system was down, The Horns saw no action. When I connected everything back into the system and sat down for a listen, boy, was I surprised. They had become uninvolving and I walked away from them. After the third day they changed. I don't know what happens to bring these speakers around, but it seems to happen in the blink of an eye. One minute they sound plain; the next minute they sound wonderful and glorious. Ed says that customers that have owned these for a couple of years still notice continual improvement as they play them.
Overall, my time with The Horns was rewarded with some great sound. The transformation from new to broken-in was amazing. The speakers manage to portray the gestalt of music provided you do not ask, or expect them to be, all things. Patience is called for when evaluating The Horns because of the break-in time required. You will be rewarded by having terrific little speakers that do not cost much, do not take up too much room, and have some great coherency and imaging. I recently read a review in one of the latest issues of a printed audio magazine about speakers priced at $12,000 that don't do all things. At $775 for speakers you expect that. At $12,000 you don't. So, have fun with The Horns, slide the cash back in your pocket, and enjoy the bonus!
Postscript: As I was finishing writing the review, Ed Schilling called to let me know a few new things he has done to improve The Horns. For one, and this is major, he is now offering the speakers with a choice of wood veneers. This will surely make the speakers look more like fine furniture than finished plywood. This will add to the cost, though. Second, he has discovered that he can smooth out the midrange a little more by putting some foam strips in the throat of the horn. Both of these improvements can be retrofitted to existing speakers. Call The Horn Shoppe for details, or check the website. John Mazur