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The Horns

Full-Range Drivers in Hand-Made, Rear-Loaded, Folded Horn Cabinets, by the Horn Shoppe

[The Horns, by the Horn Shoppe]
The Horns, Rosewood Finish
[Italian version]

Product: The Horns
Manufacturer: The Horn Shoppe - USA
Retail price: $525 and $700 USD
Reviewer: Richard George
Reviewed: August, 2001

Full range drivers with rear-loaded horns have been around for decades. Proponents of full-range drivers claim that because full-range drivers require no cross-over network, their electronic simplicity reduces the loss of musical information compared to multidriver speakers.
In addition, they claim that, since there is no phase distortion or time distortion with single drivers, the sound is inherently superior. Finally, full-range drivers are supposed to be the best match for single-ended triode amplifiers, which have enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity in recent years. If full-range, single-driver speakers have so many benefits, why aren't they more popular? How does an inexpensive version, called simply "The Horn" compare to more conventional speakers in its price range?

What Is the Horn?

The Horn, a speaker that uses a full-range driver with a rear-loaded, folded horn, was designed by Ed Schilling and is handmade by Ed's Father and his partner Charles in a little shop in Eastover, South Carolina, USA. Based on a simple, rear-loaded, folded horn design originally used in the German Bushhorn with 3-inch drivers, Ed redesigned the Horn to work with 4-inch drivers.
The Horns are available with standard drivers for $525 USD or with upgraded drivers for $700 USD. The standard drivers are an inexpensive, generic Fe103 design; the upgrade drivers are Fostex Fe108 Sigma drivers. The Fostex drivers provide greater sensitivity (for low powered amplifiers), and better low and high frequency extension compared to the standard drivers. The Horns in this review were tested with both types of drivers.

The cabinet is made of high grade, 18mm (3/4-inch), birch plywood. While the folded horn is a complex cabinet design requiring substantial time and labor to construct, the remainder of the speaker is utter simplicity.
Two three-way binding posts are connected to the single driver by silver-plated copper wire that is soldered, not clipped, into place. The Horns may be ordered with the binding posts located on the back or top of the cabinet.

[The Horn back]

Blond finish, back of the Horn, showing that the entire back is the mouth of the horn.

The Horns are available in several finishes. The test units are finished in blond birch. In outward appearance, the Horns are simple, tall, slender, rectangular speaker boxes that measure 76 cm (30 in.) by 29 cm (11.5 in.) by 15 cm (6 in.). No effort has been made to round-off or smooth the shape of the edges and corners around the baffle or elsewhere.
The driver is mounted high on the front of the baffle allowing it to act as an upper bass, mid-, and high-frequency radiator, while the low end is augmented by the folded horn enclosed within the speaker cabinet. The entire back of the cabinet is the mouth of the horn.

The Horns are designed to take advantage of the low frequency boost that can be obtained by placing speakers at or near room corners. In fact, they are designed to be true corner horns: by proper placement, room corners are used as extentions of the horn mouths to provide bass enhancement.

How Do They Sound?

The Horns, when properly set up, reproduce music in a manner that far exceeds expectations, given the small cabinet size and tiny drivers. They are quick and lively, allowing percussion instruments to sound sharp and clean.
In the upper bass through high-frequencies, the Horns are clean and clear, reproducing music with excellent timing, very good tonal balance, quick transient response, and flat frequency response. However, with deep bass instruments the four-inch driver cannot quite keep up with demands, even with the boost of horn-loading. Additionally, some characteristic horn coloration is audible; it isn't enough to distract from the music, it is simply there.

Positive Impressions

As with many full-range, rear-loaded horn speakers, the Horns have a clarity and sweetness in the midrange that must be heard to be appreciated. The remainder of the frequency range is nearly as impressive. Many other speakers in the Horns price range can claim to be more sensitive, or have better dynamic range, or greater frequency extension. And, all these claims can be proved true. However, at all times, the sheer musicality of the Horns commands attention, revealing that the Horns do one thing very well: they play music. Listening to the Horns, when properly set up, one hears the music, and forgets the speakers. Vocals are wonderful. Female vocals can be stunning in their presence and clarity. Male vocals have no trace of the "chestiness" that haunts many inexpensive speakers. For instance, listening to LPs of John Gary was remarkable; he seemed to be standing in front of the listener, his extraordinary tenor voice and unbelievable range highlighted by the unique qualities of the Horn.

High frequencies sound clean and clear without the sibilance often encountered in many, competitively priced speakers. Cymbals sound completely natural, from the first strike of the drum stick to the final decay of the note. Triangles and bells ring with a clear tone without the harsh shimmer often imparted by inexpensive drivers or crossover components. These speakers excel at simply sounding right.

The 4-inch drivers are very fast resulting in lows that are sharp and quick. Even the lowest frequencies produced are quick, totally lacking muddiness or muffling. Low end extension is surprising for the driver size, provided the speakers are properly placed. Guest listeners had trouble believing that so much sound could issue from a 4-inch driver.

The Horns display very good dynamic range. For music with large dynamic range, the softest notes in the music sound just as correct and proper as the loudest, and the softest passages are not lost when the the crescendo is kept to a reasonable listening volume.
However, the speakers have a built in limitation: their highest output of approximately 100 dB (in my listening room) occurs at the maximum rated input of 5 watts. If the maximum input is exceeded the softer portions of the music increase in volume without any volume increase of the louder passages.
This results in audible compression where an increase in the volume knob decreases the dynamic range. If the volume control is pushed too far, the little drivers begin to distort through over-excursion; too much power can destroy them. This may limit a few classical music pieces that have exceptional dynamic range. However, for most music, the dynamic range of the Horns is more than adequate. While the Horns do very well with most music types, they excel at acoustical music, vocals, and jazz.

Soundstaging is excellent, probably because the Horns radiate most of the frequency range from single drivers. The soundstage is wide and deep with instrument and vocal sources taking up positions within the room in front of the speakers and occasionally from somewhere behind the wall.
The effect is what surround sound is supposed to do, but seldom succeeds. As an example, listening to an Arco Iris LP was a fascinating experience; the percussionist could be heard turning in his chair to strike instruments placed in a circle around him. With most other speakers in the Horns' price range, it is apparent that the percussionist is turning back and forth, but the Horns added more depth to the soundstage allowing the listener to 'hear' the circular layout of the instruments. In addition to the marvelous soundstage, the Horns are nearly invisible. When music is playing, it does not seem to be issuing from little boxes in the corners, but rather, it seems to be coming from the space in front of the listener.

Quality of construction is very good. The joints are strong and well-finished. The wood is smooth and finish is properly applied. While the Horns are not fancy and won't win any awards for aesthetic appeal, it will not be because of quality or finish but rather because of their unadorned simplicity.

Negative Impressions

As impressive as they sound, the Horns are far from perfect. The most negative aspect of the Horns is that placement is very critical, not only speaker placement but listener placement as well. The speakers must be located perfectly in a given room to achieve the desired performance. Depending on the room, if the Horns are placed too far from a corner, they have little bass with limited low end extension. In some rooms, if placed too close to a corner they can actually be boomy and unpleasant while still lacking very low bass. If the speaker toe-in is not correct, much high-frequency and soundstage information can be lost. In addition, while the sound from the diminutive drivers can easily fill a room, they sound their best in a relatively small sweet spot, an area that is much smaller for the standard driver than for the Fostex upgrade driver. Even if speaker placement is perfect, if the listener moves significantly off-center and away from the sweet-spot, the sheer musicality of the speakers substantially declines and the soundstage seems to vanish, leaving a flat wall of sound at the end of the room. One negative comment concerns the standard drivers. While they cover the frequency range up to about 15kHz, they are extremely directional in my listening room, beaming high frequencies in such a narrow range that moving away from the sweet spot leaves listeners wondering where the music went. In other listening rooms, this extreme directionality may not be as problematic. The Fostex drivers are much better in this regard. The Horns are for serious listening, but they demand that the listener sit in the right place and stay there in order to hear them sing.

Because of the single, full-range drivers used in the Horns, the frequency range is limited. While low-frequency extension down to 40Hz has been reported, I could not get good reproduction much below 60Hz. In all fairness, 58 to 60Hz with a 4-inch, full-range driver is very impressive. The high frequencies are limited by the driver: 15kHz with the standard driver; and, 18kHz with the Fostex driver. If there is a need for greater high-frequency extension, a super-tweeter would have to be added. Some coloration of emitted sound was noted. There seems to be two components of the coloration: the folded horn itself imparts a minor horn coloration to the lower mid-range and below - a weakly audible sound reminiscent of voice amplification using a simple bullhorn; and there appears to be minor phase distortion in some lower frequencies because the mouth of the horn is located on the back of the cabinet, facing the wall. In reality, while both effects are occasionally noticeable, they are not intrusive, and guest listeners did not identify either one.

The Horns were not designed to win beauty contests. Compared to other similarly-priced speakers, the Horns are short on aesthetic charm. They do not have the unique and artful design of nOrh drum speakers; they lack the mass-production perfection of B&Ws or Polks; they don't command attention as would a Klipsch. They are simple in appearance; from the front they are an elongated box with sharp corners.
The baffle has no high-tech tricks; it is simply a flat piece of wood with a single, 4-inch driver located near the top. With standard drivers, the Horns have an unfinished appearance, as though something is missing. However, the Fostex drivers substantially improve the appearance of the Horns; the speakers appear better finished with the Fostex drivers. The optional speaker grills likely would improve the appearance of the Horns when equipped with standard drivers. The binding posts located on the top of the cabinet may not appeal to everyone since this leaves speaker cables visible and dangling from the top. However, the Horns can be ordered with the posts mounted on the backs of the cabinets.

[The Horns, driver comparison]

The standard driver (left), and the Fostex driver (right).

The Fostex drivers require substantial break-in time. When the Fe108s were first installed, they sounded wonderful - for about an hour. Then they began to sound decidedly odd. Over the next 50 hours, they changed from flat, dull, and lifeless, to harsh and screaming, and everything in between. After about 50 hours, they began to settle down and smooth out. It must be stated that the Fostex drivers are usually broken-in with 48 hours of playing time prior to shipment of the Horn speakers to customers. If, however, a customer upgrades their standard drivers to the Fostex, the break-in time can be a trying experience. Patience is required for the break-in period; earplugs are optional.


Some critics of the Horn have claimed that it isn't worth listening to because it isn't really a 'horn-loaded' speaker, but is instead a direct radiator with minor horn-loading affecting lower frequencies. This odd criticism accurately describes not only the Horn, but most Lowther-based, horn-loaded cabinets, including the excellent and rather exclusive Roehm speakers.

The true test of these speakers is not whether they are 'true' horns, but instead, how they sound. It is relatively easy to purchase any number of loudspeakers that will reproduce a greater frequency range than the Horns, or will have substantially better specifications and power handling. It is rather more difficult to find speakers that will reproduce music more convincingly, particularly in the price range of the Horns. Often, when testing speakers, I spend much time listening to the sound of the speaker and trying to analyze what, exactly, it is doing. With the Horns, this was a difficult task. Whenever I tried to analyze what the speakers were doing, I found myself listening to the music instead. The tendency to hear music instead of sound is what makes these little speakers so remarkable. From a hi-fi standpoint, the Horns are virtually invisible; they vanish when music is playing. The soundstage they evoke is deep, wide, and amazingly three-dimensional, provided they are properly placed in the listening environment. The standard drivers provide the same type of experience, albeit with more limited dynamic range, somewhat restricted frequency response, and high-frequency directionality that drastically affects off-axis sound quality. While the standard drivers are a pleasure to listen to, the Fostex drivers are well worth the additional cost.

Clearly, this type of speaker design has definite advantages when combined with a low-powered, single-ended triode amplifier, although great results may also be attained using other types of amplifiers. Why aren't full-range drivers with horn-loaded cabinets more popular? In the case of the Horns, it is because they are more demanding of the listener and have built in limitations that restrict their appeal. As with other, similar designs, the Horns are not for everyone. They require an appropriate room for proper low-end reinforcement. They lack the force to really 'rock out' at over 100dB.
And, of course, they work best with low-powered amplifiers and demand precise placement of speakers and listener. However, what they do, they do extremely well. Jazz, vocals, blues, acoustical instrumental, and many other musical types are rendered so wonderfully that the music rather than the speakers commands the listener's attention. In the end, shouldn't the equipment be secondary to the music? This is one pair of speakers that will not be returning to the manufacturer.

Many thanks to Ed Schilling, creator of the Horn for providing photographs, background information, and the units used in this review.

Manufacturer's Comments

The break-in period for the Fostex drivers is much longer than you think; in six months they will sound much better than they do now.

Grills are available (and will probably become standard with a slight price increase, 25 bucks) for a small extra charge. They are removable and give a more "finished" appearance.

"...And, don't forget to mention that The Horn is the best damn loudspeaker in the world regardless of size or cost." (Ed is very modest about his product!! - Richard George)

© Copyright 2001 Richard George - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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