Calling All Horn Lovers

Audiogon member Bander is interested in finding out why you prefer horns over other types of speakers. What do you like most and least about them? (The usual problems being size and an aesthetic that doesn’t pass the Spouse Approval Factor…)


Here’s what some of our member experts had to say:

Dynamics and that “jump” factor are two big reasons for me. When it all comes together, they just sound more real than other speakers.

I agree with Shakeydeal. After listening to horns, there are few speakers that I find have sufficient dynamic headroom. They give you the feeling that the sky is the limit dynamically; but of course, if the recording is compressed, it still sounds compressed. They can’t create dynamic range, just reproduce it. The other part that I like is the speed. There is no sense of sluggishness.
What I like least about mine is the limited top end. I would love to add a pair of Townshend supertweeters. I think it would be amazing. Saving my pennies…

1. Extremely low distortion at the same SPL as other speaker types
2. Very realistic dynamics at both the loud and soft ends, and the loud can be achieved with a very low powered amp, too
3. Clarity, and great transient response, and accurate reproduction of subtle differences in timbre.
4. They direct the sound where you want it to go, and keep it from going where you don’t.
5. Placement is much easier than other speaker types, which can be much more fussy
6. Easier to drive – you can drive them with pretty much any amp you want
7. Very life-like presentation – you can feel the music

About the only negative I can think of is their size if your room is small.

I don’t currently have horn speakers in my system but I agree with the
comments made so far. When ‘done right’ a horn can be very realistic and
natural. A poorly executed horn speaker can sound disappointing. I love
the fact that they allow the use of really good but low power amplifiers.

I’d rather have that combination than the popular alternative of lower
efficiency speaker driven by a high power muscle amplifier. Lower power
tube amps (high quality) just sound better to me.

A couple of things to be careful about, though, before introducing horn speakers into your system:

1) Hiss, hum, or other noise that may be generated or picked up at points in the system that are downstream of the volume control will be reproduced at much higher levels than with most other speakers, due to the high efficiency of horns. So you need a quiet amplifier and preamp, and no ground loop issues between those two components.

2) If the overall gain structure of the electronics in your system is on the high side you may find yourself having to operate the volume control undesirably close to the bottom of its range, especially with digital sources.
Yes, with the right tubes and room, you are in sonic bliss. Miss my K-Horns and Belle center. First heard the k-Horn, mono, in fifty seven, at the Electronic Workshop in the Village, driven my a Mac. Paul was right, only horns can do justice to music, any type.

Horns, for me, recreate “live” better than anything else.

Let’s first acknowledge that it’s hard to generalize about the sound of speaker types. There is a wide variety of horn speakers just like there is a wide variety of cone speakers and electrostats. That out of the way, the single most compelling quality of horns, done right, is dynamics. As a class, horn speakers have more sudden starts and stops to music than do cones or electrostats. This natural ebb and flow of dynamics can allow horns to sound more real and more lifelike than other types.

The difficulty is achieving this unique dynamic ability without giving up some other qualities that cone speakers seem to achieve without difficulty. For example, some people, myself included, are very sensitive to horn colorations like a “shout” or glare. Nearly all direct radiation horns seem to suffer from this to one degree or another. In addition, it can be difficult to mate a horn to other types of drivers. Achieving a smooth, coherent blend of drivers is more difficult when one of the drivers is a horn.

I am fortunate to have a set of speakers that thread the needle between capturing horn dynamics without sounding like a horn. My speakers are a 2-way inspired by the Western Electric 753 monitor speakers. They use a horn from 1200 Hz on up and a 15″ dynamic woofer in a bass reflex cabinet. The horn is fairly compact but it is unusual by not having direct radiation. The horn is actually bent into a 90 degree right angle; the horn exits on the front panel just above the woofer but the compression driver inside is pointing upwards. I don’t know how much the shape of the horn accounts for the resulting sound quality, but I do know that this arrangement does not have the dreaded horn “shout” or any other colorations that to my ears identify it as a horn. In fact, the horn blends so well with the 15″ paper cone woofer that it sounds more coherent than any other all-dynamic multi-way speaker I have used. The tradeoff is that my speaker does not have quite the most dynamics or the largest soundstage of some other horns. For example, I heard a 3-way consisting of a Western Electric 22 horn with 555 driver, a 15″ woofer similar to mine in a large sealed cabinet, and a Jensen 302 horn tweeter on top. The dynamics on this speaker were noticeably more dramatic than on mine, and it was also more detailed and more spacious. All very good things, but….the WE setup was not as coherent as mine in any of the 3 aspects of coherency that are important to me— tonal balance, dynamics and soundstaging. The 3 drivers in the WE speaker all sounded different from one another, and the resulting sound while uniquely impressive in many respects was actually less satisfying overall than my own speakers. So it all comes down to finding the right compromise for a given listener.

I too love the extraordinary dynamic quality of good horn systems, particularly when such systems are played at low volume levels. But, MOST do have issues with a peaky tonal balance and the tendency to “shout.” But, the rare examples of good horn systems are quite magical.

I spent this past Friday evening listening to a system that uses a Western Electric 555 driver mounted on a HUGE Western Electric 15A horn (5’x 5′ mouth). Putting a speaker system like this in your living room is like standing two Smart Cars up on their bumpers. The twin woofers in each of the horn-loaded woofer cabinets looked tiny, though I was told they were 18″ woofers. This was an unbelievably realistic sounding system, particularly when played not too loud (it actually cannot be played very loud because the 555 driver is being played full range, with no crossover on it at all). I have listened to this system a lot before, but, on this night a Tungar tube power supply was energizing the fieldcoil 555 drivers and the system sounded much better being run this way than with a solid state power supply.

I have a much more modest system, with just a horn-based midrange. The woofers are modern paper cone 12″ drivers (two per channel) in an Onken bass reflex cabinet, the tweeters are modern Fostex bullet tweeters. The midrange, which is the heart of this system is ancient (probably late 1930s). They are Western Electric 713b drivers feeding Western 12025 metal horns that are mounted on top of the woofer cabinet in free air. The tweeters are likewise mounted with no baffle just under the midrange horns. I like the sound very much, particularly at lower volumes, though this system does not have the shear majesty of the 15A horn-based system.

“So it all comes down to finding the right compromise for a given listener.”
Very well put. And that, dear reader, is really what it’s all about.

Is Shakeydeal correct? Sound off in the comments!

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