THE HORN OF PARADOX

For hundreds of years the test of every captain’s skill was his ability to steer around the horns. The horns were where most ships floundered so only the bravest and most skilled captains were ever given this challenge.  It was not until the twentieth century, with the opening of the Suez and the Panama canals that these great equalizers could be ignored. So it is with horn loudspeakers, but we American audiomaniacs have a long way to go before we master them. No other type of speaker is more thrilling, challenging, paranormal, and confusing to Americans. So let us put horn loudspeakers in perspective and then wrestle with their paradox.

In the Good Old Days when there were only flea powered tube amplifiers “talkies” were invented and it was obvious that speech and voice attached to film was the entertainment revolution. But how do we fill a large theater with sound with under five watts? Remember even Joshua in the Bible knew the efficiency of horns, because with just one blow knocked he down the walls of Jericho. The efficiency of horns was well known even in Roman times, so it made perfect sense for a world that was listening to horn loudspeakers: Victrola record players, to take this electro-mechanical concept and develop it. Many gifted engineers including the Western Electric brains figured it all out and produced horn loudspeaker systems of enormous efficiency for movie theaters and changed the course of human history, by creating Hollywood’s Golden Age.

But let us be clear about this; theater type horn speakers were originally designed for very large spaces, not homes, though it didn’t take long for consumer variations to appear. In a world where 1.5 watt amplifiers were “big horsepower” horn loudspeakers were the only way to get that wonderful big music sound in the home. Of course all of this excitement in the audio arts was occurring during the depression so only the very rich and very famous had horn systems in their home.

Armed with the mathematics it was easy to figure out just how long a horn had to be to arrive at its cutoff....if you wanted to reproduce the entire music range you needed a bass horn that was at least twenty feet long and twenty feet high for 20HZ, and the solution to this problem was folding or bending the bass horn, which is a very complex and expensive proposition. Midrange and tweeter horns are obviously much shorter, and creator of a wide varieties of acoustic discombobularities. Like I said designing a Formula One race car is not the same as buying a car in your local car dealer’s showroom.

Soon it was discovered that horns had some very nasty acoustic properties, beside the fact that the horn itself resonated and colored the sound, and...how do you get three different horns to properly match acoustically when their diaphragms are so distant from each other? Which is the best statement about the problem of all Klipschorns. The price you pay for dynamism and efficiency is a “package” of acoustic challenges. At this point I suggest you take a couple of months off and study horns because it is a fascinating and complex technical subject, but a technical investigation of horns is not my hunt now. Bruce Edgar would be glad to talk to you for at least a week on this subject and he has the expertise to set you straight. His interview in a back issue of PF is very informative.

Before we proceed any further I am going to ask you to buy a CD of “authentic” Japanese music...you know the type that has gentle little flutes playing, and then out of the silence a volcano of drums explodes. Or go to a NOH play and listen to the dynamics of theatrical Japanese speech. What we discover is both the Japanese language and their native music has enormous dynamic range and a distinctive percussive quality. This has been my standard, easy to understand explanation of why the Japanese went gah gah, in the 1960s, over all forms of horn loudspeakers. How else can I explain why the same speakers that are used for filling Radio City Music Hall would be used in a small Japanese living room?

But to understand the current interest in horn loudspeakers we must explore something as American as Apple pie only much cooler: the American hotrod. I am making this connection because of a simple expression that Nobu Shishido said to me....It takes a lifetime to tune a horn loudspeaker, and with his point I understood exactly what I was going through with my Tannoy horn process....this is all about... building a hot rod.

It just so happens that I, like millions of other American men, love building hot rods, and let me quote from a hot road magazine article, which is describing how to hot rod a brand new $70K Honda NSX: With a highly sophisticated 3.0L V6 producing almost 300 hp from the factory, why would anyone want to modify an NSX? For the same reason that a male dog, performs certain forms of self-indulgence...because he can. That is a remarkably cogent explanation of our compelling need to hot rod in all arenas of our lives, and in the audio arts nothing is more fun than building a hot rod loudspeaker...and that is why God in Her Infinite Wisdom created horn loudspeakers, and why so many biblical heroes blow their horns.

That is the good news and that is the bad news, because if you dont understand the difference between the hot rod and the car you buy a showroom you cant get it about horn speakers. The point being that you have to love the pain, suffering, work, experimentation, and sheer pleasure of creating your own unique work of art. Have you ever heard of a hot rod that was finished? And let me suggest that if you love cars and you want the ultimate in performance or style or both...you cant get either from the cookie cutter cars made for Mr. Average. If you need an 800 hp, nitro burning, supercharged, asphalt melting Dominator, or if you need a 1948 Ford Woody Station Wagon with a 427 hemi motor for going to the mall...do you get my message about how to get one? If you are the Wholey Dude that I know you are, you cant find what you need on the shelf...you are too sophisticated, artistic, complex and dynamic to fall right in the middle of the bell shaped speaker curve.....and that makes you just like your Japanese audiomaniac bro because in Japan a horn loudspeaker is their equivalent of a hot rod.

The Japaneses love of horn loudspeakers makes perfect sense when you embrace this: Cars are to American men, as the audio arts are to Japanese men.

Another enormous spiritual advantage of having a hot rod or a horn loudspeaker is that you can vent all of your frustration on it, rather than your wife, kids or dog.
 
OPEN THE DOOR AND STEP INTO A PARALLEL MUSIC UNIVERSE THE AESTHETICS OF ENGINEERING

Because you have a higher IQ, are a gifted listener and are spiritually mature I do not have to remind you that once you leave the normal store bought speaker world,  you are wrestling with paradoxes and self-inflicted and often torturous compromises.... the type of struggles Michaelangelo endured.

Once you leave the anemic dynamics of all monkey coffins you are taking on a brave new challenge that few Americans are able to confront...the challenge of authentic music dynamics that only horns can produce at low distortion..and remember there is a great deal of difference between playing loud and dynamic range.

For example...if you use a midrange and tweeter horn and do not use a comparable woofer horn then you will have dynamic discontinuity...but if you use a woofer horn of any significance you will have problems in a normal room, (terrible sound) because the room cant absorb the energy. Of course, if you want to use a horn of reasonable length you must fold it and that means a very expensive, heavy and large box....like the Tannoy Westminsters.  Because of the dynamic/low distortion nature of horns every problem in your audio system is exaggerated because it is so obvious....and on the other hand it is a very device for experiencing the gross and subtle differences in components and gear

After years of having a love/hate relationship with the Altec Voice of The Theater design, with its totally cool cell horn, Jean Hiraga, the famous French audiomaniac finally tuned the crossover (the right notch filters) to make it sound harmonically right in the home. For decades Hiraga has been preaching horn loudspeakers, and his crossover design was published in Sound Practices, which is the only American magazine that has regularly featured articles about horns.

Recently Martin Colloms, in Stereophile reviewed the Avante Garde horn loudspeakers and I suggest you read this article because he makes the point about horns brilliantly.....you can get greater dynamic range with a horn and a five watt amplifier than you can with a 82 db efficient speaker and a 200 watt amplifier. Though I have little experience with these speakers they lack one essential feature...they are not tuneable.

HOT ROD HORNS EST

For the Japanese market a number of companies make copies of the classic American and British horns, and there is a large number of suppliers for the woofer horn cabinets and horns for compression drivers...and makers of crossovers. New versions of the JBL and Electro-Voice horns from the 1950s and 1060s are being manufactured, and the Sunlight Engineering 308 driver which I described in another article is an example of just how refined this Japanese hot rod horn market is. Utopia Instruments (Tokyos largest custom manufacturer of horn cabinets) is already making a horn cabinet for the 308s. Both Sunlight Engineering and Classic Audio Reproduction making superb copies of the JBL Hartsfield, which is extremely exciting to experience, and expensive.

But the general rule and it is a reasonable compromise is to use a very high efficiency tweeter, a compression driver midrange with a wooden midrange horn, and a very efficient woofer in a ported cabinet, and try and blend these all together so they are wholey...and there are thousands of variations of this formula. On the Triode Guild web site is pictured the Sony Formula of this formula.  The advantage in Japan is that there is such mass to this horn hot rod market that there are many well established networks of hornphiles ready to help. This does not yet exist in America, but it is changing.

THE LOWTHER MICRO CASE

Even though the Lowther loudspeaker usually uses horn loading on its woofer doesnt really make the type of horn I am speaking about. And you are aware that Amar Bose sells a table radio with horn loading. You can take any speaker and horn load it, but what we usually mean is take a five watt single-ended triode amplifier with a 100 db efficient speaker that produce authentic full range music dynamics in our living space.

Now that I have moved my Tannoys into my small living room I have a complete different view of horns, and it is very Japanese...it is not about big dynamics...it is all about relaxed fluid/effortless music dynamics. I can rock my house off its foundations if I want, but that is not the point...with a horn you are always in the clitoris region of the music...the perfect sweet spot where the triode cream is freshest.

Which is something you can achieve with the Lowther, if you are ready for a more Bansai vision of the tree...but dont expect any lower register dynamics.

NO SIMPLE ANSWERS TO PROFOUND QUESTIONS

Anyone who claims that the speakers they are listening to is completely neutral is worthy of a new set of batteries for their hearing aid.  Anyone who claims that their horn speakers have no colorations shouldnt be trusted. Anyone who is trying to sell you a horn speaker that cant specifically identify the kind of colorations their speaker produces is also of questionable integrity. When we are dealing with loudspeakers we are dealing with incredibly crude electro-mechanical devices that are part of a chaos system of electrical mechanical devices. Every speaker is a compromise, every speaker has a distinct coloration. You must decide if it is worth the trouble.

But the good news is that if you have music imagination and are ready to surrender to the soul of music, and you have struggled to fulfill your vision of beauty through your audio system...you will dissolve and become music.

I too am interested in any experience you are having with horn loudspeakers and will shortly post a 25 page article about my experience with hot rodding my Tannoy horns.

Over and out from Music HyperSpace

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