It was during the first few minutes of a demonstration of the Avant-Garde DUO 3.0 at CES, that I realized how much I hate insipid audio shows and how much more I prefer the Las Vegas nightlife, sharing my life story with an exotic dancer from Split, eating dim sum at three o'clock in the morning, vaporizing watermelons with a S&W Model 629 in the middle of the desert.
You would be amazed at what one can get in Las Vegas for seventeen thousand dollars. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with a mind-blowing aural experience.
To some, my criticism of the wunderkind from Germany probably sounds like sour grapes, but the reality is that I have never heard them sound spectacular enough to warrant a strong endorsement or purchase. It is distinctly possible that they are good as some claim, but my ears remain decidedly unimpressed. For seventeen thousand dollars, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect aural ecstasy, and I am not referring to the kind that lasts for four songs or however far $300 will take you and your sick and demented audio compatriots at a sleazy Vegas gentlemen's cabaret.
So, if seventeen thousand dollars can not get you there, then how likely is it that seven hundred will?
Depending on what your definition of "aural ecstasy" is, seven hundred dollars will take you a lot further than you would think in the era of twenty-five thousand dollar transports (yeah, okay so the 47 Labs PiTracer is the best I have ever heard), fifteen thousand dollar single-ended monoblocks, and three thousand dollar cables. Yes, some of the most esoteric and expensive products available do deliver unbelievable musical reproduction and are probably worth whatever the market is prepared to pay for them. Few mind you.
On the other hand, what about the products at the opposite end of the spectrum? For those whose heads have been stuck in the clouds for too long, that means putting together a complete system (including cables and stands) for five thousand dollars.
I can hear the shrieking eels as I type...
"Hey Rochlin, you better put a muzzle on that guy…he's going to start talking about using a system comprised of a set of cans and one of those Headroom amplifiers"
While some of this might sound like sacrilege (I'll be sure to turn in my badge at the door) from a guy who swears by a tube amp/preamp combination that would run you around $11,000, it is unfair to the vast majority of music lovers out there to pretend that you have to spend that kind of money in order to have a "high-end" audio system. To proclaim that you have to spend that kind of money to really enjoy your music collection, and become a lifetime member of the "audiophile weenie society" is utter twaddle.
Here's a question for you (and no we don't get paid by the word).
Which of the following scenarios would benefit the high-end more?
a.) 5,000 new audiophiles who spend $20,000 on their first system
b.) 20,000 new audiophiles who spend $5,000 on their first system
Even though the math comes out the same, if you answered "A", you clearly have been reading audio magazines for far too long and you really need to broaden your circle of friends and take some time off... say to someplace quaint like South Carolina.
Now let me tell ya about a man named "Ed"
It is possible that I am just a sucker for an accent, but I really like Ed Schilling, head designer and owner of the Horn Shoppe, which happens to be located in Eastover, South Carolina (what was that line from Fletch II again…something about Victor Hugo?). Before the Horns made their way to Chicago, Ed and I spent some time on the phone, discussing the Horn, his design philosophy, his musical tastes, and our mutual admiration for things other than speakers that make a lot of noise.
Remember Ed... "Speakers don't kill people, people kill people!"
Ed Schilling has been building loudspeakers (and as he amusingly put it... "buying plenty of them") for close to thirty years. About ten years ago he decided to focus on single-driver transmission line designs. Apparently, Ed liked what he heard when he used a 40-1197 driver and he has remained dedicated to using drivers no larger or smaller than 4 inches. Based on his experience, he feels that a 4" driver makes both a decent mid bass driver and decent tweeter, in comparison to larger drivers which he feels are better in the bass, but weaker in the top end. He also feels that larger drivers tend to "beam" in the upper frequencies. Ed is also a proponent of using a separate subwoofer with the Horn, as a 4" driver has some inherent limitations in that regard. Ahem.
When I removed both loudspeakers from the shipping box, I was struck by how little they were. At 30" x 11.5" x 6" (HxDxW), the Horns are most certainly on the small side for a pair of floor-standing units. The Horn is based on the German "Buschorn" folding method which is a rear-loaded folded horn. The horn itself is approximately six feet long with a "loosely exponential" flair. The original design was optimized to work with a 3" driver, but Ed Schilling has altered the horn to work with either of the two drivers that he offers. For $525, customers get a generic Fe103 design, or for $700 they get a pair of Fostex Fe108 Sigma drivers. The Fostex drivers offer greater sensitivity and better low and high-end frequency extension. The supplied review pair came with the Fostex drivers which needed about fifty hours of abuse before they began to cough up the phlegm which was clearly in its throat (just a little horn humor there folks).
The Horn uses a high purity copper wire with silver plating and Teflon insulation. The binding posts can be ordered in one of two positions; either on the top of the cabinet, or on the back. The binding posts are directly wired to the drivers using the aforementioned wiring, as there is no crossover to be found. The review pair came with the binding posts mounted on the top of the cabinet, and I can not say that I would recommend that positioning. If you use bananas, it adds unnecessary stress to the connections and also looks a tad odd. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
The cabinets are built from Birch or Oak 3/4" plywood, MDF, and particle board. The Horn Shoppe will then apply any stain that is requested and then apply five coats of a clear floor acrylic for protection. The most requested finishes are blond birch and dark rosewood. The overall level of fit and finish is above average. At this price point, it is probably more important that the speaker sound good, rather than look like a million bucks and sound like something sold by Bose, but I can not ignore the fact that there are some rather attractive speakers at or near the same price point available. I'm not saying they sound better, but they do seem to have a superior finish. The construction quality of the speakers is very good and I found them to be rather resonance free when I rapped my knuckles on the cabinet. In all fairness to Ed, he is not mass producing these speakers in some massive custom cabinet shop, and certainly not with huge profit margins.
At 92dB (8 ohms), the Horn is a rather efficient little floor-stander with a quoted frequency response of 70Hz - 22kHz (+/- 3dB), making it an ideal load for single-ended amplifiers. During the review, I drove the Horns with my Wavelength Audio Duetto (8 watts), Blue Circle BC6 (25 watts), and Denon AVR-2800 DD/DTS (85 watts) receiver to get three different perspectives on its tonal characteristics.
The first thing I discovered when setting up the Horns was that they should not be placed directly in the corners (even though some users claim to have achieved wonderful sound with this set-up method), as they tend to overload the room with too much bass. I tried the Horns in both my listening room (17' x 11' x 9') and my living room (21'6" x 19' x 9'), and in both cases there was an excess of bass when I placed the speakers directly in the corners and toed them in directly at my listening seat. I was skeptical when Ed Schilling told me on the phone that he measured down to 55Hz with the speakers, but I can state with certainty that the Horns definitely produce bass below 70Hz.
When I moved the Horns back into my listening room, I decided that I liked them two feet from the side walls (to the outside edge of the cabinet), and three feet from the front wall. At first, I toed them in so that the line from the drivers intersected a few feet in front of my listening position (creating a near-field listening experience), but after some time I grew tired of the "in-your-face" presentation and settled with them toed in around 20 degrees. The distance from the corners certainly impacted on the bass response, but I preferred the smoother tonal balance and improvement in imaging and depth. The Horns proved to be very easy to drive, and I rarely felt the need to adjust the volume past nine o'clock on my pre-amplifier.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself...
When Ed Schilling agreed to send me the speakers for review, it was under the condition that I not wimp out and use audiophile-approved tripe during the review process. Well, as someone who likes to keep his word and his wife truly annoyed, I made life difficult for the Horns, starting them off with a heavy diet of classical music courtesy of WFMT (98.7 FM) in Chicago.
No, it has never been against the rules to use FM radio, especially if one happens to own a good tuner, better antenna, and has an unobstructed view of the Hancock Building. The reception in our building is excellent (which I find utterly amazing considering how poor our cable is) and WFMT seemed like the appropriate place to start. The first thing that I noticed was how awful the Fostex drivers sound fresh out of the box. The bass was dry and slow, the midrange slightly hazy, and the treble was less than extended and clean.
It took about twenty hours before I heard any appreciable difference in the sound, and after the first week I felt that I was finally beginning to hear what the speaker was truly capable of.
Speakers Can Do That?
It has become customary in my home, that I initiate any piece of new equipment with the Violent Femmes [Slash Records 92 38451] and the Horns proved to be a willing partner. The opening to "Blister in the Sun" lacked a certain level of punch when the drums kicked in, but that certainly was not the case on guitar. The opening licks belted out of the Horns with a startling level of clarity that had the wife pounding on the walls within about fifteen seconds. For once, I pretended that I was the "man-of-the-house" and bounced around my listening room pretending that I was sixteen again, ignoring the veiled threats emanating from the living room. It was during this moment of rebellion that I discovered something rather odd about the Horns.
They sound better off-axis than they do when locked with handcuffs to my listening chair.
Now an observation such as this probably does not seem all the significant to most of you, but I happened to recall reading two previous reviews where both reviewers thought very little of the Horns when listened to off-axis, so my new observation began to trouble me.
After listening to the entire Violent Femmes' album, I switched over to Sam Cooke's Night Beat [RCA 07863 68098-2 CD] and just melted when "Lost and Lookin" poured out of the 4" Fostex drivers. Compared to other horn speakers that I have heard, especially Lowther-based models, the Horn sounds decidedly uncolored in the upper midrange and I heard almost none of the "honk" that plagues certain designs. There was a small amount of coloration in the midrange, but certainly nothing worth condemning in a $700 speaker.
On Lightin' Hopkins Goin' Away [Analogue Productions APB 014 LP], the clarity in the midrange and mid bass was so good that I had a difficult time believing I was listening to a $700 speaker. When I put on Tori Amos' Strange Little Girls [Atlantic 83486], I was impressed by its ability to reproduce the female voice, but I also noticed that it lacked that last little bit of extension in the treble, and that it sounded slightly cool in comparison to my Spendor SP2/3s. The Horn's ability to reproduce vocals is excellent in my opinion, but I would also say that it leans toward the accuracy camp in that regard.
From a pace perspective, the Horn barely broke a sweat when I listened to Green Day, Tool, Bela Fleck, Los Lobos, or even Nirvana. On the downside, the Horn did sacrifice a certain degree of "body" in order to achieve that degree of pace and timing. I am hard pressed to pick between my Wavelength Duetto and Blue Circle BC6 with this speaker because both helped to flesh out its positive attributes, but I can most certainly state that I did not like the sound of the speakers with my Denon receiver. To be blunt... edgy, sterile, boring, and colder than Duluth on a January morning.
For some odd reason, the name "Mose Allison" makes my wife and her mother fall down in hysterical laughter, so it only seemed appropriate that I yank out my entire collection of Mose Allison records (all six of them) and play them until Sarah could not take it anymore. When the opening track to Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass, and Drums [Prestige 7091 OJC-075] came on, the wife decided that it was time to go to the gym and leave me to my sick and demented musical taste. Hey, I married her folks. The Horn's ability to reproduce a piano in my listening room was really quite good considering the size of the drivers. No, it did not have the same degree of scale as my Spendor's, but it was still very convincing, nonetheless.
To expect subterranean bass response from a 4" driver is just totally unrealistic and I'm glad that Ed focused on getting the cleanest sound that he could out of this speaker down to about 70 Hz, because it became evident with rock and alternative music such as Tool, that the Horn partnered with a good subwoofer such as the Spendor SUB 3 or the Rega Vulcan, would be a very cost-effective choice for those looking to build an affordable full-range system.
Fear And Loathing In The Promised Land...
The night before I boxed the Horns up to send them back to Ed in South Carolina, I went into my kitchen, poured myself a double shot of Grey Goose Vodka and settled in for one final evening of listening. I do not usually drink when I listen to music at home, but on that night I found myself longing for something more enticing than my usual cranberry juice with ice and lemon.
I cued up my copy of Hot Rocks by the Rolling Stones, and turned the volume pot on my preamp well past eleven o'clock. The opening bars to "Sympathy for the Devil" began to swirl inside of my head and I found myself spinning around the room and dangerously close to the window.
"What could be more exciting than this life that I am leading," I yelled out of the window of our apartment, thirty-five stories above the bustling streets of the Gold Coast of Chicago.
"Please allow me to introduce myself I am a woman of wealth and taste..."
The pounding in my head began to cease as a soft, sexy, and vaguely familiar voice began to replace Mick's voice in the foreground.
"Pleased to meet you...did you forget my name?"
I stumbled backwards as a strange woman appeared in the reflection of the window and turned my head, only to find that I was still alone in the room.
"Who are you?" I yelled at the window.
"I've been around for a long long time stolen many man's soul and faith"
Being the emasculated bohemian that I am, I began to move towards the mysterious woman in the window, while at the same time fishing with my foot for the power cord of my line conditioner. As I edged closer to the window, I began to recognize the mysterious woman in the window and it was a good thing that I felt the cord when I did, because who knows where she could have taken me.
In an instant, the room went silent and the image of the woman vanished.
I rushed into my kitchen, drenched of the type of clammy sweat that always suggests guilt and began to pour a brand new bottle of Grey Goose down the drain. My wife's favorite cookie jar which we always use for change exploded when it impacted with the floor and I began to feverishly count out seventy thousand pennies...
"One, two, three..."
Very highly recommended and definitely a lot cheaper than therapy or a divorce attorney...
Frequency Response: 70Hz - 22 kHz (+/- 3dB)
Sensitivity: 92dB, 8 Ohms
Dimensions: 30" x 11.5" x 6" (HxDxW)
Price: $525 with standard drivers
Warranty: Purchase price refunded within 30 days
The Horn Shoppe
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