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June 2011
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Specimen Satellite And Subwoofer System
Little horns make big sound.
Review By A. Colin Flood

 

Specimen Satellite And Subwoofer System  You will either love or hate the colorful look and sound of this unique 3-piece system. Specimen’s system provides the finger-licking goodness and looks of horn loudspeakers without the high-ticket price. The octagonal flutes look like tubas spouting music, or gawky cowls venting ships. They are throwbacks replicas of the antediluvian beginnings of music reproduction. Yet there is much to recommend the technology and the sound behind this intelligent design:

Bold looks
Smoothness of single driver speakers
Effortlessness of high efficiency horns
Punchy bass of powered woofer

 

Specimen Products is a Chicago based maker of guitar and audio tube amps. The name stems from sculptures that founder Ian Schneller (“Shh-nell-er”) made while an undergraduate at the Memphis Academy of Art. He said, “pretending to be a company” instead of an individual appealed to him. This Specimen satellite/sub-woofer system (three-S system hereafter) is a logical extension of his work.

The system combines Specimen’s Little Horn Speakers with a beefy woofer. Although less than a foot square, the very solid, 18-mm (0.75 inch), Baltic birch, plywood woofer cube contains a 6.5” bass driver, 50-watt amp, with two 25-watt feeds to the Little Horn satellites. The shapely horns deepen the sound coming off the back of the 4”, untreated, white Fostex FE108 Sigma full-range drivers in the little box below the horns. Each Little Horn weight is around 12 pounds per horn. They are $1850 a pair, with the sub, the combined price is $2450 plus shipping.

The beauty of a single driver speaker is that there is no crossover noise or notches in the loudspeaker’s mid-range frequency response. Although this accuracy is important in the 20-Hz to 5-kHz range, where the first harmonic of musical instruments occurs, it is especially critical in the hyper-sensitive 2 kHz to 5 kHz range, where the human ear is most sensitive. This feature smoothes the sound of single drivers; it also makes them efficient and easy-to-power. Plus, the wonderful thing about very high-efficiency loudspeakers, with or without horns, is that sweet and delicate sounding, but generally low-powered, tube amps can drive them.

The neat thing about the three-S system is that it allows you to couple lush sounding tube amps with the hard-hitting sound of a solid-state powered bass woofer. In my home entertainment system and opinion, this is a wonderful combination. You get the lushness of tubes, with the solid thunk of bass. In fact, the 4” Fostex drivers provide smooth output from 200 Hz, with a bit of a dip at 1 kHz, then tip up the high end beginning at 2 kHz to 15 kHz. This response might make the drivers seem a tad bright, but I think the horn balances them off. The cast frame drivers have the low Q rating suited for horn enclosures. The horns lower the frequency response of the drivers, the same way as my big ole Klipsch Khorns, or the Newtronics Skates.

 

Almost Deep Sub
The woofer cube weighs 20 pounds and feels like a lot more. There are two knobs on the back of the beefy box. One is an electronic crossover knob to adjust the mid-bass range from 75 Hz to 150 Hz (mid-bass range). There is also a 40-Hz (the point between deep bass and mid-bass) bass boost switch and level control for the subwoofer unit. The amplifier accepts either classic RCA, or the emerging new standard, Apple’s 3.5-mm mini jacks.

1. Simply connect your iPod, mp3 player, computer, CD player, or other sound source to the woofer cube.

2. Next, play a bass track and adjust variable bass equalization and volume. The three-S system needs a manual to help walk you through setting the levels.

 

Me? I play a bass track while standing next to the sub-woofer, adjust the levels so I can barely hear the sub and then return to my listening seat. Movies require an extra boost – that is where the 40 Hz switch on the rear of the woofer cube comes in handy. In fact, it would be nice if useful little switches like this one were located on the front, where they are easy to reach. I switch from music to movies and back almost daily.

The cute bass driver on the front of the bass cube is an untreated, 6.5 inch Peerless model. The Indian company is 30 years old. (Good! Personally, I would rather buy from a Muslim democracy than a communist country.) The driver is 4 Ohms, which tells me that it is good that a solid-state amp drives it. Impedance dips to only 3.4 Ohms, so it shouldn’t be so low or so wild that a small amp has real trouble powering it. The resonance frequency of the bass driver is a deep 36 Hz. This is the depth of much larger and more expensive systems. Indeed, bass sounded deep for such a hefty little box. Once set up, the woofer cube was sufficiently powerful enough that I double-checked to make sure my sub-woofer was off line on more than one occasion! Otherwise, set-up of the three-S system is simple.

The woofer cube alone is $585. Although they won’t match the appearance of the Little Horns, there are plenty of powerful subs from which to choose in that price range. My Specimen pieces came properly packed. The speaker cables have the easy-to-use gold banana plug terminations, but one of the positive cables was missing the knurled collar, which tightens around the pin to hold it securely to the cable. Neither sub nor satellites came with protective grills. Yet these are essential for tweaking audiophiles with cats or kids. Availability of Specimen inventory fluctuates, but right now, they have stock. Since they build their speakers in their Chicago shop, not in China, their stock on hand is always small. They mostly build to order.

The Little Horns are their most popular speaker design. Their most popular finishes are either white or Red/Opalescent White horns on clear lacquer bases, like the models I auditioned. There is no internal bracing in the horn flutes. The octagonal shape provides structural rigidity. Indeed, I tweaked their focus several times by grabbing their mouth; the horns are quite solid. I wouldn’t risk picking them up that way, but these are not flimsy horns. Here is how the three-S systems compares...

 

Omega Single Driver Speakers
I gushed over the soft, full-range cones of the Omega speaker (as reviewed here), lauding their mid-range cohesiveness. Some tweaking audiophiles prize this midrange capability over all other capabilities. They eschew twinkling highs and thunking bass for the mid-range truthfulness and honesty that a single full range driver provides. Cohesion, they gush. Omega speakers provide a full, rich mid-range in the same price range as the Little Horn combo. The mid-range of the Little Horn combination doesn’t have the soft cotton feel of a high quality shirt. There is crispness to its harmonics that the Omega doesn’t have. Instead, the horn’s wide dispersion of the four-inch driver, coupled with the prodigious mid-bass of the woofer cube, creates a durable poly-cotton blend that is quite enticing. It is like choosing a sharp business shirt at a high-end department store, like Saks, versus the expensive 100% cotton ones at the clothing boutique. The combination of a mid-bass woofer to the small full range drivers of the satellites is a practical and wonderful solution. There are other ways to skin this cat though…

 

Klipsch RF-82
For tweaking audiophiles considering an entry-level horn loudspeaker, I would seriously consider the wheelhouse of the Klipsch Reference line. The RF-82 towers give many horn sonic values for the money. I haven’t auditioned the 82 models, but heard their RF-85s. The specs of the RF-82 indicate they capture most of the sound of the Klipsch line, at a very practical $1K price point. The plain Klipsch towers don’t have the instrument or ship’s cowl appearance of the Little Horns, which is either a plus or a minus for some tweaking audiophiles. In their price range however, the three-S system are up against the snappy bass of Classic Audio Reproductions’ Cinemss (as reviewed here) models.

 

Avantgarde Unos
For tweaking audiophiles who have the Krugerrands, the top of the horn market is held by big and bold, colorful and expensive, models such as Avantgarde. The entry price for which was a mere $11,000. Other beautiful loudspeakers include Acapella's High Violoncello II. I heard these briefly at AXPONA 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida, and loved their effortless sound – not their $80,000 price.

 

Okay, Okay! How Do They Sound?
Specimen Satellite And Subwoofer SystemEven without the woofer, the Little Horns by themselves easily capture the magical essence of horn loudspeakers. Theirs is a wide, crisp and clear soundstage with good dynamics. They are not as soft and warm like the Omega T21s perhaps, or an acoustic guitar, but more sharp and edgy, like an electric one. Many people off the street, who don’t care about the rumbling lows of action movies, tympanis or baritones, won’t miss Specimen’s little woofer; the Fostex satellites provide enough 300-Hz mid-bass to make Bose lovers happy. Imagine though, listening to only the middle and right hand keys of a piano, without the lower notes of the left hand! Tweaking audiophiles, who know the enormous energy that deep bass requires, will want Specimen’s larger 300-watt sub-woofer, with its 25-Hz (deep bass) boost switch. Of course, two subs, at opposite ends of the room, is the best solution...

First impression of the three-S system mini horns was excellent; they compared quite favorably to my own big ole horns. The three-S system has a little more honk and diffuse soundstage than the classic Klipsch corner horns. On many types of music, the three-S system has rough edges. On Dire Straits' classic, Brothers in Arms (Warner Brothers), song seven is "The Man's Too Strong."

For I have done wrong
The man's too big
The man's too strong

As Knopfler sings this chorus, the band hits a dramatic crescendo, with all of the instruments quickly striking the same note simultaneously. Yet the three-S system can’t keep it up. (Few home entertainment systems can.) Like many systems, it mashes crescendos together. Plus, the three-S system can’t compete with my big ole horns when it comes to the piano. Instead, the three-S system makes pianos more sharp and raw, the vocals more direct and forward. The mid-bass is solid, but simple, without the deepest undertones. The three-S system adds a PA quality to Mark Knopfer's sotto voce. And they struggle to separate instruments from each other.

These and their other minor shortcomings however, are mainly inherent problems with small speakers. Not the three-S system itself. Reviews gushing over small loudspeakers that accomplish everything that large ones can do, are selling snake oil. It ain’t necessarily so. The three-S system is not significantly better or worse than many other small loudspeakers systems.

By virtue of the dedicated, powered woofer, the mid and upper bass (40 Hz to 300 Hz) is fulfilling, but not over-whelming boomy. The midrange (300 Hz to 5000 Hz), while not the Downy soft of the Omega, seems fairly flat and even. Though the three-S system does not have a separate tweeter, the high frequencies (5000 Hz on up) are sharper, with more ring, than the rolled-off top of the Omega.

 

Blue Notes
Like other horns, the attack and decay of notes have a life-like quickness that many cone speakers cannot provide. It is this quickness that makes CAR Cinema and Focal’s delicate cones so beguiling. On Enjoy the Music.com's reviewing scale, three Blue Notes is average; the review model ranks about the same as other models auditioned for Enjoy the Music.com, neither better nor worse. When it comes to rating sound quality, five Blue Notes is the very best I have ever heard in that category, regardless of price. The Blue Note scale does not move. Simply because a product is $500 versus $5,000 or $50,000 does not mean it can’t earn five Blue Notes. Many of the three-S system sonic characteristics are neither significantly better nor worse than what I have auditioned:

Soundstage Width
By virtue of the wide mouth of the little horns, the soundstage is almost as good as the Klipsch Khorns. It is more diffuse however, with instruments not as clearly defined.

Decay
Like other horns, horns sound good on the Little Horns. They show off the blat and blare of saxophones. They get the rasp. The three-S system captures the reverb of large recording halls. Yet there is hardness around the trailing edge of the vocals. It doesn’t come from the soft edges of the cone driver. You hear at the mouth of the gramophone. Many tweaking audiophiles hate this. This hardiness, edginess, effect lends itself to the criticism that even exemplary horns can have a PA quality to their vocals. So the three-S system suffers from that horny truism.

Soundstage Depth
The three-S system took some tweaking, as all horns do, to get them inched in just the right spot to give you that wonderful imaging that both horns and tubes do so well. Aim them properly and not only does the soundstage widen and deepen, but it also focuses the center image.

Imaging
I ended up placing a CD case (remember those?) underneath each speaker to give each Little Horn a slight backward tilt. Schneller should consider adding adjustable feet to the rear of the satellites – I think precise imaging would increase the enjoyment of his customers. Once angled directly at the ears, or the back of the head, the three-S system created a central illusion of singers. Their sonic 3D soundstage is not as precise as the Khorns either, but like most horns, it is very good nonetheless. You can’t easily pick out individual instruments, but the singer is clearly front and center.

Fit & Finish
The thick wood sides of the satellite and woofer boxes are obviously well constructed. A rap test barks the knuckles like no other loudspeaker I have tested. Yet the boxes have a primitive handmade quality to them; this is not a sleek production line…yet. Plus, there is no grill to protect the driver cones. While the Little Horns are colorful cowls with elegant curves, the exposed bolts and hard edges on the boxes is awkwardly crude, like bones sticking out.

Noise
Like all efficient speakers, the 90dB.W.m three-S system reveals any upstream deficiencies in your home entertainment and music system. The amps did not have any obvious noise, but weaknesses in your front-end equipment may sound harsh.

Bang for the Buck
These are charming and enjoyable speakers. I did not want to part with them! I would love to show them off to a party of friends. The three-S system provides the bold looks, and much of the sound, of the biggest, boldest horns without the high-ticket price! The best product and building designs have a beauty that exceeds their mere functionality; many cars look good simply standing still. Specimen’s Satellite & Sub-Woofer System has the smoothness of single drivers, efficiency of horns and punchy bass. It looks and sounds like music.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Horn speaker with boxed woofer
Driver: Little Horn Speakers use Fostex FE-108 Sigma 
Frequency Response:

Dimensions:
The Little Horns are 36” tall overall 
The bell of the horn is 14” across 
The base is an 8” cube and will sit nicely on a 10” deep shelf 
Price: $2450 per pair

 

Company Information
Specimen

Voice: (773) 489-4830
E-mail: ian@specimenproducts.com
Website: www.specimenproducts.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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