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:
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.
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
Okay, Okay! How Do They Sound?
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."
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.
Fit & Finish
Bang for the Buck