Listening #2

Consider the coelacanth. In 1938, a healthy specimen of this Paul Simon-sized fish was pulled from the Indian Ocean, not far from the mouth of South Africa's Chalumna River. But prior to that happy event (depending on your perspective, of course: the sight of the coelacanth's long, fleshy fins probably made for some very unhappy creationists), the scientific community believed the animal in question was extinct, and had been for 65 million years.

We have also learned that these elusive dinotrout spent at least some of the last 65,000,065 years working on their act, if not quite taking it on the road: Underwater footage of a small colony of coelacanths still living off the coast of Madagascar shows them spending many a long hour standing on their heads, for no apparent reason. Ah, the irrepressible whimsy of the living dead.

This all came to mind when I went to the grand opening of Avantgarde Music & Cinema, a New York City showroom set up to demonstrate the German hornspeaker line after which it is named, along with a few select brands of associated gear. And while getting their own Manhattan showroom may not prove that horns are forever safe from the indignities of extinction, you have to admit: It's a pretty big deal. The only fair comparison would be if the coelacanth came back, increased its numbers a thousand-fold, and landed a television deal.

Horns, of course, are the oldest kind of baffle on earth. You dabble in horn theory when you cup your hands around your mouth and holler at someone—an instinctual practice that begins in early childhood—and the PA system at every public school, rock concert, and internment camp you've attended probably used horns, too. Horns can function as loudspeakers, amplifiers, musical instruments, or different combinations thereof, but at their most basic level they're something else altogether: Horns are acoustic transformers. They swap high pressure and high acoustic impedance at one end for low pressure and low impedance at the other, which is a useful trick if you want your small loudspeaker diaphragm to get a bite on the big, nebulous volume of air in your room. And you do.

Of course, there's no such thing as a perfect transformer of any sort. Some are more or less efficient—and more or less distorting—than others. And so it goes with horn loudspeakers. The trouble is, for whatever reason, horn design is as potentially disastrous as it is potentially rewarding: No speaker on earth is more efficient or dynamic than a good horn, but good horns are rare, and all the rest range from the merely unsuccessful to the downright horrid.

Designing a horn loudspeaker is also very, very difficult—much harder than, say, filling another me-too truncated pyramid with off-the-shelf drivers, pretending to modify them, calling the results a "Monitor," and selling it for $10,000 and up a pair—and the high-end audio establishment has an answer to that challenge: don't bother. Amplifier power is cheap (and even if it isn't cheap, it's profitable!), so efficiency is irrelevant. And the high-end press doesn't seem to think we need anything new in the way of dynamics. Why, they've already rewarded the industry by inventing yet another new concept: microdynamics. This now sits proudly on the shelf alongside transparency, slam, bloom, yin/yang, and other things that don't have a damn thing to do with music, or with much of anything else, for that matter.

Yet some folks never stopped believing in the hornspeaker—like the Japanese hobbyists who eventually sparked a tiny single-ended-triode revolution in this country, and the recording industry pros who know from experience how uncannily alive a good horn can sound, even when you aren't bereft of power.

Then there are designers who simply believe that the full-range horn is the most "organic" of speakers, and that to ignore the horn is to ignore everything nature itself has to offer our hobby. Avantgarde Acoustic's Matthias Ruf is one of these: "Horns are natural," he says—not only in that cupped-hands sense, but because "they are mathematically natural as well."

In a field where too many people design by whim, Ruf is that rarity: a real engineer who is also a music fan. His enthusiasm for horns seems driven by the fact that he enjoys the mathematical challenge of designing a good one, as well as the technological challenge of proper construction. Talking horns with Matthias Ruf—an enjoyable if intellectually tiring thing for this non-engineer—is like talking about turbocharging with proponents of that technology: You come away wondering why anyone with half a brain would overlook such a potent and otherwise untapped source of power. (And look how popular turbocharging has become, after its humble beginnings in the hands of autoflakes like Saab enthusiasts—eg, me. And look how much better turbocharging has become: It no longer sticks out like a sore thumb, the way it used to. Now what does that remind you of?)

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