Horn Shoppe Horn loudspeaker The Review

Horn Shoppe Horn: $775/pair

Like other SET-oriented companies, the Horn Shoppe began life when an audio do-it-yourselfer decided it was time for his passion to become his profession. In this instance, the solder jockey is Ed Schilling, the passion is designing rearwave horns for full-range drivers, and the product is the Horn. Ed and his dad now spend every workday making affordable horns and other loudspeakers for their mail-order clients, some of whom have even started a chat room dedicated to tweaking them (the speakers, that is—not Ed and his dad).

The Horn uses a Fostex full-range driver, a Japanese product with its own sort of cult following, not unlike Meredith Monk or Pimm's No.1 (or Lowther horns, I suppose). The model used in the Horn is Fostex's FE108EZ, a chunky, well-made little thing with a cast-alloy frame, rare-earth magnet, and a 3.5" paper cone with an odd, pyramidal dustcap. That cone has six radial creases—three long, three short—that seem intended to increase stiffness and prevent breakup at higher velocities. The thick, springy foam surround is molded in a three-dimensional spiral, and I wonder if this is designed to keep the driver centered; the irregularities in the thickness of the surround may also help break up unwanted waves at the edge of the cone. (I'm uncertain because the Fostex fact sheet supplied with the Horn is in Japanese.) To get the sound he's after, Schilling dopes one side of each Fostex driver's cone and dustcap—which I mean literally, as in the application of model airplane dope, and not dialectically, as if to suggest he bitch-slaps the cone.

The cabinet, made from a combination of birch plywood and MDF, amplifies the driver's rearwave with an internal, exponential horn constructed of numerous small panels. Since the horn is folded, it also acts as a low-pass filter—an acoustic rather than electric inductor—and thus amplifies only the driver's bass output. The mouth of the horn is on the rear of the cabinet, near the bottom. It's crucial to note that the Horn Shoppe Horn is designed to be used only in the corners of a room. That's what I did.

The best measured response I got with the Horns in my main listening room, with the cabinets plunked right in the corners and toed-in toward the listening seat, was 4-6dB down at 63Hz and 9dB down at 50Hz, with some useful output at 40Hz—which ain't half bad for a vehicle with a tiny motor. At the other end of the spectrum, even aimed directly at my ears, the highs were flat only to 10kHz, beyond which they rolled off and soon vanished. In my installation I could never entirely get rid of a peaky plateau at 200-250Hz, as well as a dip centered at 500Hz, both apparently room-related. Neither was severe enough to affect my enjoyment of music, although birdsongs, train directionality, and the dimensions of Dusty Springfield's isolation booth all suffered audibly. (That's a joke, ma'am.)

A much flatter curve proved possible with the horns brought a ways into the room, away from the corners, but at the expense of bass extension: A few feet from the wall behind them, the horns were 9dB down at 80Hz, with nothing much below that, although from some microphone positions I registered faint output at 31.5Hz—obviously, a room mode getting somewhat excited.

While I'm on the subject of listening position: The Horn Shoppe Horn is among the few speakers I've heard that pass my (admittedly highly unscientific) oblique listening test: Heard from outside the listening room, it sounded almost scary-good: realistic and present, with evidently sharp note attacks, though without the added penalty of brightness or graininess. If anything, the Horn was noticeably treble-challenged when auditioned directly, even more so heard from the next room—yet still, its superb transient performance cut through. The Horn is in good company: The others that pass this test are Quads and Lowthers—and, hey, guess which two speakers I've bought with my own money, and continue to own?

The Horn's cabinet is tippy on a carpeted floor. If you have cats—especially if your name is Siegfried or Roy and you have somewhat large cats—the Horn might not be for you. I'd consider recommending using spiked wooden platforms, along the lines of Mana Acoustic's fine Sound Stages, but the notion of spending more on the speaker stands than on the speakers is too perverse even for me. Finally, while the Horn is acceptably well-finished—the outer birch layer is stained a medium brown, then coated with a high-gloss poly finish—the Moth Cicada and, especially, the Meadowlark Swift that I also review this month are much better in this regard.

The Horn Shoppe Horns didn't play as loudly for a given input as my Lowthers, but they were more than loud enough with a 300B-tube power amp, and a 2A3 (my Fi 2A3 Stereo, for instance) drove them happily, with absolutely nothing in the way of distortion setting in. Incidentally, Horn Shoppe doesn't publish specifications for their speakers, but the Fostex FE108EZ has a sensitivity rating of 90dB/2.83V/m, and is described as having a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. Loading, of course, will affect these things...

Forget the numbers: The Horns played music with guts and conviction. They had a sure, tight sense of pitch and rhythm, and my attention never wandered from the music while I was in their presence. The Horns were fun and communicative at all times, and faithful to the nuances and textures of my favorite instruments and singers.

I love Hermann Scherchen's Mahler Second (CD, Westminster WGS 8262 2) for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the way he and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra approach the Rondo—easily the most idiosyncratic on record. At times it sounds as if it's about to come apart, forcing orchestra and conductor to pause, find a new starting place, and begin again—but that's why I like it, thinking that it helps set the otherworldly tone for the Urlicht to come.

The way the little Horns played the piece was amazing: Although smaller overall than Lowther horns, the Horn Shoppe Horns "tracked" the scale of the original as faithfully as could be, pulling themselves up and getting shockingly big at times—and never flustered or bereft of poise. The first time the ruthe came in, I was startled—not only by its "speed" and clarity, but by its distance from my listening seat, suggesting a sense of stage depth I never expected from a corner horn. Even driven by a 2A3, the Horns played this Mahler well, with a convincing crescendo toward the end of the Rondo—even cleaner than with the 300B, I think. (The 2A3 seems to be a current-happy thing, despite its lower transconductance.) Similarly, the opening of the final movement was big, loud, and scary, yet with the brass instruments maintaining good pitch and composure within the maelstrom, throughout.

I was consistently satisfied with the Horns' bass extension. Steve Farrone's floor toms and kick drum had surprisingly and entertainingly good weight on Tom Petty's neat "House in the Woods" (CD, Wildflowers, Warner Bros. 45759-2), and Nick Forster's bass wasn't at all lacking on Hot Rize's So Long of a Journey (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3943). I was even satisfied when I listened to Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra performed by Serge Koussevitsky and the BSO—although, since it's an historic mono recording that doesn't venture much below 80Hz, I suppose that's cheating.

While the Horn's quantity of bass was satisfying, the quality was occasionally somewhat less so. Specifically, while note attacks were excellent (in the bass and elsewhere—of course), note decays were a shade sloppy: overlong, by comparison. Electric bass notes sounded plummy and too resonant on some recordings—a pleasant distortion, as distortions go, but one that would tire some listeners over time.

On other recordings, that boominess worked its way into the lower portions of vocal ranges: Alto Lucretia West sounded too dark in the Urlicht from that Scherchen Mahler 2, and the clarity of the words suffered a bit, too. And the Horn's bass performance didn't compliment the otherwise fine-sounding first duet by Tony Rice and Norman Blake (LP, Blake & Rice, Rounder 0233): A touch of guitar-body resonance I'd never noticed before in the recording was brought to the fore here. Of course, since the Horn's bass performance was so room-dependent, other listeners might hear these things to a lesser or greater extent—and I can't help but think this speaker will have cleaner-sounding bass in a more structurally rigid room, with more load-bearing walls, than mine.

Despite the somewhat fulsome lower octaves, the lowest notes in Jorge Bolet's performance of Liszt's Funerailles (CD, BMG 63748-2) had excellent pitch definition. In fact, the Horn loved good piano recordings, tending toward a pleasantly big, dramatic sound with an especially nice sense of flow and an unusually human touch—nothing mechanical about the sound of the piano through this speaker. And the Horn's bass performance was sufficiently taut to maintain all the reverent tension in the first 14 measures of Bruckner's Symphony 5, which I enjoy most via a live recording of Jascha Horenstein and the BBC Symphony (CD, Intaglio INCD 7541). And when things got louder in measure 15, I was glad for the Horn's remarkable sense of drama and scale, as well.

One final, anecdotal observation: Listening to the Horns, I was reminded of a pleasant consequence of sitting farther away from a loudspeaker than usual: Record surface noise, which tends to stay at or near the planes of the speakers themselves with most products, was now farther away, too, and thus less audible. I was startled when I switched from these corner horns to the Meadowlark Swifts, Moth Cicadas, and even my own Lowthers: How did my records get so noisy all of a sudden?

You have to be fairly brave to buy the Horns. It's like that scene in The Abyss where Ed Harris stops breathing air and starts breathing liquid: This is a whole new way of doing things, and it might not be for you. But if that proves to be the case, the Horn Shoppe will give you your money back, no questions asked, within 30 days: All you're out is the shipping.

The Horn Shoppe Horn is a great speaker in most of the ways that are important to me, and a great buy, period. I really enjoyed my time with the Horns: My attention never—and I mean never—wandered while I was listening to them, and they appeal to my fiddly DIY side, too: Maybe I could make some nice stands, maybe I could hardwire them to my output trannies, maybe I could...

Horn Shoppe
460 Laura Brodie Road
Leesville, SC 29070
(803) 657-7990