In hi-fi audio, horn speakers are the flamboyant entertainers whose flashy colors and oversize gestures defy you to overlook them. Their kinetic performances, too, are outsize and in-your-face, yet set off by little more than a whit of power, because unlike other speakers, horns are highly efficient. They don’t need much juice to produce an excruciatingly painful level of sound. One watt (yes, one single watt) is enough to power most residential horns; feed them 20 or 50 watts, and you could be creating a public disturbance. These are the speakers that fill cinemas and sports arenas with sound, make announcements at airports and train stations, and guarantee that any self-respecting heavy metal band can deafen its audience.
The initial popularity of the horn speaker dates to before World War II, when it was difficult to coax 5 watts out of an amp. Horns began falling out of favor shortly after the war, though, when innovations from the military made wattage cheaper, and hence more available. Also, designers couldn’t find a way to make a horn speaker smaller without compromising output.
A horn speaker is, after all, little more than a sophisticated megaphone, so downsizing one defeats its purpose. The size of the horn itself determines the speaker’s efficiency and the amount of bass it will deliver. In the mid-1950s, beleaguered audiophiles with house-proud spouses jettisoned their horns in favor of the smaller, boxy speakers that required much more power to operate.
In the 1980s, audiophiles in Japan touched off a craze for amplifiers based on the pre–World War II tubes that delivered a sweet, warm sound. The popularity of the puny amps helped fuel a revival in horn speak-ers, even though the most highly re-garded speakers at the time were extremely power hungry. (Most music lovers in America and Europe were not as fanatical about sound as some of their Japanese counterparts, who were known to use an entire basement as a horn mouth, extending the horn throat under the lawn to create a giant horn speaker.)
Since the blip in the 1980s, horns have faded in popularity, but they never disappeared completely. In fact, horn speakers are a constant in the world of hi-fi. Paul Klipsch produced the Klipschorn in 1948, and it’s still in production—surely holding the record as the longest-lived piece of stereo equipment.
Like the sounds horn speakers produce, the appearance of these ornery creatures is not for everyone. But one thing is certain: A horn turns heads and beguiles the neighbors.
Avantgarde Acoustic has created a range of huge, vividly hued models with varying sizes and numbers of horns. The primary colors and simple frames exemplify Germanic minimalism, culminating in the gorgeous flagship model, the 5-foot-tall TRIO Classico. Avantgarde took the circular shape characteristic of most residential horn mouths and fitted massive, polished ABS horns to a huge circular adjustable frame, creating circles within a circle. For ample bass, the TRIO Classico also comes with its own subwoofer fed by a 150-watt power amplifier.
Rather than admit that the design is pure showmanship, Avantgarde’s Holger Fromme calls the company’s speaker designs “symbiosis of classic and modern,” successfully marrying time-proven technology with contemporary sensibilities.
Beauhorn’s B2 horn speaker is not so-named because it looks like the number 2 from the side. Rather, it earned its moniker by being the company’s second design, says de-signer Eric Thomas. In addition to looking like an oversize numeral, the B2 is distinctive because it is one of the most compact full-range horns available. At the front of the B2, leaning forward like a coconspirator, is a Fostex drive unit—the actual speaker within the horn—chosen for its smooth upper frequencies.
The B2 allows horn lovers who defy stereo purism to “go home theater” because, at 47 inches tall and 13 by 30 inches deep and wide, it is compact enough for you to place five in one room. Although the B2 is smaller than most horns, it still boasts high sensitivity; a single watt produces 96 decibels—the auditory equivalent of riding in a convertible on the freeway. “The B2 is the epit-ome of the design dictum that form follows function,” says Thomas. “We set out to create the simplest way of making a horn that size from rectangular sheets of MDF.”
Beauhorn usually finishes the cabinets in a metallic blue, but you can specify any color.
Having produced horn speakers for more than 20 years, Germany’s Acapella almost qualifies as a member of audio’s old guard. Acapella eschews the industrial, wooden constructs of ear-lier horns in favor of boldly colored molded horns and a heavy dose of Teutonic styling, such as the lightning-bolt upright chassis that holds the horns in place. The company produces models with manageable dimensions, but the custom systems truly dem-onstrate Acapella’s design capabili-ties. The Sphäron Excalibur looms more than 7 feet tall and features a combination of differing-sized horns, their performance enhanced by two bass towers with a ground-shaking quartet of 15-inch woofers. The designers say that you can easily integrate the Excalibur, which needs just 15 watts of power, into a living room with at least 350 square feet. At more than 1,300 pounds, that’s roughly 87 pounds per watt.
Little Big Horn
“We called our first speaker the Big Horn because it looks like a big saxophone,” says designer Jim Carfrae, “and a lot of sax players call them horns.” It was only a matter of time and scale before Carfrae followed with Little Big Horn, an impressive beast at 4 feet 5 inches tall, 15 inches wide, and 31¼2 feet deep that performs like a larger system because the horn is looped back over itself. Carfrae was able to create a longer horn throat in a smaller space for wider bandwidth and deeper bass while providing one of the most attractive and most intriguing profiles in the business. Little Big Horn has an onboard 120-watt amplifier to power the bass unit and ensure that you hear those deep, deep Barry White notes. Carfrae assures that the speaker will play with only 4 watts but will work comfort-ably with up to 20 watts. “The speaker’s shape is no accident,” he says. “It looks like what it is: a proper horn.”
Moondog Audio’s Maya Horn System is proof that low-powered tube amps beget sensitive horn speakers. The company is part of Welborne Labs, which produces a power amplifier capable of only 31¼2 watts, so it was only natural that the company would create an ideal mate for its power amp. Moondog allows the trumpetlike round horn mouth—the horn’s actual opening—to dominate the design, accentuating it by coating it in a warm copper finish akin to the Jules Verne–period hydraulic fittings from Nemo’s Nautilus. (An alternative is the silver-gray finish, not unlike the paint on a Luftwaffe Leica.) Each Maya weighs a backbreaking 152 pounds, which is not surprising when you discover that an 18-inch McCauley bass unit augments the 7-inch Lowther main driver. To put that into perspective, most speakers have an 8-inch or 10-inch bass driver. This horn isn’t shy. Maya is not demanding of an amplifier because it has a massive horn throat, and a single watt will produce a near-concert level of 106 dB, loud enough to please guests at a large outdoor party and antagonize neighbors.
If you can’t help but think of Star Wars’ R2D2 when you look at the Third Rethm, you are forgiven. Essentially a vertical cylinder, the Third Rethm has a full-range forward-firing Lowther driver mounted in a smaller horizontal cylinder fitted to the top. The back snakes down to form a 9-foot horn that is so sensitive it will fill most rooms with a single watt of power. The Third Rethm (the first syllable rhymes with “breath”) is a slightly downsized system that looks like its bigger sister, Second Rethm, minus the big posterior. Rethm has a mix of traditional woods with modernist metallic finishes, and the main cylinder is offered in gray, metallic silver, and metallic black. Like Beauhorn’s B2, this is a speaker for listeners who want a horn without being overwhelmed: The Third Rethm is only 31¼2 feet tall, 18 inches deep, and 121¼2 inches wide.