Horns are good because...

August 22, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In one of my YouTube videos, I railed against the sound of horns and how they are difficult for me to adjust to. They simply sound unnatural until my brain adjusts.

Of course, that spurred a raft of opposition from horn lovers defending their turf (as it should).

One of the long time beliefs about the superiority of horns involves their efficiency. Most horns are super efficient and require only a few watts of amplifier power to play loudly. Years ago in the era of small amplifiers that was a big deal. Today, not so much.

Yes, amplifier headroom is essential. When big amps like the BHK600 or the Stellar M1200 monoblocks power an 87dB sensitive pair of dynamic loudspeakers, they sound superior to other, smaller wattage amplifiers.

Rarely do these big amps output even 1/10th of their power capability and, into a 97dB horn, considerably less. That fact does not obviate the need for oversized amps that work within their ultra-linear range (typically about 10% of the total amp capabilities).

But, that said, the idea of a horn's superiority because of less strain and distortion presented to its connected power amplifier is a thing of the past when a big amplifier maybe cranked out 20 watts.

Old notions from the past stay with us into the present day.

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58 comments on “Horns are good because...”

  1. M1200 are Class D switching amplifiers, not linear amplifiers. Is that correct?
    When I had 86db Harbeth I tried a range of amplifiers from 22w valves to 300w monoblocks. For those particular speakers performance maxed out with a 140w amplifier. I've never had any interest in horn speakers, maybe they are from a previous generation. For people without money to burn masses of unnecessary headroom I not an option, which may account for the popularity of switching amplifiers.

  2. I’m not a horn owner, expert or prefer them generally, but what I heard at several shows went beyond that simple “the sensibility is not longer needed” argument.

    In my experience horns can sound weak or terrible (that chance is much higher than with conventional speakers) and they can sound gorgeous.

    Horns even were the majority of my personal show report winners for the following reasons:

    3D imaging Illusion, air, dynamics, speed.
    The great horns achieve this without major colorations.

    Part of the reason for their superiority in some regards might be, that such (tube) amps can be used, which are far superior to many solid state power packs in other regards than power delivery.

    It’s a different way to listen (as it’s a different way than burning amp power in usual crossovers), which is not rarely the one at the end of a very long and undogmatic Hifi journey, because things which are very hard to achieve with conventional speakers and which create illusion instead of sound, are much easier to achieve with tube/horn combinations. Maybe the reason why with active speakers, I use something inbetween.

    1. When turned up will make your (half-full 24oz) beer can resonate in your hand and ground rumble under your feet.
      My ears are still hurting from this past weekend...

  3. Horns are flared pipes and as such, are inherently resonant, which is why they can have a rather nasal coloration to the mid-range. Otherwise we'd all be listening to K-horns and that would be the end of audio.

    They sound good on brass instruments because brass are horns as well. Electronic instruments such as synthesizers and electric guitars are anything but a natural sound source, so tonal accuracy with them is irrelevant too. With rock 'n roll, hip-hop and a lot of pop music, that's all they are, so little is lost with horn based systems there as well.

    For those on a very tight budget, my recommendation for a first system are good band PA horn speakers, which can be had pretty cheap on the used market. They'll play very loud and have good dynamics with modest power mid-fi amps. Not exactly what you'd call "hi-end", but on a tight budget for someone wanting that first system that can crank, it's a reasonable choice.

    Bag End makes some very good PA speakers that offend less than most, but are harder to find.

    1. When I read you comment the first thing that came into my mind was when we went to a movie theater to see the premier of Ron Howard's film about the Beatles Touring Years. In the film they play a segment of what it actually sounded like when the Beatles played Shea Stadium and the music was played over the PA system. Bad does not begin to describe it, it made your ears bleed.

  4. This is a silly conversation. As if the only differentiating factor of a speakers performance is efficiency. It sounds like someone is from the measurement camp, as it tells all. In my experience, with my ears, good horns sound more like live music. Please get out and listen and drop your preconceived notions from yesteryear. Just like Digital Audio, Horns have come a long way in the past 10 or 20 years. No longer do they have the warts of the horns from the last century.

    1. I did hear a pair of horn speakers about 7 or 8 years go, from a brand called Acapella. They cost about $500,000. The matching amplifier about $100,000. Hated them.

      1. These giant spherical and hyperspherical horn loudspeakers from Acapella, Germany, require giant listening rooms and at least listening distances of more than 6 m. Just have a look at their home page showing their own demo room! I doubt these basic requirements would fit your listening room. I several time visited their Duisburg show room and had the impression that these horns act like magnifying glasses! However a sound experience of its own and rarely comparable with other speaker designs. For most HiFi shows Acapella uses much smaller loudspeakers, sometimes even non-horn designs.

  5. Having had / have horns that never sounded strained or fatigueing, even when played at 95db spl’s plus, when played thru a rebuilt and modified 25W tube amp that just idled along. But put those horns on a high powered solid state amp and it was easy to make things way less sweet. So much so that I couldn’t and won’t listen to them in that configuration.

    Then go the other way… I prefer the sound presentation of full length planar ribbons. They need a monster high current amp that doesn’t fall on its ass, Even when presented very low impedances. Right now a hybrid full length ribbon supplemented with a couple subs gives me the sound I want. (Mostly- lately I seem to be longing for something) By going the hybrid route I have quite a bit more flexibility in amplifier choices.

    Two different beasts each requiring something different to drive them before they sound their best.

    We now return to the whole system synergy rant. If you don’t have the synergy correct, you’re liable not to be fully satisfied.

    I don’t buy into the statement that power alone is the final determining factor in sound quality.

  6. A local home theater/audio store recently became a Klipsch Heritage dealer. They had a ceremonial event that I attended. They had most of the rooms set up poorly, but the Cornwall room blew me away. I have never heard a speaker with that kind of raw power. The power of the bass was what was really surprising. I came out of the room wanting a pair.

    I commented to an audio friend of mine that I can’t recall having that much fun listening to a system. No hypercritical focus on soundstage depth, width, etc. They simply blow you away by filing the music with unmatchable energy. I most certainly understand how horn lovers become die hard advocates. I can only image that everything else sounds flat and slow, once you adjust to them.

    1. Power yes, but also a very "hi fi" sound rather than a "high end" sound.

      I get why people like Klipsch, but I've never liked their sound.

      I can see why they'd be great in home theater or, frankly, a dorm room though.

      They are great for cranking tunes during a kegger, what other situations they're good for depends on how you listen to music.

      But the Cornwalls are still better than the big Klipschorns; I still don't get those who like them as they sound like a big clock radio to me (at least the newest generation of them finally extends to 20 KHz.)

      1. That is the exact opinion I had going into it, but I found that not to be the case. It was not my expected reaction.

        I prefer and own planer speakers. To me everything with a cone tweeter and midrange driver has a cupped sound to it, and I will never own another pair of speakers with that configuration. What I found interesting is that the horned presentation of the Cornwalls lacked that cupped sound.

        1. I own planars as well and have for decades (though I owned conventional speakers for a few years in there.)

          I could make out the horn on Cornwalls as well; it's more of a "character" than a sound so to speak; perhaps it's just me.

          For that matter after having lived with planars for that long, I can also instantly hear the cabinet on most of the conventional speakers on the market - it's unmistakable to me but to people who've lived with conventional speakers they've become so used to the "sound" of a cabinet that they don't hear it any more.

          1. It’s not really the cabinet that bothers me, but rather the cone driver sound. I have recently heard cabinet speakers with ribbon high/mid frequency drivers that I really like.

            1. Indeed.

              If you notice my complaint about conventional cone speakers is with being able to hear the cabinet on many of them - and open-baffle designs eliminate that.

              In particular, many PureAudioProject designs sound very good, though they still are subject to the "beaming" that many cone driver speakers are guilty of, when you can locate a particular instrument like a trombone being played in one speaker down to the specific driver emitting the sound.

              You should hear a trombone "over there," not be able to isolate the sound to a particular driver.

              1. We all have our favorite characteristics in appreciating music. Do you listen in the dark? When you can't see the speaker, it might ameliorate your propensity to localize an instrument to a certain driver.

              2. We all have our favorite characteristics in appreciating music. Do you listen in the dark? When you can't see the speaker, it might ameliorate your propensity to localize an instrument to a certain driver. Also, proximity of the side walls can hem in the soundstage, though open baffle speakers have a null directly off the side of the baffle. I've noticed a sense of a particular instrument coming directly from a speaker, on occasion, but in the context of my very wide soundstage I just chalk it up to the possibility that that is exactly where the musician was standing (or where the sound engineer placed them in the mix.) Oops! sorry for the double posting.

                1. Note localizing to a point in space is good; localizing to a DRIVER is not.

                  For example, Vivid's Oval and Giya lines do NOT do this.

                  When I spoke to Vivid about it, they felt it comes from the way all their drivers are made from similar materials, and it's when the tweeter and mids are disparate that helps you locate the sound to a driver.

                  1. Interesting, Bill. I'll pay attention to this next time I go to a show. Though there don't seem to be a lot of speakers with mids and tweets made out of the same material, save panel types. Some speakers have ceramic mids and tweets that come to mind.

          2. It is interesting that some companies expect the cabinet to be part of the sound. These companies typically make the cabinets out wood, with varying amounts of internal bracing and vibration damping. The there are companies such such as Wilson Audio and Magico that go to great lengths to make the cabinet as inert as possible.

  7. Hi, Paul. Could you explain us the advantages and disadvantages of low power amplifiers feeding efficient loudspeakers vs powerful amplifiers feeding low efficiency loudspeakers? Which pair are better in terms of sound quality and why?
    Regards, Fernando from Montevideo, Uruguay.

    1. Well, quite simply, the more power an amplifier has the more voltage it is able to produce at its output. That means that when it is powering speakers that require not so much voltage (wattage) it is loafing along in its linear region. The opposite with a small amplifier that is straining to get enough voltage to the speaker.

      Think of it like a big engine in a little car vs. a small engine in a bigger car.

      1. I think you have consistently praised amps that can loaf along, and it seems like efficient speakers like horns allow more (if not most) amps to loaf along. One can then focus on amps that sound better with that "first watt."

        I think horn speakers, colorations or no, have an unrestrained, uncompressed sound. This give them an alive, musicians-in-the-room quality for me.

  8. I used to hate the sound of horns until I heard some Avantgarde horns at an audio show, they sounded really good even with rock music.

    A lot of high powered amps lack the power supply, I believe any high powered amps should have a robust enough power supply to drive very low impedance loads, but most of them can't.

    1. I too heard the large Avantgarde speakers at the latest AXPONA. They sounded near best in show for me. I also thought the Klipsch Jubilee sounded really great. Most of the criticism around them seemed centered on their size/look, but there there were other large, ugly (IMO) speakers that did not receive such criticism. (The Avantgardes were as large, but the relative beauty of the two horn systems is entirely subjective.) At least the Klipsch cost a fraction of the price of the AGs, as well as that of very many of the other speakers being demoed.

  9. I agree that metal diaphragm compression drivers almost always have a harsh sound and I avoid them in my builds. The low range honk I bury with an 8th order electronic xover. Have a look at the specs for the Faital HF146 driver and the companies horn, pretty amazing response. So my SIT3 and its 18 watts work pretty darn well in the 85-90db average levels I listen at. However I use a few of the 250 watts of Krell power on the 96db woofer and I sure hope it’s operating in a linear fashion!

  10. For many of the commenters here, I am afraid this is a classic case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

    1) Horn loudspeakers are just as varied in sonic attributes as are any other topology of loudspeaker, including dynamic drivers in boxes.

    Only a Boomer-type mentality would conclude having heard one loudspeaker with a horn-type driver that he knows everything there is to know about horn loudspeakers.

    2) The first 18 watts of the BHK600 or the Stellar M1200 monoblocks do not sound on very sensitive loudspeakers like the first 18 watts of a Lamm ML2 SET amplifier or of an Absolare SET.

    3) The attraction of many audiophiles to horn loudspeakers is not merely the efficiency specifications. It is, among other attributes, the life-like dynamics and energy which certain horn loudspeakers can reproduce.

    PS: I do not own horn loudspeakers. But I have enough actual listening experience with them to understand fully why many audiophiles love them.

    1. Well said, Ron. I don't think I have ever heard a horn loudspeaker. I would love to hear a really good horn speaker set up. It would be fun if our stereo systems could have a variety of loud speaker types, that we could switch on and off depending on the type of music we are playing. I imagine horn speakers would be great for some of my digital organ stops.

  11. In any discussion of horn loudspeakers I would think the Living Voice Vox Olympian and Palladian systems deserve a mention. You’ll need a big room and a big bank balance but they are much acclaimed and have won best of show at Munich High End.

    https://www.livingvoice.co.uk/

    I remember hearing an earlier version at a show years ago, a track with a lot of drumming, and what really struck me was the dynamics were off the scale, just so real. Never heard anything like it before or since. Not what I’d call a relaxing listen though.

    1. At least they have won my last personal three Munich Shows and their small dynamic speakers were not so much behind.

      I would have named them, too.

      Whoever has heard a good horn (or doesn’t sell the opposite of a horn environment 😉 ) wouldn’t post like today.

  12. If horns sounded so bad than why do a lot of audiophiles that have had dynamic and planar speakers and high wattage amps end up with horns and set amps?

  13. - A solid state pre amp can sound as good if not better than tubes…..

    - A servo controlled woofer is required to achieve low distortion bass response…..

    I learned a long time ago, in engineering never make a statement declaring an absolute anything. Time will eventually prove you wrong.

  14. Many times when people speak about "horn speakers", they are really talking about horn/direct raditor 'hyrids. Horns for mids/tweets and direct radiator for bass.

    IMO, true "horn speaker" has bass horn as well. This means a pretty large cabinet, pretty small waf (or saf for the politically correct amongst ye).

    Klipsch has a few and others mfgs. as well. One excellently executed example is the small company "Volti Audio" and there Vittora https://voltiaudio.com/vittora/ This thing is very very nice.

  15. Horn speakers.. humm. My experience with Horn Speakers is somewhat similar to Ribbon Speakers & Electrostatic Speakers. They sound amazing with certain types of music, seating positions and setups. I would much rather enjoy a "universal speaker" that can do lots of things without so many pre-conditions....

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