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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Bel Canto PRe2
Amp: First Watt F-1; First Watt F-2 [on review]; 2 x AudioSector Patek SE; Canary Audio CA-308s [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk1.5
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Zu Cable Birth on Definitions, Zu Cable Ibis; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan
Review Component Retail: $820/pr delivered (in the US)
"I'm just a dumb hillbilly."

"After everything else I had cobbled together over the years, when I first fired up the horns, they really fucked me up."

Hey, I'm not making this up. This is Ed Schilling of The Horn Shoppe. Verbatim. Frankly, I think that behind all this ultra-casual bumbling fool persona hides a much sharper mind than Ed likes to let on. But this persona merely adds to the considerable charm of his $820/pr (delivered!) miniature horns. Horns? I hear your protest. Truth be told, Ed has a wicked sense of humor. This speaker was supposed to be called the Hornette. But after one particularly fired-up online poster took one too many shots at Ed for daring to call his 4" Fostex rear-loaded and folded contraption a horn, Ed tightened his belt, carved a nice fat notch into it and proceeded to call 'em not only horns but The Horn. Don't fuck with hillbillies.

But make no mistake - this is a proper rear-loaded horn alright, its particular path length and horn flare openly based on the Bushhorn design. Lest you think you can just cobble together some plywood strips, arrange 'em into a clever-looking labyrinth and expect good results, think again.

In fact, one of Ed's earliest customers, Tom Zuralski, got so 'inspired' by The Horn that he proceeded to build one himself, its external dimensions virtually identical.

As you can see, not only are the ZHorn's internals very different, its mouth also exits to the front, blending what Ed calls "midrange information with the direct radiation from the driver which is a no-no." His cabinet, though looking identical from the outside, is turned 180 degrees, with the unstuffed folded line exiting out the back. Ed's design is optimized as a corner horn and deliberately designed to take advantage of such room loading to extend response cleanly into the mid 40s. Yes, you read that right - 40s from a 4-inch driver. What's more, Ed has never yet been asked to provide replacement drivers to any of his customers. He did manage to blow one up, once - deliberately. He aimed to see what it would take. On his cheap ratshack SPL meter, he clocked in 116dB at the far wall of his room, playing back the drum kit track of the Stereophile test CD. At the very end of the track, the left speaker made a funny noise. Though it kept playing at lesser levels through the following Beatles album and the audience didn't realize it, Ed knew he'd have fried Fostex for dinner.

So corner-loading is the trick? Unless you own FirstWatt's F1. In that case, conventional free-air placement will still do bass without any secret itch for a subwoofer. To know where Ed is coming from, it helps to know that he used to own Magnepans and Klipsch LaScalas. Not anymore. Like any self-respecting hillbilly, Ed loves Metallica, Madonna and other audiophile unspeakables. So let's get our bearings: Single-driver crossover-less Fostex floorstander short enough to where a grown man's pecker wouldn't touch the top unless he was hung like a horse (I'm getting the hang of this hillbilly vibe); a simple gloss-lacquered spike-less cabinet in Red Oak veneer that can substitute Birch, Cherry, Mahogany, Walnut or Wilson Art laminates (though perfectly respectable, at least the pair submitted would never win prizes for Sonus Faber-style finishing finesse); a 30-day satisfaction guarantee that specifically demands you return the things if you're not 100% thrilled. Since Ed probably owns a gun or two, you better do as he says. Don't dare hang on to his speakers unless you're tickled capital-letter obnoxious pink.

And no, I'm not selling my Zus or Gallos as Ed ribbed me I would after hearing his hornettes (he's also excessively self-confident just as Lloyd Walker is). Speaking of the devil, Lloyd had called me after the last New York show to ask whether I'd heard the room with those "li'l speakers barely tall enough for a big Dane to piss on, with that puny single driver and no subwoofer. They really fucked me up." Okay, I got it. I simply had to listen to these speakers before my swear-word vocabulary busted at the seams.

Guess what? This puppy really does mess with you in a number of ways. The first is that, properly placed -- here you have to make some efforts, sweating fractions of an inch to lock things in just so -- only bass freaks will ask for more. That doesn't sound at all right on paper which is precisely why expletives are bound to show up in any discussion of Ed's horn.

Not only do you get extension but you also get quality. Rear-loaded horns can often suffer a ringy resonant flavor that injects its texture into a narrow frequency band to signal discontinuity. I noticed this to a mild extent with Terry Cain's Abbys before inserting a half bag of Polyfill as per Nelson Pass' suggestion. That mostly tamed what sounded like remnants of organ-pipe resonances before. Ed's 12" x 8" stalk o' lumber (actually, 11 3/8" x 6 1/2") doesn't exhibit this discontinuity perhaps because the steep bends and folds of its line break up such resonances in the range where they'd coincide with the bass. Yes, my 300Bs amps on review weren't as taut as the transistor amps and occasionally even plummy but the latter shone so the tubes were to blame, not the speakers.

They also played wickedly loud. I could not get them to break up or raise the flag of surrender though really high levels seemed to set off cabinet resonances by causing certain bands to get a bit echo-y. So they ain't perfect. Unless set up correctly and mated with copasetic electronics -- and what those are is, as usual, far more a function of trial'n'error rather than any predictable a priori formula -- they can get shouty smack in the heart of the midrange and above. This affects especially female vocals and saxophone. Run for cover. Using the Canary Audio CA-308 300B monos that shared break-in duties with The Horns in the video system, this never was an issue. As such, I didn't expect it to rear its head when the tiny tots moved into the big rig to get their juice from my Audio Sector Patek SE solid-state amps instead. However, it did. Playing with front-wall distance and inter-speaker distance did not ameliorate it. I probably had the amp's low output impedance to blame.

This FE108EZ Fostex clearly has too much midrange on its own. Hell, it is a midrange driver (albeit one without need for an add-on tweeter). Hence cabinet and room loading need to work in concert to amplify what occurs below the midrange while amplifiers with higher output impedance are required to tame the driver. Remember, we're talking a transducer whose resonant frequency occurs at 77Hz while offering claimed treble extension to 23kHz. I could bore you with its hyperbolic paraboloid shell diaphragm; its banana fiber composition; its tangential edge/damper; its ø 90mm large ferrite magnet, its 0.28mm Xmax...

But I won't. If you're interested, simply download the full-size spec sheet from Madison by clicking on the above shrunk version. Rest assured that it's a hi-tech driver with some very unusual features not seen elsewhere exactly like it (except in Fostex's own FE168EZ, the 6-inch version of the 108). It's also a driver that needs a long time to break in properly. In fact, Ed insists -- he's one insistent fella, he is -- that you take the full 30 days of his trial period before committing. My listening indicates something that Kari Nevalainen already mentioned about this very same Fostex unit loaded into the Cornu Spiral Horn from Germany. Albeit with the speaker from South Carolina, it's not about midbass/lower-mid prominence but the 1kHz+ range. Kari's credo? You need to find the proper playback level for each CD. Too loud and that touch of metal will become really prominent. It's not quite as pronounced as with the Lowther DX4 I recently tried but it was there with my Patek amps. Looking for better synergy, I first turned to glass.

Running the 300B monos in the same location eliminated the bite. It proved that this peakishness wasn't a matter of room acoustics but electronics exaggerating rather than downplaying the driver's Achilles heel. Since all rooms and hardware will interact differently, don't come to any hard conclusions here. Merely take home that -- as with most single-driver speakers -- the amp/speaker interface must be deliberately used to compensate for whatever nonlinearities are present.

Once accounted for, this unprepossessing li'l speaker from them thar hills in South Carolina was Cap'n Mindblower. Point source dispersion even over a wide spread does great things for image stability. A lack of crossover losses means immediacy and openess, rhythmic drive and musical energy. The unnaturally substantial and well-controlled bass will be the biggest shocker even to experienced 'philes who'll exhort "impossible" in the same breath as their ears tell 'em otherwise. "Horn bass for better or worse" is how Kari introduced his comments on the Cornu. Cross out the "worse" for The Horn. Treble is surprisingly good but lacks shimmer in the top octave and falls off-axis so toe-in becomes essential.

Here's a little-known dirty secret that comes in handy when dealing with this type of speaker. Damping factor. The more the better, right? (NuForce prides itself on 4000 as though this figure implied superiority just like nth-degree upsampling). With light-weight transducers of high BL factors and good self-damping, excessive amplifier damping -- ultra-low output impedances -- can in fact incur overdamping. This translates as premature LF roll-off which merely drives the pain factor of the rising HF response to the next level. As so-called current-source amps, FirstWatt's F1 and F2 proudly sport high output impedances and hence damping factors so pathetic that the more-is-better crowd would puke in disgust. Ed claims to have helped sell 15 - 20 F1s to customers of his. He himself owns one and swears by it. He also says it obliterates the need for corner loading his hornettes. Time to put that claim to the test by way of both the F1 and new F2 (5wpc instead of 10, 2nd-order THD instead of 3rd-order as for the F1).

Without moving the speakers one millimeter, the performance with the F2 was virtually identical to the Patek SEs except for one vital difference - the bite was gone. I could now play Dulce Pontes' Lagrimas at truly happy levels and the proper directness was still there but that unpleasant bite had evaporated. "I toldcha!" I nearly could hear a hillbilly chuckling to himself.

Part deux? Move the speakers where I usually park my transducers, i.e. more than 30" away from the front wall measured to the closest rear corner (in case of the shallow horn, this in fact translated to closer to 4 feet). Would the bass lean out and frequency response tip up?

Time to learn more swear words and juicy curses. Hillbillies tell the truth. Unprotected by reinforcements, with their tiny arses hanging out to dry as it were, The Horns still acted like regular 5.5" 2-ways where you expect 50-ish bass. Switching to the F1 for an encore, bass solidity if not extension improved further but some of the bite crept back in - not as much as with the Patek but more than with the F2 which mostly sublimated it.

If my results translate, I predict Mr. Schilling will help sell another 20-or-more FirstWatt units - F2s to be precise. The little it concedes in bass heft to the F1 it more than makes up for in keeping that occasional blade sheathed that otherwise comes out when you hit on the right notes.

Should corner loading not be an option -- because your long-wall layout puts the corners out of reasonable range, for example -- the F1 and F2 amps transform this corner-horn speaker into something that behaves conventionally (though I don't know another 4-inch equipped speaker that does what these do so forget about conventional).

I can't predict what, exactly, you'd think about these speakers. But I will now add my voice as a so-called "experienced" audiophile to Lloyd Walker's: These horns
really fuck you up. They shouldn't do what they do. They give you a very potent dose of the fullrange driver magic for essentially half of what the Cain & Cain Abby demands (another entry in the still-affordable sector that is well-balanced and far less a special taste/special application product than many other speakers of this Fostex/Lowther/Jordan class). The FirstWatt amps are dead ringers as mates just as Ed claimed. I have no idea how he chanced upon just the right layout of his labyrinth inside the box. But just as Pat McGinty of the sadly defunct Meadowlark Audio once quipped about the original Kestrel -- "it's perfect for what it is and the parts it uses; there's nothing I can do to make it better" -- The Horn Shoppe's baby is a bull's eye success for its asking price and the driver used.

In fact, I think that in one way, it must also be a thorn in Ed's side (and that of his dad Charles who builds the actual cabinets in the wood shop). I mean, most normal people really don't need more. How to follow it up with another model that offers demonstrably more just to justify its existence? Even if The Horne Shoppe should end up being a one trick pony, there's wisdom in stopping while you're ahead. What a trick it is, this 30-inch short effrontery to common sense and expectations! It'll play loud, clean and full without suggesting that you need to limit what music you play. Despite its diminutive dimensions, low price and seemingly ridiculous driver, this is not a toy but a real speaker. It's also the most affordable SET-friendly micro-watt speaker I've yet heard that I can heartily recommend (save for the proviso that you need to make sure your electronics don't lay bare the bite).

Hell, what am I saying? Seeing that you've got an unconditional return privilege, strike my proviso. If 800 bucks weigh down your pants and you want to dip your toes into these waters of wideband drivers and micro-power tubes, The Horn with its 8-ohm load and 94dB sensitivity will pop yer cherry on the rusty bed of a pickup truck. Or do as Ed does. He runs a Pass X150 when he's taking a break from his F1. If this review reads lighthearted and a little disrespectful perhaps (no offense intended to Southerners - I simply followed Ed's lead), it's because this speaker was great fun! You feel expected to swill a few beers, crank up the wick and shout a few tall tales over them (loud) tunes. Matter of fact, this speaker is one such tall tale. It's an essentially true one with a few exaggerations (in the upper midrange) thrown in for good measure (which can be handled, however.). So Ed - thanks for letting me listen to these. You was right about 'em. They're unnatural and bad. More cost-conscious performance-driven listeners need to find out about 'em. Even if the occasional listener might return his pair after the home-trial period, I would bet he or she would have learned a thing or two about prior assumptions and would be happy to confirm that these shorties really dish out the jam as advertised.
Manufacturer's website