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Reviewers: Srajan Ebaen, Paul Candy, Michael Lavorgna
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Raysonic CD128
Preamp/Integrated: Melody I2A3; Supratek Cabernet Dual; Onix SP3; Raysonic SE-30A [on loan]
EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz on Zu Definition Pros

Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Eastern Electric M-520
Speakers: Zu Audio Definition Pro in custom lacquer; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1; Mark & Daniel Ruby with matching stands; WLM Monitor Diva, Duo 12, Pre/Passive and Bass Controls; Zu Audio Druid Credenza

Cables: Crystal Cable Ultra loom; Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable; Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer;
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular 4-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option; smaller AudioSector Plitron balanced power step-down transformer on headphone system (Raysonic CDP, Wyetech Jade, FirstWatt F1, AKG K-1000s)
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $850/pr delivered in the Continental US
What the frick? 'tis hunting season again? Is that Sharper Image's newest camouflaged and self-powered speaker? The one which broadcasts buck-in-heat signals from a programmed WiFi clip to lure the prey? Do Bambie and kin even appreciate stereo?

What you see above sets the tone. It's a mix of the incredulous, the trippy and the barely disguised DIY-ish. Throw in Southern hospitality and grand tales told in that charming down-home sing song. The photo shows Ed Schilling's souped-up vintage Volvo. Just like his Horns, it hides more under the hood than its anti glitz lets on. Because he could; because he tired of their green veneer; because the paint gun was still loaded from the Volvo job - his personal pair of speakers got hosed. Don't let that fool you. In its customary finishes, this speaker will raise eyebrows only for delivering more than its diminutive driver artillery of 4" Fostex and stumpy cab suggest.

Without braggadocio -- and Ed veritably vibrates with it -- he can lay claim to being the first Yank who embraced the tiny 4-inch Fostex Sigma banana-cone FE108Σ (later the 108Σe) and turned it into a one-deep loudspeaker line. Well, two if you count the newer Model 2. To Ed, anyone else in the commercial Fostex single-driver rear-loaded folded horn camp is a Johnny come lately. At its price of $850/pr delivered anywhere in the Continental US, outperforming his Horn at its game isn't quite the no-brainer it may appear to competitors. According to Michael Lavorgna, Atelier Audio's First Horn attempt rather missed. Gemme Audio on the other hand competed very well as Paul Candy found. For $3,500/pr. It's outfitted with the same $85 driver which Ed used prior to Fostex' newer FE126E. And yes, Gemme's Concerti 108 beats the pants off Ed's in the cosmetics department by using gorgeous custom lacquers and leather.

Ed's homely red Oak and spreckle paint job 'round back couldn't compete on that front. Though with veneers, Ed has since progressed to multiple wood choices and designer laminates by WilsonArt. $75/pr surcharge for those laminates.

Yet in Ed's book, there's nothing else he could throw at his Horn to make it worth $3,500/pr. Shy of turning it into a giant line source with 24 cones per side perhaps. But that would defeat his single-driver obsession. The most he's willing to concede is a two-some. Enter the Model 2. Only someone of Ed's unhinged bent would even admit to attempting it (much less dare turn it loose on the commercial sector).

He's the first to confess that it looks all wrong. Then he shrugs his shoulders. "Don't diss it until you've heard it. It works so I'm building it." And yes, the Model 2 is exactly what it appears to be: two maisonette-style horns sharing one common wall in the middle. Ed tried verticalizing the drivers. They sounded
better to him side by side. And Ed's certainly not afraid of disobeying convention. Nor courting outright mockery. The Horn (whether paralleled or singly) uses a closely guarded internal labyrinth that eventually vents aft in a sizable mouth. That's because the speaker is intended for corner placement. It's supposed to turn the room corner into an extension of the horn to augment bass response. The petite horn thus practically begs to sit very close to the front and side walls. That's about as living-room friendly as imaginable. The missus will be thrilled. No more looks that could kill. Over cables on bloody risers across the open floor. On the subject of where to place the horn mouth, Ed's adamant. Upfront is plain wrong. "You do not want the somewhat colored output of the horn to mix with the clean direct output of the driver. Out back is where it belongs. Trust me. I've been at this longer than anyone else using a Fostex 4-incher."

Further on Ed's strongly held beliefs, he's keen to tell you that a particular schematic published elsewhere claimed to be a cutaway of his internal line ain't it. Back on the outside track. Naturally, there are $800/pr speakers that will outdo Ed's horns first and foremost in the bass, measure better and sport finer threads. What comes to mind right off the bat is Vandersteen's transmission-line Model 1c. As does Axiom's M50v2. Anyone signing on Ed's dotted line has first read the small print. That clearly states how The Horn is a xover-less affair of ca. 95dB in-room sensitivity whereby one solitary 4" driver covers sixtish-ish up to the limits of human audibility. Such simplicity casts its own unique allure over a certain crowd. It's essentially a really large open-air headphone hardwired to your amplifier - one small driver with zero added crap between it and the signal.

The anechoic chamber crowd meanwhile knows that when measured at 1 meter centered on the Fostex mini and without benefit of room lift and rear-horn action, this speaker will begin to roll off around 150Hz. To want The Horn is being defiant. You know that Cain & Cain and Omega offer their own affordable Fostex-based single-driver speakers. You'll have passed on them for whatever reasons to focus on Ed's. The first thing to impress upon your friends is that despite its stumpiness, The Horn isn't a joke.

Key attractions with it are speed, directness, utter coherence and monitor-type staging spookiness. By the same token, there's a less critical eye on tonal density - and the bottom octave is flat-out MIA. A hornist values spunk, jump factor, excitement and communicativeness. And -- this is no misprint -- even Hornessas like to be able to play things loud and frequently do just that. The Horns oblige in the punk SPL department in ways that seemingly defy Physics.

Subwoofer-less, it's the lack of bass which makes The Horn questionable set up in free space. Then it must be augmented because the necessary room lift from corner loading isn't properly added as this design calls for.

Before I describe The Horn's strong points, let's ask how much Horn awe and satisfaction are really glee over cognitive dissonance, i.e. getting lots from apparently very little. As with the Mini Cooper syndrome, how much is denial or ignorance that one could get there via far more ordinary means?

Quite a lot. Again, a Vandersteen 1C's tonal balance is far more realistic without requiring special placement. Ditto for any number of Canadian floorstanders selling for $800/pr. The appeal of The Horn centers on its filterless sensitivity. That allows affordable tube amps to be used, the kind that would curl up and die on conventional speakers. And there is something to the coherence and get-out-of-the-way magic a driver will cast that avoids a crossover transition in the critical presence region altogether.

The usual drawback of such solutions -- a midrange doubling as a tweeter -- is a rising response right in the heart of the presence region. The lack of a crossover counters with excess energy which could become the bigger evil. That's where this newer Fostex unit as loaded by Ed's line makes worthy advances. It's smoother, more extended and linear which, in the bass, also means leaner than the older driver which had a built-in 100Hz-or-so padding. Park The Horn in the corners
though and it's nearly irritating how well everything in this modest design comes together. Especially since you know how bad it'll look on the test bench. You'll either have to appear deaf to your graph-adoring brethren or explain that it's just like that wacky skit Rowan Atkinson runs in one of his hilarious flicks - the
bit with the electric shaver on his tongue. It looks far worse than it feels.

What else could you get at The Horn's price? I've listened to the Vandy 1Cs. While unfairly underappreciated and overshadowed by the mighty 2s, the 1s don't have the Horn's speed and immediacy. But -- and this is a huge but -- they don't require a subwoofer at all whereas The Horn is unlistenable for any serious bass lover unless it is fully corner-loaded or run with a FirstWatt F1 current-source amp whose very high output impedance alters the speaker's LF rolloff. At which point there's acceptable bass even free standing but certainly not great bass. You could go with a Magnepan MMG for matching speed and transparency. Then too you'd need a sub. But you couldn't go as loud. The Moth Cicada is no more. You could opt for a Reference 3A Dulcet at double the cash. Choices increase exponentially as your purse grows. At $800 however -- and if you intend to play with Decware amps, Almarros, Bottleheads or similar low-power tube designs -- there isn't too much. There are the aforementioned Omega and Cain & Cain speakers, the latter produced now by one of Terry Cain's former employees who purchased the shop after Terry's passing. There is the new Merrill Zigmahornet, to be reviewed shortly by Jeff Day. Whatever Triangle's latest French offering happens to be at this price point could suit. It's not easy to find Horn relatives
with FE108Σe prior to the switch to the FE126e
when you consider its particular flavor of speed, directness and seamlessness coupled to low-power friendliness. Anthony Gallo's A'Diva Ti with his smallest subwoofer is one option - more linear and far more bassy but not nearly as sensitive.

The Horn driver's free air resonance is 70Hz. It makes no bass. Once mounted to Ed's box, it rocks and socks without banging its stops so loudness is not its limitation. But the amount of bass lift the internal line is said to bestow is zero when you put your ear to its mouth out in the room and compare that with listening from the front.
To be clear then, The Horn wants corners and/or a sub. What you get then is a very hefty dose of uncut musical energy. Whatever raggedness it has to suffer in the amplitude domain is minor enough to the ear to not distract. This aspect of the 126E is clearly an improvement over the snazzier-looking 108Σe of the earlier Horn. That could run away a bit in the presence region when primed. The new 'un is obviously smoother and even more extended in cymbal land. Yet it doesn't exhibit the nearly hopeless break-in distance of the original. It sounds more righteous sooner. Weighs in hornist Michael Lavorgna, formerly on staff who has compared the two side by side and owns the older version:

"In general, I'd describe the discontinued Fostex FE108Σ as having a warmer, more forgiving sound. The overall character is fatter, especially noticeable as we move toward the frequency extremes. Bass is slightly pudgy and highs sound softer. This imparts a ripe (some may hear overripe) flavor to the midrange. I still would describe the 108Σ Horns as a 'balanced' sounding speaker, albeit tipped toward the darker side of the spectrum.

"In contrast, the 126E has a much tighter, zippier sound. Or should I just say more modern? All the fat has been trimmed and the 126E is much more agile. Bass is faster and more articulate, highs sound crisper and the midrange is more muscular. The 126E does a better job of unraveling complex, dense musical passages especially at higher SPLs. Where the Sigma driver makes everything sound more organic or cut from a similar timbre cloth, the 126E excels at highlighting difference. This kind of detail opens up some space between performers as well, setting a cleaner, less dense sonic stage.
In terms of fit'n'finish, the Horns have evolved nicely. While I have a soft spot for the top-mounted binding posts practically bordering on folk art, the new Horns finish is much more décor friendly.

"I understand from Ed Schilling there are some other non-visible changes including a gasket to make the driver mounting air-tight and some changes to the internal damping. And Ed matches every pair of FE126Es drivers himself."

Besides Omega, there's Schallwand in Germany who make an 890/pr single-driver speaker of similar specs. It's an upfiring omni called TuduSan but I haven't heard it yet. There could be others especially in the full or partial DIY field. Think Nagaoka Sidewinder or designs based on the Jordan JX92S - like Carolina Audio's JLM/2 which again costs double. No matter how you cut it, Ed's mini occupies a very narrow niche. What's that niche in a nutshell? Getting the basic trinity of musical energy right when money's short: speed, dynamics and timing. Many far more expensive speakers may offer flatter this, lower that, more impressive whatever but still screw up the basics. That's why the HornShoppes are unusual. They're among the least expensive speakers to unabashedly serve this trinity (she'll serve you in turn like she did Neo). Again, the new Fostex driver makes The Horn smoother than the previous Sigma. Smoother means less finicky over millimeter-obsessed placement. It thus pays its respects also to what comes after the 'live' foundation - fidelity to frequency response.

Because The Horn is very short [below referenced against the WLM Diva Monitor for show] and has a double wall fixation with its corner placement, it goes places most don't. And because it's easy to drive and the opposite of power hungry, Hornists and Hornessas get to use equivalently simple amplifiers. That's a big part of the magic. We often forget that the amp/speaker interface is joined at the hip. Many easy-to-drive high-sensitivity speakers arguably sound as good as they do because the amps that work with 'em do. Such amps can have just one or at the most two gain stages and little or no feedback to avoid choking the musical energy. Such amps may not work on 95% of speakers sold but when you find a right one, you get why they're famous.

That's the ideal Horn recipe in fact: triode, current-source, JFET or battery-powered Tripath amps plus Fostex banana-cone widebanders. You'll want amps which sound good with the first watt. That's where you'll be listening to the horns most of the time. This needn't exclude high-power amps. But the likelihood is good that low-power amps will hit their stride far sooner in the power band to already sound like themselves a mere fraction into that first watt. All of this makes The Horns a sensible choice. Incidentally, it's one that's been available for 6½ years. It's not exactly news. Nor has feedback compelled Ed Schilling to alter the basic recipe except for going to the 126E.

By being bass shy, The Horn is an imperfect speaker that's perfect at what it does - uncut musical energy rather than hifi bean counting. Having heard the 108Σ version last year and Ed's guarantees that the 126E was even better (more even, more extended on both ends, more efficient), I agreed to a second round with the revised model. This also would give me an opportunity to comment on fit'n'finish. It's the one area where my first encounter with his Horn had been merely fair but clearly nothing to write home about. To save labor and associated costs, the open back still gets a thin flecked paint job (mine showed through the wood in certain areas) instead of veneer/lam. The optional WilsonArt laminate on my pair evinces butted edging instead of a more finished bevel. In the wood shop, it must be said, Louis Chochos of Omega runs pirouettes around Ed.

Newbies to tubes who'd love to test the waters but currently own B&Ws or other uncopasetic speakers designed with high damping factors in mind would be well advised to put a pair of Sir Stumpies on their list. This allows them to focus on the really low-power and affordable end of the valve amp
segment - some of Doc B.'s or Ron Welborne's kits for example. You'll save money and be assured to hear such amps at their best. Who knows, you might prefer the general presentation over your more conservative mainstream one. If not, you'll have taken a few steps on the wild side and learned something without going deeply into hock.

A paragraph or two from Paul Candy on his pair: "While they aren't fully run-in yet, Ed's 126E-equipped speaker has thus far surprised me sonically considering the low price. In some respects, it beats the nearly five times as expensive Gemme Concerti 108. The cupped hands effects and the horn mouth/cabinet resonances I noted with the Concerti were, for the most part, absent with the Horns. They sound faster, more open and expressive than the Concerti which in turn displayed a warmer, smoother and slightly weightier tonal balance.

"My Green Mountain Audio Callistos extend further at both ends of the spectrum, throw out more detail, depth and have a beguiling musicality and coherence that the Horn can't quite match. However, neither can most speakers, regardless of price. The bass tends to lag somewhat and the Horns are quite sensitive to the rear wall distance. However, that just might be an indication for more break-in time. In my listening room, I currently prefer them at least three feet from the wall while my REL sub rounds out the bottom end. Last week, I relocated Ed's babies to a mere few inches from the back wall of our TV room and hooked them up to Audio Zone's AMP-1 which, thus far, seems to be a fine combination. However, the little 12-watt Audio Space Mini-Galaxy with its quartet of EL84s is the best match yet.

"Although it's been awhile since the Zu Tones were here, I recall that they did
display similar immediacy and transient fidelity but were meatier and richer in the midrange and perhaps smoother overall. I also remember the treble rolling off rather quickly as I moved off axis. Still, all three crossoverless speakers display a killer dynamic expressiveness that should offer plenty of musical excitement and involvement. The Gemmes are arguably the most aesthetically pleasing and forgiving sonically, the Tones perhaps have the richest midrange while the Horns boast the best ratio of performance to price. That crazy hillbilly's Horns are a bona fide audiophile bargain. And yeah, they'll play real loud too."

Even Paul couldn't help but invoke the hillbilly thang. If you've ever had Ed on the phone -- and got him off -- you'd understand. It's part and parcel of the package. Ed plays to it like EveAnna Manley plays to her Harley babe image. It's no sign of disrespect or to make light of Ed's accomplishment. It's simply that when you strip any Hornshoppe review of
this vibe and write it as would befit an Audio Research Corporation writeup, you'd leave out the sense of special community and wickedness that's part of Horn ownership. Consider the cake. Little Miss Triode is Ed's company mascot. One of the many Horn devotees decorated his own cake accordingly, including the garish pink that's also to be found on the walls of Ed's listening room. There's a whole owner's club anyone interested in these speakers can tap into.

The lowest open string of a 5-string upright is well below what The Horn will do without serious attenuation. If you play heavily syncopated fast bass lines, you'll note just a bit of thickening that's not bothersome at all but not quite as quick and incisive as the midband. This action kicks in progressively below about 80Hz where room lift and rear horn action take over. On the other end, the 126E's surprising extension is honestly smoother than seems kosher. The lower treble doesn't denote bright but fast and detailed. Still, The Horn is all about speed and articulation so a somewhat buxom and dense amp like the Eastern Electric M520 will be a good match.

If you've heard the Cain & Cain Abby, The Horn's bass -- what there is -- is better damped and doesn't ring but the Abby extends lower and doesn't absolutely mandate a sub in free air. (The above setup to demonstrate physical sizing still was completely in free air and consequently meant no bass. To hear The Horn as intended, I had to move out the plants from the corners and set up the speakers in their stead). Melody HiFi's overachieving I2A3 integrated and Raysonic's paralleled EL34 SET drove The Horns beautifully but didn't do much to pack meat on the bones. The FirstWatt F1 had more bite and incision still and in fact too much upper bass (Ed advised to use some stuffing with that amp whose deliberatley high output impedance changes the LF behavior of the speaker). The F3 wasn't as ballsy but buttery smooth and just slightly sweet. The Onix SP-3 run with KT77s worked very well and the Eastern Electric M520 even better. With Alex Yeung's integrated, the speakers got more tone. From what I had on hand, that combo really took the - um, cake. The Mullard circuit with the Mullard rectifiers is a tone champ. It enhanced the Fostex speed and innate leanness with sufficient body to complement the overall experience nicely. Although I haven't yet heard it, Eastern Electric's new $950 8wpc MiniMax Integrated with remote control could be the hammer on The Horns. It's certainly priced to suit.

In the end, even someone catered to by Zu, Gallo, Auditorium 23, Green Mountain Audio and Mark & Daniel -- i.e. speakers more to very much more expensive -- can get fully down with Ed's creations. The other speakers add tonal fullness and bass but The Horns run with the general pack over the remainder of the range. However, I do find that in my 14' x 20' space, regardless of cornering, I do need a sub or else there's too much missing below about 45Hz that I know to be there. If you've got it, flaunt it. Though ridiculous overkill, the WLM Duo 12 with Diva Control and Bass Control between CDP and Eastern Electric did the trick in a big way and blended seamlessly.

Ed, by the way, just started shipping his first Cube, a $575 bass augmenter with one down- and one side-firing 6.5" Tang-Band woofer with 11mm throw. At 10" x 9", the Cube is another miniaturization deal and its 70-watt Class A/B plate amp with 40-160Hz continuously adjustable low-pass is packaged separately so that its placement (requiring an AC connection to remain confined to areas with a nearby wall outlet) doesn't restrict the actual transducer from being placed where it sounds best. Ed's Magic Cable with the necessary resistive loading built in allows even Class T amps to connect safely to a subwoofer. Ed is quick to differentiate his tiny box as a bass augmenter rather than subwoofer that'll flesh out The Horn to
reach comfortably into the 30s. That combo, I predict, could be positively scary for the money and massively appealing to anyone who wants the most performance for the least outlay and considers ultimately dialed finish and cosmetic packaging unnecessary add-ons not worth paying for.

The cognitive dissonance mentioned earlier works both ways. Play The Horns properly placed -- or with a sub -- crank the wick and watch jaws drop. This simply shouldn't be. There's a flip side, however. Play a good 2-way monitor or floorstander that makes 45Hz and costs the same as Ed's speaker and you might get a similar reaction. The truth is, good sound doesn't have to cost a fortune. Examples thereof aren't limited to the audio underground but can be found with the three Ps -- Paradigm, Polk and PSB -- and others like them.

What really differentiates The Horns is their friendly sensitivity and absence of any filter network. Say hello to all kinds of affordable low-power tube or T amps now which would work poorer or not at all into the usual suspects. If you pick the right one, the combination of such an amp, with The Horns, could take things over the top for you. That's the inherent promise and appeal of going against the stream here and wedding your hifi bliss to a puny 4-inch driver.
If your hearing still goes out to 17kHz, the Fostex is flat. If loud to you is 95dB peaks in the listening chair, it obliges with a smile. If satisfying bass with corner loading means upper forty-ish, it obliges. If you fancy a very clean, fast and accurate sound on the lean but articulate side of things, the Fostex FE126E is perfect. It doesn't look like much and lacks the tech spiel of the hyperbolic surround and surface shaping of the Sigma. Make no mistake though - in this speaker, the cheaper driver is clearly superior.

The Hornshoppe Horn is, without argument, a classic. It's a DIY solution for non-DIYers who appreciate the mind set and approach but don't want to get dusty. The only qualifier really is the corner placement when run solo. It's mute with a subwoofer since the speaker has no problem of course making 80Hz for the usual low-pass. Then you can run it well out in the room. That kinda defeats the purposes though. The Horn is meant to be outa sight, outa mind...

Just as some very petite women can be outright dragon ladies -- and short guys Napoleonic terrors -- whose influence and power completely exceed physical size or attributes, so these very short narrow speakers play well outside their dimensional leagues. Like Ed Schilling, that's quite the trip. It's real enough though to where serious listeners with serious speakers have a set of Horns in a second or weekend getaway system. One insists on a certain sonic standard which one has grown accustomed to in the big rig. Truth be told, one simply doesn't wish to pay for it all over again. And that sums up The Horns quite nicely indeed: a classic value with a capital(ist) V that also stands for victorious.
Manufacturer's website