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Friday, November 20, 2009

Horned Audio Territory

Now for something completely different.

Acousticians have known since even before the beginning of speaker design that horn loaded speakers are the most efficient way to amplify audio That's because, unlike most of the cone loaded speakers that we're used to, horns are very directional and don't waste energy pointing sounds in a direction other than where the audience is seated. Who cares if the spider on the ceiling is hearing a playback as well as you are?

While horn-loaded speakers come in and out of style, they're always with us in some form. The latest foray into horned audio territory for the home is the La Grande Castine speakers (pictured left), designed by the French company Musique Concrete (can't find a website for them). Their large size and acoustic shape allow them to deliver sound in the 108dB range with a mere 3 watt amplifier. Now that's efficiency! They'll cost you though - about $100,000 per pair.

While we see speakers like the La Grande Constine occasionally used in the home (not that often because they tend to be on the large size), horn-loaded speakers are usually found in a professional setting. The reason why horn-loaded speakers have such a place in our sonic history is the fact that when film's first changed to "talkies" in the 20's, amplifiers were in their infancy and only rated around 5 watts at best (by comparison, today's theater amps are usually over 1000 for just the woofers in a large theater system). In order to cover the entire theater with sound, the speakers had to be the most efficient possible, which is why horn-loaded ones were chosen. Altec was the leader at the time (although RCA made the first ones) with their "Voice of the Theater" line (pictured left).

Usually you'd find a set of three of these speakers set behind the screen. The bigger the theater, the larger the speaker. In fact, in many large theaters that project Sony's SDDS format films, you'll find an array of five sets, although they'll probably be from JBL since Altec has regrettably left this area of the business some time ago.

When I was a kid in a few of my first bands, we used a pair of Altec A7 speakers (pictured left) in our PA system and always got raves for how great they sounded (the speakers sounded better than the band sometimes). Altec has now reissued the venerable A7, but at a $4000 per speaker price, which is totally ridiculous. They were good, but not that good, and there are a lot better choices available today for a lot less money than an old A7.

Probably the most widely revered and sought after horn-loaded speaker is the oldest - the RCA "Ubangi," which was used in the original theater sound systems until about the 60's and latter utilized as the primary piece of Allen Sides famed studio monitors of the 80's and 90's. Since almost all theaters that used these have either closed or upgraded to newer gear long ago. If you have any pictures of a Ubangi, please send it along.

I'm not sure how this post became the brief history of horn-loaded speakers (very, very brief), but it sure was fun, and I didn't even get into some of my very favorites. We'll leave that for a future post.

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