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Reviewer: Michael Lavorgna
Analog: Rega P3, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 moving coil step up, Fi Yph phono stage
Digital: Audio Aero Capitole MKII, Red Wine Audio Monica 2 DAC
Tuner: Voice of Music AM/FM Stereo Tuner (1960s vintage)
Preamp: Déjà Vu Audio
Amp: Fi 45 Prototype, Fi 421A, Fi X, SAC Thailand Minute
Integrated Amp: Rogue Audio Cronus [in for review], Eupyha 270 [in for review]
Speakers: Cain & Cain Abby (Normal), DeVore Fidelity Super 8, The Horn Shoppe Horns (original 108Σ version), Atelier Audio First Horn [on review]
Cables: PHY interconnects, Shindo interconnects, Auditorium 23 Speaker Cable, JPS Labs Digital AC Power Cable, Audience PowerChord, ESP Essence Power Cord, and Z-Cable Heavy Thunder V2 on the Blue Circle MR
Stand: Finite Elemente Pagode
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle Music Ring MR800
Accessories: Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-10 Ebony bases under Audio Aero Capitole and Abbys, PS Audio Ultimate Outlets, and AudioPrism Quiet Lines. Room damping provided by lots of books.
Room size: 13' w x 16' d x 9' h
Review component retail: $699/pr factory direct
|Speakers from the Atelier - Part 1 of 2
The atelier. The workshop. Same thing, different name. Atelier is the workshop for designer Robert Gaboury and partner Jean-Pierre Boudreau. Atelier is a direct-sales only outfit and the First Horn is their first speaker available to the public. As Paul Candy mentioned in his review of the Gemme Audio Concerti 108i, Robert and JP are also the guys behind Gemme Audio. If Atelier is the workshop, Gemme is the showroom where more upscale models are sold through the traditional dealer/distributor network.
"There is a direct link between Atelier Speakers and Gemme Audio. Atelier is Gemme's laboratory. This is where we test new ideas, designs and techniques. At Atelier, we can do crazy things that we could not do under the Gemme Audio brand. Gemme products are sold to dealers, through distributors. As such, we can't introduce as many products as we'd like because time to bring them to market is too long.
Atelier gives us freedom to introduce different products at any time because we sell directly to the community. In the near future, we'll introduce wild vintage-styled products using the very latest technology. I'm a big fan of full-range (or extended range) two ways, coaxial, large and stiff 15" drivers, compression chamber horns and so forth (I started in audio designing PA horn-loaded enclosures and high-power monitors so naturally, some of this will trickle down for home use). The First Horn is Atelier's first product. Contrary to Gemme products, Atelier products are more "raw" in character. We spend very little on cosmetics and pass on the savings to music fans. Gemme Audio is a horn-only operation while Atelier can play with anything, provided the quality and efficiency are kept intact."
|The First Horns are rear-loaded, rear-firing folded horns. Overall dimensions are a room-friendly 36" x 7.5" x 15" (H x W x D) and cabinet construction is all 11-ply Baltic birch. The First Horns sport the 4.5" Fostex FE126E driver and Atelier rates them at 95db/w/m average sensitivity. That Fostex FE126E gets gussied up some with a custom-made stainless steel damping ring. The stainless theme is mirrored in the "tri-pod footing" and as the pictures should attest, the First Horns are very nicely made. I find the overall look of the Baltic birch to suit my tastes just fine. As an Eames fan from way back when, I suppose you could say that I have a soft spot when it comes to plywood - bent, molded, straight or skewed. And the First Horns are not straight or squares. Atelier has taken the theoretical box and skewed it into a parallelogram to give the cabinet a natural rake.
If we take a peak 'round back into the mouth of the beast, our gaze is returned by a surprising (at least to me) abyss. Say "Aaahhh" coz staring into this horn's mouth also affords one a view of a goodly amount of throat as well. In terms of overall volume, damn near most of it. If you are wondering how it is we can see so much throat, it's because the First Horn has but a single fold. Directly behind the driver sits a small compression chamber with some poly fill. Running down the inside front face of the cabinet is a narrow path which continues to within a few inches of the bottom of the cabinet. Once your tunes navigate this turn assisted by an angled corner, it's a deflection or two and out the mouth it goes. If you're wondering about that other board in the throat visible in the pics, it's open on the top and bottom so it doesn't function as a fold. It does however deflect while adding rigidity to the cabinet [personal approximation of internals above].
I admit to being at once intrigued and stymied by the Atelier folded horn approach in both looks and sonics. So I sent designer Robert Gaboury an e-mail with some questions while performing a bit of folded horn googling. If we take a look at Fostex' recommended plans for the FE126E, we see a more traditional folded horn with folds (plural). The Buschhorn too is a similar design, being a back-loaded rear-firing folded horn. Ditto for the Horn Shoppe Horn. From the few pics I've seen of their innards, the boys from Atelier clearly diverged from their predecessors' paths and took a much less circuitous route [see much farther down this page - Ed.]. For anyone interested in a veritable photo fest of mainly DIY single-driver speakers -- many of them of the horn-loaded persuasion -- check out this link.
I received this very interesting response from First Horn designer Robert Gaboury:
About the First Horn
(Well, not really). I began design work on Gemme Audio Concerti 108 a few years back. The Fostex FE108EZ driver was the obvious answer to my quest for "scoop sound" in a small package. The design work was nerve-wrecking because it was the culmination of an obsession and never intended as a commercial project because it's just too extreme to build.
Design is an intellectual activity that can yield very complex things and forms. It can also yield perfect simplicity. The Concerti was extremely complex because the driver itself demanded that kind of complexity. It is extremely delicate and fragile and at the same time, very powerful and precise and detailed. That driver was clearly the result of an obsessive Fostex engineer. It needed an equally obsessive enclosure.
Enter the First Horn
I designed the First Horn from the ground up around the FE126E driver. The design goal was to create absolute simplicity. It was more a challenge than a goal. The challenge was to design a horn in a box using the absolute minimum of parts. Apart from the box itself, only two inside panels form the horn path. Other panels are used to shape the curve and stiffen the cabinet but the main form uses only two panels.
When designing horns, I do a lot of computer simulations just to narrow down the basic design. Computer simulations are useless as absolute design tools; they just help in getting the rough outline of the project and save time in prototype building. The fun and creative part is how to fold the thing to make it work, how radiation will affect in-room sound, what kind of bass I want etc.
So the design started as a blank sheet. The slanted profile was dictated by economy. A horn is like a triangle. If you chop the top off the triangle to fold it, you end up with a parallelogram. Calculations, simulations and formulas were very clear - the design could never ever work. Perhaps that's why there are no precedents. A resonant horn enclosure frequency response is one with a cascade of peaks and dips, getting closer and closer until the horn has no action.
In the case of the First Horn, the first peak is very large at around 60Hz. That is followed by a dip, then another peak at around 100Hz - and so on. The overall frequency response does not have very large peaks and dips because each enclosure peak comes with an impedance drop (and cone output drop) so things even out almost. This can or can't be acceptable depending on the design goal. This leads me the voicing.
The First Horn was designed for lowest possible cost and lowest possible parts count while maintaining a very strong sonic signature. That sonic signature would need to be the almost opposite of the Concerti, meaning that it could be fully enjoyed with all music types and less than perfect recordings. That's what I call the boogie factor. It also had to mate well with all kinds of amplifiers (meaning solid-state or digital).
In that case, absolute detail and ambiance retrieval was not crucial. Don't get me wrong, I like detail and ambiance but sometimes on pop and rock recordings (and techno, house, hip hop, lounge), detail and ambiance don't mean much. The voice I had in mind was plump and enthusiastic in the bass, exuberant, fun, lively with a bit of Technicolor added (that's a polite expression for coloration). It was designed to be at ease with Madonna at loud levels and still play jazz (piano, vocals, double bass) in a cheerful way.
The FE126E driver in the First Horn enclosure is the right combination for several reasons. The driver is efficient (93+dB), tough (45 watts max) and shout and glare free. The enclosure has the defects at the right places: resonant peaks around 60 and 100Hz so the driver doesn't move when the party's picking up. The down-side is that it needs a strong arm to drive it adequately (no SET here), because the impedance curve is not textbook ruler-flat.
As you noticed, the enclosure is entirely made of Birch plywood. Birch is stiff and strong but at the same time very lively. This was the best material for the First Horn. I do not want to use the old "just like a musical instrument" cliché but that liveliness was a perfect fit for the sound signature I wanted.
You underline the fact that some midrange information gets out from the mouth. True. The enclosure has no damping (except for around 3 grams of poly fill in the compression chamber) and the throat (the horn departure point) is smaller than the theoretical optimum area so the horn action spreads over near 4 octaves, well above mid-bass. This brings me to the mouth at the top. I'd like to say that this was the result of extensive research but it wasn't. The straight answer is that it was the only place I could put it. In the mouth's top, the reflector also serves as the compression chamber back wall. It was a clever way of using the space. In fact, absolutely no space is left empty. The stiffeners in the lower part of the enclosure also serve as contour shapers. Every single panel serves at least two purposes.
The horn action is loaded by a very high mass of air (much higher than the theoretical optimum). This high mass coupled with the first ripple makes for a plump bass that does not need any boundary reinforcement. So the mouth's position allowed us to make good use of the enclosure volume while staying clear of floor boundary effects. At the same time, this enabled the use of a small throat since midrange information bouncing off the rear wall adds scale to the presentation. So that's the objective story.
For the subjective part, when I design a speaker, I build one or two or three prototypes. I sit down and play difficult music (Cassandra Wilson's voice for instance) equipped with a note pad and I write down what bugs me. The First Horn was a very different experience. I sat down with my note pad and completely forgot about it, feet tapping, tremendously enjoying T-Bone Walker's blues and Elvis Costello and the Clash, and anything that crossed my CD player.
From a theoretical point of view, the First horn is a bad speaker. It's colored, it behaves badly, it vibrates, it "editorialize" music. From a design point of view, it's everything I wanted it to be and every single piece of the puzzle just fell in the right place.
For a mission statement, I'd say that the ultimate goal was to introduce a full-range horn loaded product priced in the mini monitor reflex range that ordinary working folks with kids (like me and numerous others) could afford and enjoy with or without audiophile gear and records without feeling bad. Whether or not the goal was met is basically up to the listener. Atelier Speakers is a small operation and I think that only a small operation could afford the risk of introducing a product with such a strong personality. Obviously we'd like to be successful at some point but being small enabled us to introduce a product that no B&W could or would introduce.
I meant to do that
When I got Robert's response, I'll admit to breathing a sigh of relief. Relief because he described many of the things I was hearing in the First Horn - and further asserted that he meant to do 'em. "You underline the fact that some midrange information gets out from the mouth. True - so the horn action spreads over near 4 octaves, well above the mid bass." For my ears and in my room, all this music coming out of the mouth of the horn firing rearwards had a similar effect as yammering crowds at a party - too many voices intermingling to be able to follow a single conversation. Especially when placed near rear boundaries, walls and corners, this horn was sending very mixed signals. Robert described this effect as adding "scale to the presentation". The only objection I have with his comment is to move it deeply into the subjective section of his response.
If you follow my ears, the rear reinforcement became an undesirable effect on the sound, causing most noticeably a blurring of timing and detail, two aspects of music I'm extra sensitive to. After all, I went down the single-driver path for a number of reasons but two biggies were timing and detail and more specifically, how a single driver can present both in concert. Robert stated how this is intentional - "I like detail and ambiance but sometimes on pop and rock recordings (and techno, house, hip hop, lounge), detail and ambiance don't mean much... It was designed to be at ease with Madonna at loud levels and still play jazz (piano, vocals, double bass) in a cheerful way." For my way of listening -- which admittedly does not include Madonna -- I missed the detail. I also missed the resolution.
But detail and resolution are tricky things. Too much comes across as overly analytical while too little leaves you listening to an incomplete picture. Either extreme makes the whole illusion fall apart. Yet I agree with Robert in that to err on the side of too little detail may sound more musical. Even "cheerful". But asking a horn to add scale by deliberately muddying the driver's ability to flesh out detail and resolution is an - um, unusual choice in a horn design in my experience. After all, aren't detail, refinement and resolution in a single-driver horn speaker largely the domain of the driver? And the Fostex FE126E is a fine driver. As a matter of fact, I'm continually amazed by the quality versus cost of the Fostex line. Where a $35.50 4.5" paper cone needs help when playing in the full-range leagues is bass, body and weight.
|Forgive me for being so simple minded. Call it a blessing and a curse. But detail, nuance, tone and timing are to a certain extent qualities of a driver I would not want to sacrifice in a horn throat and mouth. And I hear the fact that there's so much rear-firing unattenuated out-of-phase music as doing exactly that. I say let a rear-loaded folded horn do what it does best - amplify the music coming out of the driver's backside and fold that musical wave enough to filter out everything except the lower octaves. If that horn's mouth is around back, why not get all the reinforcement you can? Call in the room boundary cavalry. More bass, body and weight coupled with that super-fast detailed driver will let your music provide all the scale it has to offer. I know because I've heard other single-driver horns do just that.
To remedy this complaint was seemingly simple enough; just move the First Horns out from the wall. The thing is, without walls, corners or floors near enough to lend a hand (remember how that mouth is up at the top the cabinet), bass output suffers. With the First Horns out a few feet from the rear walls, the overall presentation fell into place more or less but left me wanting in the meat'n'potatoes department. Now I am by no stretch of anyone's imagination a bass freak. I like my Cain & Cain Abbys just fine sans sub - and I've been known to comment on the incredible bass performance of the Horn Shoppe Horns.
|So I found myself in a bit of a pickle here. Without timing and detail, you can't get my mind's musical toe tapping. It's almost like the music escapes on a train that I just cannot catch. We never sync. Yet without meaningful bass response, things thin out and my body's toe stays|
|put as well. A saxophone's focus becomes the reed, vocals become all mouth and lips and double bass takes a true sonic back-seat for the drive. I did some gear swapping and plenty of positioning adjustment of both the speakers and my chair's relation to them and the room. The flea-power Fi 45 and 421A were not the perfect match for the First Horns. The sound with the speakers out into the room lacked the body and weight for a convincing presentation. Thin.
Of the amplifiers I had on hand, I found two that proved a better mate for the First Horn. For the really budget-minded, the SAC Thailand Minute with its pair of singly driven EL84s was the winning low-watter, especially when coupled with an original Sony Playstation as front end. With a total system price of around $1,000 with Radio Shack ICs and zip cord, I could almost get excited about this package. I'm starting to get the impression that "difficult" speakers like EL84s. Even though we're only talking 4 watts, the diminutive Minute made for a more balanced presentation than either Fi on the First Horns. I think it's worth noting that in general, I find the Minute to have boomy bass and lacking in refinement and detail compared to the Fis. When mated to the First Horns, the sound was surprisingly musical and nearly cheerful, with the Minute's boomy bass providing some needed weight. But this combo couldn't rock the house and real bass was far more reference than actuality.
For more gusto, the Rogue Cronus integrated amplifier in for review added weight and dimension where my single-ended Fis and Minute fell short. The 50lb 55wpc Cronus will be the subject of a full-fledged review but I don't mind saying already that this is one brute of an integrated amp. Think heavy-weight yet sensitive champ. Floats like butterfly... With the First Horns out from the wall and the Cronus playing at louder-than-shouting volumes, one got a sense of bass but still lacking in detail and focus. It was as Robert described - a bit lumpy. The temptation was never out of earshot to nudge those horns back toward the wall to tighten things up. The problem was that the bloody crowd would start yammering as soon as those near 4 octaves of rear-firing reflections started to mingle with the front radiation.
Voicing and abstraction
|The First Horn indeed has a lot of personality. On the plus side, it's very well made, can pull a believable disappearing act and the Fostex driver is a true 4.5" wonder - detailed, delicate yet capable of playing about as loud as I can imagine anyone wanting to listen. The pertinent question is, does the First Horn's personality add or subtract from the driver's native abilities? Do you like what it has to say? I remember back in art school, the more you abstracted your subject, the larger the question for your painting loomed - "Is it done?" How do you know when it's done? An internal logic must take over. The thing has to live on its own sans reference. I can tell you that years of studying painting saw very few even-near successes and fostered a great respect for originals and historical context. The First Horn has taken what can be viewed as a similar approach with the rear-loaded folded horn. It's been abstracted and simplified to the point where it no longer really functions as a rear-loaded folded horn. I have a huge soft spot for simplification in theory. In practice I had to ask myself, "is this really done?"
I find myself in agreement with Robert yet again over "whether or not the goal was met is basically up to the listener". Perhaps there are some listeners who will like a speaker that's as admittedly colored as the First Horn. I will say that I like a lot of what Robert has to say. Unfortunately, I was never able to reach a balance between weight, timing, detail, resolution, body and bass to a point where I liked what the First Horns did.
|I meant to do that, too
Into my second month of listening to the First Horns, Robert e-mailed me to announce that he'd come up with a development that will become a standard feature on all future First Horns. Would I be interested in trying it?
|"For the past couple of weeks, I've been working on a device that would let users dial in the liveliness of the enclosure. If you ever touch the side panels near the mouth, you'll notice sympathetic vibrations. This adds some editorial coloration to the sound. So I was working on an add-on system of|
|adjustable tension bars that add damping/stiffness to the side walls and would allow users to change enclosure tuning.
However, this led me in a direction I did not foresee and the tension bars evolved into something more radical. I think I told you that the First Horn relies on both horn and transmission line action. Horn first ripple is around 80Hz and TL tuning is between 42 and 48Hz because of the mouth reflector's angle relative to the opening.
So while working on the bars, I tried to reinforce TL action by adding mass loading, which did exactly what it was supposed to do: reinforce low bass while equalizing mid-bass and mids. The sonic effect is pretty drastic, so much so that I think all First Horn will now come in MLTL guise while horn loading will simply require removing the mass-loading panel.
The downside is that dipole action is lost, yielding an efficiency drop, however the sound becomes more focused and tight while bass output is now a whole octave deeper (I did not run formal measurements but I'd guess extension to the low 40s)."
More focused and tight, less editorial coloration, equalized mid-bass and mids and a whole octave deeper? Would I ever! So you can expect a Part 2 of the First Horn review when I get the fully tricked-out add-on system.
I know I've been hard on the first First Horns. Too hard? You be the judge. Now it appears as though at least some of the shortcomings I heard are being addressed in this new sealed version. I have to say part of my hard-nosed attitude comes from the fact that I had high hopes for the First Horn. And I still do. Part of those expectations had to do with certain other single-driver speakers I own or have heard that float my sonic boat. The Lamhorns, the Abbys and the most obvious comparison - the Horn Shoppe Horn which uses the same Fostex FE126E driver. Since I own an older pair of them (about 5-6 years old to still employ the Fostex 108 Sigma driver), I've made arrangements to get for them the FE126E drivers as well and facilitate a direct comparison of these two implementations of the same driver.
I very much appreciate Robert Gaboury's energy and infectious enthusiasm. The very high bar the First Horns set in terms of build quality and frankly amazingly modest price will hopefully be realized in their actual performance as well. I'd like to commend Atelier Audio's objective of delivering well-made, reasonably priced speakers that are fun to listen to. I suppose I'm left with only one question for now: has the First Horn's new incarnation outgrown its name? Or perhaps this is better stated as a riddle: What do you call a horn without a mouth? I know I'm intrigued to find out.