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public address systems
sheet metal
trial and error
Horn Loudspeakers
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In the earliest days of record players for the home, all loudspeakers were basically horn loudspeakers. In the very beginning, the well-known record label that shows a dog listening to music is a perfect example. These earliest mass-produced (by comparison) players used music recorded by adding a groove to a disc, usually made from hard shellac or a similar material. During recording, the groove has vibrations cut into it and when placed on one of these early record players, the vibrations were ‘read’ by a needle which was mechanically coupled to a thin piece of sheet metal, which was stretched across the thin end of the horn. The vibrations produced are amplified by the shape of the horn and hey presto: music ensues!

As systems developed and electrical and electronic equipment came into routine use, the mechanical horn vanished from home systems to be replaced by the type of conventional loudspeaker we all know. Horn systems driven by electricity existed right from the start of electronics, as they were always considered an excellent way to reproduce music and were (and remain) extremely efficient. However, they suffered a number of problems for normal use. First and foremost was size. In order to produce bass notes, a massive horn was required, which was simply far too large to fit into conventional homes. Another issue is that although they appear quite simple, horns are actually extremely complex to design if they are to function well. In the early days, the knowledge of the physics was limited and much trial and error was needed, making production extremely costly. Nevertheless, horn loudspeakers continued to have a place in applications such as cinemas and public address systems.

Despite the problems, audio enthusiasts continued to believe that horn loudspeakers were the very best way to produce music. It was, and is, certainly true that they offer some advantages. Primarily their very high efficiency. Although a topic for another article, the high efficiency of horn speakers means that it is practical to use very low powered amplifiers, which offer a number of benefits. This efficiency is due to the design and the way a horn works. It is effectively a mechanical amplifier. At the smallest diameter part of the horn, the audio signal is produced by something vibrating. This has to move a comparatively small volume of air and the shape of the horn means the volume increases and the sound waves travel along the horn.

As with so many things, advances in other areas fed back into the development of horn loudspeakers. Computer-assisted design and advances in knowledge of the physics involved, allowed designers to look at the shape of a horn and work out how to optimise performance without needing the expense and time involved in actual experimentation. Although standard-shaped horns were ideal (and necessary) for the reproduction of higher frequencies, designs were made possible that involved effectively folding a horn so that the overall size could be made much smaller and it was still possible to produce bass notes.

Although relatively costly still, because of the materials, time and complex construction involved, there are now a number of companies worldwide producing horn loudspeakers for the domestic market. Some of these are extremely costly, yet some are close to the price of similar quality, high-end conventional designs. The audio enthusiast market has taken to these new designs and products with quite some eagerness and sales are relatively buoyant. Whilst still most certainly an audiophile market, due to the cost and still comparatively large size, there is nevertheless no doubt at all that the horn loudspeaker is anything but dead!

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