Atelier Audio First Horn


  • Back-loaded Horn Design Slanted cabinet Sensitivity: 95db
  • 70-18,000Hz
  • Power Handling: 3 to 45 wpc Driver: Fostex FE-126E full range Wiring: 14 AWG OFC
  • 11 Ply Baltic Birch cabinet
  • Dimensions: 36inH x 7.5in W x 15in D Price: $699 Direct from manufacturer

For several months I have been listening to the latest offerings of a Canadian speaker company called Atelier Audio. This review has been a work in progress because Atelier Audio has developed a modification to the original design. The feedback they received from the first pairs sent out for review necessitated some changes be made. I currently have both iterations of the First Horn speaker on hand, although this review will be focused on the modified speaker. However, I think it is important to relate my listening experiences with the original First Horn, and describe a couple of interesting design characteristics related to this speaker.

Atelier First Horn loudspeakers review

Atelier Audio sells its products directly to the consumer, and in doing so, is capable of offering a higher quality product at a lower price point than what can typically be found from the traditional audio distribution pipeline. The concept of “cutting out the middleman” is nothing new, but due to the advent of the Internet, this distribution model has become a viable way for manufacturers to get their products into the hands of the end users. The most distinctive thing about the First Horn is how it is produced. Many companies that rely on direct marking plans frequently offer a product that has been built to their specifications by overseas factories. Jean Pierre Boudreau and Robert Gaboury are the men behind Atelier Audio, and they have chosen to keep all aspects of manufacturing this speaker under their direct control. As a matter of fact, they have recently opened a new facility in Montreal that keeps the woodshop, paint shop, R&D facilities, and warehouse all under one roof. The high quality of the finished product is a testament to the decision of building the First Horn completely in house.

The First Horn is built from stout 11-ply Baltic Birch plywood and employs the highly regarded Fostex FE126E full range driver. Atelier fabricates a stainless steel machined dampening ring for the Fostex speaker, and also uses a matching stainless steel footer system for the cabinet. Cardas binding posts and oxygen free copper wire complete the connection between the driver and amplifier. While the quality of the materials used to build this speaker are first rate, there were some aspects of the original design that were not to my liking.

One of the more interesting audio trends of the past six or seven years has been the development of the Back Loaded Horn loudspeaker. These speakers are designed around full range drivers that have high efficiency specifications. Most companies source their drivers from Fostex, Lowther, or Coral. This speaker is often referred to as a horn, it is really a combination of two different designs. Robert Gaboury describes the back loaded horn as the synthesis of a transmission line speaker, and a conventional horn loudspeaker. The typical BLH speaker contains a compression chamber behind the driver just like a standard horn loudspeaker. However, the rear loaded horn section is technically a transmission line chamber. So in the case of the First horn, from 300 hertz and above the speaker is a conventional horn. Below that point, the speaker has all the characteristics of a transmission line. So this is why the followers of traditional horns such as the Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater, often refer to BLH speakers as “wanna be” horns. While technically they are correct, the fact remains that the average audio enthusiast does not have the room for a pair of conventional horn speakers take up as much room as a pair of phone booths.

The First Horn is built out of Baltic Birch plywood that is the material of choice for most manufacturers of BLH loudspeakers. What is quite uncommon is the fact that this loudspeaker sells for $699, while the vast majority of BLH manufacturers products reside in price categories well above $2000. The cabinet is a very simple design that contains one fold in the rear horn chamber. This minimizes the amount of cuts needed by the cabinet shop, makes effective use of the amount material needed to construct the cabinet, and ultimately allows Atelier to sell their product at an attractive price. The Fostex FE 126E driver is another well thought out decision in the design of this speaker. It is an excellent sounding driver that is fairly inexpensive, and somewhat small. The trade-off of sound quality versus bass response is the primary problem that had to solved by Robert Gaboury. The original solution design by Robert had some serious drawbacks in my opinion, but Robert and Jean Pierre developed an intriguing modification to the First Horn. The development of the bass augmentation plates for the First Horn led Robert down an interesting path of speaker design, and has resulted in a new form of speaker loading that has been named V-Flex. The latest version of V-Flex loading is being incorporated into their Gemme Audio speaker line.

I will discuss the bass plates in more detail in a bit, but for now I need to complete the physical description of the First Horn. The stainless steel footers and sounding ring located around the driver is a very nice finishing touch, and makes a significant contribution to the overall sound of this speaker. The sounding ring keeps the driver firmly coupled to the cabinet, and allows the Fostex speaker to maintain it’s high level of efficiency. The footers give the speaker a wider stance and make the narrow cabinets quite stable. They also provide the correct level of tilt to the cabinet, and therefore raise the height of the soundstage developed by the speaker. Finally, the Cardas connectors located on the back of the speaker ensure the best possible connection to the amplifier, and quite frankly shouldn’t be found on a speaker that sells for $700. All of these little details point to a well constructed speaker, and are a significant factor in the First Horn’s overall sound.

The First Horn speakers are relatively easy to place in my listening room. I ended up positioning them six and a half feet apart, and two feet off the rear wall. The speakers were given a moderate amount of tow in, and the level of tilt is preset due to the footer arrangement. The majority of my listening sessions were conducted with a pair of Monarchy Audio SM 70 PRO amplifiers, although I did use my Electra Print 300DRD’s for a couple of evenings. Robert has suggested that the First Horn would benefit from solid-state amplification, and since I have the Monarchy amps on hand at the moment, I felt this would be an interesting combination to explore. The Electra Print PVA pre amp was utilized, and the TRL modified Sony 595 CD player occupied the source position. Tara Labs Air 3 interconnects made the component connections, although I did make a change in speaker wire for this review. I removed the Tara Labs RSC Master Gen II speaker wire, and substituted the Extreme speaker cable from Audio Magic. The Audio Magic wire is a hybrid wire with a copper core, and a significant amount of silver overlay. It is my observation that silver cabling has properties in the higher registers that compliment the tonal character of the First Horn. While some may choose to question my methodology, I felt it is important to give the reviewed component the best possible pairing of associated components in order to determine it’s overall potential. From my initial listening sessions, I discovered that this speaker has an affinity to silver cabling.

Earlier I the year I received the original First Horn speaker from Robert and Jean-Pierre. Since I have listened to several full range designs from different manufacturers, I had high expectations for this speaker. However, my early listening sessions uncovered two characteristics that I felt compromised this speaker’s performance. It became quite apparent that this speaker had a significant boost in the mid bass region. I also observed that the rear horn’s output extended into the vocal range. I felt that this rear wave led to a smearing of the overall sound, and this attribute really limited the overall performance of this speaker. Robert Gaboury confirmed my observations, and stated that both of these characteristics were the result of design choices he has made. The sidewalls of the horns are allowed to resonate, and reinforce the bass in the 80 to 100 hertz range. The output of the rear horn was allowed to extend into the midrange area in order to give the speaker a spacious presentation. It is important to note that many companies have developed speakers with these kinds of traits. Atelier Audio states that the original configuration of the First Horn thrives in large rooms, but smaller listening areas are not ideal for this speaker. However, the installation of the bass augmentation plates transforms the First Horn into a very sweet sounding speaker.

Since the bass augmentation plates changed the performance of this speaker in a dramatic way, I feel this is as good a place as any to start the description of the sound of the First Horn. An interpretation of C-Jam Blues by Dave Gruisin [Homage to Duke; GRD 9715] has an excellent bass performance by Brian Bomberg, which helps define the overall character of the First Horn’s abilities. The bass line of this piece is quick and playful, and it also covers the complete range of the bass guitar. What is impressive about the First Horn is the quantity of bass that is this cabinet design is able to extract from the 4-inch Fostex driver. While I did not use any formal test gear, I believe that this speaker is capable of reaching down to the mid 30 hertz range before it begins to roll off. While there is plenty of bass output, it is also important to note that the sonic quality of the bass is for the most part quite detailed and has a quick presentation. The bass is never vague, nor does it suffer from a one note sonic signature. What the small Fostex driver is not capable of doing is recreating the impact of a bass guitar, or bass drum. A 4-inch driver is just not physically capable of moving enough air, and therefore loses out on some of the dynamic impact of these bass instruments.

Another characteristic that became apparent during my listening sessions is that the First Horn tends to soften the leading edge of the notes coming from the bass instruments. I suspect this is related to the transmission line characteristics of the speaker, as I have heard this phenomenon in other speakers employing this design. This ends up giving the First Horn a very smooth and extended presentation to bass instruments. When you couple that with the high level of detail that this speaker is able to present, it becomes easy to appreciate the strengths of the First Horn. While I am not able to fully understand the physics behind the implementation of the bass augmentation plates, I can vouch for the positive effect that it has in this design.

The areas that the First Horn excels in are vocal reproduction and the ability to create a believable soundstage. This is where the true strengths of a full range driver such as the Fostex lie, and it is quite evident that there is a whole package of sonic benefits to be attained from eliminating the crossover and multiple drivers. Almost Blue by Kendra Shank [Afterglow; Mapleshade 02132] sounded so beautiful on this speaker, and this entire disc became one of the highlights of my listening sessions with the First Horn. The venue of this recording sounds like a small jazz club, and this speaker does a remarkable job of placing instruments within an acoustical space. Just as impressive, the First Horn also gets the relative size of each instrument in the correct proportion, and with believable amounts of space in between them. Mapleshade does a fantastic job recording this session, and fans of vocal jazz should find a copy of this disc for their collection. Kendra’s vocal performance on this song has a warmth and purity that is captivating, and the First Horn does such a superb job of conveying her singing that I quit listening critically and just listen to the song.

The Fostex FE 126E is an excellent inexpensive driver, however it does fall short in a couple of areas when it is compared to other upscale full range speakers. The upper midrange is slightly forward, and therefore put a bit of an artificial emphasis on vocals. It is a pleasant aberration to listen to, but not the most accurate presentation. Secondly, the FE 126E has a bit of grain to its sound when you compare it to the best full range drivers. For instance, the Sigma series of drivers from Fostex are capable of being as articulate and detailed as the FE 126E, but their presentation is smoother and more delicate. Please remember that I am speaking about a speaker driver that sells for at least five or six times more than the FE 126E. In the end, the First Horn’s turns in an impressive performance in regards to presenting a believable soundstage and outstanding vocal reproduction.

One of the shortcomings of a full range driver is high frequency performance. It is extremely difficult to build a driver capable of moving enough air to develop decent bass response, and still cover the higher registers. Full range drivers often use whizzer cones or exotic lightweight cone materials to increase the high frequency extension of the speaker. For instance, the Fostex FE 126E diaphragm is composed of a proprietary banana pulp fiber that offers a high stiffness to mass ratio. However, this driver does not have the high frequency extension of a modern soft dome tweeter, and the –3db point occurs at approximately 13,000 cycles according to the Fostex graph I have viewed. This is the primary reason I chose to use the Audio Magic Extreme speaker wire for this evaluation. Silver cabling is well suited to maximizing the treble performance of a full range driver, and the Extreme wire is a very cost effective way of accomplishing this. Justice by Slaid Cleaves [Life’s Other Side; Broken White Records BW-1457] contains a significant amount of reflected sound in this recording, thereby giving it a very ambient presentation. The Fostex driver does a commendable job recreating the ambience in the recording, although its nature can be described as somewhat subdued. What is notable about the high frequency performance is the seamless presentation that the full range driver is capable of. This is the true strength of the full range driver, and any conventional woofer/tweeter combination is hard pressed to keep up in this area.

When comparing the First Horn to my GR Research Paradox One, it becomes apparent that there is a loss of high frequency extension. For the most part this effect is minimal, and I really do not notice it during a normal listening session. Aficionados of full range drivers sometimes employ super-tweeters to address this issue of high frequency roll off. Usually these tweeters use only a capacitor and a matching resistor, and are intended to augment the signal from 10,000 or 12,000 cycles on up. . Of course this opens the debate of what constitutes a single driver speaker system, but that is a topic that we won’t address in this review. On a whole, the First Horn does a respectable job with high frequency material, although there are some limitations to the Fostex FE 126E driver.

There is not a doubt that this is a long review, which is appropriate since I have been listening to the First Horn for almost half a year. It has been an interesting journey, and I have become somewhat attached to the version employing the bass augmentation plates. In most ways, I prefer listening to them over my Paradox One speakers, primarily due to the fact that midrange performance is so detailed and natural sounding. It is quite apparent that a full range driver ha a set of strengths that cannot be replicated by a conventional two or three way speaker system. The overall sound of the First Horn is somewhat relaxed, and I find it quite easy to listen to them for extended periods without listener fatigue. The First Horn’s bass is slightly full and rich, and the treble is somewhat smoother than a conventional loudspeaker. In the end, all loudspeakers have their own “character” and the listener has to determine if the package of design decisions that a company makes is in agreement with their own listening tastes.

One thing that is important to note is that the First Horn’s overall sound can be changed quite dramatically with associated equipment. This speaker worked quite well with the Monarchy SM 70 PRO amplifiers, and the resulting sound would please most discriminating audiophiles. However, when I installed the Electra Print 300 DRD the sound became smoother, and the midrange became absolutely magical sounding. If you make thoughtful choices of associated equipment, this speaker will reward you with many nights of listening pleasure. When you add in the excellent build quality, and the elegant appearance of the First Horn, it becomes quite easy to become excited about what these speakers have to offer In this day of kilo-buck priced full range speaker systems, the First Horn is a refreshing choice for the value conscious audio enthusiast. Robert and Jean-Pierre should be commended for bringing this speaker to the market place.

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from affordableaudio, By John Hoffman