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The Atelier Speakers First Horn as reviewed in the previous page is a variation on a back-loaded, rear-firing folded horn. Today we're looking at and listening to a modification cooked up by Atelier designer Robert Gaboury which transforms the First Horn from horn to a "mass-loaded transmission line" as per his description.

Plate-loaded, not choked
Robert sent along a pair of plates and some batting to seal off the First Horn's mouth. In its stead we now find a 2" diameter port. Since the First Horn was a rear-firing horn, this new plate with port fits around back. Installation was a snap and involved placing the batting where indicated in the included diagram and screwing down the plates with the included screws. Existing Atelier owners can order this Transformer package and all new orders will arrive with the plate attached. Same price. For those interested in hearing the First Horn in its prior Horn guise, just unscrew the plates to re-open the mouth and remove the batting. I suppose if someone decides to permanently forego the plates, the screw holes can be filled and sanded to clean up the look.

The review pair of plates as shown below were still in the pre-finished stage. I've been told all production models will come painted to provide a cleaner look.

Plate tectonics
Within minutes of firing up the newly appointed First Horns, I could easily hear the changes imparted. And I am happy to report them as nearly all positive. My biggest complaint about the Horn as horn was actually two-fold. The single-fold design allowed nearly 4 octaves of music to exit the mouth, causing a blurring when positioned too close to room boundaries; but without room boundary reinforcement, the overall presentation lacked weight. As one would expect, closing the opening and adding a 2" diameter port in its stead takes care of my first issue. What may be less intuitive is that it also tightens up and boosts the bass.

In terms of room placement, I found the First Horns v2 to be happy within a foot of the rear wall. Thus situated, bass was tight, tuneful and robust from the 4.5" Fostex driver. HF extension was sufficient to my ears and provided all the sizzle. Coupled with the newly improved bass performance, the Horn v2 now delivered some steak as well.

While I can sing their praises in an analytical, piecemeal way -- good bass extension, silky smooth highs -- the First Horns sound unbalanced mainly due to a peak smack dab in their mid-section. This was not source or amplifier dependant and I went through my tiny tube arsenal including the SAC Thailand Minute, Fi 45 and Fi 421A, JC Morrison 6B4G monoblocks (a newly acquired used pair which I love) and the on-review Rogue Audio Cronus. Whether driven by 2 or 55 watts or a few watts in between, the v2s have a shout (which may seem ironic since their mouth is sealed shut). The beaminess, especially present when driven to higher SPLs, can get shrill and something like female vocals go from hover mode to driver-in-the-ear directness that makes you want to turn your head, lower the volume or swat at the sound like a fly buzzing in your ear. Increasing toe-in so the drivers' paths crossed in front of the listening position helped tame the shout
to some degree but the overall presentation still suffered.

Familiar recordings like Don Cherry's Art Deco took on an unfamiliar balance as things like cymbals which have always remained behind the soloist suddenly hiss and kiss your ears. Throughout the range of James Clay's sax, we get more volume in the middle registers, conveying an emphasis that otherwise isn't there. Don Cherry's pocket trumpet is treated harshly as well since its output also lies in the attack region of the beam. On every speaker I own and a number I don't, this same recording has an uncanny sense of the recorded space. That is all but erased by the imbalance I hear in the First Horns. And just to make sure my music wasn't playing tricks on my ears, I loaded up the Stryke's BassZone Test CD: Vol 1. As I heard in the music, there was a peak at about 250Hz and another big one at 2.5kHz so you can take these findings for what they are; test-tone verification of what music already clearly demonstrated.

In terms of direct single-driver comparisons, I have my Abbys, my older Horn Shoppe Horns and a loaner pair of the new Horn Shoppe Horns that use the same Fostex fe126e driver as employed in the First Horns. The Horn Shoppe version comparison (old and new) also provides a nice focus on the drivers since the cabinets are similar. In general, I'd describe the older Fostex FE108s as having a warmer, more forgiving sound. That's not to say the FE125e in the new Horn Shoppe Horns are bright or shouty. They're not. Detailed, super fast and capable of playing loud and hard, the Ed Schilling 126e implementation strikes my ears as musically balanced. All the way to 11:00 on the volume pot, we're smokin'. The quantity and quality of bass when placed near the room corners is size-defyingly good.

Billy Higgins on that same Art Deco CD takes his place a few feet back and his cymbals are once again part of his kit. No hiss, no kiss. I also ran the test tone CD on the Horns and they fared much better as the music already bore aural witness to.

When we switch back to the First Horns, the peaks makes me a fussy listener. Don Cherry's trumpet blurts and hurts. Switching musical gears, I find harmonica harmful. Nina Simone jumps away from her accompaniment and Lila Downs rattles. Vivaldi's Four Seasons as performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman is all helter skelter - oboes attack, violins shriek. I find I fuss with toe-in/out and the volume control nearly incessantly. Trying to get it right. Looking for that balance I know exists because I've heard it before. I will say that if the First Horns didn't have these prominent peaks, they'd be another very nice option in the relatively reasonably priced, single-driver speaker category. Combined with their attractive looks -- transformer panels aside -- they'd be a real winner. They go lower than the Abbys and retain a nice extended high end. They're detailed, delicate and I'll give credit to that wonderful Fostex driver for delivering some mighty good performance for $35.50 apiece. I do have to wonder though about sticking with this particular driver in what is no longer a horn-loaded cabinet. In terms of single-driver ported designs, I've heard the Omega Super 3 XRS on a number of occasions and I must say my impressions mirror Jeff Day's findings in his recent review. I am equally impressed by them.

And while the Abbys don't go as low as any of the Horns, they are wonderfully balanced. The Abbys present your music on a more ethereal stage, floating your tunes in your room like low-hanging fruit. Ripe. When I first bought my Cain & Cain Abbys years ago, I placed them in my room, sat down and listened to music. And I haven't stopped since. Of course I moved them around to get the best balance but it was always an additive process - getting them better. I could say nearly the same for the Horn Shoppe Horns, with the only exception being their fondness for room boundary reinforcement to get the most bass. In contrast, my time with the First Horns was spent trying to get them to sound so I wanted to listen to music through them. This included positioning and gear swapping; amps, preamps, cables and digital source.

Did you ever make Ramen soup? Our daughters prefer the chicken flavor but for my point, they all come with noodles and a little pouch of powdered flavor. Boil some water, drop in the noodles, wait 3 minutes (stir occasionally) then pour in the flavor. If you're impatient and you don't stir that flavor around enough, you get chunks. Chunks of flavor. Now, some people might like the chunks although I've yet to meet that person. Others might find it way too intense, undiluted. Thing is -- and relevant to our conversation -- if someone served me chunky Ramen soup, I'd have to tell them they got it wrong (or just stir it myself). Well, we can think of the
peaks in the First Horns v2 as sound chunks and I find them way too intense to enjoy my musical soup.

Lots of question marks
I have to admit to some frustration and befuddlement with the First Horns. In part, living through the Horns' split personality fostered the impression of listening to a work in progress. While designer Robert Gaboury and partner Jean-Pierre Boudreau report very satisfied customers with the first version of the First Horn as well as their own enthusiasm for it, I found it impossible to recreate their success. One might very well ask why improve a brand-new product if you found it good enough to sell? And send out for review? Especially if the newer version transforms the design and makes the name a misnomer (a Horn that's not a horn)? Why not a new product with a new name? And instead of the visually obvious add-on plates, why not run that existing birch ply back plate all the way up, add a port and be done? There was such obvious care taken in the overall look of the original version, I can't help but view the transformer plates as an unsightly add-on and band aid. An afterthought. Perhaps the finished version will change this? Requests for a picture went unanswered.

Those questions aside, when trying to solicit information regarding what I assumed had to be new specifications for the modified Horn, I ran into some confusion. Designer Robert Gaboury claimed that while sensitivity drops 2dB to 93dB, the minimum recommended power for the First Horn v2 will remain at 3 watts. While I can go with this figure, I was a bit surprised to simultaneously hear from Robert that "I get the best control over the cone using my faithful Bryston 2BLP. As said earlier, contrary to other Fostex fullrangers (and Lowther and AER), the 126 likes to be fed with some current. Very low-power soft amps are, in my opinion, not the best match." Soft amps the culprit? The amps I own and use certainly don't sound soft on the Abbys or either version of the Horn Shoppe Horns. Remember, the new Horn Shoppe Horns use the exact same driver as the First Horns - the Fostex fe126e. None of my amps have an issue getting that driver to sing. In the Horn Shoppe enclosure.

In terms of altered frequency response, Robert again: "We state 70 to 18kHz (Fostex states 70 to 25kHz, IEC baffle standard). We stick with our data with or without transformer plate." Then there were a few follow-up emails referencing some in-room measurements Jean-Pierre had made. Finally this email: "The official specs will remain the same but there will be a new set of specs displayed for the plate (transformer) modification and explanation of the effects. That modification is not described merely by a freq. response graph. However, the freq. response will be shown as 40 - 18,000Hz -3dB in-room. There is still recognizable output at 25Hz so this is a quite reasonable figure." Since the Atelier website had not been updated to include this information while penning this review, I thought it helpful for potential buyers to get the manufacturer's new specs. Based on my own in-room listening, test tones and all, I wouldn't argue with the minus 3dB figure at 40Hz. As I said, I find the First Horn's v2 bass performance impressive.

Is it soup yet?
One of the last emails I received from Jean-Pierre during this review contained this suggestion: "Another unusual test I did today was to insert a power resistor (10W) of 1.8 watts [ohms] in series with the + speaker wire at the speaker. Adding that resistor has the effect of raising the impedance curve and its effect is mostly heard at mid frequencies. This reduces the level, which lowers midrange output and efficiency (not dramatically). I tried it with 1, 1.2, 1.5, 1.8 and 2- ohms resistors. The best with my setup was 1.8 ohms. It gave a flatter response all over and even seemed to give a more transparent sound compared to other values. The difference is clearly audible between no resistor and the 1.8 ohm resistor. I think some listeners might prefer the no-resistor sound but many will also like the darker sound with the 1.8. This is an easy modification to add. If you have some of those resistors, I invite you to have a try. Tube amplifiers love higher impedance loads normally."

While I did not try this resistor tweak, it gave me pause. I realized now that JP and Robert's approach mimicked the enthusiast's approach much more than most manufactures I've dealt with. Perhaps I've simply misunderstood the gist of the Atelier vibe? It seems to be part manufacturer, part DIYer. Dare I call it the subjective manufacturer approach? From Robert: "The First Horn is about personality. From the review, we can obviously deduct that you disliked the personality. The add-ons dramatically change the personality of the product without in any way changing the basic design." Transforming a horn-loaded design with a giant mouth into a 2" ported design no fundamental design change? Hmm.

Robert and JP report a 0 return rate so far for their First Horn. Maybe my sonic kitchen is just short on the right ingredients. Or maybe I'm the "darker sound" listener JP described. But I think that adding a resistor in-line crosses the line of how far a reviewer or paying customer should have to go to make something work. When buying a speaker, I want essentially plug'n'play. I don't want to hit Radio Shack to buy little flavor packs and smooth out the chunks.

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You don't have to be a chef to know there are chunks in your soup - or what to think of the chef if there are. The first version of the First Horns did not work for me in any way, shape or form. The fact that the transformer plate came about during the first review period leads me to believe someone at Atelier also heard something they felt needed fixing. However, Atelier never characterized this event as such. Instead, we are told the plate add-on is meant for those who prefer its sound over the horn version (though all new production will now ship with it). We are also told that the transformer plates improve bass performance from 70Hz to 30Hz, equalize the mid-bass and mids and provide a more focused sound overall. One has to wonder who would prefer the First Horns without these improvements.

JP's email suggesting the resistor strikes me as yet another fix yet it's again characterized as a matter of preference, not evidence of an intrinsic design flaw. If it lowers midrange output where I hear peaks and provides a flatter overall frequency response, I again wonder who would want to forego these improvements. While the First Non-Horn is the more successful of the two Atelier designs, the peakiness exhibited made listening fatiguing and no fun. It changes the presentation of familiar recordings. Music becomes fragmented, disjointed and at times shrill. I'd be much more likely to buy into the First Horns as a serious finished product if they retained their v2 "mass-loaded transmission line" guise in properly finished form showing no screws and the frequency response was flatter out of the box. That's a speaker I could get excited about. And I'd change the name too. But that's just my taste talking.

It's worth noting that Atelier offers a 30-day in-home trial (which was notably missing from the website while writing this review but I did get a confirmation of this policy from JP). I believe that's exactly what Robert Gaboury and Jean-Pierre Boudreau would like you to do. Hear them for yourself. Worst case, you pay the return shipping and insurance fee ($50 for residents in the Continental Northern U.S.). I don't doubt that Atelier is on to something. A relatively inexpensive, well built, easy-to-drive single-driver floorstander is a very appealing proposition. Or perhaps I should say, according to my tastes. I already own two pairs of what I consider to be very successful variations on exactly this theme: the Cain & Cain Abbys and the Horn Shoppe Horns. Bon appetit.
Atelier Audio responds:
Thank you Michael, for your evaluation of the First Horn v1 and v2. We are sorry that your experience contradicts that of actual customers. Naturally, had you been a paying customer, you would have sent the speakers back for a full refund. This policy clearly shows that we stand behind our product and that we care about customers.

We have no doubt that you honestly portrayed your own experience and perception with the First Horn in your own listening space, with your choice of equipment and music. We offer every single customer the same opportunity.

Obviously, if all came to the same conclusion, we wouldn't be here to comment. However, our 0% return rate seems to indicate that divergence of tastes is part of this hobby.

Anyway, thank you again for the given opportunity and long live 6moons.

Robert Gaboury
Manufacturer's website