Living, Breathing Music in Your Living Room
Volti Audio has been making high-sensitivity horn-loaded loudspeakers since 2010, and this is how it happened . . .
By: Greg Roberts
Using money I earned from selling sports cards at the age of fourteen, I bought a used pair of Klipsch La Scala speakers from my local Klipsch/McIntosh dealer and dragged them down into my basement bedroom. I didn't realize it at the time, but owning a pair of La Scalas at such a young age framed my audio sensibilities for the rest of my life. I heard MUSIC from those speakers. They were exciting and powerful, and being able to own a pair was the coolest thing I could think of. I was hooked on 'hi-fi' at that early age, and from then on, horn speakers would be the only speakers for me.
Later I traded in the La Scala's for Klipschorns and enjoyed the same immense power and incredible dynamics for many years. But as I matured as an audiophile, I became increasingly aware of the inherent shortcomings in the design and construction of these iconic beasts. The shortcomings became more and more of an issue for me, and as time wore on, I found myself listening to my speakers out of 'duty' rather than for the enjoyment of listening to music.
Anyone with an interest in audio will have read about horn-loaded loudspeakers and the polarizing affect they have on listeners and audio reviewers. Some love them and cannot imagine life without the effortless dynamics and life-like presence they can conjure. That was me! No other loudspeaker topology can match the dynamic freedom, air-moving capability, and vitality of a big horn.
Equally there are those that dislike horns, pointing to colorations, harshness, and limited bandwidth: a badly designed horn speaker can indeed be a troubled mess as I discovered my Khorns to be, and I don't blame some audiophiles for their negativity towards the topology. I was at that point too.
I almost gave up on my beloved K-horns and went in a different direction but living without the effortless dynamics and life-like presence proved impossible.
So rather than selling them, I fixed them instead.
I Fixed Them
Over a two-year period, I bought an array of after-market upgrades for my K-horns but found they did not make a significant improvement, so I began work on my own upgrades, starting with a new midrange horn design that I built in my woodworking shop and installed in my speakers. The larger 2" throat, the shallower Tractrix flare, the wood construction, and very high-quality midrange driver DID make a significant difference. The honky, shouty, un-integrated sound that characterized the original was greatly reduced, and in some ways eliminated.
I developed new crossovers, discovered much more refined and articulate tweeters, and in the end, I had my speakers back! The excitement of listening to music returned.
During this time of fixing and upgrading my speakers, the recession of 2008 happened, which pretty much crippled the home construction business my wife and I started Twenty years earlier. A dismal outlook for the housing industry along with my desire to get into another business coincided with my renewed interest in hi-fi, and the next thing I knew I was in the business of providing upgrades for other Klipsch Khorn and Klipsch Belle owners - Volti Audio was born.
Soon after, I was designing, manufacturing, marketing, and selling my own line of speakers, starting with the much-heralded Vittora Loudspeaker System.
Since that time, I've had the opportunity to hear dozens of other horn speakers made by manufacturers from all over the world. I often hear one or more of the same shortcomings that bothered me so much with my own K-horns. Over time I have become much better at articulating the shortcomings that I'm hearing so I better convey to my customers the differences between Volti Audio speakers and other horn speakers on the market. I have four categories:
Bass horns are wonderful, but they need to be VERY big in order to extend deep into the bass, and because speakers that won't fit through standard doorways don't sell very well, most horn speakers that have bass horns end up compromising the low bass.
At the other end of the spectrum, a compromise in bandwidth is often found in the high frequency extension of horn tweeters.
Old midrange horn designs coupled to poor quality drivers will produce the 'typical' midrange 'honkiness' and 'shoutiness' that many identify with horn speakers.
The dry, 'cardboard box-like' sound of a male vocal coming from a high-sensitivity woofer in a hybrid horn/bass-reflex configuration is another example of coloration.
Low quality cabinet materials such as low-grade plywood or particle board with resonate and add 'woody' colorations to the sound.
A midrange horn with a small throat and a long narrow horn pathway will sound strained and severe.
Low-quality or low-cost midrange and tweeter drivers will sound harsh at times.
High-sensitivity tweeters are known for the 8kHz - 10kHz 'bump' - which is going to sound harsh and grainy.
When you can distinctly hear the midrange horn, either because it is 'shouty' or colored or harsh or all of those things - that's poor integration.
When the bass from a powered subwoofer (as used with many horn systems), sounds detached and disconnected from the rest of the loudspeaker, that's poor integration.
Whenever your ear is drawn to a section of the sound separate from the rest, that is poor integration and you are hearing the system, not the music. Ideally, you should not hear the system at all. It should be a transparent connection to the music.
Considering the list of inherent shortcomings, why do we continue to design and build horn speakers at all? Simply, it's 'The Sound'. Nothing else can quite capture the dynamics, micro-dynamics, presence, liveliness, and pure excitement of music the way a well-designed horn speaker system can. It's the closest thing to 'real' we can have in our homes.
In the very earliest days of audio, horns were all we had. With a typical amplifier output of less than 5W (usually mono) a loudspeaker needed a sensitivity of over 100dB/W to generate realistic sound levels and the challenge of the day was how to make the large horn loudspeakers as affordable as possible. Designers were also constrained by the limits of the technology available.
Not until the late 1960's did amplifier power increase and become more affordable, and the need for large horn-loaded loudspeakers diminished. The trend into the 1970's was for smaller and smaller loudspeakers powered by increasingly cheap high-power solid-state electronics. Yet despite how much power could be pumped into the little boxes, they could not (cannot) create the presence and realism of a horn-loaded loudspeaker.
And so high-sensitivity horn speakers persist, in an age when power is plentiful and cheap, and the majority of hi-fi speakers are smaller and lower in sensitivity.
Today, manufacturers have better quality drivers and crossover parts available to them, and the art of horn speaker design has progressed to the point where it is
possible to virtually eliminate the sonic failings of the past from our new designs. Based on my listening experiences, I'd say that things have improved
greatly during my lifetime, but I'd also say I still find issues with just about every other horn speaker I sit and listen to, regardless of size or price.
There is a difference between Volti Audio horn speakers and all the others.
The Volti Audio Way
My goal with Volti Audio speakers is to continue to "move forward" and "turn the page" on horn speaker design. I want to make sure that the sonic shortcomings of the past (and still persist in lesser horn speaker designs today) are a non-factor in Volti Audio speakers. I'm also focused on building beautiful looking products that will last one-hundred years or more. I'll never know if I've succeeded in that, but that's my mindset as I build my speakers everyday in my shop. You can see and feel this quality in Volti Audio speakers, especially up-close and in-person.
As I design my speakers, I always remind myself of my past experiences with horn speakers, especially my old Klipsch La Scalas and K-horns. I remember the good and the bad. I remember the excitement of dragging those big, black beasts down into my basement bedroom and polishing them for hours. I remember the feeling of being able to own something that I valued and respected. I also remember losing my way with those old speakers as the compromises and shortcomings crept up on me over time. Those four 'categories' roll through my head as I'm developing, tuning, and voicing my speakers.
Volti Audio speakers will always have wide bandwidth. When I designed the Vittora loudspeaker (a fully horn loaded speaker with a bass horn), I developed an effective, reasonably sized, and properly integrated solution for the lowest octave of bass. When I'm sitting and listening to music, I want to feel it energize the room and move me.
I've spent countless hours listening to combinations of drivers, horns, and crossover filters to develop the finest sounding high-sensitivity high-frequency reproduction in a horn speaker on the market today. I want extended high frequencies, but I also want them to be dynamic and properly integrated.
Volti Audio speakers cannot be described as 'colored' or 'shouty'. Countless people at the audio shows have commented how 'un-horn-like' my speakers sound. On the contrary, I think my speakers sound exactly how we want horn speakers to sound - but I understand what people are saying - that the Volti speakers don't have the typical colorations that they've been hearing from lesser designs.
Volti Audio speakers are not harsh. Yes, they have the same leading-edge detail and dynamics that you experience from listening to live instruments, but they are never strained, glaring, severe, or harsh in any way. With higher quality drive units and crossover components, along with the advanced art of horn speaker design, the sound from my speakers is smooth, natural, and effortless.
Volti Audio speakers sing with one voice. Proper integration is achieved through meticulous matching of components and thoughtful voicing of the crossover.
Developing a Volti Audio speaker is no easy task. I have very high standards that must be met. I'm my own worst critic and I push myself to work very hard perfecting my craft. I have a "sound" in my mind that I'm chasing - that I'm trying to get out of my speakers.
It's "The Sound".
The sound of living, breathing music in my living room.
"The Sound" Can Be Your Sound Too
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