January 10, 2010


an (indie) folk, alt-country, americana, singer/songwriter music blog

Specimen Product’s Little Horn Speaker Reviewed (riyl Andrew Bird’s live show)

I don’t do product reviews. I don’t do website or app reviews. I don’t have any intention of being the next Stereophile, Engadget or Gizmodo. So if you ever catch me doing any more reviews in the future please email and complain. With that said what follows is my first attempt at doing a review of high end speakers. The combination of serendipity and coincidence that led me to these speakers and prompted me to do this review was too strong to ignore.

Specimen Little Horn SpeakersSee a couple of weeks ago I read an article in the Chicago Reader about a small scale instrument/amp/speaker manufacturer based in Chicago called Speciman Products. Their latest product is a speaker called the Little Horn that is increasingly getting praise and attention from local musicians, press, and hi fi fanatics. Later that same week I visited my favorite locally owned toy store to purchase a present for one of my son’s friends birthday parties. There in the shop, on display behind the counter, were a pair of the most interesting and unusual speakers I’ve ever seen. Low and behold they were the same model by this very same local company. As I discussed the speakers with the store owner a woman came in and said she saw a piece on local TV about this very same company earlier that morning.

So that did it. I contacted Specimen Products and got a review pair hand delivered this past Saturday. The back story is that these speakers are designed by Ian Schneller who was a student at The Art Institute of Chicago in the ’80s. He also is a musician who founded the bands Shrimpboat and Falstaff. Out of his loft space he produces guitars, amplifiers, and now these horn speakers. His work is perhaps best known through his association with Andrew Bird who uses a number of Specimen Product speaker designs in his live show.
Andrew Bird with his intro to \”Nervous Tick” surrounded by Specimen horn speakers:

Before I start the official review first some info about my present system. For an amp I use the 200 watt McCormack DNA 1 Deluxe amplifier, an Art Audio tube preamp, a Class Cd player, and a pair of Soliloquy 6.5 speakers. All told with cables, accessories, power chords and assorted gear it’s a $10,000+ system. The regular price for a stereo pair of Little Horn speakers is $1850 a pair. My reference speakers alone are 4 times the price of the Little Horn and twice as big weighing in at 150 lbs. So while the a/b comparisons weren’t exactly fair, the Little Horn more than held its own.

Little Horn speakers are fine to use with such a high powered setup, but they are also ideal to use with a single ended amp with only a few watts of output. That’s because a horn is inherently more efficient than more traditional designs (note its 90db sensitivity).

This may seem like a lot of money in a world where few value high end audio anymore and most people think getting 5.1 speakers in a box from Best Buy for $199 is the best sound you can achieve. But if you love music (like no doubt many of you do) I think it’s a fair price to pay for speakers that will last a lifetime and bring you a lifetime of enjoyment; let alone speakers that are can be considered pieces of handmade art/sculpture. Not to mention the speakers you find in those box systems and any other mass produced speaker from a big box store (including anything from Bose) will be made out of either plastic, cardboard, and/or pressboard and assembled with cheap parts that will wear out long before they should.

In the case of the Little Horn the construction of the base cabinet is made from Baltic Birch and the horn is made from high density fiberglass. The Little Horns are 36″ tall overall, the bell of the horn is 14″ across, and the base is an 8″ cube and will sit nicely on a 10″ deep shelf. Here are some of the audio nerd specifications:

* 8 ohms
* 90 db sensitivity
* 77Hz 23kHz frequency response
* Power handling: 24 watts maximum

I first set up the Little Horns with an accompanying subwoofer from Specimen Products. This system is built to be used with all manner of iPods. The sub is powered and also shoots 25 watts to each Little Horn.

Set up was a breeze with two speaker cable runs going from the subwoofer to each Little Horn, a power cord to the wall, and a stereo cord to the Nano (or any iPod). There are three knobs and a switch on the back of the subwoofer. The top knob is the volume control for the Little Horn, there is a level control for the subwoofer beneath that, and the final knob adjusts the subwoofer’s crossover frequency. There is also a switch that boosts the 40khz level (I left that on as that’s the way it came from the factory).

The fit and finish of all three pieces was perfect. The Little Horn’s base was a light maple color, with a metallic silver horn arising out of the base with Ferrari red accents. Though these speakers can be customized in a wide variety of colors and finishes.

My son and I played a number of large scale orchestral pieces from John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack that sounded rich and persuasive through his hand-me-down Nano played through this system. We also did an a/b comparison between this system and my more powerful system. I found that while my reference system went louder and played deeper the Little Horn did an amazing job of reproducing both the midrange and the bass on any number of indie rock tracks. For instance the bass kick from the subwoofer could be felt literally across the room on Beck’s “Hell Ya”

This would be an incredible system for a small space where shelf space is limited and especially if you wanted to downsize and get rid of all your amps, CD players, turntables, cords, interconnects, etc., etc. That it nearly matched my reference system which has a price tag that’s ten times higher is hard to even admit to myself. And I refuse to mention that fact to my wife.

I also used just the Little Horn without connecting the subwoofer. This is the configuration that I imagine is most popular owing to it’s ease of use and expense. Hooked up to my reference system the Little Horns were very expressive, if a little bass shy in my relatively large living room. On Holly Cole’s version of “I Can See Clearly Now” the soundstage and her vocals were crisp and clear even at the annoyingly loud volume my wife insists on playing this track. On Rosie Thomas’ “Much Farther To Go” the many layers of the song from the gently plucked guitar to the swirling strings to the layered vocals were easily located within the Little Horn’s wide soundstage. It’s this ever present soundstage that extends far beyond the width, depth, and height of these relatively diminutive speakers that is perhaps their most impressive trait. I think I could have even gotten more out of these speakers if I played around with placement and stands.

One final note on the Little Horns and particularly on their W.A.F. If you are an audio geek you already know that stands for “wife acceptance factor” and it’s a key element in whether a pair of speakers actually wind up in your living room. These are beautiful speakers that are equally suited to serving as a conversation starter at your next swanky cocktail party as they are to being accurate transducers through which you can explore and reacquaint yourself with all the music in your collection. I highly recommend the Specimen Product Little Horn Speakers. Let me know if you get a pair; then invite me over for a listening party and watch me drool with envy.

More information here at the company’s website https://www.specimenproducts.com/amps/littlehorns.html

or contact them here:

1240 N. Homan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60651

Phone: 773.489.4830
E-Mail: Specimen Products