Sound Quest H-15 Horn Loudspeaker
|Sound Quest H-15 Horn Loudspeaker|
|A Horn of Plenty|
Quest for Sound
Stephen Monte is one of the true nice guys in high-end audio, and while so many companies seem to be going under, it’s nice to see someone like him actually moving his business forward. For years he has been the proprietor of NAT Distribution and a retail shop called Quest For Sound, both out of Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Both companies feature numerous products from domestic and overseas manufacturers such as April Music, Consonance, and JAS.
Now Monte, has taken the next step in the evolution of his company by building components under his own brand, Sound Quest. Through Sound Quest Monte is now designing and building a full suite of components and loudspeakers with parts sourced mainly overseas. Among his designs are the SQ Series of horn-loaded loudspeakers, which include the H-10, H-12, and H-15. When Monte called to tell me about his new horn speakers, it didn’t take long for me to get excited. A few short weeks later, Monte was kind enough to send me a pair of the $9,000/pair H-15s for review.
Better of Different?
Many any audio reviewers, including myself, have had to work hard to differentiate between audio gear that sounds “different” and gear that sounds “better.” This is particularly true of loudspeakers because there are so many different types: electrostatic, dynamic, active, horn etc.
There is a tendency to get nutty when a new product enters the stability of your main system and does something very different from what you are accustomed to. I have long been a devotee of dynamic speaker designs. My current fave, the Escalante Design Fremont, is a unique “2 ½-way” design that features a 1-inch “ring radiator” tweeter and two “direct coupled” 12-inch woofers. Midrange frequencies are produced by the dust cap of the external woofer. It’s a unique design but a classic sounding dynamic speaker nonetheless.
The Fremont has been my reference speaker for more than four years because of its ability to render micro-dynamics and present a huge lifelike soundstage. So to say that I was a little suspect as to the H-15’s ability to give me the musicality I’m accustomed to without sacrificing any of the dynamics, would be an understatement.
Nice to Meet You
When the H-15s arrived in their massive wooden crates, my immediate thought was that they looked a lot bigger in person than they did on Quest For Sound’s website. But a friend and I were actually able to get them unpacked and set up in my reference system rather easily. Each speaker is packed in its own crate, with the horn tweeter cabinet and massive woofer cabinet separated by foam inserts. We took the bass cabinets into the listening room first, followed by the horn cabinets. Embedded atop each woofer cabinet are four copper bases. On the bottom of the horn cabinets are four copper coned feet which rest on the bases.
The tweeter uses a massive 170mm diameter magnet mounted to a titanium membrane and embedded inside an elongated horn which is shaped like a pyramid on the inside. A British-made 15-inch, coated paper cone woofer sits near the top of the woofer cabinet and the cabinet is ported near the bottom. There is also a circular grill which fits snuggly over the woofer.
Both cabinets are made of high-grade MDF, with the side and rear panels being 20-22mm thick, while the front panel of the woofer cabinet is 30mm thick. The front panel is also sloped back a few degrees in order to achieve phase coherency with the horn.
Custom made jumpers are used to connect the horn cabinet to the woofer cabinet via a set of high-quality gold-plated five-way binding posts. I have Berber carpet on my floor, so moving the speakers around to find the ideal placement was not hard. The speakers don’t use spikes but do come with a set of four SQ Isol-Pads to go under each speaker.
The overall size of the H-15s is 21” x 44.5” x 19” (whd), and they weigh in at 130 lbs each. The cabinets are finished with a fairly attractive sable wood veneer. All-in-all, it doesn’t possess the drop-dead gorgeous looks of other horn designs such as the Avantgarde or Westlake, but that’s how they’re able to keep the price tag below $10K, which is a heck of an achievement these days.
Down to Business
It was obvious that the H-15s that were sent to me weren’t brand new so I didn’t have to worry about having to break them in. But what I did have to consider was the amplification that I would use. At the time, the only amps I had on hand were the BAT VK1000 mono amps and a Jungson DA-200IA integrated amp. Horn speakers are known to fare better with tubed gear but I didn’t have a tubed amp on hand. Stephen Monte rescued my by sending me a Sound Quest SQ-88 tube integrated amp that hopefully would be a synergistic match for the H-15s. But until the SQ-88 arrived I would have to use the BATs for a few days.
The combination of the BAT amps and H-15s was almost predictable; overblown highs and mids, boomy bass, and an unnaturally large soundstage at higher volume levels, particularly on a recording like Andreas Vollenweider’s Cosmopoly [Sony]. The first track, “Morning Poem”, features a flautist that sounds fractured and harsh and not at all soothing as I had experienced with other systems. The next track, “Stella”, booms with subterranean strums of the bass strings on Vollenweider’s harp. This was all it took to make me say enough and just wait the few days until the SQ-88 arrived.
Enter the SQ-88
When the SQ-88 finally did arrive, I hastily installed it into my system, replacing the BAT VK31se preamp and VK1000 mono amps. At just $1,579 the SQ-88 costs a fraction of this BAT combo, but hey, system synergy is system synergy, and the sensitivity (99dB) of these horn speakers demands the gentle caress of tubes. Fortunately, the SQ-88’s got four of ‘em, KT88s in fact, pumping out a charming 55wpc.
I went back to the Vollenweider disc and listened to the same two songs. Wow, what a difference a tube makes. With the SQ-88 in the system the H-15’s strengths stepped forward. The harshness was gone and replaced with a spectacular level of musicality and openness. The flute from the first track was now rendered to sound like a woodwind instrument and not an electrified flute as it had through the BAT amps. The bass was still a bit on the boomy side though not as aggressive as it had been.
But where the H-15s really showed their moxie was when I went to some of my favorite vocal recordings. Nina Storey’s 24 Off the Board-Live [Nina Storey Music] comes to mind here. Track seven of this eclectic disc is a soulful little tune called “All of the Little Things.” Storey has a sweet yet powerful voice that few speakers I’ve heard this tune on have gotten as much out of it as the H-15s did. I mean her voice just pours out of these horns with a full-bodied texture and dimensionality that really puts her in the room. The same can be said of Erin Bode on her disc The Little Garden [Native Language Music]. As much as I loved the performance of the Nina Storey disc, this is a far superior recording even if the music is fairly standard stuff. Track two, “Chasing After You”, is probably the best tune on the disc and sounds fabulously detailed and nuanced through the H-15s. Bode’s voice has that moist, lip-licking quality that comes out of these speakers in that way only a good studio recording can reproduce.
So far I’ve given you an idea of how well the H-15s produce treble and midrange sounds from live music and vocals, but now I’d like to focus on the low-end performance. After all, that big 15-inch woofer is an attention grabber and would probably make you think that these speakers have deep bass… and they do. R&B/Soul legends War, epitomized deep bass driven 70’s Funk music, and particularly their classic, The World Is A Ghetto [Avenue Records]. The first track, “The Cisco Kid” has one of the coolest bass lines ever recorded and the H-15s control it and relay it to sound as if it were from and instrument and not a synthesizer. The same was also true of the title track, and the bass on that song is even deeper.
I can’t stress enough the impact that the SQ-88 tube integrated amp had on these speakers. Stephen Monte knew exactly what he was doing when he sent me that amp to match with the H-15s. Actually, it also made me wonder what could have been wrung out of these speakers if I had access to some even better tube amps like those from CAT, CJ or even some of the new BAT tube amps. But that’s beside the point.
All together, the H-15s are very open and dynamic with a realistically sized soundstage and very good bass control. They are very well constructed and easy to set up, though aesthetically speaking, because of their size and average looks, could pose some challenges with the old “Wife Acceptancy Factor.” They’re without a doubt a different speaker from anything I’ve owned, but would I say they’re better than my current reference the Fremonts? Well, let’s just say that I am still a devotee of dynamic speakers, but I now have a definite appreciation for horn speakers, and let’s face it, at only $9,000/pair these speakers are a flat out bargain and very much worth checking out. Needless to say, the Sound Quest H-15 horn loudspeakers were an easy choice for our “2009 Most Wanted Component Award”. Highly recommended!
Sound Quest H-15
Frequency Response: 30Hz – 18 KHz
Power Handling: 400Wpc
Dimension of speaker: 44.5 ” x 21″ x 19″ (HWD)
Weight130 lbs ea./ Shipping 152 lbs ea.
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