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XLH 1812 Horn Floorstanding Speaker Review

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XLH REF 1812 Horn Speaker“Be careful what you wish for” was never truer when I received a call from a freight company, advising me that I had a shipment of 4 palletized crates weighing 1500 pounds! With the help of friends and a truck with a lift-gate, we unloaded, uncrated and shlepped the 1812’s inside the house. The picture I had seen many months previous had not prepared me for the idea that each horn and manifold required its own separate large crate.

Each speaker contains a large ported enclosure containing a JBLPro 2241 18-inch woofer crossed over to dual 6-inch cone drivers at 250 Hz in a separate sub-enclosure. A 31 x 31-inch bi-radial 2366A-like horn is perched (literally) on top, driven by a 2446 2-inch throat compression driver which handles the frequencies from 1250 Hz to its natural roll-off at about 15 kHz. A “slot” super tweeter, the JBL 2405 comes in at 13,000 Hz. Taken in sum, the measured anechoic frequency response is 30 to 27,000 Hz, down 10dB at each extreme.

Once inside the listening room these 11 cubic foot monsters had to have the horn bracket mounted on top and the horn and drivers attached. The 2446 compression drivers alone weigh 36 pounds each. Mr. Ping Gong of AAA-Audio, XLH’s U.S. Importer, offered to fly in from Boston to help set them up. I gladly accepted.

He arrived with his own tools and the sure knowledge of having done this several times before. Two hours labor saw the job done. While we worked we got to know each other, which made the ensuing listening that much more pleasurable. This is, for the most part, a solitary hobby and the enjoyment, like most things in life, is increased when shared. I learned a good deal about the Chinese electronics industry and the people who work daily at it. For his part, Ping was eager to hear about the audio DIY community that exists apart from the C.E.S./Stereophile mainstream. Funny how what brought us together, the 1812 speakers, exist where the two sides meet: pro-sound JBL drivers that DIY’ers love with all their J.B. Lansing heritage but presented in beautifully crafted Twenty-First Century cabinets.

I’ve lived with the 1812s for more than four months now; but the listening that Ping and I enjoyed that day was certainly the most important in my review process. The wonderful KR Audio VA 340 amplifier was in residence then along with my Audio Note Kit One. Ping had always heard his speakers with higher- powered solid- state amplification and was amazed at what 20 and 8 tube watts, respectively, did for the sound. I had recently completed sound-conditioning for my listening room (detailed in a previous column) and that effort, combined with the 300BXLS tubes in the KR amp, led Ping to remark that “this was the best reproduced sound he had ever heard”. We listened all afternoon and into the evening to Allison Krause and Union Station, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie, Taj Mahal, and the Vivaldi Flute Concerto In D.

First Note Impression

It is my belief that the very first notes one hears from a new component are of utmost importance, as the brain “samples” the sound, compares it to similar sounds and processes it in reference to the familiar. It then becomes more and more difficult to “know” the true character of the brain homogenizes its sound. This is not to say that all amplifiers or speakers come to sound alike; but that some of the nuances of that sound become lost as time passes. This explains the phenomenon of “break-in”; why many say you can best judge a component by removing it from a system, and the cause of failure by many listeners to hear differences in the character of components. The mind must be trained to store and retrieve the initial impression.

My initial impression of the XLH 1812 was that it presented much more air and life in the upper treble than what I was accustomed to hearing from other JBL horn/drivers. Both the 4430 Studio Monitor and other 2426-based horn systems always sounded dark and laid back to me. While I appreciate the clarity of the JBL mid-range, I’ve always preferred the airier and more forward treble of Altec-Lansing compression drivers, characterized by the 806 and 902. The Altecs, however, tend to get grainy and distorted when driven hard in a less than theatre-sized home environment. I forgive them for this because they do have the extended top that their JBLPro cousins don’t.

From the very first notes, I was immediately taken by the naturalness of timbre of the 2446/2366A combination and its complete lack of grain and harshness. There is a definite link between the most natural sound and the size of the horn. The large Osiris and other large-format horns have this quality but most of those are cone driven, and lack the dynamics required for true audio reproduction. The XLH 1812 designer, being the leading pro-sound speaker dealer in China, knows the quality of the 2366A-type horn and went where others feared to go with it, namely into the home. The 2405 super-tweeter also makes its contribution. Leaving a speaker system to sharply roll-off in output above 16kHz, as many horn systems do, omits an important part of the frequency spectrum that is nearly inaudible but nonetheless important to the overall portrayal of the music.

I posed several questions for Ping to relay to the designer, Hou JianZhong, about his approach to speaker design. In answer to the question “how was the system voiced”, his reply was that “he tries to have a pair of speakers to tell the story of life and reproduce live music. He used many male voice audio books to tune the sound with air and harmonics”.

Now we know why such a large horn was used. Not for it’s “gee whiz” value but because it was necessary to the design goal. Equally important though, are the woofer, lower mid drivers and super-tweeter.

Starting at the bottom, we have the JBL 2241 18-inch woofer. This is a true woofer with an f10 in this system of 30Hz, i.e., a frequency chart would show that the sound pressure level of the woofer is down 10 decibels from it’s maximum output at 30 Hz. That’s still above 90 decibels (loud) for the lowest notes of the piano and string bass. The very light and very stiff cone of the 2241 produces more than 70 decibels, still quite strong, on the lowest pedal tones of the organ. The real organ actually does no better, no matter how hard the poor Sacristan pumps! And these sound pressure levels are achieved with minimal movement of the cone for quite low distortion of the original sound.

From 250 to 1250 Hz we have the dual 6-inch cones that reproduce the crucial “singing” or primary tones of the scale. To better understand what that means, the following diagram:

You may clearly see that the tones from 250 to 1250 Hz parallel the range of the violin and human voice while containing much of the rest of the instruments middle or upper ranges. These are the primary tones of sound that contain the reference that allows the overtones or harmonics to recreate the entire sound. Harmonics are even and odd integers (whole numbers) of the primary. For example, middle “A”, with a primary vibration of 440 Hz has overtones at 2×440, 3×440, 4×440 and so on. They occur because when a violinist plucks the “A” string some parts of the string vibrate differently from the area plucked and produce the overtones. All this is part of the opaque-to-me science of Physics and all of you scientists out there will please forgive my Cliff Notes understanding of the subject.

The use of two 6-inch drivers in this crucial area of frequency response increases their combined output to better balance with the woofer and, especially, what could be the overwhelming volume of sound of the much more efficient horn. To offset the problems inherent in the use of multiple drivers for the same signal a small hemisphere is located midway between and just below them. This reduces something called “lobing”, the overlapping of sounds in time of which I have absolutely no understanding. Just take it as a given. Like knowing that bread always falls jelly-side-down.

The 6-inch cones have done their best at the upper limit of 1250 Hz where their output is cut off and the horn and its driver takes over. Where it begins to run out of energy, the super tweeter comes in at 13,000 Hz and contributes the sense of “air” or ambience that faithful reproduction of the program material requires.

A full description of the 1812 system would be incomplete without reference to its crossover: a network of electronic components that instruct the various drivers when to play and when to become silent, like an orchestra conductor. Without the crossover we merely have a collection of speakers in a box. The real art and science of speaker design centers on this crossover.

In a 4-way speaker like the 1812, it is a very complex device that, in addition to “conducting” the orchestra, emphasizes some and de-emphasizes other sounds of the drivers as they interact with their environment, the air and boundaries of the room as well as the box in which they reside. I removed the 18-inch woofer from the cabinet to observe the crossover. I, and some others present who observed the massive coils, resistors and capacitors of the device were literally awestruck. One imagines Mr. JainZhong trying this and that type and value of capacitor, whether metal, or film, or oil-based over many hours and days of trial and error to achieve the exact sound desired from the system. Here was a perfect understanding of how really esoteric (and expensive) oil caps are needed one place and film and foil in another. As impressive as the externals of the 1812 may be, the crossover is an absolute work of art proved by the incredibly well integrated, from bottom to top, sound of the 1812. There is never a hint of discontinuity between drivers and the sense that the sound comes from a single source is easily believable with eyes shut.

Auditioning

Okay. Can we listen to some music now?

Not yet!

The 1812 speakers weren’t the only audio component to arrive at my house in a crate. The KR Audio VA 340 Integrated Amplifier mentioned earlier also arrived crated, nearly 100 pounds of it and, this time, no help to carry it inside! The VA 340 with its proprietary 300BXLS output tubes and solid-state driver stage were the perfect compliment to the 1812’s. My own Audio Note Kits 300B amp is vastly musical but a little challenged for headroom when called upon to re-create massed voices and strings. Having double the power available was essential to getting the best from the 1812’s. They are highly efficient, yes, but the 4-way crossover eats up a chunk of energy and the additional power was welcome.

Music sources included a Sony SCD-775 CE SACD player heavily modified by Matthew Anker, an Original Leonardo CD player and my vintage Ariston RD-11 Superieur Turntable (totally re-built by me) with SME 3009 arm and Dynavector 10×5 cartridge. I also had on hand and put to good use the McBee cartridge from Sakura systems. Phono stages were the Hagerman Cornet and the McBee companion, 47 Labs 4718. No pre-amplifiers were injured in this production as all the sources have plenty of energy to drive the amplifiers. Who needs them? I’m a cable iconoclast, too. Interconnects were from Blue Jeans Cable: Canare-terminated Belden 1505. Speaker wire, was, as always, 14-gauge Royal Cable rope lay copper sourced from that wonderful audio salon, the auto parts department of Wal-mart. (I sent a spool to Constantine to try and he assured me it sounded fine but I suspect he uses it to tie up his Shih-Tzu.)

Okay, Now the music: First up is Sonny Rollins Volume Two, Featuring J.J. Johnson backed up by Sonny, Horace Silver, Thelonius Monk, Paul Chambers and Art Blakey. Sorry about that, Sonny, but I’ve been playing the trombone all my life, and I can’t be fooled when it comes to the timbre and texture of the instrument. If you want an example of how primary tones and overtones build the reality of a recording, this is it.

Sonority, attack, clarity, and subtle shadings of dynamics are all captured totally by the 1812’s. Small jazz combo also tests the ability of a complex speaker to portray sound as coming from a single source. The simplicity of just five instrumental lines leaves no place for a lesser speaker to hide the fact that its multiple drivers aren’t truly integrated. The 1812 never exhibits shifts of an instrument to different areas of the soundstage as it goes up and down through the octaves. At all times the 1812 acts as though it is a “single driver” speaker instead of four.

If you think I have a bias towards the importance of the trombone, that’s nothing compared to my love for the music of Laura Nyro. Her Angel In The Dark SACD, Rounder 11661, done shortly before her death is simply the most gorgeous recording of female voice I’ve ever heard. Her sudden shifts of pitch and dynamics at the core of her artistry are wonderfully captured by the 1812’s. This is where horns and lightweight cones use their inherently low distortion to keep pace with the music and its emotion. The almost eerie high register of her voice, the deepest rumblings of the concert grand under her fingers, and all the surrounding instruments come across
with an astounding reality. The 1812 speakers bring Laura Nyro to life, if only briefly, as no other has done, at least for me.

Who wants to hear about my Dad taking me to a Harlem Globetrotters game when I was about six years old? Hands? No? What if I tell you that the half-time entertainment was Cab Calloway? Who? The guy who sings “Minnie The Moocher” in the Blues Brothers movie, that’s who. The Atlantic LP soundtrack and the 1812’s bring you all the pomade, satin and good old-fashioned burlesque of his performance. I really can’t remember his performance that day with Dad but every time I play the soundtrack we’re there all over again. And as if that’s not enough, listen through these speakers to the wa-wa muted, flutter-tongued trumpet solo of Mr. Wonderful, Alan Rubin and you’ll know what real “show band’ music is all about. I could go on about the tuneful bass of Donald “Duck’ Dunn but I’m saving the bass performance of the 1812’s for, well, the 1812.

Complex rhythms and harmonies are the stock-in-trade of the Manhattan Transfer. Mecca For Moderns, Atlantic LP SD 13066, is a great test of how a speaker reproduces the blending of voices and instruments while retaining the individual character of each. Side one is fairly forgettable but every track on side two is a favorite of mine. Count Basie’s signature “Corner Pocket” showcases how this speaker system never loses track of the intricacies of the arrangement. And the way it portrays the solos on “Berkeley Square’ is nothing short of glorious.

This album became an instant favorite years ago when I owned Acoustat 1+1 electro-static speakers. Talk about single driver clarity! The 1812’s have all that and a bag of chips. Not surprising, then, that when my audio buddy Colin first heard the 1812’s he almost instantly commented that “they have an electro-static quality”.

Speaking of trombones, indeed, the Bass trombone, let’s move along to one of the very first “audiophile” recordings on CD, the Berlioz Requiem, Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Telarc 80109. Most everybody back then wore out the Boito Prologue To Mefistofle with its bass drum and tympani and children’s singers. I, however, prefer to endlessly listen to the bass trombone play the fortissimo pedal notes, which are the bane of bass trombonists everywhere. It requires the trombonists to “lip down’ an octave below the actual range of the instrument, which at the required loudness, is extremely difficult. And just as difficult for wimpy so-called 6- and 8-inch woofers to reproduce with the requisite timbre and texture. The 18-inch JBL 2241 has no problem. If I’m ever given the chance to play it again (unlikely), I think I’ll bring one along.

But you know what really knocks me out about these speakers? It’s the way the voice of Deems Taylor sounds describing the events of the day the cannons were recorded at West point. That and the fact that this is the first speaker system I’ve ever heard that didn’t have to have the volume cranked-up to hear “that tinny sound of the water tank ringing”.

“He (Hou Jianzhong) tries to have a pair of speakers to tell the story of life and reproduce live music. He used many male voice audio books to tune the sound with air and harmonics”. That he did. In spades!

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