Why Audiophiles Love Vintage Horn Speakers

How decades-old speakers can still sound great

In the early days of audio recording, speakers were built to get the most out of relatively low-powered amplifiers, which generally meant they used horns to project sound. While many consumers are content with modern sound systems, horn speakers remain popular among audiophiles for several reasons.

Information in this article applies broadly to horn speaker systems made by various manufacturers.

How Are Horn Speakers Different?

Horn speakers are much larger than their modern counterparts. For example, some vintage Altec Lansing speakers stand 4-feet high and 3-feet wide with an imposing multicellular horn perched on top. Because they were designed to run on low-power amplifiers, they are rather energy efficient despite their size.

Horns speakers come in different designs. For example, Altec offered several different cabinets including the A5 and the A7. The main difference between the two is the horn placement. On the A5, the horn is inside the cabinet, whereas on the A7 it's on top. There are also multicellular horns, which are even more efficient at projecting sound. 

A vintage Altec Lansing multicellular horn speaker
Brent Butterworth

Do Horn Speakers Sounds Like Modern Speakers?

Old horn speakers sound surprisingly similar to modern sound systems. While some models under-perform in the top octave of treble, everything below that sounds remarkably uncolored and natural. That's because the low-frequency response of the horn allows the crossover to the woofer to be shifted down to 500 Hz or so, where any sonic artifacts would be much less noticeable than they are at the usual woofer/tweeter crossover point of about 2.5 to 3 kHz.

Horn speakers can be very loud even when powered by low-wattage guitar amplifiers. For example, three restored Altec Lansing A7 speakers can fill a 750-seat theater on 50 watts each.

Restored Horn Speakers

Several vintage audio dealers specialize in restored horn speaker systems. In addition to aesthetic repairs on the cabinet itself, restoration usually entails replacing the diaphragm on the compression driver attached to the horn and replacing any crossover parts that are non-functional. Otherwise, the goal is generally to keep as many of the original parts as possible.

Horns are sometime sandblasted with crushed walnut shells, which removes the paint without damaging the metal, and then powder coated. Cabinets are usually stripped entirely of their original finish and replaced with several coats of paint. Optional add-ons may include a plinth to lift the speakers off the floor slightly, a teak base for the horn, or a fabric grille for the open area below the woofer. Some restored horn speaker system even utilize multiple amps for different sound frequencies.

A pair of restored vintage Altec Lansing horn speakers
Gordon Sauck / Innovative Audio

How Much Do Horn Speakers Cost?

Restored horn speaker systems can cost thousands of dollars, but individual speakers can be found for under $1,000. If you enjoy restoring old electronics, you can purchase a non-working speaker for much less and try to fix it yourself. You can also find working horn speakers with damaged cabinets, so you just have to worry about aesthetic repairs.