Brilliant Corners #3: On the Horns of a DilemmaA for Ara speakers, the Lejonklou Källa streaming DAC
The Amtrak Empire service snakes north along the Hudson River before reaching Albany, where it pitches sharply to the west, eventually winding up in Niagara Falls. In November I rode itthe Amtrak Empire service, not Niagara Fallsfrom New York City to the town of Hudson, New York. On my left, the sun beat down on the river’s expanse while an occasional sailboat flashed by. Above the water, the undulating domes of the Catskills, with their fading yellow and red streaks, looked like the work of an unsuccessful colorist at a busy hair salon.
I was traveling upstate to visit Rob Kalin, a founder and former CEO of the online craft marketplace Etsy and proprietor of a newish speaker company called A for Ara. One unusual thing about Kalin’s venture is the speakers: They are multiple-entry horns, or MEHs, which feed sound from several drivers into a single horn. Compared to conventional horn speakers, MEHs are said to offer superior phase behavior, directivity, and coherence. They are also seldom encountered in the wild. Based on the work of engineer Tom Danley, which is better known in pro audio, A for Ara speakers are meant for home use and look distinctly strange: With circular horns made of CNC-machined wooden “petals” perched on a stem-like base, they resemble enormous tulips.
The other unusual thing is Kalin himself. After attending more than a half-dozen colleges, often using fake IDs, he founded Etsy with two friends in his Brooklyn apartment in 2005. By the time Etsy’s board fired him six years later, the company’s annual revenue had topped $40 million.
Unmoored and looking for a new start, Kalin left New York City for the pastoral meadows of Catskill, New York, a town of about 11,000 on the west bank of the Hudson. There, he bought and renovated a former furniture factory and founded Catskill Mill, a craft collectivea version of Etsy come to life in a physical, three-dimensional space. Kalin worked in the 75,000-square-foot compound alongside furniture builders and kimono designers, making his own bed and cob bread oven and weaving an undisclosed amount of his own underwear.
One of the craftspeople gathered there was Jeffrey Jackson, a builder of horn speakers and tube amps whom Kalin had persuaded to move to the Hudson Valley with his family. (Jackson is also a partner, with Dave Slagle, in the hi-fi company EMIA.) Kalin had long been fascinated with audio equipment and decided he wanted to “reestablish the ritual connection to listening” he believed existed in decades past, when a hi-fi served as the centerpiece of many homes. Kalin and Jackson worked on several projects, including prototypes of an enormous, Death Starlike speaker they named the Loudspeaking Horn System. They founded a company called Wheel Fi but didn’t manage to commercialize a product.
One manifestation of their ambition (and utter disregard for pragmatism and convention) was a stand-alone listening room on the banks of the Hudson; the basement functioned as an infinite-baffle subwoofer. In photos Kalin showed me, it looks a little like a Roman amphitheater. They never finished it.
Kalin’s five-year collaboration with Jackson ended in 2017. The Catskill Mill closed its doors the same year, and Kalin found himself at another crossroads. As a kind of question offered up to the cosmos, he wrote letters to his two favorite musicians, Frank Ocean and James Blake. “I told myself that if they didn’t write back, I would give up building hi-fi equipment,” he told me. Blake responded, and the two began a correspondence that led Kalin to deliver an early pair of A for Ara speakers to the musician’s Los Angeles home. “At that point, I went down the rabbit hole of horn speaker design,” Kalin said, “and at the bottom of it, I met William.”
William Cowan, who was eager to explore his ideas about multiple-entry horns and who would become Kalin’s collaborator in A for Ara, began working for NASA at 17. Kalin describes him, somewhat delicately, as a “savant.” In contrast to Jackson, Cowan, who is based in Australia, isn’t particularly interested in tubes or vinyl. His active speaker designs rely on class-D amplifier modules and digital crossovers; he believes that every aspect of audible performance can be measured. “Jeffrey and I were building field-coil speakers and designing amps around 70-year-old tubes,” Kalin told me. “We were very dogmatic about it. Now I’m working with digital, solid state, and streaming. It’s been quite a journey.”
I met Kalin at the Hudson train station. He turned out to be soft-spoken, intense, and childishly curious about an almost unbelievable array of topics. His attire suggested a range of esthetic preoccupations existing outside conventional menswear. He piloted us in an eerily quiet Tesla across the river to Catskill, where he lives on 100 acres overlooking the Hudson in a house that was once a duck hunter’s camp. Kalin took me to three modern connected buildings where the speakers are built. Amid table saws and a Hurco CNC mill about the size of an ice cream truck, there was a small listening room with a pair of A for Ara’s smallest speakers, the FS-1s. Soon we were nodding along to Bob Dylan.
Though my preferences in audio gear run strongly toward honey-tinted humanismanalog sources and the glow of vacuum tube filamentsI found listening to the class-Dpowered, digitally crossed-over FS-1s playing back a Spotify stream to be thoroughly exciting. The tulip-like speakers threw a huge soundstage, managed really-big-speaker dynamics, produced deep and realistic bass, and sounded as clear as a stream in Montana. More importantly, they were fun, propulsivea hallmark of good horn designsand defiantly unfussy, by which I mean that they allowed my brain to focus on music without getting caught up in dissecting the sound.
The FS-1 struck me as both original looking and attractivelet’s face it, many modern horn speakers look like snow plow accessories. And though they stand 54″ tall, the FS-1s are relatively slim and quite domesticable, being no larger than they need to be. (For those not inclined to place floral statuary in their home, Kalin also offers speakers with a more conventional, rectilinear form factor.) Costing $25,000/pair, the FS-1s are available in passive and active configurations and offer a choice of sealed or open-baffle bass cabinets. After much listening, I found the active, open-baffle versions the most exciting and natural sounding. I’m looking forward to hearing a pair in my home.
The most memorable listening experience took place in a vast room nearby, where Kalin had set up the sole existing pair of FS-3s, his and Cowan’s all-out assault on multiple-entry horns. FS-3s require a truly massive dwelling: The open-baffle “wings” flanking each horn span 105″! Bass response is handled by four 13″ woofers per speaker, arrayed in a slot-loaded vertical column in which both pairs of woofers fire at each other; according to Kalin, the FS-3s measure flat down to 18Hz.
The FS-3s’ sound was anything but MEH. The first track we listened to, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” from Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, was recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. It features a gospel choir and a boisterous, inspired crowd. Shouts from the audience seemed to be coming from all around me, with entirely lifelike dynamics. At one point, I heard loud clapping coming from directly behind me; I turned around and saw only an empty room. I’ve heard the track hundreds of times, played through various gear with varying degrees of realism. The FS-3 is the first transducer that allowed me to hear what it might have been like to be in the church on that day in 1972. Inverting the audio cliché, rather than bringing the music here, the enormous speakers seemed to be taking me there.
What really messed with my preconceptions was discovering afterward that we were listening to a Spotify stream sent to the preamp using a cheap Bluetooth receiver and that the active speakers were wired using Amazon Basics interconnects. The price of the FS-3 is “upon request,” Kalin told me a little wistfully, adding, “I look forward to finding the kindred spirit who orders the second pair.”
My visit ended at Kalin’s home. He had somehow managed to integrate a pair of floor-to-ceiling line array planar magnetic speakers of his and Cowan’s design into the “Shaker Japanese” decor. On the kitchen counter there was bread he had baked that morning. An empty room floored with woven-straw tatami mats and walled on three sides with glass offered a panoramic view across the water. There, Kalin showed me his collection of Tibetan singing bowls and asked me to lie on the floor, promising a “unique acoustic experience.” He placed a large copper bowl on my belly and two smaller ones on each side of my head. Kalin’s 10-year-old twin daughters and a fat Siamese cat looked on. I closed my eyes. Kalin proceeded to strike the bowls with a padded clapper until the sheets of sound washed over my body, then my body itself seemed to vibrate and fall into a pit of sound somewhere far beyond the expanse of the Hudson that surrounded us.
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