A Personal Listening Experience
by Fergus Byrne
Firstly, these diminutive speakers are very appealing to the eye with their attractive design. The pair that I auditioned was decorated in a matt black finish which gave them a sleek elegance. My wife’s initial reaction upon seeing them was that they looked very well and that they sounded very well also. This is very high WAF (Wife Acceptability Factor) trust me!
This reaction is easy to understand once you see them. They are very well proportioned and will fit very comfortably into a small to medium sized room or apartment without being intrusive or overpowering in any way. With the multitude of finishes that are available on these speakers they will easily blend in with any environment or, if required, can be used to make whatever visual statement that you want them to make.
OK, you say, they look good but how do they sound? Well, for me, these speakers belie their name as they are by no means frugal in any way with their sound presentation. They may well be visual lightweights but they certainly punch well above their very inconsiderable weight! Just for the record I am driving these speakers with 40 watts of valve power amplification but I am reliably informed that they have been driven by 200 watts of solid state as well.
In terms of the soundstage the music is presented between the confines of the two speakers and nothing happens beyond the boundaries of the left or right speakers. They are partial to a bit of toe in to adjust the stereo image and positioning close to the back wall was found to improve the overall grip on the bass response. I found that the best position in my room was to have them close to, but not right up against, the back wall with toe in just enough to have the speakers firing just past each ear. The addition of the baffles, which are suspended around each driver, makes for a considerable difference in the size of the soundstage. When they are added the soundstage is augmented bringing a very discernable increase in the presence of the music.
I found the overall sound to be well rounded and balanced if a little on the light side. These speakers will not do loud, driving bass well but that are not designed to do so; that is the nature of the beast because, after all, they have only a single driver. However, they are far from having a weak or insipid sound. No, they do not have the sonic depth of more expensive high end speakers but for their modest cost they are both a visual and a sonic delight. Yes, they have limitations but everything in life is a trade off and these speakers offer a great audio experience for a minimal cost outlay.
The music that I listen to nowadays is primarily Classical Music with the occasional foray back to Folk or 1960/70’s solo singer/songwriters. Primarily, therefore, the music that I listen to now is generated on acoustic instruments. To the human ear the sound of the human voice is naturally one that is very quickly and easily analysed and criticised so any speaker must reproduce it as faithfully as possible. For me the Frugel Horns do these two very well indeed.
A favourite album of mine is “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor. The mellow, musical tones of Taylor’s voice were very well reproduced with a clear and easy presentation that was true and faithful. All of the acoustic guitar riffs were also very clearly defined and separated. This was a very comfortable listen which was well rounded and balanced. These speakers do this type of music very well I feel.
Another very distinctive voice that I still use as a reference is that of Leonard Cohen. His voice got even deeper the older that he got culminating in the last of his recordings that I have in my collection namely “Dear Heather”. This album really sounded very, very well with its lovely mix of musical styles and it has a very pleasant mix of voices and instruments. The saxophones sound particularly well throughout and the xylophone on “Morning Glory” sounds particularly bright and alert. One can almost hear Cohen’s dry, rusty old vocal chords resonating in that thin, old throat as he plunges into the depths of those lower registers!
At the other end of the vocal scale another voice that I particularly like to use as a reference is that of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” (in particular Beim Schlafengehen). I felt that Schwarzkopf’s voice was very well reproduced here with her crystal clear, precise diction and that lovely way that she had of effortlessly easing up to those highest of registers. To me she sounded radiant, effortless and very natural here.
The sound of the human voice as sung by a choir, in this case the Tallis Scholars singing Obrecht’s “Missa Maria Zart” sounded very natural and well balanced. This was one of the first CDs that I put on to test the Frugel Horns and I did encounter the presence of sibilance but with some careful speaker positioning this problem was overcome. The sound of this vocal ensemble was warm, balanced and natural.
The sound of a piano can be a difficult one to get right however it sounded very natural and dynamic as witnessed by Wilhelm Kempff playing Schubert’s Piano Sonatas in the Deutsche Grammophon box set. The top register notes ring out vivid and clear while the bass notes sound out with body but yet are not muddied.
The ability of a pair of speakers to reproduce and present the detail on a recording is obviously critical. Looking to test this I picked Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” played by the Kirov Orchestra and Gergiev (Philips). The value of any recording of this work is how well it separates, controls and presents both individually and also the sum of all of the little things that go on in this work with the harp, the piccolo, the percussion etc. All of the warmth and excitement of the orchestral colours and textures in this recording were definitely there. I was particularly interested to see how the percussion instruments would sound and I was not disappointed. The cymbals, tambourine and triangle were all very evident and were also crystal clear. The brass in “Clara and the Nutcracker” had real bite as it also did in the poignant pas de deux “Intrada”. The sequence of cymbal crashes in “The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets” is delivered with real immediacy with effective separation between each clash.
The gorgeous, mellow tones from the gut strings of the Quatuor Mosaiques were beautifully reproduced when I played Haydn’s String quartet Op. 33 No. 1. There is a particular sound and feeling produced when gut stringed instruments are played and all of the detail of that particular bite was certainly there and the cello sounded deep and soulful.
Now I had been advised that I was not to expect too much from the bass element of the performance of the Frugels so it was with a little trepidation that I endeavoured to evaluate this aspect of these speakers. I did this initially with selections from Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphonies played by Ben van Oosten (MDG Gold) and also from “The Organ Works” of JS Bach played by Peter Hurford (London). I was not disappointed. Yes, the bass was not as tightly defined or as clearly presented as that of other speakers but it was very adequate and did have a large presence; a presence more akin to a deep and grumbling foundation upon which all else was built. My listening levels are on the low side by comparison with others so I pushed the volume up to a higher level than normal and although there was a tendency towards boom the overall performance was still very satisfactory. There was nothing lacking or absent that detracted from my listening enjoyment as the dynamic range of the music was well balanced.
I have long admired the electric bass playing of Chris Squire so I gave “The Yes Album” a spin to evaluate bass performance there. Once again the grip that the Frugels have on the bass sound is not necessarily as good as that of others that I have heard but once again they did not disappoint and they did a very good job and I think that the Frugels’ performed more than adequately here. I found no loss of weight or body in that beefy bass sound that I associate with Squire.
Driving bass and heavy Rock music at full volume they will not do so if that is your specification then these speakers are not for you. However, if you want a pair of speakers with a revealing, responsive and a fast sound then these are for you and that is why I have been quite positive throughout this review and that has been a genuine sentiment. I have honestly felt that these speakers were very deserving of my time. They have clarity and they are very responsive and fast. They are a revealing pair of speakers and because of that I do believe that they require careful matching with a warm sounding amplifier to get the best out of them. Looking back now the one thing that I noticed in their company was that there was never a sense, for me, of listening fatigue. I could have comfortably sat listening to them for as long as time allowed. These Frugel horns are a pair of speakers that certainly belie their cost in terms of overall performance and they most certainly deserve close attention. If one is in the market for a pair of speakers then, at the price point at which these are being offered, they are an essential consideration.
The Frugal Horn MKIII is available at present in either kit form, or fully built finished in a range of standard colours. Fully built sets are completely finished, ready to be plugged in and listened to. More details are available (including contact details) at the TirNaHiFi thread