How do you achieve the perfect sound? Build a fibreglass horn the length of a Routemaster, of course

A reconstruction of a giant 27-foot-long horn is on display at the Science Museum, in a project to recall the forgotten 1930s original created to achieve the ‘perfect sound’.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A resonant chime issuing from the black heart of the enormous square mouth of a suspended giant horn nearly knocks me over it’s so forceful. It’s a three-dimensional sound that feels almost physical when I stand in the centre in front of the Science Museum’s reconstruction of the Exponential Horn, originally developed in the thirties by audio obsessive and Science Museum curator Roderick Denman.

Sound artist and musician Aleks Kolkowski has resurrected the project – which the public can visit and listen to – which took nine months to build from scratch. The horn is the length of a traditional Routemaster bus, and curves exponentially from a 1 and 1/16 inch at the narrow end to a 7 foot 1 inch square mouth. It’s made of fibreglass but its dramatic curvature and pitch-like colour make it appear curiously retro. It's like the glistening, browning backbone of a huge mishapen whale, dangling from the ceiling of this dimly-lit room on the museum's second floor.

The original horn was made of turnplate – a lead and tin alloy – and although it survived the Second World War, it was destroyed by a wall falling in during a storm and crushing it in 1949, and most likely sent off as scrap.

It was originally conceived to achieve the ‘perfect sound’: the widest possible sound frequency range. Denman first used it to play back broadcasts from the BBC and built a special receiver locked into London regional programming to avoid interference from other stations.

The original exponential horn, 19 October 1929. Photo: copyright Amateur Wireless

“It was actually used to demonstrate the best possible quality of broadcast sound that was available at the time,” Kolkowski explains, “it was also a benchmark for audio quality. He thought of it as a way you could measure commercial against this, what he thought, a scientifically designed system.”

Kolkowski is mirroring these early demonstrations by playing broadcasts from the thirties, as well as modern poetry, music and current radio programmes, to Science Museum visitors through the horn.

Here’s a variety of recordings being played through the horn. The sound took on a different acoustic quality when moving away from the centre to the sides of the horn’s mouth:

“I think for the people at the time, it must have been extraordinary to hear this,” enthuses Kolkowski. “If anyone’s at all familiar with the loudspeakers of the 1930s, to hear something like this would have been absolutely amazing, I think, because it could achieve such a fantastic bass, for instance. But also it almost had a three-dimensional effect. A 3D sound effect from this giant mono-speaker. These things were extraordinary for the time.”

But will modern Bose headphone-donning, mass music-consuming audiences be as impressed?

Kolkowski predicts they will: “When we tested it in August, I was astonished by the sound quality. Whether it reaches perfection is very debatable. I think as an object as well it’s extraordinary – I’ve likened it to an ‘audio dinosaur’; it’s the kind of thing you can walk around as well as listen to.  

“When you’re actually directly in front of it, it is a very immersive experience. And that’s what I hope people will get out of it. To stand in front of it, and also have this shared experience of listening to this incredible sound from the 1930s. We’re playing an awful lot of new material through it as well. You’ll be able to hear the sounds of today played through the technology of the past.”

Testing the exponential horn at Blythe House. Photo: copyright Science Museum

Kolkowski, who was the Science Museum’s first sound musician-in-residence, adds that today we sacrifice the quality of sound for the convenience of carrying around as much of it as possible with us wherever we go, whereas his horn-honing predecessor Denman sought sound without compromise.

“I think it’s quite funny now that, for instance, people will pay hundreds of pounds for headphones that sound lousy but look really great because it’s become kind of a faddish fashion accessory,” he comments. “What’s interesting in terms of this particular object, or this technology that we’ve recreated was at the time it was something that was built without showing any compromise whatsoever – it was extraordinary. Not only the cost of it, but actually how they had to install this thing – it went almost 30 feet into another gallery, the Agricultural Implements gallery, which must have been rather strange for people looking at agricultural implements!

“So there was no compromise in this quest for perfect quality of sound reproduction. And in some ways we’ve kind of lost that in our quest for portability and convenience. We are more interested in having a million songs on a smartphone, rather than the quality of the sound that we’re listening to. If it sounds alright, it’s fine. A lot of us don’t really care. But I think it’s also good to be able to show what is possible.”

However, although the horn was initially conceived to achieve perfection in sound, Kolkowski admits that it is probably impossible to achieve the “perfect sound”. But he adds that this shouldn’t matter in such a project:

“We can try and get as close as we can to it [perfection]. I’m just as interested in the imperfections to be honest, especially in this case when we haven’t got the right sort of room. The museum environment is very difficult, there’s a lot of noise. So there’s a paradox: it’s called ‘In Search of Perfect Sound’, but I guess we’ll also be drawn to the imperfections of it. For instance, it’s very directional – once you step off axis, the sound changes considerably.

“And also we’re very used nowadays to hearing full-range audios, and it’s missing quite a lot from the top upper frequencies. Maybe the listener is the missing element. The whole installation is imperfect, and I think the listener will round it off – if they get a good experience, for me, that’s perfection.”

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound, Science Museum, London, 20 May - 27 July 2014

The Science Museum Workshops team rebuilding the horn. It took them nine months to build. Photo: copyright Science Museum

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Free trial CSS