Simon Mears Audio, horn loudspeakers

"the Uccellos are, in my view, a real gem"

Oh my. How horn speakers polarise opinion within the audiophile community.

They are rather like Marmite, the iconic British savoury spread consumed by devotees on toast or buttered bread. For equally as many though, Marmite is almost literally the spawn of the devil.

English speaker designer and maker Simon Mears – and its my bad that I failed to ask him where he stands on the subject of Marmite – is most definitely a horn-ophile, so much so that he has spent the last decade or so in a quiet and dogged quest to understand the theory and practice of horns and turn it into musical reality for living-room consumption.

I use the term living room quite deliberately. Mears designs and makes horn speakers under the Simon Mears Audio brand that are intended to be not listening room but living room friendly, with all that this implies for their size, and the need to win the aesthetic approval of all the people who inhabit the homes where they are installed.

From a technical standpoint this is not just a tall order, but one bound by the immutable laws of physics. A speaker using only horn-loaded drivers has to be big if it is to convincingly transduce the human voice and acoustic instruments across the broadly 60Hz to 1000 Hz range that most occupy. But to reach down to the cover the left-hand, the sub-30Hz extreme of the concert piano or organ, a horn speaker has to be positively enormous.

Mears’ first commercial speaker is the Uccello, named after the Italian mathematician and painter Paulo Uccello (1397-1475) who was said to have obsessed about how the use of perspective could create a sense of visual depth in his art. The Uccello is a three-way horn speaker that does not plumb the frequency depths, in fact it reaches down only as far 56Hz, trading full-range performance for relatively living-room friendly size.

So, by the standard of many horns, Uccellos are not huge. Even so, they stand 78cm (w) X 96cm (h) X 50cm (d). By virtue of some rather distracting sexy curves that result from Mears’ use of tractrix horn profiles executed in multiple layers of ply, and by cabinet making of an extraordinarily high standard – we’re talking antique restoration grade here or top-notch bespoke furniture making – they don’t appear quite as bulky as might be expected. What undoubtedly helps this sleight of hand greatly too is that unlike other contemporary horn speakers such as, for example, Avantgarde Trios, the Uccellos have an all-in-one approach, rather than treating the individual horns as separate but interconnected elements.

The layout of the Uccellos is semi-inspired by the Belle, a domestic speaker designed by Paul Klipsch and manufactured from 1971 to 2005. However, unlike the Belle whose tweeter was placed above the mid horn, Mears has placed the mid and tweeter horns in his Uccellos on the horizontal axis, adjacent to each other and 80cm from the floor, the tweeter to the outside or wall side of each speaker, with the bass cabinet underneath.

The Uccello carcass is made from 20mm and 25mm Baltic birch ply veneered in a choice of finishes. The review speakers, a pre-production and demo pair, were clothed externally in pale figured maple, with darker figured pear wood veneer contrasting nicely on the mouth of the bass cabinet, and all finished in satin hard wax oil. Despite being development hacks they were nonetheless way better finished than some production speakers I could, but won’t name.

The tractrix loading horns of the Uccello mid and tweeter drivers are formed from built-up plywood stacks, machined to the appropriate profiles, then finished by hand. While the tweeter horns are circular when viewed front-on, those of the midrange drivers are horizontal ellipses. Circular horns offering the same sonic performance would have been simply too large, so they have effectively been squashed top to bottom with no discernable degradation in sound quality, says Mears.

Inside the speakers things get even more intriguing. After listening to and working with compression drivers and horn types from pretty much every manufacturer in the world over the last decade or so – some of them such as Western Electrics and Lowther-Voigt no longer manufactured – Mears has used drivers from the Italian vendor B&C because, he says, they offer the softer, smoother, more organic sound that he prefers, rather than the drivers and horns of yore, some of which are responsible for horns having the poor reputation they do in some circles.

The Uccello’s midrange drivers are 2” throated affairs with a composite diaphragm while the tweeters are 1” throated with Mylar diaphragms and able in free space to extend to 18kHz. The woofers are 15” cone drivers by Eminence, backwards firing and loaded by a folded horn.

To design and supply the crossover networks required to persuade this trio of drivers to work in tandem, Mears enlisted US-based Albert Klappenberger whose own company ALK Engineering is well known for restoring and hot-rodding Klipsch originals. In the review pair of Uccellos the crossovers were in plain sight since the pre-production cabinets lacked back panels. Production Uccellos will have sealed backs, broken only by speaker cable binding posts, and a pair of rotary attenuation controls.

Klappenberger calls the crossovers Extreme Slope, but those who know what they are looking at will recognise a 4th order design, neatly executed and with some nice components. The curious will note Clarity Caps, and hand-wound inductors – solid core for the woofer and litz for the mid and tweeter – all mounted firmly and neatly on chipboard. Each Uccello has two crossover boards. Horizontally mounted, the mid section crossover features a transformer with multiple taps so that attenuation can be adjusted in n dB steps over an n dB range, while the tweeter crossover, mounted vertically and to the side, provides for attenuation of up to 12dB in 1 dB steps. As previously noted, this range of adjustment will on production Uccellos be made available to the user via rotary knobs on the rear panel of the speakers.

The crossovers enable the Uccellos to present a constant 8 Ohm impedance, and an efficiency of 104 dB, thus making them a remarkably benign load even for flea-powered SET amplification. I connected Simon’s Uccellos to a pair of Audio Note (UK) Kegon monoblocks, 18 Watts per channel parallel single ended 300Bs. My sources were an Origin Live Resolution III turntable with OL Conqueror 3c arm, Audio Note IO II cartridge and S8 SUT, and AN UK CDT Three transport and DAC 4.1 Balanced, switched through an AN UK M8 Phono preamplifier. All mains cables and interconnects in my system are by an English designer and manufacturer who employs different thicknesses and widths of silver and palladium-plated silver ribbon conductors in a primarily air dielectric.

Each more than twice the width of my reference Audio Note UK AN E-SEC/Spz speakers, the Uccellos were a challenge to fit into the width of the listening room. Due to the length of my system table – it is low and wide rather than narrow and high - we ended up with the Uccellos placed in front, their backs around one metre forward of the front wall, with their sides 50 cm from the bookcase lined sidewalls and around 1.8 metres apart.

This was evidently not an optimum position, but the best that could be achieved given the dimensions of the room. Mears was less troubled that I was. “Ideally we’d put them nearer the front wall, and probably get a slightly better quality of bass, but they’ll be fine here.”

It was reassuring then, on playing the first track through the Uccellos, that the designer and builder was right – they did indeed sound fine. Although I’d previously heard horns in other people’s systems, on each occasion they had been teamed with amplification – no names, no pack drill – that I find flat, un-dynamic and, well, simply un-musical. The experience had not been one of being flayed alive by shrill squawking, but neither had it been remotely entertaining either; just rather ho-hum and disappointing. According to Mears this is quite unlike horns should and can sound.

Readers who have heard good hornery will know pretty much exactly what I am about to say now, and those who haven’t will be like I was moments before the stylus plopped into the groove for the first track. “OK. Get it over with. I can’t believe this is going to be revelatory.”


A pal of Mears who had helped with the delivery and set-up of the review pair said afterwards: “Kev, I was watching you and you literally jumped with surprise.”

It’s true. I did.

The Uccellos rock you back on your heels with their immediacy and speed. Blam! Suddenly there’s sound in the room and equally suddenly you realise that after a lifetime of listening to cone drivers in ported or infinite baffle speakers you’ve been listening to transients rendered slow and soft by the inertia of cone and driver technology. Never hear good horns and you’ll never know. But now I feel that I’ve joined a rather exclusive club. The speed of horns is really, really addictive. My name is Kevin and I am a speed freak.

Mears of course is far too polite to tell you that your cone and baffle speakers are inferior, but once you’ve heard and acknowledged the difference all his enthusiasm comes tumbling out. How did his ‘journey’ to horns come about?

“Well, it comes down to my own audio preferences which I found were simply not satisfied by other speakers. I began at the deep end with huge Tannoy cabinets and built some Westminsters, then moved onto Autographs as I was interested in the corner horn aspect of design. These were extraordinarily hard to build. Paul Voigt, a designer I admire, was involved in the development of the Autograph and I subsequently found out where I could hear stereo pairs of his own Voigt corner horns, Altecs and other older types. Through travelling to hear these audio rarities my circle of friends grew and I found that people were not only generous with advice and input but were keen to visit me and hear what I was working on.

“All the time I was working on these things I had a pair of Klipsch Belles I had bought but not listened to, so one night I put them on and found a direct nature that appealed. They were different to designs of the same period from the UK; there was something in there that was more engaging, faster. However, the mid horn was metal and ringy, and so I started exploring and found a few folks in USA who were working with the old Klipsch designs with new crossovers, horns and drivers. It was all too tempting and I ended up buying and trying all sort of combinations. In the end it was a particular wooden tractrix design of horn that really took me and that’s what I use today. Nothing of the original Belle design remains in the Uccellos. The bass horn is similar, and that’s all, but I wanted to maintain the look of what I consider to be a beautiful original design and pay homage to the inspiration that Paul Klipsch’s work gave me.”

After angling the Uccellos slightly further in towards my listening position, Mears and his pal departed chez Fiske wishing me happy reviewing. I left the Uccellos playing while I cooked supper, but after my wife and I had eaten, I kissed the dog goodnight and slunk back to the listening room to begin The Serious Work.

By the way, the dog is a Vendee Griffon we call Hector …… just in case you thought I was making a rude joke about my wife. Shame on you.

Joe Jackson’s Body & Soul on vinyl (AMLX65000). Oh, what a record! I got my copy in a used vinyl shop in Reading, Berkshire a month or so back and yes, while I’m at it, why not give a shout-out to The Sound Machine? Lovely people, plus a great and always changing selection of used vinyl of many genres. They’ll send stuff all over the world.

Released in ’84, Body & Soul, so the sleeve notes say, took five weeks to make, with much effort put into finding the right venue – they actually ended up using a Masonic Lodge – the right microphones – Neumann M-50s were used for the whole-band backing tracks – and the right mastering machine, a 3M DMS-81 – 4 track. Treat yourself to a copy and tell me if you like it too.

I don’t consciously own any so-called audiophile recordings, buying my software purely on the basis of my musical preferences, but if the definition of an audiophile recording is one where dynamics and clarity and audio veracity are to the fore, then I guess my copy of B&S mean I delude myself and that I do own at least one.

Driven by my predominantly Audio Note system, the Uccellos took this benchmark recording by the scruff of the neck and stood it up in front of me in a way that my own Audio Note Es do not. As a rule I can’t be bothered with all that nonsense about soundstage depth and placement – it’s musicality and tonality I want, not a sonic hologram – but the Uccellos simply won’t be denied; a hologram is what they throw, and it demands attention. Sit right in the narrow sweet spot for this artifice, and they project performers with a chiselled-from-granite confidence that is so mesmerising that I temporarily forgot what I’d come there for. In the end I shifted sideways on the sofa and sat way off axis just so that I could just concentrate on what I was hearing. It’s notable that I didn’t hear the Uccellos’ tonal balance shift when I moved sideways.

I think of all the instruments that best showcase the speed with which a transducer can respond to a recording, the piano has to be it. Be My Number Two is not my favourite track from Body & Soul. Until near the end, it is simply Jackson singing at the piano. It is the way the Uccellos reveal the DNA of the piano that really shocks, showing it emphatically as a percussion instrument whose attack can be moderated at the player’s will by controlling the speed of strike, and by the use of dampers. The Uccellos show the choices Jackson makes through his fingers and his feet in a way that slower speakers cannot; but they are not coldly analytical either. The bitter sweet irony and yearning in Jackson’s voice is revealed in spades, and there’s warmth and organism without overt colouration.

I have owned a copy of Du Pre’s Elgar Violin Concerto under Barbirolli on EMI for some 20 years and in the early days I wept copious tears while it played, old softy that I am. But as time has passed, familiarity has hardened my heart, or desiccated my tear ducts, so that in recent years while I listen and am moved, there is no outward sign of the remaining turmoil within. The Uccellos overturned this composure so that emotions once more overwhelmed me. What was different? The remarkable ability of the Uccellos to better keep pace with the recorded artist so that her timing and nuance are more faithfully reproduced.

What tortured souls Elgar and Du Pre were. Recorded eight years before multiple sclerosis forced her to stop performing, was this performance solely driven by her, I think unique, understanding of Elgar’s work and her insight into his troubled mind, or was it also inspired by a premonition that her life was to be cut so short? Listen to this familiar recording through Uccellos, and I’ll wager the wonderful tonality and timing will make you ask questions too.

ALK’s brutally abrupt crossovers ensure that there is no co-driver interference between the three elements of the Uccellos and the integration is clean and seamless. I heard absolutely no sense of cupping with voices – and that, I am told, is frequently a trait exhibited by horns. And the Uccellos’ dynamic range is simply extraordinary. They have a matchless ability to portray the softest, most subtle information on recordings, then in the next millisecond almost blast you out of your listening chair with a crescendo so fast and so loud it feels as if it might wake the dead.

On The Saturday Sessions 2011, a two-disc set published by the BBC covering a selection of live acts recorded in session during a recurring Saturday afternoon radio programme, Will Young sings a truly beautiful version of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. I sometimes tease visiting musical know-it-alls with this track. They almost invariably fail to name the vocalist.

Me: What do you think?

‘Spine tingling. Gorgeous singing. Fantastic pitch and control. Wonderful emotion. But I haven’t a clue.’

It’s Will Young.

‘Who? No. It can’t be! He can’t …’


“If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and I’d get him to swap our places, warbles Young. Except he ends the word God with a subtle t sound: Godt. It is so quiet I’ve never noticed it before, but once I’d cottoned on to how the Uccellos reveal minutiae like this it became a bit of a game to see what else turned up in familiar recordings.

Truly excellent though they are, Mears’ first commercial speakers do require the listener to make some compromises. Depending upon what music genre you listen to, and what breadth of frequency range you are used to hearing at home, these concessions will either be trifling, or a potential deal-breaker. The Uccellos are physically large, and yet they go no lower than the sonic territory inhabited by some stand-mounted, and even some bookshelf speakers. So am I saying they’re not worthy? Well, if you’ve read this far and haven’t got what they're about, then I really can’t help you.

But if you’re like me, and you do get it, then you’ll likely be in a real bind right now. For while the Uccellos’ mid and top end is truly wonderful, the lack of full range is a problem. That 56 Hz hard deck resulted in a tendency in my system and my room to a very slight low bass tubbiness that Mears acknowledged, but says is mitigated by corner placement. Even in my room it was not intrusive and was excited only by occasional material. Where it the only minor negative, I could live with it, so much is it compensated for the by the things the Uccellos do really well.

However, I am used to full-range speakers – my AN-Es produce useful energy at 20Hz in my room – and I like my music full-fat, rather than semi-skimmed. The Uccellos’ bottom end doesn’t have the depth and weight needed to be fully satisfying on material that requires the services of full-range transducers. Listen to a lot of organ music, (I do), or simply crave the extra you-are-there dimension created by speakers able to really move air in the room (me too), and you’ll find the Uccellos come up, frustratingly, a little short. But, the Uccello is Mears’ first commercial horn speaker and there’s a larger, meatier version in development that he says will get much closer to being full range. Personally, I'm looking forward very much to hearing it.

The first five pairs of Mears’ Uccellos are priced at £7,950 including UK tax plus packing and delivery. This buys standard oak, maple walnut veneers, with other combinations and types priced accordingly. Four pairs have already sold to British customers. Once they’ve gone, the basic price will rise to £10,500, with external crossovers in hardwood cases, and alternative finishes as optional extras.

Some people say that today there is very little truly mediocre audio. I could not disagree more. Too many manufacturers are guilty of slaughtering audio values on the altar of accountancy. Find a vendor that doesn’t subscribe to this practice and who, moreover, wants to convert people to the enjoyment they themselves get from audio, and that’s where to look for treasure.

The Uccellos are swimming at the same price point as some very worthy speakers, but quite a few charlatans too. Within the limitations prescribed for them by physics, the Uccellos are, in my view, a real gem. They are the honest, straight-from-the heart expression of a quiet and unassuming, yet very clever man who evidently has an uncannily acute ear for musicality. They are indeed an homage to Paul Klipsch and the Belle, but they are not a backwards look. They are history jump-started and brought bang up to date.

Not in a million years would Simon Mears say this of his own work, but I can: I think that Paul Klipsch and the horn pioneers would approve.