Tweeters are an important element in audio systems. Today, speaker manufacturers can create incredible levels of high-frequency performance using modern tweeter technologies of many different types. In this article, we will be comparing horn vs ribbon tweeters.
In general, horn tweeters are very easy to drive with low power amps and can be used for large environments but have a tendency to honk (shrillness), as well as cause coloration and listening fatigue. Ribbon tweeters on the other hand are more expensive but offer pinpoint sound staging, beautiful tone, transient frequency response, and very realistic music. However, some people find them unreliable.
However, audiophiles are still torn between horn and ribbon tweeters. So, here is a detailed comparison between horn and ribbon tweeters.
Before you continue, you can also check out the following guides:
Bullet Tweeters vs Dome Tweeters
What Are Horn and Ribbon Tweeters?
What Are Horn Tweeters
Horn tweeters are normally built in a structure that looks like a horn/ flare and use a horn-loaded high-frequency compression driver. However, in some cases, they use conventional cones or domes loaded by a horn.
Horn tweeter systems are well known for their dynamic contrast and very natural-sounding tonal balance, but poorly designed horn systems tend to sound harsh in the midrange and/or treble region. One of their main advantages is that they work well with low-power amps.
What Are Ribbon Tweeters
Ribbon tweeters use a thin diaphragm (normally of aluminum, or metalized plastic film) that supports a planar coil frequently.
They are known for not creating good sound staging, good tone, and realistic music. One major advantage of these tweeter drivers is that they can be stacked vertically to create a powerful line array.
Comparing Horn and Ribbon Tweeters
For a restoration project, answering a few simple questions makes it easy to narrow down the type of tweeter that will work for your system.
However, things will get a little technical for those interested in a custom design and build of a home audio system.
Factors like tweeter design, listening environment, and budget are some of the few considerations that come to mind.
Horn tweeters are pretty standard in the market, and you can buy a decent one for only a few dollars.
On the other hand, ribbon tweeters are relatively new compared to horns, and therefore a little bit expensive. Nonetheless, each of these two tweeters has its pros and cons.
Let’s have a closer look!
Typically, ribbon tweeters are more expensive than horn tweeters, so ribbons are not normally seen on very cheap devices.
That is one of the main reasons reason why many speaker manufacturers don’t use ribbons.
In most cases, you will find horn tweeters of comparable quality that cost much less than their equivalent ribbon tweeters.
However, you can find ribbons that are not very expensive. For example, Fountek and Arc have some ribbon tweeters that aren’t all that expensive.
2. General Sound Quality
In general, horn tweeters are typically efficient, which is why they are normally used in large auditoriums.
Think about it, how often have you seen large horn tweeters in big auditoriums?
If you want to fill a large auditorium with sound, you will probably be advised to go with horns.
When properly integrated into a system, a horn tweeter improves the off-axis response by controlling the audio directivity.
Horns also improve the efficiency of your tweeter by coupling its driver’s high impedance to the lower impedance of the surrounding air.
Compared to ribbon tweeters, horns have a different sonic signature. Low-quality horns mainly have predictable issues with the accuracy of the audio output, and this load may be carried over to your amplifier.
Ribbon tweeters have a solid reputation as special speakers not only for their unique design but also for their performance.
Their low moving mass means they have an ultra-fast transient response. As such, ribbons are the solution if audio delicacy and detail resolution are your main priorities.
The shape of the tweeters also influences the sound, as the ribbons used in the tweeters are generally narrow and tall.
That gives them a wide lateral dispersion, but a limited vertical dispersion because of cancellation.
Often, narrow vertical dispersion is beneficial as it helps to reduce muddling ceiling reflections, while the broad, horizontal dispersion gives you a wide sweet spot.
That’s usually useful for households with several listeners. Additionally, your speakers tend to sound more consistent and predictable from to room when equipped with ribbon tweeters.
3. Design and Materials
As the name suggests, a horn tweeter is built in a structure that looks like a horn/ flare. This design is useful in controlling the audio directivity of your tweeter.
As such, the tweeter’s design makes a significant difference in the character and volume of the sound you get.
Most horn tweeters use a compression driver at the bottom, suspended by a plastic enclosure, that moves up and down when creating sound.
When the tweeter is running, the electrical current going through the voice coil moves the driver fast enough to ensure that the air in front is compressed. This compressed air expands outwards and hits your eardrum for you to enjoy the sound.
Unlike horn tweeters, the ribbon tweeter does away with almost every aspect of a traditional tweeter driver, including the style of the magnet.
These tweeters use an ultrathin diaphragm, often made of metalized plastic or aluminum film. The diaphragm supports a planar coil often made with deposits of aluminum vapor, suspended using Neodymium magnets to produce high-frequency signals.
These tweeters use the same technology as ribbon microphones, featuring a lightweight material that’s capable of high acceleration. This material can also create an extended high-frequency response.
Thanks to the design and materials used, ribbon tweeters are a tenth lighter compared to your standard horn tweeter.
They also have no intricate structural stiffness as they’re driven evenly throughout their entire surface, moving in response to the adjacent magnet system.
Even though ribbons are expensive, they do tend to be rather delicate when compared to horn tweeters.
If you are old enough, you may remember how vacuum tubes were delicate, well ribbons are just as delicate in some cases.
However the fact of the matter is in some cases, it really comes down to brand. There are many horn tweeters that use inexpensive material in their construction and are quite delicate too.
5. Frequency Range
Frequency range consideration is very important for tweeters. Many ribbons and some tweeters for example are super tweeters, meaning they handle ultra-high frequencies. To learn more, read our article on tweeters vs super tweeters.
Horn tweeters are available in different types, including constant directivity (CD) and radial. As such, the frequency range of your horn tweeter depends on its size and assembly.
Large horns tend to work at low frequencies. That’s because large horns can only offer coupling with the surrounding air at low frequencies.
These tweeters can respond to everything from the most subtle waveforms to the highest frequencies.
That includes frequencies above 50 kHz, which are common with high-resolution formats like SADC and DVD-Audio.
Ribbons can cope with ultrahigh audio harmonics that are above the audio band’s main part. That adds a sense of space and some of the air that you’d hear from a fine recording.
What You’ll Like About Horn Tweeters: Pros and Cons
Horn Tweeter Pros: What We Like About Horn Tweeters
Besides being relatively affordable and readily available on the market, horn tweeters have two main pros going for them:
- Higher efficiency – By coupling its driver’s high acoustic impedance with the lower impedance of the atmosphere, a horn highly boosts the efficiency of your tweeter.
- Control dispersion – A horn controls the directivity of the tweeter’s harmonics, helping to control sound dispersion.
- Other Pros – Horn tweeters are capable of high SPLs and so they are good for large environments e.g auditoriums. Horn tweeter systems are also likely to work well with low-powered specialty tube amps, and therein lies a lot of their appeal.
Horn Tweeter Cons: What We Don’t Like About Horn Tweeters
High coloration and fatigue are the main issues you might encounter when using horn tweeters.
Coloration happens when an unidentifiable sound comes from your speaker.
That can be tiring to the ears because high-frequency sounds like vocals and horns will make your ears bleed after prolonged listening.
Another disadvantage is that horns can be shrill (causing a lot of honking) if not set up properly.
Finally, one drawback when compared to ribbon tweeters and other planar tweeters is that the power-to-weight ratio is not that great which may lead to a degraded sound resolution.
Ribbon Tweeter Pros: What We Like About Ribbon Tweeters
Ribbons have earned their place as special tweeters for several reasons:
- Extended High-frequency response
- Predictable and consistent sound
- Crisp and detailed audio performance
- Reduces muddling ceiling reflections
- The lower mass of the moving diaphragm can help with the clarity of reproduction of authentic sound
- Can be silky smooth with no coloration if done right
- The better power-to-weight ratio which leads to a better sound resolution
Ribbon Tweeter Cons: What We Don’t Like About Ribbon Tweeters
While their lightness makes them highly efficient, they don’t withstand heat very well, limiting their power-handling ability.
Ribbons also have very low impedance, requiring you to use an extra transformer for the amplifier to work well.
Additionally, the magnets used are expensive, and so are the tweeters, though you can still find decent ones at an affordable price.
- Controlled directivity which some people don’t like in music
- In most cases, they require a larger baffle than the other tweeter designs e.g horn or dome tweeters
- Relatively inefficient
- Not capable of high SPLs for large environments e.g auditoriums
Winner Of Horn Tweeter Vs. Ribbon Tweeters
After comparing both horns and ribbon tweeters, we found horns to have two issues, which are coloration and listening fatigue.
Ribbon tweeters also have fragility problems and high costs, though they’ve won the hearts of many audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts because of their transient response, directivity, and frequency response.
To recap, while both horns and ribbons offer several real benefits, they each introduce different problems.
Ribbons are very light and, as a result, very fragile and expensive. Horns are excellent in audio dispersion and are affordable, but can be very tiring to listen. That said, we recommend ribbons for audio enthusiasts whose main priorities are detail resolution and delicacy. However, please note that buying tweeters or any other devices by type is not always a good idea, any type can sound poorly and so your best bet is to actually listen to the devices before buying.
Are Smaller Tweeters Better?
Most tweeters are between one and three inches wide which is relatively small compared to other speaker components like woofers or subwoofer drivers.
However, whether they have big cones or smaller ones doesn’t really matter since the size isn’t everything when it comes down to good sound quality!
What Should I Look For in a Tweeter?
Some of the crucial things you need to look for in a tweeter are:
Power Handling – This denotes the amount of power that is required to break down your tweeter. Tweeters tend to run out of juice at higher volumes. So, you must look for a high-quality speaker with good power-handling capabilities.
Frequency Range – Frequency range refers to how low or high frequencies can be sent through your tweeter without any distortion. A better frequency response means cleaner sound and more detail in music reproduction overall.
Sensitivity – This is the measurement of how efficiently a tweeter converts electrical energy into acoustic sound waves. The higher, the better as it means that your speaker can produce louder output with lower amounts of power input.
Impedance – Impedance refers to the amount of resistance put up by an electric circuit when current tries to pass through it (the analogy would be water trying to flow through pipes).
How Much of a Difference Do Tweeters Make?
The main objective of tweeters is to reproduce the highs that play when you hear music.
They make instruments like horns, guitars, and vocals spring to life. Tweeters are also essential for stereo sound separation.
While we would recommend ribbon tweeters for most uses except for large environments such as churches or auditoriums, the fact of the matter is that any type of tweeter can sound poorly depending on several factors. So, use the above general guide to determine which type of tweeter is right for you. Find as many different brands as you can stand to audition and then choose based on what you hear. That is always the best way to go about it. Good luck!