CAS 2013: Burwell & Sons

CAS4One of the standout exhibit rooms had to have been hosted by Burwell & Sons. In case you’re wondering: there is a Burwell and there are indeed sons. The Burwell in question, Gordon Sr, was accompanied by his son and accomplice, Gordon Jr. Let me be clear about this: accomplice is the right word. This room was criminally enjoyable.

The Burwells were showing off their personal spin on the great Altec VOTTs of the past. The drivers were pure Altec, reconditioned and restored to meet modern standards. The horns, despite their beauty, are an almost perfect match to the size and flare of the Altec 811. The bass enclosure, while resembling the bottom of an A5, is both a significantly more friendly size and a significantly refined implementation.

If you’re an Altec fan, it’s probably best to think of these as a Magnificent done right. The bass cabinet is tuned to 30hz, and produces a much tighter response than any vintage Altec cabinet. The midbass horn seems to have been designed to minimize the stepped response of the old VOTT, allowing a listener to actually get in closer than 20 feet without suffering. The glorious wood horn itself is carved from reclaimed wood chosen for each project. One of the spares lying around, for example, was made from walnut that was destined to be made into rifle stocks until the Burwells got their hands on it. These are, in short, art. There’s a very good chance you’re already in love with them.

Then there’s the matter of sound. Would you believe that they’re not perfect?

They are definitely old school Altecs. While the mismatched directivity of the old days is reduced (along with a significant portion of the box coloration), enough of the traditional flaws are present enough to be noticeable. You’ll hear them. The bass is anything but stygian, the treble is anything but extended, and the integration between the two boxes leaves a little bit to be desired.

Of course it does. It’s old school Altec.

What that doesn’t tell you is that old school Altec does some things better than you’d expect if you haven’t heard it. Listening to Sarah Vaughn perform “Like Someone in Love” offered the kind of immediate emotional connection that many more modern systems just can’t seem to achieve.

Of course, this was absolutely a modern system in every other sense. Early visitors heard an Esoteric digital front end playing through Pass amplification. Friday evening saw Raven Audio‘s Dave Thompson drop by with his Shadow preamplifier ($7k) and Spirit 300b Reference amplifier ($7k). This moved the system away from slamming speed and toward a bit more romantic sound.

Now… there are two real problems here. The first problem is that these speakers cost $80,000 of money that I don’t have. If you’re fortunate enough to have that kind of money, the Burwells will work with you to tune the sound and the look to your taste. Each pair is a unique piece of art, and the price reflects that.

The second problem is that the crossover, as used at the show, short changes the vocal range a bit. When combined with the traditional Altec vice of a slight rise in that same range, it can make some vocalists sound as if they’re singing very loudly from inside a box. This is, of course, a Traditional Altec Virtue, and the Burwells have replicated it faithfully. They are also developing additional crossovers that will allow owners — killjoy owners! — to abandon that trait in favor of something more appealing to their — killjoy! — modern tastes.

As for me… I asked the Burwells to keep some beer on ice for me. At the end of Saturday, after two full days of listening to everything at the show, I went to their room, popped a Red Tail Ale, and relaxed. There’s a whole lot to be said for that.


  1. Yup. I had Gordon Sr. repeat the number a few times just to be sure. Given the woodwork, the effort, the limited production due to the finite supply of old parts, and the concentration on making these heirloom art objects, the price doesn’t seem obviously insane. The Burwell pieces are *by far* the best looking take I’ve seen on a compact VOTT. The woodwork is exemplary, the finish seems to be about a mile deep, and the horns alone — which the Burwells will not sell alone! — are lust objects.

    This is when I mention that there were systems on display at the show in which the speaker cables alone cost more than the Burwells’ Altecs. Seriously, Nick, don’t drink hot coffee when you read the price lists. I’m still new enough at this game that I’m not immune to the spit-take.

    For my own part, I tend to think that *buying* custom horns is just plain cheating. You’re supposed to pull your own drivers out of abandoned movie theaters. You’re supposed to spend years sweating the details of the perfect DIY build in your own woodshop. You’re supposed to tweak crossovers until all your hair falls out. A proper Altec system is like a lightsaber: a Jedi is supposed to build his own. If someone with a fat wallet wants to cheat by having someone else do all the work, my sense of fair play tells me that cheating cheater should PAY THROUGH THE NOSE.

    Of course, he’ll be listening to music while I’m still covered in splinters and explaining to my wife that the good speakers will be done eventually.

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