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RMAF 2014: Burwell & Sons, Raven & Mytek

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Logo - Blue VectorIt’s strange going to a show to report on something you’ve reviewed. There’s an emotional investment in the quality of the room that just doesn’t exist for most products. You want to hear something at its best so you can leap out of the room and shake a stranger by the shoulders while yelling “THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!”

The flip side of that is a chronic impostor syndrome. If the room sucks, you’re going to have to wear a bag over your head and hope that nobody who read your review went in. Otherwise, you’ll be branded as a deaf idiot and ridiculed mercilessly. The worst part is that you’ll deserve every second of it.

I’ve taken a lot of heat for saying nice things about the Burwell & Sons speakers that came to my house. Eighty thousand bucks for what? Vintage parts in a pretty box? I keep telling people that the whole was just so much greater than the sum of the parts that those speakers stand as some of the finest musical toys I’ve ever encountered.

Wouldn’t you know that the Burwells went and loaded up on self-inflicted show conditions? Their analog front end got trashed in transit, they swapped new drivers into the same bass cabinet without changing the box or the crossover, and then they dialed the room in by ear for a weekend party.

That… that just didn’t work. The bass was extremely problematic, the 300hz hit at the bottom of the midbass horn was overpowering, the 15″ driver was showing some serious breakup, the mid and treble weren’t well aligned, and the balance of the crossover was set hard into basement-party bass-knob territory. It was in no way good by audiophile standards. Or PA standards, for that matter. It didn’t do much to make a case for the $80,000 price tag.

I wasn’t too surprised, and I didn’t much care. In the three shows I’ve seen, the Burwell horns have never sounded good. I’ve already made peace with a new reputation for being deaf as a post. If anything, this room represented the single best sound I’ve heard these speakers make at a show — by a considerable margin. These guys are all about having fun for a weekend while playing good music. Once you get used to that presentation, you can tell a whole lot about the other gear in the room.

The first thing you can tell is that the Mytek Manhattan ($5,000) being used as a source is probably going to be this year’s go-to implementation of a Sabre DAC. After-hours listening showed it to have some real meat on its tone. It’s definitely a departure from the traditional Mytek sound, and it’s worth a very serious look.

The second thing you can tell is that Raven Audio is on a roll. On display in the main system were the updated Spirit push-pull 300b mono blocks ($14,000). There’s one less tube on the front end and a tremendous increase in liveliness across the board. Raven has had a tendency to sound a bit syrupy at times, but the new amps seem to have addressed that issue without losing any of the sweetness. It’s a very welcome upgrade.

Much more exciting, though, was a stack of silver shoeboxes off to the side of the room. These were prototypes for Raven’s entry into a less stratospheric market. The unnamed shoeboxes contained a big, beefy power supply, a tube preamplifier/headphone amplifier, a usb dac, and a seven watt power amp. Pricing looks to be under $3500.

That’s under $3500 for the whole stack, mind.

We wandered up after hours and plugged the mini-system into the big Mother-of-Burl horns to listen to some Shooglenifty. Seven watts weren’t quite enough to move the Altec 803 with any conviction, but the tone and resolution made it obvious that Raven is taking these little boxes very seriously indeed. If they get released at the expected price, they’re going to make an exceptional system for smaller spaces.

All in all, the room was a whole lot of fun crammed into a tiny space. The sound wasn’t anything to write home about, but it’s just an outright joy to listen to a system built by guys who’ve put this much effort into pure fun. So what if the room didn’t work by audiophile standards? If I’d had my way, I would have hung out here all night.

But guys? Try to measure those speakers before the next show, would you? And it might be okay to have a little treble every once in a while.

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