Gordon Burwell, president and founder of San Francisco-based Burwell & Sons, recently saved a load of vintage burl walnut from becoming firewood. Instead, the material wound up being used for a smokin’ new pair of speakers he introduced at T.H.E. Show in Newport.
“I call them, ‘Mother of Burl,’ ” he told me as he cued up a track to play through his $80,000-a-pair prototypes.
Mother of burl? More like the mother of all horn speakers. The large transducers featured a vintage Altec 15-inch woofer, Altec 802 D midrange compression driver and a JBL 075 ring-radiator tweeter seated in a massive horn painstakingly made from dozens of pieces of Burwell’s rescued wood.
The three-way system was augmented with Burwell’s new “single jack” subwoofer system. The floorstanding main speakers were allowed to run full range, with the 12-inch, sealed-box subs kicking in only at the lowest depths.
“We’re still tweaking the design,” Burwell told me. From what I heard, the prototype may have a few spots that need the same kind of smoothing that already has been applied to the wood, but overall they showed promise.
Burwell punched play on “Book of Liars,” a rarely heard solo track by Walter Becker, the usually silent half of Steely Dan. The song, a highlight of Becker’s criminally overlooked Eleven Tracks of Whack album from 1994, features a typical lush arrangement, with a nice piano line and a soulful lead vocal.
On the “Mother of Burl” system, the midrange had an appealing immediacy, while piano tone also was solid, with decays staying on pitch. As you might imagine, bass had considerable impact, and percussion was crisp.
The system was shown with a variety of equipment, including Mytek Digital’s Manhattan DAC ($4,995) for the ones and zeros, Raven Audio’s Blackhawk 20 watt-per-channel integrated tube amplifier ($3,495); and wire from High Fidelity Cables.
As we chatted, Burwell came across as one of those free-spirited raconteurs the high end seems to attract. He laughed easily and frequently, and delighted in sharing stories such as getting “overserved” at his last Steely Dan concert. “Can’t remember much of that one,” he said with a wink.
I got the impression Burwell, who admits he is not a trained engineer, designs more with his heart and his ears than a computer. In the “Mother of Burl,” I think his instincts are moving him in the right direction.
Overall, it just was refreshing to see a guy having a hell of a lot of fun at a trade show, when elsewhere I heard some grumbles. Yes, it is hard work, but when you’ve taken wood twice as old as you are and fashioned it into some beautiful musical instruments, who wouldn’t be proud?
It’s just part of Burwell’s philosophy on life. He sums that up on his website, which, by the way, lists his cat as director of “purr-blic” relations. “The world would survive without Burwell & Sons and it surely would survive without apple pie, electric guitars and cool cars,” he wrote. “But life is a lot more fun with all these things. I feel blessed.”
Burwell told me his next task is to design a much more affordable horn speaker. Although it won’t have the precious reclaimed wood of Burwell’s heirloom-worthy statement model, he hopes to fill it with more classic drivers. Maybe he’ll call it the “Son of Mother of Burl.”