An evening of revolutionaries…
and the uphill battles of a hobby previously thought to be on the demise
by Eric Franklin Shook
I didn’t think I’d have the luck of seeing KEF’s Johan Coorg so soon after a fast-moving weekend at Capital Audiofest or that I’d once again would be pining away for a pair of KEF speakers that I can’t afford. At the CAF show, KEF along with VPI Industries and Odyssey Audio, organized efforts and possibly sold a few souls to the devil himself to bring forth one of the most noteworthy experiences in my relatively short time in this hobby. The 1,423 sq/ft exhibit room was helmed by VPI and their new reference front-end, the singularly named “Titan”, followed by Odyssey Audio, who was showing off what was possible when you design a statement piece then double it into pair of mono-block amplifiers, both of which were nourishing a pair of KEF Muons tethered at the end of the chain. The experience: stupefying.
Once again, and not a moment too soon I was fortunate enough to lay witness to the magic of equally well-assembled efforts. This time around it was Ember Audio & Video and it was closer to home. Scary. The event is aptly named “Public Vinyl Demo”, a vinyl listening party organized through Ember AV’s Facebook page that takes place once a month and goes from 5pm-10pm, to allow crowds to pop in at their convenience. Most in attendance on this particular night had made plans to spend the whole evening discovering new records from fellow attendees, or to make the best of an opportunity to have an auditory experience that may be unattainable for typical middle class wages. People can dream can’t they?
The proprietors of Ember Audio & Video are Christopher Livengood and Blake Stewart, two brothers who through genuine talent for system building and public awareness have carved out a place for themselves amongst the downtown elite business owners. With their youthful enthusiasm to express a passion for music and the joy of listening, they have even found favor with the community at large. I’d be asleep at the switch to not mention that Ember Audio & Video is all about location, location, location. They are located front and center in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina and a stone’s throw in any direction from artful storefronts, hipster bars, music venues, and even better socioeconomic diversity (more to that point later on).
Taking host duties for the night Johan Coorg who has worked with KEF since 1989 and who is currently the global brand manager. He took center stage of the room to give a short history of KEF, the Blade loudspeakers themselves, and express his philosophy on music and it’s importance.
I’ll keep my impressions of the sound that follows short, but when it came my turn to take over the “green chair”, it was something akin to holding a wolf by the ears; you’re not sure if it’s going to be a cute lip licking snuggle fest, or if your face is going to be ripped off. Either case, in the translated Latin metaphor I am attempting to draw here, would be a positive outcome. Who said dead languages can’t have fluid meanings?
In supreme control of all forces audible were a racked slew of Jeff Rowland electronics, definitely a fine match for all kin of The Blades that evening. The DNA of the KEF family tree is present from Muon, to Blade, to LS50 which rounded out the demo that evening, and for many, the LS50 of lesser cost was the highlight of the evening.
The system starting with the front end; the Clearaudio turntable is an Ovation ($6,500), with Magnify tonearm ($3,750) and Concerto V2 cartridge ($2,750). Supported by three Nordost Sort Kones BC ($140 ea). Running security for the vinyl, a single Quadro clamp. Powering the affair were Jeff Rowland electronics (borrowed from Kyle Shatterly’s collection of weird stuff ), including an Aeris DAC, Corus Preamp, and 925 monoblocks. Stringing us to the various KEF’s were Nordost Valhalla 2 XLR interconnects ($7,600/pr) and Valhalla 2 speaker cables ($13,350/set). Speakers on deck: KEF Blade ($32,000/pr), and KEF LS50 ($1,500/pr).
During an intermission Christopher Livengood and I were able to cross the street for a quick beer and interview with Johan Coorg to answer a few rather pedestrian questions, but instead find that we are instead gifted insight on where KEF has been, where they are going, and how Johan himself has been a part of it.
Once back at the Public Vinyl Demo event, I challenged myself to listen. Not to the stereo as this seemingly solitary pursuit of audiophilia would have you believe, but to the hodge-podge of locals from all ilks who were gathered in one place; examining record covers, giving each other tips on where to find the best vinyl, and reminiscing about the days of yore when a local hifi store was just a part of the neighborhood urban landscape.
The first person I felt compelled to talk to was Katlin Tucker, a young woman with records in arms, waiting for the chance to take the wheel of EAV’s monster sized rig. When I asked her, “Why are you here?” Katlin embraced the man to her right (Chaddy) and with a smile from ear to ear said “It’s good for us.” That’s it. That’s all you need. This was a bonding experience between lovers. Truth be told, I think it was Katlin that brought him to EAV’s event.
Soon after I encountered what looked to be two punk kids Ian Killea and Chaddy McHenry, who in no way were hiding their membership to a local band “Power Animal”, a band that I know I’ve heard of before. When I asked “Why are you here?” Ian tells me that “It’s a chance to hear what my record collection should sound like.” Chaddy echoed those sentiments.
Towards the back of the room, posted up like grandfathers at a family reunion were the boys from the old school; Eugene Thompson and Gilbert Young. Each one more excited to tell me about the other’s exploits into the hobby. Gilbert, a speaker restorer told me at length about his vintage Fisher XP 16’s that he’s refinished, reconed, recapped, and once again made “recool”. Eugene was once a proud employee of Audio Video Concepts located just outside of downtown in Winston-Salem during the ‘70s and ‘80s. They’d been dealers of KEF, Mission, JBL, Brahms, and A.D.S. (to name a few). When I asked “Why are you here?”, they both thought that places like EAV were long gone, and that listening events like those they remember during the golden age of hi-fi were but only a memory. “Boy were we wrong,” exclaimed Gilbert.
Johan was stunned at how eclectic the turnout was for this event, and the record selections brought by EAV’s monthly guests were sure to set him off in pursuit of expanding his own vinyl collection. Nearing the end of the evening, Johan and I were standing off to the side of the demo stage awestruck at how well the Jeff Rowland electronics were showcasing the capabilities of the KEF LS50s, to a point where Johan’s excitement had no biological ability to remain contained. It had to be released into the physical. His manifestation of glee: a celebratory hug. This is why KEF has done what it takes to hold on to a talent like Johan Coorg for so many years: he’s an indispensable asset to the brand.
Finally, a few words from Christopher Livengood… “Having worked in the audio industry long enough to realize that a great amount of energy was wasted on functions that absolutely missed the point of all of this wonderful innovation and expense, I wanted our events to be invitational, playful and entirely driven by the pursuit of those tingly “holy shit” moments. Public Vinyl Demo or PVD, has allowed women and men, young and old, relatively normal and wickedly abnormal, to bring to bear an ocean of music, both sublime and ridiculous in a way that can only be described as a sharing of raw enthusiasm. Watching attendees play off each other’s tastes and string together insane musical selections one person at a time has seen George Michael segue into Opeth and back to Hall & Oates, via the unknown roads of humor, memory and the bizarre alchemy that has Kevin Bacon in the same neighborhood as Cher in the pantheon of our minds. It’s all in service to the business, on some inane level but the business is nothing without fun and friends.”