An Evening of Revolutionaries and the Uphill Battles of a Hobby Previously Thought to be on The Demise
I didn’t think I’d have the luck of seeing KEFs Johan Coorg so soon after a fast-moving weekend at Capital Audiofest 2016 or that I would be once again pining away for a large pair of seemingly unaffordable KEF speakers. While previously at Capital Audiofest, 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 Rockville, MD exhibit room was helmed by VPI and their new reference turntable, singularly named the “Titan”, followed by Odyssey Audio, who was showing off what was possible when you design a statement amplifier then double its size into pair of mono-blocks, both set to nourishing a pair of KEF Muons tethered at the end of the chain. The experience: stupefying.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
Once again, and not a moment too soon, I was fortunate enough to lay witness to the magic of well-assembled efforts. This time around it was Ember Audio + Design and it was closer to home. Scary. The event is aptly named “Public Vinyl Demo”, a vinyl listening party organized through Ember Audio’s Facebook page. The event 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 entire 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 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 of local business owners. With their youthful enthusiasm and passion for music, they have even found themselves in ultimate favor with the community-at-large. I’d be asleep at the switch to not mention that Ember Audio 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 still—socioeconomic diversity (more on that later).
Taking guest-host duties for the night was Johan Coorg who has worked with KEF since 1989 and is currently their global brand manager. He took center stage of the room to give a short history of KEF, the Blade loudspeakers, and express his philosophy on the importance of music.
The Public Vinyl Demonstration with KEF’s Johan Coorg
Grabbing a wolf by the ears…
I’ll keep my impressions of the sound that follows short. When it was my turn to take over the green chair, it was an experience 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. In either case of this translated Latin metaphor the results would be a positive outcome. Who said dead languages can’t have fluid meanings?
In supreme control of all forces audible: a racked slew of Jeff Rowland electronics. Definitely a fine match for all kin of the KEF Blades that evening. The DNA of the KEF family tree is present from Muon, to Blade, to even the small KEF LS50 which rounded out the demo that evening. For many, the LS50 of lesser cost was the highlight of the evening. As it was the most attainable component of the system.
The system starting with the analog front end featured a Clearaudio Ovation turntable ($6,500) outfitted with Clearaudio’s Magnify tonearm ($3,750) and Clearaudio’s Concerto V2 cartridge ($2,750). All supported and isolated from vibrations by three Nordost Sort Kones BC ($140 ea). Powering the affair, Jeff Rowland electronics (borrowed from Kyle Shatterly’s collection of weird stuff ), including an Aeris DAC, Corus Preamp, and 925 monoblocks. Stringing everything together were Nordost Valhalla 2 XLR interconnects ($7,600/pr) and Valhalla 2 speaker cables ($13,350/set). The Speakers on deck included KEF Blades ($32,000/pr), and KEF LS50 ($1,500/pr).
During an event intermission Christopher Livengood and myself were able to jump across the street for a quick beer and interview with Johan Coorg. During our sit-down, we are gifted with decades worth of insight on where KEF has been, where they are going, and how Johan himself has been a part of it all.
Interview with Johan Coorg of KEF
The People of The Public Vinyl Demo
Once back at the Public Vinyl Demo for the rest of the evening, I challenged myself to listen. Not to the stereo. Instead to the hodgepodge of locals from all walks of life who had 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 this downtown neighborhood’s 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 Ember Audio’s monster sized rig. When I asked her, “Why are you here?” Katlin embraced the man to her right 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 two lovers. Truth be told, I think it was Katlin that brought him to Ember’s event that night.
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: Gilbert Young and Eugene Thompson. Each one more excited to tell me about the other’s exploits into the hi-fi hobby. Gilbert, a speaker restoration expert told me at length about his vintage Fisher XP 16 speakers that he recently refinished, reconed, recapped, and once again made recool. Eugene told me of his days as a proud employee of Audio Video Concepts, then located just outside of Downtown Winston-Salem, during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Audio Video Concepts had been dealers of brands like KEF, Mission, JBL, Brahms, and a/d/s to name a few. When I asked “Why are you here?”, they both offered a joint answer. Gilbert said that places like Ember Audio were thought to be 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!” —Gilbert Young
Johan Coorg of KEF was stunned at how eclectic the turnout was for such an event. The record selections brought by Ember’s monthly event 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 system awestruck at how well the Jeff Rowland electronics were showcasing the capabilities of the KEF LS50s. At one point 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 has been an indispensable asset to the brand.
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.”—Christopher Livengood, www.emberaudiodesign.com