Gordon Burwell Sr. isn’t sure he wants me to take his portrait Saturday morning at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.
“My eyes might be a little bit red from last night,” he says with the hearty laugh of a pirate. “It was a late one.”
But the owner of San Francisco-based Burwell & Sons relents and lets me snap away. I try a few next to the extensive desktop bar he has set up for guests, and then position him between his two imposing “Mother of Burl” loudspeakers.
It’s the end of a 30-minute visit, listening to music, catching up on the company’s progress and, most of all, shooting the breeze about life in general. The latter proves to be the most fascinating. This, after all, is the audio iconoclast who on his website praises fast cars, electric guitars and apple pie, and lists his cat as director of “purr-blic relations.”
My Part-Time Audiophile colleague Rafe Arnott also is a fan of Burwell and wrote an insightful post (which included some wonderful photos) early in our RMAF coverage. I wanted to add my thoughts to that before I wrapped up my own reports.
When I last left Burwell in June at T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, California, he was fine-turning the “Mother of Burl” design ($80,000 a pair). As you might imagine for a guy who loves classic automobiles, his large, horn-loaded speakers hearken back to the glory days of audio’s yesteryear.
Burwell, in fact, is so enthralled with those long-gone times that he scavenges vintage drivers to put inside the handsome cabinets he builds from — you guessed it — reclaimed wood.
His “Mother of Burl” models contain a rescued Altec 15-inch woofer, Altec 802 D midrange compression driver and a JBL 075 ring-radiator tweeter. He augments this formidable three-way system with a pair of his “single-jack” subwoofers containing 12-inch cones. The main speakers run full-range, while the sealed-box subs are assigned the lowest frequencies.
I liked a lot of what I heard in Newport Beach, but there still was a bit of brightness and lack of refinement to the “Mother of Burls.” It turns out Burwell heard it, too, and set about trying to fix the issues.
So, what did he do? Switch tweeters? No. Rethink the crossover. Wrong. Bust out his oscilloscope? Not a chance. This is Gordon Burwell we’re talking about here, after all.
He stretched a very thin piece of cloth in front of the JBL driver. Job done.
The old-school modification turned out to be just what was needed to make “Mother” happy. In Denver, the speakers were sounding just as impressively dynamic as before, but now they were also flaunting a sense of polish and finesse that would make any son proud.
I asked Burwell to hear a track — “Book of Liars” from Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker’s underrated solo LP, Eleven Tracks of Whack — that I auditioned in Newport Beach. The song features a Dan-like shuffling rhythm track, some gorgeous piano and a surprisingly soulful vocal from Becker, who comes off sounding like he could be related to Boz Scaggs.
In California, “Liars” had terrific low-end authority and dynamics, but was a bit rough around the edges, particularly in the high frequencies. Burwell’s fabric screen tamed the upper-end attenuation and smoothed the overall presentation, without seriously affecting clarity or detail.
It also was interesting to hear Burwell’s large horns performing so well on a solid-state, 250-watt PS Audio stereo amp, after hearing them on a more traditional, lower-watt tube setup in California. The sound of both systems suggests Burwell’s creation is as unfussy as the man himself.
Burwell says the “Mother of Burls” are ready to ship. They should appeal to anyone with the dough who longs for the old Altec sound dressed up in heirloom-quality woodwork. Like the vintage gear Burwell pines for, they are more works of art than utilitarian products. God bless him.