Boppin’ to Reel-to-Reel in the Santa Cruz Mountains

On a beautiful Friday morning in early June, Mike Zivkovic of Teresonic and I left San Jose, California and drove up into the Santa Cruz Mountains to visit John Burke. John’s home is tucked away on the mountainside, surrounded by beautiful flowers and an apple orchard. And, John was certainly a gracious host serving some very excellent coffee and sushi. 

John is not your run-of-the-mill audiophile. In fact, my first impression was that he is a real music lover and not an audiophile. The only problem with that assessment however is that I quickly discovered John had to be partly an audiophile and partly a collector to have such a large collection of reel-to-reel tapes of all speeds up to 30ips. He listens only to classical music and some jazz, and he only listens to reel-to-reel tapes.  But, I was right that John truly loves music!

John’s tape machine is an Ampex 102 that has been restored and set up for playback only. It bypasses the built in tape head amp and the signal is fed directly off the tape heads to a Bottlehead Foreplay Reel-to-Reel Playback PreAmp. The first tube the signal sees is a Telefunken EF806.

John uses an Audio Note Oto SE integrated amplifier, a 10 watts per channel pure Class A single-ended amplifier. It uses a pair of EL84 output vacuum tubes per channel in a parallel single-ended configuration. John was using NOS Mullard Gold Pinned EL84 vacuum tubes. Everything was connected with Audio Note silver cables.

John Burke (left) and Mike Zivkovic of Tersonic at John’s home in the Santa Cruz Mountains

John’s speakers were Mike’s Teresonic Ingenium XR Speakers. These are the same speakers that I have owned for the last 11 years. They use a single Lowther DX4 Silver Driver in each cabinet. The six-foot tall cabinet forms a transmission line for the bass. Though placed in a very tight listening place the sound was very intimate and very alive.

We began our listening with some solo piano music. John got out the most beautiful tape boxes I have ever seen. It was a wooden box made in Japan and contained a 30ips tape of some of the “Bach Variations” played by a Japanese pianist and performed in a small hall in Japan. This interpretation of the Variations was unique in my experience. I found the tuneful, more flowing reinterpretation a nice change of pace from the technical expertise I usually hear these pieces played with. The sound was simply divine. It was just as if we were sitting in the small hall listening to this beautiful music.

We listened to one more tape at 30ips, a classical piece with a female vocalist. Sorry, I don’t remember her name or the piece, but her voice was incredible. Here the combination of a great tape source, a SET amp, and the Teresonic speakers produced a voice that sounded as alive as I have ever heard from reproduced music.

Next, we listened to a 15ips tape of Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid Suite.” I found it interesting that there are slide out modules along the front of the Ampex 102 that John can change out for tapes recorded at different speeds. The Copland suite was a showcase of how great tapes can sound. There was not a hint of tape hiss even at 15ips. The way the system played tympani instruments showed some of the limitations of the very best vinyl. Though, I don’t know if the limitation is in the cutting of the vinyl or in the playback.

We finished our listening session with a live, long version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” This was simply incredible. It was as if they were in the room with us. I have never heard more realistic cymbals or brushes. The entire performance was magnificent. It was the second performance that day that we all applauded when it finished.

I want to thank Mike for introducing me to John, a fellow Teresonic lover, a fellow music lover and a real gentleman. Thanks John for letting us hear your wonderful system.