Boppin’ At The Burwells

One of the things we want to do on The Audio Beatnik  website is to tell the stories of how some wonderful, and often interesting, people got into this audio hobby of ours. Last week, Becky and I made a trip over to San Mateo to visit with Gordon Burwell Sr. of Burwell and Sons. We hope you will enjoy our write up of his story as much as we enjoyed hearing Gordon tell it.

I first met the Burwells at the 2012 California Audio Show when I walked into their room on setup day and sat down to talk. I knew right off the bat that they are very different from most people in the audio industry. Both Gordon Sr. and Gordon Jr. are bigger than life, charming and just great fun to be around, and our visit last week with Gordon Sr. didn’t disappoint.

Gordon Sr. would be the first to tell you that they aren’t typical audiophiles. They just love music, the experience of music, and they especially love how music sounds on vintage Altec and JBL speakers. In fact, they are passionate about vintage speakers!

On the home page of the Burwell and Sons website it says, “The future in sound has been here the whole time.” This statement plus fun sums up a lot of what the Burwell speakers are all about. The Burwells are obsessed with this sound, and they think that we audiophiles have forgotten how important it is just to have fun listening to music. Thus, they decided to build heirloom quality speakers that use the vintage Altec and JBL drivers they love. I think their speaker cabinets and wooden horns are truly works of art.

Even though I have already reviewed the Burwell speakers, I have been so impressed with how they sounded at the last few shows that I wanted to look into them again. I thought it might be fun to go over to their place in San Mateo and check things out. I was right, and we had a ball.

So, after sharing some stories from audio shows and looking at some of the horns laying around the place, Gordon was kind enough to share with us his journey in hifi. He said it all began for him when he was 17 and found out about a lady who had a custom-made speaker for sell. Gordon and his buddy went over to look at it. While the cabinet was huge and he couldn’t use it, the trip wasn’t a loss. When they looked at the drivers, they were all Altecs, and he bought the drivers. Gordon and his friend then went home and built his first speaker.

Over the years Gordon and his friend really got into Altec speakers, so much so that they used to put a pair of Altec A7s on the back of a pickup truck and take them on camping trips on the Russia River. That’s got to be about the wildest thing I have ever heard. I told you audio was about fun with the Burwells.

So, how did Gordon move from just enjoying Altec speakers, even on camping trips, to building the beautiful, artisan speakers made by Burwell and Sons? Well, it seems a few years ago Gordon Sr. and Jr. decided the youngest son needed a set of speakers for his place. When they finished, they decided they had something special.

From the beginning, they added the wooden horn and custom finishes for the bass unit. They make the horn and cabinets from reclaimed wood that is chosen for each project. The final product is stunning in a mid-century modern sort of way, and the wood finishes look so good without being overly glossy.

The speakers are much more than beautiful cabinets and woodwork. The pair I reviewed previously had a 15-inch Altec-Lansing 803A with an Alnico magnet. The wooden high-frequency horn utilized an Altec 804A compression driver that also used Alnico magnets. One of the things I liked about the review sample was the original Altec green paint on the compression driver behind that artisan wooden horn. They now make a three-way version that uses a JBL 2405 tweeter. The pair I heard and loved last year at the Newport Beach show was the three-way. They were veneered in a deep walnut burl with a walnut horn carved from reclaimed rifle stocks. According to Gordon, they played around with all JBL drivers, but in the end preferred the sound with Altec drivers for the bass and horn with the addition of the JBL tweeter. They refer to this version as “The Mother of Burl.” Gordon said over the years they have found the vintage drivers at old theaters, old schools and even nowadays on Craigslist.

We asked Gordon what he had learned in the last five years of dealing with audiophiles and going to audio shows. His first answer was simply, “So much!” One specific he mentioned was the importance of room setup. He also said he had learned a lot about how to position speakers. When he sets up the system, he now uses lasers to get the horns placed just right. Another thing he has learned is that the quality of the caps and resistors matters; this is why they are now building their own crossovers.

In addition to the two-way and three-way versions of their Homage speaker, Gordon says they are working on a much more affordable speaker. They also make a subwoofer now. I was so glad to see that they use a pair instead of one. The only place I think a single subwoofer works is in a home theater or desktop system. The addition of the subs makes it much easier to set the speakers where they sound best and to let the subs finish the bass.

Eventually, we got back to listening to music. The system we heard consisted of the two-way Homage speakers and a pair of the subwoofers. The amps were Cary, and the preamp was from Audio Research. The three-way speakers were already packed up for this years Axpona Audio Show. They will be showing there with electronics from Rogers Hi Fidelity and a VPI turntable. If you are attending this show, drop in and say hello. You’ll probably find a sign like this one outside of their room.

In the end, it is just so satisfying to meet people who are passionate about what they are doing. The Burwell and Sons speakers have continued to improve and are incredible at doing what they were designed to do. If you would like to experience the soul of the Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater speakers in cabinetry that is a work of art, the Burwell speaker is a reasonable size for a medium on up to a very large listening room. If you value vintage American speakers and American artisan craftsmanship, then you will love these speakers. You also get the privilege of having a true craftsman tune the speaker and build the cabinets just for you.

Becky and I really enjoyed the time we spent at Burwell and Sons. The music sounded great, and the company couldn’t have been better. If you are attending n my 2014 California Audio Show report I said, “Like last year, the most fun room was the Burwell and Son’s room.” By the way, if you go to audio shows or read show reports you’ll know I’m not the only one who enjoys the fun in their rooms.