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Listening #178: Burwell Mother of Burl loudspeaker Great Mother of Burl!

  • May 27, 2020
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Sidebar: Great Mother of Burl!

Frequent attendees of US audio shows know Gordon Burwell’s copious handlebar mustache and cheerful demeanor almost as well as his Burwell & Sons loudspeakers. Dedicated to building his own interpretations of Altec Lansing’s iconic A-7 Voice of the Theater speakers for his top-of-the-line Homage series of products, Burwell travels the US in search of Altec and JBL drivers, then installs those vintage components in horns and cabinets crafted from and veneered with salvaged, high-quality woods. Burwell’s speakers are some of the most striking audio components I’ve ever seen.

Burwell delivered the review pair of Mother of Burl speakers (“Burl” indicates the cabinet’s veneer) to my raucous Manhattan block, and set them up in my listening room. Each Mother of Burl cabinet contains a horn-loaded, 15″ Altec woofer and a 3.125″ JBL 075 Ring Radiator tweeter, measures 22″ wide by 28″ high by 22″ deep, and sits on four 4″-high feet. Fired by the Altec 802D compression driver, Burwell’s solid black walnut midrange-treble horn measures 18½” wide by 8½” high by 13¼” deep and sits atop the main cabinet. The speakers fit into my smallish room easily enough, with barely enough space left to squeeze in their large, separate subwoofer cabinets (18″ high by 16″ wide by 9½” deep) and accompanying pair of Dayton Audio SA1000 monoblock amplifiers. The complete Mother of Burl system sells for $97,000; without the optional subwoofer package, the price is $87,500.

After toeing-in cabinets and horns to fire directly at my listening seat, as Burwell recommends, I played with the subwoofers’ gain settings to find a sweet spot, but eventually turned them off entirely. In my room the subs were overkill, muddying the low frequencies. I spent much more time adjusting the horn and tweeter levels, using the two big dials on the rear panel of each Mother of Burl. After much fiddling, I ended up with the horn dials at 1 o’clock, and the tweeter dials quite a bit lower, at 8:30. Now the horns’ output integrated well with the cabinets’ output, and the tweeters were critically attenuated to provide a needed bit of air and space.

There’s no denying the magic of horn-loaded speakers, and Burwell’s Mother of Burl model is no exception. A grand sense of speed and intimacy informed every record I played through the Mother of Burls, along with notes of declarative pungency when the horns were excited by a hotly recorded saxophone, cymbal, or trebly guitar. They reminded me of giant headphones, so intimate, sensuous, and immediate was their music-making. Record after record, these speakers’ transparency and, at times, gleeful rhythmic delivery (with the subwoofer amps turned off) were impossible to resist.

German dance trio Moderat’s third album, III (LP, Monkeytown 9639-1), provided plenty of Teutonic thump and ethereal synthesizer spew, which the Burwells portrayed with all the epic soundstaging and brain-drilling heat of a midnight rave. One track’s brief vocal sounded creamy and emotional, and layers of crisp computer melodies and subsonic bass passages were delivered within a warm, friendly wall of sound. Similarly, the Burwells presented Kraftwerk’s Tour de France (LP, Kling Klang STUMM 310-5099996610916) with hypnotic-trance–worthy textures and insane palpability. Rhythms spun out of the big Burwells like bullets against my skull.

To get even more cozy with the Burwells’ intimate sound, I spun a classic recording of Indian percussion, Alla Rakha’s Tabla Solo (LP, Vanguard VSD-79385). Relaying great speed and note attack, the Burwells also communicated the deep soul, burnished tone, mysterious reverberation, and ambience of the music on this rare LP, connecting the rhythmic strains into a thoroughly musical whole.

The music of pianist Leo Genovese was also presented naturally and in high resolution from his latest LP, Argentinosaurus, on which he’s accompanied by Esperanza Spalding on bass and vocals and drummer Jack DeJohnette (LP, Newvelle NV006LP). The album, a rambling dissertation on the modern jazz piano trio, also alludes to ethnic melodies and rhythms, placing the venerable genre firmly in the 21st century. Here the Burwells fared less well, DeJohnette’s cymbals sounding too thin and dry—even considering his usual dry cymbal sound—and Genovese’s piano was more roller rink than concert hall.

Burwell & Sons’ Mother of Burl loudspeakers are joyous music makers. While sounding a tad dry overall, and requiring careful adjustment of their horns and tweeters, they brought great feeling out of almost every disc I played, merging disparate sonic elements into beautiful wholes. Incredibly communicative, rhythmic, transparent, and toneful, the Mother of Burl should be available to all who consider themselves music lovers. Unfortunately, its price will scare off all but the best-heeled one-percenters lounging in their guarded fortresses. For the rest of us, there’s always the vintage loudspeaker market.—Ken Micallef

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