The first time I heard of Burwell & Sons was at the 2012 California Audio Show. I walked by its room, and outside the door sitting on an end table was one of the most beautiful wooden loudspeaker horns I had ever seen. The sign next to the speakers said “Burwell & Sons Loudspeakers,” and I had to go in. When I entered the room I knew this was going to be something different. Everything about the room said “we’re not audiophiles.”
Gordon Burwell and his sons had decided to bring their custom built speakers to the audiophile world. While the cabinets were exceptional and many would drool over the vintage Altec-Lansing drivers, the speakers still seemed to be a work in progress to me. Both Gordon Sr. and Gordon Jr. are a delight to visit and listen to tunes with. I spent some time talking with them about areas where I thought the speaker could be improved and suggesting some speakers they should listen to. I was surprised with how much they seemed to appreciate this instead of resenting it. Even though they live just down the road in San Mateo I never heard from them again and to be honest I didn’t really give the speakers another thought — that is until I saw that they were coming to the California Audio Show again, and it was an even bigger surprise when Gordon asked me to go in and hear the difference in the sound of the speakers from last year.
When I walked in the first thing I noticed was that everything looked just like last year and there was still no power conditioning or room treatment. I handed him the XRCD of Rob Wasserman’s Duets and asked him to play “Angel Eyes.” I’ll be honest, my jaw dropped; these speakers handled this cut in a way that jumped its position from a work in progress, though in a few ways it is still a work in progress and not in terms of its sound, to one of the very best speakers at the show.
The speakers are their interpretation of Altec-Lansing’s Voice of the Theater speakers from days gone by. As I have shared before, one of the first real high fidelity systems I heard was a pair of Altec Voice of the Theater speakers driven by Marantz tube amplifier and a Garrard 301 turntable. All the Burwell drivers are authentic vintage Altecs that have been reconditioned and restored. They replace the old metal horn Altec used with a new and incredibly beautiful, handmade wooden horn. Their wooden horn is built to match to the size and flare of the Altec-Lansing 811. The bass cabinet is also a beautiful piece of woodworking art. It is surely a much more room friendly and more beautiful cabinet than the bass cabinet of the original Voice of the Theater speakers.
One of the differences from last year is that the bass cabinets are now tuned to 30Hz. This results in a much tighter bass than I remember from last year. They have also worked on the bass cabinet horn’s characteristics to allow you to sit much closer than before. Yes, they still sound like vintage Altec-Lansing to a degree, but that’s the idea. Maybe it would be more accurate to say they sound like you always hoped the vintage Altec would sound in your home.
Before I go further into the review, I should point out that the Burwell & Sons are music lovers first, and audiophiles second. They love the big, bold sound of vintage Altec and JBL. Their ambition in building these was to bring this vintage sound to more people in a smaller, more beautiful work of collectible art, and for the connoisseurs who would like to appreciate artisan work and vintage speakers in their homes. The company’s decision to bring the product to the audiophile community is a big one, and I’m impressed with their willingness to improve the speakers in certain areas. I don’t think there is much chance the father-and-son team will mess up the vintage sound; they simply love it too much.
I should also mention that this isn’t like any other audio product I know of. These are as much a collector’s and connoisseur of fine, artistic woodwork purchase as they are an audio product. Still, Altec and JBL speakers play such an important part in our audio history that I feel we owe it to their history to listen to this special pair of speakers.
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