Listening #178: Burwell Mother of Burl loudspeaker

A place in the country: everyone's ideal.—Bryan Ferry, "Mother of Pearl"

Even at full strength, my family didn't need 3000-plus square feet of living space, let alone four acres of outdoor frolicking space, much of it wooded. But in 2003 that's precisely what we bought, partly because our deal fell through on another, very different house, partly because living next to a dairy farm was an appealing novelty, and partly because the hill on which the house is poised seemed defensible. On our very first morning in our new home—a Saturday in early June—we awoke to gunfire and puffs of smoke coming from the field below our hill. The hubbub turned out to be a reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle, which instilled in me the confidence that I could protect my home and family from any and all invaders, as long as they're extras from the local opera house done up in red body paint and loincloths and armed with plastic tomahawks.

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Now, with my daughter off to college, such excess space is untenable, and I have less enthusiasm than ever for mowing vast expanses of lawn, plowing long driveways, splitting firewood, sanitizing well water, and chasing deer and woodchucks away from our strawberry plants. It's time to move to a smaller and at least slightly less rural house.

And you know what that means: I find myself looking at houses through the eyes not of a homeowner or realtor or decorator, but of an audiophile.

Thinning the herd
There have already been a few moments when I've wished that houses we've looked at didn't have to meet audiophile requirements: gorgeous rooms whose square shape would create oppressive resonant modes; or whose big, beautiful windows would make the sound hard and pingy and compromise stereo imaging; or whose ancient, wide-plank floors would be too unstable for my turntables. And in none of the houses that I can afford have I seen large enough living rooms to accommodate my collection of over 2800 LPs and 400 or so 78s (both numbers greatly reduced in recent months, I'll have you know).

Indeed, living rooms: With all due respect to readers, friends, and colleagues who feel otherwise, I believe it's the job of a home audio system to suit my home, not the other way around. My ideal is a music system that family and guests alike can enjoy with casual ease, while also enjoying the other comforts my home has to offer—refreshments, artwork, comfortable furniture, sunlight—without having to make a trip to the basement or an outbuilding. I don't want a "man cave" or a "little rocket ship"—the latter being how a friend's wife described my hi-fi room of 22 years ago, with all the eye-rolling disdain she could muster for "men and their toys." I want great music and a nice home—together.

The answer, as always in such binds, is compromise. Reflections of sound from windowpanes can be tamed by curtains, plush furniture, and/or rugs laid on the floor or hung on walls. With modular cabinets, bought or built, a record collection can be shared among multiple adjacent rooms. As it looks now, I'll probably wind up doing at least some of the above. But there's one thing on which I and, probably, most of you can't compromise: a rectangular room is a must.

Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, who is never further from us than the special red phone on John Atkinson's desk, explained this requirement in his article "In Search of the Audio Abode," published in Stereophile's April 1990 issue. As Gordon pointed out, most rooms exhibit three characteristic standing waves, resulting in single-tone resonant peaks near the room boundaries and resonant nulls in between. The frequencies of these standing waves are associated with the room's three fundamental dimensions: length, width, height. If all three dimensions are the same—ie, if the room is a cube—then all three standing waves will occur at the same frequency, and the room will sound muddy and boomy and altogether awful. A room stands the best chance of sounding clean and good when its three dimensions differ from each other so that the standing-wave frequency of each dimension is a third of an octave from the standing-wave frequencies of the other two dimensions.

To realize such an ideal, a room's second-largest dimension must be 1.25 times its smallest dimension—typically, these dimensions are, respectively, the room's width and height—and its largest dimension must be 1.6 times its smallest dimension. As Gordon observed, in a modern house with 8' ceilings, such a room would measure 12.8' long by 10' wide by 8' high—it would sound clean, but it wouldn't support frequencies below about 43Hz.

Fortunately, both of the houses I'm now considering were built before 1940, and have 9' ceilings. No less nice is that the smaller house has a living room that measures about 15' long by just over 11' wide: not a huge room, but one that might sound pleasantly clean throughout the lower octaves. Another factor in my favor: Both houses are made of brick, which is superior to wood in resisting the leakage of low-frequency content to the great outdoors.

All that said, a realistic attitude must prevail. As friend and fellow audio writer Steve Guttenberg once observed (I'm paraphrasing), in a room that would be overwhelmed by the sound of a real piano, why assume that a well-reproduced recording of a piano would sound any better?

Power struggles
Before moving, the audiophile must also take into account differences in the quality of the 120V AC from one house or apartment to the next. That topic was overlooked in Gordon's otherwise comprehensive article, and I've had the luxury of overlooking it as well: In the 14 years I've lived here, I've enjoyed the cleanest, steadiest AC power of my life. Excepting the sorts of comparatively humble sound enhancements I've heard from certain high-end power cords and outlet strips, I've never heard an AC power accessory that improved the sound of my system in this house.

That's not to say I'm an AC-filtration skeptic: Virtually every audio-frequency amplifier works by first rectifying the household AC, then modulating it with a low-voltage AC signal, the latter an analog of an electrically made recording. Quite simply, when you listen to your hi-fi, you are listening to your household current—it's just been shaped into something else. As I contemplate moving, I can't help thinking that there's a good chance my next house will have poorer-quality AC than this one, and that I may have to try a few different power conditioners. I don't look forward to the experience: Perhaps more than all others, that segment of the high-end audio market is made dreary by manufacturers who seem to apply their greatest efforts to the development of acronyms and initialisms intended to give their inventions a whiff of authority and scientific acceptance—inventions that, in a year or two, will surely be replaced by newer inventions and acronyms and initialisms. And that's not to mention the faceplate-thickness battles now being fought among some makers of power conditioners—battles as pointless and silly and money-wasting as they are in the amplifier market. It's bad enough buying a toaster or cell phone that I know will wind up in a landfill within 10 years of the purchase date; I don't want to do the same with a four-figure hi-fi accessory.

Thanks, courteous wall
I'll set aside such cheerless thoughts and return to worrying about packing and moving my LPs. The last time I moved, I bought a slew of fresh corrugated cartons with inner dimensions of 12" by 12" by 12"—cartons in which my collection then languished for months, while my built-in record shelves were being made and installed. Those boxes are long gone—some given away, some carted off to the recycling station—but recently, at Uline.com, I found some good new ones for just $18.50 plus shipping for a flat-packed bundle of 25. Uline shipped them the day they received my order, and they arrived two days later. Can't ask for much better than that.

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My record collection has grown since 2003, and after the recent culling it's still somewhat larger than it was when I moved into this house. In those 14 years, I've dealt with the spillover by buying some sturdy, lidded cardboard cartons specifically designed for storing LPs. In his article "Vinyl Apocalypse," in the August 2017 Stereophile, music editor Robert Baird praised the ones offered by Bagsunlimited.com, and they do look fine. I've had very good results with the Ultimate LP Storage Boxes from Sleeve City (www.sleevecityusa.com), which cost just $8.99 apiece. (They're useful for cartage, too, but not for shipping via UPS et al; their removable lids would need to be taped down, which sort of ruins the whole thing.) In any event, for moving LPs that will eventually find their way onto proper shelves, there's no sense in spending $8.99 a pop when Uline's perfectly good cartons, rated for 200 lbs, cost just 74õ each.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
BradleyP's picture

"I want great music and a nice home—together."

Dude, you're hosed. Fremer will forever tell you that you are the weak link without having to utter a word. (Did you see his video, for goodness' sake?) Hifi is a higher calling for which we and especially our wives must suffer, but there's redemption in that. Anything less is ontological failure.

billyb's picture

Hi Art,

On another note that I've wondered about in the reviewing of products in Stereophile, Why is it that components which are considered part of a reviewers reference system are not given the full review treatment including testing by John Atkinson?

I can think specifically of various Shindo Labs amplifiers that have never been given formal review or measurement. Surely this would be of interest to readers? Not to single this company out, but there is actually a dearth of measurements on these units. Considering their popularity, it would be illuminating to understand how they perform in more detail.

RH's picture

Art,

Wonderful article. Your comments about desiring audio integration with a "living room" and not desiring a man-cave resonates strongly with folks like me.

I'm a long time audiophile, and I've always had precisely the same criteria. I want my gear integrated into my home, easily accessible, and aesthetically pleasing. I have no desire to create some other separate room I have to slink off to in order to enjoy music, and I don't care for the sense if isolation this implies either. On the other hand, I absolutely understand why many people DO end up with well separated audio rooms - often it's easier to set up the room for good sound, make peace with the other half in terms of isolating the eye-sore of cables and gear.

But I've always used our living room, on the main floor, the first room you encounter in walking in our house, as my listening room.
(Currently using Thiel 3.7 speakers, Conrad Johnson premier 12 monoblocks...turntable, digital sources, etc.)

I had an even tougher challenges when I wanted to alter the room to accommodate not only the audio gear, but a projection-based home theater as well. This is in a 13' x 15' room. It was an agonizing reno, and would have been much easier to pull off in a dedicated room. However the end result follows exactly the ethos of "accessibility and integration into normal living space." Everything is hidden (except the speakers), with the source gear in another room, for a very clean, comfy look. So listening to music is always "right there" and we often have it on as background music for the house. No need to go to a basement or dedicated room to watch movies on a big screen. It's all in the front living room.

The easy accessibility of all this being in the living room on the main floor means we all spend time there every day, whether it's reading, listening to music, or watching movies/sports events. In the 8 years since it was completed, it's been in use pretty much every day, because...well...it's not just hidden place...it's a *living room.*

Whereas I've read plenty of accounts of folks who have done dedicated rooms for hi-fi and/or home theater and who spend much less time actually using the room. Ease of use and access can really make a difference.

I've really enjoyed the videos of your place, which epitomize the family-friendly approach as well!

AJ's picture
Quote:

And you know what that means: I find myself looking at houses through the eyes not of a homeowner or realtor or decorator, but of an audiophile.

Haha, so true if one is honest with self. Guilty as charged.

Regarding room acoustics, you really should read Dr Floyd Toole's latest publication. Much of what audiophiles believe with their eyes about reflective surfaces, modal issues, etc, etc. are not necessarily true for the ears/brain, which have the ability to adapt and to a large extent, "listen through".
Assuming of course the acoustic sources are well designed from a polar response/modal adaptation perspective. Good luck with that! ;-)

Doctor Fine's picture

Geez Art, I realize you usually like gear based on how weird it is and how much color and character it adds to the music.
So I admit to being surprised you even care about the room at all.
Good for you!
Looking forward to more reviews of burl covered power amps and 1930s Western Electric remote control theater curtains.
Don't let me down!

skris88's picture

A perfectly dimensioned room of with 8 foot high ceilings "wouldn't support frequencies below about 43Hz".

Okay.

But it doesn't make sense.

What about our sealed over-the-ear headphones? The distance between their drivers and our ear drums is just 2 inches max (if that). And what about "in-ear monitors". Even closer!

So, why would rooms "need to be large" to get deep bass, but bass is still audible on headphones?

By the way, I use dual powered non-mirrored (most important) subs to spread out the room's bass modes - and I get a huge improvement in peaks and dips at seats other than the sweet spot. And - using a sweep signal - can hear (and measure) bass basically +/- 3dB (Radio Shack analogue SPL meter - C weighted, Fast) from 80Hz down to 25Hz. My room is an open-concept hall, kitchen, and dining, that is 40 feet wide, 15 long and 8 high. The audio takes up about a third of the area.

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