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

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

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


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,'s not just hidden'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

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".


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.

Oddio's picture

Just a pet peeve of mine but the longest dimension of a room is always the length. Also the radio shack meter is inaccurate in the bass range.Something like 7 db at 20Hz.

skris88's picture

Wouldn't the longest dimension of a closed room be from one top corner to the opposite side bottom corner?

Also + and - 3dB is 6dB variation, not too far off your 7dB change. Can someone share a frequency response graph of the Radio Shack SPL meter?

My original question still unanswered though: why would rooms "need to be large to get deep bass", but deep bass is audible on headphones? What's the math/science in regards to this, or is it just a hi-fi Old Wife's Tale??