From the Sweet Spot

    Audio Art in NYC: Devon Turnbull’s Listening Exhibition

    Issue 167

    While browsing around Steve Guttenberg’s The Audiophiliac channel on YouTube, I came across several videos featuring Devon Turnbull, a multi-talented audio engineer and former clothing and graphic designer and graffiti artist, who now runs a small audio company in Brooklyn called Ojas (Devon’s original graffiti pen name pronounced with the same “j” as in jazz ). His latest project is a newly-constructed, one-of-a-kind complete system of electronics and speakers, currently featured at the New York branch of the Lisson Gallery as part of a show called The odds are good, the goods are odd.

    At the rear of the bright airy space at 504 West 24th Street in Manhattan, is HiFi Pursuit Listening Room Dream No. 1, a mix of performance, industrial, and interactive art for fans of unique design, great recordings, and bespoke equipment. Not to be confused with a consumer audio show full of audiophile blather and salesmanship to a particular market sector, the installation is rather a deconstruction of sorts: a break from mainstream production, cosmetics, technologies, and spatial limitations to achieve optimal form-and-function for pure analog delivery.

    Each component in the Ojas installation is a sculpture within a greater sculpture made complete only when there are listeners in the cozy 14- by 27-foot room. A skylight shines over the wall of speakers, including a 31.5-inch Fostex subwoofer from Japan, housed in a plywood cabinet with a 400 watt onboard Class D amp. The massive main speakers have two 15-inch woofers based on the Altec 416B with AlNiCo magnets, a beryllium ribbon super tweeter, and a gorgeous 15-cell horn fashioned out of steel sheet metal – all weighing in at about 1,000 pounds. The speakers are evocative of Altec’s iconic Voice of the Theatre systems, whose utilitarian glory is inaccessible to most us, while Devon’s creation is fully tangible in all its grey splendor. There is, after all, a connection to Altec as Devon uses OEM drivers from Great Plains Audio, a company that continues to build classic designs by Altec Lansing and Western Electric. Devon also uses the newest iteration of Western Electric 300B tubes. However, the undeniable focal point of the room is that subwoofer.

     

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

     

    Judging from the musical program, the Fostex is not there to play techno, heavy metal, or movie earthquakes in surround sound  – making it an even more fascinating piece. Considering that some residential subs are as small as 8 inches, one might wonder why such a large driver is necessary. Devon describes the issues with high-excursion subwoofers in one of his interviews, and there are good reasons not to use subs that rumble, pound, and slap air in an utterly conspicuous way.

    Devon’s subwoofer provides seamless live-ness, pressure, and exquisite bass as the bedrock for music played on a hand-built turntable and 1970s Studer A810 reel-to-reel, both brought to life by a set of monoblocks based on Herb Reichert’s Flesh and Blood 300B amp design. Many people know Reichert as a veteran writer for Stereophile magazine, but he’s also an artist and self-described “gearhead.”

    The day I attended, Devon played reels of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Free for All, mixed by Rudy Van Gelder in 1964 and Dexter Gordon’s A Swingin’ Affair from 1962, both Blue Note protection copies of 15 ips ¼-inch master tapes, courtesy of Don Was, musician, producer, and president of Blue Note since 2012. The final cut was a taste of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” on a brand-new Analogue Productions Ultra Tape. The Blue Note tapes will probably be returned to the archive by the time this article comes out, but Devon has many other records and reels to play.

     

    Protection copy tape of A Swingin' Affair. Courtesy of Tom Methans.

    Protection copy tape of A Swingin’ Affair. Courtesy of Tom Methans.

     

    Top view of the horn in the Ojas speaker system. Courtesy of Tom Methans.

    Top view of the horn in the Ojas speaker system. Courtesy of Tom Methans.

     

    So, how does the system sound? It is amazingly expressive, immersive, and lifelike with all the energy of a jazz concert, but the more significant experience was the aspect of communal listening and in sharing rare 60-year-old tapes with like-minded people by way of tubes and horns.

    The show will run through August 5, with new programming announced regularly. The exhibition is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm, on a drop-in basis. The Listening Room fits up to 15 people and visitors can stay as long as they want. And admission is free! On certain days, there are special presentations for which you can reserve a slot through the Lisson website, also free of charge. While waiting for an empty seat in the listening room, the rest of the gallery is available for browsing. For post-show refreshment, there is a wide variety of bars and restaurants in the Chelsea/High Line neighborhood.

    Here is a sampling of the art on exhibit:

     

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

     

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

     

    Jessi Reaves
    Set to self destruct, 2021
    Metal, fabric, paint, glass, sawdust, wood glue and lamp wiring
    182.9 x 162.6 x 43.2 cm
    72 x 64 x 17 in
    © Jessi Reaves. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

     

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

     

    If you cannot make it to the Lisson Gallery, you can check out the Sound Room at Public Records, whose system was co-created by Devon. Listening bars like Brooklyn’s Sound Room and Eavesdrop have been popping up all over the country. These intimate listening venues have their origins in urban Japan, where space for big equipment is beyond the reach of most music lovers who cannot not otherwise listen to large speaker systems and high-end tube gear while enjoying a glass of whisky.

    As you might have guessed, Devon’s meticulous work is also popular with audiophiles in Japan. How’s that for audio street cred? To keep up with Devon and Ojas projects, follow him on instagram.

     

    Devon Turnbull enjoying the music. Courtesy of Tom Methans.

    Devon Turnbull enjoying the music. Courtesy of Tom Methans.

     

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

    The odds are good, the goods are odd, exhibition view. 504 West 24th Street, New York. 29 June – 5 August, 2022. © Lisson Gallery, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

     

    Header image:

    Ojas LLC
    HiFi Pursuit Listening Room Dream No. 1, 2022
    Sound installation comprised of 2 speakers, 1 subwoofer, 2 amps and 1 turntable
    Dimensions variable
    © Ojas LLC. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

    2 comments on “Audio Art in NYC: Devon Turnbull’s Listening Exhibition”

    1. A “a hand-built turntable”? Sorry Tom, not in the traditional sense.

      That’s a Technics DD motor/platter unit. Yes it was separated from the stock escutcheon and mounted in a wood plinth, but then with a Dynavector arm mounted. So possibly custom modified might be a better description.

      Anyway, would be fun to hear if I was closer to NYC.

      1. yeah, I see your point, but it’s tough to draw all the diiferent lines, or else the whole piece woud describe all the stuff that he did/didn’t build from scratch. Like, he didn’t build the woofers or magnets for the speakers or the Japanese transformers or Western Electric tubes on the amps, and then probably not the knobs, buttons, or switches, nor the beryllium ribbon super tweeter. I don’t know what goes into building a custom crossover from the ground up, but he still built it even though he probably didn’t construct all the individual components. Those are def Technics parts and a Dynavector arm with a vintage cart and Devon’s own PSU. So, is it a custom modified OJAS or Technics? I don’t know because it’s a brand new thing and greater than its parts.

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