Photo by Lauren Coleman
New York City continues to have a rich hi-fi culture, but many of its fabled hi-fi shops have shutteredthink of Lyric Hi-Fi, which played a major role in the development of audio’s high end before it closed in 2021 (footnote 1). But recently NYC’s hi-fi scene has experienced a bit of a renewal, with undertakings aimed at a wider, younger audience. One example is a new, niche audio showroom in SoHo, which opened in September, by former deejay and fashion designer, artist, and current audio craftsman Devon Turnbull (footnote 2).
The Ojas Listening Room could qualify as a concept store. Its reason for existing, Turnbull told me in a recent telephone conversation, is to create a kind of audio culture that hasn’t existed in New York for decades.
Turnbull previously made a name for himself as one of four co-founders of Nom de Guerre, a noted “underground” men’s streetwear line that garnered a devoted following in the 2000s, housed in a Brooklyn boutique that was hard to find unless you knew where to look. The Ojas showroom is similar, co-housed with a USM Modular Furniture showroom, located on a busy SoHo shopping street but not so easy to find. Like the former Nom de Guerre store, Turnbull says, he wants the Ojas Listening Room to be a discreet destination, a place worth seeking out for those attracted to it.
Some years back, Turnbull began building custom hi-fi gear, mostly on commission, for private clients and nightclubs. Those systems, naturally, reflected his taste for Bell Labs, Western Electric, low-wattage, single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers, and high-sensitivity loudspeakers with vintage (or vintage-style) drivers. Under the Ojas monikerthat’s his former deejay namehe operated his made-to-order business from his home studio in Brooklyn. Orders came in via Instagram and through other “social” means. DIY speaker kits were his most popular items, he said.
Some years ago, Turnbull started to create “sound sculptures”handmade, multicomponent, freestanding hi-fi systems presented as art objects in galleries, first at the New York branch of the London-based Lisson Gallery and then, this past summer, at the London branch (footnote 3). Those “sonic happenings” proved popular. Broad public interest in those events set the stage for opening the Ojas Listening Room.
The move into the new Ojas space represents both an expansion and a separationa way to move the business out of his home. “I can only have so many people in my house,” he said. The showroom sells Ojas bookshelf loudspeakers (both as Brooklyn-made complete models and as DIY kits, both with JBL drivers), amplifiers (with some Sun Audio kits to come), tubes (including Western Electric 300Bs), turntables, “cult” tonearms (including Dynavector), cartridges (including Ortofon SPUs), and Ojas cables. Turnbull says that a Denon collaboration is forthcoming. Turnbull is a rep for TAD drivers and plans to stock some Audio Note parts. He’ll also sell a selection of records and Japanese audio magazinesStereo Sound and MJand curated books.
Besides selling wares, Turnbull wants to encourage people to build their own hi-fi gear. “DIY doesn’t have the same stigma in Japan as it does here,” he said. “[There,] it can be the highest form.” Single-ended triode amplifiers, he noted, make especially good DIY projects. “SETs are cool from a project perspective,” he said. In such a simple circuit, every element matters. “There’s a high percentage chance it doesn’t work the way you expect the first time, even for experienced builders.” It also might not sound the way you expect it to. It’s all part of the hands-on, ears-on experienceof engaging with your audio system. Turnbull appreciates imperfections: “There’s no spec for beauty,” he says.
Turnbull acknowledges that his old-school, purist design approaches won’t appeal to the masses, and that’s fine. “I’m not trying to compete with audio dealers here. I’m not trying to rep all the brands. If you’re someone who wants to hear 10 options, that’s not what we do.” His goal is to carry audio products that are bespoke and culturally significant, to cultivate a segment of the market not generally represented by mainstream dealers. “I’m just as happy to inspire someone to go home and go online and figure out how to make their own system their own way as I am to sell them something,” he said.
Turnbull wants the Ojas Listening Room to foster community among like-minded people, especially people new to the hobby. He envisions people stopping by to have focused, spiritual listening experiences. On the other hand, people want to ask questions, and he wants them to, and “the two things are kind of at odds with each other,” Turnbull said. Indeed, chat and spiritual listening do not go hand in hand, as Alex Halberstadt discovered in his recent tour of New York City jazz kissa, documented in his November Brilliant Corners column. (It’s a predicament familiar to anyone who spends time at hi-fi shows.) So maybe Turnbull will implement a reservation system, or maybe the solution is to play music for a while without conversation, followed by questions. Both things matter: connection with the music and connection with likeminded people.
“If you’re just getting into high-end gear and just building your system, it can be hard to find peers. It can be an isolationist kind of activity,” he said. “You can learn techniques on YouTube, but you have to go looking for peers if you’re into building and restoring amps, etc. At the very least, we can provide some kind of platform and operate as a community.”
Footnote 1: See the April 2021 My Back Pages and Re-Tales #8.
Footnote 2: Also see Ken Micallef’s video coverage. (The music is better in person. I promise.)
Footnote 3: Turnbull was part of a group sculpture exhibition called “The odds are good, the goods are odd,” presented in the New York gallery summer 2022 and in London this past summer. See lissongallery.com/exhibitions/devon-turnbull-ojas-hifi-listening-room-dream-no-1.
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