John DeVore makes a refreshing change from the American loudspeaker manufacturers that I often meet, he is not super slick and will not spout forth a well rehearsed monologue about the glories of his products at the slightest opportunity. OK so I exaggerate, there aren’t that many hard sellers in the high end loudspeaker business, most of them have gone to work for cable companies! But John is pretty laid back, young and clearly in it for all the right reasons. That is essentially the music, he makes some great looking tube friendly loudspeakers but on the occasions that I’ve met John it’s a lot easier to get him talking about the music than the boxes he builds.
He does this in New York with all the woodworking coming from that neck of the woods as well which must be an expensive way of doing things if what Gary Dews told me about the prohibitive costs of getting wooden cases made for his valve electronics in Maryland is anything to go by. There’s a reason why all the big loudspeaker companies go to the far east, or at least eastern Europe, to get cabinet work done and it’s not because it makes things easier production wise.
Ease of belief
John is one of those rare people who is both a musician and a hi-fi enthusiast, in the eighties he worked in a high end store whilst playing in bands and trying to make it in the music business. We can be grateful that he was one of the 99.9999% who didn’t make it big in that world because it meant that he could devote himself to building speakers that “make it [easier] for your brain to believe there is live music in the room with you” as he puts it. But his grounding in the playing side means that he is looking for qualities that other speaker designers often seem to overlook, specifically providing a conduit for the “original musical intent to come through” which is usually a form of emotional communication. Music is a language after all, a means of expressing things which are otherwise difficult to get across. While many designers attempt to deliver wider bandwidth, lower coloration and more bang for your buck not many of them talk about the musical message with as much enthusiasm as John DeVore.
You can of course talk as passionately as you like about something but not know how to deliver it but this doesn’t seem to be the case here. Not if the Orangutan loudspeaker is anything to go by, this squat standmount reminds me of the classic Snell two-ways, the Type E in particular. It has the same wide baffle and large paper coned woofer but a rather more elaborately veneered plywood finish and a horn loaded, silk dome tweeter. The Type E was taller than this speaker which is 35.5inches (90cm) high including its 7.25inch stand, this latter is part of the package and finished in a lavish piano black so as not to undermine the speaker’s great looks. The stand also lets you get to the connection terminals which are underneath, this makes for a great looking cabinet but a rather fiddly, neck craning installation process. Regardless of terminal placement this is a very attractive speaker, you wouldn’t expect such an unfashionable shape to have much appeal but the veneer is so striking that a number of visitors were forced to admit that the Orangutan is better looking than any number of narrow baffle speakers – great veneer that’s been finished to such a high standard is plain beautiful. The cable terminals shown below are hidden in the base of the speaker, the stands are open topped so that you can access them, what I didn't notice until I packed them was that the terminals are in unadorned copper which is a rare and beautiful site.
The Orangutan 0/96 to give its full title is specified as having 96dB sensitivity with a 10 Ohm impedance that doesn’t drop below 8.75 Ohms (the label on the terminal panel is a generic Orangutan series label and a bit misleading about impedance). A set of figures that makes it eminently tube friendly, more so than any of its stablemates, JD describes it as ‘highly sensitive’ which works well with the creature its named after of course.
After certain loudspeakers by which I mean, heavily engineered and mass produced, the Orangutan can seem like a bit of a hooligan. It’s very enthusiastic and bursting with energy but a bit more colorful in balance terms, this does not seem to get in the way of its ability to tell you what the musicians are doing and precisely how they’re doing it. The first piece of music I heard on this speaker was a ZZ Top tune, La Grange I think, and it blew my socks off so it seemed only natural to give the same band a spin at home. I didn’t have Tejas to hand so put on Deguello’s top tune I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide and hung out for the solo which is one of Billy Gibbons’ finest. In the Orangutan’s hands it reveals the full tonal depth and the nature of the compression and other effects applied to the two guitars – Billy doesn’t seem to be bothered by whether or not such a result can be achieved live, it’s the record that counts. He’s not wrong, when was the last time ZZ Top came to your town? If you can think of a time then you’re one of the lucky few. With a speaker like this however it’s questionable whether that’s necessary, they deliver all of the energy and fine detail that you are likely to hear through a stadium PA but at a more tolerable volume level. The high sensitivity means that they could probably be cranked to pretty high levels in the home too should you feel the urge. Occasionally I did and was not disappointed.
That big paper cone produces particularly supple and fruity bass, it’s very juicy with the right instruments, one example being the bass guitar on Rickie Lee Jones’ Ghetto of my Mind (from Flying Cowboys on vinyl) which produces a beautifully laid back beat that comes through with the waft of a proper airwave. You don’t get that with smaller cones, even if there are several of them. You get a more conventional tonal balance from most speakers but the Orangutan is more than able to hold its own when it comes to projecting the sound into the room. It creates a sense of the musician’s presence very effectively and after a while your ears naturally filter out the balance variation. I tried a number of amplifiers with these speakers and each revealed the music in its own way but all of them made it enjoyable. My Border Patrol preamp with a Gamut D200 MkIII solid state power amp delivered a live performance by Little Axe in full scale effect with chunky bass lines from Skip McDonald and plenty of energy, the bass itself exciting the floorboards for full atmospheric effetct.
What this speaker does consummately well is timing, this is why everything you play is so engaging regardless of the inherent character. It brings in the tension of Wyclef Jean’s Thug Angels which is an easy track to get sounding muscular but a tricky one from which to extract the increasing intensity. With a lot of speakers you think wow to begin with but lose interest before the tune reaches its climax, the opposite seems to be the case here, it just gets more and more dynamic. It could be positively dangerous playing something that really builds to an inferno like the Mahavishnu Orchestra at their peak.
The right recipe
I managed to borrow an amplifier that I know John DeVore has a fondness for to get an idea of how this speaker works with quality tube amplification. That amp was the Shindo Apetite integrated, a 15 watt, three input design with 6V6GT tetrodes in a push-pull arrangement. Shindo Labs is a Japanese company that specialises in using new old stock (NOS) components like the United Electron output tubes in this amp. However this amp didn’t seem to be such a great idea until I swapped my usual Townshend Isolda DCT speaker cables for the Auditorium23 wire that the distributor had supplied. This proved a game changer and I can only surmise that the amp did not like the inductor that Townshend incorporates into its cables. The fact that John DeVore uses Auditorium23 for his dems at shows might also have been a factor of course!
This pairing proved to be uncommonly wayward in balance terms but totally addictive in musical ones. The bass now had teeth, that is control, texture and depth of timbre, Jaco Pastorius’ playing on Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light is astonishing in its nimbleness, dexterity and fluidity that man had, and as far as I’m aware still has, no peer. The sound from this concert was gloriously vital and alive, all attempts at changing album being disrupted by the start of each new track.
But eventually I got there and put on Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam where the guitar intro to Don’t Take Me Alive is revealed in all its glory, this speaker knows how to make an electric guitar sound real, it delivers the raw energy that the player put in at the studio in a way that more civilised speakers cannot match. Playing less familiar material it’s difficult to hear the tonal variations largely because you don’t know what to expect and partly because the music takes precedence over the presentation, it’s a thrilling experience and one that more conventional speakers fail to create unless you stick something truly electric into them.
The Orangutan is a great looking and immensely enjoyable loudspeaker that’s a gift to the tube amp lover, it can turn a handful of Watts into a living, breathing musical experience that you will be hard pressed to turn off. That is what living is all about.