Vinyls are back – and it seems that they’re going to stay forever. It’s undoubtedly that they’re living a second golden age, sales are increasing and everybody is wanting them again. Since 2008, Joel Scilley – the man behind Audiowood – has made custom wooden hand-made turntables. In his unique pieces, quality and design mix with each other.
You started making your custom turntables over six years ago, right? How did you come with this brand new idea? Tell us about your beginnings.
I started Audiowood in the Summer of 2008 after I made a wooden turntable for my own use and friends of mine seemed to like it. I had been working as a design and build carpenter for over 10 years at that point, gradually doing more and more woodworking. The first turntable was kind of an experiment, but people seemed to like it, so I made a few more. For me, making wood turntables blended my studies of art and design, carpentry, and the love for music.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Why wood?
I’m trying to make audio equipment that people want to showcase in their homes, rather than hide. Like a lot of people, I gravitate towards wood because each piece is unique in one way or another, and I think wood makes otherwise 'tech-y' devices more friendly and inviting. I like tech-y looking machines at times, but the audiophile world tilts way too far in that direction, in my opinion.
We see that you produce three turntable models, – The Big Easy, El Blocko and Barky – which one is the most required by the customers? Which one is your favourite?
Yes, I make 3 standard turntables at present. Of these, Barky is by far the most popular and the thing that I have made for the longest period of time. Barky has been featured in about 20 international magazines and in dozens of blogs over the years, and it has a lot of fans. I suppose each of these designs has its strengths: The Big Easy is kind of a 'classic' design with a lot of nice features, Barky is more bold and a conversation starter, and El Blocko is a nice modern deck that gets some personality from the different wood veneers that are used. They all perform very well, but Barky is perhaps the most charming…
You also do custom turntables, right? Custom turntables seem like a very exclusive art piece – if a customer purchases a custom turntable, that will be the only person who has this piece. Do you think people see your pieces as a luxury and unique product?
Well, even my 'standard' turntables are each somewhat unique because of the character of the wood involved, but the custom things I do are completely individual. However, I’m trying to make these unique, custom items as accessible as possible. Relative to many non-unique audiophile products I think many of the things I make are actually pretty good deals. My customers get something that is made to their order, using quality, reliable parts, at a price that reflects the materials and labour that goes into each piece. Perhaps the best analog is custom bicycles: one can buy an off-the-shelf bike that will work quite well, but a hand-brazed, custom painted, hand-assembled bike is more enjoyable and elicits pride, even if it costs a bit more than a standard one.
All your wood pieces are hand-made, right? But you also use other materials for your pieces, isn't it? How is the process from the moment you have the raw material till you create the pieces?
The process varies with each product, but all of them involve considerable making by hand. With Barkies I do everything except chopping down the tree and cutting the wood rounds. But with Big Easies, for instance, I have several pieces CNC machined and then I make the legs and arm boards, and hand assemble and finish them. Even when computers help me with raw parts, the end product involves quite a bit of hand selection and detail work. All of this work is done in the US, and most of it locally.
As far as raw materials and parts go, I source most of the raw materials from the US, and most of the parts I use come from Rega, Music Hall, SME and other established European brands.
They say vinyls are at their very best moment and sales have been increasing for the past few years. Do you think this trend will be over soon – and people will keep listening to their music on their iPods and other devices – or do you think that it will last forever?
Vinyl is definitely not at its best moment, but it is at its best moment in recent history. Vinyl sales are just a fraction of what they used to be, but they are growing rapidly.
Personally, I love digital too, when it’s done right with full-sized, hi-res files and played back using decent gear. For some recordings, the digital version is better than the vinyl, and vice-versa. I think folks are enjoying good hi-res analog and also enjoying album art, and the social aspects of playing and collecting vinyl. As the Talking Heads might say, “same as it ever was…”
Undoubtedly, listening to music in turntables has always been synonym of good quality sound, making music even more special to the listener. Personally, I think there's no better way to enjoy a record. What do you think about that?
Everything depends on context, but on the whole I would agree. When I have the time, I like playing vinyl records on a good quality home system. I also truly enjoy surfing YouTube and discovering new (digital) music and videos. But I’m lucky, I get to go to my store a couple of days a week and listen to vinyl all day long!
How would you say sound varies from a normal turntable to a custom-made one?
Everything I make sounds good, because I use quality parts, good materials, and good cartridges. Each turntable is a sum of its parts, as it were, so the raw materials determine what is possible. The biggest jump in sound quality happens when you go above about $1000 for a turntable, where you are getting a product that most people could live with happily for a long time. This is the province of Rega P3s and so on, that have made people very happy for decades. As one goes up in price from there, the returns on investment are more subtle, but meaningful. I suppose my mid-priced turntables offer quality audiophile performance that can be shown off in the home. As things get more custom, I can offer things like 12” SME arms and other technically significant improvements. Above a certain price-point, one is probably talking about improving sound by 5-10%, but only 5-10% separates Stevie Wonder from other professional musicians…
Besides wood turntables, you also make other wood stuff don't you? Could you tell us more about this?
I’ve made a bunch of things over time — iPhone Docks, speaker stands, clocks, home theater consoles, and lamps — but I’m focusing more on just audio and lamps at the moment. Fairly soon I’ll probably limit things to turntables, speakers, lamps, and two new designs I have for an integrated amp and a home theater console. As a hobby, I’ve been designing furniture since I was a kid, so it’s fun to go off on tangents sometimes…
Are you thinking about introducing any new wood-made pieces?
I’m working on two new speakers that will essentially be walnut cubes, an integrated amp that can be used in a variety of wood enclosures, and a home theater console that will have some innovative (and vinyl-friendly features.) I also hope to have a new version of my Mermaid speakers out soon.
How do you see Audiowood future?
I’m excited about the near future. I think the speakers I’m making right now are super-cool, and if I can turn my amp prototype into a finished product I’ll be able to offer complete Audiowood systems that will be high-design and high-performance alike. I’m also hoping to upgrade my online presence as well as my retail storefront in New Orleans in the coming months, and I’ll be showing off new things at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this April. So, things are looking good.