Its speakers are coveted by Supreme, Mark Ronson and Prada
Mark Ronson was renovating his West Village townhouse last summer when a pressing question arose: What kind of speakers should he — a Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriter and record producer — get for his living room?
Its interior designer, Michael Bargo, proposed a bespoke range of modular sound systems that he had never heard of: Ojas. Mr. Bargo first spotted a pair of Ojas speakers a year earlier in photographer Tyler Mitchell’s studio and found that their brutalist aesthetic and vintage hi-fi components suited Mr. Ronson’s own post-modern throwback style.
However, his client was skeptical. “I’m not a particularly snappy person or anything, but I remember thinking, ‘What does this guy know about clay?'” said Mr. Ronson.
To find out, Mr. Ronson paid a visit to the Brooklyn home of Devon Turnbull, 42, who founded Ojas three years ago as a niche audiophile brand for designers and artists. Streetwear fans may remember him as the founder of the influential brand Nom de Guerre in the early 2000s.
Sitting in a camel-colored vintage armchair renovated by artist Tom Sachs (another Ojas client), Mr. Ronson surveyed the top floor of Mr. Tunbull’s converted brownstone in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, crammed with Technics turntable motors, triode amplifiers and more bookshelves full of Japanese stereo magazines.
Soon the bold guitar tones of Kenny Burrell’s 1963 jazz track “Mule” began pouring out of a four-foot-tall subwoofer housed in a gray plywood box and a matching pair of sideboard-sized mid-range drivers, topped with an array of horn tweeters. The guitar strings were rendered with such clarity and dimension that it hit Mr. Ronson as a sensual revelation – the eardrum equivalent of splashing ice water on your face.
“I was blown away,” said Mr. Ronson. “I really had a spiritual experience listening to music that day.”
On the spot, he hired Mr. Turnbull to build a pair of speakers, an amplifier, a turntable, and a preamplifier. “My fool’s concern at the moment is getting the setup in my house to sound exactly like it sounds in Devon’s room, which is like trying to recreate the best toys in Santa’s workshop,” said Mr. Ronson .
It’s audible conversions like these that have made Mr. Turnbull something of a shaman for discerning speaker heads. His clients have included designer Virgil Abloh (an Ojas setup is included in the Brooklyn Museum’s posthumous retrospective of Mr. Abloh’s creative life); Don Was, President of Blue Note Records; the rapper Tyler, the creator; and Ben Gorham, the founder of Byredo (who collaborated with Mr. Turnbull on a speaker-inspired fragrance diffuser).
“When you first hear a sound that sounds so natural and detailed, you start tripping for a second,” said Mr. Turnbull from his kitchen overlooking his minimalist Japanese garden on a recent Thursday afternoon. He was wearing an oversized white Supreme t-shirt, which was fitting as Ojas speakers hung from the ceilings of Supreme’s 14 stores worldwide.
“Supreme and I share an aesthetic of utility-grade materials used in very carefully considered ways,” he said.
Ojas speakers can also be heard at Public Records, an audiophile bar near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; Lisson Gallery in Chelsea, where a holistic ‘listening room’ designed by Mr Turnbull is open to the public until August 5; and in the fall, the USM Modular Furniture showroom in Manhattan.
High fidelity comes at a price. Ojas gear is made-to-order, starting at $2,000 for a DIY speaker kit and rising to $46,000 or more for special orders, including an 11-foot-tall speaker that debuted at Prada’s Manhattan flagship store in May installed for a party before being shipped to a nightclub in Mexico.
It takes Mr. Turnbull at least four months to manufacture each speaker in a warehouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It can take years to track down a 30-inch woofer at an audio retailer in Tokyo. Vintage Altec Lansing parts come from a legacy manufacturer in Oklahoma City.
Like a limited-edition sneaker drop, Ojas is only sold in a handful of web shops, including Ssense and Canary – Yellow; Most clients make their case by direct messaging Mr. Turnbull on Instagram.
In conversation, Mr. Turnbull often describes sound in metaphysical terms, but it’s no gimmick. When he was 11, his family moved from Long Island to a transcendental meditation center in Fairfield, Iowa.
At 19 he moved to Seattle, where he DJed under the alias “Ojas” (a Sanskrit term roughly translated as “life force”) and enrolled in an audio engineering program at the Art Institute of Seattle. Through a mutual friend, he met Alex Calderwood, a founder of the Ace hotel chain who, years later, was the first to commission a sound system from him.
He moved to Brooklyn in 1999 and enrolled at The New School where he began experimenting with fashion, making felt appliqué embroidered t-shirts that were sold at Alife, an underground streetwear store on the Lower East Side.
In 2003, Mr. Turnbull co-founded Nom de Guerre, a menswear line with a word-of-mouth boutique in NoHo, which along with Supreme helped set the stage for the rise of streetwear that is permeating fashion today.
When Nom de Guerre collapsed in 2010 (“Men’s clothing just wasn’t making money back then,” he said), Mr. Turnbull lapsed into creative funk. “I’ve lost all interest in streetwear,” he said. “I wore Ralph Lauren and Levi 501 singlets every day for 10 years.”
Unknown to him at the time, the brand’s militant skate-rat aesthetic made an impression on a new generation of trendsetters, including Mr. Abloh, who called the brand an influence on Off-White. Fashion reseller website Grailed has called Nom de Guerre “the most influential streetwear brand you may have never heard of”.
After Mr. Abloh tagged Mr. Turnbull on Instagram, the two became friends and conversation partners on topics as diverse as Louis Vuitton t-shirt graphics and vinyl recommendations.
“Virgil was on me when very few people were on me,” he said.
Last November, Mr. Abloh and Mr. Turnbull were working together on a speaker system just before Mr. Abloh died. Mr Turnbull said he still occasionally chokes when he thinks of his friend and all the audio and fashion projects they had talked about.
“Virgil intuitively understood the communicative power of music,” he said. “Listening to records together was a sacred act.”