It’s actually kind of weird.
A little more than a dozen people gather in the back room at Ember Audio + Design, sitting in a semi-circle as they stare into space. Some watch as the black record, with finely-carved rings like a centenarian oak tree, spins on the player, the needle carefully transmitting the sounds etched into its skin. Others close their eyes and sway.
The group of strangers has gathered at the newly reopened audio shop on West Ninth Street, across from Wise Man Brewing, for its public vinyl demo event — a long-beloved activity that the shop used to host at its old location on North Trade Street in Winston-Salem.
“It’s kind of like karaoke meets show-and-tell,” explains Chris Livengood, one of the owners of Ember. “You sign up to play a record, and on your turn, you say why you picked this thing.”
Several of the listeners in the audio-treated room have bags that lean against their chairs, filled with stacks of old vinyls. A sleeve featuring Jeff Buckley sits propped up next to a record by Winston-Salem’s Must Be the Holy Ghost in front of the stereo set up at the head of the room. Slim, black tubular speakers flank the system as attendees listen to “Melt Down,” nodding their heads as Jared Draughon’s tenor circulates through the living room-like space. An intricate and deep red, Persian carpet warms the concrete floor while soft rectangular panels on the walls trap the sounds.
The Friday evening rolls on with listener after listener presenting a new song for the group to take in. Some visitors stop in for a track or two while others sit patiently, absorbing each new genre, each new artist mindfully as the hours pass.
Gilbert Young, a local Winston-Salem artist who has been coming to Ember’s public vinyl demos for years, unveiled a collection of tracks by acclaimed jazz musician Kamasi Washington, who has collaborated with hip-hop artists such as Lauryn Hill, Nas and Kendrick Lamar.
Livengood picks the track “The Planet” from the case and lays it on the player.
Young moves to the center of the room and takes the best seat in the house, situated perfectly to experience optimal sound, according to Jamie Livengood, Chris’s wife and business partner.
Furious notes from a piano dance from the speakers, producing vivid imagery both chaotic and poetic, not unlike the splashes on a Jackson Pollock painting. The sharp sounds of a lone saxophone cut through the noise while the bassist plucks strings in the background. The storm of sound permeates the space, taking up every inch of the room, corner to corner. An apocalyptic choir harmonizes and ups the turmoil, casting an even more frantic feeling to the music. It’s a challenging piece to sit through and one that many might not listen to by choice. But that’s the point, says Livengood.
“It’s about sharing music,” he says. “Different genres. It runs the gamut. It’s the most bizarre shuffled playlist. It helps people experience music in a way they haven’t before.”
Livengood, who has worked in the audio business for the last two decades, is a sound nerd. When selling equipment to customers, he asks them what they want to listen to and then tries to build a customized system for their exact needs.
“In a world driven by online reviews, nothing is catered towards you,” he says.
Unlike Amazon, the shop has a smaller selection but is filled with what Livengood says are the best products for listening to sound whether it be music or movies or podcasts. He’s got a range of systems at every price point and encourages customers to use the back room to test out the equipment when it’s not being used for events.
“A high-end stereo shop is seen as something that appeals to 50-year-old golfers with deep pockets,” Livengood says. “But everybody has a right to a good listening experience. Everyone has the same right to music. We’re trying to make sure that there is something available for anyone who walks in.”
The vinyl demo events further that collaborative, community-oriented spirit that they’re trying to achieve at Ember, says Livengood, who grew up poor.
“You can share your enthusiasm for music and storytelling and connect with people,” he says. “We used to get excited about music. We would listen to music on a Walkman and shove the earbuds in our friend’s ear. That’s the enthusiasm we’re trying to capture. It’s still there, but there’s not a forum for it. We’re just trying to create that forum.”
And that’s what keeps bringing people like Young back.
“It’s the only place where you might listen to something new,” Young said. “You should always expand your ear.”
Ember Audio + Design is located at 151 W. Ninth St. in Winston-Salem. Visit their website to learn more. Follow them on Facebook for updates.