One day in March 2020, just as New York City was sliding into lockdown, Devon Turnbull got a cryptic text message from his friend Virgil Abloh. “I didn’t even get it at first,” Turnbull tells me over lunch this summer. “He’s like, ‘Your time is now. You’re about to blow up.’ I was just like, really? ”
For Turnbull, 43, who had been working for several years in relative obscurity building high-fidelity home-audio equipment under the creative pseudonym Ojas, the impetus for Abloh’s prophecy remains a mystery. “I don’t know if that was just based purely on his insane level of foresight and his ability as a visionary,” says Turnbull. After all, Abloh reimagined the future of streetwear with his brand Off-White and reinvented Louis Vuitton as the brand’s men’s artistic director, but Turnbull couldn’t be sure. “It could have just as easily been that he was on some fucking LVMH company trend-forecaster marketing thing and people were like, ‘Home audio is about to become huge.’ ” Either way, Abloh’s message was clear: Your moment is about to come. It’s about to happen.
At the time Abloh texted him, plenty was already happening for Turnbull, who had fashioned an intriguing niche as the maker of custom audio systems for some of New York’s most influential creatives. Ojas had gone from an alias to an actual company, and its distinctively brutalist and often exceptionally large home-audio systems regularly sold for five figures. Turnbull’s speakers were installed in Supreme stores around the world, and he had designed an audiophile–grade system for the buzzy Brooklyn club Public Records, known for having the best sound in the city. Meanwhile, Abloh himself had asked Turnbull to create custom speakers for his traveling “Figures of Speech” exhibition, which debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019. By April 2020, Ojas had also released its first Artbook Shelf Speaker, a smaller version of his more extravagantly priced custom units, which now sells for $6,000. And Turnbull was developing a DIY model with all the components needed for audiophiles to assemble one at home. His plan was to sell the kits, then host Zoom sessions for people to hang out and build them together—an idea that found instant success during a time when the only nightclub was often your living room.
“I had no idea that it would resonate the way it did,” Turnbull says. “It’s the first thing I ever posted on my Instagram that was viral. It was the only time I’d ever had hundreds of comments on a post. And then it was just off to the races.” Abloh offered to make Canary Yellow, his multiuse e-commerce site, the commercial home for the Ojas Artbook and DIY speaker kits, and the next generation of Ojas converts was born. Since then, Turnbull’s client list has grown to include the new Nine Orchard hotel on Canal Street and celebrity music producers like Mark Ronson. The fashion retailer Ssense started selling his speakers. This summer, an Ojas sound system was installed as an actual work of art in a downtown New York gallery.
What makes this success all the more remarkable is that it’s Turnbull’s second act. Almost two decades earlier, in 2003, he cofounded the menswear label Nom de Guerre. The brand’s Bleecker Street shop closed in 2010, but it remains influential among certain fashion cults. Turnbull might now be thriving in a totally different kind of career, but his sensibilities—minimalism, utilitarianism, an obsession with quality—remain the same. And as he makes some of the most rarefied audio equipment in the world, it’s his eye as much as his ear that sets him apart, a duality that perhaps made him especially appealing to a polymath like Abloh.
That versatility was immediately apparent to Turnbull’s Nom de Guerre cofounder, Isa Saalabi, who recalls visiting Turnbull one day in 2007 when Turnbull told him in lucid detail about the home-audio system he had just built, his first of its kind. “It was a very clear conversation,” recalls Saalabi, who photographed Turnbull for this story. “He talked about a vision for a sound system with this brutalist design, and he specifically said, ‘I see it as a sculpture in a Chelsea gallery.’ The vision was there from the beginning. And that’s what makes the whole thing so special and beautiful. This wasn’t something that happened overnight.”
What Devon Turnbull does with sound is so specific, so rare and far-out, that even within the world of high-end home audio he’s an outlier in his devotion to utter sonic purity. “It’s countercultural,” he says of his role in the audiophile community. “I partake in a global underground culture within audio that prescribes a certain formula for sound production equipment.”
When it comes to analog music, sound, of course, begins when a needle passes over the grooves of a record. A small electrical signal is generated that must be amplified to create a vibration strong enough to move air through the tubes of a speaker to make a sound. “I want to do as little as possible so as to not disturb the purity of that signal,” he says. Turnbull’s unique designs thus contain a surprising paradox. “You could call it a minimalist approach to audio reproduction,” he says. “But if you look at the stuff, it doesn’t look minimalist at all. It’s extremely heavy, extremely large.” Here’s an important fact when it comes to hi-fi audio: Larger speakers do not have to use more power. Ojas systems, counterintuitively, use massive horns, boxes the size of refrigerators, and subwoofers as big as dumpsters, because Turnbull is using super-low-wattage amplifiers to power them. Larger speakers allow for less distortion and high dynamics.
The result is a sound system with a visual impact that is nearly as great as its aural impact. Turnbull—who most days wears baggy cargo pants and graphic T-shirts with a baseball cap, and has the cool, streetwise vibe of an aging skater—says that he is “100 percent acoustically motivated.” It just so happens that he has a highly developed aesthetic sensibility to go with his audio-engineering expertise.
Born in New York, Turnbull relocated to Iowa with his family when he was 11. After dropping out of high school, he got his GED and moved to Washington State at 17 to study “the science and business of sound,” as he calls it, at the Art Institute of Seattle. There, he learned to read a schematic of audio electronics—the drawing that explains how a piece of equipment is made—and took a class in graphic design, which he found came naturally to him. In 1999, Turnbull moved back to New York and started making stickers and T-shirts and hats printed with Ojas—a Sanskrit term that loosely translates to “life vitality” and that he used as his tag as a graffiti writer. He peddled his wares downtown and got some traction in the nascent scene that was budding at proto–streetwear shops like Alife and Union. A couple of years later, in 2003, he cofounded Nom de Guerre with Saalabi, who had worked for Marc Jacobs; Wil Whitney, previously the manager of the New York Stüssy store; and Holly Harnsongkram, a former fashion editor at W magazine. Mixing their various backgrounds in art, graphic design, streetwear, and high fashion, they tore down the walls that stood between their various worlds and created a subterranean shop in downtown Manhattan where all kinds of ideas about high design intermingled.
With Nom de Guerre, Turnbull made frequent trips to Japan, where the brand did much of its sourcing and production. There he began to discover the roots of the audiophile culture that he would eventually dedicate his life to. But it was at a store in Paris—home to a flourishing hi-fi audio scene of its own—where he first heard a sound system that he has described as “psychedelic,” as compared to the stereo he had been listening to. “And then,” he says, “I was sure that that was my path.”
Over the next decade, while focusing on streetwear, Turnbull began making his own hi-fi systems—avant-garde works he called “sound sculptures”—and he eventually glimpsed a chance to turn the sideline into a new career. Using his old graffiti tag, Ojas, he began to produce large-scale brutalist sound systems distinguished by their naturalistic audio quality. As Ojas grew, Turnbull increasingly felt like there was more to be done with the equipment he was building. In 2020 he hired two full-time employees and moved his business operation from the top floor of his Brooklyn town house to an industrial workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Now, Ojas is capable of building about 15 custom speaker setups per year. It’s an increasingly more robust operation but one that’s still relatively small-scale compared to the burgeoning interest in this unique form of hi-fi audio.
Last year, one of Turnbull’s friends, the artist Hugh Hayden, introduced him to an avowed audiophile named Alex Logsdail, the CEO of Lisson Gallery, where Hayden shows his work. Logsdail invited Turnbull to place an Ojas system inside of his Chelsea gallery as part of a show called “The Odds Are Good, the Goods Are Odd,” which included works by Hayden and other artists with a focus on handmade sculpture. In a private 390-square-foot room located at the back of the gallery, Turnbull installed his HiFi Dream Listening Room No. 1—not a sculpture but a complete hand-built sound system. At one end of the Listening Room, which was on display through August, stood a wall of brutalist speakers. In the middle were the turntable and the amplifiers that power them. And at the other end were seats where visitors could sit and listen. All of the components were hand-built, angular, and matte or slightly glossy gray, as though carved from stone or cast in concrete. The feeling in the room was similarly heavy, thanks in part to careful customizations of the space to maximize the acoustics—this is a place where something important is going to happen. “I really try to create an environment that feels like a temple or a shrine,” Turnbull says, “or a wellness space of some sort.”
The listening room ran for around two months, free and open to the public (as most galleries are) to come in and listen to the Ojas system for as long as they pleased. The musical offerings included sessions with the legendary jazz imprint Blue Note Records, a selection of ambient music by Brian Eno, and live performances recorded directly to tape and played back over the sound system. Each day the room filled with a mix of hi-fi fanatics, Ojas acolytes, and unsuspecting gallery-goers of all sorts. Turnbull rolled around the room on a wheeled stool, dropping records on the Ojas turntable and simply listening, as everyone else did, facing the speakers.
One visitor, Chance Chamblin, a 21-year-old film student from New York, was familiar with Turnbull’s work through social media but had never had the opportunity to experience an Ojas system for himself until it landed in the gallery. “Serenity” is how he describes what he found in that room. “Peace of mind.” He estimates that he spent around 30 hours listening to Turnbull’s system at the gallery. On his first day, he sat for seven hours. “I come here to surrender myself to this gorgeous and incredible-sounding system,” he tells me.
When Turnbull was 11, his parents, former Transcendental Meditation teachers, moved the family from the New York metropolitan area to Fairfield, Iowa, to be closer to the Transcendental Meditation community there. Turnbull and his sister were educated at a private academy affiliated with the movement, the Maharishi School, and Turnbull recalls spending a few hours a day meditating as part of their curriculum. It was “like a little cult, remote, middle of nowhere,” says Turnbull, who has since stopped practicing Transcendental Meditation and distanced himself from the community, though the experience continues to inform his designs. “There’s a lot that I draw from that experience,” Turnbull tells me. “The sense of communal consciousness -tapping, and mind melding, and people getting together for a shared experience.”
Through his years of meditation, Turnbull came to realize that a certain kind of patience, devotion, and mind-over-matter calm can yield great rewards. He mastered the schematics and formulas required to build hi-fi audio—Ojas equipment is imposing, with a lush and visceral sound—but he also learned how focus and intention can be transformative when paired with exceptionally good sound. So that people properly appreciate its quality, the HiFi Dream Listening Room No. 1 encourages stillness, silence, and a clearing of the mind. Turnbull notes that visitors never had to be explicitly told to be quiet; the implicit request was miraculously obeyed by virtually all who entered the room.
In recent years, Turnbull’s parents have also moved on from Transcendental Meditation. His father is now the chair of the advisory board for the NYU Center for Psychedelic Medicine; his mother, a guide for psilocybin studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins. Turnbull has recently been helping his parents incorporate music into their studies as an audio consultant, primarily by improving their equipment. “I told my parents that they were only getting half of the potential experience by overlooking the playback equipment,” he says. “They agreed, and their joke now is that I’m missing 90 percent of the potential of my listening sessions by overlooking psychedelics.”
Helping bring hi-fi audio to his parents’ lives was the start of something new. Turnbull is now hoping to repeat that process on a grand scale, in a way that democratizes this incredibly rarefied listening experience. “I want to create a hi-fi for the people,” he says. The first step toward that goal will be to create more free, public listening rooms. Turnbull sees museums and galleries as the best opportunity to make that happen. “Music deserves these spaces,” he says. “I don’t think there should be just one, I think there should be a lot of them. I think it’s so unfortunately rare these days for people to have even a good stereo system to listen to stuff on. When the gallery approached me I realized, Oh, my God, this is my dream. My ultimate hope is that this works, that there will be more of these, and you can one day go to the museum where you can sit down and enjoy sound.”
For Turnbull, the gallery show recontextualized his work in a radical way. “When people ask me what I do, I have a really hard time answering that. If I say, ‘I own an audio-component manufacturing business,’ that sounds nothing like what I do,” he says. Now, after his HiFi Dream Listening Room No. 1, he can simply say, “I’m an artist.”
Streaming platforms, Bluetooth speakers, and wireless earphones have made music more prevalent in our lives than ever. We never stop listening. But we primarily do it passively, streaming while we drive, work out, do chores, make dinner. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to listen with intention. Turnbull is now on a mission to bring his very specific vision for world-class audio beyond the micro-niche hi-fi community. “Sound is just ripples in the air,” he says. “Musicians are like shamans; they learn how to manipulate people’s brain functioning through those ripples in the air. I have an important responsibility to capture those vibrations and transmit them, to spread those vibrations around the world.”
Noah Johnson is GQ’s global style director.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of GQ with the title “The Art of Sound”