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Travel at the speed of sound
London's bar scene is at the forefront of a revival inspiring venues to focus on the quality of their sound system as opposed to their cocktails, food or decor
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018 – Page A17

A suspicious number of willowy models in futuristic get-ups are wandering around this bar in a repurposed transit shed in London's Kings Cross neighbourhood. The bartender seems baffled by my attempts to pay for my drinks.

"Aren't you with the film," he asks? "I guess so," I reply, putting my credit card away. Apparently, I've crashed a wrap party.

In truth, I haven't sought out this bar for its cocktails or its party or even its free drinks. I'm here to listen to its stereo.

Spiritland, as the place is known, is one of a handful of venues to open in London in the past few years that put the emphasis not on cocktails or food or decor, but on the sound system. These places are obsessively focused on reproducing impeccable, high-fidelity sound and the lengths they'll go to in order to achieve this goal make them - for music lovers at least - well worth travelling for.

The concept of a bar dedicated to listening was imported from Tokyo, where jazz kissaten have been a part of that city since the post-Second World War days when albums were prohibitively expensive. Music lovers would gather in these specialized cafés to hear the latest recordings from around the world. While the concept has waned over the years - there were once more than 500 such cafés, but now only a handful remain - a new generation is rediscovering the pleasure of careful, quality listening and is taking the concept around the world. London is at the forefront of this resurgence.

Some of city's venues, such as the chill, minimalist Behind This Wall in Hackney, still retain a bit of the scrappy, DIY aesthetic that informed those early Japanese listening clubs. Bartender Desiree Palma is spinning lazy cuts from an album called Peanut Butter Breaks when I arrive. The sound in the subterranean space is crisp and visceral, almost emotional. It should be: The system, carefully tweaked to maximize the room's inherent acoustics, once belonged to legendary producer Martin Hannett (Joy Division, New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and includes his Tannoy Gold speakers, a rotary mixer, a bank of valve amps and a classic Technics turntable.

Between sides, I catch up with the bar's owner, Alex Harris, who explains why he wanted to build a bar around a stereo. "I got so sick of going to bars where there's so much noise and the DJs are in their headphones and they're not really aware of what's going on in the room. For a normal service, we all control the sound, so if you're the bartender, you're kind of setting the vibe of the room."

Palma agrees, switching the record to some soulful Theo Parrish.

"It's really a chilled atmosphere," she says. "No pressure, anyone can play whatever they want.

Apart from Taylor Swift, obviously." Swift is also unlikely to be heard at my next stop. A short walk away in Dalston is a fiveyear-old spot named after a Thelonious Monk composition: Brilliant Corners. In addition to the pilgrimage-worthy sound system, it is also a well-regarded restaurant serving Japanese food, of course, alongside and impressive natural wine list. The Talking Heads tune Slippery People is playing from a quartet of massive, ultrapremium Klipschorn speakers, one in each corner of the room, when I arrive.

It has never sounded slipperier.

The volume doesn't preclude normal conversation, but the quality of the sound is profound: David Byrne might as well be in the room with us. The difference between the sound here and nearly every other bar on earth is roughly equivalent to watching a movie in Imax versus watching it on a plane.

Sam Kemp, one of the venues' managers, tells me, "The organizing genre here is jazz, and a lot of jazz gets played, but the music influences are pretty open, so it might move from funk and disco to rare Afro-Brazilian stuff, hiphop, disco and house. During the week, we look a lot like a restaurant and at the weekend we still run a full restaurant service, but occasionally, if the moon is right, the lights go down and people get up and dance."

On this weekday night, I leave before the dancing breaks out, but not before discovering some great new music thanks to the evening's guest DJ, Ash Robinson.

Wildflower, a soulful jazz band from London with a 300 pressing record and hand painted label and Wild Havana, an absolutely bonkers psychedelic prog jazz Dutch group from the 1970s.

Back at Spiritland, the models, still strutting around like they're on a catwalk, appear too cool to notice the jaw-dropping sound around them. I'm shook, though, and stare in wonder into the green gobbed maw of what is considered by some to be the best sound system in the world.

The bespoke speaker system, designed by high-end audio manufacturer, Living Voice, consists of two towers and nearly a dozen stacked components including one tweeter that conveys frequencies outside of the ability of human hearing. The rest of the system is just as mind boggling and includes, among numerous other components, a modified Bozak mixer, a Revox B77 reel-toreel tape player and a Kuzma Stabi XL DC turntable. Altogether, the system is rumoured to have cost more than half a million pounds.

It sounds incredible. Immersive, revealing and intricately detailed the system conveys not only every note, tone and pitch with incredible clarity and impact, it also gives the listener the distinct impression of being in the room where the recording was made.

I've never heard anything quite like it.

The DJ drops the needle on some obscure Nu-disco electronica from Tokyo Matt - is that a gamelan I hear? - and as the bright, trippy music fills the bar, I notice even one of the models stops for a minute. Slowly, she turns her head toward the speakers, closes her eyes and for a while seems entranced by the sounds washing over the room.

The writer's airfare was provided by Visit Britain. It did not review or approve this article.

Associated Graphic

Spiritland, located in London's King's Cross neighbourhood, is obsessively focused on reproducing high-fidelity sound that's worth travelling abroad for. ADAM SCOTT

The listening bar Brilliant Corners, left, is also a well-regarded Japanese restaurant, while Spiritland, right, is better known for its sound system rumoured to cost more than half a million pounds.

Huh? How did I get here?
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