HiFi cocktail bars aren’t just for Tokyo anymore

A new breed of bar aims to please your ears as much as your taste buds


Walk into Bar Shiru, a cocktail lounge that opened three months ago in uptown Oakland, California, and the first thing you notice is the back wall, where about 1,000 vinyl records are lined on shelves 15ft (4.6m) high. Most of them are jazz: Giants such as Miles Davis face outward alongside current stars like Kamasi Washington. A few albums from hip-hop and R&B artists, ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Prince to Aretha Franklin, round out the mix.

After ordering one of the bar’s signature highballs and finding a seat in the middle of the room, your attention will likely turn to the pair of Line Magnetic 812 speakers at the foot of this display. Their brass hardware, coarse-weave fabric screens, and top-mounted horns come off as relics from the 1950s. Nearby, the vacuum tubes of two LM-805IA amplifiers glow on either side of the DJ booth. But they’re not here as a piece of expensive design nostalgia: This old-school, high-tech equipment renders beats and blue notes in the bilevel room with a you-are-there clarity.

Octopus and pork belly at Spiritland

Music — specifically, music played on a superior sound system — is becoming the latest competitive advantage for high-end bars and cafes. Spiritland, which opened a 180-person “listening room”-style restaurant in London’s Royal Festival Hall in December, worked with custom speaker maker Living Voice to create its setup. In Sheep’s Clothing, a new all-day audiophile bar in Los Angeles’ (LA) downtown arts district, uses a US$12,000 (RM49,320) pair of Klipschorns to broadcast a vinyl collection put together for the joint by Zach Cowie, the music supervisor who gave Aziz Ansari’s Master of None its tuneful landscape.

These places and others like them are providing a dedicated space for music lovers. Some of them are cafes by day that become bars at night, often serving food. DJs are present but aren’t the focus; there’s no dance floor, no nightclub vibe. Listeners at these spots will be introduced to new tunes instead of the same notes they always hear.

If they’re used to hearing anything at all. As anyone who’s shouted her way through dinner knows, restaurants are in a noise arms race. You howl to be heard, and the music’s volume is raised to cover the din. Sound waves ricochet off hard surfaces, distorting and losing detail with every bounce before they reach your ears, eventually forming a sonic sludge with your companions’ voices. It’s the auditory equivalent of corked wine.

Public Records, which opened this month in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighbourhood, is the latest to combat this modern-day malady with high fidelity. It has a cafe, a cavernous bar and an intimate “sound room”. While many of these venues list equipment manifests on their websites — catnip to a certain set — Francis Harris, DJ, composer and partner, wants to keep the attention on the programming, not the acoustics. “Talking about expensive gear feels exclusionary,” he says.

Nonetheless, Harris and his partners, Shane Davis and Erik VanderWal, take their sound seriously. They worked with Devon Turnbull of Ojas, a design studio that’s collaborated with LVMH and Supreme, as well as Jason Ojeda’s Global Audio Systems, an immersive lighting, sound and visuals company that’s produced events for Sony, Timberland and Visa.

Together, they created a custom system with speakers that feature vintage horns from Altec Lansing, the historic American electronics brand. Their sound room was also built with input from Arup, a company that’s brought acoustical engineering expertise to opera houses in Copenhagen, London and Oslo. It was tested with a wide range of tracks, from the Eagles to Michael Jackson to Diana Krall. The real moment of truth, Ojeda says, came when they played one of Harris’ own songs, which gave him a “holy shit” moment of sonic revelation.

Shirin Raza and Daniel Gahr, the wife-and-husband duo behind Oakland’s Bar Shiru, had their eureka moment about four years ago on a vacation in Japan. Walking through Tokyo’s Ebisu district, they happened upon tiny Bar Martha, one of the country’s many kissaten, a class of cafes geared toward audiophiles. They’d proliferated in the lean years after World War II, when high-quality stereo equipment and imported records were beyond the average person’s reach. Today, it’s not hard to find one dedicated to your favourite music, whether classical or techno. Some play CDs, others cassettes, but jazz on vinyl is the most common. What Raza saw was a place where people could “focus on music while being able to socialise, hang out and have some good whisky”, she says. “I was, like, why doesn’t this exist here?”

Her husband spent the last 7½ years as an executive at the Oaland based music service Pandora, most recently as group creative director, and thus had some opinions. (Gahr recently left to focus on Bar Shiru full time.) “Music has become a little bit of a di posable medium,” he says. “If you’re just a casual listener, you don’t really have a lot of motivation to buy or listen to an entire album.” Instead, songs are marketed to get included on featured playlists for on-demand services. “Music isn’t just an endless stream that could go on infinitely if you let it,” he continues. “We’re not scared of the silence that comes when you’re changing the record.”

But hushed silence is not the goal of this new breed of bar. Creating a listener-friendly environment, in which people can have sonic revelations while still being social, has been “really interesting, to say the least”, says Eliot Kessel, GM of In Sheep’s Clothing. His bar has one daily, midafternoon block, the “Lion Hours”, during which conversation is forbidden. (The name is a nod to Tokyo’s Lion Cafe, which has been playing classical music for discerning listeners since 1926.)

Other than that, the rules of decorum aren’t nearly so dogmatic. A sign by the bar’s entrance (through an unmarked door in an adjoining pizzeria) simply asks customers to keep conversations below the music. “It’s starting to police itself,” Kessel says. “Customers come up to me now, and they’re like, ‘Hey, can I tell this table next to me to lower their voices?’”

Holy Shhhhhh: Musical Temples Worth a Pilgrimage

1. Spiritland, London (main picture)

The all-day bar’s Living Voice-designed system soundtracks bleary-eyed breakfasts and DJ-driven evenings.

On the playlist: Frank Sinatra, Childish Gambino, Fela Kuti.

Gear on tap: A hand-wired rotary mixer from Can Electric.

Drink to order: Gimlet with gin and clementine shrub.

2. Studio Eksotika, Bali

A DJ spins at studio Eksotika in Bali (Source: Studio Eksotika)

The focal point of this tiny lounge is a six-seat bar made from recycled timber and foam.

On the playlist: Rafika Duri, Devendra Ban- hart, Eric Serra.

Gear on tap: Vintage cerulean blue JBL 4345 studio monitors.

Drink to order: Spiced Dancer, with arak, honey, citrus and soda.

3. Bar Shiru, Oakland

Speaker and shelf at Bar Shiru

Oversize photos of Nina Simone and Miles Davis in this 2,300-sq-ft (213.7 sq m) lounge double as sound-absorbing panels; elsewhere, the bar is outfitted in midcentury modern seating.

On the playlist: John Coltrane, Kendrick Lamar, Parliament.

Gear on tap: Line Magnetic 812 speakers, a modern riff on the legendary Lansing Iconic.

Drink to order: Shiru highball, with Japanese whisky, soda, lemon.

4. In Sheep’s Clothing, Los Angeles

In Sheep’s Clothing, an all-day listening bar in LA

Its playlists are released every month on Spotify, but hearing the songs on vinyl through its sound system is essential.

On the playlist: Bill Frisell, Robbie Basho, Cody Chesnutt.

Gear on tap: Klipsch Klipschorn speakers, the gold standard since 1946.

Drink to order: Tabako, with Taketsuru pure malt whisky, Maurin Quina, tobacco bitters.

5. Public Records, Brooklyn

Edgy programming, inspired by the shuttered downtown club Tonic, encourages left-field DJs and avant-garde musicians.

On the playlist: Yasuaki Shimizu, the Overton Berry Trio.

Gear on tap: BGW amplifiers, the power behind some of New York’s best-loved venues.

Drink to order: Gin and tonic with grapefruit peel, white pepper, coriander and chamomile. — Bloomberg