The clubland scene in London has taken a turn for the better and the worse lately. While superclubs like Fabric are finding their licenses revoked for myriad reasons (often citing noise and drug-taking, and equally often based on tissue-paper-thin evidence), smaller, more cerebral events are taking place with a distinctly audiophile intent.
The mainstream media in the UK and US has recently picked up on the Spiritland club in the heart of London (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/31/arts/music/london-listening-clubs-spiritland.html?hpw&rref=arts&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/07/spiritland-brilliant-corners-london-audiophile-bars ). The ultralounge in the new Kings Cross development is built around a unique combination venue, radio studio, café bar and listening space. Perhaps most importantly for the audiophile is its sound system, comprising a Kuzma turntable and a dCS Vivaldi digital player, a handbuilt Isonoe mixer/preamplifier, a set of Atelier du Triode amplifiers and custom made Living Voice horn loudspeakers. This kind of system would set you back close to half a million in the home.
Spiritland is not the first audiophile-directed musical event space in London, but it is the first one to put down roots in a regular space. Perhaps the best known of these events is Classic Album Sundays, which has been running in several places around the world (starting in 2010 in the Hanbury Arms pub in North London), and venues such as Brilliant Corners in London’s East End, the Hidden Rooms in Cambridge, and the Songbyrd Music and Record Café in Washington DC. These events are more likely to use equipment brought in from the pool of audiophile DJs renting the space than have a high-performance audio system installed, and to this end Spiritland is unique in this sense. Moreover, while I am fairly convinced that few will take things to Spiritland’s extreme, there will be those who follow its lead and deliver high performance audiophile sound in a live space. This might be a way of losing some of the demonization of the term ‘audiophile’ along the way.
The new quality-driven experience is largely predicted by the vinyl revival, in part because that revival is equated to quality, but also because of the way people tend to react (on a seemingly unconscious level) to listening to vinyl. From experience and for reasons that remain seemingly mysterious, when playing back music, listeners are typically more enrapt and applaud at the end of a focused listening session to an LP, where they simply stand up after listening to digital files under the same circumstances. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the audiophile club movement features turntables, often with valve amplifiers, and large horn loudspeakers.
In fact, this is not ‘new’ at all, and it dates back to the very start of clubbing, because these audiophile listening events continue to expand on the club foundations laid down by David Manusco in the Loft parties in the New York of the early 1970s. These were events where soul, funk, and afro-funk rhythms could be heard, but played through domestic audio equipment like Klipschorns rather than the then still nascent PA systems. This trend continues to this day in the shape of the Lucky Cloud Sound System
What’s surprising about this increased interest in all things audiophile in a shared space is the term ‘shared’. While the traditional view of the audiophile is a lone enthusiast holed up in his (it’s usually a male hobby) ‘Man Cave’, these events are all about the shared experience. People sit and listen intensely to an album from beginning to end quietly and as a group, then often start discussing it among themselves. The equipment is, as it should be, more a means to an end than an end in itself, but that is not to denigrate the performance of the equipment, or undermine the experience those who listen to such systems are getting. Merely that it’s a way for people to enjoy music in a way few others can today.
A handful of switched-on hi-fi retailers are wise to this movement. The Classic Album Sundays movement has had close ties with DJs who either use good audio at home, or who spend their working life during the day in high-end audio stores. Some of the really switched-on retailers even use their own premises as a night-time audiophile event space. Whether this generates any tangible business for these retailers remains to be seen, but I reckon people who spend a few days a month listening to good music through great systems in ultralounges, clubs, pubs, and converted audio stores are very likely to buy their own systems.
It’s early days. This may be a fad and burn out over time. Or it might continue to grow from strength to strength. It needs to move out from under the trendy North London hipster elite umbrella, and I’m not sure a bar in the middle of nowhere would be able or willing to justify spending tens of thousands on audio equipment. But, let’s not shoot this down in flames… I’m off to check out Spiritland soon!