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We Went To A High-End Audio Cafe In London

Can A Hifi Venue Succeed?

On April 5, 2017

Here’s an interesting and seldom asked question. When was the last time you were out in a bar, club or similar venue and the audio system sounded better than the one you have at home? Not louder, not objectively more enjoyable due to it hosting an artist you rate highly, but qualitatively better than your domestic listening experience? In my own experience, it doesn’t take a huge amount of money spent on a home system to create something that can convincingly outperform a public system.

Of course this isn’t too surprising. Unlike the home system, the venue one needs to be audible evenly across the space it occupies rather than having a sweet spot. It needs to be able to run at high levels without stress or breakdown and- perhaps most crucially- in many venues, the budget allocated to it is contested with many other areas of the business. The good news of course is that this hasn’t prevented a number of venues around the world sounding pretty bloody good.

What happens when a venue decides to try and bring a high end home listening experience to a public venue though? To make matters more complicated still, what are the results when the level that they seek to pitch in at is not to equal the “high end” as we might commonly imagine it but at a point that is far beyond what us mere mortals might ever get near? The good news is that we now have an answer to those questions and it’s just outside King’s Cross station in London. It’s called Spiritland and explaining what has gone into it is no small undertaking.

Firstly and most importantly, Spiritland is not an audio system to which a social venue has been bolted on. It opens at 8am weekdays (with a slightly more relaxed 10am start at weekends) and serves an excellent cup of coffee for those up and about at that time. It additionally offers good food, has an interesting and extensive selection of drinks both alcoholic and otherwise, and it has ample seating. In a city that has lately seemed determined to offer the dumbest pop up restaurants you could possibly imagine, Spiritland reeks of good sense.

Against the far wall though, something a little more out of the ordinary lurks-- at least the most visible manifestation of it. A pair of large multi way horn speakers supported by their attendant bass modules dominates the view of a patron wandering in. These might look like restored esoterica from a bygone age- indeed many of the décor decisions have been made in order for you to think just that- but they are less than a year old. They were built specially for the venue and they wear a name that is a little bit special; Living Voice.

Living Voice is a company that does things their own way. Although they produce a range of startlingly good box speakers, their main interest has always been in the creation of horn driver based designs. Around a decade ago, they released a speaker called the Vox Olympian. A five way horn speaker, it is designed to be both the ultimate loudspeaker and an object that was made from materials totally free from compromise for cost or simplicity reasons. There are quite a few designs that might lay claim to ‘best loudspeaker in the world’ but, cards on the table time, for me it is this one that has the best argument.

The Spiritland speakers are not a straight conversion of the Vox Olympian because they have a different task to perform but the DNA is there. Speaking to Kevin Scott, owner and designer for Living Voice, they incorporate various ideas and concepts that allow them to do their job in this specific venue including a bipole tweeter and a midrange array designed and voiced to work in a room with higher ambient noise levels than you might expect at home. The results are fantastic- the Spiritland speakers are some of the most insanely covetable items I’ve encountered in quite a while.

The rest of the replay chain is a curious mix of pro and domestic. In the booth, you’ll find a pair of Technics SL-1210s (Mk2s naturally) and Pioneer CDDJ digital mix stations but these are joined by a gigantic Kuzma Stabi XL turntable from Slovenia. Paul Noble, the man with the vision behind Spiritland, is keen to stress that as a venue, all formats are equal but rest assured, when Spiritland wants to play vinyl, it does so properly.

What elevates all this into the realms of the truly special is the attention to detail. The mixer that combines these sources for output, to the Canary Audio valve amps that power the speakers is bespoke and its external chassis largely machined from solid brass. It isn’t for show either. Due to the enormous sensitivity of the speakers, the muted inputs really do need to be muted to be inaudible. Some of the other details are no less fantastic. Leave the main space and go to the toilet and you’ll be pleased to learn that music is piped through so you don’t miss out. The wrinkle here is that the speakers they pipe through to is a pair of Tannoy Autograph Minis in each cubicle. Should the competition for ‘best sounding public toilet’ ever get underway, expect Spiritland to be in the running.

Enough fluff though- does a public space you can enter for the price of a cup of coffee really deliver a truly high end sound? Based on my experience, yes it does. To be clear, this is not the same as some unfettered time with a pair of Vox Olympians. Spiritland is not a library, and while it takes leads from the Japanese Kissaten ‘listening café’ concept, it doesn’t demand that patrons sit in rapt silence. Despite this, one of the most impressive aspects of the whole enterprise is how little the extraneous noise matters. Even at tickover, this system has clarity and scale that puts it in a realm beyond what most of us can achieve at home.

There is an effortlessness too that is hard to describe correctly. Like all horn loudspeakers, the Spiritland array is incredibly sensitive- the whole ensemble is powered by 50 watts of amplification and full power isn’t needed even on the most riotous of evenings. With such a huge amount of headroom available, there is a sense of ‘powerful delicacy’, the sort of force that allows tornadoes to drive blades of straw though telephone poles, to the music. It allows this system to capture the scale and energy present in a full size piano or even within the lungs of a reasonably strident vocalist. Done correctly- as it is here- there is a sense of the live that recorded music so often fails to deliver.

Most importantly, it will bring these qualities to anything you choose to play on it. A look through the events calendar should be enough to show that Spiritland doesn’t simply exist to play noodly audiophile material at background listening levels. Like any great system, it is designed to do justice to music as a whole rather than specific genres. It is a giant physical manifestation to the ideal that if your equipment is limiting your musical choices, it is doing something wrong.

So, is this some sort of peculiar one off or does the concept have legs? Based on what I’ve seen here, I think there is scope for other people to attempt their own Spiritlands, and if they build it, people will come. What I found especially heartening about my visit to Spiritland was that the clientele I shared it with didn’t conform to any of the standard stereotypes- “pale, stale and male”- that can be legitimately levelled at high end audio. The spread of visitors is encouraging and the idea that it gives them a tangible demonstration of just how spectacular audio can be is an encouraging one. I don’t assume for one second that many of these visitors will wind up with a giant multi way horn system but if Spiritland leaves them knowing that music can be much more than convenience background filler, that is something to be celebrated.

Profile Picture of Ed Selley
Ed Selley

Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.

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