Using a combination of pricey bespoke gear and Audio-Technica mics, cans and carts, Spiritland is creating a little corner of Japan in London with audiophile listening sessions. PSNE's Jon Chapple went along to see what all the fuss was about...
Elephant and Castle aside, King’s Cross – formerly a post-industrial wasteland known for its thriving community of courtesans – is perhaps the last area of central London to feel the full force of gentrification. But now, as if making up for lost time, gentrifying it is: Where once were squatters putting on warehouse raves, there are now grand cafés serving £6 pints; where once was a dilapidated railway station with escalators made of inflammable timber, there’s now Platform 9¾; and where once stood perhaps the city’s dodgiest pub – the strip club-cum-spit’n’sawdust affair that was the Flying Scotsman – is now a gastropub called The Scottish Stores.
It’s in this landscape of rapid regeneration that Paul Noble, a former BBC radio producer, is carving out a niche with his new venue Spiritland, bringing the Far Eastern-style high-end ‘listening’ experience to the denizens of the British capital.
“I used to do a lot of travelling to Tokyo,” Noble said of his inspiration for Spiritland over a pot of tea when PSNE dropped by. (The 80-capacity venue was unexpectedly busy even at 3pm, with new-media types holding meetings against the backdrop of a humongous bespoke sound system – more on that later.) “You’d go into a little neighbourhood bar and there’d be valve amps, high-end turntables…”
Noble’s experience of Tokyo’s audiophile bars (often called jazz kissaten, or cafés) is one part of the story – but the real genesis of Spiritland, he explained, came when he realised London’s nightlife had little to offer the kind of person for whom an ideal night out is a laid-back music listening session. “As a music lover, there was nowhere I could really go,” he said.
While the venue does get “significantly louder and darker” in the evenings, when patrons are more likely to be sipping on a pale ale than a macchiato, Spiritland by night is still emphatically not a place for clubbing; tables and chairs retain their daytime positions – “We haven’t forgotten to put in a dancefloor,” joked Noble – and seated clientele immerse themselves in an atmosphere optimised for concentration and free of distractions.
Is the ethos of Spiritland a conscious pushback against the culture of sacrificing audio quality for convenience? “Don’t get me wrong, I love Spotify,” Noble emphasised, “but Spiritland is a reaction to the miniaturisation of equipment – how many people are doing most of their music listening out of their phone speakers? “So we’ve done a 180: We thought, ‘Let’s give the music time and space to breathe.’ And to do that, we’ve gone all out.”
And gone all out, Spiritland has: the first thing PSNE sees on entering (the on-loan Kuzma Stabi XL turntable with £5,000 Audio-Technica ART1000 cartridge, looking for all the world like one of Liberace’s sports cars, notwithstanding) is a “totally bespoke” solid brass Spiritland-branded mixing console. Designed in collaboration with Isonoe – whose desks can also be found in London superclub Fabric and underground dance club Sub Club in Glasgow.
Speakers (also bespoke) come courtesy of Nottinghamshire-based Kevin Scott, whose Living Voice company delivered a monster five-way horn-loaded system, finished in beech, birch and the African hardwood sapele, priced at close to £500,000.
While Noble declined to hazard a guess at an approximate SPL, Scott says the system can go as far as 105dBW with minimal distortion. It’s an audio geek’s paradise – there’s also a vintage Revox B77 reel-to-reel, some classic outboard in the form of a Roland RE-201 Space Echo and two Technics SL1210 decks customised with Isonoe arms – but Noble maintains Spiritland is no mere shrine to expensive gear: Every bit of kit, he said, is there to enhance customers’ enjoyment of the music.
“It’s not about building a fetishist world around the gear,” he explained. “It’s about giving every artist a chance to be heard and experienced as they intended.”
While Spiritland’s status as one of London’s first listening bars is very much its USP, the venue is also home to a radio production suite, Spiritland Sound Studio, used for Spiritland’s own productions and also available for private hire.
Gear-wise, the Sound Studio, a legacy of Noble’s background in broadcast, is an almost all-Audio-Technica affair, centring on five pairs of its matte-grey M50xMG headphones and five BP40 large-diaphragm dynamic microphones.
U853R condenser hanging mics are also installed in the studio ceiling for ambient sound pick-up of the audience in the seating area – chiefly used for roundtable discussions, seating up to six contributors, although the table can be removed to transform the space into a more flexible recording area – and A-T’s ATM610a hypercardioid dynamic and BP892 subminiature condenser headworn microphones are on hand for panels and interview sessions.
Spiritland is a reaction to the miniaturisation of equipment – how many people are doing most of their music listening out of their phone speakers? So we’ve done a 180: We thought, ‘Let’s give the music time and space to breathe.’ And to do that, we’ve gone all out
Complementing the Audio-Technica set-up are Neumann and Beyerdynamic mics, a Studer OnAir 1500 console, Focal Twin6 Be monitors and Pro Tools with Waves plug-ins.
Audio-Technica UK, which distributes Belgian brand Apart Audio in mainland Britain, also provided a solution for spoken-word and background audio in the main café/bar. Six Apart Mask 6T two-way loudspeakers, driven by Apart’s four-channel REVAMP4120T power amp, are mounted above the seating area, while an additional REVAMP4120T powers several different pairs of vintage bookshelf speakers in the venue’s four loos.
Robert Morgan-Males, the Audio-Technica Europe marketing director who oversaw A-T’s partnership with Spiritland, said the project was particularly enjoyable as it encompassed almost the entire spectrum of professional sound, from installed and live in the main listening room to broadcast in the radio studio. “The venue’s dedication to deliver a real ‘live’ audiophile listening experience, as well as stimulating discussion around music and sound, is inspiring,” he commented. “Spiritland is a particularly interesting project for Audio-Technica UK as it enables our company to engage a number of our specialist product segments in the one location: broadcast, live sound, installed audio and the highest end of audiophile reproduction. It’s truly a pleasure to be involved in the delivery of such a diverse programme in the heart of London.”
Noble added that A-T had been a “fantastically supportive partner in the project”. Despite only opening in King’s Cross last September, Spiritland has fast established itself as London’s home of hi-fi audio – and it’s not just radio producers and MP3-weary listeners who are feeling the pull of the high end. Noble said Spiritland offers a perfect venue for album launches – and the labels seem to agree, with acts including Depeche Mode, The xx and Spoon having held launch parties at the venue. “The music industry has definitely taken notice,” he commented.
Spiritland’s location in one of the city’s most up-and-coming areas helps, of course; as does a millennial-friendly menu heavy on avocado, sourdough bread and craft beer. But what Spiritland’s success ultimately boils down to is its unashamed embrace of high-quality sound at a time when many home audio rigs consist of little more than a wireless speaker or two.
“It’s like flying first class, or drinking a really great wine,” said Noble. “You might be happy with any old bottle – but that’s only until you’ve tasted the good stuff…”
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