Audiophile visitors to Japan often return breathless from nights spent in Tokyo’s famed jazz cafes and their sonic cousins, record bars, renowned for delivering top-notch listening experiences for vinyl geeks and turntable nerds. These are known generally as listening bars, designed for just that: listening, as opposed to socializing. Some ban talking altogether. And when it comes to design, they’re usually intimate spaces with a retro feel, kitted out with pristine audio equipment and, of course, a meticulous record collection.
The listening bar concept has crept into the US in recent years, albeit with some tweaks. “We don’t shush,” says Daniel Gahr of the recently-opened Bar Shiru in Oakland. “This is a social space.” David Heath, general manager of In Sheep’s Clothing, acknowledges the often-noisy realities of running a bar in a major American city: “We’re doing our best to create a listening space within a bar in downtown LA,” he says. Gold Line Bar, also in LA, is aiming to do the same, “like a Japanese hifi bar but given a California lens.” Others, like Ariel Arce, owner of Tokyo Record Bar in New York, actively encourage a communal atmosphere; diners there choose songs off a list of vinyl records that are played in real time over the course of a 7-course omakase meal. “I call it a little jewel box for music,” she says of the 300-square foot space.
Design-wise, many listening bars lean toward a cozy, midcentury modern vibe, with comfortable seating (since you’ll likely be camped out for a while) and vintage-leaning accessories (these are, after all, bars dedicated to record players). Natural elements such as wood and leather are common, and the whole space conveys a sense of stepping back in time. (One exception is Tokyo Record Bar, which opts for a decidedly busier approach that Arce describes as “a ryokan that’s been exploded on with color.”) One thing they all share is a commitment to the audio experience, which is as much a part of the decor as chairs or light fixtures.
Below is a guide, both in photos and words from the design minds themselves, on how to make a transportive-looking (and -sounding!) space.
Prioritize comfortable, midcentury seating
In a space where guests may settle in for full-album lengths at a time, comfortable seating is key, though it must work within the confines of the space, which may not offer ample real estate for lounging. Most of the bars opt for a mixture of bar stools, upholstered chairs, and couches, with an aesthetic that might best be described as “retro living room.”
“I think a lot of people would categorize our choices as midcentury, which is just the style we gravitate toward: clean lines, simplicity, and also functionality and beauty,” says Gahr of Bar Shiru. That means sturdy walnut and black leather bar stools from Article, as well as classic midcentury-style lounge chairs and sofas from Joybird in coral and teal hues. “It’s all clean and sleek — no tufted pillows!” says Gahr. Gold Line Bar also boasts leather stools and a slick, vintage-feeling sectionals that wrap cozily around the space.
The team at In Sheep’s Clothing enlisted Venice-based Studio Collective for help designing their space. Their goal was to source mismatched groupings of midcentury vintage pieces that would make the room feel like a home without over-designing it. “All along, the vision was to create an environment that would allow the music to be the main attraction,” says Studio Collective creative director Leslie Kale. There’s a mixture of black leather barstools, floral upholstered chairs, and plush leather banquettes lining the room. Most of the finds, including a dark green leather sofa and orange Herman Miller chairs, are vintage, from West Coast Modern LA, Charish, and 1st Dibs. Kale recommends those along with Wertz Brothers, Craigslist, and Industry West (for reproductions).
Buy: A midcentury modern couch
Buy: Vintage(ish) chairs
Buy: Leather bar stools
Mix and match modern and vintage glassware
The glass and servingware at listening bars is a place to have a little fun, usually by incorporating a mix of vintage and newer pieces; intentionally mismatched items are part of the lived-in vibe.
That can include simple, modern styles, like the Libbey glassware Gahr is loyal to. “They’re sturdy, American-made, and classic, but also have some modernity in style,” he says, adding that they can stand up to the rigors of bar service. For cocktail gear, Gahr outfits the bar with Japanese-inspired diamond-cut mixing glasses, dasher bottles and slender swiveled bar spoons from Umami Mart.
At In Sheep’s Clothing, says general manager David Heath, “Our intention has been to not take away from the sound, so we keep most of our servingware on the muted side, with minimal decorative fuss and lots of soft neutral colors.” Much of their glassware is vintage, but Duralex and Riedel round the collection out. “We were looking for a clean aesthetic and things that felt light in your hand,” he says. “We keep the accessories minimal to maximize the audio.”
Then there’s room for something more playful. “We have a lot of stuff from Etsy and vintage shops, but we also love CB2 and Muji,” says Arce of Tokyo Record Club. “We use iridescent Champagne flutes from CB2 for our water glasses, and long beaker carafes from Muji for serving water. I also love these ombre drinking glasses from Coming Soon.”
Buy: Textured glass tumblers
Buy: Sleek, simple coupes
Buy: Cut glass mixers
Splurge on audio equipment
Studio equipment is naturally a focal point for each of the listening bars. Within the audiophile community, there’s endless debate over which turntables or speakers are best; but the real answer is it’s a matter of personal preference, for both sound and look. At newer listening bars, there’s a tendency to go vintage, at least aesthetically.
Zach Cowie, creative director at In Sheep’s Clothing, says they rely on a Klipschorn loudspeaker, “a legendary speaker that’s been in continuous production for 70 years for good reason,” along with amps from Audio Note. “I trust [Audio Note founder] Peter Qvortrup’s ears — he’s the kind of guy who goes for the heart of music,” Cowie says. Their turntables were custom-built, based on vintage Garrard 301 motor units originally developed for use in British broadcast radio in the 1950s. Their mixer is a desktop rotary known as the Carmen, from the Australian line Condesa.
At Bar Shiru, the setup is fully analog: The turntables come from VPI and SME, considered classics in the audiophile community. “It all comes back to the sound,” Gahr says. The amps are from Line Magnetic, responsible for providing a “warm, physical” sound, as are the mahogany-encased speakers, based on the design of the renowned 1950s-era Altec Lansing speakers. “These are beautifully engineered machines, and they happen to look really cool.”
Arce played with various speakers for Tokyo Record Club, initially buying vintage finds off of Craigslist. She recently upgraded to a full McIntosh system, made by hand in upstate New York. “It’s considered one of the highest-fidelity systems in the world, and every record bar in Japan has a piece of their equipment,” says Arce. “A lot of places pride themselves on having vintage systems, but we have the newest state of the art.” Worth noting: While a McIntosh setup can cost thousands of dollars, Arce firmly believes that “a really good Audio Technica turntable is all you need— it’s a solid workhorse that will never let you down.”
Buy: A slick turntable
Buy: Vintage-looking speakers
Buy: A tube amplifier
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