Listening Clubs

It's often said that it's better to have a friend with a boat than to own one. The same may apply to truly amazing sound systems: it's best to let someone else pay, because a planned $5,000 investment can quickly swell to 10 or 20 times that amount. And when system costs head toward half a million dollars as they have at Spiritland, a new café-bar in London's emerging King's Cross district, it's best left to the pros.

Spiritland is one in a spate of clubs and restaurants in London that devote themselves to the purity of sound. It's a bold effort to reclaim music quality that has been lost in the streaming, digital, just-play-it-from-the-iPhone era. While Spiritland operates as a café during the day and a bar at night, these new establishments are not about clubbing and dancing, they are about hearing music in a peaceful setting with almost unbelievable clarity.

The custom-built sound system here is remarkable: a handbuilt four-channel, 12-input rotary mixer by Isonoe, amplification from Atelier Du Triode and a towering Kuzma turntable used to play whole albums at a time. When the DJ deigns to play digital it goes through a dCS Vivaldi digital-to-analog converter. Some equipment is also offered for sale, if you should catch the audio bug.

It's not necessary to test the Spiritland system at loud volumes to understand what it offers. It's an intimate sound, with the timbre and emotion of a singer's voice heard as never before, and it's possible to hear a band gel because of the clarity offered each instrument. You never feel the system straining to pull its weight. There is ample, unused power in reserve, which makes the overall sound more assured.

Artistic director Paul Noble says full-on rock like Led Zeppelin can be too intense in the relatively small space, while simpler recordings like Muddy Waters playing acoustic guitar can reveal incredible depth. Indeed, turning the volume up on Muddy's "My Home is in the Delta" gives listeners a chill—his voice and guitar shimmering with deep emotion. The system works great for dub, rhythm and blues, reggae and jazz, and sparkles with classical music, seen as the most demanding test.

"We're looking to put a lot of the love and detail and attention back into listening to music," Noble says. "We wanted to present the music with the best possible equipment, totally uncompromising, which allows a really deep exploration of all genres of music."