Audiophile, Reviews

A Taste of Spiritland: Inside North London’s New Audiophile Bar

Spiritland is a new music venue, due to open to the public in mid-September, situated on Stable Street by King’s Cross. Their website reads:

We’re opening our first dedicated venue in September 2016, on Stable Street, King’s Cross, London, built around the best sound system in the world – a one-off, exceptional creation playing original, in-depth musical programming day and night.

It’s all about the music, the artist and the listening experience.

Spiritland. Come home to music.

Spiritland was briefly situated in the Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch, but this new dedicated venue in King’s Cross is a permanent location. Stable Street is just behind the spacious Granary Square, and is home to some very on-trend restaurants and bars. It certainly appeals to the more genteel wallet. The excellent House of Illustration is nearby. The new venue promises “a cafe, a bar and a shop selling music on vinyl and CD alongside audio equipment and accessories“. It will also house the Spiritland Sound Studio where it will be possible to produce radio shows.

The new venue is running a series of ticketed “taster” sessions for two weeks to warm up the equipment and staff. I went along to the first of these last night and decided to write down my thoughts…

I’ll start by stressing that this was the very first taster night. The venue was barely finished and the music shop and radio studio were nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the majority of the hi-fi had been installed (though the pièce de résistance Kuzma Stabi XL2 turntable was yet to arrive) and the general feel and atmosphere was already starting to take shape. The first thing I noticed upon entering was record shelving behind the bar with some LPs on display. I thought this was a really neat touch and was the first hint of some of the creative decorative ideas on show throughout the venue. The bar itself was fairly ordinary looking but the cool silver kitchen showed a lot of promise, especially with its meat slicer on prominent display (audiophile grade, no doubt)! The silver finish of the kitchen provided a nice juxtaposition to the brown of the bar (I always preferred silver hi-fi components too). We ordered some drinks and then got down to the serious business of checking out the stereo.

The playback equipment was spread across two distinct areas. A glorified DJ booth on one wall comprised all the nuts and bolts, replete with: two Pioneer CD decks, two modified Technics SL-1210Mk2 turntables, a dCS Vivaldi DAC (described by Michael Fremer as being “as three-dimensional and spacious as I’ve experienced with digital“), a Revox R2R tape deck, an Audio Desk Systeme ultrasonic recording cleaning machine, and pro gear by Tascam). The second area was where the amplification and speakers were located. The amplifier was a mighty Atelier du Triode all-tube integrated design, and the speakers were a unique and bespoke design called “Living Voice for Spiritland”. Visually, the speakers were the most impacting aspect. In addition to their massive horns, they had a bewildering series of tweeters stacked on top making the entire arrangement well over six feet tall. I didn’t measure the width of the speakers but they were enormous. Next to each speaker was a monolithic sub-woofer of the same size and width. I roughly estimated the total cost of the system to be in the region of £500,000 so we were firmly ensconced in cost-no-object territory. The DJ stuck to the Pioneer decks so the approximate signal path we were hearing was: CDJs > mixing desk > Tascam limiter (?) > Atelier amplifier > Living Voice loudspeakers (this is all based on my personal observations, no insider knowledge).

How to describe the sound? Much like the speakers, it was huge. The room was fairly large and the Living Voice’s were more than capable of filling it. The most impressive aspect was the high-end, it was absolutely clear. I stood right in front of the speaker, safe from any room reflections, and the sound of the treble was simply real. Normally, the closer you get to a speaker the more the sound starts to break up in a similar way that video does if you get too close to the screen. With these speakers, the sound of the high-end got even more exact the closer I got to them without the slightest hint of grain, distortion, or fatigue. They weren’t bright or harsh at all. Real is the only way I can think of describing their resolution of treble. When the DJ played well-recorded vocal tracks, the lucidity of the mid-range produced by the system was abundant. Singers were vaulted to the middle of the room like some hovering hologram, superb.

The bass was a little harder to evaluate. I got the impression that the sub-woofers hadn’t been entirely integrated into the system yet as someone kept fiddling with the crossovers throughout the evening. I don’t have a lot of experience with sub-woofers but I do know that integrating them successfully can be incredibly difficult and one can easily run into issues whereby a room’s resonant frequencies are overly excited, resulting in certain bass notes hanging in the air longer than others and thus clouding the sound. This was evident when the DJ played The Cure’s “Plainsong” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. “Plainsong” is notoriously difficult to get right due to its impossibly dense mix. Indeed, it can make or break a hi-fi system and, had I been DJ’ing, there’s no way I would have put a brand new set-up through such an ordeal! “Wicked Game” just so happens to be one of my favourite hi-fi test tracks so it presented a good opportunity to evaluate the sound at Spiritland. By this point in the evening I had honed in on the venue’s sweet spot (central and towards the back, leaning on the bar, three drinks down). On “Wicked Game”, Isaak’s voice often mingles with the thick bass notes and consequently is a very useful track for evaluating room modes. Listen to “Wicked Game” on headphones and you’ll notice that the bass is thick and rounded but each note decays at the same rate and never clouds the next, the same is true of the vocal. Now play it through speakers loud enough to fill your room and you’ll hear some of the low frequencies ‘hang’ in the room longer than others. This is caused by the speaker exciting resonant frequencies in the room. This is similarly demonstrated by loudly speaking in variously sized rooms and hearing how the sound of your voice changes as it is affected upon by the geometry and furnishing of the space (e.g. imagine how your voice sounds in a sports hall versus your nan’s living room). At Spiritland, I detected a distinct low-end resonance on Isaak’s voice during the chorus. This could be eradicated with acoustic treatment and was likely caused by the uneven ceiling which had a lot of exposed piping on display, but could also point to the need for a more accurately dialled-in sub-woofer crossover to achieve premium sound. Of course, room modes are ‘on’ all the time and will have an impact upon any sound that excites them (be it from speakers, people, or furniture movement). From a playback perspective, this can be overcome through accurate speaker placement and room treatments. When I visited, there were a lot of reflective surfaces in the form of untreated tables, exposed piping, and an entire side wall was a window. Unfortunately, I had to remind myself that the purpose of the venue is not to be a perfect audiophile lounge space where serious concentrated listening would take place. It is very much a bar with a great sound system. However, even in this configuration, it could sound even better with some basic room treatments (table cloths, for starters).

The DJ, Charlotte Hatherley, played an excellent selection spanning all decades and genres. To my delight she played many songs that wouldn’t be out of place at our very own A New Dusk club, including the themes from Assault on Precinct 13 and Stranger Things, generous helpings of Cocteau Twins, and “Feel” by The Soft Moon. We had a brief but interesting chat in which we discussed the down side of having such a revealing playback system being that it becomes incredibly easy to hear all the problems of bad modern music production versus older recordings which sounded a lot more organic. Readers of this blog will know that this is likely due to mastering and the loudness war. I suppose there was a slight perversity in hearing the abysmally mastered “Feel” through hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment.

I’m thrilled Spiritland exists. There are similar places that cater to cinephiles (such as the Roxy Bar and Screen) and now there is a place for music lovers, audiophiles, engineers, and musicians to marvel at the abilities of hi-fi. I hope it will encourage people to invest in their own playback systems and relearn the art of listening for pleasure. Remember that my comments were formed based on the venue’s first taster night and that it was still very much a work in progress. There are a lot of developments on the horizon and I’m looking forward to returning in a few months to see (and hear) how things have panned out. I do hope they will consider putting on dedicated listening sessions as it seems a shame not to use such top class equipment for the very act that it was designed for. Nevertheless, if you simply want to hear music, Spiritland should be high on your list of places to visit.

RC.

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