Japan’s listening bars have spread globally — and audiophiles are listening up
Visitors to SHeLTeR bar in Hachioji, Tokyo don’t come for the drinks. They arrive at the stereo lab in search of an all-encompassing audio experience. They’re there for the music, and they listen intently, sometimes even in total silence. The music can be jazz or rock or experimental, “but the general vibe is a bit…cooled down,” owner of SHeLTeR bar Yoshio Nojima explained in an interview with Resident Advisor. “You focus on the sound and try to sink into the world of music.” Nojima has devoted 35 years to building out the custom soundsystem at SHeLTeR, and people come from around the world to discover its immersive sound.
Japan’s listening bars, also known as vinyl bars or hi-fi bars, attract the world’s most discerning audiophiles: a growing community with reverence for underground music and top-of-the-line sound systems. Global Hearts, a company with three audio bars in Tokyo, specializes in constructing meticulously designed listening environments. Its general manager, Masaaki Ariizumi, views their trio of listening bars less as raucous nightclubs and more as community gathering spaces, go-to hangouts for locals when they’re not at home or work, almost like a third place. “We want our spaces to become part of our customers’ lives,” says Ariizumi, who describes the typical guest as an “edgy” Tokyoite in their 30s or 40s. Recently, Ariizumi has noticed an uptick in customers visiting from overseas. “Ours is an atmosphere where everyone can relax,” he says. “There is a sense of freedom.”
Bridge, the collective’s oldest and best known listening bar, overlooks Hachiko Square in Shibuya. Founded in August 2014, its resident DJs spin house and techno till 5 a.m, while WREP, a DJ bar and lounge also in Shibuya, focuses exclusively on Japanese hip hop. Their newest venture—a club in Shinjuku called Heart— is also its largest, and can hold up to 200 people.
The trend from Tokyo has inspired listening lounges in in London, Stockholm, Istanbul, and the United States. What follows are some of the most reputable (and fun) audio bars on the East and West Coasts.
Gold Line Bar
Stones Throw Records founder Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, and Jason McGuire launched the hi-fi bar in LA’s Highland Park in 2018. Bartenders curate the playlists on weeknights, while weekends are reserved for DJ sets, album releases, and more. Manak’s vinyl collection of over 7,500 albums lines the walls and Japanese whiskey fills the glasses. 5607 N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA; goldlinebar.com
The bespoke sound system at Public Records in Gowanus features a custom-built Isonoe rotary mixer and a lighting scheme by Brooklyn-based concert designer Nitemind. The venue features three unique spaces: a hi-fi record bar, a listening and performance space called The Sound Room, and day-to-night vegan eatery. The Sound Room has a strict no-phone policy, and for good reason: its lined with perforated plywood walls that create exceptional acoustics, making it one of the most immersive spaces in the country. 233 Butler St., Brooklyn, NY; publicrecords.nyc
Sunset & Vinyl
Tucked away at the top of a staircase in the back of Hollywood’s 800 Degrees pizzeria, this retro-’70s speakeasy cum listening lounge spins all vinyl, all the time. Guests are welcome to browse the extensive record collection and make requests of the bartenders, though they sometimes have their own agenda — like playing Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 3. 1521 Vine St., Los Angeles, CA; 323-329-9656.
Designed for listeners, not dancers, this airy, wood-clad audio bar in Greenpoint draws a decidedly grown-up crowd with elegant tapas, interesting cocktails, natural wine, and superb equipment (MasterSounds mixer and FX unit and Technics turntables). The listening room accommodates guests at booths and high-tops, while the bar has its own custom speaker system. DJs are rotated in regularly, with schedules posted monthly on Instagram and recent sets broadcast on the bar’s Soundcloud page. Thanks to some clever TikTok marketing, reservations are essential. 674 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, NY; eavesdrop.nyc
The Honeycomb Hi-Fi Audio Lounge
Sake on the menu isn’t the only clue that this diminutive Park Slope bar takes its cues from Tokyo. Staffers pluck beats from owner Marine Carlson’s genre-spanning personal collection and welcome DJs for Friday and Saturday night residencies. The distinguished McIntosh amplifier, Bowers & Wilkins speakers, and Technics turntables make every note sound crystal clear, without drowning out conversation. 74 5th Ave., Brooklyn, NY; honeycombk.com
The Last Call
Noriko Jimbo opened this boozy yakitori spot in Williamsburg last December, and while she doesn’t explicitly call it a hi-fi bar, its sound system is state of the art. A cozy, dark interior with shoji screens and paper lanterns recalls Japanese kissaten, the jazz-soundtracked coffee shops that proliferated in Tokyo after World War II. Weekends are packed with a rotating cast of crate diggers dropping funk, house, disco, and breaks. Sake coladas make it all go down too easy. 588 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY; thelastcallbklyn.com