How Listening Bars Create the Perfect Environment for People Who Love Sound

Sam Eifling | January 13, 2023, 11:00 PM CST

How Listening Bars Create the Perfect Environment for People Who Love Sound

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Bars are hard on the ears. During slower shifts, bartenders crank up their music, on the logic that no one likes to walk into a dead bar. As the after-work crowd wanders in, blowing off steam, enjoying the beer-and-a-shot specials, the volume gets louder. People talk over the people who are talking over them. The couple on a first date slinking in at 8 o’clock, hoping to co-conspire in low tones, instead have to compete with the crescendo. On the wall, a football game cuts to commercial. In the corner, a jumbo Jenga tower collapses. An algorithmically determined playlist thuds through overworked speakers. You ask for the check by scribbling silently in the air, sign the bill, and walk outside to the relative calm of traffic, your head ringing like last week’s concussion.

We don’t have to live like this. Bar operators both established and aspiring can look to an emerging handful of new establishments (don’t call them a trend, yet) to see the benefits of designing spaces around higher-end sound experiences. The phrase you’ll want to Google is “listening bars.” Inspired by 1950s-era Japanese bars where patrons would reverently sip tea or whiskey and listen to jazz records, modern listening bars tend to swaddle patrons in wood, low light, cocktails, and lush music.

Abroad, you can find them in Zurich, Hong Kong, Barcelona, London, and Mexico City. In the United States, examples include Dante’s HiFi, in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood; In Between Days, in a house in St. Petersburg, Florida; Gold Line in Los Angeles; and Oakland’s Bar Shiru. They’re sprouting like dandelions in Brooklyn: Public Records in Gowanus, Eavesdrop and Good Bar in Greenpoint, Bohemian Bar in Brooklyn Heights, and most recently Honeycomb, in Park Slope.

As a bar or restaurant operator, you might look at these spaces and balk at the expense and effort it takes to trick out a proper listening bar. That’s more than fair. But elements of such a space are probably within your reach. A conversation with the owner of Honeycomb, Jon Carlson, a sculptor by training who built out most of the bar himself over six months, may offer some insights on how an owner/operator can create a bar that distinguishes itself by the quality of its sound (and not simply its noise control).

“You have to be interested in it to do it,” Carlson says. He was, so he did. Here’s how.

You’ll want to invest in a high-end stereo system ...

Walk through the heavy, colored-glass front door of Honeycomb and you’ll find a cluster of seats at the front and at the back, separated by a long bar in the middle of the narrow space. Behind the bar, above bottles of mezcal and Japanese whiskey, sit two stout Bower and Wilkins speakers that have absolutely zero trouble filling the room with the sounds of Bonobo or the Dining Rooms on Spotify, or Santana or Ornette Coleman on vinyl. Powering the bookshelf speakers is a McIntosh amplifier, distinguished by its glowing blue sound level meters. At the far end of the bar sit two turntables, on a mixer. Behind them, a small vinyl library packs the shelves.

“It doesn’t need a big volume knob for a big sound,” Carlson says. One of the early visitors to the bar looked at the custom wood shelves and joked that Carlson had built an entire establishment around his amplifier. “In a way,” the owner says, “he’s right.”

Here’s what Carlson didn’t do: reel-to-reel tapes. He considered it, though. As a teenager in the Marines, he spent time in Japan and returned home with a vintage stereo that he only recently rediscovered in his storage. He considered going with old tapes until he considered how fragile and kludgy they would be to operate during a busy shift.

In any bar, practical matters tend to eclipse romantic ones. For Carlson, the biggest concerns for his hi-fi turned out to be cost and quality. The baddest pair of Bower and Wilkins speakers in that manufacturer’s 800 series will set you back $38,000. The smaller pair of 805 D4 speakers at Honeycomb would run you more like $8,500. The McIntosh MA352 amp at the bar costs about that much again, and can go up if you invest in amplifier tubes. In short, you’re probably not going to get that studio-quality sound for cheap, exactly. But in the overall scheme of a full bar build-out, a $20,000 or $30,000 system might not break the budget. Plus it’ll sound fantastic.

... and design and build thoughtful acoustics

When he built out the space, Carlson kept his customers and his neighbors in mind. Down came the tin ceiling; up went sheetrock, to buffer the noise for the folks upstairs. And in came the wood. The son of a carpenter, Carlson built out the shelves and other furniture elements in the bar himself, drawing inspiration from Scandinavian and Japanese woodwork.

Key among those elements is the distinctive paneling on the ceiling above and along the wall opposite the bar. The dark veneers are an African hardwood overlaid on MDF (that’s medium density fiberboard) acoustic panels. Carlson drilled quarter-inch holes into the veneer one inch apart, on a grid pattern. Lit from the back, the bright white dots create a nifty pattern and a soft, indirect light source.

The effect in the center of the room, in particular, is great for listening to music and enjoying close company. The sound quality could fool you into believing a live band was playing a few feet away, but even at satisfyingly robust volume levels, you can still carry on a conversation at normal speaking volume with the person on the stool beside you. The couple sitting two stools away? You can hear that they’re chatting, but can’t make out distinct words. Everyone gets the static charge of strangers’ presence and yet the pleasure of some privacy.

None of this happened by accident, nor was it easy. Carlson needed six months to design, build, and arrange the room. But it’s given him the nook of his dreams. When he arrived in New York City a generation ago — the olden days, before cell phones and laptops and flatscreens conquered all — he made friends and memories in bars where people looked one another in the eye.

“What I loved about bars in New York — you used to sit and talk with people,” he says. Always nice have a space where, whether someone is speaking or not, you can listen.

[Image courtesy Honeycomb]

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