For the at-home enthusiast, audio gear from the 70s and 80s is highly prized – and the price and rarity often reflect this. Older brands, such as Klipsch, Sansui, and Altec Lansing made consistently high-quality audio equipment, while today’s major brands, like Bose, Pioneer, JBL, and Sony had their moments of brilliance too.
Using this vintage equipment in bars and clubs is a much trickier endeavour. The gear is far pricier and rarer, the speakers less efficient, and the amps less powerful. Yet, it is also this equipment, or designs and components used in this vintage gear, which is most sought after by some of the best-sounding bars, clubs, and speaker designers around.
To find out more, we hear from two legendary club nights and sound systems, London’s Beauty and the Beat and Leeds’ Cosmic Slop; head honcho of Rhythm section Bradley Zero and his excellent new bar Moko in London, Tottenham; custom speaker designer Friendly Pressure; and legendary London hi-fi store Audio Gold.
Why go vintage?
Some reasons for purchasing vintage gear are rational, others are emotional. On the latter point, a chrome face, power gauges, analogue dials, and the glowing valves of an old system are rewarding to feel and see. On the former, they often sound excellent. It’s hard to quantify, as the senses remain subjective, but older audio components are known for their relaxed, warm sound, thanks to the analogue circuitry. This is usually in contrast to the cleaner and more detailed characteristics of modern audio.
Custom speaker maker Friendly Pressure, based in London, plans and builds custom speakers for home or venue use. In the words of founder and owner Shivas Howard Brown, FP aims to combine the sound and component quality of vintage speakers with modern manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing – as shown below sitting nicely at Moko.
On the rational side of why and how, Shivas explains that older speakers use materials that are simply harder to come by nowadays – resistors and transistors, for example. Secondly, the majority of the audio market is focused on PAs for public venues rather than home sound systems. In addition, the ways we recreate and amplify sound – in all but the higher end of audio equipment – have swapped quality for efficiency, and so moved to digital from solid state or valve, for example.
A growing interest
Shivas says, however, that this increase in convenient, passive listening has caused an increase in active, dedicated listeners too: “They want a more emotional and sentimental connection to their music.”
Robin, one of the team members at Audio Gold, a three-decade-old audiophile Mecca in Muswell Hill, London, agrees. He says that the uptick in interest has been particularly driven by younger generations. For reference, the global home audio market is expected to grow at an aggregate rate of 11.4 per cent from 2022 to 2027, and for vinyl, 2022 marked the 17th consecutive year that the number sold rose.
There seem to be more bars and clubs using this vintage sound too. One to note is Moko in Tottenham – run by global oddities and house label Rhythm Section head honcho, Peckham legend, and all-round lovely guy, Bradley Zero.
Moko may not be quite a ‘listening bar’, but there is a similar attention to detail in the hardware used – if in a setting more appropriate to dancing. Friendly Pressure’s custom FP398s provide the sound, with custom monitors, a Technics 1210 turntable, an Acuphase amp, and a rotary E&S DJR400 turntable “for now,” says Zero.
The space is, however, is in desperate need of room treatment and soundproofing, with its concrete roof and subsequent resonance.
Bradley Zero speaks less about his bars and more about what should be an essential pilgrimage for anyone with two ears and two legs: Cosmic Slop in Leeds. This monthly club night is run by the people behind MAP, a charity that provides children less fortunate the opportunity to learn about music production and gain BTEC qualifications.
To this writer, there is no better-sounding club, more beautiful a crowd, or more noble a cause.
The system in Cosmic Slop, located in Hope House just outside of Leeds city centre, is truly special. It’s so special, in fact, that the sound (and its charitable cause) brings DJs such as Floating Points, Coco Maria, and Bradley Zero himself, who all typically charge pretty hefty fees, to play for free. Furthermore, lineups are often left unannounced, which makes it even more rewarding when you see someone special in the booth.
Tom Smith, the founder and owner, is the custodian of the original blueprints from New York icon Paradise Garage. He went to New York and met some of the last people who worked on the system for Larry Levant and built it to Cosmic Slop’s spec. As Bradley Zero’s says, “when you play there, you feel you’re stepping back in time to this paragon of musical excellence.”
“Every note played gets powered up and comes out earthshaking,” he adds. “Last time I played, Tom ended on a blues song, and it had a room full of young people going crazy. Just the stomp of the foot was causing the room to shake.”
Tom also runs MAP Charity, an alternative education provider working with young people who are unable to access the mainstream school system.
Beauty and the Beat
Beauty and the Beat is a party in London with a similar focus on sound quality supplied by pricey vintage components.
They started with two stacks of Klipshorns, and over 18 years, built the system to where it stands today:
• Five Klipschorns (one of these is used as a mono channel)
• Two Tannoys (one York and one Majestic)
• Two Mark Levinson amps (27.5 and 334)
• One Music Fidelity XA50 mono amp
• One Sugden masterclass SPA-4 stereo amp
• Isonoe ISO420 mixer
• Two Technics 1210 turntables with upgraded tonearms (Jelco) + Isonoe isolation feet
• Audio Technica VM740 ML cartridges
BATB adds two more Klipshorns into the mix for a seven-point system in their current venue Hackney Wick Baths. One of the founders of Beauty and the Beat, Cyril Cornet, says that “being surrounded and immersed by music is pretty hard to beat…When dancing in the sweet spot, you forget where the sound comes from”. Plus, they add, there’s a social aspect to the setup – it means dancers don’t end up all facing the DJ at the front.
This is a truly special party, which sounds, feels, and looks excellent. You’re as likely to hear classics like Santana’s Black Magic Woman or Talking Heads’ Girlfriend is Better as you are hypnotic tabla solos and spiritual chanting – and all on wax.
It takes years to build such exquisite and priceless gifts to the human ear and heart, but you have to start somewhere. Hence, personal friends Fly Away Hearts, a new party in London, are building their own bespoke Klipschorn system, so they deserve a shout-out here too.
Dedicated to the cause
It’s not just the gear used that makes these places special. With this sound comes an ability for DJs to truly play whatever they like – as illustrated by Tom Smith’s closing tune. People playing here usually, and should, exploit this freedom to the fullest, dredging the bottom of their record bags and finding oddballs and gems.
Cosmic Slop is unashamedly fun and free, – and totally without pretension. Beauty and the Beat differs slightly. Its ethos is almost spiritual, much less anarchic, and verges on serious and sophisticated, with a focus on global, percussive, and psychedelic tunes.
The music played is, of course, the star of the show. After all, I’ve had more enthusiastic dances around a decent portable speaker than high-end vintage audio systems. However, the music is given new life when played through systems of this quality and becomes truly transcendental.
But it’s more than just sound quality. These sound systems are a mark of dedication. It may not be the most accessible of pursuits, but running these rigs shows a love for music that’s been built over a lifetime. Instead of hoarding such high-end (and expensive) equipment inside their living rooms, they share the love with a room full of dancers and trust no one pokes their key through a driver. Brave.
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