Sound bites: statement speakers are pitch perfect for Spiritland’s music cafés
Today’s music lovers face a quandary. Music is more accessible than at any time in history, yet more has perhaps meant less in the way of sound quality – we mostly listen to music on tiny earbuds against an audio backdrop of screeching public transport – and in terms of visceral, emotional engagement. Café and event space Spiritland, which first opened a venue in London’s King’s Cross in 2016, is out to counter that trend and alert us to the full potential of recorded music. Founded by artistic director Paul Noble, creative director Patrick Clayton-Malone and commercial director Dominic Lake, Spiritland combines traditional hospitality with high fidelity. Noble’s background is in music and radio production, including stints at the BBC. Lake and Clayton-Malone co-founded Canteen, the restaurant concept built on generous dollops of modern British food served in pared-back Brit Modern surroundings.
In many respects, Spiritland is the alchemic fusion of the three men’s interests, experiences and skills. In a recording booth within the studied cool of Spiritland’s King’s Cross outpost, they explain the origins of their idea. ‘At Canteen, we had the food, the chef and the location, but we were looking for more,’ says Lake. ‘The idea of bringing music and culture into a space had real resonance.’ Design and sound were paramount. ‘At the heart of it all is a meaningful re-engagement with music,’ Noble says. The company that serves up this audio perfection is Living Voice, set up by the audiophile engineer Kevin Scott in 1987.
‘At the heart of it all is a meaningful reengagement with music’
Living Voice is based in a converted Victorian mill in the Derbyshire town of Long Eaton. The Peak District lies just to the north, although Scott praises the location’s logistical ease rather than its elegiac landscapes. His company was born from the high-fidelity arm of Vitavox, one of Britain’s oldest, most venerable loudspeaker manufacturers, now split into specialists in ‘military communications systems’ and a separate, but still high-end specialist, Vitavox Hifi, still going strong. ‘They sold some pretty exotic stuff in the 1960s, particularly to Japan,’ says Scott, ‘so in the late 1980s I approached them about bringing their loudspeaker designs back to the market.’ Today, Living Voice has a select model line, from the art deco-esque Vox Olympian and Vox Elysian to the ‘simpler’ Vox Palladian system (all three of which command six-figure price tags), as well as bespoke installations for homes and yachts. A typical Living Voice system takes eight months to make.
Noble enlisted Scott while on a personal mission for audio excellence. ‘I was on the endless hi-fi upgrade path and my odyssey took me to Munich’s High End audio show,’ Noble explains. ‘I met Kevin there and listened to his system – it just blew me away. I got rid of everything and bought a system from him. And then we started talking about Spiritland.’ For their first collaboration in 2016, Scott created a set of mighty bespoke speakers that fitted seamlessly into the midcentury-style interiors of Spiritland King’s Cross. ‘They’re quite friendly,’ says Clayton-Malone. ‘Living Voice speakers can be quite intimidating and we didn’t want people to feel excluded.’
‘Our speakers can capture the grammar and syntax of a music performance’
Now there’s a new sonic collaboration at Spiritland’s second venue, in the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre, due to open in late December. In a 6,000 sq ft space previously occupied by Canteen, the new Spiritland is a dedicated restaurant that retains full audio fidelity. The same custom approach has been taken, from the mixing desk to the bathroom tannoys, while the centrepiece is a pair of 1980s Living Voice Air Partners. ‘I refurbished them to 2018 spec, incorporating all we’ve learnt from the Olympian and Palladian systems,’ says Scott, adding that their used patina will remain, helping to match up with the Royal Festival Hall’s famed architectural heritage.
‘The Southbank is Europe’s largest arts centre,’ says Lake, ‘and the location puts us on a global stage.’ Through Noble’s careful programme curation at both venues, including talks by writers, actors and musicians, DJ performances and special listening events, Spiritland sates the modern obsession with authenticity without going too far down the rabbit hole. ‘We want to try and achieve a believable experience of sitting in the front row of the stalls of whatever venue the music was recorded in,’ says Scott. ‘Our speakers can capture the grammar and syntax of a music performance.’ Together, Scott and Spiritland have created a space that caters to both the earnest audiophile and the merely hi-fi curious. §
As originally featured in the January 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*238)
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Vitavox is now dedicated solely to military communications systems.