Brilliant Corners #8: Can Kissa—Jazz Listening Parlors—Work in the US?

In a scene from The Silence of the Lambs—a film that for all of its camp happens to be nearly perfect—FBI cadet Clarice Starling asks caged psychopath Hannibal Lecter for help in figuring out a serial killer's motives. "Do we seek out things to covet?" Lecter responds, following Starling with his eyes as though she were his next meal. "No," he continues, "we begin by coveting what we see every day." Lecter's astute observation applies equally well to audiophilia. Much of this hobby consists of coveting: before we own a component, we usually spend a long while imagining all the ways it will improve our lives.

And how do we begin to covet? In my case, my father's hi-fi introduced me to the practice of close listening. It was cobbled together from mostly Soviet-bloc gear, and the fact that it didn't sound particularly good was rather beside the point. What mattered was participating in his ritual of putting on a record, sitting down in front of the speakers, and sharing a contemplative experience. The illuminated altar created by his small stack of components still appears in my dreams.

While working at my first job, I was introduced to better sound by a colleague who became a lifelong friend. Boris listened to ProAc Future One floorstanders driven by the gaudy-looking but lovely sounding VAC Renaissance Thirty/Thirty power amplifier, with bits converted by a dCS Purcell processor. Boris listened mostly to classical CDs, and his system played them with nearly electrostatic clarity and remarkable ease, despite the well-known pitfalls of early digital sound.

Because of these formative experiences, I knew early on that close listening at home using perfectionist gear was something people did—and something I was going to pursue. While working with Boris, I haunted hi-fi salons for deals on used gear that would eventually replace my very modest college system. A lifelong interest was sparked.

But what happens if none of your family or friends own a decent hi-fi? How do you even discover that this hobby exists? Especially if you grow up poor, as I did after coming to the United States, a great audio system can seem like something hidden away behind the locked, alarmed doors of affluent homes. There are still plenty of terrific audio retailers out there who recognize that exposing young listeners to good sound builds cultural value and makes business sense. Then again, I have vivid memories of salesmen working on commission being visibly reluctant to play a system for a young person without the obvious markers of having money. And I recall one New York hi-fi salon owner's wife following Black customers around the store without a trace of self-consciousness, a practice that understandably horrified the store's other employees.

But what if there were a place besides the home or hi-fi shop to encounter close listening and good sound? What if the experience could be available for the price of a drink? And what if the place where this happened turned out to look and feel really cool? As it happens, this idea first took root in Japan, where a network of listening cafes, or kissa, sprung up after the advent of electronic recording in the late 1920s and reached its full flowering after World WarII.

The function of the kissa was not to feature live music but to create a place where people listened seriously to recorded music and shared their connoisseurship. These cafes addressed the fact that foreign records were too scarce and expensive for many Japanese listeners—as was much of the better playback equipment. Kissa began to offer mostly jazz after the war, when French and American films with jazz soundtracks began to make their way to theaters, and especially after Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' vastly influential first Japanese tour in 1961. (Classical music listening cafes, called meikyoku kissa, proliferated as well, though in smaller numbers.) By the mid-1970s, there were roughly 500 jazz cafes in Japan, and many neighborhoods in Tokyo had a half-dozen kissa where fans could listen to new releases and fill gaps in their musical knowledge.

Most kissa proprietors played jazz records on high-quality systems while serving coffee and alcoholic drinks in dimly lit, atmospheric spaces to small groups of mostly regulars. If you haven't had the chance to visit one of these delightful places—hideaways with names like Flamingo, Lady Jane, and New Dug (which is featured in Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood)—imagine a dark-wood bar filled with old furniture, framed record covers, shelves of LPs that sometimes number in the thousands, and huge horn speakers from the likes of Altec Lansing and JBL. Many kissa occupy quiet side streets and are run by a proprietor known as a master, or masutā in Japanese. Traditionally, the master is a jazz expert and chooses the records with minimal input from the visitors, who are expected to remain quiet while the records are played. In the popular imagination, these cafes are not places for socializing but rather for the intellectual, aesthetic, and even spiritual pursuit of listening. The house rules posted at a Tokyo kissa called Jazz Position Ongakukan crystalize this notion: "Welcome. This is a powerful listening space. Please 'dig' your jazz. We ask that you observe silence while the music is playing."

I find the proposition of a public listening space downright exciting. Not only because it offers a chance to move beyond one's own record collection and taste but because of the prospect of cultural fellowship—of appreciating great music played back well in the company of others. Though much of this hobby is solitary, many of my favorite moments happen while listening with friends, discovering their favorite records, and being impressed and sometimes moved by their taste, acuity, and observations. You can probably relate. And of course there's the excitement of access to exotic gear—for many older Japanese, an afternoon at a kissa was their first exposure to reproduced sound good enough to sit down for.

My enthusiasm turns out to be hardly unique. While the number of kissa in Japan has been declining since the 1990s, over the past several years a new crop of listening bars have sprung up in the West, with notable examples opening not only in Los Angeles, London, and New York but also in less expected locales like Denver, Dublin, Barcelona, Miami, Oakland, Berlin, São Paulo, and Tel Aviv. For the first time in ages, people everywhere seem to care about sound quality in public spaces—a development driven in part by the increasing popularity of vinyl records—and about welcoming young people to these spaces. This strikes me as the most exciting thing to hit hi-fi in ages. The only question is how a Japanese-style kissa experience might adapt to the listening public in the West.

To find out, I dropped into a few listening spaces here in New York. Though I found more than a dozen restaurants and bars that cottoned to that description, some struck me as little more than eating and drinking establishments with better-than-average sound systems. I narrowed the candidates down to places that 1) offered truly exceptional and intentionally designed hi-fis and 2) encouraged listening as the main activity.

My first stop was Public Records in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn (above and heading photo), which has grown into a compound that includes a bar-restaurant, a record shop, a concert venue, and a lovely outdoor garden with a deejay booth. On a recent afternoon, I ate lunch in the cavernous dining room among well-dressed patrons who clearly understood the symbiotic relationship between attractive young people and ambitious spaces. My grilled cheese and green tea were pretty good, too.


Nicholalala's picture

I also find it difficult to believe that Americans will sit still and that a space could profit from the effort. When I go to NYC, I will typically stop by La Monte Young’s Dream House to listen to the latest auditory challenge. It is a music/religious experience to simply listen and be challenged by the sound. That is not for everybody, but I have never found a soul talking above a hushed tone.

cgh's picture

SotL = camp? Did you mean of its ilk? I am picturing John Waters directing the remake and Hannibal Lector sitting on a rabbit fur chair in pink pleather talking about fava beans and a nice cosmopolitan.

I have a hard time imaging this working in Manhattan or the boroughs. It would have to be higher end, and the associated crowd. I am imagining, oh, I don't know, telling everyone at Baccarat to be quite and stop talking about merger arbitrage and taking instagram selfies. I can imagine the only working biz model to be one that isn't very profitable. Even live music suffers. N of 1 but I've noticed more so in the past couple of years serious musicians getting royally annoyed at the noise levels during their performances in spaces that have bars or other sitting room. These weren't strummers, they were performing difficult or well-composed music. The denizens of the island are just too self-involved to sit quietly; althoughI can picture them sitting through a seven hour showing of Barney's complete Cremaster Cycle if they were told it was impossible to see and being shown on a pop-up barge in the East River.

I also can't imagine going with any non-hi-fi (aka normie) friends and asking them to shut up until the A side finishes. I'd probably need to go alone.

I like your word "totemic". Its somewhat of an irony that, in some ways mimetically, audio tries to reproduce the actual sound, and people would be snapping social media pics to generate content in front of the thing that tries to achieve that. Very meta.

cyclebrain's picture

Would like to see a more detailed review of both speaker systems. Maybe a detailed comparison of design parameters and comparison of their sound (if you can get some quiet time). Both are beautiful.

Glotz's picture

Is the way to turn the joint back into a Kissa.

The ones having conversations will realize it's too loud in there for them... lol.

You have the ultimate 'sonic weapon' within your fingertips... muhahhahahhahha.

Dorsia777's picture

This is literally one of those pipe dream ideas I have. Not as an elitist yet, as someone who just wants everyone to experience the joys of “the listening experience”. The way I see it this is the only real way of creating new, dare I say it, audiophiles. One of my friends said to me “but I’m not an audiophile” so why should I care? Yet everyone knows when they hear something that sounds excellent…I think it’s more that no one knows how to enter this crazy hobby without starting off with a Yamaha receiver or a Crosley.

SillyMe1969's picture

I have not yet been to the kissa-inspired venue in my town (I live in Oakland), but I saw that they recently scheduled a Silent Sunday listening event for a specific recording — in this case, a Radiohead album, not jazz per se — and from what I saw on their social media it looked as though the attendees were listening respectfully. Video here:

mcrushing's picture

Love seeing this scene covered in Stereophile, Alex.

As a Los Angelino, I can attest that the ISC guys definitely get it, and in my opinion are doing good work by preaching the gospel of mindful listening and appreciation of culturally important recordings.

ISC's LA bar closed during the pandemic, but they did a series of residencies at an event space in Hollywood. It had an ideal layout - rooftop terrace complete with bar, DJ, pop-up record bin, projection wall - all the trappings of a great bar experience... but in an adjacent, indoor space they'd set up a listening den with comfy furniture and an amazingly good system curated by Wes Kazir of the Common Wave Hifi shop. At the end of every record side, they'd clear the listening room into the bar and allow bar patrons into the listening room.The model worked beautifully - but I also think part of the trick was they made it a ticketed event. Tickets were free, but you had to RSVP online. That helped set an intention, and crowds showed up with expectations closer to those of concertgoers than bar hoppers.

Worth noting - Wes has imagined Common Wave as a social listening space as well. He holds similar listening events, and I wish more hifi shops did the same. I've even adopted this model and host semi-regular listening parties at my apartment. There's definitely a market for concept of gathering friends for the stated purpose of spending time with music. For too long the word "audiophile" conjured images of ugly, windowless, acoustically-treated rooms with a huge system and a solitary chair. That concept kinda makes me sad.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

Thanks for sharing—fascinating. And that concept kinda makes me sad, too.