How to Bring the Ambience of Japanese Hi-Fi Listening Bars to Your Home

We asked a few experts to weigh in

February 14, 2024 2:40 pm
eavesdrop bar in greenpoint brooklyn
Eavesdrop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Walk into a typical bar, and you might not even notice what kind of music is playing. Often drowned out by the constant buzz of raised conversation (and perhaps stomping feet if said bar has a dance floor), music tends to be a background thought at most establishments. But that is certainly not the case at a Japanese listening bar. 

Originating in post-war Japanese cities, jazz lovers flocked to these new bars, or kissas, to enjoy music when records could cost upwards of a week’s wages. An offshoot of the country’s already-popular concept of kissaten, or tiny cafes, the priority was less about socializing and more about listening. Now, that same concept is quickly finding roots in cities across the United States, where audiophiles are finding solace in spaces that don’t make music the wallflower. 

“Listening, by definition, is to ‘pay attention to sound,’” says Danny Taylor, the designer of Eavesdrop in Brooklyn, New York, and owner of audio consultancy House Under Magic. “The Japanese jazz kissa in its classic form makes music the nucleus of the business — all else comes second, including being able to talk. The more contemporary interpretation of this ethos is that listening is paying attention to detail, while also being able to be lost in the experience.”

At Eavesdrop, blond wood frames an intimate space that was inspired not only by the jazz bars of Tokyo but also by the simple concept of enjoying good music with friends in your living room. That’s why, despite the state of the art equipment and impressive record collections, hi-fi bars are all about connection and curating an approachable, comfortable atmosphere for their patrons. Trademark elements include low, moody lighting, sound absorbing shaggy rugs, cozy seating, vintage and antique decor for a lived-in look, and tons of natural wood. 

“Sound becomes an immersive mood that drives conversation and activity,” Taylor says. “It is foreground without being dominant. To that end, a listening bar is not about how expensive or large the speakers are — it’s the acoustics of the room, the arrangement of the seating and how the music is selected and presented.”

The uniquely comforting atmosphere of Japanese listening bars is a natural inspiration for creating immaculate vibes at home, from its layered textures and retro ‘70s feel, to its sensory pleasures. Ahead, experts provide their tips and product recommendations for emulating a Japanese kissa in your very own living room.

sound equipment at dante's hifi in miami
The setup at Dante’s HiFi in Miami (don’t worry, you don’t need to be this fancy)
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Speed of Sound

To place music in the foreground is to consider it first and then build the rest of your experience around it. As Taylor mentions, it’s not just about having the most expensive equipment but rather making your setup work best for you, your space and your needs. 

“The hardest part for most people who want to set up a listening area is choosing the right speakers for their room and all the associated equipment,” Taylor says. “The audiophile world is full of opinions, and not always of the helpful kind. Luckily we live in a golden age of audio where quality of sound can be had for what was unthinkable (and unaffordable) even 10 years ago.” 

Bringing immersive sound into your living room is now available at nearly every price point, regardless of the equipment you currently own. Those starting from scratch can invest in a kit like those from Pro-Ject. We love this stylish turntable package by the Austrian-engineered brand, which includes a turntable with matching speakers, an amplifier and speaker cables with hi-fi components and optional Bluetooth streaming. Besides your typical wood and black and white options, it also comes in vivid shades of yellow, blue and green. 

Those who already own a turntable can choose compatible stereo pairs to flood their space with sound, like the HiFi Set by SONOS, which includes two large black speakers that pair with a turntable by way of a 3.5 mm line in. Those looking to make more of a visual statement can opt for the KEF Q750 Floorstanders, which look gorgeous in walnut and can also be hooked up to your turntable with a 3.5 mm auxiliary cable. But be aware that they are passive speakers and require an external amp. 

For a completely wire-free option, Taylor recommends a vinyl enabled media console, inspired by the “all-in-one” turntable and radio units of the ‘60s, now updated to modern standards. If you can stomach the higher price point, the Wrensilva MI is a stunning console with all the fixings. In addition to a quality turntable, the M1 includes SONOS functionality, Bluetooth and RCA inputs that allow you to hook up anything from an old school cassette deck to a digital cable box. It features record storage for up to 175 albums, but there’s also no shame in streaming your favorite Spotify playlist. 

“In many high altitude circles, the word ‘streaming’ is a black mark, but it’s also the way most people interact with music,” Taylor says. “The ceremony of putting on a vinyl record is important and engaging, but the inability to also easily play something from the convenience of your phone can be frustrating. Listening should be fun!”

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Shelving and Acoustics

Besides the ability to listen to incredible music, hi-fi Japanese listening bars are all about the vibes. As you continue to build your record collection, think about storage options that easily allow you to access your favorites and display them for guests to see. 

“For someone who wants to showcase their audio system, Fleetwood Sound is a high-end speaker manufacturer that pays the same amount of attention to their audio-specific furniture that they do their amazing speakers,” Taylor says. “Designed and built in a former mill in Eastern Pennsylvania by the audio guru Jonathan Weiss of OMA Audio, they are handcrafted pieces of art in themselves.”

Those looking to lean into the natural wood elements of Japanese kissa with a twist will love consoles made from uniquely patterned burl wood, like this spacious media console by Crate & Barrel. The swirled grain of the wood adds visual interest and an organic look, polished up by brass legs and sleek, touch-latch doors that reveal a large inner compartment and adjustable shelves. If your floor space isn’t abundant, this functional and fun console by Urban Outfitters mimics the look of a retro media unit with a hinged top that reveals your turntable and space below and to the side for a small record collection and other storage. 

Wall storage for your most beloved (and visually pleasing) records is also a must to recreate the hi-fi bar atmosphere. You can’t go wrong with these long acrylic shelves from CB2, with a minimalist look that allow the labels to shine, or these handcrafted wooden ones by Deep Cut, available in three different wood options. 

Along with record shelving, you’ll most likely want to add some absorption panels to your walls to balance the acoustics in your space (and prevent your neighbors from complaining about all that noise). 

“Regardless of furniture or audio equipment, the acoustics of the room in which you listen are just as important,” Taylor says. “Absorption and diffusion placed throughout the room help balance the sound and let you hear the music closer to its intended purity. Many think of acoustic treatment as beige panels or egg foam panels tacked on walls, but there are many manufacturers now making solutions that are both affordable and attractive for the home.”

Recommended by Taylor, GIK Acoustics is one of the most trusted in the trade, making panels and other solutions found in top tier recording studios but also residential designs. We also love the look and easy application of wood slat insulation, which is available for purchase anywhere from Amazon to Walmart

Another important absorption point is your floor, where we suggest you place a thick rug — not only for the acoustics of the room, but also to add kissa-inspired dimension and texture to your space. Groovy ‘70s patterns and motifs in shades of rust, maroon and gold provide a colorful anchor, such as with this hand-knotted rug by Revival or literally anything from Beni Rug’s Archival collection. Our favorite might just be the contrast checker of their Konya rug.

seating at dante's hifi in miami
Cozy, intimate seating is a must
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Seating and Design

You and your guests will need somewhere comfortable to plant yourselves as you enjoy your burgeoning record collection, and our top suggestion is to invest in a modular seating option that allows you to play around with your setup depending on the needs of that evening. 

“For that Japanese hi-fi vibe, I love the idea of multiple Gubi Pacha Lounge Chairs in white and gold, joined together to create a bespoke modular sofa,” says Amanda Gunawan, a Los Angeles-based architect and founder of OWIU. “I love how its rounded shape can add variety and dimension to a listening bar that’s typically full of elements that are orthogonal (shelves, vinyls, players, speakers). Because it’s modular, you can also separate them to have more of a scattered look.”

For a more affordable option, we love the TEDDY Sofa by Danish brand OMHU, which is constructed of two mattresses and two angled cushions that live inside soft corduroy sleeves and are available in a stunning number of shades. All of the pieces fit together inside a sleek, retro-style metal frame,and can easily be removed and placed whichever way that suits your needs. The soft corduroy material also helps with sound absorption, especially when placed on the ground, and adds texture to your space. 

“In terms of decor, I think of an authentic hi-fi listening bar as containing elements that are old or vintage,” Gunawan says. “Therefore, good material choices to recreate the look are wood, aged metals and dark velvet fabrics. They also tend to have very dark and moody lighting — people who want to recreate the space should be as intentional as possible with lighting. Nothing too stark or jarring and should focus on ambient or spot lighting.”

To layer in decor (and scent), Gunawan suggests this oil diffuser by Bodha in forest green, as well as this vintage-inspired stone ashtray by Parma Tile x Maison Rogue. OWIU’s own line of Japanese-inspired ceramics are also great additions, from their glazed multi-function canisters to handmade cups for sipping from while enjoying your tunes. 

Bottle Service

Last but certainly not least, a listening bar requires, well, the bar component. We suggest starting with a small-but-mighty liquor selection, focusing more on quality than quantity to impress your guests and enjoy yourself. While Japanese whisky is an obvious choice for adding to your repertoire, another option is to literally pair your liquor choice with your music. 

“A must-have for your at-home bar is of a bottle of Yamazaki 12,” says Gardner Dunn, a longtime ambassador for Beam Suntory and a Japanese kissa lover who set up his own speakeasy pop-up version of a hi-fi bar inside a NYC omakase spot last year. “Expect honey overtones with spiciness — great for jazz.”

Dunn’s other recommendations include Hibiki Harmony, a “symphony of at least 10 malt and grain whiskies,” encased in a beautiful concave fluted bottle. “Hibiki Harmony has a full-bodied complexity, perfect for sipping while listening to ‘70s funk,” he says.

For bourbon lovers, Dunn says you can’t go wrong with a bold bottle of Maker’s 46, which in his words, “resembles ‘70s rock in its character.” Starting out as classic Maker’s, seared French oak staves are then added to the barrel, and the whiskey is allowed to age longer, only during the winter months when maturation happens more slowly. The resulting flavors are bold and complex, making it the perfect tipple for enjoying on the rocks while you sit back and listen to “Another Brick in the Wall” on vinyl. 


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