Spiritland opens in Kings Cross, London and it's ALL about the music...

[Inside Spiritland]
[Italian version here]

Author: Graeme Budd - TNT France
Published: February, 2017

For those of you that spend at least some of your time in bars you'll be aware of what ghastly sounding places they can be. The combination of a soundsystem that's too loud combined with a DJ who has no clue about gain, volume and the correct use of EQ combined with the modern obsession with the dreaded MP3 can ensure your ears are going to suffer and that you stand a good chance of losing your voice if you actually wish to converse with anyone in the bar. To be honest it's enough to keep me away from a lot of places where music is played - which is a shame.

For many years now there have been dedicated listening bars in Japan where people can go and have a quiet drink or two while listening to some music (often leftfield jazz) on a large horn system that even if they could afford it would not be feasible in the small living spaces inherent to the Japanese way of life. This concept works in Japan due to the utmost respect the Japanese have for the venue, the music and the experience for all in the venue. Not something you'd expect to see in Europe really with our somewhat boistrous façon d'étre and lack of respect for a lot of things.

Maybe not but with a bit of adaptation to European tastes why wouldn't/couldn't it work? In any case Paul Noble seems to think there's mileage in a European version of the concept which brings us neatly onto his vision and the object of this visit  - Spiritland.

The idea behind Spiritland is to bring the enjoyment of music on a high class system to a wider audience. Now whilst I'm sure that you've all been spreading the word as to the enjoyment of listening to music for many years, there are plenty of people out there who don't know someone who reads tnt-audio.com (I know this sounds unbelievable but alas it is a fact) and haven't yet had the experience of just enjoying music on a decent system. There are also people who just want to be able to enjoy quality food and drink in a relaxed atmosphere with an absence of muzak or One Direction. Then there are the audiophiles like you and me that have heard about what a Living Voice horn system can do and are intrigued to hear it for themselves. Spiritland caters for all these groups and any others where MP3 is a rude word and where people calling Air on a G String "the Hamlet advert" are instantly tarred and feathered.

So how did this all come about? The exact history is on the Spiritland website but as I mentioned above the idea is Paul Noble's (a former BBC radio producer). Spiritland had been running as a residency in Merchant's Tavern with various equipment loaned from Living Voice and it's related hifi dealership Definitive Audio. Paul already being a Definitive Audio client with a rather nice home system combined with  having a set of LV Air Scouts in Merchants Tavern got him thinking that maybe a custom Living Voice horn system was the way to go...

From conversations with Kevin Scott and his wife Lynn from Definitve/LV this is the type of completely (on paper) insanely, ludicrous project that they jump at the chance to be part of. Various visits, auditions and discussions later plus a not insignificant build time and even less insignificant amount of money and we have the set of speakers and amps shown in the photos, plus some dedicated meticulous setup from Kevin to get to the results I heard.

So before I tell you what it sounds like here's a list of what you hear in Spiritland plus some whys and wherefores from Kevin on the system design. Source wise there are a pair of the habitual Technics SL1210 MkIIs but fitted with Isonoe arms, record weights and Audio Technica cartridges (one of Spiritlands partners). CD wise it's a pair  the Pioneer Pro DJ decks often seen gracing the stage of "Superstar DJ" gigs although I expect waving one's hands in the air a la David Guetta while DJing at Spiritland is possibly frowned upon. These are complimented by a beuatiful vintage Revox reel to reel tape deck and the pièce de résistance - a Kuzma XL DC turntable with both Kuzma 4 point and Viv Labs arms equipped with top of the line Audio Technica and Kuzma MC carts respectively. This deck is amplified via an LV step up to MM level to be able to talk to the mixing desk.

[Kuzma XL DC]

The desk is supplied by Isonoe and is custom built with rotary faders and eq. It is very much designed with sound quality in mind so there's no cross fader, kill switches or onboard effects. It is however connected to a classic Roland RE-201 Space Echo for future reggae sessions. It's from here onwards that the Living Voice input is at it's greatest with a combination of a 30W per channel Atelier du Triode 300B valve amp driving the custom horn speakers and 2 500W solid state amps driving the subs.

[DJ Booth]

Not being a horn expert I took the opportunity to ask Kevin a few questions about the system and the philosphy behind it. Please don't learn all of the answers to the second and third questions and then prattle on about them to your mates when you visit Spiritland. It's not big or clever.

Looking at the Spiritland system it reminds me of a Vox Olympian/Elysian system for those who don't own super-yacht. Is this the case or are we closer to an Air Partner/Air Scout with twin subs?

The speaker system for Spiritland is a bespoke commission designed specifically for their venue, with considerations made for the size and format of the room, the number of guests, and the amount of ambient noise.

Can you give us a brief rundown of the components (super tweeter, tweeter, mid, bass, subs) and amps?

The satellite speaker covers the lion's share of the bandwidth, from 70Hz to 40kHz using a 4 way horn loaded topology. The mid-bass driver is very similar to that used in the Vox Olympian, a Vitavox AK157 as used in the Air Partner, a 15'' straight sided cone driver designed specifically for horn loading. The mid-bass horn's geometry is similar to that of the Vox Olympian, albeit simplified and constructed from 35mm birch ply substrate. The mid-bass crosses over at 400Hz to a Vitavox RH330 cast aluminium horn that is loaded with the classic Vitavox S2 compression driver.

This horn is radial in the horizontal axis and exponential in the vertical axis, divided into four equal cellular divisions. This cellular technology gives the mid range greater projection (throw) than non cellular designs, which are more appropriate for domestic listening: a cellular design is useful in an environment like Spiritland where the room is long. We used this horn in the Living Voice Air Partner and Airscout designs and it covers the frequency range of 400Hz to 5kHz. The Vitavox S2 compression driver uses a 2.1kg AlNiCo magnet to control a featherweight diaphragm 2"  aluminium dome with a thickness of just 50microns. This diapragm loads to the cellular horn through a complex phase correction plug that preserves the integrity of the wave front as it enters the horn's throat. At 5kHz this crosses over to a pair of JBL 2405H slot diffraction radiators. These were used on the Living Voice Airscout and Air Partner, except in the case of the Spiritland speaker there are two such units; one firing forwards and the other firing backwards.

This technique energises the room and provides an even 'power response' through the presence band, preserving the air and space in the recording, and providing 3 dimensional stereo even when listening off axis, and during high ambient noise situations. This high frequency system works up to 18kHz where it crosses over to the Vitavox built super-tweeter which was commissioned by Living Voice for the Vox Palladian horn loudspeaker system. It uses the same magnet system as the S2 midrange driver to control a tiny 30 micron thick aluminium ring radiator. This unit is working from 18kHz to 40kHz, way above that of human hearing and the range of most instruments.  It provides subliminal level about the nature of the acoustic in the recording venue, as well as spatial information  preserving clues about the physical relationships between performers and the tonal colours of their instruments.

The subwoofer bears no relationship to any previous Living Voice subwoofer design in that it is not a horn. Instead a reflex loaded design was chosen to provide the lowest 2 octaves 20-70 Hz; a format that was appropriate to the Spiritland venue. The 2 enclosures each use a pair of 18" JBL 2241 bass drivers, reflex loaded into a 500ltr cabinet. The cabinet is constructed from massive 55mm birch ply to create a stiff, non resonant enclosure. This bass system uses a steep 36dB/octave low pass filter slope to integrate it with the mid bass system of the satellites. Due to the lower efficiency of reflex designs these subwoofers are driven by a pair of 500watt Mosfet class B bass amplifiers with modest EQ. These amplifiers receive their signal from the output of the Atelier du Triode 300B power amplifier, a 30 watt, class A design that uses a Loftin-White input and driver topology, which is transformer coupled to the push -pull output stage that uses 2 pairs of Living Voice 300B's.

Right Speaker System

The thing that most lingers in my mind after listening to the system is the scale and soundstaging – for those of us not well schooled in horn loaded speakers can you explain how the system achieves this?

Conventional reflex and infinite baffle loudspeakers achieve their wide bandwidth at the expense of dynamic range and efficiency. It is a law of nature. Such designs are fine for some types of domestic listening but the approach ultimately lacks the life, energy and contrast of the original musical performance. Where they do have real value in a system like this is being able to go very low without being the size of a house, which is why we are using them to tickle along with just the heavy lifting at the bottom 2 octaves. The lions share of the performance is delivered by the 4-way fully horn loaded satellite. Horns are, by their nature, limited bandwidth devices, but this bandwidth is traded for remarkable efficiency and dynamic range - almost close to nature. Therefore in order to cover the full audio bandwidth using horns the speaker system needs to be at least a 4-way, and in the case of the Spiritland speaker, a 5-way.  This presents obvious challenges in the design of the crossover filters that divide the music signal between these 4 or 5 elements. Despite this complication, when executed seamlessly, such a speaker system can be profoundly convincing on both a visceral and an emotional / spiritual level. It can provide a transcendent and thrilling musical experience.

[Cellular Horn LV Spiritland]

As the amps are placed very close to the speakers there are obviously some long interconnects hidden somewhere  – is there some kind of line driver or buffer trickery somewhere to minimise signal losses?

The Atelier du Triode 300B power amplifier is driven from the mixing desk via a transformer coupled balanced output. This drives 18m of cable at a very low impedance which minimises signal losses. At the back of the power amp' there is another transformer with a single secondary winding to convert the signal back to single-ended mode.

If someone wanted this system in their home would you make another one ie is it a commercially viable proposition – an Air Partner 2.0 if you like?

We make bespoke designs for clients with particular requirements. We are currently consulting with three other venues along similar lines. What would be particularly exciting would be to make a fully horn loaded system,  possibly a 6-way, where the space allows. Horns for the lowest bass need to be very large, but where space permits the performance is outrageous. Spiritland have plans for such a system in the medium term future. I am already meditating with a grin on how much fun could be had with that.

And the bonus question for 50 points

Does it sound better if you're drinking real Coke rather than the Soda Stream special they were serving when I visited? (we'll come to this later on in the article)

Of course! Particularly when laced with a fine dark vintage rum.

So what does it sound like and what is the Spiritland experience like? Well I'm going to deal with the first bit and I had some help from my guest food/drink/atmosphere reviewers Radha, Selda and Nick for the experience side of things.

Personally I turned up a bit early at Spiritland so I could go into review mode and just listen before the others arrived. I thought this was a good idea but in reality it's difficult to stay in review mode very long as the whole experience sort of drags you in. The first thing that strikes is that even when it's playing at afternoon "quiet" level on acoustic jazz there is a presence and scale to all the instruments. The speakers are I would estimate 15 feet apart but the sound stage extends a good 4 feet beyond either outer edge. Similarly there is height and projection and a sense of reality that conventional hifi fails to match.

I know that human aural memory is fallible but I can still picture in my mind a level of "being there" and realistic dynamics that I don't think I've ever heard elsewhere.

The effect of this is fabulous. You sit there trying not to grin with your best hifi reviewer poker face but it's no good. The system sucks you in and you can't help just enjoying it and reviewing has now become a superfluous activity. Then you realise that Paul is only running the Technics 1210s or one of the Pioneer CD players and with a large grin on his face because he knows what is about to happen he puts a record on the Kuzma. The already big soundstage takes a leap in size and precision and everything is even better than you thought possible. And this is still at afternoon levels - the real treat is yet to come and it's known as "Album Club".

Album Club is very simple - every night at around 6pm Spiritland plays a classic album from start to end on the Kuzma at a serious level. We were treated to Janet Jackson's "Control" from 1986 and what a treat it was. I wasn't overly looking forward to this album as the only one of Ms Jackson's records that I own is the Velvet Rope which is a more modern style. Well the Spiritland system has reconciled me with her early work and I may well be adding this album to my collection. Good thing they didn't play Neil Young's "Harvest" or I'd probably still be sitting in my seat.

Midway through Janet my guest reviewers turned up so I guess it's time for a synthesis of what they said and their comments about the place. One thing we all noticed is the diversity of age groups. Those of us the wrong side of 40 don't feel old. There's no ageism or not fitting in. Everyone is there to enjoy the music and the atmosphere whilst all the time being able to enjoy talking with their friends or for those on their own savour a coffee or something a bit stronger.The food was superb and reasonably priced and more than made up for the only issue 2 of us (not me I hasten to add) had which is with the generic Cola that was being served at the time. Whilst I'm all for supporting locally produced or organic or less sugary or fatty drinks there are times (and vodka mixing is one of them) only real red Coke, and preferably from a glass bottle, will do.

Being totally honest this is a very small criticism (and not applicable to non Coke drinkers)and I really think anyone who loves music will enjoy Spiritland immensely. The staff are friendly and obviously appreciate the sound system as much as the clients, the wine's excellent as is the food, and the sound will have you grinning from ear to ear and hopefully discovering some new music at the same time.

Hats off to Paul for having the vision and the guts to get this place up and running and to the Scotts for being crazy and talented enough to design and build the system.

I'll close with a question from one of my guest reveiwers which sums things up nicely:

Selda: Is this sound good then?
Me: Very

I'd like to thank Paul Noble and his team for putting up with me and for supplying and graciously allowing me to use the photos. Similarly thanks to Kevin and Lynn Scott for putting up with me and for their time spent answering questions.

Spiritland can be found at 9-10 Stable Street just off Granary Square. London N1C 4AB.

© Copyright 2017 Graeme Budd - Graeme@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com