The Bay Area takes a lot of pride in its abundance of gorgeous, interesting, and quality-focused coffee shops. The scene here is relatively longstanding and established – all the way back to the Peet's days in the late 60s – and by now, pretty much any style of cafe you can imagine has been tried at least once in either San Francisco or Oakland. There's room for creativity, sure, but the stakes are high, and competition for customers' loyalty is fierce. This means no detail goes overlooked.
One detail we've noticed that's particularly striking in SF is the amazing stereo setups on display in cafes. Turns out that the deep commitment to coffee geekery that lead to great success for the owners of Sightglass, Four Barrel, Blue Bottle and Coffee Bar is not limited to coffee alone. The owners of these shops, and many more, are hardcore audiophiles. Stereo junkies. Vinyl nerds. Ebay shoppers, scrap shop scroungers, and yard sale yeomen of the highest caliber, able to cobble together a period-approrpiate vintage tube amp/pre-amp/speaker combo that would make the editors of Stereophile.com blink.
We're talking sick setups, people, real primo hear gear. So here's a few that stood out to me, at well-known coffee temples in some of SF's hippest neighborhoods. I'm sure there's much more worth seeing on the Bay Area audiophile tip; no guide is perfect, so if I missed the awesome vintage gramophone setup at your favorite espresso speakeasy in the Dogpatch, from all of us at Sprudge, we are truly very deeply sorry and we'll hit you up next time.
Four Barrel on Valencia
Four Barrel's epic vinyl collection was canonized by our Shit Baristas Say video (Where's my Washed Out record??!?), and the system all those tunes are being played on is quite literally top of the line. Four Barrel founder Jeremy Tooker says the vinyl is being spun on a “Thorens TD124 turntable with a solid wood plinth, as well as a Micro Seiki DD-40 turntable,” which is then getting amped up by a McIntosh C20 tube preamp that he “rebuilt and stuck in a custom maple case”, which then feeds “two McIntosh MC30 tube mono amps atop solid maple blocks” that power the Tannoy Dual Concentric 15 gold speakers.
Here's a photo of DJ Sprudge rocking the setup at the Bay Area Coffee Community Latte Art Competition Season 2 Finals. I assure you, on good authority from DJ Sprudge himself, that DJ Sprudge was terrified of breaking Mr. Tooker's audiophile set-up throughout the entirety of his DJ set. But you know what? Those honey speakers were still bumping come midnight.
Blue Bottle Coffee Roastery and Cafe on Webster
According to Blue Bottle founder James Freeman, these speakers hanging in the cafe attached to their Oakland roastery are “JVC Nivicos from the early 1980s, powered by an early 1990s Nakamichi amp”. Apparently these are the same speakers as at Chatei Hatou in Tokyo, a fact Mr. Freeman said he realized “only after I bought these for the coffee bar… talk about Freud with a capital F.”
During a recent tour of Blue Bottle's roastery, I also spied these bad boys up above sitting in a corner. According to Mr. Freeman, they are a “late 1960s pair of JBL Voice of the Theatre speakers” that they are planning to hang from the ceiling of their new Morse Building location, “powered by an exquisite Luxman M-2000 amp and preamp from the late 1970s.”
The design at the Sightglass cafe in South of Market is simply stunning. It's an impressively cohesive, polished to every-last-detail take on the whole raw wood/iron/concrete aesthetic. And the speakers, originally part of founder Jerad Morisson's personal home system, are a perfect fit.
Here's what Mr. Morisson had to say about them:
He says that Sightglass is “about to open our second roastery here in SF”, and they will be using the same speakers at that location.
Coffee Bar SF in The Mission
Coffee Bar's Mission location is full of refined, modern design choices, and their speaker choice is no exception. They've gone with a high-tech Hi-Fi system from Vienna Acoustics, utilizing a number of the Schönberg Series speakers. They've been mounted strategically all over the large space to give a smooth, even distribution of sound–avoiding the pockets of loud and quiet that can sometimes happen with more traditional stereo installations.
Embarcadero BART Station
Okay so they don't actually serve coffee here, and yeah the BART really does kind of suck (what is up with carpeting a subway train? That's a recipe for some nastiness.) [Ed note: Also, why is BART the most expensive and most disgusting mass transit in America? Those two distinctions should not be twinned.], but I'm still kind of obsessed with these mirrored plinths of loudspeaker awesomeness that were hanging in the Embarcadero station. They're beautiful, and also clearly crunchy, in need of a power wash, and probably only working to like half capacity.
Sounds like one of those closing similes that journalists just can't resist. You know, the part where I should say those speakers in the Embarcadero BART station are “like the city of San Francisco itself”, or whatever. But I won't go there. I'll end this by saying that when it comes to high-end audiophile gear, well…
Bay Area: you fancy.