ESP HiFi is Denver’s new vinyl record listening bar on Santa Fe

The way Will Minter describes his first experience with Japan’s listening café culture is just magical.

The Lion cafe is a two-story shrine to classical music set in Tokyo’s trend-setting Shibuya ward. Its original 1920s speakers stand around 8 feet tall and atop their own altar. Listeners sit before a grand sound system, in church-like pews, and listen to records silently, almost in reverence.

“You go in, it’s like a library; this very studious, quiet environment,” Minter explained of his 2019 visit. “Usually, the older the (listening room) was, the more of that energy it had.”

Now, Minter and his business partner, Mitch Foster, are trying to re-create some of their favorite moments from Lion and other listening cafes at a new all-day cafe and bar, ESP HiFi, on Santa Fe Drive in Denver.

They’ve watched vinyl-playing rooms such as In Sheep’s Clothing in Los Angeles and Bambino in Paris make their own marks on this subset of cafe culture. (By 2019 in Denver, Sunday Vinyl had started serving wine and dinner and turning up nightly setlists curated by a local record club.)

These types of listening cafes started cropping up in Japan after World War II, as Japanese culture welcomed an influx of Western music traditions. More recently, they are gaining traction in Europe and the United States.

Foster and Minter have their own touches to add to this small analog revolution. At their well-hidden ESP along Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, oil lamps cast a warm glow on the wood table tops and bar surface. A life-like stereo sound fills the main seating area, with two sets of speakers facing listeners either at the bar or in the sitting room.

And the focal point of the cafe (which boasts around $20,000 worth of turntable equipment) is front and center: two refurbished bartop Garrard 401 turntables, workhorses in the hi-fi world, made famous when the BBC started using them in the middle of the last century to broadcast tunes 24/7.

Between the players is an Australian Condesa mixer, designed for blending and slow-fading from one to the next album. Farther behind the bar is a pair of vintage Western Electric speakers, two Edison-looking tube amplifiers, plus tumblers, stemware and glass coffee pour-overs.

If it’s not yet clear, ESP HiFi — for now, at least — is purely about listening and drinking (though there is popcorn in the back if you need some). By morning, it’s coffee and tunes to match the  sunlight creeping in. By night, the candles are lit and the menu turns to highballs, natural wines, vermouth and amari spritzes.

Minter and Foster like to talk about how they can set the tone for the room in one part of the day or another, by adjusting record selection and levels. Their system creates a stereo sound rather than a room-filling presence — which is the main difference between the listening experience here and at Sunday Vinyl. It means, depending on where you’re sitting, that the music takes on a live and in-person quality.

“It’s a lifelike sound, like (the musicians) are right there in the room,” Minter said. “The end goal is to feel like you’re floating a little bit.”

And maybe because of this effect, Minter says he’s been pleasantly surprised to see the small crowds that gather at ESP on weekend nights staying put for a few hours, especially without food service.

There are plans to add breakfast pastries by day, bread and small bites by night. A retail record or bottle shop could come later, as might more decor and even more sound-studio “treatment.” But frankly, the rawness of ESP HiFi makes it a little intoxicating.

“It’s definitely not how a lot of people interact with a bar, especially,” Minter said, pointing out how the vibe from his favorite Japanese listening cafe will sometimes carry over to ESP. And that’s something that’s certainly welcome.

“We have a few people who come in,” he said, “they’ll plop down in a hotspot and close their eyes and just listen.”

1029 Santa Fe Drive, Denver; Thursday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (soon, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday);

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