Nylon Nights

Can I Talk? A Definitive Guide To Listening-Bar Etiquette

Rule number one? Put down your phone.

At 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the Park Slope bar Honeycomb is dark and loud. There are only two people here (including me), but the music — a bright, Brazilian bossa nova-sounding song I don’t recognize — is absolutely blasting. This is just one of a slew of listening bars that have cropped up in NYC in the last two years, touted as intentional spaces “designed for sound.”

Per Honeycomb founder Jon Carlson, the concept originated in Japan in the 1950s, when bars or cafés dedicated to playing music on vinyl over high-quality sound systems began popping up around Tokyo. They were elegant and often serious places (talkers would get shushed), where one would go to unwind and enjoy music, usually jazz, and preferably with a cold glass of whiskey. Nowadays, as the concept has been embraced by NYC and beyond, the ambiance has become much less uptight: Jazz is no longer the singular sound, and DJs are often involved. “I always tell people [our] listening bar is where a Tokyo record bar meets Brooklyn,” says Alex Olsen, general manager at Greenpoint’s Eavesdrop, which opened in 2022.

That said, like any curated experience, there are still some rules, or at least helpful guidelines to keep in mind for any first-timers — if only so you can get the most out of the experience. Below, we got the definitive dos and don'ts of listening-bar etiquette from the experts themselves.

Yes, you can talk

Talking is allowed — but there are caveats, namely, you should be conscious of your volume. At its core, listening bars are for — surprise — listening, which means if you and your party are yapping away, that kind of ruins the fun for everyone else. “You should never be the loudest one in the room,” says Olsen, who adds that if you can hear yourself or your friends over the music, then it’s likely you should turn it down a little.

But if a listening bar is properly sound-designed, like Honeycomb, there’s a chance you won’t need to raise your voice at all. My conversation with Carlson was proof: We chatted away with our voices at a near-whisper — all while a Tatsuro Yamashita record blared brightly in the background.

Keep your party small

In that same vein, if you’re planning on hitting a listening bar for your post-birthday dinner nightcap, reconsider. It’s not solely a matter of sound physics (more people usually means more noise), but also actual physics — most listening bars in NYC are pretty space-efficient. Five or six guests is a good rule of thumb, Olsen says. (That’s generally the max they can accommodate at Eavesdrop.) Meanwhile, Manhattan’s Bar Orai explicitly lists five as their cap for reservations.

Don’t make requests

Like any DJ would tell an over-eager partygoer, “Sorry, listening bars don’t take music requests.” Because these spots are generally operating with a highly curated selection of vinyl, there’s a high chance they wouldn’t be able to accommodate the ask anyway. But if you happen to be a regular who’s also familiar with the house inventory, and also phrases the request in a non-demanding way — like, “Are you going to play any of that kind of stuff tonight?” — then Carlson says they may oblige.

And if you’re at a place that frequently hosts DJs, like Eavesdrop, then you could take the gamble of bringing your own vinyl and asking. Though, Olsen warns, “It's usually not going to go over well.”

Don’t touch the vinyl (or CDJs)

There’s something about beautiful, long rows of impeccably displayed vinyl that ignites some primal urge to walk over and flip through them — and we urge you to resist. Though many listening bars will have their vinyl collections on display, that’s exactly what they’re for: display. This may seem obvious, but Olsen says they frequently get guests touching the goods and, in one instance, even taking them (it was returned). CDJs, the equipment used by DJs, are even more off-limits because “that's where the high-end price tag comes in,” Olsen says. But if you really can’t help yourself, he says, just be sure to ask the staff.

You can — and should — ask about the music

Though touching the vinyl is highly discouraged, inquiring about the music is “kind of the whole point here,” says Carlson, who adds that he founded Honeycomb with the intention of exposing guests to records from the ‘50s to ‘70s. The hope is that a visit will put you onto something new or enlighten you about some piece of music history, he says.

Engage with the space — not your phone

The stories, gram, and Be Reals are waiting, but if you’ve decided to make the trek to a listening bar, it might be wise to ditch the screens. What is usually experienced in the comfort of your bedroom or headphones is now out in the open — so if you’re digging a song or album, make the effort to inquire with the bartender, DJ, or even a nearby listener. It’ll offer a much better experience, Olsen says, “instead of using Shazam and letting the internet do all the work for you."