There’s a quiet transformation unfolding in Poblacion in Makati. What was once a quiet neighborhood ironically near the Makati Red Light district has now become ground zero for establishments that present an alternative to anemic, mall-based establishments. Hip Latin American restaurants and third wave coffee shops are popping up, aside from cool hostels that cater to young cool-mongers whether local or not. One such establishment is OTO at 5880 Enriquez St. in Brgy Poblacion, Makati.
It’s a specialty coffee shop slash Craft Cocktail Bar and (most importantly for me) a listening room. Boasting a finely curated beverage menu from the mind of David Ong of Curator, the beverages boast a fine pedigree with as much emphasis on the ingredients and as to how the drinks are served.
But let me get back to that statement about being a listening room. When these guys say listening room they mean it with a passion and they walk the talk.
It’s common news now that we’re in the middle of a vinyl revolution in which an almost forgotten medium beat all the odds and is now in the cusp of being a multi-million dollar industry that echoes it glory days before the CD swiftly set the medium aside. The addition of a vinyl record player and a decent sound system has now become a welcome surprise in several establishments wanting to kick up their ambiance a notch. OTO kicks up the notch into an epic overdrive by dedicating a separate area for a listening setup that’ll make your jaw drop!
The separate area features 2 pairs of outstanding speakers, a handful of vintage turntables and some excellent amplifiers, both tube-based and solid state. For the speakers, one is an Athena floor standing pair and the piece-de-resistance, a monolithic pair of restored JBL Horn Loaded Speakers custom-built by local analog guru, Noly Dy of The Analog Source. Both speakers sound awesome but the custom-built JBL has that tactile quality that transports the band you’re listening to right in front of you.
I had a chat with co-proprietor Martin Ledesma about the sound system and learned that they only turn on the tube amplifiers for the JBLs around 5-6pm when the Manila heat has dissipated to prevent the tube amplifiers from overworking so I had to wait for the right time to hear the JBLs. Meanwhile I sampled a couple of cups of coffee (starts from 120php) and thought about how a century old technology (horn loaded speakers) can still be relevant in the age smartphones.
Horn loudspeakers were the forefathers of today’s loudspeakers. Back then amplification technology relied on tube based designs that had a lot of limits in terms of power output so audiophiles relied on loading horns to their speaker drivers to increase the efficiency of speakers so that they can utilize small sources of power to have an increase in volume. When sold state technology came into vogue and speaker technology moved forward, big power in a compact size came cheaply and speakers can now be driven to volumes unheard of without the horn component.
After downing a couple of cups and being hopped on caffeine, I watched Martin turn on the amplifiers and waited as he gingerly laid a vinyl copy of Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach onto a turntable.
The wait was worth it!
Contrary to their size, these speakers sounded refined and effortless. I can find no hint of distortion and this gave the sound an uncolored, natural feel. I was also surprised at the smoothness of the treble range and Martin pointed out that Noly Dy had also installed a Fostex super tweeter to assist the treble. He also pointed out the custom crossovers by The Analog Source that’s the “brain” of the speaker.
Every band that played through the speakers sounded like they were right in front of me, fully fleshed out and occupying distinct 3D places if you close your eyes. As I moved further back out the sound still remained coherent and taut. Tonally the JBL’s preserved that all too precious midrange without any annoying peaks during climactic parts in the music.
That “vinyl” sound that currently keeps attracting new converts is well translated in OTO. Featuring interior design details that also act as sound diffusers, the sound coming from the speakers are never fatiguing and the crisscross of natural wood remains easy on the eyes.
By the time I had my fill of geeking out on the speakers, the head bartender arrived and drinks we’re being offered; I took a gamble on a whisky sour (cocktails start at 350php) even though I was still recovering from coffee jitters. With alcohol and coffee swirling around my bloodstream, I took a final look and listen at the JBLs. As with the current chemicals swirling around my blood stream can confess, the experience is intoxicating for both my head and my ears.
The amazing thing about all of this was how perfectly in sync OTO is in the context of Poblacion. As much as the area feels new because of the surge in hip establishments, most of them still feels like a throwback to refocus on the artisanal and the craft of making well thought out objects and experiences. Much like the repurposing of a vintage technology like the JBL speakers, the spirit and vibe of OTO is simultaneously new and a tribute to the way things were. In which crafting an experience should reek of passion and where music can and should be the perfect backdrop to contemplation, whether buzzed by caffeine or a finely prepared spirit.