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I didn’t grow up in Austin. (That’s right: I’m not from Texas.) I only just moved here some three years ago. But while I may be new (and one of the hated Los Angeles transplants), I do know my way around, especially when it comes to the rich audio scene. Austin has a reputation for being the “live music capital of the world.” I’m not sure who gave Austin that title, but when it comes to “live” music, Austin isn’t hurting. Whether it’s live music anyone would actually want to listen to is another matter entirely, but I digress.
Apart from Austin’s live music scene, there are a number of record and audio shops, not to mention restaurants — yes, restaurants — that cater to the audiophile in all of us. So, if you’re thinking of traveling to Central Texas, here are a few of the hot spots you should check out if good music and gear is high on your list of priorities.
Record Shops to Visit in Austin
My favorite record shop in Austin is BLK Vinyl, located on Austin’s emerging East Side. BLK Vinyl opened in 2018 and is the brainchild of three childhood friends whose love of music and all things vinyl led them to open a shop together. The shop is largely stocked with vintage or secondhand records, but there are new releases to be found. BLK is on the smaller size, but don’t let that deter you; their selection is quite good, especially if you’re a fan of classic rock, funk, and local artists. They also have a pretty nice selection of early ’90s alternative rock (Nirvana-era) that I quite like. The entire shop is really well-curated, not to mention clean and usually pretty quiet. They do host live music from time to time, as well as participate in local music events, so it’s possible you’ll see their name and/or wares about town if you’re lucky. All in all, it’s a great shop and one of the true gems of Austin’s vinyl music scene.
The next shop worth a visit is Breakaway Records , located in North Austin. This is one of Austin’s most notable record stores, not to mention one of its largest. They really have it all, from new releases to used records, and even a very healthy selection of 45s, if you’re into that sort of thing. Along with copious amounts of vinyl records of every genre, Breakaway also sells cassette tapes, DVDs, and VHS tapes for those of you wanting to go full hipster in 2020. Towards the back of the store there is even a pretty nice selection of vintage and used audio equipment, which is mostly comprised of ’70s and ’80s era turntables, stereo receivers, and speakers. Prices range from fifty to a couple hundred bucks per piece, but every once in a while, they get some real vintage gems, though you’ll pay handsomely for them.
If you’re a fan of hip-hop, rap, or old-school R&B, the record shop for you is Piranha Records. Here you can expect to find a lot of really great underground finds, including bootlegs and independent releases. Piranha isn’t really located near downtown, so it’s a little bit of trek compared to some of the other shops on this list. But if you’re a fan of hip-hop or rap, Piranha should be on your short list.
Last on my list is Waterloo Records, an Austin institution and likely the closest thing the city has to an Amoeba Music or an old Tower Records. Waterloo has everything — except parking, that is. Seriously, the parking lot is a joke. Park across the street at Whole Foods or West Elm and walk. Once you make it inside, though, Waterloo is a music and video lover’s paradise. Whether your format of choice is vinyl records, CDs, cassette tapes, DVDs, Blu-ray, or VHS tapes, chances are you’re going to find it at Waterloo. That said, Waterloo is mostly stocked with new releases or reissues of old albums on vinyl, though their CD and DVD offerings are more secondhand. Still, it’s the type of store one could easily spend an afternoon getting lost in, assuming you’re not too put off by crowds.
AV Shops in Austin
Sadly, there aren’t that many specialty audio video shops in Austin, at least none that floor a great many products or have public business hours. Still, for the few shops that can be found (and visited), they’re quite nice.
My favorite is Whetstone Audio, located steps from BLK Vinyl. Whetstone’s wares lean toward the esoteric, including products from the likes of Harbeth, Devore Fidelity, Rega, Dynavector, Leben, and Grado. The real appeal here is that the shop is one big, nice sounding listening room with audiophile records adorning its outermost edges (yes, they sell vinyl records too). While Whetstone does have normal shop hours, it’s best to call ahead of time just to make sure the owner hasn’t stepped out for an event or lunch. Still, plan your time right, and you’ll be treated to some of the finest sounding gear Austin has to offer.
If you’re a fan of vintage or secondhand gear the only place to visit is the Sound Gallery in Austin. Sound Gallery Austin is more audio or hi-fi museum than anything, only in this museum everything is for sale.
Yes, you can buy records, and yes, they have a coffee shop in the back. But neither of those things is the real draw. No, you go to the Sound Gallery to take in the history of hi-fi and get lost in their many rooms packed to the ceiling with vintage classics. I mean it: the handful of times I’ve gone I have always come across some vintage gem just sitting there — gems like Klipsch La Scalas, JBL’s L100 (originals), McIntosh’s MC275 and Marantz’s own WC-22, to name a few just off the top of my head. The only real drawback to the Sound Gallery is, in my opinion, they’re a bit overpriced, especially when it comes to some of the more notable brands or juicy models.
Audiophile Restaurants and Bars
Believe it or not, there are a number of spots in Austin that cater to audiophiles without selling vinyl or gear. South Congress’ Central Standard is a fantastic restaurant next door to the swanky South Congress Hotel.
The Central Standard may be more known for their menu and ultra-modern bar, but it’s the custom console stereo in their entry way that caught my eye originally. Designed around a pair of Klipsch La Scala loudspeakers and driven by a stack of vintage McIntosh components, this custom all-in-one console stereo is a thing of beauty. While the staff doesn’t always remember to turn it on, they will if you ask, and the resulting sound is nothing short of astonishing. It’s a real treat being able to enjoy a cocktail at the bar while listening to Coltrane on vinyl through some of hi-fi’s most storied pieces.
After your dinner at Central Standard, I recommend heading over to Austin’s W Hotel and visiting the Living Room Bar, where you’ll be treated to vinyl records (over 8,000 in total) being played via a wall of vintage McIntosh electronics. Vintage JBL cinema-style horn loudspeakers fill the space with smooth, rich sound, all while you cozy up on one of the many modern lounge chairs and enjoy a handcrafted cocktail. The Living Room Bar and adjacent Red Room can get busy, and on Friday evenings and weekends it can be a bit of a meat market, but if you go in off-peak hours, the experience is truly second to none.
Live Music Venues
Austin is filled with live music venues, though as I said, that doesn’t always mean it’s going to be music you want to listen to, or be in a place you’d want to visit.
My favorite live venue in Austin is Antone’s Nightclub on East 5th Street. Antone’s has a storied history in Austin, and you can feel it when you step inside. There’s a small record shop in the front, as well as an old-school shoeshine stand right as you walk in, two nice touches that let you know that you’re not going to just another bar or music venue. Antone’s is small, and as a result every performance feels intimate and personal. There really isn’t a bad spot in the place, though you’ll want to arrive right as doors open if you wish to snag one of the handful of cocktail tables inside. I personally don’t recommend snagging a table, as they’re off to the sides (usually) and everyone at Antone’s stands during the show, so good luck seeing anything. Still, as far as quality live music venues go in Austin, Antone’s is my favorite, hands down.
Another favorite venue of mine is the famous Stubbs BBQ. Yes, Stubbs is a barbeque joint, but like a mullet, it’s business in the front/party in the back. Bbehind the restaurant there is an outdoor amphitheater that plays host to some of the bigger acts to come through Austin. There’s even an inside stage for smaller acts (or if the weather is bad) that, like Antone’s, is very nice and intimate. There isn’t much else to say about Stubbs other than if you live in Austin, or visit for any length of time and want to see a show, there’s a good chance that show or band will be playing at Stubbs. It’s a favorite among concertgoers and bands alike.
Lastly, there is the Moody Theater, home to Austin City Limits Live. Located next door to the W Hotel Austin, the Moody Theater is arguably the best indoor concert venue in Austin for large bands or crowds. All the big acts play the Moody Theater, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s accessible, clean, and the staff is top-notch. Plus, it features stadium-style seating, which means everyone in the upper levels and balconies can enjoy uninterrupted views of the stage (imagine that). The Moody Theater may lack some of the charm of other venues on my list, but as far as concert venues go, it’s among the better sounding, and one of the best places in Austin to take in a show.