James Tang has spent the past four decades collecting some of the world’s rarest records.
Stepping into The Record Museum is like entering a time capsule.
Over 20,000 records, tapes, and CDs are crammed inside a 900-square-foot space in Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay neighborhood. The collection includes rare master recordings of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Nat King Cole.
It’s the result of one man’s obsession with finding the “purest sound.”
James Tang has spent the past four decades hunting down some of the world’s rarest records. His journey has led him to the cellars and estates of music producers and artists.
One trip took him to the home of a producer who worked with John Lennon. There, he recalls listening to a rehearsal version of “Imagine” for the first time.
“As soon as I hit play, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is John Lennon,’” he says. “It sounds so real, so touching. It sounds even better than the official version. I realized this was a priceless treasure.”
Tang’s obsession with music began in his teenage years. Growing up in Hong Kong during the 1960s and ’70s, he was surrounded by rock music from the U.K. and U.S.
His brothers, who all played music, would hold band practice sessions attended by American sailors calling port in Hong Kong.
“Deep Purple, Doors, Eagles—I knew these names before I was in primary school,” Tang says. “People didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Tang eventually turned his love of music into a profession. In 1987, he opened a record store in the Wan Chai neighborhood of Hong Kong, selling mostly Western music.
Over the years, he amassed a collection large enough to open a museum. His most prized possessions are his master tapes, considered the “Holy Grail” of tapes. They’re the original studio recordings from which other copies are made.
“People focus too much on technology. They think buying $50,000 headphones will help them hear everything, but no, it’s about the quality of the recording.”
Tang estimates he has about 700 of them, which he freely plays to customers who inadvertently wander into his shop—but not before telling them about the theory of sound production he came up with 10 years ago.
After decades of hunting down records, tapes, and CDs, Tang started studying his collection and came up with a chart that ranks the quality of different recordings—from master tapes to open-reel tapes and vinyl, all the way down to Blu-ray and digital technology today.
He insists master tapes are the most authentic version of a recording, free of the imperfections that come from remastering an album.
“Because once you’ve copied from the master tape four or five times, you’ll inevitably get sounds you don’t want,” Tang says.
Sibilance is one example. “The s sound, z sound, pay attention to them,” he explains. “CDs have a lot of them.”
Ever since he came up with the chart, institutions around the world have turned to Tang for his research on sound.
“There are probably very few people in the world who know more about the history of recording.”
“There are probably very few people in the world who know more about the history of recording,” says Adrian Walter, a music professor and director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, who has known Tang for eight years. “He has a particularly keen ear and really hears what he is talking.”
For now, Tang is focused on getting as many people as he can to listen to his collection. He regularly gives lectures to local music students, and audiophiles regularly book the space for listening parties.
He admonishes the modern chase for the latest gadgets. “People focus too much on technology. They think buying $50,000 headphones will help them hear everything, but no, it’s about the quality of the recording.”
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Visitors who chance upon Tang’s museum are surprised to learn that it’s a one-man operation.
“A lot of foreigners think it’s strange,” he says. “Because I’m Chinese, I grew up in Hong Kong. They wonder, ‘Why is he preserving my culture?’
“But if I don’t preserve it and just let it disappear, is that okay? I don’t think that’s good for the world.”
With additional reporting by Tiffany Ip.