I was in Korea recently for the first time for seven days, and in that time I grew addicted to Korean-style karaoke, or noraebang (노래방). I’m going to write an article at some point comparing my experiences with karaoke rooms in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, but for now, just know that depending on which country you are in, you will often get some really unique perks!
I was traveling alone this time and am not the kind of person who enjoys making friends on the fly with other tourists. At the same time, Korean noraebang is something that I really wanted to experience for myself, especially once I learned that the remote control looks like this:
Fortunately, it seems that Korea has me covered. Singing is a popular hobby here, and as I walked through the streets of Seoul I noticed a smattering of music schools specifically designed to train students in the K-pop tradition. To me karaoke is all about having fun with friends, but it’s taken a little more seriously here, so of late karaoke rooms specifically designed for solo and duet noraebang “practice” have cropped up here and there in the big cities.
It turned out to be a little difficult to find specific places based on information over a year old, as turn-over appears to be quite quick with these establishments. At least in my experience, I followed instructions exactly to reach places recommended by bloggers, and only one time found the place I was looking for in the location indicated. Having said that, you will probably find that noraebang places tend to cluster together in a district, so if you go to a recommended location and don’t find it, you should still be able to get your singing fix at another place for a similar price.
It seemed like the most common place for noraebang in Seoul was around Hongdae (Hongik University Station; Line 2, Gyeongui/Jungang Line, Airport Express). In Busan, Seomyeon (Seomyeon Station; Line 1, Line 2) and the area around Kyungsung University (Kyungsung University/Pukyong National University Station; Line 2) seem to be the go-to areas for it. I noticed just now creating the above links that many of the places I saw when I walked around those areas are not reflected in the Google Maps results. This is probably related to the turnover of these establishments; don’t limit yourself to Google Maps and just use these links as general areas where many different places can be found.
I won’t go into much details here about how noraebang works, because other people with more experience than me have already written about it. Here are some of the articles I found useful when learning about the whole concept of Korean noraebang, given I had no one with experience to help me:
- Noraebang for Beginners (Project Korea) – A really good breakdown of how to prepare for the experience of noraebang
- Noraebang Machine Functions Translations (Korea 4 Expats) – Gives general ideas for each of the buttons on the different kinds of noraebang remotes, although occasionally a bit vague (test them out yourself!)
So! Now, onto the point of my article: Coin Karaoke vs. Solo Karaoke. I made a point of going to both to figure out why someone might choose one over the other. First, the similarities:
- You get a small booth to sing in.
- You can go by yourself or with a friend – however many people can fit, basically! The booths are not particularly comfortable for more than one or two people, of course, so don’t count on it.
- You get a cool remote control! There are options to skip to the verse for when there are long instrumental solos, and even to change the backing track of your song to disco or calypso. I believe this is quite normal for just noraebang in general, though, and not specific to solo booths.
- For better or worse, you can generally hear the haunting, unadulterated strains of the singers around you in between songs:
Don’t worry, though – you might be shy during your first song thinking about other people overhearing you, but this feeling passes! And on the bright side, how can you possibly feel alone doing noraebang solo when you can hear the beautiful voices of the singers around you – solo singers just like you?!
Coin karaoke (코인 노래방)
Coin karaoke is a growing new phenomenon in Korea which involves going into a booth and paying per song rather than by time. This is obviously going to work out to be cheaper if you just want to sing a few songs to take the edge off, or want to practice a song for an upcoming performance. These are cheap joints, often lacking constant staff presence, and often on basement floors or upper floors without a particularly clear shopfront. Just look for a sign outside reading “코인 노래방” around the entrance of lots!
Using the booths is simple: find a booth that isn’t occupied by someone, walk in, put in your money and get started. The machine does not give change by design. It seems normal to have machines that give change outside of the booths. I would recommend to look carefully at the machine’s fees and perhaps consider using coins rather than notes, given the following:
The first place I went to in Hongdae, Seoul provided 2 songs for 500 won (about 0.75 euros). However in the case above, in Suwon, you got more bang for your buck to pay in coins rather than notes.
- Fixed price. Unlike conventional karaoke rooms, which have fluctuating prices depending on the time of day/night, coin karaoke places offer a similar experience but without this fluctuation, so when you go you always know what you will be paying for.
- Pay per song. If you just want to sing a few ditties and be on your way, there’s no need to pay for a whole hour. This was surprisingly refreshing for me if I ever passed a place and got a craving, I could go in, sing a few, and then continue exploring Korea!
- Not time-dictated. You can take your time searching for a song to sing because your use of the booth is based on you still having money in the machine, rather than any time limit
- More and growing locations. There were coin karaoke machines in every generic noraebang place I went to during my trip. I came across several video game arcades that had singing booths in them as well. Personally I was too shy to use a booth where the people who would hear me sing were gamers and not other singers, but I suppose it goes to show that this concept is versatile and not necessarily limited to dedicated establishments!
- Not time-dictated. On the flip-side of this positive aspect of coin karaoke, if rooms are full there is no way of knowing when one will free up. Fortunately there always seemed to be other places nearby so you could always just browse around until you find one with a spare room.
- Cost adds up over long periods. If you’re planning to sing for a long period of time, you are probably better off seeking out a generic karaoke place with an hourly rate.
Solo karaoke involves going to a) a place designed specifically for people going to noraebang by themselves or with one friend, or b) going into a place which allows you to go into a regular group room solo. I’m pretty sure all noraebang places charge per room as opposed to per person, so in practice you could technically go to any noraebang place pay the room charge and go in solo, but you may find that most places are a little expensive for just one person, particularly during peak hours.
I learned about this particular solo karaoke place when looking into coin karaoke places, reading that establishment is particularly designed for solo “practice”. Luckily for me, unlike every other online recommendation I had followed, not only was the establishment still in the correct location(!!!) but the prices did not seem to have changed when I went (that being 2017). It was a lot of fun! I paid by card for two hours at 11 am and still got the 2,000 won/hour rate (~2.3 euros) for both hours, even though the 2,000 won deal technically ends at 12 pm!
- Extra time. This is arguably the best thing about karaoke in a conventional room or booth. When it’s not peak hour, it seems to be quite typical for establishments to add time to your session for free! I paid 5,000 won (~7 euros) for an hour in Busan during the day and the time just kept piling on for a total of three hours! In the solo booth I mentioned above, I believe I got an extra hour in there too.
- Perks! I can’t remember whether the Coin Karaoke places I visited had the option to record the audio of your performance onto a USB, but the solo room at Soo Noraebang definitely did. Furthermore, if you go solo into more conventional noraebang rooms, you can enjoy the inherent perks there, too, which includes costume hire and free ice cream(!). If you have time, I recommend shopping around and seeing what perks each place has to offer!
- Can be very cheap in non-peak hours. As mentioned above, I went into the Soo Noraebang solo room before 12pm and paid only 2,000 won per hour. Combine this with extra time, and you have yourself a really cheap way pass a listless day!
- Price goes up in peak hours. If you are planning to go solo of an evening and want to pass some idle time, hiring by the hour is probably not the best idea. Not only are the prices much higher than non-peak hour prices, but you’ll probably find you are not given free extra time like you would otherwise. Coin karaoke may be worth a thought in this situation.
- Extra time not guaranteed. As mentioned above! It’s probably best to think of extra time as a pleasant surprise rather than an expectation. This isn’t really a con so much as a consideration. I guess I’m finding it hard to think of any other cons!
So there you have it. I had a great time doing noraebang alone in Korea, and I can’t wait to try it again next time I go.
Incidentally, if any Korean speaker is able to tell me how to actually work the USB systems so I can try to record myself next time, that would be amazing! I tried to guess my way through the instructions but gave up…