by John Richardson
You’d almost have to be labeled an old-fashioned Evil Pinkie Communist (think Boris and Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons…) not to like and admire what the folks at Shinola are doing. At first glance, this young and innovative company that makes lots of cool stuff seems like a Hipster dream come true — it’s all about the caché, not quality. Those who hold such an opinion? They need to take a closer look. Shinola, which is a re-branding, at least name-wise, of the company that used to make shoe and boot polish, is the real deal. Yeah, they make stuff, and nice stuff at that, but their real (and somewhat hidden) accomplishment is that they’ve put a lot of people to work doing meaningful design and manufacturing in their home city of Detroit. Yep, that Detroit.
I first heard about Shinola a year or two ago when I took one of my mechanical watches in to a local jeweler for some adjustments. While there, the lady at the counter directed my attention to a case full of Shinola watches, which were really nice looking. A closer inspection showed them to also be well-made, with excellent attention to finish and fine detail. I really liked their GMT model, which unfortunately seems to be no longer available. If I’d had a few hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket and was in the market for a nice quartz watch (I wasn’t), I probably would have picked one up then and there. Anyway, the salesperson told me a bit about the company and its goals, and I have to admit that I left the store intrigued.
Since that day, I’ve learned quite a bit more about Shinola and the good folks who work there. I mean, they make watches, bikes, audio gear, and leather goods — what’s not to like? Dudes like me just lap this stuff up like cream from a bowl, and they even have brick and mortar stores where enthusiasts who lust after such bespoke items can go look, touch, listen, and drool. In today’s world where vendors like Amazon (God love ‘em!) rule the day, it’s somehow comforting to know that these old school stores still exist and even thrive. If I’m in an urban area where there happens to be a Shinola store, nothing’s holding me back from going through those doors.
Today’s mini-review centers on one aspect of Shinola’s recent entry into the world of fine audio: a nice pair of powered speakers that are meant to be paired with the company’s very cool Runwell turntable. I’ve seen a Runwell in person, and it’s really a thing of beauty. I have a lot of faith in its performance as well, since it was partially designed by the folks at VPI, who make top-notch audiophile decks.
As a quick overview, the buyer of said speakers gets a stereo pair, one of which houses a decent 60 watt per channel Class D amplifier. Both speakers are powered by the same amp and are connected via a pair of long umbilicals. There’s an on/off switch and a large enough volume knob mounted on the rear panel of the powered unit. Also included is a really nice power cord that’s covered with a thick cloth insulating sleeve like the one on my mom’s iron when I was a kid. Needless to say, setup was seriously easy, especially when aided by the nice poster-sized guide that comes with the speakers.
My first visual impression was that the speakers seemed physically smaller than I’d imagined them to be from viewing advertising photos. These are really small monitors that should fit nicely on a bookshelf, countertop, or desk. In short, nice looking, but inconspicuous and retiring.
I started my evaluation by setting them up on my entertainment center shelf, flanking our large-screen TV. They were fed signal via my Squeezbox server so that I could use them to listen to streaming radio. The sound was smooth, yet plenty large and punchy in the bass; in short, very easy to just sit back and enjoy. In fact, the speakers sounded a lot larger in size than they actually are, which is a great selling point for most folks. I noted that they appeared to be horn-loaded in the rear (as am I), which I believe explains why they sound so large down in the nether regions. I found the little guys to be somewhat on the boomy side if positioned within a foot of the rear wall, but if that bothers you, just pull ‘em out a bit.
Of course, Shinola intends for their speakers to be mated with their turntable, so I figured that I ought to try them out in that capacity. While I didn’t have a Runwell on hand, I did hook them up to the output of my Lounge Audio phono stage mated to a heavily modded vintage AR-XA turntable. Wow! Now we’re talking. These speakers just love vinyl, which gave them a fullness of body and shine (not shoe shine…) that they just didn’t quite display in the downstairs setup. They had no trouble filling my huge listening room with tons of engaging sound, and I found it tough to stop spinning the black discs well into the night!
All things considered, I really dig Shinola’s new speakers. Like their other goods, I see these marketed more as lifestyle products aimed at cool young urban professionals who appreciate high quality daily-use items. That doesn’t mean that these little gems won’t also appeal to certain audiophile types as well: think a secondary desktop, kitchen, or bedroom system. If I were to offer one possible improvement, it would be this: most sophisticates who would be in the market for Shinola products will probably want wireless connectivity so they can stream tunes or news from their phones or other mobile devices. Perhaps Shinola might consider adding a Bluetooth receiver and small internal DAC to a future version?
Great stuff… and my hat’s off to Shinola for showing what a modern company can really do when they choose to focus on reviving a community by bringing manufacturing back to our own home shores.