". . . a well-designed, massively built, great-sounding, striking-looking plug-'n'-play table"
hopping at Saks Fifth Avenue earlier this year, I was attracted to the seemingly endless variety of pricey mens watches I saw from a company called Shinola. There were dozens of timepieces in all shapes, sizes and colors. Little did I know then that within a few weeks of my shopping trip Id be getting a plug-and-play turntable from the same company for review.
What the revived Shinola brand sells, however, is definitely not shoe polish. Affixed with a lightning-bolt logo, all those watches, leather goods, bicycles and more are designed, engineered, manufactured and assembled in Detroit, a formerly ignored city in our nations Rust Belt. Alex Rosson, once head of highly respected and successful headphone manufacturer Audeze, runs the audio division. At Shinolas retail store in Detroit's Cass Corridor, a few doors down from Third Man Records, customers can see Runwell turntables being assembled.
The Shinola Runwell is a belt-drive, inverted bearing, two-speed, suspensionless turntable, with a Hurst 300rpm AC synchronous motor hidden beneath its massive aluminum plinth. The motor has enough torque that it wasn't slowed when I used my vintage DiscWasher brush or an HRS record clamp. The review turntable arrived in two substantial cartons, the shipment weighing a total of 55 pounds. One carton held the platter and tonearm, and the other contained the plinth, base and accessories. The packaging was exceptional and bore a family resemblance to that of my recently acquired Audeze EL-8 headphones.
Collaboration with VPI led to Shinolas outsourcing the manufacturing of key parts, such as the platter and isolation feet, to New Jerseys MDI Manufacturing, Inc. On the left side of the plinth, youll find two posts: a knurled one to start the platter spinning and a larger, stepped one around which rests the flat belt used to change speeds. To do this, you move the belt from the smaller step of the grooved post (33rpm) to the larger one (45rpm). The tonearm is a 9" gimbaled-bearing type with a fixed headshell, and it bears a more-than-coincidental similarity to the 'arm found on VPIs Player turntable. After removing the 'arm from its base, height can be changed by adjusting the nut on the threaded rod at the bottom. Azimuth is adjustable by means of a tiny set-screw on the headshells underside: loosen the screw, rotate the headshell on the 'arm shaft until azimuth is correct, then tighten the screw. Anti-skating is addressed by maintaining a gentle and twist-free curve of the Lemo-type connector cable from the tonearm to the top plate.
The Runwell is billed as a "lifestyle" product and marketed as such. While it oozes visual chic and would look suave perched on a sturdy beechwood table flanking an Eames chair, it is nonetheless a serious turntable. The review sample was the Black Friday Edition, and it looked all spiffy and businesslike in polished aluminum, stainless steel and polished black wood. Thanks to the well-written manual and easy-to-understand "quick start" guide, I was spinning LPs within 15 minutes of unpacking the two shipping containers. Inside the smaller box were the platter and tonearm with Ortofons overachieving 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge firmly mounted in place. The larger box held the base and accessories (IEC power cord, RCA cables, two flat drive belts, instructions, a sealed LP and a thank-you card).
Assembly was straightforward: place the base on a solid table or shelf, put the platter in place on the plinth by carefully lowering it slowly over the bearing shaft, place the belt around the pulley and platter, lower the shaft of the tonearm into its base, plug the tonearms Lemo-type connector into the top plate, attach the braided cloth IEC cord, connect the RCAs between the turntable and the line level inputs on your preamp, receiver or powered loudspeakers, plug the turntable in and flick the rocker switch on the back of the base to "on."
To get the platter spinning, turn the knurled knob on the front left side of the platter to the right. For many owners, this is as involved as its going to get. Even the stylus assembly on the cartridge is removable and easily replaceable, so future maintenance should be a snap. Being the obsessive type, before cueing up the first record I checked the 'arm and Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge to verify the factory settings were within specifications. They were. Tonearm overhang was spot-on and VTF was at the recommended 1.8 grams. The turntable sat level and immobile on the top shelf of my equipment rack thanks to its adjustable isolating feet.
The Runwell currently ships with a modular phono stage nestled into a slot on the back of the base. It offers 35.4dB of gain, resistance fixed at 47k ohms and capacitance set at 200pF. You can't bypass the Runwell's phono stage -- you have to use the 'table with it. While this will be a feature for analog novices, who won't have to fret over buying yet another product for playing LPs, audiophiles will see it as an issue. Instructions are being developed to guide users on how to configure jumpers on the phono module to increase gain by 19.7dB, which would make the use of lower-output MC cartridges possible. Resistance and capacitance will remain the same, however, so further fine-tuning is not possible. According to Rosson, in the future Shinola will offer phono modules with other feature sets. Those could include bypass, MC settings, and USB output and should make devotees of outboard phono stages, low-output MC cartridges and digitization happy. A dustcover is in the works, and rumor has itthat Shinola is even developing a line of phono cartridges.
irst to hit the Runwell's plush, static-free leather platter mat was Count Basies 1977 recording Basie Jams #2 [Pablo 2335-748]. The sound from this superbly recorded session immediately brought on a big smile. I chuckled to myself as I considered just how admirable a product the Runwell turntable is and how easy it was to get up and running. And I could not fault the sound. It was exciting and involving with detail galore, crisp highs and lush mids. As the music played and the cartridge began to settle in, the sound got even better. The initial rough edges were taken off, any forwardness receded and the sense of air (if there was any captured on the recording) became more tangible. Images tightened up and instrumental timbres became more honest as well.
And the bass! It was dynamic and visceral. No doubt the 13-pound damped platter had something to do with that. The solidity and impact caused me to question my trustworthy workhorse Audio-Technica LP-1240 USB, which just didn't dig as deeply. Further comparisons between the two using identical Ortofon 2M Blue cartridges also revealed more finesse and musicality when LPs were spun on the Runwell. (I can play 78s on the Audio-Technica, however.)
Next up was the recently reissued soundtrack to the cult TV series Twin Peaks [Death Waltz DW 50]. Despite the less-than-ideal pressing (on coffee-colored vinyl), Angelo Badalamentis dark and ominous score was persuasively embedded into my consciousness, from the opening tremolo-drenched guitar to Julee Cruises haunting vocals. The Runwell drew me into the music, just as the series did back in 1990, when the entire nation pondered the mystery of Laura Palmers death. Continuing my trip back in time to the 90s, I put on techno wizards Orbitals initial eponymous release [Vinyl Collector 0825646128747]. With all manner of percussive and synth sounds bouncing off the walls of my listening room, I felt giddy with pleasure. The propulsive beats were especially addictive, starting and stopping on a dime, confirming the turntables ability to convey dynamics, speed and pace.
Ive always been a fan of Keith Jarrett and turned to him for a change in musical direction. His solo piano excursions and group efforts often challenge and never fail to stimulate. Standards Vol.1 [ECM 1255], from 1993, is the quintessential jazz-trio album. Concise, lyrical and flowing, the tunes are flawless reflections of Jarretts fertile mind nestled within impeccable support from Gary Peacock on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The sharpness of ECMs recording was faithfully projected into the listening room by the Runwell turntable and Ortofon cartridge. It was dry-sounding, reflecting a signature sound endemic to most of the ECM recordings Ive heard. Likewise for the myriad of sounds heard on the decade-and-a-half earlier Survivors Suite [ECM 1-1085]. Side ones "Beginning" could serve as ideal demo music as the struck, plucked, shaken and blown instruments make their presence known across the roomy soundstage. As the song progresses, the late, great Charlie Haden enters on string bass, anchoring the music to the metre of some exotic chant, and we soon launch into orbit aboard the notes launched from Dewey Redmans tenor sax. This is magical music-making and with the Shinola Runwell as a source, not only did I feel privy to every detail of the performance, I felt closer to Jarretts musical idea.
Bill Frisell and Ry Cooders languid, ethereal and heartfelt version of "Shenandoah" from Frisells 1999 album Good Dog, Happy Man [Nonesuch79536-1] was gorgeous, demonstrating clearly what guitars in the hands of master players should sound like. The Judy Clapp's recording and Greg Calbis mastering at Sterling Sound created a luxuriously spacious and somewhat bloomy sound, courtesy of electronic effects. The Runwell caught every intimate facet of the music-making and compelled me to listen, without a break, to all four sides of the album. Continuing in a contemplative mood, I cued up Leonard Cohens "Leaving the Table" from his final album, You Want It Darker? [Columbia 889885365071]. The song is a study in contrasts between the delicately plucked nylon-stringed guitar of Cohens son, Adam, Michael Chavess string bass, the almost-not-there pedal-steel guitar of Bill Botrell and Cohens unsettlingly resonant, deep, rumbling baritone. I was riveted in my seat as I waited for each verse to unfold, aided by Stephen Marcussens spot on mastering.
Feeling the need for large-scale orchestral music, I pulled out various RCA Classic Film Score compilations. These forty-year-old gems, recorded by Kenneth E. Wilkinson in Londons Kingsway Hall, capture Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra performing musical vignettes from classic films of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. The recordings (rivaling any "shaded dogs" in sound quality) sparkled, bringing me many moments of listening pleasure and transporting nostalgia. Once again the Runwell proved its worth, conveying the heft and dynamics of the dramatic (and sometimes bombastic) full-tilt orchestral music.Throughout all of the varied music I played, the Runwell chugged along, giving no favors and playing no favorites, handling the big gestures with aplomb and revealing tiny details in proper proportion. It was easy to become lost in the music because there was nothing in its reproduction that shattered the illusion of musicians playing in real space.
Leaving the 21st for the 16th century, I played David Munrows classic early-music fest from 1971, Two Renaissance Dance Bands [EMI HQS 1249]. This vintage Christopher Bishop & Christopher Parker recording captured the musicians in Londons All Saints Church performing what, for all intents and purposes, could be called "a rave." Its majestic music, somber yet raucous and raspy at times, made by crumhorns, sackbutts, ratchetts, recorders and all manner of percussion and plucked and bowed strings. The Runwell lost none of the dynamics and flow of this music, resulting in an overwhelmingly festive emotional experience.
Solo piano recordings have always presented challenges to turntables, especially consistency of speed and constancy of pitch. Im happy to report the Runwell met those challenges. J.S. Bachs sublime The Goldberg Variations, as interpreted by a 22-year-old Glenn Gould on his groundbreaking 1955 Columbia recording ['Columbia ML 5060], sounded stunning. No nuance of the performance was missed on my six-eye, gray-label pressing as the flurry of notes, coaxed from the metal strings of Goulds beloved Steinway CD 174, sparkled in Columbia Records legendary 30th Street Studio. The clarity of the recording was analogous to the image crispness you get using a grain focuser instead of the naked eye when making photographic enlargements. With such lucency, the atmosphere of the venue became palpable, as did the image of Gould seated at the keyboard. There is no excuse today for a turntable to make any noise, mechanical or otherwise. Also, wow and flutter should be nonexistent or vanishingly low. These anomalies are things of the past. Im happy to report the Runwell exhibited none of these issues. It ran dead quiet and pitch perfect, with only the spinning of the platter giving a visual clue it was on.
Im a sucker for the sound of the Uilleann pipes. When played by a master, the distinctive sound of these ever-present Irish folk-instrument contraptions elicits deep emotions. I stand in awe as the fleet fingers required of joggling reels contrast sharply with the mournful wail of the plaintive airs. Davy Spillane is a master, and his 1987 recording Atlantic Bridge [Tara 3019] demonstrates his many talents and skills. I turned to the title track, whereEoghan ONeills fretless bass belched out carpet-curling notes with surprising force, control and definition. The Runwell also did a splendid job at keeping the banjo, dobro and other instruments separated when, halfway through the song, the tempo doubles and a riot of sound ensues.
I also want to thank Shinola for introducing me to new music in the form of the complimentary LP that was included with the Runwell, in this case St. Vincent [Republic Records B0019906-01]. Annie Clarks music was new to me and piqued my interest for further exploration into her offbeat style. Her unique, quirky, highly processed and compressed, not easily approached music reminded me of a modern-day, techno-inspired Kate Bush/Mary Margaret OHara hybrid with Trent Reznor-inspired malice looming in the background. The Greg Calbi-mastered vinyl shone on the Runwell, all of its off-beatness fully intact.
Finally, I couldn't resist playing Simon Fisher Turners 2013 soundtrack for the stunning BBC documentary on the legendary Everest expedition of 1924, The Epic of Everest (Mute STUMM 357). As the spare and evocative blend of composed music and found sounds permeated the room, I felt transported to a space that touched something inside me. What more should we expect from hi-fi gear? That the composers intent was so strongly conveyed spoke volumes to me of the veracity of the Runwells abilities.
I could go on and on with examples of records that delighted my senses, but it became obvious after a dozen or so that the Shinola Runwell didnt leave me wanting for any of musics essential details. Each LP lit a fire in my soul and brought a grin to my face. In addition to its resolving power and rendering of the audio spectrum from deep bass to extended treble, the Runwell was a grand communicator, enabling listeners to experience their favorite sounds at a level beyond mere electro-mechanical reproduction. After all, music is more than the sum of its parts. Some components reveal better than others the aspect of music I call, for lack of a better word, soul. Without this essential element, its easy to become distracted and restless, with interest waning and the listener looking for something else to do. You wont suffer this condition with the Runwell; it possesses this quality in spades. The fact that its so easy to set up and get running is icing on the cake.
Replacing the Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet with my DynavectorDV-20X2H moving-coil cartridge brought magic to the sound. The Dynavector sells for four times that of the Ortofon, so its not a fair comparison, but I wanted to hear what the Runwell could do with a cartridge more commensurate with its price point. I was not disappointed; there was more of everything: texture, detail, timbral accuracy, image separation, soundstage, cohesiveness and musical integrity. In addition to the more fully fleshed-out bass, there was better control of vocal sibilants. The Runwells built-in phono stage acquitted itself very well with a high-output MC cartridge.
Having satisfied my curiosity, I took comfort knowing the adage "A modest cartridge on a good turntable beats an expensive cartridge on a poor one" made good sense. The best scenario is an expensive cartridge on a good turntable, which is what I was enjoying (by my standards). Not one to leave well enough alone, I wanted to see what replacing the leather mat with a cork mat would do to the sound. I had a suspicion that the cushioning effect of the leather might be relaxing the sound somewhat. After alternating mats from leather to cork, then back to leather, my ears told me it did, and though I appreciated the static-free leather platter mat when it tamed overly hot pressings, I preferred the cork mat for its sonic signature (or lack thereof).
hroughout my long tenure as an audio reviewer, Ive heard many very good turntables. The Runwell, Shinola's first audio product, is one of these -- a well-designed, massively built, great-sounding, striking-looking plug-'n'-play table with no obvious sonic weaknesses and gobs of soul. A month and a half into this review, with an average of over four hours a day of focused listening, the table and cartridge appear to be fully broken in and I find myself all tingly in analog bliss. Ive grown quite fond of this turntable; it has helped me discover many hidden gems in my record collection and enabled me to better appreciate old favorites. Sonically, it never let me down. For most, it will be the last record player they will own (or need). And the money not spent on turntable setup paraphernalia can be spent on records.
There is a lot of competition in the market for record players at this price point, with a new one appearing almost monthly. Even with such stiff competition, the Shinola team should be proud of the Runwell. It does what its supposed to with lots of panache. It's a giant step beyond the entry-level competition and makes a strong entry into audios high-end marketplace. Shinola has added another worthy product to its distinguished marque.
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