When the mainstream news sources in the UK recently revealed that vinyl was outselling downloads, the LP-über-alles brigade had every reason to crow. Call it “reaching critical mass” or whatever denotes such a turning point, but it meant far more than actual unit sales could signify: if this is going to be the case, a hint of a backlash against non-physical formats, then it indicates how a segment of the public really has embraced (or should that be “re-embraced”?) vinyl.
I suppose that the dream “unforeseen consequences” for this victory by a retro force would be similar returns to market for the typewriter, 35mm film, and VHS, but that ain’t gonna happen. Neither do I expect the current audio tape revival -- for both open-reel and cassettes -- to grow beyond a cult: as good as the former sounds and as funky as the latter may be regarded, both are fragile formats even more susceptible to wear-and-tear than vinyl, to say nothing of the damage inflicted by proximity to anything magnetic. So, if you’re of a nostalgic mien, just be happy with the return of the LP.
Vinyl’s enablers, however, are coming from unexpected quarters. One surprise for me, given that my main job is writing about wristwatches, is support for LPs from a watch brand that just launched a turntable. No, make that a “lifestyle” brand, because Shinola isn’t just about watches. It’s a hipster-esque, right-on venture that also makes bicycles, clothing, leather goods like messenger bags and wallets, and other items that are bringing employment back to Detroit, which is a good thing.
Forgive my cynicism about hipsters, especially as this is not the place for me to berate their holier-than-thou, knee-jerk, left-wing virtue signalling. The bottom line with all hipster ventures is money, whether they admit it or not, yet they dare not utter the C word: capitalism. So when the schmucks are paying $6 for a bowl of Froot Loops or Cap’n Crunch in London’s Shoreditch (that’s Ground Zero for UK hipsters), you have to question their grasp on reality. Be that as it may, they are among the consumers Shinola is targeting, indirectly or not.
Co-developed with VPI, a partnership which shows real class on the part of Shinola, the Runwell turntable will certainly appeal to audiophiles by virtue of its pedigree, but the $2500 deck is not aimed at “us.” We already have turntables, right? Instead, and thanks in no small part to its wonderful looks and finish, the Runwell (a truly great name, by the way, which it shares with the watches) is likely to introduce vinyl to a whole new market: the 99.9999999 percent of the population who don’t even know that hi-fi separates exist.
[Brief aside: In my other life, I am surrounded by 25-40-year-old “luxury press” journalists, who are supposed to be worldly and sophisticated. They can name 30 makers of silk ties in Firenze, and tell the difference between Lobb and Church wingtips at 50 paces. All have earbuds glued to their pinnae. But when the topic comes up, nearly all will ask, “What is ‘hi-fi’? Do you mean ‘high five,’ granddad?” Yes, dear reader, high-end audio is that irrelevant out in the real world.]
Because Shinola 1) has done a magnificent job of coming out of nowhere and establishing itself instantly as a brand that inspires trust and oozes taste, and 2) showed the wisdom of employing one of the world’s most respected turntable brands as its partner, and 3) consulted with serious players from the audio business, consumers with no knowledge nor awareness whatsoever of our world will find the Runwell a perfect solution to any need to play vinyl. For openers, it has nothing to do with the kind of high-end audio jargon that drives away people new to hi-fi. For another, it will probably be kept well away from hi-fi stores. Or it should be.
Purists, of course, will be freaking out just about now, and I hear the shouts of “Judas!” that greeted Dylan when he went electric (not that I have anything in common with Dylan beyond religion). Hardcore audiophiles will blather on about how record decks need to be sold by someone sympathetic to the cause, that a proper turntable mustn’t be regarded as just another luxury purchase indistinguishable from fine luggage or a decent fountain pen. But that is to inflict upon the LP, as it continues its rebirth, baggage of the worst, most destructive, and inhibiting sort.
Think about it: imagine what sales would be like if every hi-fi emporium employed people who didn’t spout audiophile cant to those not fluent in our arcane tongue. When I buy a washing machine, I do not want to hear about water pressure and flow valves because I am not a plumber. When I buy tires for my car, I do not want to hear about rubber compounds and tread patterns because I am not a mechanic. I just want my clothes washed and my car to run.
Thus, if some fashion victim who decided he or she wanted to get into LPs because some chi-chi art director used turntables and vinyl on a photo shoot in a glamour mag, I would rather see them enter a Shinola boutique that is utterly bereft of high-end cables and other distractions than wander into a typical hi-fi shop with staff who will either confuse or insult them. And therefore drive them away.
There have been attempts in the past to crossbreed high-end audio equipment and luxury branding, and none have succeeded. Why? Because the partnerships were all wrong. Just look up the most colossal failure of them all, the saga of TAG McLaren Audio, if you need proof. But Shinola stands a chance because it’s doing everything right, its ambitions are realistic, and it already has a consumer base with loyalty of Apple intensity. I know this because I’ve seen how the watches have charmed even those who despise quartz.
As far as I can tell, Shinola has only one obstacle: audiophiles -- both hobbyists and retailers -- who will open their big mouths and screw things up for those who saw an ad for the Runwell, and who then made the mistake of seeking an audiophile’s opinion before heading straight for a Shinola boutique or the website.
So, a word of advice to Shinola: don‘t let anyone from the hi-fi community review the Runwell. It would be like hiring a vegan to critique a Big Mac.
. . . Ken Kessler