Shinola’s “Plug’n’Play” Runwell Turntable

It’s no secret that when Shinola decided to add a turntable to its product roster, the Detroit, Michigan based manufacturer chose to consult for the design with New Jersey based VPI Industries.

That made complete sense because of VPI’s many decades of experience manufacturing at a wide variety of price points, American-made turntables.

However, it would be incorrect to call the new $2500 ready-to-play Shinola Runwell turntable a re-badged VPI or a VPI clone. Have you ever seen a VPI turntable driven by a crowned pulley and a flat belt? No.

On the other hand some of the Runwell’s component parts and/or design concepts will look familiar to VPI customers, including its stocky pre-lubricated inverted ball-topped bearing and pleasingly massive and damped full-sized aluminum alloy platter.

The Runwell’s key machined components are manufactured to Shinola’s specs at the same machining facility used by VPI. The American-made motor is from Hurst, driven by a Shinola-initiated electronic controller. A few cosmetic parts are sourced overseas. You will find more, including a video here.

The handsomely designed, generously-sized base (18.5” W x 13.5” Dx4.3” H) of wood damped with a heavy aluminum top-plate weighs, including the platter, a hefty forty pounds.

The approximately nine and a quarter inch effective length damped aluminum tone arm (or pick up arm, choose your favorite) is a custom version of the one VPI uses on its Scout, Jr. ‘table, but featuring a head shell and counterweight unique to the Runwell and a more cosmetically pleasing finish. Both are particularly “beefy” as well as being attractively machined parts of what appears to be a three-piece press-fit assembly.

The bearing assembly, borrowed from arms found on lower cost VPI ‘tables, consists of a traditional gimbaled vertical one and for the horizontal, what appears to be an unusually large-diameter (for a tone arm) platter type bearing—an idea VPI founder Harry Weisfeld showed me during a visit last year or perhaps two years ago.

The arm wire, terminated in a LIMO-type connector, exits atop the arm slightly forward of the vertical bearings and plugs into a socket mounted to the top of the Runwell’s thick, massive aluminum top plate.

VPI owners are well-familiar with this wiring arrangement, which is also found on all VPI arms, both gimbaled and uni-pivoted. While arranging the wire in a neat loop is important on both kinds of arms, its positioning is somewhat less critical on a gimbaled bearing arm where wire back-force can’t affect azimuth as it can on a unipivot, it’s nonetheless important to carefully loop it to minimize friction.

Anti-skating is not included here, but side force compensation is less needed on this arm because there’s somewhat more horizontal friction due to the large diameter horizontal bearing (more about this later).

Built-In MM/MC Phono Preamplifier

A Shinola-designed and built in America modular MM/MC phono preamplifier is onboard and accessible via a rear-mounted slot load tray. The output via a pair of gold plated RCA jacks is fixed, meaning that at this time you cannot use an outboard phono preamplifier.

However, because the design is modular, Shinola says it will at some point soon offer a variety of optional plug in cards that will include a non-line level output and perhaps an ADC or even Bluetooth.

MM gain @47kohm loading is specified at a somewhat low-ish 35.4dB (40dB is more typical). Signal-to-noise ratio (unweighted) is spec’d at 82dB, while RIAA accuracy is said to be “less than” (do they mean “greater than”, which would be better?) ± 0.25dB, 20Hz-20kHz (exclusive of the 13Hz infrasonic filter—a good idea).

Jumpers on the phono board permit switching to MM to MC, which adds approximately 20dBs of gain. You can find other specs on the company’s website.

Plug’n’Play Operation

Attractive, even elegant packaging is part of the Shinola experience and the Runwell’s presentation meets expectations. It comes in two boxes, one containing the base and accessories, the other the platter and arm with pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Blue moving magnet cartridge (until Shinola’s own design has been completed).

Open the big box and you’re greeted by an opaque black inner box cradled in black foam. Remove the foam, lift out the handled box, open and you’ll find a large one-sheet with basic instructions. You’ll also find an LP present from Shinola, in this case St. Vincent’s 2014 eponymous Grammy Award® winning release, in which, unfortunately, the producers lavish more care and attention on the gold-leafed jacket than on the recording and pressing quality (I already have a copy). Cool musical choice though! But the sound is A.M. radio quality. Meaning it sounds as if you’re hearing it through an A.M. radio.

Place the turntable down on a sturdy level surface (the feet are adjustable), remove the platter and arm (carefully!!!) from the second box, lower the platter onto the bearing, then the arm into its base (it will be “grabbed” either by a magnet or by a suction vacuum typical of a platter bearing).

At this point you’re almost ready to play records because the cartridge is mounted and aligned and the counterweight is already adjusted to the correct tracking force. The sleek design makes difficult accidentally nudging the counterweight and changing the tracking force. You will have to carefully remove tape that holds in place the counterweight and secures to the arm tube the cable and connector.

Though Shinola tries its best to make this truly “plug’n’play” without your having to buy accessories, it’s a good idea to buy a VTF (vertical tracking force) gauge and an inexpensive bubble level to be sure the ‘table is level and the down-force is correct (the 2M Blue’s recommended tracking force is between 1.6 and 2.0 grams). Despite Shinola’s best efforts to further secure with tape the snap-on stylus guard, it came loose during shipping.

When I lifted the arm from the packing I was surprised to find an unprotected but thankfully undamaged cantilever and stylus (whew!). Also, I think Shinola should provide instructions for removing the stylus guard. It’s neither self-explanatory nor easy to get on and off! If I have trouble with it, I can only imagine the struggles of a first-timer!

Shinola provides a generously long, fabric-covered A.C. cord and a thin leather platter mat into which is stamped the Shinola logo. Carefully place the belt around the stepped pulley (easier for the experienced, more tricky for first-timers), plug in the A.C., connect the supplied RCA cables to a line level input and you are ready to play records.

Runs Well, But Fast!

While your first job will be to play records, mine was to measure the Runwell’s speed accuracy. Using the Feickert test record and Platterspeed App I found that the Runwell spun a bit more than .2% fast. I double checked this with the Clearaudio strobe disc and light.

In other words a 3150Hz tone was 3165.8Hz. Wow was ±0.12 or ±0.09 depending upon how it’s calculated and if you look at the other numbers, the Runwell’s speed consistency (low-pass filtered to remove the contributions of record eccentricity) was very good regardless of price. Here’s what the speed chart looked like:

That too looks very good, other than the location of the low pass filtered green line, which shows the speed error. I decided to try a trick someone once showed me, I don’t remember when, which is to twist and so invert the belt at the pulley. That done, I again measured and got this:

Note that this produced very close to the desired 3150Hz without any appreciable loss of speed consistency. It’s a useful trick, but QC should have caught the speed discrepancy and replaced the Delrin pulley, which on the 45rpm segment also suffered from noticeable vertical wobble (the initial 45rpm measurement was also +.2% fast).

The pulley machining tolerance also needs addressing as this video shows (will post ASAP). This should have been found in QC and replaced.

Tone Arm Concerns

The relatively high friction horizontal bearing, which any experienced turntable owner can easily feel was cause for concern (as it was when I first saw this design) as was the gimbaled bearing’s easy to feel “play”. Even the higher tolerance (meaning looser) bearings found on less expensive Regas cannot be felt moving as one can feel on the Runwell’s arm.

The Runwell’s arm was susceptible to actually “sticking” in the grooves unless both the stylus and the record were kept scrupulously clean. This was something I’ve not experienced playing records in a very long time. A clean stylus on a clean record produced no actual sticking but dirt on either (and not a great amount of it) did.

When I played a blank (grooveless) record, the arm remained in place wherever I plunked it down. That is not good, even if you don’t “believe” in anti-skating. The arm should “skate” inward due to friction. This behavior does not mean there’s just enough bearing friction to produce the right amount of anti-skating without there being mechanical compensation!

More troubling was audible, muddy, inner-groove distortion on highly modulated passages. In the fourth movement of a 1995 Alto Analogue reissue of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony” with Andre Previn conducting the LSO (EMI ASD 3018) cut without limiting or compression of any kind, when the organ entered, the arm could not handle it and the sonic picture turned to thick mud.

I am not happy reporting this but it’s what I found even tracking the Ortofon 2M Blue at 2 grams or 2.1 grams. Is this a QC problem? I’ll wait for a manufacturer’s response after they get this ‘table back and have a chance to examine the arm. I’ll publish it ASAP.

Swell Sonics

I hope Shinola sorts out the speed issue and that the review sample was an outlier because the Runwell’s sonic performance was in every way attractive, if not the final word in terms of resolution. Because it is sold as a ready to play system it was neither possible nor appropriate really, to separately assess the phono preamp’s performance or the cartridge’s or the ‘table’s for that matter.

Taken as a whole, though, the combo produced a pleasingly warm “full-figured” and well-detailed analog experience, though I recommend tracking the 2M Blue at the top end of its recommended range (2 grams). At the recommended 1.8 grams the couldn’t quite deal with the “Mallet of Death” drum thwacks on Winds of War and Peace (Wilson Audiophile/Analogue Productions APC 8823) or the above referenced “Manfred”. On the other hand at the Consumer Electronics Show two years ago that same “thwack” vaporized a ceramic midrange driver on a speaker that I’ll not name! It’s quite a “thwack”! At 2.1 grams the Runwell had no problems reproducing the “thwack” without mistracking.

Chad Kassem once told me that his SMT presses (Southern Machine Tool) were like ‘50s era Chevys: they just run and run and never break down. The Swedish Toolex Alpha’s though, which are high performance and semi-automatic (they load records into sleeves and stack too), are more finicky—like European high performance cars.

The Runwell is a quintessential American product: rugged, probably ultra-reliable and extremely well-built but in terms of sonic performance—at least as supplied—its bottom end though very well-developed and robust, was somewhat sluggish compared to even a Rega Planar 3, which specializes in “fast and nimble” somewhat at the expense of weight and “slam”.

On the other hand, the Runwell’s generously sized bottom and rich, full mid-band made a record like Mike Flanigin’s Hammond B-3 saturated The Drifter (Black Betty BBST-4068), much of which was recorded in Austin at Jim Eno’s (he’s Spoon’s drummer) Public Hi Fi Studios, sound as no digital source can ever manage.

Were I in charge of “gifts” for Runwell customers, I’d be packing this record, which features, among other guests Billy Gibbons, Alejandro Escovedo, Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan. Great music and it shows off the Runwell’s best, velvety-smooth sonic attributes.

Don’t get the wrong idea about the Runwell: it’s got sufficient buoyancy and resolve to make a record like The Modern Jazz Quartet’s European Concert (Atlantic 2-603) sing. Milt Jackson’s vibes had fast bell-tone attack and sustain, and Connie Kay’s cymbals so well recorded here, had fine shimmer, especially considering the moderately priced ($236) cartridge.

In fact, I compared this record through the Runwell with a 192/24 bit MQA version through a well-executed streaming DAC and while had the digital version been CD sound in 1984 I’d not have gone on my anti-digital rampage, in the ways that analog beats digital every time, the Runwell expressed it.

The Runwell’s well-developed midrange helped produce full-throated female vocals and rich, sonorous string tones that will attract the ears of those subsisting on a thin digital diet. Play for a turntable skeptic Nina Simone’s High Priestess of Soul from the must-have The Philips Years box set and he or she will “turn”.

Don’t forget: I put the Runwell in a system costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and still it provided an abundance of warm, rich, velvety musical pleasures without showing any serious sonic weaknesses (other than when it couldn’t properly track and record). In fact its smooth sonic personality complemented the best sounding records while covering to some degree the poorly recorded ones.

Conclusion

I suspect the sample Runwell I got for review was early in the first production run. I don’t think it was QC’d with sufficient attention paid to the pulley wobble or to the vertical gimbaled bearing. There will inevitably be some bearing “slop” on an arm at this price point but it should not be so great that it can actually be felt by manipulating the arm as it was here.

As for the horizontal sticking issue, I can’t imagine that what I experienced was normal because I believe the VPI version of this arm has been in the field for a while now and it’s difficult to believe either VPI, or its customers would tolerate performance of this kind.

The Shinola Runwell has many outstanding attributes both physically and sonically. As a “lifestyle” turntable, it’s difficult to fault in either category. It looks retro-cool and is beautifully turned out. Sonically, it goes where no digital audio goes in the ways that only analog provides. It’s sins are those of omission and of pleasing additives.

Assuming the tracking issues experienced here were “outliers”, I have no doubt Runwell buyers, especially first timers and older folks returning to their format roots, will be happy with their Runwell purchase. It’s a solid “piece of kit”. It needs better QC.

COMMENTS
Anton D's picture

One can be critical and kind and you threaded the needle!

I look forward to the final word from the manufacturer.

Neverenough's picture

We have heard a formal review is forthcoming but it seems conspicuously absent.

Michael Fremer's picture
Next up.....
Dorian Workman's picture

I'm curious who will respond - VPI or Shinola?

theboogeydown's picture

I love that record. Did you find it was served well on vinyl? I always assumed it was a highly processed all-digital affair.

yuckysamson's picture

Mikey, on that note of the Technics I don't think we ever got your full review of the GAE--whatever it's called--the $4,000 one. How good did *that* stack up to other competitively priced tables? (a good example would be the VPI Prime).

OldschoolE's picture

I don't know anyone else who can do a review like Michael. Truly fair and balanced. So many other reviews are skewered one direction or the other sounding contrived. This one is another example of too many to count on what a real professional review looks like. No sales pitch, no shots, etc. Most importantly, this is what supporting the hobby looks like as opposed to working against it.
Michael does a real service to the readers and the manufactures by being honest in fairness. I think the manufactures appreciate it.
Michael is very ethical. I'd rather hear truth than have smoke blown up my ass.
I see more reviewers trying to harm the hobby and industry rather than help it.

Thanks for keeping it real Michael and thanks for showing some of us the way.

Michael Fremer's picture
Much appreciated.
Dorian Workman's picture

+1

oak1971's picture

I don't carry water for Shinola, but I think it was a mistake not to check tracking force and adjust if needed. Shipping is traumatic.

scottsol's picture

You might want to read the review again- carefully.

oak1971's picture

I did, he mentions increasing it, and does recommend checking it, but never says what it was set at from the factory. Seems like important info in deciding if the issue was setup error, design flaw, or equipment failure.

scottsol's picture

As any issues he reported that might have been related to tracking force were still there after the force was adjusted, the factory setting could not have been the issue. It is also highly improbable that MF would have done any listening without first checking the settings as he suggests that all purchasers do.

madoco's picture

Mikey or anyone, not quite sure if I understood the "sticking in the groves issue" any help? Thanks

Michael Fremer's picture
Literally stuck in the groove, groove, groove, groove, #9, #9, #9 #9
liguorid42's picture

If a pivoted arm with standard geometry doesn't skate anywhere on a blank disk (my ET2 doesn't skate either but that's a whole different issue) and it derails backwards from a grooved disk with the slightest provocation--tick or compromised stylus contact--that means it has very high pivot friction. It's either a QC problem, as conjectured in the review, or a very crappy arm. One would hope the former at this price point (even for a complete plug and play table-arm-preamp combo), but I'll be curious to read the follow-up.

Mat Weisfeld's picture

This is why we turn to and appreciate Michael for his reviews. Manufacturers are quick to get offended when there is a review that isn't all in their favor and miss what can be a helpful learning experience and continued development opportunity. When we first made the VPI Traveler most of the changes made for V2 were based off of a fair report from former Stereophile writer Stephen Mejias. As with this review, it is constructive criticism that will only improve the quality and performance of the Shinola Runwell. Thank you Michael for calling it like it is and keeping this industry honest. Whether it was made in Detroit or New Jersey both the Shinola and VPI team are in this together. Michael is correct that his sample was one of the early production models. However, it is no excuse and we all continue to improve the music experience.

Dorian Workman's picture

Appreciate your excellent attitude as always. My new Prime sounds amazing.

markbrauer's picture

Not too long ago I read an article about "music fans" who buy vinyl BUT NEVER TAKE IT OUT OF THE PACKAGING. They never handle the record. Never experience the excitement of setting the needle down on something new. They never hear the sweet sound of the music.

I was puzzled by this.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I treked over to the local Shinola store, to check out the new Runwell turntable. And it's a beauty. But it was completely isolated in a heavy plexiglass display case. No way to touch it. No way to get really close to it. And not an LP in sight. No amp or speakers either.

I do have to admit, the sound I heard was pristine. Absolutely no distortion. The dynamic range was astounding, completely realistic given the task at hand.

Now I understand.

Inspired me to go home and (not) play Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence".

Rumblestrip's picture

When I was in the store about a month ago, right at the front they had the table with some prototype speakers and albums. They were more than happy to play it for me. The speakers were not that great, but you could still hear that the table was pretty solid.

ShinolaBrian's picture

A totally fair review, Michael. Thank you for this. These are the kinds of golden opportunities that will allow us to improve. It's not often we have the chance to hear this kind of useful feedback directly from the community and we appreciate it. We'll be in touch regarding the QC issues you highlighted!

rwwear's picture

I do believe these are well built turntables but I don't like the tonearm hanging off the side when it's playing. And there seems to be no dustcover. A turntable should always come with a dustcover no matter what.
I would like to see Shinola tackle a high quality direct drive model. Everyone makes belt drive tables perhaps because it's easier.

OldschoolE's picture

I do believe in dust covers being included at any price point. In fact, the higher the price the more a cover should come with it and if high enough a safe or a guard dog or something..sheeesh. The reason some tables do not come with covers is two-fold. First being that many folks do not like the covers as they either get brittle and crack eventually or they do not like having them on while playing records. Some claim that the covers introduce anomalies in the sound, which is not always the case, but can be depending on where the table is relative to the speakers and such and how loud you play. Second, is this: Do you have any idea of what a cover would even look like to use for say one of those monster 5 figure contraptions? I guess one has to dust (very carefully) everyday if one owns one of those.
Direct drive turntables are not only harder to make, but far more expensive to make as well these days. A manufacture will do it if they think the market is there.

misterc59's picture

I certainly agree that there are 'tables out there that would be very difficult to fit a dust cover to.
In my case, I have had a Music Hall MMF 5.1SE for a number of years that came with a removable dust cover which is very handy.
It takes no more effort removing and replacing it after my listening sessions than changing a record. It's great! I don't know how many other turntables out there have removable dust covers, but I would hope that a number of them do. That being said, I used to run an older turntable that didn't have a removable dust cover and it did cause sonic issues such as feedback at not necessarily higher volumes...

Cheers,
Terry

OldschoolE's picture

many tables come with either hinged or removable dust covers. (Hinged ones are usually easily removed as well). Many tables do until you get into the strange looking ones at five figures and more. For instance Project tables almost all come with hinged covers, but they also offer a lift off acrylic cover, which would be preferable, to me as well.
Sonic issues with dust covers generally crop up with relation to location of other gear or the mechanics of the table itself. A lot of times I have seen folks complain of it only to find out that they are leaving the hinged cover in the up position while playing a record. Yes, that will cause problems every time with any table and system. I have legacy tables that have hinged dust covers, that are hard to remove unlike today's covers. Two of my tables covers are very thick almost an acrylic and though 65+ years old, not brittle or anything. The hinges are like vice grips, which is fine except removing the covers is a daunting task. However, I need not worry because the trick is to play the record with the cover closed. Doing that I don't get any sonic issues. (I've experimented with this and did find slight, but easily notable sonic issues when playing records with the dust cover in the up position. So why do it?)
Now a thinner light plastic cover may give sonic questions even when closed, but the ones I have do not. If the cover has any weight to it, playing when closed eliminates any sonic issues in that area I have found, but that's me. If I had a Music Hall or Project or whatever, I would play cover off indeed. If it was a lift off type that went over the table one could put the record on and put the cover over while playing, if one wants, but really no reason to. Covers are just for keeping more dust out, so hinged ones are problematic at best.

Cheers

OldschoolE's picture

Oops, I meant 35 years+, not 65, sorry

liguorid42's picture

...that any sonic degradation caused by using a dust cover is dwarfed by sonic degradation due to dust. But that's me.

BillK's picture

Most larger VPIs have an external motor with multiple belts extending around the platter.

Though there are third party dust covers for it, I don't know where a "built in" dustcover would go, given both the turntable assembly and motor would need to be covered.

Companies like Gingko just make a cover that covers the turntable and motor down to the tabletop.

OldschoolE's picture

That is exactly how one would do a dust cover for a table like that. A big piece of acrylic or something covering both motor and turntable. In fact, that is the prefered cover for any turntable in my opinion.
It's a dust cover, that is the whole point.

jkingtut's picture

"Hey guys this one's going to Mikey did everybody check it out first to make sure it properly represents....." Sheesh, my company would not make this mistake, they are lucky you shoot straight as a reviewer. (and yet of course we all know from prior reading this is not the first time)

aboogaard's picture

For $2500, you can do a lot better. If I were spending that much ( And I spent a little more on the VPI Scout 1.1) I would have expected a much better tone arm and the cartridge would have been at least an Ortofon 2M Bronze (I have the 2M Black) And as for the phono pre-amp, I would never get one built in. I want the ability to choose the pre-amp I think is best.

By the way, at the top of the article, you said it wasn't a belt drive. However, it is a belt drive. Don't know what you were trying to say.

Bottom line, I don't waist you money. It looks great, but lacks a lot of stultification that a turn table at this price should have. Especially in the tone arm.

Dorian Workman's picture

Stultification (from Latin stultus stupid) refers to the state of being or a situation or an action causing one to become stupid, foolish or unsound.

The silent implication of stultification in neurobiological terms is that certain external influences can have a lasting neural effect (reduction of the number of synapses, reduced number of interconnections between brain areas, less efficient signal transmission etc.). Such effects are studied by biopsychology and psychosomatic medicine.

???

parman's picture

Stultification?? WOW words like that are WAY beyond my comprehention. Thanks for trying to explain Dorian.
PS great review Michael(plus I could understand what you said LOL)

Dorian Workman's picture

He meant 'stuff'...?

aboogaard's picture

Hay, I'm really sorry about the word stultification in my comment. Spell correction did it, not me. But being that the word that appeared doesn't really make sense in context with the rest of the sentence, isn't it obvious that I meant sophistication? Stultification doesn't make sense when referring to inanimate objects. Anyway, I stand by my comments. The tone arm bearing system is the same system used on the Nomad and Player TTs. Those don't come close to the price range of the Shinola. Again, to get the same performance, one could buy the VPI player or Scout Jr. an Ortofon 2M Blue and any of the good quality MM/MC pres for much less.

OldschoolE's picture

So you don't like TTs with built-in preamps, fine. I don't either, but some folks do and that doesn't make them wrong or stupid.
The manufacture and all involved are now aware of things to address and they will, that's how it works in the industry, our opinion or mine or anyone else's not withstanding.
Personally, I could do better in accordance with my taste if I were in market for a TT, but I'm not. I also think it more important to present and show choices for folks of every walk and do so honestly. Reviewers/Journalists like Michael provide an valuable service and sadly there are not many like Michael around and I also say that with a foot inside the industry myself (or perhaps a toe), as well as from the outside.

scottsol's picture

The article clearly states that the table uses a flat belt and a crowned pulley. This is used to show that it is not a VPI clone as they use round belts.

I also find it odd that you are complaining about the value of a product without any reference to how it performs, but simply it's bill of particulars.

Chucky's picture

Does the performance of this tonearm reflect poorly on the VPI Player and Scout Jr. or are these Runwell specific issues?

Moonshine's picture

Something I never understood about the VPI tonearms, especially the platter bearing version on the Runwell: The vertical pivot points are perpendicular to the arm wand, where they should be at the same offset angle as the headshell. When the arm moves up and down on a warped record, the azimuth will change, as it will when you change the SRA. Not a well thought out design!

Concerto_7708's picture

Very fair and concise review, Michael.

The "Manfred" you chose to play is one of my favourites - on vinyl of course. I have the very same record and it is going on the 301 right now.

Regds

concerto_7708

Fsonicsmith's picture

Let's be realistic here. The folks at Shinola turned to nearby and equally Built-In-The-USA-proud folks at VPI for something that they understood only grossly but had not a clue as to important functional details and for those they relied on Harry. And Harry did what Harry has always done in times of second-tier priorities. He went through his dusty parts bins and mixed a little of this with a little of that. Shinola F'd up-they should have retained an advisor before they started the project-a watchdog to prevent slough-offs such as this.

Timinator's picture

Michael knows his Schiit from Shinola.

Sorry.

es347's picture

..to pair this Shinola with the Schitt phono preamp

es347's picture

..many couldn't tell one from the other