Shinola’s Quest to Make the Best Turntable You’ve Ever Heard
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Generated in 0.626 ms David Brandon Geeting for WIRED
If you want to know what’s coming next from Shinola, the hipster-chic brand of watches, bikes, and seemingly all things leather, walk into the company’s store in midtown Detroit. Go through the minimalist cafe; around the table of branded footballs, briefcases, and ping-pong paddles; and past the jewelry case. Then look right, through the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass.
That’s where I find Steve Welborn1, a quiet guy with wispy facial hair and a navy hoodie. He’s standing in front of a jig, a screwdriver in his right hand and about a thousand bucks’ worth of parts in a box. He’s assembling Shinola’s inaugural audio product, the Runwell Turntable, over and over and over again. Someone starts a timer. Welborn grabs four metal feet from the box and screws them into the Runwell’s plinth. Then he installs power transformer and a fist-sized motor, leaving the screws just short of tight so he can easily disassemble it later. The first time he built a Runwell, it took him 20 minutes. This time, he’s trying to beat his record of nine.
Alex Rosson. David Brandon Geeting for WIRED
Eventually, turntable assembly will occur at the Henry Ford Academy’s School for Creative Studies, where Shinola’s corporate offices fill the fourth and fifth floors. By then Welborn will have swapped his hoodie for a Shinola smock. For now, he’s working in this fishbowl. Parts arrive daily, from all over the country and world, and there’s only room for one day’s worth of stuff. So every day, everything has to go. The team’s first goal is to build 40 Runwells per day. Soon, it’ll be 60. Then 90, all of them assembled by Welborn and the people watching him rehearse.
Alex Rosson, Shinola’s 37-year-old director of audio products, watches from behind his computer. His long, dark hair is tucked behind his ears, and his tidy beard, glasses, jeans, and white sneakers would fit in at any Silicon Valley startup. Rosson is reviewing plans for the cartridge, the mechanism that turns the needle’s vibrations into an audio signal, that he’s designing from scratch rather than sourcing from elsewhere. He looks up and asks for a time check on the Runwell build. Welborn is five minutes into the job. “Better hurry up,” Rosson says, only half joking.
Shinola planned to make audio gear from the very beginning, and Rosson has dreamed of building turntables since his days as a teenage DJ. The company has spent more than a year enlisting partners, training employees, tweaking designs. This is only the start of Shinola Audio. Rosson came from Audeze, which builds headphones for discerning and deep-pocketed audiophiles. He wants to bring his expertise to a broader audience, and quickly. Shinola built its rep creating factory jobs, and the more products it sells, the more jobs Rosson can bring to Detroit.
But first, he wants to make the best turntable you’ve ever heard, and sell it to you for $2,500.
David Brandon Geeting for WIRED
Detroit-made, sort of
Unless you’re in your 80s or a big fan of the Steve Martin classic The Jerk, you probably don’t know much about the origin of the word Shinola. It was a World War II-era brand of shoe polish perhaps best known for the insult “you don’t know shit from Shinola.” The name struck Tom Kartsotis, the ultra-wealthy founder of Fossil, as he was pondering his next project in 2011. It communicated something rugged and blue-collar, something distinctly American.
As much as Kartsotis wanted Shinola to create stuff, he also wanted it to create jobs. American jobs. American manufacturing jobs, in cities like Detroit, and soon Chicago, and maybe the Bronx after that. Shinola’s building was once a General Motors design studio, and many of its employees once built cars. Now they build watches, bikes, jewelry, notebooks, clocks, and purses that command premium prices because of the whole “made in Detroit” thing.
In theory, it’s a perfect system: Make expensive products for people who want to feel they’re helping rebuild American manufacturing and a once great city. Kartsotis has always framed the idea as part capitalism, part charity. Condescending? Maybe, which explains why critics argue that it’s disingenuous to call Shinola a Detroit company when its owner, Bedrock Manufacturing, and founder are in Texas. They find its use of employees in ads cynical, and decry what Rebekah Modrak of the University of Michigan calls “calculated ‘authenticity.'” Modrak calls Shinola’s stuff “bougie crap” that celebrates the image of the working class at prices only the affluent can afford. It’s hard to argue with her when you realize Shinola charges $95 for an iPhone case, $150 for a football, and $400 for a pocket knife.
This is the same company that, according to lore, found that customers who would pay $5 for a pencil would pay $10 if it was made in America and $15 if it was made in Detroit. Bridget Russo, Shinola’s chief marketing officer, grimaces when I mention this. “It was a focus group in Dallas of a small group of people,” she says. “Yes, that conversation was had, but it wasn’t like we went out and got a research company!” Besides, she says, there’s nothing disingenuous about Shinola’s marketing strategy if it’s truthful. “As long as we continue to walk our talk,” she says, referring to the company’s bringing jobs to Detroit, “which today we absolutely do, I don’t see a problem with it.”
Shinola isn’t alone in selling a story, of course. Nike pays billions to associate itself with elite athletes, PBR bought hipster cred with a massive ad campaign, and the popularity of Beats has little to do with sound quality. “Millennials tend to be more interested in a brand’s story than its quality,” according to a study from public relations firm MMWPR. Or, as Sammer Aboud, managing director at advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather, wrote last year, “the best way to stand out in the crowded, competitive marketplace for luxury experiences and goods is to have the best story.”
The company defined its story and its look from the start. “We put together a room of basically what it looked like, what it smelled like, what products could be like,” says creative director Daniel Caudill. “There was a lot of leather, a lot of wood.” Everything was meant to feel warm, inviting, touchable, and obvious in its craftsmanship. Shinola applies that aesthetic to everything it does, from manufacturing to marketing. It’s all so highly curated. The company worked with esteemed bike designer Sky Yaeger on its line of Runwell bicycles. Pamela Love, a well-known jewelry designer, worked on Shinola’s earrings and bracelets. The respected Swiss watchmaker Ronda provides so many components for Shinola watches that the Federal Trade Commission asked Shinola to stop marketing the watches with the phrase “Where American is Made.” Now the words “Built in Detroit” appear with the addendum, “with Swiss and imported parts.” Russo says customers don’t seem to care about the distinction.
About those customers. The average Shinola buyer is about 35, affluent, and probably male—though that’s changing, Russo says, with the addition of jewelry and other products. Bill Clinton once bragged about buying 14 Shinola watches, and Barack Obama gave one to David Cameron when he was the British prime minister. The company did more than $100 million in revenue last year. isn’t profitable, but it’s constantly opening new stores (it has 19), launching new product lines, and hiring employees. More than 600 people work there, including 380 in Detroit.
Caudill says sees Shinola’s brand as signifying something analog and long-lasting, so don’t expect any smartphones or apps. Audio products always made sense, given Detroit’s deep musical heritage, and a turntable was a natural place to start. They’re timeless, and they’re gorgeous.
It helps that vinyl is hip right now, and Shinola is nothing if not hip. Vinyl represents 12 percent of the physical music business, according to Nielsen. Part of the reason for this resurgence is the Millennial generation’s desire for things they can touch, own, and physically share. “Having the ability to own a higher quality, yet more limited version of something you already love,” says Ross Shotland, founder of the record label Enjoy the Ride Records, “is a really special feeling, which is hard to replicate.” They’re buying records for the same reason they buy iPhone cases or Air Jordans: because their record collection represents them as a person. It tells a story.
David Brandon Geeting for WIRED
A few minutes after we meet, Rosson explains how to build a turntable. He walks through the storage area just beyond public view, tearing open boxes of parts and explaining how they go together. Top plates, slip mats, transformers, 130 parts in all. Most come from within the United States, which seems to both please and exhaust Rosson. “The hard part was the coordination,” he says, “not just designing and engineering the thing.” Even now, right before the turntable goes on sale, he’s still working with an outfit in Minnesota, the same one that makes Shinola’s watch boxes, to refine and perfect the wood trim so it’s the same every time. “You’ll get suppliers who send you stuff, and you’re like man, this is perfect. And you say OK, send me 20. And they send you 20 and it’s like, oh, this is a mess.” He decided some things, like the cartridge, were just easier to build himself.
Each Runwell turntable contains about $1,000 in parts alone. Rosson points at each piece on a finished prototype and names its origin. Only a couple of wires and decorative bits come from overseas. By his math, the Runwell Turntable is 86 percent American-made. “We could say it’s made in the USA,” he says, but he’s happy to avoid dealing with the potential headaches from people pointing out the other 14 percent.
The Runwell’s is based on the VPI Classic, a beloved 70s-style turntable from VPI Industries in New Jersey. Harry Weisfeld, VPI’s founder, has been building turntables for decades and says the collaboration was a new experience. “When I began,” he says, “a turntable looked like a turntable. You look at what we’re making now, it’s like the lunar landing module!” He and Rosson wanted to build something modern. Playing to people’s nostalgia works; making something kitschy and retro doesn’t.
The tech underpinning the Runwell is what excites Rosson. Late in our conversation, he seems to decide to tell me something he’d planned to keep hidden, and reaches down and yanks out the tray containing the turntable’s audio jacks. The Runwell, he says, uses modular electronics that he plans to open source. Rosson imagines people adding pre-amps, Sonos and Chromecast support, SD card encoding, even modern DJ tools. “We’re trying to make it flexible so we can talk to audiophiles,” he says, “but my goal is to make something that’s simple, innovative, and has a way to expand on it.” He wants to sell you a turntable that you’ll use for decades, upgrading it as you like.
Aesthetically, Rosson went a slightly more classic route.
David Brandon Geeting for WIRED
The Runwell features domestic white oak and machined aluminum, and weighs 48 pounds—heavy enough that the company is rethinking the packaging, because the heavy load failed FedEx shipping safety tests. It’s belt-driven, because that’s what VPI does. You can get it in black, but Rosson prefers the natural oak. Everything else is chrome and gold. Rosson, of course, has a few concerns, like the rubber pads on the feet. He’d rather they were inset, not glued.
After so many months of designing the product, training the employees, and honing the elaborate supply chain, the turntable is done. Metaphorically, anyway: Welborn and his colleagues in Detroit still have to build them and ship them. But Rosson’s already pondering what’s next. He’s already thinking about a direct-drive, DJ-focused turntable, though that’s a couple of years out. “I’m done with turntables for a while.”
Before I leave, he returns to his computer and shows me what’s coming sooner: he has sketches of headphones, earbuds, speakers, and more. Some will be a few hundred dollars, some a few thousand. The more products he can make, Rosson reckons, the more products Shinola can sell, and the more jobs it can create. There’s that virtuous cycle again.
1 UPDATE: Corrected to the proper spelling of Steve Welborn’s name.