Review: Shinola Bookshelf Powered Stereo Speaker System with USB & Bluetooth

The 2-way monitor is a crucial tool of the trade in a studio setting. That’s why the new Bookshelf speaker system ($1500) from Shinola, created in collaboration with Barefoot Sound, is worth a close look. These are no mere “lifestyle” powered bookshelf speakers, their pedigree is informed by the needs and wants of top producers and musicians.

With Shinola Bookshelf, we’re talking about a premium USB & Bluetooth-compatible speaker system that’s made in the U.S.A. to exacting standards, in terms of fit and finish as well as performance.

Features and Specifications

The top “feature” of the Shinola Bookshelf is assuredly the fact it is “Powered by Barefoot” which is to say it is designed in collaboration with Thomas Barefoot and Barefoot Sound. Why does this matter? Because the speakers use the same tweeter as the Footprint01 studio monitor by Barefoot, a 1″ dual ring ring-radiator design and marry that to a 6.5″ woofer that features an “ultra-linear motor.” Anechoic frequency response is rated at 48Hz – 22kHz +/-3 dB.

Power comes from a Class-D amp that’s good for 100 watts per channel RMS and 300 watts total (peak) output. The speakers are provided with a heavy-duty power cord as well as a pair of speaker cables for connecting the passive unit (left) to the active one (right). The cables that connect the speakers are terminated with standard banana plugs, in case you need something longer than the 8-foot pair that’s provided in the box. There’s no provision for swapping the left and right speakers in this design so you’ll need to work with connecting inputs and power to the right speaker.


Rear view of the Shinola Bookshelf speaker system.

From a usability perspective, this system eschews a number of ergonomic niceties such as a remote control or any other way to make adjustments without having to physically reach behind the speaker. Indeed, even the LED indicator for what input is selected is located on the back of the active unit, out of sight and out of mind!

Certainly, the tangible benefit is that aesthetically, the speakers are “clean” looking. But you’ll likely need to memorize what’s what back there if you plan to frequently make adjustments without moving the speaker. Size-wise we’re talking 8″ (W) x 9″ (D) x 12″ (H) and I’d like to complement the speaker enclosure designer for using round-number dimensions, I believe that’s a first for any speaker I have reviewed! The active speaker weighs 17.55 pounds while the passive unit weighs 16.35 pounds.

Setup

Shinola Bookshelf is a powered speaker system that’s designed to be easy to set up, understand and use. There’s not much to do once the box is open, basically you connect the powered and passive speakers with the provided cables, plug in the power cord, position the speakers properly, connect a source, turn it all on, press play and you are in business. Bluetooth requires the added step of pairing the source to the speakers but it’s trivial.

Now, Shinola might just have you pair these speakers with its Runwell turntable plus a Bluetooth- arable phone and call it a day, and I can see how a certain type of listener might find that appealing. I’m not that sort of listener, so for this review I decided to treat these more like a pair of high-performance active speakers that they are, rather than the lifestyle option they also represent due to the inclusion of Bluetooth.

For the bulk of this review, I connected the Shinola Bookshelf to the preamp outputs on an NAD T777 and used Dirac Live room correction as well as a pair of GoldenEar Triton Five subwoofers to help them fully deliver on the promise of the tweeter. As a bonus, taking this approach frees up the AVR’s power supply to just handle the surrounds in a 4.1 system that I used for games and movies.

Performance

While the Shinola Bookshelf is ostensibly a lifestyle product, the moment I heard the system I knew this was actually pro gear. These are mercilessly revealing speakers, which is exactly what you expect from studio monitors and precisely what you get with these speakers.

As a rule, precision is. good thing in audio, but as many “subjectivist” audiophiles have discovered, it does not necessarily flatter music. So many speakers behave like a “fuzzy lens” on a camera, obscuring finer details but rendering an attractive result that hides the wrinkles. That’s not these speakers… there’s nothing fuzzy about them whatsoever and that’s intentional because the job of a studio monitor is to be accurate and revealing. But the effect here is complementary to much of what I listened to through the system. For example, The Score by Fugees sounded rich and full, with ultra-defined vocals that are addictive to listen to.


The tweeter on the Bookshelf

There’s no question that the speakers deliver fidelity in a higher performance class than other, similarly spec’d speakers I’ve seen and heard, but are priced accordingly. Klipsch has The Sixes, which are great in their own right at half the price and with more connectivity plus a remote, but lack the ability to drill down into the very essence of a mix the way these speakers can. The Bookshelf speakers peel through the layers of a complex recording like Coil’s classic album Love’s Secret Domain, letting the listener appreciate nuances that might otherwise go unnoticed on densely layered songs like “Further Back and Faster” or the eponymous 13th track, “Love’s Secret Domain.” But there is a catch, the performance is limited by the system’s bass extension capabilities, after all this is a pair of bookshelf speakers… which is why I used subwoofers in a 2.1 configuration for tracks that need it (and Coil tracks need it).

Measurements provided the shock of my speaker-reviewing career. Above Schroeder (the point where the room stops being the dominant influence in frequency response) these speakers measured practically identical to Dirac Live’s optimized house curve. It tracks it so precisely, it’s amazing this performance was measured at my main listening position, under the same conditions as all the other speakers I have reviewed. And the implications are equally huge, it means I can skip Dirac processing above Schroeder if I choose (low-pass for the EQ set to 350 Hz) and get the same tonality from the system as if I had left it on. The graph here tells the tale:


It’s the average spectrum (before) that is really amazing. From my main listening position, it tracks the Dirac Live optimal curve quite precisely.

Simply put, if you use these speakers as-is, you will find their tonal balance, dynamics and detail rendition to be a cut above other similar-sized options, but that’s exactly because “you get what you pay for.” And here, you are paying for good hardware. If your room cooperates acoustically, these speakers may not need EQ to sound “textbook” neutral. As far as bass goes, Dirac Live EQ is most welcome in my space, where room gain plus interactions causes a rise in bass levels that peaks at 60 Hz. Notably, the -3dB point appears to be around 36 Hz, which beats its anechoic response. Ultimately, bass response is more than good enough for most music played at modest output levels, and also for high output with an 80 Hz crossover to subs (which is a combo I strongly recommend).

The Orb’s latest album, No Sounds Out of Bounds, got the goosebumps going within a minute of pressing play and turning the volume up to the point where the 2.1 rig developed a nice throb. All the sound, every note and every vocal inflection came through with three-dimensional clarity that begs the attentive listener to focus deeper. At the end of the first track “The End of The End” a motorcycle sounds pans from left to right but also from behind the speakers into ambience that had me doing a double take on whether it really was the recording. Are you a fan of great engineers and genius production? You’ll absolutely want to hear what these speakers can do for your collection.

For a taste of well-recorded prog. rock studio sound I turned to Jane’s Addiction’s classic Nothing’s Shocking and got a fresh perspective on tracks like “Ted, Just Admit It” and the epic “Summertime Rolls” that opens up into a grand wash of almost operatic proportions during the chorus. It filled the room with energy, and when the quiet electric bass returns and Perry Ferrell comes back in with the intimate concluding verse, the artistry put into the project is readily apparent.

I can’t say the inclusion of Bluetooth means much to me here. It works, but it bypasses the goodness of using the AVR and room correction and subs, which in my view are justifiable additions to this system. But, I also understand the desire for simplicity and there’s not that’s much simpler that following the manual’s basic setup instructions and then playing tracks on these speakers with Bluetooth. I think the main point is that the system is only going to sound as good as the speakers themselves allow it to, and in this case the tuning of Shinola Bookshelf speakers is so excellent, it’ll be hard to beat performance-wise.

Games were also amazing to hear on these speakers. Flagship titles tend to have very sophisticated, dynamic mixes that incorporate music, voices, and many sound effects. Anyone who reads more than one of my reviews knows by now that I’m pretty much fixated with playing Grand Theft Auto 5, I’m happy to report that even 2.0 stereo was enveloping and engaging. Most importantly, the music and car engines sound great while the weapons and explosions have the crunch and punch that gets your adrenaline flowing.

And since the USB connection behaves like a PC soundcard, you only need add a laptop to have a complete, immersive audio experience while gaming.

Speakers that are highly revealing can be a double-edged sword when it comes to listening to favorite albums (you never know when you’ll run into the hard limits of a recording). However, there’ nothing but upside to using these speakers as monitors for mixing sound.

Since Shinola Bookshelf speakers feature built-in USB connectivity, users can connect them directly to a PC running Ableton Live and experience an immensely gratifying sonic exploration of all the available synths and samples, and ultimately put it all together in a mix that contains many layers for deep listeners with high-performance systems, yet sounds well-balanced on inexpensive wireless lifestyle speakers.

The great benefit of such highly resolving speakers is you can exploit that quality to create 3D imaging effects. For analog recordings, this can be achieved with microphone placement and mixing technique and for digital music, it’s just a matter of dialing in where you want the sound to be using a capable plugin. I love stereo speakers that let you use phase effects to send sounds circling around your head, these Shinola Bookshelf can do that with surgical precision.

Conclusion

This is an interesting speaker system in that it does not follow the popular path to uber-connected Wi-Fi multi-room yada yada. Indeed, by eschewing an optical-digital input, it does not even pretend to be a TV-friendly audio solution. That’s because the focus is clearly on fidelity over features, with excellent results.

This system adds high-quality Bluetooth to what is essentially an active studio monitor speaker system that’s repackaged to look good in your home. Performance is impeccable, in fact as close to textbook-perfect as I’ve seen among speakers I have measured with Dirac Live. Once I understood the priorities behind the Shinola Bookshelf, it was clear the system deeply deserves an AVS Forum Top Choice! 2018 award. Whether you use them as-is or with a sub and room correction, this is one of the most accurate and revealing speaker systems you will hear at the $1500 price point, active or not.

 

 

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