In the past year, we’ve reviewed our share of gear from emerging audio brand Shinola. Theirs has been an interesting story to follow, since it was only recently that one could call Shinola an audio brand at all. For their debut, they introduced beautifully-made on-ear and over-ear headphones. More recently, we saw Shinola cement their house sound with their Canfield Pro In-Ear Monitors. This time, Shinola has branched out even further, with a set of speakers called, simply, “Bookshelf Speakers.” At $1,500, they’re not cheap, and we will do some nitpicking about firmware settings, but they have every bit of the quality we have come to expect from Shinola.
The Bookshelf Speakers are of a true “bookshelf” form factor — reasonably sized at 8” x 9” x 12” and weighing about 17 pounds each. The cabinets have smooth rounded edges, and are made of oak composite; our review sample was finished in a black ash veneer, but a “natural” version is also available The left (active) speaker connects to the right (passive) speaker with standard cable; only banana connectors are supported here, so it’s good that Shinola includes a nice thick-gauge set of cables in the box. The Bookshelf Speakers use a dual-driver configuration — a 1-inch tweeter and a 6.5-inch woofer — in a rear-ported oak composite cabinet. The included grilles use an old-school coarse-weave fabric, but attach to the Bookshelf Speakers with new-school hidden magnets.
The overall look of these speakers is classy, especially with the grilles mounted (the only branding, as usual, is a single Shinola lightning bolt). With the grilles removed, the odd design of the tweeter is revealed — Shinola is using soft-dome dual ring radiator tweeters which, to our knowledge, help reduce distortion at frequencies where the amplitude of the sound waves approaches the diameter of the driver’s diaphragm.
The design of these speakers is the product of Shinola’s partnership with Barefoot Sound, maker of high-end (expensive) studio monitor speakers. We don’t know exactly how much of Barefoot is in the Bookshelf Speakers, but driver choice was certainly part of it – according to Shinola, the Bookshelf Speakers use the same tweeter as Barefoot’s $3,700 “Footprint 01” speaker (the 6.5-inch woofer is a custom design).
Shinola’s Bookshelf Speakers are of the active variety — a plate amplifier is built into the left speaker. Active speakers are becoming more popular all the time, even among audiophiles who traditionally prefer to mix and match gear, because they eliminate much of the work normally associated with building a speaker system: with active speakers, there’s no need to worry about speaker impedance or power handling, since the built-in amplifier is already perfectly paired with the drivers. The Shinola Bookshelf Speaker’s 300W peak/100W RMS class-D plate amplifier is powerful enough to drive these speakers to extremely loud volumes, but it’s also uncommonly versatile: a variety of inputs are accepted, including analog RCA, analog 3.5mm, S/PDIF, Bluetooth 4.0 (aptX), and USB (a USB-C cable is included). Even a digital output is available. A volume knob is mounted on the rear of the speaker, but there are no volume indicators — we prefer notches like those of the JBL LSR305 so we can keep track of volume when switching sources. Still, it’s great that these speakers will accept just about any audio source you can throw at them; at least part of that $1500 price tag is justified with versatility.
Before addressing the sound of the Bookshelf Speakers, we should talk about what it’s like to live with them. All the Bookshelf Speaker’s input modes worked nicely; the USB-C feature is forward-thinking, and their internal DAC worked for us without the need for driver installation. The Bookshelf Speakers’ amplifier shuts off automatically after 30 minutes of silence — too short, in our opinion, but your experience may differ.
There is no auto-wake (a feature present on our $150 Onkyo speaker amp); you must manually “wake” the speakers by reaching behind the left speaker and pressing the input select button. This is less than ideal, especially since the button is located under the Bluetooth pairing button and there’s no way to see which of the Bluetooth Speaker’s five input modes are selected without looking at the rear of the speaker. Finally, when our iPhone was paired with the Bookshelf Speaker it remained connected even when other inputs were selected on the speakers — as a result, audio on the iPhone was effectively silenced as long as our phone was paired. We were initially bothered by our first review sample’s startup sound — a booming bass note loud enough to wake the neighbors — but Shinola fixed that in a production update; we’re always impressed when a manufacturer responds so directly to feedback. The rest of these are, according to Shinola, design choices; they believe their users will favor Bluetooth over other inputs. If that sounds like your use case, these quirks may be no problem at all. In any case, just about all of these issues could have been mitigated by a remote control.
We used the Shinola Bookshelf Speakers for a few weeks, doing most of our listening in a near-field/desktop setup, but also testing in a medium-size room and occasionally switching to other speakers to compare sound signature, imaging, and other characteristics. One thing is for sure — Shinola has translated its chosen sound signature from its headphones to its speakers, although in a subtler form. We found the Bookshelf Speakers to generally have good detail and imaging, but also have a bit of the bass boost/relaxed treble we have experienced with Shinola’s headphones.