Weird New Pop, Vol.9: From Projects to Mountains

Photos: Stephen Mejias. Design: Todd Steponick, Nice Looking Designs

Track 48
How did we get here, surrounded by mountains?

Kathryn and I are good at vacationing. We like to do the same thing: nothing. Rather than build an extensive itinerary of daytrips, hikes, and other sightseeing adventures, we carefully select a quiet spot by the pool and remain still for as long as possible. Every now and then, a thoughtful representative of our charming hotel might stop by to ask whether we’d like a recommendation on some undoubtedly worthwhile activity—a bike ride, surf lessons, or perhaps a scenic tour of the local mountains—to which we invariably smile and shake our heads.

“This is our activity,” we say.

Right in the middle of December, just as temperatures on the east coast were plummeting, Kathryn and I packed our bags and flew to Palm Springs, where we enjoyed a week of clear blue skies, delicious meals, and a bunch of nothing. Actually, she brought a couple of good books. I brought Shinola’s new Canfield on-ear headphones ($495).

Track 49: They Too Canfield
But the obvious question is: Why headphones?

I’ll answer first: I need music. And, when I’m not at home, sitting at my desk, streaming music from Spotify or Tidal through my MacBook and PSB Alpha PS1 powered desktop speakers, I happily listen through my iPhone and headphones. I know audiophiles who travel with small desktop speakers, such as Audioengine’s wonderful A2s, or any number of portable Bluetooth speakers or earphones, but that’s not me. Not yet, at least. For now, I continue to prefer traditional headphones for the way they look, the way they make me feel, their ability to immerse me in sound, and the bit of privacy they provide. After all, when Kathryn’s reading Celeste Ng, I don’t want to disturb her with Chino Amobi.

And what about Shinola? As many of the Home Tech Group’s readers know, the intelligent lifestyle brand takes its name from the old American shoe polish company that was founded in Rochester in 1907, reached its height of popularity during World War II, and went out of business in 1960. I fondly recall my grandfather opening the brightly colored tin with a little brass key and applying the thick, smelly wax to his shoes on Sundays before church. The scene was as intriguing as it was confusing. I was confused and intrigued again, when, in 2010, the Shinola name resurfaced, not on small tin cans but on websites and billboards advertising old-style watches and gentlemanly bicycles made in Detroit, a storied city then on the verge of bankruptcy. What did this Shinola have to do with that Shinola? Nothing much, I decided, aside from some very clever marketing and branding.

Depending on your perspective, today’s Shinola might be “the coolest brand in America,” or “America’s most authentic fake brand,” or both. Adweek’s Robert Klara put it this way:

Shinola has the kind of story that feels tailor-made for post-recession 21st century America. At a time when mass-produced goods from China flood the market, Shinola has created a clean, functional and authentically American aesthetic that manages to feel both classic and modern at the same time. It is a brand committed to turning out high-quality products in America with, in as much as possible, American suppliers and American labor. To drive home that commitment, the company selected Detroit—the buckle of the American rust belt—as its base.
Meanwhile, Inc.’s Stacy Perman takes a slightly different, perhaps more cynical approach:
Shinola’s products are designed and packaged with an American midcentury look, evoking nostalgia for a bygone era of quality and integrity. Most important, by hatching the brand in Detroit—a city emblematic of American hardship, resilience, and craftsmanship—the brand is selling more than watches; it’s selling a comeback. Every time customers in Neiman Marcus or Saks purchase one of the brand’s $850 watches or $300 leather iPad cases, they too can feel like they’re doing their part in Detroit’s fight for survival.

As for the headphones, Canfield, to my great surprise, isn’t merely another clever hipster name, but also the street upon which Shinola keeps its flagship retail store. It’s at 441 West Canfield, to be exact, in Detroit’s historic Cass Corridor neighborhood, within a large complex purchased in 2015 by Shinola’s founder Tom Kartsotis and Jack White of Third Man Records, and which also houses the luxury outdoor clothing store, Filson, and the Jolly Pumpkin pizzeria and brewery.

But why would Shinola want to enter the crowded, competitive headphone market? A representative for Shinola explained: “We saw an opportunity to apply the Shinola aesthetic to the headphone market by creating beautiful, well-designed, great-sounding headphones. It took two years to get here, but our in-house team of engineers designed, tuned, and engineered the Canfield Collection with the same rigor and craftsmanship we employ across all of our product categories. These headphones speak to our love of design, music and craft, and to the heart and soul of Detroit.”

Track 50: By Golly! Dat’s Some Shine!
Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Detroit, so I have little to say about the heart and soul of that apparently magnificent city, but I do know more than a bit about beautiful, well-designed, great-sounding headphones. I received the Shinola Canfield on-ear model in the company’s cognac and silver finish. (The headphones are also available in black/silver and gloss black, the latter adding $55 to the base price of $495.) Its packaging is simple, clean, and effective. Inside the sturdy, attractive outer box rests a cloth-covered clamshell case whose heavy-duty zipper is terminated by a black leather tab—clean, classy, functional. Upon unzipping the case, I was immediately impressed: cool stainless steel made warm by that subtle amber hue, a top-grain leather headband, memory-foam earpads encased in lambskin. Yep, these headphones are beautiful.

The ear cups swivel, but do not fold, and extend only about 0.75” from the headband. There are few accessories: A small black pouch, the exact size and shape of the Owner’s Manual and Certificate of Authenticity, protects the single included cable from your cats and doubles as a cleaning cloth for the headphones’ steel parts. That cable is thin and covered in cloth to resemble the laces upon your grandfather’s Sunday shoes. It has inline mic and volume controls that, in my experience, worked perfectly. While Shinola plans to offer wireless models later this year, inserting the cable’s plugs into the matching jacks of the left and right earcups invariably resulted in the most satisfying click; I looked forward to it and savored it every time.

There is no quarter-inch adaptor. The clean, clear manual provides technical specifications, safety and warranty information, details on operation and care, and explains, “The Canfield Headphones are designed specifically to perform with any smartphone, portable media player, or tablet. For a truly critical listening experience, combine any of the Canfield Headphones with a headphone amplifier.” The Canfields partnered happily and easily with my iPhone 6 and MacBook Pro, but I do plan on trying them with a proper headphone amp.

The Certificate of Authenticity states, “The Shinola seal and the signatures on this document attest that this product has been inspected and built to the highest standards, and assembled in the U.S. with U.S. and imported parts.” “SG” (Acoustic QC) and “TB” (Final QC) signed my beautiful, apparently well-designed sample (Serial No. S42-H12-00682) on 11/15/17.

So, SG and TB ensured the quality, but who’s responsible for the acoustic engineering and industrial design? According to Shinola, the company employs “a team of in-house engineers and experts, as well as trusted partners with deep audio expertise.” This makes sense and should come as no surprise. Whether you see it as healthy collaboration, clever business development, or something else, Shinola openly embraces the strategy. When the company entered the turntable market with their beautiful Runwell, they enlisted, among others, Harry and Mat Weisfeld of VPI. In this way, Shinola benefits from VPI’s outstanding engineering, while VPI successfully reaches a previously inaccessible audience.

Shinola doesn’t say much about the headphones’ technical design, but the company does specify a frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz, nominal impedance of 32 ohms, total harmonic distortion of 2% @ 1kHz, and an efficiency of 120dB SPL/V @ 1kHz. The on-ear model uses 40mm dynamic drivers with PET diaphragms and 0.06mm copper-clad aluminum-wire (CCAW) voice coils.

The Canfield’s weight is listed as 0.73lbs, but that’s sort of like listing my weight as 185lbs. They look and feel heavier. When Kathryn tried them on, she immediately wanted to take them off. “Oh no,” she said. “Too heavy. I couldn’t wear them.” To and from work each day, Kathryn wears B&W P3s, which weigh just 0.28lbs. My first listening session with the Shinola Canfield was enjoyable, but painful. I listened, from beginning to end, to Malokarpatan’s strange and unpredictable Nordkarpatenland. The album begins with bleating goats, bouncy springs, and twinkling chimes, and keeps things weird right through the blackened finale, “Ve starém mlyne čerti po nocách marláš hrávjú.” The sound and music were wonderful—over at Metal-Fi.com, Alex ranks the album among his favorites of 2017, noting its impressive DR10 rating—but I found the headphones’ clamping force painful, especially around my left ear.

To be fair, the pain I experienced during that first listening session was no worse than what I’ve felt during other listening sessions with other on-ear headphones, such as the Sennheiser Momentum and aforementioned B&W P3. They all hurt me, in part because I wear largish, plastic-framed glasses. To get a sense of the pain, try placing a Bic Cristal ballpoint pen behind your ear and pressing down on it really hard for about an hour.

Shinola seems aware of the situation. On the company’s website, under a section titled “Comfort,” we read: “With two shades of leather wrapped around a cushioned headband, each pair of On-Ear headphones will become more comfortable with every use.” And, while I’ve found this to be true, a month after that first painful session, I’m still looking forward to a bit more comfort. Generally, I can listen to the Canfields for about 30 minutes before becoming antsy. After about an hour, I desperately need a break. It’s not a bad idea to rest your ears anyway, but, still, I’d appreciate a more comfortable listening experience overall. Will the Canfields continue to loosen their grip? I’m eager to find out.

And, who, exactly, is Shinola trying to reach with the Canfield?

“The collection is for people who are looking for an entry-level audiophile-quality headphone, with a discerning taste for well-designed products. They are built to last a decade or longer, unlike the current offering of plastic consumer electronics.”

Did someone say “entry-level audiophile quality”? Sounds like these headphones were designed for me. Some readers will be alarmed by the price tag and others will question whether such a high price can be considered “entry level.” I understand: $500 is a lot of money for headphones, but I’ve rarely seen or heard a headphone of such high quality, made of such impressive components and materials, at such an attractive price. Master & Dynamic’s MH30 ($299) strikes me in many ways as comparable, but I haven’t spent enough time with it to make a meaningful assessment. Having spent a month with the Shinola Canfield, I feel the price is fair. (And, while we’re talking about headphone bargains, Bowers & Wilkins’ excellent P5 Series 2 can now be purchased from the company’s online outlet for just $179.99.)

Track 51
It was night when Kathryn and I arrived in Palm Springs, and we couldn’t see the mountains that were absolutely everywhere. It was morning sunlight that revealed them, explained just how close they had always been, made them impossible to ignore.

Track 52
In 2017, I listened to as much new music as possible—it was a disappointing year in many ways, but an outstanding year for music—and, still, there were so many great albums that I missed entirely. Our trip to Palm Springs provided the opportunity to catch up with a few of them, including the self-titled debut from Chicago-based free jazz group Irreversible Entanglements, Nicole Mitchell’s stunning Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, Wiki’s No Mountains In Manhattan, and Open Mike Eagle’s inspiring Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. These four albums do not appear on my long list of favorites from 2017, but any one of them could have easily taken the top spot. This month’s playlist features tracks from all of these albums, as well as other jazz-informed titles, such as Binker and Moses’s Journey to the Mountain Forever, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s Book of Sound, and Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die, the last of which, like Irreversible Entanglements, was released by Chicago’s International Anthem—an intelligent and ambitious label worth getting to know. There’s definitely something happening in Chicago.

I’m fortunate to have become acquainted with these titles through the Shinola Canfield on-ear headphones, which consistently impressed me with their clean, clear, pleasantly full-bodied and forward overall sound. While I generally like to think that a component’s sonic character will lead me, whether overtly or subtly, toward a particular genre or style of music, in this case, the Shinolas weren’t so much leaders as they were willing and easy facilitators, rarely editorializing, swaying, or dissuading, but always simply giving. I think they sometimes sacrifice a little transient articulation and top-end delicacy for body, weight, and impact—for instance, a hi-hat might sound simply struck by a drumstick rather than carefully closed by its foot pedal, thereby losing some sense of sweetness and decay—but I don’t mind. This is an acceptable price to pay for the Canfields’ well-controlled lows and overall clarity.

Track 53
When asked what he likes about life in the city, young rapper Wiki lists the 1 train, bagels with lox, sunlight on the Hudson, and, among other things, mountains. The song is “Islander,” and that he is: half Puerto Rican, half Irish, born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Tell him there are no mountains in Manhattan and he’ll explain that they’re everywhere, his words revealing them like sunlight.

As I type, I’m listening to what is perhaps my favorite of these newly discovered albums, or at least the one that feels truest to me: Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.

My parents were born and raised in the Hyatt Court projects of Newark’s East Ward. A year or so after I was born, they moved a few blocks away to a six-family apartment building on Richards Street, in a neighborhood where the go-go bars outnumbered the churrasquerias by a few. Like most of the other kids from the area, I attended preschool in Hyatt Court, followed by kindergarten through eighth grade at Hawkins Street School. We knew nothing but bricks, concrete, and steel—cold in the winter, hot in the summer, always dangerously hard. When Open Mike Eagle says, “This goes out to / ghetto children fighting dragons / in the projects around the world,” I know he’s rapping for my parents and me.

Track 54: Telling Shit from Shinola
Questions of authenticity remain more difficult to answer. Am I authentic? Are you? Is Jersey City more or less authentic than Palm Springs? I think there must be a significant amount of artifice in all people, places, and things. That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, and often enough it’s very good. In the case of Shinola’s Canfield on-ear model, I see and hear a beautiful, well-engineered, great-sounding headphone.

Weird New Pop, Vol.9

  1. Wiki: “Islander”
  2. Open Mike Eagle: “Daydreaming in the Projects”
  3. Kendrick Lamar, featuring SZA: “All the Stars”
  4. Irreversible Entanglements: “Fireworks”
  5. Nicole Mitchell: “Shiny Divider”
  6. Chino Amobi: “The Floating World, Pt. 1”
  7. Chloe x Halle: “The Kids Are Alright”
  8. Nidia Minaj: “I Miss My Ghetto”
  9. Bottle Tree: “Open Secret”
  10. DJ Python: “Esteban”
  11. N.E.R.D., featuring Kendrick Lamar: “Don’t Don’t Do It!”
  12. L’Rain: “Stay, Go (Go, Stay)”
  13. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble: “Kembra”
  14. Jaimie Branch: “Waltzer”
  15. Binker and Moses: “Echoes from the Other Side of the Mountain”
Weird New Pop: The Mega-Mix (Tidal Version)

Weird New Pop is also available in CD-quality sound from Tidal.

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