Listening Session as History Lesson, b/w Schiit and Shinola—Together at Last

Meg Remy is a great driver. She’s not a New Yorker, but she navigates these busy city streets as though they are her own. She seems born to accelerate, weave, brake, and reverse. You can hear it in her music, too. It offers surprises at almost every beat and turn, shuffles and slides before it sparks and burns. Her upcoming release, In a Poem Unlimited, available Friday, is her sixth studio album as U.S. Girls, and second for the outstanding label 4AD.

Our favorite albums, like our favorite books, movies, hi-fi components, and other joys, remain in our hearts and minds, if not our homes, long after our initial experiences with them. Still, we measure and prove our devotion by those first times. We like to say we’ll never forget where we were, or with whom, when we heard this, that, or the other.

This one is easy. I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard In a Poem Unlimited. I was in the backseat of a large passenger van that was drawing red circles around New York City, exposing its dirty secrets, revealing bits of its dark history. Meg Remy was our guide.

How did we arrive here? The Instagram post simply read, “RSVP for a chance to join Meg Remy of U.S. Girls for an intimate early album listening experience.” Surprised even to have been selected, I arrived at the designated time and location assuming that our group of eager listeners would be led into a room, where we might listen to the album from beginning to end or perhaps enjoy an abbreviated live performance. Of course, I was very wrong. Instead, we were asked to sign waivers and then given three items: a red foam hand, whose middle finger, rather than its index, was boldly raised and read Mad As Hell; a zine, including artwork, lyrics, and studio photos from the Poem sessions; a handbill that paired each of the album’s 11 tracks with various locations in New York City, most of which mark the sites of long-forgotten injustices, questionable associations, or absolute horrors.

Here are just three of my favorite examples, taken right from the top of the list:

Inwood Hill Park & Shorakkopach Rock
1626: Possible location of the biggest real-estate swindle in history.
“Rosebud”

Wall Street
December 13, 1711: Wall Street is legislated a slave market.
“Poem”

St. Patrick’s Cathedral—5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
1879-present: The Catholic Church, a corporation with near constant growth since 313 AD.
“Pearly Gates”

Meg explained that she especially enjoys listening to music while driving. A funny thing happened as she said this. We had gone from Wall Street to Pearl Street and then nimbly merged onto FDR Drive when Meg hit the gas hard, and the ratchety van magically transformed into a mobile listening room. All of the other passengers seemed to disappear, leaving only me and the cold glass of my window and its clear view onto the world outside. Men in untidy coats and women with strollers went this way and that, as construction crews in orange hardhats and vests hammered at the streets, saxophones became confused with passing trains, and drum beats locked step with jackhammers.

This is how U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited became the perfect soundtrack to a random Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan, the listening session itself playing like a history lesson as Meg Remy described the various sights and sounds of our drive.

One track, “Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say,” is made of little more than those very words, spoken hoarsely as though through a battered, old mic, pressed close to the lips, and repeated. Meg paired the track with a tragedy known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911, at 29 Washington Place in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. One hundred and forty-six garment workers (123 female, 23 male) were killed—falling, jumping, choking, or burning to their deaths—when a fire raced through the factory. Lives might have been saved had the various escape routes and exits not been locked or barricaded—measures taken by management to dissuade laborers from taking breaks and to prevent theft; locked doors allowed managers to check purses and bags before workers went home at the end of a shift. On our handbill, we read a quote from labor union leader Rose Schneiderman: “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap, and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.”

Not all of Poem is so raw and bare. For the most part, in fact, the album wraps its protests in sequins and lace, delivering pure bangers, hip shakers, and psychedelic waves. In this month’s Weird New Pop playlist, you’ll find the latest single, “Rosebud,” which combines 1990’s freestyle with The Spinners’ “I’ll Be There,” while winking a crystal blue eye to Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star.” Can you hear it?

My current favorite track, though, is “Pearly Gates,” which on our drive was paired with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and invariably sends me into uncontrollable, body-rocking fits, simultaneously conjuring the irrepressible G-funk of Warren G.’s “Regulate” and the blue-eyed soul of Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting.” Meg Remy sings, “I can promise this is not a rumor / I asked for nothing but to stop it short / I guess he didn’t hear a word I said / And after, he acted as if I hadn’t been in his bed / I was definitely in his bed.” And the choir warns, “You’ll never be safe, even if you’re in the gates.”

The light turns red and we stop short, momentarily blocking a busy intersection.

“How many of you drive in the city?” Meg Remy asks. “I don’t drink, but I’m going to have a drink after this.”

U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited is a powerful call for love and action, and an early candidate for album of the year: this year, last year, 1626, 1711, 1911…

Schiit and Shinola—Together at Last
He who cannot distinguish shit from Shinola lacks the common sense and intellectual acuity required to make good choices. The saying, “You don’t know shit from Shinola,” dates back to the 1940s, when the Shinola shoe polish company, now defunct, was a household name. The phrase’s punch comes from the idea, proposed as an obvious truth, that, though these two things might occasionally appear alike, only one of them could possibly be good for your dancing shoes: Shinola, you dummy.

Last month, I enjoyed listening to Shinola’s Canfield On-Ear headphones, which combine handsome looks, impressive industrial design, and clean, clear sound. But I wondered if I could gain even greater performance by pairing the headphones with a proper headphone amplifier. While many brands today, from Arcam and Benchmark to Violectric and Woo, offer capable devices from which to choose, one brand seemed especially fit for this particular task. And, obviously, that brand was Schiit.

Because I like small, cute, affordable things, I selected Schiit’s smallest, cutest, most affordable headphone amp/DAC, the Fulla 2. Purchasing it was fun and easy, exactly as how such an activity should be, and it shipped quickly, without incident. It came securely and simply packed, and I was immediately impressed by the thoughtfulness and solidity of its overall design. Along the same lines, communication with the company has been fast, thorough, and friendly. All of this should go without saying, but too often these details are overlooked or considered minor, when in fact they should be handled with extreme care—not only by members of the high-performance audio industry but by those of all consumer industries. Schiity customer service has been granted new meaning.

The original Fulla was favorably reviewed in July 2015 by Sound & Vision’s Mark Fleischmann, a reviewer whose ears I trust and whose work I admire. While that model was a dongle device, similar to the near-ubiquitous DragonFly (made by AudioQuest, my former employer, you’ll recall), the new model relinquishes the idea of easy portability, significantly expands its chassis, and adds far more versatility.

Schiit explains that the Fulla 2 now has:

  • A big-ass volume knob connected to a well-matched Alps RK09 pot
  • A [front-mounted] 1/4” full-sized headphone output
  • A [front-mounted] 1/8” stereo analog input (so you can use it as just an amp, bypassing the DAC)
  • A [rear-mounted] 1/8” fixed DAC output (so you can use it with a receiver or volume control, bypassing the internal amp)
  • A [rear-mounted] 1/8” variable DAC output (so you can use it with powered monitors, or an amp without volume control)
  • USB micro inputs for both data/power and power alone (because so many software and/or hardware companies are incompetent…er, wait, no, we mean because there are USB outputs that are power-managed to the point where they don’t work at all. A second power input allows you to connect your phone charger or other 5V supply and bypass USB power.)
There’s more fun stuff to read at schiit.com, but that covers the Fulla 2’s impressive set of connections and controls. Despite its larger chassis, it’s still smaller than a typical 2TB USB hard drive, and weighs a solid, well-balanced 9oz, never threatening to be flung from your desk by unwieldy high-performance audio cables.

On that note, here’s a bit more fun from the Fulla 2’s FAQ page:

Q: Can I use a fancier cable to get better sound?
A: You can do whatever you like, including dancing by the light of the full moon and making small, non-living sacrifices to the audiophile gods.

Hmm. Why “non-living?” I wonder. Seriously, though, I expect that the included micro USB cable can be upgraded for real and significant performance benefits—things like greater resolution, lower noise, and an even more natural overall sound. (But of course I would expect this. I used to work at AudioQuest, remember?)

In addition to the aforementioned Alps potentiometer, the Fulla 2 incorporates high-quality components, including an AKM AK4490 D/A converter, Texas Instruments TI OPA1662-based filter stage and LMH6643 output stage, and C-Media Electronics CM6631A USB receiver. The Fulla 2 handles sample rates and bit depths of 16/44.1 to 24/96, which, for the price, is exactly all the resolution I would expect, and, generally speaking, all I ever really need. I dislike senseless, inconsequential debates and prefer products that are designed to improve the sound of the music I already own. Fulla 2 requires no additional drivers on Windows, Mac, or Linux computers, simplifying its already simple setup—especially satisfying and convenient for a computer dummy like me. Upon connection, the device appeared as “I’m Fulla Schiit” in the Sound window of my MacBook’s System Preferences. I selected “I’m Fulla Schiit” as my Output device, and that was pretty much that. From time to time, I enjoyed going back to look at my selection, just to remind myself that I was indeed still full of shit. That privilege alone makes this DAC a tremendous value.

Clearly, the people at Schiit know how to have fun. They also know how to share that fun: It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had this much fun with a hi-fi component. Right out of the box and straight into my PSB Alpha 1-100 speaker-sub system, I enjoyed unambiguously cleaner, clearer, larger, and more immersive sound. That first listening session lasted far longer than I had anticipated because I had a very difficult time tearing myself away from Tidal, traveling leisurely from the Caribbean rhythms of Zara McFarlane to the Arabic experimentalism of Nadah El Shazly, the scattershot yelps of David Byrne to the hypnotic pulse and squeak of Shit and Shine—in each case hearing deeper into the music, and, invariably, enjoying it more.

The love affair wasn’t all doughy bread and blood-red roses [footnote 1]. On the third day, shit happened—USB-related shit, I assumed: At first, I heard it directly from the left channel of my PSBs only, as a very low-level, intermittent and unpredictable chuffing sound. It was clearly non-musical, something electrical in nature, and it occurred with or without an audio signal passing through the DAC. When I listened through the Shinola Canfields, the noise again appeared in the left channel only, but it was far louder and more distinct, cracking and sputtering almost like the sound produced by a dying-battery-style, gated fuzz pedal. I love those types of fuzz pedals when playing electric guitar, but not so much when streaming my Weird New Pop playlist. In fact, the noise made music unlistenable.

On the fourth day, the noise was gone. On the fifth day, the noise returned. On the sixth day, the noise persisted. On the seventh day, the noise was gone. There and gone, there and gone, and so on and on, driving me mad.

I wrote to Schiit’s tech-support team and within minutes I received a response, including all of the correct and obvious questions. Had I swapped cables? Had I followed all of the steps in Schiit’s troubleshooting guide? Had I tried the Fulla 2 with a different computer?

The answer to all of these entirely reasonable questions was and remains no, simply because those things seem like a total bore, especially when compared with actually listening to music. And I know it was just 10 bad sentences ago that I complained about music becoming unlistenable, but that was only true during times when the stupid noise was present. Often enough, it wasn’t around at all, and I luxuriated in those noiseless, musical moments [footnote 2].

Writing for InnerFidelity.com, Tyler Schrank recently submitted an excellent review of Schiit’s identically priced Magni 3 headphone amp/preamp, in which he admires the “broad appeal” of the Magni’s “do-it-all sort of sound.” I get that. It’s difficult to find fault with such an attractive, intelligently designed, great-sounding product. Maybe the Fulla 2 is the slightest bit brash, but “brash” would be far too strong a word. Let’s say it might be sorta cocky or assertive in its overall presentation, lacking some delicacy or finesse or, like, patience, or something. If Fulla 2 were a dude, he might not always know when to shut up so that other people could properly express themselves, but, even still, the things he has to say are so interesting and so often beautifully expressed that no one really minds. People like having him around. He’s a great time and gets along with everyone.

With good recordings, excellent recordings, and even with shitty recordings, the Fulla 2 consistently made music—compelling, colorful, fun music. It drove the Shinola Canfields easily and happily, allowing them to sound exactly like themselves, but better [footnote 3]. It did the same for my prototype AudioQuest NightHawks, offering an impressively large, immersive, and seductive presentation.

As I struggle to identify and describe insignificant shortcomings, “Relay Runner” from Loma’s upcoming eponymous album is playing. You need to hear this album. It displays an exceptional respect for all sorts of sounds: intended sounds and incidental sounds, the sounds of instruments, voices, and the space surrounding those instruments and voices. It’s expansive and gorgeous! And now “American Guilt” is playing. This track is from Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s upcoming album, Sex & Food, scheduled for an April 6th release, and it’s a strutting, throbbing mess of rock’n’roll goodness, complete with overdriven amplifiers, overdriven vocals, overdriven everything. It, too, is gorgeous—and slithery!

“Land of the expensive / Even the Nazis are crying / History’s private property / Viva la Mexico,” sings UMO’s Ruban Nielson, as though he’s been driving around the city with U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy.

In case it isn’t clear, I really like the Schiit Fulla 2. I think I’ll keep it for a long, long time.

Design: Todd Steponick, Nice Looking Designs

Weird New Pop, Vol.10

  1. Zara McFarlane: “Freedom Chain”
  2. Kali Uchis, featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins: “After the Storm”
  3. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, & James Blake: “King’s Dead”
  4. David Byrne: “Everybody’s Coming to My House”
  5. Brockhampton: “Face”
  6. Rhye: “Song for You”
  7. Nadah El Shazly: “Afqid Adh-Dhakira”
  8. Shit and Shine: “Girl Close Your Eyes”
  9. Renata Zeiguer: “Follow Me Down”
  10. Anna Burch: “2 Cool 2 Care”
  11. Vels Trio: “Godzilla”
  12. tUnE-yArDs: “Now As Then”
  13. Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “American Guilt”
  14. St. Vincent: “New York” (Kelly Lee Owens remix)
  15. Porches: “Now the Water”
  16. Car Seat Headrest: “Cute Thing”
  17. Loma: “Relay Runner”
  18. Dengue Dengue Dengue: “Buscando”
  19. Hollie Cook: “Stay Alive”
  20. U.S. Girls: “Rosebud”
Weird New Pop: The Mega-Mix (Tidal Version)

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




Footnote 1: In my writing, as some of you may have noticed, I’m constantly stealing from other people what I believe to be cool shit. In this case, “bread and roses” comes again from Rose Schneiderman, who, in 1911 or 1912, depending on the source, while addressing a group of female laborers in Ohio or Massachusetts, said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Footnote 2: I’ve since decided that the noise is due to some sort of high-frequency cell-tower interference or something, because it happens whenever I receive a text message or push notification.

Footnote 3: Sadly, though, the Fulla 2 didn’t make the Shinola Canfields any more comfortable. I’m still working on that.

COMMENTS
Stirrio's picture

The interference you describe may be due to a grounding or cable shielding issue. I had this same problem, with the same sound you describe, when I had my turntable (just the motor, mind you) plugged into the one ungrounded outlet in my home (it was connected to a wall switch).

Not sure if you need to ground the Fulla or try a better USB cable (you know where to find those); my electrician told me poor shielding could cause the same issue, especially if the cable in question is near a wireless router.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for reading, and thank you for taking the time to comment. I'm eager to explore this issue further -- and, hopefully, resolve it! I definitely plan on trying some high-quality cables; even if the noise doesn't go away for good, I suspect better cables will improve the sound in meaningful ways. And another kind reader pointed me towards Oyaide's Magnetic Wave Absorber sheets, which also seem worth a look and listen.

Thanks again!

monetschemist's picture

Stephen, it is REALLY great "having you back" writing about music and equipment. Nice to hear you enjoy the Fulla 2. If I plug in my headphones and put on some music through my Fulla 2 while trying to do some work... uh... what? Someone remind me again...

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks so much! And it's great to hear that your experience with the Fulla mirrors my own. It's such a fun, engaging device. It must be one of the finest values in hi-fi today.

Jdjaye's picture

Great article- so glad to be able to enjoy your excellent reviews again!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for reading. It's a pleasure to be here!

Stirrio's picture

Agree with the others--it's good to be reading you again. And may all your listening be sans chuffing sounds.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Yes! Thank you so much. :)

monetschemist's picture

I was bitten by the "I need a fancy stereo" bug back in 1974 or so, when I was still a starving university student. I haven't had the chance (the inclination? the cash?) to have a really broad exposure to all the wondrous equipment out there.

And so I'm no kind of expert; but in comparison to the Fulla 1, the original DragonFly, even my Bifrost 4490, and definitely the various CD players I have owned, there's something special about the Fulla 2. It's super convenient with its analog input and outputs and its separate power option, but more than that it has a kind of effortlessly intimate way with my music that just sucks me in. The downside is I really can't listen to it when I'm working...

And really? $99? Crazy.

foxhall's picture

This album is remarkable after two listens but, like so many others, could have been so much more if it were not so horribly compressed. After the second listen I had the brick wall headache even on my forgiving system.

I guess artists have stopped caring about the end product or non-brickwalled music sounds flat to them?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks for reading and thanks for listening! I'm glad you're enjoying the music. To answer your question, I don't think artists have stopped caring about sound quality. In fact, I think more young artists care more about sound quality today than anytime over the last 20 or so years. Still, many artists, especially independent artists, have priorities and frames of reference that differ greatly from those of the typical Audiostream.com reader. Different experiences, perspectives, and expectations. Remember, Meg even said that she prefers listening to music while driving -- and I don't think she's driving a car with a Meridian system. :)

What I would love to do is spend time with Meg Remy at a proper hi-fi showroom, say In Living Stereo or Noho Sound, and listen to her album through various systems. It would be fun to discuss what she hears and how she hears it!

For an example of a modern independent pop/rock album with outstanding sound and generous dynamic range, try Loma's self-titled debut, which was also released today. Thanks again!

dysonapr's picture

A good desktop setup for @ $130. What more could you ask?

Regarding unwanted noises; if my cell-phone is near the Fulla II, it hums. Otherwise, my example has only made the sounds I wanted to hear.

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