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The Grand Tour, Season 1 Review

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The Grand Tour’s first season (series, in British-talk) has ended, and with it has come more questions than answers regarding the much-awaited reboot of the world’s three most famous public television alumni. Is The Grand Tour good? Is it bad? Is it just OK? Is “the American,” sweetly, mercifully going to be a one-season guest? Will Celebrity Brain Crash finally stop torturing us for 2-3 minutes a week? Can the corny tent sketches evolve into something… watchable?

The truth is, it’s at the seams where The Grand Tour frays most noticeably. Segment transitions are wonky, filler bits are often painfully over-scripted, and the show’s big shtick – being in a tent somewhere around the world every week – has been utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of the program. There is so frustratingly little holding the show together that we are reduced to saying “Well, the films are good. Sometimes.”

That is a long way to fall from what I would dub ‘Peak Top Gear’ around the show’s tenth to late-teenth seasons, a span that includes some of the finest semi-scripted reality television (let’s be open: that’s what the “films” are) ever produced. The Top Gear Vietnam special, often held up as the very best Top Gear episode of all time, doesn’t even have anything to do with cars. The Botswana special’s vehicles are utterly forgettable trash (sorry, Oliver sucked). The Bolivia special was most endearing for the truly excellent storytelling and sense of urgency it created in the audience, not for flashy editing, “enthusiast” cars, or extensive visual effects.

Many of us had hoped that TGT (which I will refer to it as from here out) would essentially seek to rehash Top Gear’s most beloved specials – but with increased frequency thanks to Amazon’s ample coffers. Instead, we’ve received a 4K HDR knockoff of Late Top Gear (i.e., seasons 20 onward), easily the weakest era in the show’s long history. Here is my assessment.

Best Episode: Moroccan Roll

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Moroccan Roll is a rehash of one of Top Gear’s often-successful formulas: a three-way car review in unfamiliar terrain, wrapped up in the form of a road trip. The banter works, the gags are lighthearted and don’t feel too scripted, and the cars are damn good. It’s the formula for an episode that should be a classic, and in a sense, it is: it’s the only episode from the whole TGT series I think I’d willingly rewatch today. A year from now, there might be more candidates, but this is the only one that truly flowed for me. Also, the game of caravan battleships was exactly the sort of childish, outlandish, destructive behavior that so endeared fans of Top Gear over the years. Who doesn’t love trashing a trailer?

This episode feels like a medium-bright spot in the Late Top Gear era, of which there were several, though I will say it sometimes failed to hold my attention. Sadly, for every other episode, I can say at the very least they consistently failed to hold my attention.

Worst Episode: Operation Desert Stumble

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Worse than the Top Gear India special. By far. Desert Stumble is over-scripted to the point of tedium, the kind of thing even your “I just watch it for the cars” uncle can’t be bothered to sit through because it reminds him these guys are trying to be funny. I couldn’t finish this episode, because it was just completely pointless on every level. I fast-forwarded to the breaks, which offered no relief from the onslaught of camo-Clarkson’s clowning.

Desert Stumble is case in point of the new show’s heavy reliance on tight scripting and caricature not just for studio segments, but for the actual films. It feels as though there is such a crunch to get everything captured quickly, efficiently, and on-budget that there is essentially no room for ad-libbing or deviation from the storyboard. Additionally, the guys feel like they’re not being themselves, but what they believe to be themselves as developed over 25 years doing Top Gear. Clarkson and Co simply don’t do well as scripted reality stars – they aren’t actors, and it shows. You do not want to watch this episode.

Runner-up, Worst Episode: Italian Lessons

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On paper, Italian Lessons is exactly the show I wanted from TGT. The guys buy three old clunkers, particularly unreliable ones, and are given a pointless series of tasks which leads to 40 minutes of ad-libbed and semi-scripted remarks on the cars, banter between the hosts, and improvisational comedy.

But the formula utterly fizzled in this episode. One of the cars was so unreliable it wasn’t funny anymore (Jeremy’s), while the other two were basically fine. None of the cars had an ounce of character that shone through the film. And much of the content, even when not scripted, hemmed so tightly to the caricatures each host seems so devoted to adhering to in TGT that all suspension of disbelief was impossible. They felt like actors playing Jeremy, Richard, and James. They didn’t feel like the quirky public television hosts that had been let off the leash we’ve all come to really love over the years.

Like Operation Desert Stumble, Italian Lessons is weighed down immensely by tight production and scripting that bleeds into the “reality” of the show at the expense of believability. The bizarre sort of “semi-acting” from the cast, who seem to have no real horse in this race, does not help. It feels as though they’re merely paid to act like the scripted events are very surprising to them, and do so in a way that is in accordance with the character they have created. It makes what once felt fun, spontaneous, and personal seem tedious, planned, and artificial.

The Verdict: Many problems, few clear solutions

My individual episode critiques don’t even get to the awfulness that is “The American,” Celebrity Brain Crash, or the groan-worthy studio sketches. Because everyone knows these things are bad. I’m sure even the TGT team know those areas need serious attention on the second run-through.

But given James May has indicated that TGT is probably the end of the line for the trio in terms of a regular television series, I am unfortunately not inclined to believe the quality of the films, writing, or approach will dramatically improve. I realize many people like The Grand Tour, that it provides them entertainment, but I truly do believe there is an opportunity to do something great here and that Clarkson, Wilman, and the others are just looking at this as an early retirement package. I don’t fault them for that, I just don’t think it makes good television.

Much like Late Top Gear, then, The Grand Tour feels checked out from the opening sequence of the first episode to the goodbye of the last. A product of a team that is happy to preserve the status quo, and simultaneously is the immovable bedrock necessary for any effort to jump-start the format and approach. I think it is unlikely such a jump-start will happen, sadly – but maybe I’m wrong. I just have the sinking feeling that three or four seasons from now, TGT will end, and most of us will have stopped caring long before that.

Meanwhile, I happily await whatever James May’s next TV miniseries is.

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Qisan Magicforce Review: The best keyboard I’ve ever owned

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There are probably nicer mechanical keyboards out there – ones made with more premium components and materials, with a better stock set of keycaps, ones that simply look prettier. But I’ll bet you they almost universally cost more than $75.

The Qisan Magicforce is a 68-key backlit mechanical keyboard that uses Cherry switches. The 68-key layout is a big part of what drew me to it: I simply don’t need a dedicated function row or number pad these days, and that gives me more room on my desk for mouse surface and a keyboard that just looks a lot, well, simpler.

Small-layout mechanical keyboards are becoming increasingly popular, and I’m far from an expert in the area – I really know very little about mechanical keyboards compared to the growing enthusiast culture around them. But I have owned several mechanical and non-mechanical keyboards over the years, and when my last mechanical suffered an unfortunate liquid encounter, I started the search for a replacement.

My old board was of a larger, but still slightly compacted, layout with a function row and number pad (the arrow keys and a few others were secondary functions on the number pad). I noticed I really didn’t use any of these things on a regular basis, and began to look into compact boards.

The Magicforce is well-reviewed on Amazon, has been recommended by a number of reputable sites, and is an absolute bargain in the world of specialty mechanical keyboards. You can get one with either red, brown, or blue Cherry switches (more on that in a minute).

The design is very spartan, with a thin sheet of anodized aluminum acting as the face plate of the board, marred only by a slightly annoying “Magicforce” logo above the arrow keys. I think if you really wanted, you could slap a sticker over it to hide the logo and give your board a bit of personal flair. Otherwise, I love the stark design and its clear devotion to compactness.

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The Magicforce logo is the one slight blemish on an otherwise clean keyboard design. It’s not a big deal.

The keycaps that are included with the board were at first not my favorite – the texture was a bit off-putting coming from a board with much smoother plastic keys. But I’ve actually grown totally accustomed to the key feel and quite like it now. As to the font on the caps, well, it is what it is. You can buy new caps, which I plan to do eventually, and replace the rather try-hardy space age characters, but they’re far from the worst I’ve seen.

The board feels of high quality, but is also incredibly light. Speaking of light, the backlit keys on the Magicforce are extremely bright at the maximum setting if you want your keys to act as little lamps for your fingers, but I find the minimum setting is more than adequate. The lighting isn’t perfectly even, but for $75, what are you really going to do? It’s still a lot better than I expected.

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With backlighting disabled, the stock keycaps are still easily legible.

I chose Cherry Red switches for my board – you probably won’t do the same. Browns are one of the most popular variant of the Cherry mechanical switches, and if you’re a first-time mechanical keyboard buyer, they’re probably where you should start. There’s an excellent explainer on switches – with extremely helpful animated GIFs – here if you want to learn more. But, if you want the short version, read on.

The short of it is this: if you remember old, loud, clicky IBM keyboards, that’s what you’re going to get if you buy blue switches. If you want the clicky “feel” of a mechanical keyboard but don’t want all of the noise, you want brown switches – they’re quieter, but still offer engagement feedback for that “clicky” feel. If you want keys that can be actuated (pressed) with as little force as possible, you want red switches.

I favor reds because I like the very light actuation force for gaming, where switch “bumps” can feel a little less natural. Still, plenty of people game with browns or even blues, so most of it really does come down to personal preference, not some rigid set of characteristics that makes certain switches unsuitable for a given task.

After three weeks of typing on the Magicforce, I’m in love. It’s a great board at a great price, and I’m increasingly of the belief I’ll never go back to a full-layout keyboard even again. Mini boards rock.

If you want to buy the Magicforce keyboard, you can get it on Amazon here. And if you plan to replace the keycaps on it, I very much suggest not using the included keycap puler (it can scratch the keys). Instead, you should buy this WASD key puller, which works brilliantly – on Amazon here.

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5 Things I Love About My 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata After 6 Months Of Ownership

 

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I’m quickly coming up on month six of my Miata ownership experience! I’ve now had the car since November 2015.

I love car reviews, and I love to read them. But it’s not often you get to hear from someone who’s lived with a brand-new car for thousands of miles unless you, you know, ask them. So that’s why I’m writing this post. And for publications that do conduct long-term testing, test notes are few, far between, and generally not especially detailed unless problems with the vehicle arise. What I plan to accomplish in this post is to convey aspects of the Miata ownership experience that only became apparent to me the more I used the car. This post will focus on the positive aspects. There will also be a post focusing on the negative ones.

#1: The gas mileage really is good

I know, mundane, right? But this is important. Previous MX-5s have generally gotten pretty poor gas mileage in anything but extended not-too-fast highway driving because of short gearing and a very narrow power-band. The new SkyActiv engine and transmission in the “ND” 2016 Mazda Miata really do fix this.

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After 5,500 miles, I am now averaging around 30-32MPG in mixed conditions. I get around 25-28 city MPG, and well over 35MPG highway. With a gentle foot and an eye for the speed limit (65MPH on freeways / interstates in CA), I can nearly crack 40MPG highway. I never expected the gas mileage to be quite this good.

Is it as good as some cars weighing a thousand pounds more with even more horsepower? No. But the Miata has always had pretty crappy gas mileage (for a vehicle of its weight and power), and the ’16 MX-5 really takes efficiency seriously. With a 10.9 gallon gas tank and a requirement of 91 octane gas, this matters even more.

Single tank range is generally around 320-360 miles depending on, well, gas mileage. That’s pretty good for a car this small. 400 miles on a very extended highway drive may well be doable.

#2: It challenges and rewards you every single time you drive it

Let me be clear: the 2016 MX-5 is a very easy car to drive. And skilled drivers, especially, have long noted this about Miatas, because it makes them very easy to “play around” with and take to the limit. For those people, the MX-5 may never present a real challenge. But I am not a particularly skilled driver.

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Because the car is so light, the drivetrain is extremely responsive to your inputs – be it the clutch or throttle. Getting 2nd to 3rd shifts just right when pulling the car to around 5000 RPM is so rewarding. When you do it, the car gently glides into third and you get back on the gas. But with a fairly light flywheel, if you don’t match the revs just right, you’ll feel resistance. In a heavier car with a heavier clutch (and more momentum), you don’t always feel encouraged to get your shifts laser-precise. The MX-5 wants you to, and I love that. It makes me a better driver.

Rev-matching on downshifts has been a very fun learning experience, too, and the Miata is the least intimidating car I think you could try it out on. The engine revs quickly, but not manically, and the short gearing gives you plenty of opportunity to experiment with this.

A simple trip down to the grocery store a mile away is fun in an MX-5. You put the top down and the peripheral sensation of speed from the world rushing by you from the low driving position is exhilarating. Simply going from first to second gear is a joyful, smile-inducing act, rather than a chore, especially with such a light and easy clutch pedal.

Let me put it this way: no one is having more fun zipping down LA’s sprawling surface streets in rush hour than I am, unless they’re also in a Miata. It makes the mundane enjoyable.

#3: The manual rag top is a million times better than a power folding top

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Mazda has designed what is probably the best folding convertible top in history. You can put it up or down with one hand at a red light or when rolling out of a parking lot. Unless you’ve got shoulder problems, this system couldn’t be any more ideal.

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I was literally able to put the top up and down for this by sticking my hand through the passenger window. It’s that easy.

To put the top down, just use your thumb to push in the switch on the lever above the rear-view mirror and pull back on the lever until it clears the anchor point, then push the entire top back behind you until it clicks in place. I can do it in 3-5 seconds at this point. Putting it back up is no harder – just grab the release handle above the center console box between the seats, the top will pop up, then grab the handle on the top itself and pull it over you. Latch the anchor into the windshield surround and pull the lever forward until it locks. Done.

As to noise? For a convertible, the MX-5 is pretty quiet on the freeway with the top up. But it’s obviously noisier than a typical car, and significantly louder than a luxury sedan. But the top itself is just a win all around, I don’t for a moment think I’d want a power top, or a power hard top. This is lighter, easier, and less likely to break. Mazda did a great job.

#4: It is surprisingly well-equipped, and the tech is modern

What’s the #1 problem with buying a niche vehicle, especially a small sports car? Even one with relatively large scale production? I’ll tell you: it’s being at the mercy of vehicle designers who need to cut corners and features to make that vehicle “work” from a profit and engineering timeline perspective.

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Often, this means an out-of-date infotainment system, oddly minimal or hacked-together creature comforts, and old-but-reliable parts bin choices. The 2016 MX-5 completely turns this on its head.

The car has LED exterior lighting all around – the headlights are tremendously bright and extremely low profile, and that’s allowed Mazda to reduce the overhang on the front of the car. LEDs also last longer than halogen bulbs and use far less power to provide the same level of illumination. This is stuff Mercedes and BMW still don’t even do on a lot of their entry-level trims – it’s an option. The MX-5 has LED lighting completely standard.

But that’s just one example. Here’s a list of things that I think are genuine conveniences you might not expect on a sports car (I’m not saying these are all new to the ND, just taking them as a whole):

  • Completely keyless entry, engine start, locking, and trunk opening. No fiddling with a key fob for anything. Just tap the button on the door to get in (or lock), the start button to start the engine. There is a small button on the rear bumper to pop the trunk.
  • Auto-lowering windows when you raise or lower the folding roof. Both windows have full-down switches built into the toggles, as well.
  • Front and rear defrosters that actually work.
  • Power side mirrors.
  • Hill-start assist (no more e-braking on steep hills to get started).
  • Gear indicator built into the tachometer with upshift suggestions.
  • Digital water temp gauge, digital fuel gauge, and digital trip computer with gas remaining in miles, average MPG, current MPG, and average speed.
  • Steering wheel controls for music, trip computer readout, phone calls, and cruise control.
  • AC and heat with 3-level output (bottom, center console, defrost). A/C and heat both work well, too. Dual-zone with climate control is only on the Grand Touring model, though.
  • 2x USB ports, aux-in jack, and cigarette lighter power port

And that’s not even touching on Mazda’s Connect infotainment system, which is leaps and bounds better than those of most of their price competitors. Mazda Connect does give you a 7″ touchscreen, but interaction is primarily through the rotary / d-pad knob in the center console. Could it be better? Sure. But so could the systems on cars costing twice as much or more. Mazda’s is simple enough to learn in terms of layout, and while it’s not incredibly fast, it’s also not agonizingly slow. It does what it needs to and it isn’t filled with a ton of useless features for their own sake.

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Conveniences, conveniences everywhere!

I do have gripes about Mazda Connect, but for the most part, this is leagues above what we saw on $50,000+ sports cars even 5 years ago. Technology has moved incredibly fast, and the ’16 Miata is on the right side of that shift.

#5 It’s a normal car, and I can use it and treat it like one

Would you take your Alfa Romeo 4C into a gravel and mud parking lot filled with potholes? Maybe? Sure, I could see that – brave soul! But maybe get a clear bra done just in case… and hope it doesn’t scrape. Would you do a 400-mile road trip in it? If the weather was right and you could fit all the stuff you needed in it, sure, I guess. But that’s a fair number of miles. And the road might be rough in spots. Maybe it’s better to get a rental. What’s your insurance like? Mine’s pretty much exactly what it was when I had my old, much more boring car. Rock chips from the freeway? Which gas station should I use? Do I need some kind of crazy European oil every 5,000 miles? Is it going to explode the moment I get out of warranty?

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The trunk is small, but not obnoxiously so – here’s my full-sized Timbuk2 messenger bag on the floor for scale.

Mazda builds the MX-5 with the average person in mind. It needs to be able to do normal car things, normally. And it is a normal car, and it costs normal car money. And so it costs normal car money to insure and maintain. It has good ground clearance, because it’s a normal car that needs to go many places. It has reasonable trunk space, because normal cars need places to put stuff. It has lots of suspension travel, because a normal car can’t be breaking your back everywhere you go. It doesn’t have insanely huge wheels with ultra low-profile tires, because normal cars can’t be bending their rims every time they hit a pothole. It gets good gas mileage, because normal people are starting to care about that. It isn’t obnoxiously loud or droney, because that gets annoying in a normal car you have to use every day.

That really is what I love most about my MX-5: I don’t have to do anything really all that different than I would when I drive it than any other car, and I don’t have to make many special considerations (aside from cargo space) when I use it. It’s just a car. Might a $70,000 Boxster or Alfa 4C Spider feel more special, and be faster? Absolutely! And there’s a place for those cars. They’re great. I’m just not sure they’re cars I’d want to use, or accept the consequences of using, every day without having another vehicle to fall back on for more mundane activities.

Make no mistake, the MX-5 isn’t an everyday vehicle for everybody. But as 2-seat roadsters go, it’s about as close to “a normal car” as anybody’s gotten yet, and the price is the most normal thing about it.

If you want to support my blog and posts like these, you can shop on Amazon with my referral code (use this link). Here are a few car care products I use and can recommend, as well.

Portable DACs are stupid and you don’t need one.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “my smartphone’s built-in audio components seem to be of a middling quality, I should buy a portable DAC”? If no, congratulations: you’re a rational and well-adjusted human being. You may also be well-adjusted and think the former portion of that sentence, but I hope your smartphone cost under $200 and takes photos of a decidedly potato visual quality. That is to say: unless you’ve gone out of your way to buy a cheap smartphone, there is basically no reason you should be contemplating carrying freaking audio enhancement accessories with you. Let us dive once more into the world of audiophilistic mythos and discover why you don’t need to go spend money on more things you really don’t need.

Portable DACs and amplifiers are a wonderful new business for the digital hi-fi industry, and one that’s even had a high-profile product: Neil Young’s utter failure (also known as the Pono Player). The Pono Player has been thoroughly ridiculed quite publicly already, so let’s not waste our time there. But why would someone think a product like Pono might be a good idea?

You see, the digital hi-fi business has a bit of a problem: everyone already carries a very powerful portable music player. That is, a smartphone. As such, these companies have begun attempting to convince existing audiophiles that there’s no way a wimpy little smartphone could possibly be up to the task of providing high-quality listening experiences, and that instead they must invest in a costly secondary DAC/amplifier or player should they want to experience real portable audio. Are there nuggets of truth hiding in what is, frankly, a large pile of pseudoscience manure? Should you consider purchasing such a product?

Unless you consider in-ear headphones literal devil worship and refuse to give up your high-impedance Sony DJ cans even when venturing outside, the answer is a resounding “no.” While fringe cases for portable amplifiers do exist, the portable DAC is a bunch of silly nonsense brought to you by the same sort of people who are trying to bring the vacuum tube back. The same people who convinced your dad or uncle that the only way music could sound really great was by investing in ever-more vertically-stacked metal black boxes full of various tubes and circuits and capacitors. Well, until Bose showed up and basically took an all-in-one dump on that entire business model (Bose is rightly criticized for many reasons, but they really did put an ax through the head of the home hi-fi business model).

Anyway, question one, of course, is: Will I be able to hear a difference when using a portable DAC/amp versus my smartphone? Yep: you won’t have to turn the volume slider up as high. And that’s probably about it. Unless you’re using a pair of headphones clearly not meant for portable listening (large, high-impedance over-ear DJ/producer headphones), there really is no point to a portable DAC/amp. A portable amplifier likely will produce more power than the one built into your smartphone. It likely will not produce any other noticeable results. You see, your smartphone is an extremely powerful computer, and part of that computer are a number of sub-components that handle digital to analog output signal and subsequent amplification of that signal on its way out the 3.5mm stereo [headphone] jack. These components live on a PCB with other mission-critical parts and must be well-isolated and very precise instruments that consume a minimum of power. The notion that you could provide noticeably “better” conversion of zeroes and ones to analog signal than an iPhone 6s is basically not an argument worth having. Audiophiles will cry foul (“of course the DAC can be better, why else would I have spent $500 on this brushed aluminum witchcraft box that serves solely to validate my personal beliefs?”), but this is the truth. Portable DACs are basically snake oil.

The amplifier end of the equation is worth asterisking. Again, if you wear obscenely large headphones that require a lot of power to drive, like Sony’s legendary MDR7506s, a portable amplifier will likely provide more power than most smartphones. And note that I even said “most” – iPhones have fairly powerful amplifiers, and there’s even a growing number of Android phones trying to get audiophile street cred like LG’s V10. I have an iPad Air 2 that drives all of my high-impedance headphones easily (Blue’s Lola are my current favs). Unless you’re consistently maxing the volume on your smartphone when using headphones, you don’t need a portable DAC/amp. If you do? You’re probably just better off buying different headphones better suited to mobile listening.

Honestly, wearing over-ears while out in public is just ridiculous. You do you, but with the massive improvements that have come to in-ear headphones in the last 15 years, unless your sole interest is in driving bass or you are literally a professional DJ, just buy some damn earbuds. RHA’s MA750i are an excellent choice. But there are literally dozens of great IEM brands out there now making brilliant products for mobile listening. If you’re really against in-ear headphones and absolutely must use a high-impedance headphone while mobile? Blue’s Mo-Fis literally have an amplifier built into the headphone.

So, why are portable DACs and amps a business, and why do people buy them? The latter is the simple nature of the hi-fi world, it’s a business built on convincing customers they need ever-more and ever-more-expensive gear and products to achieve listening nirvana. You’ll never convince people down that rabbit hole to take stock in reality – that’s something they’ll need to find out for themselves. As to the business itself? Why aren’t all these DAC/amp peddlers building headphones or smartphones when those are so clearly the nexuses of improvement for portable audio quality?

Margins suck, the markets are saturated, and making meaningfully better headphones or smartphones isn’t easy. (Making a truly “better” smartphone profitably at this point is all but impossible for companies that don’t have billions in the bank already.) With the enormous number of cheap, good headphones coming out of China (and I don’t mean Chinese brands, I mean lean startups that use Chinese manufacturing) and the upper ranges of the market completely owned by established brands with proven engineering or marketing budgets [COUGH BEATS COUGH], there’s not a lot of chance for success or attention these days. The portable DAC and amp business is a much smaller one, and one that audio giants like Sennheiser, B&O, and others are just now starting to explore. Because such products are “premium enthusiast” gear, prices are essentially whatever makers of the products think they can get away with. And given that telling the difference between many of the products in the category is all but impossible for most of us, a lot of it comes down to whose knobs are the smoothest and whose aluminum the most brushed, polished, or anodized.

So, in short: your iPhone or Galaxy device are excellent portable music players with audio components so advanced that if you took them in a time machine back 20 years ago, you would be dubbed a wizard. Or a witch. Buy some good headphones and get on with enjoying your music. And for god’s sake, it doesn’t need to be in FLAC.

 

Where to get genuine Mazda 0W-20 GF-5 synthetic oil

Recently, I was prepping for my 2016 MX-5’s first oil change, and I noticed something slightly annoying: most US Mazda dealers don’t use genuine Mazda oil anymore. Mazda uses this oil from the factory, but in the US manuals for most of its vehicles, says Castrol 0W-20 is just fine, too. By no small coincidence, Castrol is what most US Mazda dealers use – probably 99% because it’s much cheaper for them to purchase in bulk.

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The thing is, the Castrol has nowhere near the molybdenum content of the Mazda synthetic (650ppm), and the Mazda owner’s manual states quite clearly that optimum gas mileage is only guaranteed if you use the Mazda synthetic oil (i.e., not Castrol).

Luckily, I located an online seller of the genuine Mazda stuff: Avondale Mazda, an Arizona dealership. At the time of my writing this post, it was $9.99 per quart with free shipping (Avondale Mazda has since, apparently, reconsidered and now prices it at an astronomical $13.99 per quart – you’ll have to buy the 12-pack for any sort of remotely worthwhile deal). Avondale sells it by the case (12 quarts) for the equivalent of about $9 per quart, right here. While that may be a bit higher than what you pay if you put in an order at your local Mazda dealership, this is definitely a bit more convenient. Avondale Mazda generally seems to get good reviews on Amazon, too, so I’m guessing they’re pretty trustworthy.

How good a price is this? Very, actually. I called up my local Mazda dealership, a major outfit here in Los Angeles (Galpin), and they wanted $9.50 per quart or $103.20 per case (12qts, $8.60/qt) for the pleasure of going and picking it up myself. Considering that’s around a 30 mile round trip, with gas the difference is a whole couple bucks more to have it delivered to my front door. I’ll take the latter, please.

CES: where “eco-friendly” tech goes to die.

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For being one of the most “green” industries, the tech business really has no problem being flagrantly wasteful at major trade shows like CES. I’m far from the most eco person on the planet, but the level of waste at CES really burns me up.

Take this flash drive. A metal flash drive with swivel action, in two layers of foam padding, in a metal case, with a plastic window.

The flash drive has four gigabytes of capacity. Four gigabytes. Its purpose? Storing some pictures of products that could have just as easily been stored on Dropbox, Google Drive, or one of many hosting services. But “what if a journalist doesn’t have easy internet access?” My god, is it 2003? I think anyone worth their chops can get access to the internet for the purpose of doing their job in 2016. If you can’t manage that, what does that say about you?

This really is shameful, and it’s the tip of a gigantic plastic/metal/paper waste iceberg at shows like CES. I left, I kid you not, at least a couple of pounds of CES swag-junk in my hotel room in the hope that maybe the staff there might have use for it, instead of just throwing it in the trash or recycling bins. Between the pens, flash drives, notebooks, and – yes seriously – printed press releases, it makes me fume that it’s all acceptable in the name of business.

The CTA (the body that organizes CES) really should set an example for the industry and ban flash drives, promotional pens, printed press releases, and notepads. Swag like this is just plain wasteful. If people are attending a show for free pens and flash drives, maybe the show should be reevaluating its priorities.

Owner Review: 2016 Mazda MX-5, One Month In (Miata “ND”)

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When I walked out of the dealership with two sets of keys to my new 2016 MX-5, I had spent approximately 20 minutes behind the wheel of a Miata in my life. 10 of those minutes were two months prior when test driving one, and the other 10 earlier that day when I took my own car out for a pre-acquisition shakedown.

I have never owned a convertible. Or a 2-seater car of any kind. This is my only car and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I point this out because MX-5s are almost exclusively weekend or leisure “second cars” when purchased new. Very few people get a new MX-5 and use it as their daily driver, probably because they’re not terribly practical. The big asterisk for me is that I work from home, and therefore have no commute. If I did have a commute, I’d probably think twice about an MX-5.

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So, this is basically what a month of 2016 MX-5 daily driver ownership has been like for me. It’s not a review so much as a story.

For reference, going forward, I may refer to the car as the “ND” Miata or MX-5 – this is the internal Mazda name for the all-new generation of MX-5 introduced for the 2016 model year. Old versions were the NA, NB, and NC. Make sense?

PRACTICALITY

The ND MX-5 is allegedly the most practical Miata yet. So far, I’m not finding it terribly impractical in any sense, aside from the fact that it only seats two people.

In terms of storage, this is the largest trunk of any MX-5, and you could easily toss two overnight bags or one full-size piece of luggage and one overnight bag in the back. You wouldn’t have room for much else, of course, but that’s enough for me. Without a passenger, you also have the passenger seat and footwell for storage, and that can net you another overnight bag and a backpack.

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The main glovebox is situated between the seats.

The glovebox is positioned between the driver and passenger seats above the cupholders, and it’s not very large. You can toss some sunglasses and your USB cables and a few knick knacks in there, but nothing unusually long or wide is going to fit. There are also two similarly-sized stowaway boxes behind both seats, only accessible when the seats are reclined forward. These little boxes are great for things like the vehicle manual and registration, insurance, etc., since you’re not likely to use them for anything else. Between the trunk and all the cubbies, I’ve seen no reason to have anything simply lingering in the cabin of the car aside from my always-attached USB cable.

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One of the storage cubbies behind the seats, with its cover removed.

The cupholders are functional, but good luck reaching them: you’d have to be double-jointed to grab a beverage from one as the driver, since they’re basically positioned behind you at the back of the center console. Both can be removed from the console (useful if you find your elbows bumping them often), and the passenger cupholder can be reinstalled in the passenger footwell to the right of the gearshift so that the driver can actually reach the contents of the cupholder while driving. I generally just use it to hold my phone.

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You can see the removable cupholder to the right of the e-brake and shifter here.

Going back to connectivity, the USB ports (there are two, woo!) are positioned directly below the HVAC controls on the center stack, and they’re recessed enough that a plugged-in cable won’t get in the way of the shifter. This is also where the aux jack is located. You will notice, though, that the AC adapter is not here – and you’d be hard-pressed to find it if nobody told you where to look. It’s hidden deep in the left side of the passenger footwell, which essentially says to me that Mazda doesn’t anticipate owners will use it much when they have two USB ports available to them already. It’s definitely a practicality concern if you use plug things in and out of the AC adapter regularly.

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Seeming to make up for the not-easily accessible AC jack, there are 2 USB ports.

The HVAC system on this Club model is manual, and in my experience, it works great. The one thing I’ve noted is that with the A/C off but the temperature control set to the coolest level (recirculating or not), air coming through the vents gets hot quickly if you’re just driving around town, suggesting that the HVAC routing is not particularly well-shielded from drivetrain heat. But if you flick on the A/C, it blows icy cold. The heater, as one might suspect based on my earlier comment, works brilliantly. I haven’t had an opportunity to test the defrosters.

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The Sport and Club feature standard manual HVAC controls, pictured.

The top is absolutely no cause for concern on practicality – it is brilliantly simple. You can literally take it down or put it up with one hand at a traffic light in 4-7 seconds. It requires no strong tugging or pulling, and latches in place with a “hook” along the centerline of the windshield surround, at which point you simply pull a lever down to lock it in place. Taking it down, just pull back on a small switch on the lever, pulling the lever down, and then fold the top back until you hear it “click” into place. That’s it. Mazda hit it out of the park on this top design, it’s just so easy. This is infinitely better than a power top – there are far fewer things to fail, and it is much quicker. The windows automatically roll down halfway when lowering the top or putting it up, as well.

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The single primary latching point for the top makes for easy top up/down action.

Ingress and egress is, well, what you’d expect: it’s a low, small car that has a low seating position. I’ve found that using the steering wheel for leverage makes getting out at least not totally graceless, while getting in requires a bit of patience for someone who is 6’1”. I begin with my right leg, which I then slide under the wheel, and use my right foot as leverage against the back of the pedal box to lift my left leg into the car. At that point, I’m in. Like I said, it does take patience, and your mileage may vary on this technique. Clicking in the seatbelt is pretty easy once you get the hang of where the latch typically sits. As far as headroom, I have the seat fully reclined and fully slid back, and I have plenty of noggin space. This car is really not unusually vertically restrictive.

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Mazda’s LED headlights are both good-looking and quite effective.

Road noise isn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be. With the top up at 75MPH, it’s really hard to tell you’re in a ragtop at all. It just sounds like a typical lightweight sports car: a bit boomy for lack of sound deadening, but not really any worse than that. Rattles and squeaks are another story. I’ve only had one squeak thus far – the driver’s headrest was rubbing against the roll hoop and would squeak loudly around corners, I fixed it by moving the recline forward just a smidge. Rattles and buzzing, though, are present. The top rattles when it’s down. The wind deflector rattles when the top is up, especially with the stereo on. The top also emits some vibrational buzzing when the stereo is on at times – the stereo really does cause quite a lot of secondary noise. It’s odd, but from everything I’ve heard, absolutely typical of every previous-gen car. Shut the doors with the windows down, and you’re definitely going to get, you guessed it: rattles. The seat belt guides rattle, for god’s sake. But this is what you’re buying, and this is how Mazda has managed to get the weight of the car down so dramatically from the previous generation.

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Sound deadening and extra rubber trim and gasketing adds weight, so out it went. Metal is heavy: plastic is not. Out with metal, in with plastic. Light plastics. Which rattle. None of the rattling is so bad as to be truly annoying (yet…), but if you were hoping Mazda had brought the MX-5 to the level of the 6 or 3 in terms of interior quiet, you are going to be disappointed. The only big road noise you will get, by the way, is from the wheel wells: they are not insulated more than is strictly necessary. Every piece of gravel you kick up will let its existence be known to your ears.

FUEL ECONOMY

It’s good. No, really. Miatas have long been notorious for their poor gas mileage, which stemmed from two issues. First, short gearing. Second, low power and – more importantly – a narrow band in which it sat meant wringing out the engine a lot more often for passes and freeway onramps or even city driving.

The new MX-5’s 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine has much more usable torque low down in the rev range and a wider power band overall, and as such downshifting rarely feels necessary for passing unless it’s on a steep incline. The car can easily cruise in sixth gear at 40MPH, and get from there up to 65 without feeling utterly gutless.

Add in the weight reductions of this new generation and MX-5 gas mileage is no longer a dirty little secret of the world’s favorite little roadster. At 70-75MPH on the freeway with the A/C off and top up, 34-36MPG is easily achievable with just a bit of diligence. I’d say 37-38MPG at 70 is not unreasonable to expect if you’re actively managing your throttle inputs. My combined mileage has consistently sat around 31MPG without even trying to conserve fuel after 900 miles. The automatic MX-5 has longer gearing, so I would suspect cracking 40MPG highway would not be out of the realm of possibility. It’s not great considering the Miata’s weight and power output, but compared to Miatas of yore (the NC got a pitiful 28MPG highway), this is a massive improvement. This is especially good news when you consider the tiny 11.9 gallon gas tank on the ND, down 0.8 gallons from the NC. At 30 MPG, that’s around 360 miles per tank – not bad at all. On an all-highway run, 350-plus miles shouldn’t be too hard to get with the top up at reasonable speeds. On a recent trip from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, I averaged 37.5MPG, at speeds generally between 70 and 75MPH the whole way and the top up.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

I was rather prepared for an unrefined bump-fest when I ordered my MX-5 in the Club trim (which adds Bilstein dampers and a front shock tower brace), but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how compliant the car is in everyday driving. This almost certainly has to do with the near-comical level of suspension travel for a sports car, but living in Los Angeles, I’m grateful for the forgiving nature of the ND’s bouncy bits.

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While you can tell the Bilstein struts and shocks are relatively firmly damped, the long travel of the springs means you won’t find yourself bottoming out or jolted when confronted with simple road surface changes. This makes the MX-5 very city-driveable, at least in my opinion. You also get very solid ground clearance for a car of this class, meaning driveways and parking lots aren’t a terror-filled experience. Granted, I don’t have the aero kit from the BBS/Brembo package, so I’m not sure how much easier it is to scrape with those extra trim pieces. Body roll in corners isn’t terribly apparent as the driver, though as videos have made clear, the ND does roll quite a bit under intense cornering conditions, ostensibly to let novice drivers know the car is approaching its limits.

I don’t mind the roll – I think it gives the car a more playful, reactive feel – it exaggerates the experience so that you feel like you’re going faster than you are, which is to say, it’s fun. It’s not ideal for tracking and autocross, I guess, but for the road I definitely don’t see it as a problem. Oh, and of course: it is stupid fun on a tight road. Like, how “did I ever live without this?” fun. You will smile when you whip the MX-5 around a tight hairpin, and very whippable it is.

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The steering inputs are light, as many reviewers have said, but it makes the new car so easy to throw around corners with gentle, precise inputs – you don’t have to man-handle it. The level of feedback that makes it to the wheel isn’t as much as what you’d get on a hydraulically-assisted rack, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel unusually numb or anything. It’s different, certainly, but I’ve quickly grown to like how easy it makes the MX-5 to drive under ordinary conditions. It also isolates you from unpleasant vibrations on rough roads a bit better, I would assume.

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The brakes are very responsive and stopping power builds very predictably as you get on the pedal. I love the brakes on this car – it’s very easy to feel out when you’re approaching the limits of the tires in terms of braking force, as wheel slip/skid comes through in the chassis crystal clear. This lets you learn what’s going to get you in trouble, and it’s far from having to stand on the pedal to get there – the MX-5’s pedal is progressive, but it doesn’t get wimpy as you get closer to the floor. It is dead-to-rights linear. You can get the ABS to kick in on this car without trying hard, I’ll say that much.

ENGINE

The engine is… there. This is the most potent MX-5 powerplant yet (aside from the very limited-run Mazdaspeed MX-5), though it never feels very aggressive in terms of power delivery or overall character. The engine is a means to an end: it accelerates the car when necessary so that you may propel yourself into the next corner, which is where the real fun happens. It’s generally linear, it does move the car along pretty quickly when you really let it get on its tippy-toes at the top of the rev range, and it doesn’t feel or sound unhappy being worked hard. 0-60 tests have the 2016 MX-5 coming in under 6 seconds, which is quick, but anyone doing launches in an MX-5 is completely missing the point. In addition, don’t let the drop in horsepower from the NC fool you, the ND has a wider power band overall that makes power more accessible and usable than the previous cars, and still shaves several tenths of a second off the outgoing NC’s 0-60 and ¼ mile times. The ND even easily beats the old turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata on these metrics (as did the NC), for what it’s worth.

This means you can actually cruise in the ND MX-5 in sixth gear at 40MPH without having your hand on the shifter at all times should you need, say, an extra 5MPH. You won’t be getting up to 60 especially quickly in sixth from 40, but it doesn’t feel wrong to do it. From what I’ve heard, downshifting was generally just a part of life in a Miata until now. The ND definitely will work your clutch foot a bit less if you found that to be the case in previous generation. It also means less cabin noise when the top is up, since you can probably hold a higher gear around town than in the previous cars.

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The exhaust note is definitely more interesting than any older Miata’s that I’ve heard, but it’s not going to wow you if you’re looking for something with “performance” vocals. It has a nice little growl on startup, but the idle is very quiet. Frankly, it’s all but anonymous at anything below 5000RPM or so. Once you really get it up near redline, it does have some soulful sounds to give (even if they aren’t particularly loud). It’s playful and sporty, and I’d personally like a bit of that in the midrange, too. If I decide to keep this car after the lease is up, an aftermarket exhaust system is something I might seriously consider, though I wouldn’t want anything loud or rumbly – 155 horsepower should not sound like 300.

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As for the transmission: the shifter is amazing. Just perfect. First gear can be a bit notchy when the car is cold, but how often are you shifting into first? Either way, every other gear is absolutely amazing and I haven’t missed a single shift in this car since I took possession of it. It is a gleefully great experience rowing through the gears, and there is an absolute minimum of effort required. The linkage feels like it glides into gear. The clutch is light and very easy (good for traffic!) and the engagement point is just above the middle of the pedal travel. That said, the lighter flywheel does mean that uber-smooth shifts take a bit of practice, and you have to develop your timing and footwork to get 1-2 and 2-3 just right. I still don’t have it exactly, but I haven’t regularly driven a stick in over 5 years. Downshifting is very, very easy in this car, and while I haven’t gotten brave enough to really practice my heel-toeing, off-throttle blip-shifting has been enjoyable and helped me learn how to modulate the throttle when I decide to start using the brake alongside it.

INTERIOR, STEREO/INFOTAINMENT

The good news is that, by my butt’s reckoning, the MX-5’s rubber-band “hammock” seats are extremely comfortable. They’re supportive and not over-bolstered, and I’m really liking them overall. That seems to be the general opinion about them among reviewers, too, though not everyone is in love. The number-one complaint is the lacking lumbar support, which I can understand, though I’ve only found this to be an issue when I position myself in the seat awkwardly. For those with problems, an insert could help, and I believe there are already aftermarket electric inflation bags you can install behind the seat (thanks, Japan).

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The quality of the interior is pretty much on part with what you’d find in an entry-level Mazda 3 or Mazda 6. It’s not outstanding by any means, but it’s good enough. The twist-to-shut HVAC vents feel flimsy and cheap, though, and the sun visors are almost hilariously bargain-bin in quality. A lot of the “cheapness,” though, is likely done in the name of weight-saving. Mazda tried to pull every gram they could out of the MX-5, and when you can replace a thick fabric or plush vinyl sun visor with a simple piece of molded plastic, the trade-off in quality isn’t really a concern. Same likely goes for the vents, the HVAC controls, and pretty much everything else inside the cabin. This isn’t a car that feels like it was built to last 100 years, nor does it pretend to be, and Mazda still does a pretty good job of making a relatively modest interior at least look modern and functional.

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The steering wheel is definitely very nice in terms of size and shape, though the leather doesn’t feel of the best quality, and I’d say the same of the leather shift knob and accompanying boot. It’s better than the leather on my girlfriend’s GT-trim Mazda 3 S, but I still think I’m going to have to keep an eye on it in terms of conditioning.

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The gauge cluster is laudable for its simplicity. The tach is nice and big, and inside the tachometer is a small LCD that shows your current gear and also provides upshift suggestions (i.e., if you’re in fourth doing 40MPH, it will show 4-6, meaning it thinks you should shift to sixth), though oddly not downshift ones. I guess it’s useful enough, that I’d much prefer to repurpose this to a secondary digital speedometer instead. I can generally manage the whole “what gear am I in” thing myself. The speedometer, off to the right of the tach and smaller, has very readable markings and reads easily at pretty much any speed. To the left, you’ve got a small rectangular LCD in a circular housing with your water temp, outside temp, trip computer, and fuel gauge. Annoyingly, the digital fuel gauge has rather poor glanceability – you really need to take a look at it to see where the LCD “needle” is sitting as your eyes aren’t naturally drawn to it by contrast. I’m OK with the idea of a digital fuel gauge, but this implementation seems a bit wanting. It’s a minor gripe.

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Mazda’s infotainment system has a few things going for it. First: it’s not visually overwhelming in the least. Mazda clearly abhors the text-overload that has made many modern vehicle infotainment systems a nightmare to visually parse, but by doing the opposite (relying heavily on iconography and many different panes), this does mean you need to learn where things are. The system will not hold your hand and guide you if you forget where something is, which can occasionally be frustrating as you try to adapt to it. The simple act of tuning the radio to a specific station is probably going to drive some older owners absolutely mad, because it is a multi-step process. Everything happens on the screen – which is only touch-active when you are at a stop or under 5MPH – and the best way to interact with it is by using the command dial behind the shifter. The positioning is definitely awkward and not optimal while actually driving sometimes, but it works.

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The Club model doesn’t have navigation, so I’m not going to remark on that. Bluetooth pairing with phones is as simple as you could hope, and I’ve not had any issues with it yet. Bluetooth audio streaming also works reliably well. The screen itself is bright and visible in pretty much all conditions, and it doesn’t block road visibility at all for me. It does look a bit awkward, but I’m not sure where else you’d put a display like that in a car this small, so the packaging really doesn’t both me. Radio reception has been good when I use it (the aerial, by the way, can be easily unscrewed by hand – so maybe don’t leave it on if you street park), and I haven’t had a chance to use the CD player and doubt I ever will. If you do want to use it, Mazda is going to make you work for it: the CD player sits behind the cupholders between the driver and passenger seats. Yep.

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The Bose audio system (Club and above trims) with built-in headrest speakers (which do work well) is very respectable, though it won’t be getting any praise for Hi-Fi quality. It gets the job done and even produces a respectable amount of bass for a system in a car this size. Keeping things audible even at freeway speeds with the top down isn’t nearly as hard as you’d think, those headrest speakers are ingenious. One thing I don’t like is that the hands-free system routes calls only to the driver headrest speakers, and you really have to crank it to hear the other person at times.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, I’m very much liking my MX-5 so far. I hope to do more posts about it in the coming months as I become more familiar with the car and its various quirks and eccentricities. So far, though, I really think Mazda’s outdone itself with this vehicle, and I am a very satisfied customer.

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