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First Drive: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid And Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV)

Last week at Hyundai headquarters in Fountain Valley, California, I had a chance to be among the first groups of people in America to try out the new 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid. Around 4 hours of driving later, these are my thoughts. I’d like to preface them by saying I am not an automotive journalist by trade – I review gadgets and phones, not cars, so my impressions will probably be less technical, more general. Also, I freely admit my knowledge of cars is limited, so take criticisms with a grain of salt.

Because the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid are so similar in so many ways, I’ll separate out sections for them where it makes sense. Otherwise, if a statement isn’t part of a vehicle-specific section and does not explicitly state which vehicle it’s referring to, assume it applies to both versions of the car.

I tested both vehicles in the Limited trim – the highest level Hyundai will sell. The Hybrid will have three trims (SE, Limited, Limited+Tech), and the PHEV will have two (SE, Limited), having a higher standard level of equipment. Pricing is not yet known, but the Hybrid will go on sale early this summer, while the PHEV is due in the fall.

The PHEV Sonata we tested was also a pre-production vehicle, meaning performance and certain aspects of the vehicle may not be completely representative of the production car.



The hybrid and plug-in both get some special stylistic treatment in the form of enhanced aero on the front and rear fascias, as well as aerodynamic not-BMW-i3 alloy wheels. Hyundai says the changes have lowered the car’s drag coefficient to an industry-leading 0.24, on par only with Tesla’s Model S among currently on-sale hybrids and EVs. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at.


Overall, though, it still looks like the current-generation Sonata – slightly muscular and decidedly chrome-y. I’m not sure if this is really a problem given these are marketed as environmentally-conscious high-tech luxury commuters (and in the hybrid’s case, possibly a fleet car), but I don’t think the looks sell the “green” image too hard. The Sonata still feels somehow… a little stuffy, like it takes itself just ever-so-slightly too seriously.


The good news, though, is that it doesn’t look cheap, not in the least. Unlike the standard Sonata, the hybrid and PHEV will only come in in the SE and Limited trims, with the same rim style (the Limited trim gets bigger 17″ wheels) and exterior trim across all versions of the vehicle. Along with the restyled front and rear bits, the Sonata Hybrid and PHEV look a bit special compared to their standard counterparts, even if the average person probably wouldn’t notice the difference – it still looks like a Sonata. Just a nicely-configured one.


Hybrid: The Hybrid’s drivetrain is easily the more likable of the two vehicles. While it boasts fewer peak horsepower at 195 versus 205 in the PHEV for the net hybrid system (Hyundai has not yet published net system torque), the absence of the PHEV’s larger battery pack (9.9KWh vs. 1.6KWh in the hybrid) means the standard hybrid is substantially lighter. Add in the hybrid-only sport mode to increase the aggressiveness of the 2.0-liter four’s cut-in, heft up the steering feel, and remap the throttle to be more responsive, and the hybrid definitely feels quicker than the PHEV in everyday use. Will driving it sportily annihilate your gas mileage? Kinda, but that’s also sort of a given.


When the electric mode simply can’t give the driver the power they need, the gas engine cuts in pretty effortlessly to push you forward, and in sport mode, it’s almost always on if your foot’s anything more than slightly depressing the accelerator once you’re doing over 40MPH. The standard hybrid, for the weight savings and sport mode alone, is easily the better driver’s car of the two. It’s not exactly sporty or anything, but we’ll explore that more shortly.

I’d also say I prefer this hybrid drivetrain to the 2.4L GDI in the standard Sonata from a performance and driveability standpoint. An NA engine with that kind of power in a car of this weight class just feels a bit anemic. The hybrid setup gives you the torque you need to get the car off the line with some enthusiasm. Granted, I haven’t driven the Sonata Eco, and another journalist at the media drive told me that car’s 1.6L turbocharged engine was much more lively and fun in character than the hybrid, and perhaps even than the 2.0T. I would agree that the hybrid isn’t exactly sporty even in sport mode, but it’s still definitely more fun than the 2.4, and it spanks the 1.6T for city MPG, so take that for what you will.

PHEV: From a usability perspective, it is very possible to comfortably drive the Sonata PHEV in a normal fashion in electric-only mode without the gas engine ever needing to cut in, you just need to keep your foot out of the gas. While the electric engine in the PHEV isn’t particularly powerful, it is substantially more powerful than the regular hybrid’s, and that instant torque gives it solid performance right off the line. After the line, not so much. Acceleration is smooth, certainly, but even hammering on the throttle and pushing it past the kick-down switch and engaging full gas and electric power, the PHEV feels lazy compared to the hybrid. It’s simply not quick – not that such a thing is fatal to its justification, most mid-size PHEVs are… conservatively powered.


The lack of a sport mode also means you can’t encourage the gas engine to cut in earlier, and the throttle response is in a perpetual state of “are you sure?” It’s not as slow to respond as a Prius in Eco mode in my experience, but you’ll know you’re driving something designed to save gas.

Both vehicles are limited to 75MPH in electric-only mode, though I found I could push them to 76-80MPH if I was on a decline without engaging the gas engine.


Both cars share a 6-speed automatic – no CVTs here. Hyundai say they chose a traditional automatic over a CVT because it makes these electric-assisted vehicles drive more like “normal” cars.

For the hybrid, I buy the argument – in manual shift mode while also in sport mode, the hybrid actually feels responsive and much more like a normal gas engined car than when you’ve got it set in Eco with the transmission in auto. Shifting obviously isn’t DCT quick (nor is it especially slow), but I did appreciate the manual shift mode experience in the hybrid when I wanted to have a little fun driving the car. It’s a lot easier to understand how to modulate the throttle and braking if I can control what gear I’m in. And even when it’s in auto, you can still generally feel the shifts, so you’re getting more feedback than you would in a CVT (slightly more useful here since the car lacks a rev counter). And yes, I am sitting here evangelizing an automatic transmission as the driver’s choice, but that’s because the alternative (CVT) would probably be significantly worse.


In the PHEV, the gearbox’s existence essentially never comes to your attention unless you actively choose to throw it into manual mode. There’s no tachometer in either car, to start with (just a “power usage” gauge), and the lazy, eco-friendly throttle and shift points in the PHEV (no sport mode) mean the transmission is almost irrelevant from a driver experience standpoint in that car. You can force it into the fray by placing the car in manual, but I see absolutely no reason to do this as part of regular driving. It would probably just make those MPG-maximizing algorithms in the PHEV less efficient, anyway.

The actual reason Hyundai might have chosen this transmission is that Hyundai doesn’t actually sell any car with a CVT. Developing a hybrid-specific transmission may not have been seen as worthwhile (either on cost or performance) to Hyundai when the auto works well in the standard hybrid and respectably in the PHEV, and I doubt most buyers will care about the transmission to begin with. Shifts were smooth, and while responsiveness depends on which driving mode you’re in, the sport mode with manual shifting in the standard hybrid provided a good overall experience.


Hybrid: The hybrid doesn’t feel ungainly, in fact, it felt quite agile in some situations. But it’s also a not-light mid-size sedan carrying around some extra weight in the form of batteries. Still, even at 3510lbs in Limited trim, the hybrid is 250 pounds lighter than the Limited PHEV, and that’s a big deal, especially when the bulk of those 250 pounds are coming directly out of the trunk.


The hybrid felt extremely composed and smooth on the highway, but also very soft – bumps were eaten up with ease. Hyundai knows its target audience, and these cars are undoubtedly tuned for older folks or buyers looking for a plush ride. Sport mode has no effect on the suspension that I’m aware of, and the Sonata doesn’t exactly scream “sporting heritage” from the rooftops in terms of driving dynamics to start with. But by using stronger steel in the construction of the frame, Hyundai claims to have improved the structural rigidity of the cars considerably (41% versus the old Sonata Hybrid), and I think that came through well on bumps and road elevation changes. The car recomposed itself quickly when dips or bumps were met, and never felt as though it was “bounding” over obstacles. It was planted.

Combine that with exceptional smoothness, and the Sonata Hybrid gives you a luxurious, confident ride at almost any speed – it doesn’t feel sporty, but it’s not meant to, either. As for steering feel, well, I wasn’t blown away, but it wasn’t bad for a mass-market sedan. Like the suspension, the steering felt designed to deliver comfort and confidence – the car responded well to input, but it didn’t give you much in the way of feedback.

PHEV: I’m not sure I can describe perfectly what the difference is with the ride in the PHEV, but one of them seems to be sensation of speed: you feel that you’re going noticeably slower in the PHEV versus the hybrid, and that’s probably something to do with the 250 extra pounds of batteries in the trunk. When I was going 85MPH, it felt more like 70.


At speed, the PHEV felt slightly less composed over bumps and dips in the road, perhaps a result of the substantial extra mass at the rear end. The PHEV gets a slightly fatter sway bar up front, but I have no real knowledge about how the rear is set up compared to the hybrid. It’s far from being a concern, but I did feel the PHEV was the vehicle that required more of my focus to actually drive at higher speeds.

Around town, it was the same as the regular hybrid – composed, soft, and comfortable.


Here’s a disclaimer: I don’t drive a lot of hybrids or EVs. I was told the brakes on these cars were pretty normal for a hybrid. I was also told they’re a major improvement versus Hyundai and Kia’s regenerative braking of just a few years ago – so take that for what you will.

From my point of view, both the cars we tested had a subpar braking experience – compared to a normal car. In both the PHEV and hybrid, there was a learning curve particularly for high-speed braking, the amount of force the driver needs to exert on the pedal, which provides little feedback, is very substantial. Both my co-driver and I had a difficult time getting the rhythm right, forcing us to really get on the brakes at the last minute when approaching stopped traffic or a red light in some situations.


And despite the relatively high input demand, they’re still grabby hybrid brakes: touch the pedal and you’re going to get a minimum amount of brake force applied to start the energy recovery system. Press harder, and for a while, not much seems to happen. Press hard, and you’ll get the car to stop, but the amount of force required was simply too great in my opinion. The cars we tested both had just a hair over a thousand miles on the odometer and exhibited the exact same braking behavior.

Eventually, I am sure drivers will adapt to how these brakes behave – they’re still totally functional, of course. I just hope Hyundai tweaks them to provide a little more progressive pedal feel, if they can.


Hybrid: This is no Prius in terms of size and gas engine displacement. The Sonata Hybrid competes with the similarly mid-size Accord and Camry hybrids, but doesn’t attempt to unseat them via MPG alone. It has class-leading cargo and interior volume, and is easily the widest car in the mid-size hybrid class. If you’ve driven a new Sonata, you’re aware of this: it’s a wide car. It is wider than a 2001 BMW 7-series. This is how far we’ve come.


The 2016 Sonata Hybrid in Limited trim manages to just best the Camry Hybrid XLE on the combined cycle (41MPG vs 40MPG, respectively) and comes slightly short of the Fusion Hybrid’s 42MPG, but is easily beaten by the Accord Hybrid’s 47. On the city driving figure (39MPG), the Sonata’s less powerful electric motor (the gas engine is the bulk of the available power) is immediately apparent – its competitors have a clear edge around town, because the gas engine is cutting in more often on the Sonata under more aggressive acceleration.

My observed mileage during the whole leg of our 80-mile or so trip in the hybrid was around 36-37MPG, but that actually seems pretty good – that was a combination of a small amount of aggressive city driving in sport mode and occasional manual shifting, a large amount of careful but still quick freeway driving (I wasn’t hypermiling it, that’s for sure), and some highway-speed (40-50MPH) driving with light traffic. If I had really tried, I think 40MPG would have been easily achievable. On the highway, 41MPG or more was pretty easy to get as long as you weren’t doing much stop and go.

PHEV: This, of course, is the big one. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t paying super close attention to the PHEV’s range when it was going electric-only. Hyundai says you can get 24 miles on electric-only, I’m inclined to believe them that it’s somewhere in that ballpark. That puts the Sonata PHEV a step above the Accord and Fusion Energi if your priority is electric range.

After draining most of the battery on the first leg of our journey, I placed the car in “battery regenerating” mode for the freeway, where the gas engine is charging the battery by running constantly, to charge it up a bit for the next pair of journalists driving it.


This regeneration mode, by the way, is something the driver can “force” on to charge the battery, but the implication I got here is that it’s basically just there to make certain buyers feel better. When not in this mode, the car’s algorithms will decide when to use the gas engine to charge the battery on their own, and they’ll be a lot smarter about it than you in terms of maximizing efficiency. The generator mode is mostly there so you can have a full battery when you get off the highway and into town, versus a half-full one in the standard “sustain charge” mode. Why? That’s a question I’m still not sure I can answer.

With my limited experience driving PHEVs, I just don’t know how to judge PHEV gas mileage – most of the savings come from charging it in your garage overnight instead of filling the tank, so long-distance mileage is a whole other ball game for this car. A short test just isn’t going to give you the data points you need. Our 80-mile haul wasn’t enough time to get a feel for how the car’s computer management of the battery and gas engine regeneration on long stretches will maximize that precious dino-juice.

Hyundai’s estimate is, when the battery is in “sustain” mode (vs EV only mode) and starts to occasionally recharge the battery with the gas engine, you’ll get 40MPG combined. So, if you’re looking for a PHEV that prioritizes overall efficiency over electric-only range, this may not be car for you. If you’re looking for a vehicle that can basically be an electric-only commuter for sub-25 mile round trips (or sub-50 if your have access to charging at work), this is obviously a better choice than the Fusion or Accord plug-ins, and even gets better combined mileage than the Ford.

Both cars absolutely demolish the base 2.4-liter Sonata for mileage, of course, though in my experience that’s a very low bar to meet.


Both cars we drove were Limited models, meaning leather seats and the full-size Hyundai infotainment/navigation system. Both also had lots of fancy driver assists – blind spot detection, collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beams are available.


The regular hybrid won’t get the jumbo navigation system unless you go for the full Limited with Ultimate Tech upgrade, which will of course come at a cost. Hyundai’s tech packages are generally pretty large, though this one seems a little more conservative on big-ticket items, so perhaps it will be less expensive than usual. Regardless, it will almost definitely be worth it just for CarPlay and Android Auto once they’re available.

The PHEV, in contrast, gets the full navigation system as standard on the base car. The Limited upgrade really just gets you the driver assists mentioned above, leather, Xenon headlights, and a better sound system.

The quality of interior on both cars is identical, and is like any Sonata Limited you could go try out at a dealer today. The seats are very nice and very comfortable – in my opinion, as a big guy – and while some interior pieces aren’t always of an outstanding quality, the inside does look very modern and generally seems well put together. You will notice some wrinkles in the premium experience, but they’re the same as any Sonata at this trim level. Occasionally, less than great plastic does show up, and a few buttons do feel like they were pulled out of the bargain bin. But given what these cars will probably sell for, and the quality and amenities of interiors from the competition, I doubt Hyundai is remotely concerned about how the Sonata’s interior will compare n terms of fit, finish, and features. This car is very well-equipped for any mid-sized sedan, not just a hybrid.

Overall, Hyundai is doing a great job creating a luxurious, spacious, and tech-savvy interior without resorting to too many gimmicks or corner-cuts. The Sonata Hybrid and PHEV are very nice places to sit with tons of great features.


Interior technology

Android Auto wasn’t installed on the cars we drove, so I can’t really speak to it. Hyundai’s typical high-end nav system was present, and I still find it kind of a chore to navigate, even if it does seem very stable and reliable. If you own one of these cars, you’ll no doubt become accustomed to it – I just didn’t have enough time during our drive to get super familiar with the system.

Blind spot monitoring works, but in my opinion was too aggressive in detection. Same with collision warning – I had it go off three times on the drive, and it was always felt premature. Adaptive cruise control I didn’t have a chance to try out, and lane departure I only used briefly, because I personally find it kind of annoying. (But it did work.)


Hyundai hasn’t said if the Hybrid and PHEV will ship with Android Auto enabled, if an upgrade will be needed, or if they’ll have CarPlay any time soon, either.

I will say I find Hyundai’s approach to the infotainment UI to be a bit… weird in terms of navigation and layout. A simplified, cleaner home interface with an app-centric design would be much more intuitive to owners who already have a smartphone or tablet. As is, it’s a bit wonky to get around things, but everything did work as you’d expect once you located it.

The PHEV has some interesting stuff going on here that the hybrid doesn’t, too. You can check out dedicated readouts for efficiency information, ranging from eMPG/MPG to electric vs. gas engine usage, real-time drivetrain power distribution information (that one is actually on the hybrid, too), and more. I’m unsure if this information is being backed up in the cloud anywhere for access via BlueLink or another Hyundai online service, but I’d hope so. If you can’t take the data out of the car, the data loses a lot of its value.


Not knowing what either car will cost, it’s obviously hard to come to a conclusion on them yet. I haven’t driven any of the cars’ competitors, either – Fusion, Accord, or Camry, so I can’t prove any real-world comparative info.

But if you like the current Sonata, and just want that package with a more efficient powerplant (especially around town, where the 1.6T Eco just can’t compete), the hybrid and PHEV both bring that same level of quality and technology to the table, and get their own “look,” so you can know you’re driving a slightly special Sonata.

The PHEV wouldn’t be my pick, frankly – it’s slow, and even with the overnight charging to keep your gas costs down, I kind of doubt it’d be worth it economically for me personally. The hybrid feels like the better bet to me, offering a more engaging driving experience (if you choose) and slightly better efficiency when not in electric-only mode. It’ll be cheaper, too, of course, and I think Hyundai won’t have a problem moving quite a few of them.

That we have sedans of this size getting around 40MPG on the combined cycle is extremely impressive in any case. 15 years ago, that would have sounded totally ridiculous, especially on something as loaded as one of these vehicles – you’re getting so much cool technology, and you’re also getting a big sedan with combined mileage that’s on par with older 4-cylinder gasoline sub-compacts.

I will not be surprised if the Sonata Hybrid sells well, it’s a compelling total package. As to the PHEV, it will likely be attractive to existing Sonata loyalists with short commutes – there’s no denying the plug-in can be a huge cost-saver for the right person. Both cars are immediately going to be very competitive in their respective segments, too, so let’s not overlook that – Hyundai obviously knew what the competition was and built a car that their competitors will have a tough time talking down.



Review: Air France Premium Economy on A380, 772 (777-200), and domestic – seat, service, and food

Recently (Feb/Mar 2015), I had the opportunity to fly Air France round trip to Barcelona, and I booked the entire fare as W class – Air France’s premium economy. The fare was surprisingly low for the season and the seat, as I typically would expect to pay 50%+ over standard economy for a W fare seat, but in this case the price was almost of negligible difference, so I took a chance and booked.

Quick overview (intercontinental / long haul – A380 and 772 (777-200))
  • The seat: The intercontinental/long-haul seat for AF’s premium economy is a fixed shell that is completely different and bespoke to the class, and it can’t intrude on other passengers since it’s fixed in place. Recline is liberal for economy, but still limited. Width is great, as is legroom. Some may find the seat hard, I personally thought it was pretty OK. One universal wall outlet (if you need more, buy one of these Monster Outlets To Go – they’re universal voltage friendly, too) and 1 USB port is included per seat. There is a footrest, but you’ll have to be short to want to use it. There is more than enough room for a standard laptop on the seat tray.
  • The service: No doubt – premium economy gets much faster meal service than standard economy, as well as a premium economy-only drink and snack bar (very handy).
  • The perks: PE had an exclusive bathroom on my 772 (777-200) flight from CDG->LAX, but on the A380, the bathroom was shared with standard economy. The free comfort package (earplugs, face mask, toothbrush, etc.) was a nice bonus, and the main meal was served with an extra appetizer. You also get an apertif of champagne before dinner. You get a second checked bag free of charge.
  • The entertainment: AF’s infotainment screens in PE are pretty well sized, but the system is old and the resolution abysmal. Bring an iPad and some headphones (for flying, I really like Samsung’s noise-cancelling, wireless Level Overs). There is no Wi-Fi on any long-haul Air France flight.

I flew on an Air France A380 (the double-decker) from Los Angeles to Paris (LAX->CDG) for the first leg. Boarding was pretty well-managed by intercontinental standards, with the clerks at the gate calling up first, business, premium economy, and SkyPriority (plus other member levels) to board first. Air France seems unique here, in that there are only two boarding calls – first tier customers, and then… everyone else. Given the science suggests mass-boarding is the best technique for boarding quickly, this is pretty close to optimal. I found this system used on all legs of my journey, at 3 different airports.

Upon reaching my row on the upper deck, I tossed my bag in the spacious overhead and got into my seat. There, I found a blanket, a larger and cushier pillow than standard economy, and a bottle of Evian in the area between the infotainment screens. Everything still seemed pretty fresh, and even the complimentary noise-cancelling headphones looked quite new (not so on my 772 flight back).

Carry-on bag recommendation: I fly with a 25″ Filson Medium Duffle Bag – it’s basically indestructible and it looks fantastic. It has a lifetime warranty, too.

I sat and immediately found lumbar support in the seat lacking, but stuffing the pillow behind me quickly resolved that. The seat itself had truly ample legroom, and the width is more than enough for someone as large as myself (very large – 6’1 and quite… fat). I buckled up and we taxied off.

After hitting altitude, about 30 minutes after our late afternoon departure, the crew distributed everyone in the premium economy cabin a bag of accessories (quite a stylish little bag, too), including a face mask, large foam ear plugs, booties for the headphones (because ear germs), a toothbrush, and a couple other small items. At the same time, we were provided our menus for dinner (you can only select a main, which appear to be the same mains as standard economy), and shortly after that, offered an apertif glass (cup) of champagne or any other beverage we desired, along with some pretzels.

Around 30 minutes later, dinner was served. I had a shepherd’s pie (the other option being red sauce pasta with veggies), but an appetizer exclusive to premium economy of smoked salmon and green salad was also served, along with the typical accouterments – butter, bread (rolls were generously distributed), cheese, fruit, a bottle of water, and a brownie. The main was quite typical but certainly not bad, and the smoked salmon salad was actually quite tasty – a pleasant surprise, to be sure. You also got first dibs – it was unlike the meal service would out of either main course, since they had yet to serve standard economy.

The extra large tray in premium economy seats, which folds down twice, allowed me to eat my meal without arching my head into the seat in front of me, and then comfortably fold half the tray back up after I had finished, so it wasn’t an intrusion on my ability to recline. Reclining was the first thing I did after that meal, by the way – the amount of food served was more than adequate, and I was stuffed.

As I started to settle into the seat, I played with the various recline options and the built-in metal footrest. The seat on Air France’s A380 reclines a good amount, but business class passengers won’t be impressed, as it’s nowhere near lie-flat. There is a recliner-style legrest you can prop up, but it’s basically useless unless you’re very short, as is the metal footrest (I put it down once and promptly put it back up). After selecting a movie, I grabbed my free bottle of water (really, this is a nice thing to have!), took a gulp, and watched Guardians of the Galaxy in potato resolution.

The included noise-cancelling headphones were quite good at the noise cancelling part, though I found the quality of audio middling at best. Worry not, though, audio-lovers, as there is a standard 3.5mm (yes, really, no attenuator or multi-plug required) jack right above the storage area for the included cans, so you can plug in your headphones of choice. The touchscreen was typical crappy resistive fare, and the remote control felt like something from 2002. But, everything worked, and I was content enough at that.

Noise-cancelling headphone recommendation: I really like Samsung’s Level Overs for long flights. They’re crazy comfortable, wireless, and the noise-cancellation works shockingly well.

I charged my iPad and phone through my travel power strip attached to the seat’s AC adapter (very easy to find unlike many airlines – between the seats, facing the seats in front of you) and stretched out the recline like no one was watching. I was actually pretty comfortable, for a plane. After-dinner coffee was served (or drinks, whatever you wanted), the lights were lowered, and I began to wonder just what I’d do for the next 9-plus hours with my extra wide arm rest, since fighting over it wasn’t actually going to be necessary, and the fixed shell seat in front of me could not angle my infotainment screen into invisibility.

As we neared Paris, breakfast was served. A small omelette which was quite delicious along with some bread, cheese (of course!), fruit, and yogurt were provided. Nothing extraordinary, but service was again quick and efficient. We landed, and after an agonizing 40 minutes of taxi / gate assignment, we deplaned alongside business class ahead of the pack.


I flew two domestic short-hauls to and from Barcelona on Air France. Premium Economy did have significant perks: Air France serves all its business and premium economy passengers a full meal for flights >1 hour in duration, including beer, wine, and champagne. Standard economy gets only snack service. The seat gets more legroom, but otherwise, it’s economy with food and early boarding (nothing to scoff at, though). The food was quite good for the most part, and again, Air France rigorously enforced the 2-stage boarding procedure to ensure business and priority flyers were on the plane first.

772 (Boeing 777-200)

For my flight from CDG->LAX, I had originally booked an earlier seat on an A380, but I missed the plane. I was rebooked to an older 777-200 (AF calls them a 772), and I feared the worst. My fears were, largely, unfounded.

Boarding was a bit of nightmare – the plane had an unexpected security screening, and a gaggle of grandmas in wheelchairs took about 30 minutes to be carted onto the 777 ahead of all the other passengers (entirely fair, but it took entirely too long), and it was obvious no one was looking forward to this nearly 7000-mile red-eye, with many passengers visibly agitated at the delay (bad vibes = bad plane ride).

We got on, and while the PE section was much smaller on the 777 than the A380 – a mere 32 seats by my count – it looked basically identical. Overhead storage was configured differently, but there was still ample space, and all the same amenities provided. Free bottle of water, nice pillow, blanket, pre-dinner snack (this time some delicious butter crackers), bag of stuff, champagne, dinner menu. I noticed one of the restrooms ahead of us was out of service, but after takeoff, the steward curtained off premium economy from both business and standard economy, so a scant 32 people had an exclusive bathroom. Very nice – on the A380, we were required to share with standard economy, though there were only a small number of economy passengers on the upper deck (maybe 60).

The seats were older, for sure – my neighbor’s only reclined after vigorous encouragement, and the footrests were substantially narrower than those on the A380. The seat had the same width and pitch, though, so it basically felt the same to me, down to the extra-wide armrests. We got our snacks and champagne and hunkered down.

Dinner was actually surprisingly good – PE’s exclusive appetizer was 3 cold shrimp on a bed of mint and parsley tabbouleh, and while the shrimp were a bit tough, they tasted refreshingly real to me. The main course was chicken in a brown sauce with couscous, and I found the quality substantially better than the American-sourced fare we received on the flight from LAX. Bread, cheese, fruit, and a mini lemon meringue pie were provided, though we did not get our after-dinner sweets on this plane (I’m guessing they couldn’t source any).

The lights went down, and I played with the infotainment system. This unit was even worse than the on the A380 (again, no Wi-Fi on Air France long haul, either, and probably not till 2016-2017+), and had huge banding issues. I watched Interstellar in the most forgiving sense of the word (I heard it and saw some images, occasionally, I think). The Air France headphones on this 777 were battered and bruised, clearly in need of replacement, so I used my own set instead. After the film, I went over to the private premium economy snack area and refilled my now-empty bottle of Evian with a larger one.

The seat, I thought, was just as comfortable as the A380 I took from LAX, and seemed basically identical in every functional sense of the word. Outlets, USB port, headphones, etc. The remote control was older, though, and placed at thigh-level instead of vertically nearer the front of the seat divide, meaning I would accidentally activate it relatively often when shifting in my seat.

Our special little bathroom had a couple of perks, too – there was face wash and hand lotion, with small cotton pads to scrub your face. It was a refreshing apricot-scented wash that didn’t need to be rinsed, and after getting a bit greasy sitting on the plane 5 hours and, before that, 7 hours at the airport, I relished in the clean and refreshed feeling my face got after a quick scrub.

Later, breakfast was served (my jetlagged stomach politely declined). About an hour after that, we landed and gated quickly at LAX (way ahead of schedule considering we departed 40 minutes late).

Air France Premium Economy: Overall value assessment

Air France premium economy is, at 15-25% above standard economy fare, an excellent deal all things considered. I’ve read whining and moaning about the seats and the service, but honestly, it’s so much better than standard economy on a large long-haul flight that I’m not sure how those people justify their complaints. It’s better in almost every way, and worse in basically none. The extra checked bag alone almost pays for itself! Now, if we’re talking in-demand season, I believe Air France charges quite a lot more for these seats, something like 40-70% over standard economy. At such a premium, there is no way these seats are truly worth the money, but if you have miles or a credit card with good rewards, the spend could be entirely worth it to avoid suffering with the rest of the herd for 10-plus hours. Additionally, if you simply have the disposable income but don’t want to splurge on Air France’s largely unremarkable long-haul business class, premium economy is much better value for money.

The lack of Wi-Fi is definitely a major drawback (Air France knows it, and they’re pricing competitively), and the infotainment system is in dire need of updating, though it’s functional. Food and drink extras are modest, but what is provided over standard economy is certainly appreciated (who doesn’t want to be greeted with champagne?).

I think the PE experience across all of Air France’s long-haul fleet is basically comparable, too, something that isn’t always true of this fare class on other airlines. The problem is that not every Air France plane has it – 747s are still business and economy only, though the A330s, 777s, and A380s do all appear to have at least one supported configuration.

No, Vinyl Does Not Sound Better Than MP3 – Making The Case For Digital Audio

The resurgence of vinyl as a “high-fidelity” music playback medium is becoming more and more recognized in popular culture. “Hipsters” and true audiophiles alike are quickly starting a new-age vinylphile scene, largely because of a small but noisy backlash against digitally distributed music.

First things first: this phenomenon isn’t new – the anti-digital audio movement was alive and well in the early days of compact discs and digital mastering, two technologies that took off roughly contemporaneously in the 1980’s. By the 90’s, both had improved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality and consistency, though numerous music artists like Neil Young decried the rise of digital production and the “ones and zeroes” of compact discs, compared to the warmth, character, and high fidelity of analog vinyl records at the time. But the Walkman and in-car CD players made the compact disc a consumer smash-hit, and cassettes quickly fell by the wayside as the better-sounding and more reliable CD took over the marketplace.

With the rise of the iPod, things changed again: MP3 and other digital audio formats rapidly eclipsed compact discs in terms of total distribution (even if much of that distribution was illegal), and personal audio entered a new age.

In the early aughts (00’s), the quality of digitally distributed audio wasn’t exactly stellar, but nor was the playback equipment. Laptops and desktop computers had middling audio reproduction to start with, but this was something of a blessing in disguise: low expectations set by computers and laptops (and those old iPod earbuds, yuck) meant that digitally distributed music could be encoded at low bitrates without having an extreme impact on the perceptible quality of the audio. A 64 or 48Kbps MP3 was not uncommon to see in these early days, perhaps ripped from a scratched CD using a sketchy drive, and encoding tools were not nearly as standardized or effective at compression. This is where ire toward digital really started, even if those problems are basically nonexistent today.

But with huge amounts of digital distribution happening extralegally during this time, there was no real concern for preserving quality or the effects of burning/re-ripping/re-encoding on lossy audio formats – people simply didn’t care. While Apple was distributing comparatively very high-quality 128Kbps AAC files by 2003 on iTunes, that still comprised just a tiny amount of the music being distributed around the internet. Who wasn’t illegally downloading music in the mid to late 2000s?

Today, things are rather different. Even the lowest of the low streaming services generally stream at 128Kbps MP3 over Wi-Fi (though they do go down to 96 or even 64/48Kbps over mobile – see: Pandora), and if you’re actually buying digital music, it’s all but guaranteed to be at 192-256Kbps MP3 or higher. I have still yet to see real evidence that even 192Kbps MP3 sounds better than 128Kbps MP3, by the way – which should tell you something about all the FLAC and lossless weirdos out there.

In this context, listening to music on vinyl makes little sense. Vinyl is, by its nature, an imperfect medium – all the “warmth” and “character” vinyl lovers describe of their records is generally attributable to the natural sonic qualities of vinyl playback, qualities that will come through on a $100 Pyle turntable pretty similar to a $1500 Marantz. Yes, a nicer turntable / stylus will produce much nicer audio than a much cheaper one, but that’s not really the point here: the point is that the “vinyl effect” is basically psychological – these people have come to associate “quality” with the inherent characteristics of vinyl playback, and that’s an entirely inappropriate conflation.

Vinyl is a carburetor in a fuel-injected world. Yes, a properly tuned, calibrated, and expensive vinyl setup can sound and perform much better than many digital setups, but that’s missing the point: most vinyl playback today happens on cheap turntables with cheap or old records and cheap or old needles and goes through cheap or old speakers. It is far easier and cheaper to make a digital setup that sounds as good or better than a very carefully tuned and much, much pricier vinyl setup. Vinyl love is nostalgia, plain and simple.

Much as the man driving a ’69 Mustang Boss 302 may proclaim that his underrated V8 puts out 350-plus horsepower and was one of the most potent vehicles of its day, that doesn’t mean a $21,000 2014 Ford Fiesta ST with a scant 197HP won’t spank it in essentially every measurable performance metric while being more reliable and far less expensive. Could you make the Boss faster than the Fiesta by throwing huge sums of money at it? Sure. But claiming that the Boss is the better car because you can make it better is an obvious fallacy. This is the argument vinyl-heads will have over and over with nonbelievers – vinyl can sound better than MP3, you just have to know what to buy and be willing to spend. And clean your records. And your needle. And set your tracking force. And your pitch. And balance the turntable.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s look at the records themselves. Let’s say you have a mint condition, unopened copy of CSNY’s Deja Vu on vinyl, original pressing. And then let’s say you have the remaster from 2006 in 192Kbps MP3. The vinyl already has a disadvantage: the MP3 has been mastered for digital to remove analog hum, hiss, and other artifacts of the production process that weren’t possible in 1969. Some remasters do end up ruining records, but most are careful exercises in restoration and utilize new technology to more effectively present the music as the artist originally intended while eliminating problems in the original mastering. Right out of the gate, the MP3 is almost certain to sound superior – while the vinyl has the appeal of “originality,” this advantage is rooted – like almost all vinyl arguments – in nostalgia. Original does not sound objectively better, no matter what vinylphiles will try to tell you. Then let’s look at money: how much would such a record cost? Well, for a truly original copy, you’d be looking at $100+ for an unopened record. A later high-grade reissue in excellent condition would run you more like $15-35+, so let’s say you use that. How much does the 2006 remastered MP3 cost? About $10. Or it’s included as part of a music subscription service and costs you nothing but your monthly fee.

So, which is going to sound better? That, of course, is almost entirely contingent on the setup. With the digital file, $330 will buy you a great DAC, headphone amplifier, and very good set of Grado headphones quite easily. At that point, you’ll probably have 95% of the perceptible audio quality money can buy in the realm of digital audio.

The record? Well, let’s start with turntables. If you go cheap, a fully-manual Pyle that’s serviceable but not great will set you back $70. A good but cheap AudioTechnica needle, maybe another $30. You’ll also need a phono preamp, say $25 for that. Then you have the same cost for the headphone amp and headphones. A grand total of, we’ll say, about $325.

Which sounds better? I would know, because I have this exact setup, and it’s the digital audio every single time, without a shadow of a doubt. No vinyl hiss, cracks, pops, or hum. No dust to contend with. No adjusting tracking force. The digital sounds fuller, with superior bass, channel separation, and fidelity. Maybe if I had a $300 turntable, $200 needle, and a $300 small tube amp with some open-back Sennheisers, I could get the full vinyl experience. Oh, and pay the insane cost of getting all the music I want on vinyl. And to do it right, that means chasing down audiophile high-weight reissues, which run anywhere from $30-100+. Why would I do this? I don’t know, because there is no truly justifiable reason for it from the perspective of sonic quality. It makes no sense.

Now, it’s easy to say “that’s not a fair comparison – the digital reissue is a new master, of course it sounds better” because this allows vinyl-heads to postulate that if the digital version was the exact same master as the vinyl, the vinyl would be superior because the digital is lossy. Except this is a moot point: half of the advantage of digital is in having the newest, cleanest master of the song. Now, sometimes true originals are interesting to hear, but no one is listening to them for fidelity! There’s historical value, there’s nostalgic value, and that’s really it – for sheer listening pleasure, I will take the digital remaster of nearly any album any day of the week over the analog original. They sound better.

Anyway, the real point here is that in almost no real-world setting will vinyl sound better than a legitimate MP3 of the same song or album when played through the same equipment (aside from the record player, obviously). It’s an absurd thing to argue. If you throw the same money at a DAC as you would at a high-end turntable, stylus, and preamp, you’d struggle to even find a place to spend all that cash. Like a lot of the high-end audiophile market, though, it’s very easy to find a company that’s happy to convince you of whatever it is you want to believe about how to get the “best” sound, and the sudden demand for vinyl has made a $1500 turntable a viable business model again. Make no mistake: this phenomena is cultural, not technical, in nature. Audiophiles with deep pockets love to be told that what they like is what is also objectively better: modern, high-end vinyl gear merely caters to a demand of the market, not some rediscovery of vinyl’s obvious superiority. Vinyl is cool again, and so people, even audiophiles (unsurprisingly), want to be in with what’s cool. That’s all this is really about, at the end of the day.

If you’re really serious about sound, you should also be serious about getting value for your money, and high-end vinyl is the antithesis of value. Vinly is fashion – it is tasteful, classic, and calls back to a time when we consumed music differently. That doesn’t make it better. If anything, it serves to discredit it.

Taking FLAC: Pono reviews generally confirm FLAC purists are full of it, and so is Pono

So, it turns out I was wrong about Pono: the difference is not easy to hear. In fact, according to pretty much every review of the device, Pono provides no credible evidence of audible improvement over a smartphone when playing the same file, or even that Pono sounds appreciably better playing back FLAC versus a smartphone using high-bitrate (256Kbps) AAC. David Pogue even went so far as to conduct a blind test with well over a dozen people.

Make no mistake: Pono was developed by some very respected names in the audio industry, sporting components similar to those found in good portable headphone DAC/amplifier units. But instead of showing that a “proper” DAC/amp can noticeably improve the listening experience over an iPhone, Pogue’s test found that ordinary people, even when wearing some universally-lauded Sony monitoring headphones, simply couldn’t tell the difference between Pono FLACs and iTunes 256Kbps AACs.

This bodes poorly for portable amplifiers and DACs, but also supports the apparently unassailable truth that most people simply will not be able to observe an appreciable difference using FLAC versus high-res MP3s or AAC files. If they can, they’re probably telling themselves they can, or are simply conflating undesirable distortion (non-harmonic distortion increases at ultra-high sampling rates) with greater detail.

FLAC purists maintain that it is these higher sampling ceilings and greater bits rates which are responsible for the more pronounced “texture” and “feel” in music (cymbals are often cited, for no apparently good reason – almost all instruments produce ultrasonics). In fact, it is these higher sampling ceilings that expose even my audiophile-approved Onkyo TX8255 receiver-amp as unable to avoid audible distortion (that is, not true to the recording) at these supposedly inaudible ultrasonic frequencies. It’s unlikely the distortion would cause a truly noticeable effect on listening experience, but Pogue’s experiment supports the notion that such sounds in FLAC files might actually be undesirable – more people voiced a preference for the iPhone playing back 256Kbps AACs, rather than FLACs on the Pono.

If anything, Pogue’s test goes to show that, unsurprisingly, the world of digital audio has improved leaps and bounds from the early days when MP3 really was a dirty word and we were all trading crappily encoded CP rips on Kazaa and Napster. This tends to really be my theory anymore: audiophiles were among the first to explore the world of digital audio on the web, and they were around to experience the growing pains of that community. When a 96Kbps MP3 rip was what you downloaded because no one was ripping at 256 or 320, and the rips were sourced from old, scratched CDs read by cheap computer drives and then often compressed into oblivion.

I agree that, for a while there, the digital music industry really kind of was screwing the pooch on audio quality by leaving it to the bootleg community, and early streaming services like Pandora really did no one any favors, dipping down to a wretch-inducing 48Kbps on their mobile app at times. But Apple and the labels themselves started remedying this, and by the time the 128Kbps AAC became the de facto quality floor on the later iPods, we were probably already 90% there in terms of the listening experience.

With the iPhone, we saw a smartphone manufacturer pay attention to audio on a hardware level, and Apple remains the bar to meet in the mobile industry for audio hardware on a smartphone or tablet. They actually care about this stuff (let’s not forget they had 6 years to get it right in the iPod) – and Pogue’s test shows it pretty decisively. The fact that he was able to get away with this while driving a big set of Sony MDR7506 monitoring headphones is even more impressive, proving that mobile amplifiers have come a tremendously long way.

While I’ve generally understood the direction Neil Young and Pono were coming from – even if I disagree with some of the premise – I can’t help but agree with Pogue’s conclusion that Pono seems terribly misguided and reeks of the common snake-oily claims you find in the high-end audiophile world. It also proves that audiophiles will convince themselves of whatever they want, regardless of whether or not data controverting those views exists, and will continue to throw money at products catering to those beliefs because you can’t “really” hear the FLAC difference unless you have the budget (a pretentious argument at best).

Pogue also emphasizes what I’ve always said: focus on your equipment, not the files. The files are only going to be bad if you go out of your way to find ones that sound bad.

While I even find it mildly surprising few people preferred the Pono in Pogue’s study, I think it really does just go to the point that the engineers doing DAC and amplifier work on today’s modern smartphones and the related chipsets have figured out how to downsize and isolate those components very effectively. Is it so surprising that Apple, the world’s largest producer of MP3 players and high-end smartphones – that see vastly higher adoption rates in the music business – is creating an excellent audio experience on its products? I don’t think it’s exactly inconceivable, and Qualcomm seems to be doing a fine job, too.

While I would not go so far as to say standalone DACs and headphone amplifiers are without purpose, I will suggest that it generally seems safe to assume that a high-end smartphone is probably the best headphone DAC/amp in your home if you don’t own such dedicated products. I still believe a good DAC and amp are necessary with most laptops and PCs (I prefer Schiit’s Modi and Magni combo), because I’ve always noticed a very real difference with them on my desktop system.

Still, your best investment remains good headphones, and I can’t recommend Grado’s SR80e enough – they’re insanely good value for money. If you want something a little nicer, I really like the Blue Mo-Fis, whose active amplifier setup really do seem to make a difference to my ears when using a smartphone, since they’re of such a high impedance.

As for Pono, I’d suggest taking a pass: you’re supremely unlikely to notice the difference it provides, and FLAC albums simply aren’t worth the money unless you’re playing home music archivist. Put the money toward a good set of cans or studio monitor speakers – you’ll notice a far greater difference than any triangular prism can provide.

Review: Linus Roadster 8 Bicycle

When I was looking for my first bicycle in 4 years, I decided I wanted something that was not only dependable and well-equipped out of the box: I wanted something interesting. Linus Bikes, based in Venice, CA, is indeed interesting. The company has made its name building cruiser and hybrid bikes in a vintage European style, though with the convenience and reliability of modern components.


Upright riding positions with curved handlebars, steel frames, and big, soft touring saddles have earned Linus a reputation for making some of the best leisurely rollers in the business right now, in both the cruiser and hybrid-commuter segments.

I settled on the Roadster 8, Linus’ top-of-the-line commuter-cruiser hybrid. At $869, the Roadster 8 is the second most-expensive bicycle Linus currently makes, with the new Libertine road bike being the company’s flagship product. The Roadster’s companion models, the Roadster Classic (a no-brake, fixed-gear bike) and Roadster Sport (3-speed hub) retail for $465 and $665, respectively – meaning the Roadster will cost you nearly double the price of the “base model” bike.

What do you get for your extra money?

The Roadster 8, as its name implies, possesses 8 speeds. The Roadster Sport has only 3, and the Roadster Classic is a fixed-gear. The 8 and the Sport both use Shimano Nexus internal hub transmissions as opposed to the more common derailleur systems, an increasingly popular choice in the hybrid segment.


Compared to the entry-level Classic, both the Sport and 8 gain a set of Tekro R369 brakes (the classic, in true fixie fashion, has none), a 40lb rear rack, and front and rear painted steel fenders. Plus, of course, the hub transmissions.

The extra $205 over the Sport is largely accounted for by the 8-speed transmission, which is honestly most of what you’re paying for here. The Nexus 8 retails for a solid $100 more than the Nexus 3. The other difference is in the frame – the Roadster 8 has a full chromoly 4130 frame and fork. The Classic and Sport use generic high-tensile steel apart from the downtube, which is chromoly on all Roadsters.


Chromoly steel is stronger than high-tensile steel, meaning you can build a frame of the same robustness with thinner tubes, resulting in a lighter bike. Linus likely does this to keep the weight of the Roadster 8 down, because the Nexus 8 hub is a hefty piece of gear. It weighs twice as much as the Nexus 3 setup, at around 4.5 lbs.

The Roadster 8, because of its use of chromoly, weighs in at 30lbs on a medium frame, 2 lbs less than a Roadster Sport of the same size, meaning that chromoly frame is shaving off a solid 4 lbs of heft. For $200 more, I’d argue you’re getting your money’s worth here.

For the record, steel framed bikes are much less common than they used to be thanks to the introduction of high-strength aluminum. Aluminum is much lighter than steel, basically as strong in most scenarios, and only a bit more expensive. Economies of scale have further trimmed the price difference between steel and aluminum, though steel bikes are definitely making a niche comeback.

The ride, generally

My last bike was a basic hybrid – an entry-level Trek FX 7.1 with an aluminum frame and 21 speeds on basic Shimano gear. Compared to what I remember of that bike, the Linus rides divinely. Bumps are absorbed readily by the steel frame, and the upright riding position with the curved handlebars makes maneuvering feel deliberate, precise, and smooth. I’d say a more traditional fitness hybrid might be more agile – though more twitchy – with straight handlebars, but I’m not darting in and out of traffic on this thing.


Linus’ house-brand Elysian tires are built for quick cruising, with a simple and shallow radial tread that keep vibration and road noise very low. The Elysians are a welcome piece of gear in a market segment that is dominated by needlessly “rugged” tread patterns that just reduce grip and increase vibration on the road for the reason that “hybrid” bikes might, one day, see a surface other than pavement or concrete, even though most never do.

The downside to the Elysian is that, unfortunately, they’re very pricey for a hybrid tire, at $35 apiece. The upside is that they come in some really fun colors (white, black, black with gum wall, brown).


The Nexus 8 is a bit of tossup for me. If you’ve ever used an internal hub transmission with more than a few speeds, you know they have some quirks – low gears can feel “grindy,” and high gears can produce grating sounds when over-torqued. These problems are especially apparent with a heavy rider, like me. Hopefully one day I’ll be light enough that these issues will go away, though from what I’ve read they’re benign and common.

Shifting the Nexus 8, though, is a breath of fresh air – you can go from 7 to 4 at a complete stop with no risk of damage to the hub, and the chain is essentially impossible to derail. This is huge when biking in a city with lots of lighted intersections and stop signs. The only downside to shifting is the shifter itself. It’s a twist-shift made of rubber, and when your hands get sweaty (as they inevitably do on leather grips), it can become difficult to shift, and the action isn’t nearly as mechanical and precise as I’d like.


The brakes, frankly, aren’t great. They may need some tuning on my bike (not enough bite by my standard), and it may be my weight, but they’re extremely underwhelming. I may end up opting for some different pads, too, because the stock ones seem much too soft.


The gear

I specifically chose Linus because they give their bikes with a high level of equipment out of the box. A bell, fenders, 40 lb rear rack, leather grips, and decent leatherette touring saddle are all standard. Though, I’ve since replaced the included seat with a Brooks B17 – an outstanding leather saddle that really is supremely comfortable.


Linus also sells a dizzying array of accessories, many of which bear the Linus brand, including some of the best-looking bicycle storage systems made, in my opinion. I actually bought the Shopper bag when I picked up the bike, because it’s just brilliant. If you want something more intense, there’s the Market bag, which is basically a pannier.

The Shopper attaches to the rear rack with two rubberized hooks, and even includes a small padlock to secure it. It’s flat while empty, and stays that way thanks to a strip of Velcro along the bottom as well as the lid. Open it up, pull out the bottom, and then drop the hard plastic insert into the bottom of the bag. Toss in the groceries, close it up (or don’t), and off you go. At $80, it’s not cheap, but I love it. Because it can stay flat, it also makes a great alternative to a fanny pack or pipette bag for keeping your keys, phone, and wallet while biking.

DSC04535 DSC04536

Linus Shopper bag – closed (left), open (right)

And as to practicality in terms of maintenance, the sealed 8-speed hub will also never get any sand, grime, or mud in it unless it’s totally engulfed in material, meaning no cleaning, and for me, no fears riding on the LA bike path along the coast. Aside from total immersion or snow, the hub is also waterproof.


The Shopper’s included padlock, mounted to rear rack.

Should I be looking at this or something more road bike-ish? Less road-bikish?

This was my concern when I was considering the Roadster. Those 700x35c tires are meaty, though they have become more common on urban and commuter bikes these days. I’d say the choice between something like the Roadster 8 and a bike with more road “pedigree” comes down mostly to where you’re going to be riding it.


If it’s going to be a trail queen and never see a city street apart from the smoothly-paved suburbs, I’d say go with a road bike, and preferably one with a derailleur system. You’ll be able to travel faster, farther, and with less effort. Nice derailleurs have better pedaling efficiency and are more robust than the internal hubs, though you can spring for Shimano’s high-end Alfine line of hubs if you really want one.

The same, I’d say, can be true if you live in a larger city with very good roads and your purpose is basically just commuting – if you’re not constantly riding over pavement cracks and dodging potholes, a road bike will pay dividends in performance.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, some buyers are doubtless between considering a hybrid or a cruiser / Dutch-style town bike. If your bike is something you’re going to throw on a rack when you go camping or to the beach and not see much action otherwise, get a cruiser. They ride softer and are much less dodgy on loose surfaces, not to mention they’re a lot cheaper, too. If you want to get around town, though, I can’t recommend a cruiser. Some people like them – and I see many cruisers when I ride in west LA – but they’re terribly inefficient and a lot of work to pedal on even gentle inclines. If cost is the big driver for you, look at single or 3-speed town bikes before you look at cruisers.


The one situation I’d recommend a cruiser (or something with cruiser-like tires) for transportation is if you have to go over cobbled, dirt, or brick roads on a regular basis. A sprung seat and fat, low-pressure tires will do wonders for your spine versus a comparatively much harder hybrid with a touring saddle.

Is it worth the money?

$869 is, frankly, what many people would consider to be an obscene cost for a bicycle that does not beg for a Lycra shopping spree. Granted, if you know much about bikes, you know that competition road bikes can easily dip into the $5,000-and-up range, so really, $869 is very much “entry-level” in the world of cycling. The Roadster 8 isn’t a cyclist’s bike, though – it’s far more casual than that, so $869 is probably expensive for people shopping in this category.


Bell, yes, whistle, no.

Commuter bikes generally live in the $500-1200 price bracket, which puts the Roadster 8 smack in the middle of the segment. At the high end you have “hardcore” commuters like Trek’s CrossRip, and at the bottom a large selection of fixed-gear, 3-speed hub, and derailleur options, generally varying by perceived “seriousness.

A natural point of comparison for potential buyers is probably Trek’s Steel District at $769. It has a 9-speed Acera derailleur set, disc brakes (why), a touring saddle, alloy pedals, a Trek “custom steel” frame (AKA still not chromoly), leather-ish grips, color-matched fenders, and a front basket. It also has a more road-ish frame stance.


With the Linus, I’d argue, you’re getting a – theoretically – nicer frame, a more commuter-friendly gearset, and a much, much better-looking bike. You also get a far more versatile rear rack as opposed to the basket on the Trek, though the price difference could be made up for by just buying a decent one and bolting it on to the District.

Considering the competition, I’m quite comfortable saying the Roadster 8 is priced very acceptably, especially considering Linus is a relatively boutique bike company. If Trek were to make an 8-speed hub and chromoly steel District, it would likely come in around $900-1000 based on their current pricing scheme. Linus is clearly making their business one of accessories – an amazing selection of bags, bells, lights, seats, grips, and house-brand tires are obviously the moneymakers. After all, I did shell out $80 for a Linus grocery bag, and I will shell out another $70 to Linus when it comes time to replace the tires.

As for my gear, I have a few items I recommend highly.

  • Bern’s Brentwood helmet – one of the best-looking helmets I’ve ever seen, and it comes in a ton of great colors.
  • Kryptonite Evolution Mini 5 U Lock – people buy locks that are too big for their bikes. This one is the perfect size for locking up to a pole or rack tightly, reducing the chance your lock will be subjected to a successful pry attack.
  • Brooks B17 Saddle – the most comfortable and attractive bike saddle you can buy, in my opinion. This is a great investment.

And if you live in southern California, you can actually buy the bike from Linus themselves – they operate a small store in Venice. If you purchase direct from Linus, they also assemble it at the Linus shop, which is certainly a benefit in my opinion. I’d rather have the guys who deal with these bikes and only these bikes every day be the ones who put mine together.

I also think it looks great in blue.


No, FLAC Does Not “Sound Better” – Here’s What It Actually Is And Why It’s Important

Lately, I have read more and more individuals preaching the sonic virtues of FLAC with literally no idea what they are talking about. They spout annoying, misleading drivel that has no basis in reality whatsoever. Let’s learn about FLAC, why it’s good, and why it isn’t, shall we?

What in the fuck is “FLAC”?

FLAC is an audio encoding format. It’s also a very good one for a number of reasons. FLAC is a “lossless” format, meaning none of the data from the source recording is compressed or removed (assuming you use the same bit depth [not the same thing as bit rate] and frequency range). This is inarguably a good thing. Lossless is the word of the year (or last 3) among audiophiles, but the implications of lossless have been twisted and manipulated in ways that are just not factually supported.

Why is FLAC awesome (and is it awesome)?

Yes, FLAC is awesome. Really, it is – as much as I am annoyed by FLAC purists, FLAC has a real place in the digital audio world that should not be overlooked.

You probably know of one other lossless audio format (even if you don’t know it’s lossless) called .WAV. Yep, that same, good ‘ol format that your Windows system sounds are encoded in (though that’s 8-bit and usually mono). WAV preserves 100% of audio information in 16-bit 44.1KHz stereo format when ripping audio from a CD.

FLAC is better than WAV for two reasons. First, it does everything WAV does (lossless audio), but in a much smaller package (WAV is extremely inefficient in its use of space). Second, it allows the use of more tags (including “illegal” tags in Windows) for marking files. That’s it. Otherwise, same juice, different label. WAV does have the advantage of being much more editing / DJ-friendly (all computers do native WAV decode, meaning less work for the CPU), but that’s not really relevant to what we’re talking about here.

This gets us to why FLAC is awesome. It’s all about preservation and archiving! FLAC uses less space than WAV, and allows more precise tagging, making it ideal as a long-term digital storage medium for audio. Many audiophiles – rightly – love FLAC for this reason.

This is why MP3’s are bad for archiving. MP3’s, unlike FLAC, have something of a poor generational half-life. You start with an MP3 rip of a CD – even at 256Kbps, you’ve already lost audio information – you can never get those bits back. That MP3 then gets sent to a friend of yours, who burns it on a CD. More data lost (probably a fair bit, too). Your friend loses the digital original, and re-rips the MP3 from the CD to give it to a friend – by now, there is a very noticeable loss in audio quality in the file. Errors and irregularities have started popping up, and in the strictly archival sense, the song is now basically worthless as a record of the original.

Why FLAC isn’t awesome (read: it’s not because it “sounds better”).

The reason most audiophiles like FLAC has very little to do with the actual quality of the audio. Saying you use FLAC because it “sounds better” is like saying you only drink your wine at 53.7 degrees Fahrenheit because that is the “best temperature.” To both people making such statements, I would have this to say: get over yourself. Not only is it objectively unsupported, it makes you look like kind of an asshole.

You store your audio in the most optimal format available because that means that whenever you do finally decide to make copies, burn CDs, or transcode it, you’re using the best source possible. You don’t buy a $100,000 wine cellar so your wine is at a 53.7 degree drinking temperature, you buy it so your wine lasts for many years – again, it’s all about preservation.

Yes, FLAC has the complete audio source, and from a strictly technical perspective, is qualitatively superior to even a 320Kbps MP3. However, anyone claiming to be able to consistently tell the difference between the two correctly in a true blind test is just lying. A properly encoded* 256Kbps MP3 or AAC is virtually indistinguishable from its FLAC counterpart in a “better vs. worse” sense even with very good audio equipment. People talk about hearing cymbals and “dense” music more authentically through FLAC because just they’re looking for a justification for their beliefs.

*Yes, there are bad MP3 encoders out there. Eg, old versions of LAME – and they do sound worse and are more error / artifact-prone.

Unless you’re using an audio setup that reaches into the thousands upon thousands of dollars, sorry, I just refuse to believe you can hear the difference unless you’ve got pitch-perfect ears or have spent years and years doing professional audio work and know exactly what to listen for. Even many of those people will tell you that, if the difference is there, it doesn’t matter – your ears aren’t an audio-measuring supercomputer, much like your tastebuds aren’t a mass spectrometer.

How many musicians and audio engineers do you see boasting about the sonic superiority of FLAC audio?

Basically none. Because they know that the difference between FLAC and high-bitrate MP3 or AAC is utterly irrelevant to 99.98% of what you hear in a recording. All of the stuff that matters – the studio, the ungodly-expensive recording equipment, microphones, amplifiers, the engineer on the soundboard, the technique of the recording artist, the headphones the engineer wears when he does the mix – these are immeasurably more important to sound quality than a file format. And then, the remaining 10% or so of what you hear comes down to what you play it through – the decoding equipment or CD player, the amplifier, the speaker or headphones.

The file format only matters in one situation: when it audibly distorts or degrades the recording. General consensus seems to be that this happens at or around 128Kbps when using MP3, but this greatly depends on your ears. Anything above that generally will not provide noticeable improvement for most people using most sound equipment. There are a sizable percentage of persons who may benefit from 192Kbps given their listening equipment or hearing, and an infinitesimal group that might hear a difference at 256Kbps or 320Kbps (though I tend to seriously doubt those people, that or they have extraordinary hearing).

Even if there are people out there who could hear the difference – legitimately – between FLAC and 320Kbps, common sense should tell you that you are almost definitely not one of those people. It should also tell you that the file format of your music is generally not very important unless you’re digitally archiving it, which is an entirely legitimate reason to use FLAC. But when it comes to what you hear?

The bottleneck is always your equipment.

Audio equipment is one of those things you can spend small fortunes on to get the “very best” products out there. And that’s because the very best products require expensive components and materials, extremely precise and specialized construction techniques, and levels of perfectionism in engineering that border on the absurd. And at that point, even if the end product is better, you reach a level of diminishing returns that make such investments unwise for most people (unless you have the money to burn).

Still, equipment is bar-none the best way to improve the quality of your sound. Equipment is like the engine and ignition components of your car – audio format is like the brand of gasoline you use. Sure, it can make a difference, but only if you go out of your way to actually use something that is bad. Otherwise, it’s insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Would you pay $0.20 more a gallon if Shell guaranteed its gas improved the power output of your car by 0.08%, and you had to go to a special gas station to get it? No – not unless you’re the lead engineer of an F1 team. That’s what lossless audio quality is – it’s the last little bit you can squeeze out of a near-perfect setup.

If you want your music to sound better, there are a few investments worth making. Buy an external USB audio decoder (aka a DAC) – it will reduce electrical interference (which your computer is full of) and sound noticeably better than a laptop or desktop motherboard’s built-in audio system. Next, buy a good headphone amplifier or, if you use speakers, a solid stereo amp. Here are my suggestions:

  • DAC: Schiit Modi 2 DAC – great value for money and no-frills performance. This will make a huge difference over your laptop or PC’s built-in DAC when paired with a decent amp, I promise. This is the new Modi 2, it offers increased compatibility (many Linux distros, Intel Chromebooks, OS X, Windows are all natively supported).
  • Amp: Schiit Magni 2 headphone amplifier – this is Schiit’s new version of the lauded Magni headphone amp, with plenty of power and an advanced gain stage. It’s reviewing excellently.
  • DAC/Amp combo: AUDIOQUEST Dragonfly DAC/amp combo – this will drive most headphones without a separate amplifier, and the Dragonfly has long been beloved by the audio community for its exceptional portability and sound. It’s an insanely good value.
  • Value DAC/amp option: FX-Audio DAC X6 – I use this at my desk. It’s a really great little headphone amplifier/DAC combo unit at a great price.

The most important equipment, of course, is that which emits the sound. If you’re looking at headphones and plan them for only home use, I can’t recommend Grado enough. Their SR-80 headphone (link) is relatively inexpensive (under $100), and while some people don’t like open back phones (they do not dampen environmental noise at all, and people will hear your music, too), you aren’t going to find better fidelity for the dollar, period. If you’re looking at earbuds, I personally like RHA’s MA750 (link). They’ve got great fidelity, lots of character (without being overbearing or too bassy), and I really love the way they fit. Here are a few headphone recommendations I can offer.

  • On-ear: Grado SR-80e – Grado’s most balanced entry-level phones are for serious home listening. They offer little isolation, but fidelity is extremely good (unmatched at this price, honestly) and balance is superb. These are hands-down my favorite headphones.
  • On-ear (budget): Koss PortaPro – everything that can be said about the PortaPros already has, they’re exceptional – easily the best headphone under $50 in existence.
  • Over-ear: Blue Lola – this is Blue Microphone’s second headphone. They sound outstanding, and are my favorite headphone to use with smartphones (whose built-in amps are quite weak).
  • Over-ear (budget): Sony MDR7506 – I wouldn’t call them a secret, but it seems to surprise many people that Sony never stopped making truly great headphones. The MDR7506 is a cult classic for a reason, and they’re a way better value than anything Sennheiser puts out near this price.
  • In-ear: RHA MA750 – the new RHA T10i is, in my opinion, overpriced and overtuned (way too bassy). The old MA750s offer a more balanced signature with a great accessory kit, awesome warranty, and extremely good fidelity for the price bracket.
  • In-ear (budget): RHA MA350 – the nice thing about the MA350s is while they do provide sound that belies their price point, they’re also tough, rugged, super comfortable, and very stylish. I still use mine as backup travel headphones.

If you’re looking for speakers and stereo amplifiers, I’m a little less familiar with this realm, but a good set of powered monitors (M-Audio’s entry-level set is well-loved) and a DAC (see – Schiit Modi or Dragonfly) is actually probably the best place for most folks to start.

And for god’s sake, don’t go listening to FLAC music if you do buy any of this stuff. It’s a waste of your time.

A (really, really late) review of John Carter

In a world where we’re constantly being bombarded with witty, character-driven sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy films, John Carter stands alone.

It’s not particularly clever. I think I chuckled once throughout the entire film, and it was fairly near the beginning. The dialogue isn’t especially thought-provoking – it’s actually quite simple. You have to remember, this movie was made for the whole “PG-13” family, something Disney absolutely nailed with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (well, until they beat it into the ground with unending sequels).

John Carter also eschews the modern trend of an intensely character-driven plot. John Carter himself is a moderately interesting and likable rogue with a dark backstory that Disney’s morality assurance department allows the film to only hint at, and this will almost certainly leave those expecting a darker, more gritty protagonist disappointed. My advice? Get over it.

Unlike almost every other film in this genre (or genres, I should say) presently, John Carter’s source material has no real (living) “cult following.” It’s based on a serialized novel published in 1917, and while the book, A Princess of Mars, certainly has its place in sci-fi / fantasy canon, most people today don’t know it. In fact, the author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ crowning achievement is Tarzan, leaving little room in modern memory for an earlier, less successful work. While many writers and directors claim the series as a source of inspiration, its fame has undoubtedly dwindled in recent decades. But this is part of what makes it great, in my mind: I had no idea just what I was getting into when I began watching it.

This also, unfortunately, was likely a big part of the reason for the film’s landmark commercial failure. In recent years, America has become obsessed with shamelessly nostalgic rehashes of well-known stories and characters. Whether it be long-standing comic superheroes (movies I am all too happy to see), modernly successful book franchises (which I am less happy to see, though Harry Potter grew on me), or questionable TV-sourced throwbacks (The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks), today it seems all we care about in popular film is what we liked as kids.

That means to attract an audience to a film in the sci-fi / fantasy genres, you either need to appeal to their sense of nostalgia or current pop culture obsessions. It’s an annoying and frustrating limitation. One that has, of course, produced great films. Under the guidance of Christopher Nolan, the Batman franchise is having its best, grittiest years. Iron Man, a hero that could barely be sold as a cartoon, has been absolutely brought to life by the charismatic Robert Downey Junior and a flotilla of clever writers. Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. X-Men. Need I say more?

For a film with a less recognized brand to prosper, it seems to have been accepted at this point that it must be one of two things: cheap and deep, or flashy and stupidly simple. V for Vendetta, which was critically lauded, had a budget of just $54 million – compared to John Carter’s monumental $350 million. Just think about that – for the cost of John Carter, they could have made V for Vendetta 6 times. With money to spare for a few luxury yachts.

A big budget sci-fi / fantasy film means big expectations. And without a recognized “brand” to back it up, it has to have mass appeal (see: Avatar) and an expensive hype campaign (again, see: Avatar) behind it. Even if the movie isn’t that good (… Avatar).

John Carter has neither. It’s a story about a guy on Mars with some aliens wearing a leather, almost bondage-like apparatus on his chest, and nobody had any idea why they wanted to see this movie. It was shitty marketing, end of story. That’s what really killed this movie commercially, in my opinion.

Anyway, back on point: the movie. As I said, the main character, John Carter, isn’t particularly deep or developed. Nor is any other character in the film, for that matter. But that’s because this film is about telling a story (it goes for the decreasingly popular “narrative wrap” format). The story is full of anachronistic symbolism and metaphors (the civil war and turn of the century native american relations are rather indelicately shoved in your face), but they’re so dated that they don’t feel cheesy or preachy.

John Carter is also rife with character condensing, as is a necessity with book adaptations. It’s most notable when it comes to certain characters essential to the plot, but who have less need for screen time. The primary Martian antagonist, whose name is so forgettable I have, in fact, forgotten it, is utterly featureless. The true alien villain (spoiler alert), whose character is unnamed (he’s the bad guy from the first Sherlock Holmes), is full of ominous one-liners and shadowy intent. It’s enough to make you curious about what’s going to happen next, but he’s just there as a mechanism for advancing the plot more than anything (and to set up a sequel).

The thing is, though, I didn’t care. The story is simple, meanders only occasionally, and takes you on a journey through one of the first truly original-looking sci-fi / fantasy worlds I’ve seen in ages. It really is an amazing thing they’ve crafted, worthy of the Disney name adorning this film. Costumes, environments, aliens, ships – it all looks amazing – and original.

The film really doesn’t evoke much in terms of emotion, but that’s to be expected for something based on a sci-fantasy novel written at the turn of the century – it just wasn’t the style of the time. But the conclusion of John Carter will, without a doubt, shamelessly pull at your heartstrings and leave you yearning for a sequel (which has been announced – though funding is a big question-mark).

Part of me wants to see John Carter live to fight another day and round out Burroughs’ first three novels in the series. I crave to know what happens next.

But another part, perhaps just as big, wants it to end here, and leave this great film to stand on its own so that, years from now, hopefully, it will be rediscovered and cemented as the classic it deserves to be.