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Leica M9 after seven years

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Hard to believe it was over seven years since I bought my M9. When I bought it I felt pretty sure that I would be happy with this camera for the rest of my life. It was all I ever wanted from a camera, it was basically a digital M3 which was my previous camera. How do I feel now after seven years of ownership?

The M9 is still, even today a fantastic camera. It will always be a fantastic camera. Some moaned that you could only take a few frames at a time and the ISO was pretty poor. All this is true but I learned photography back in the film days when you had to wind the camera on by hand and multiple shots where impossible without a motor drive. As for the ISO well in the old days you had to choose your ISO and stick with it. Even the M9, basic as it is still offers many advantages over a film version.

For about five minutes I thought about buying the 240 but it’s heavier and wider and the M9 is already bigger and heavier than an M3 and as far as I am concerned, at the limit of what I am prepared to lug about. The video option was interesting but in the end it made much more sense to buy another camera that I could use for video, so I bought a Sony Nex7 for that and kept the M9. No regrets.

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Over the years I have had a few issues. My first body was a very early production model and it would not work with the 21mm 3.4 lens I had despite their claims to the contrary. Leica couldn’t fix the problem, something to do with the tolerances of the lens rather than anything wrong with the camera but they did me a very good deal. They replaced the body and offered me a new 21mm 1.4 in exchange for my old 21 if I paid them just 1000€. Which I did of course and that 1.4 was an astonishing lens and I took some fabulous pics with it.

Since I have had the second body I have had no issues at all and full marks to Leica for standing by their product and seeing me right regardless of the cost involved to them. I am not an influential pro, just a lover of quality and I like the fact that I was treated with respect despite this.

A year or so ago I noticed that the new and much smaller 21 mm lens I had bought new was rattling. There was play in the lens body. Not good. It did not seem to affect the end result but I was worried that the whole lens would fall apart if I didn’t send it back.

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So thanks to my friendly Leica dealer the lens was sent back to Leica for repair. I did not expect to have to pay anything as I’d bought the lens new and there was clearly a manufacturing fault with it. I thought I might as well send the body back for a clean at the same time.

Today I got the news that Leica have not only repaired the lens for free but have also changed the sensor and cleaned and adjusted the whole body free of charge. All I have to pay is the cost of the shipping. Now this is what I call service.

Many people complain that Leicas are expensive and it’s true, they are, but there is a very good reason for it. Leica take care of their customers and I have always found them to be very generous and helpful. You are paying for a quality product on the one hand and on the other you are paying for a quality after sales service. It is very refreshing to me that Leica stand by their products even if they are over seven years old.

Nothing has broken in all that time and the small issues I have had have been dealt with efficiently and I have never been charged. This is really quite something in this day and age. The whole camera is still in excellent condition and there are a few places where the black paint is wearing through to the brass underneath but I like that. A little patina is no bad thing.

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So after seven years I can report that I am still delighted with the quality of the pictures from the M9. I still love using the camera and Leica continue to take care of me as a valued customer. Why would I use any other camera? The longer I keep it, the better value it becomes whereas if I was changing cameras every few years I’d be losing money each time and would other manufacturers be so generous repairing and maintaining one of their products once the guarantee had run out?

I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again. The Leica M9 is a bargain. Not to mention the fact that a quality product with a long life is way better for the planet than a poor quality disposable one.

Thank you Leica for making the camera of my dreams and thank you for looking after me and my camera now and in to the future. Long may it continue!

 

Update Jan 20 2017

 

So Leica have launched the M10 to add to their now very confusing collection of rangefinders you can buy. The good news is that finally the size of the M10 is now pretty much the same as the old M3 and the weight is about the same. This is great news.

It’s also slightly cheaper and has a simpler layout and live view and it’s also possible to fit a digital viewfinder on the flash hotshoe which does open up many options. There’s no doubt that the M10 is a more versatile camera than the M9 but there is still nothing about it that will let me take better pictures. For me, any added complexity simply takes away from the ability to take a quick picture. While you’re messing with options or buttons you may have missed the shot.

The bright lines are now created by a bulb which is all well and good I suppose but there’s something wonderful about the M9’s natural light system and using a mobile phone you can now control the camera from afar using its built in wifi! I ask you.

There are some nice touches of course, I do like the ISO knob which goes where the old film rewind was on the M3 and I like the more magnified viewfinder too and it’s great looking and has been weather sealed although obviously the lenses are not but that said, many is the time I have used my M9 in the rain and have never had an issue.

Had this camera been available when the M9 came out I might well have bought one and I cannot deny there is a temptation to have an M10 and I have no doubt that it would be a fantastic camera with its bigger sensor and smaller size but it still doesn’t tempt me away from my M9. Perhaps if I was a pro I would be very interested in the higher ISO and ability to shoot more frames but for me it just doesn’t make sense.

There are a couple of things that would put me off and one is the fact that the longest exposure the M10 can do is 8 seconds. What is that all about? And for some reason the camera takes well over a second to boot up. Is this progress?

But I’m nit picking. Of course I’d have one! But despite this camera’s awesomeness I am still more than happy with my M9. For me, for how I use it, it’s all I need but I am pleased that Leica have not lost the plot and are somehow walking that thin line between being contemporary and holding on to the tradition and values that spawned the M series all those years ago very well. Well done Leica.

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Ghisallo wooden bicycle rims

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20” wooden rims as fitted to the Hoopy wooden bicycle I made the wooden valve covers and they turned out to be one of the most popular features on the whole bike. If you want a pair, you’ll have to make them yourself. Strangely Ghisallo don’t sell ‘em!

When I was looking for the right wheel for the Hoopy wooden bicycle I wanted something special. I had seen that there was a company in Italy who made rims but it seemed mostly for racing bikes with 26” wheels. They also made wooden rims for a Brompton which has a 16” so it stood to reason that if they can make a rim as small as 16” then surely they could make on in the 20” I needed.

There didn’t seem to be a 20” option on their site so I contacted them by email. Despite being in Italy I was able to communicate well with them as my contact Ugo has excellent English. He informed me that it was possible to make a 20” rim so we began discussing the details.

The rim is available in two widths, a narrow one at 27mm and a wider one at 31mm. There is also the option to have a carbon fibre insert in the rims. This is an essential option which allows you to put some serious pressure in the tyres. Without the carbon there is a chance that the rims could split.

There are six different colours for the finish. I chose a natural finish for my rims and I am glad I did. I was worried that the pale natural tone wouldn’t be dark enough but after just a little exposure to daylight and they soon darkened down to match the bike frame.

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Ghisallo can also build you a set of wheels and we discussed the options here too. In the end I chose a 74 mm wide Brompton front hub and a Sram 2 speed auto hub for the rear wheel and stainless spokes. Other options are a wider better quality front hub and a rear coaster brake single speed rear hub.

It took a few weeks from deciding on all the options until the wheels arrived. They are really fabulous and as a wood worker I can fully appreciate the skill and thought that has gone into these rims. Not only that they seem very light to me. I weighed the front wheel without tyre and it only weighed 700 grams which I think is pretty light regardless of what material the wheel is made of.

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On the wheels I put 2” wide 20” tyres and the end result not only looked right but was exceedingly comfortable and smooth. How much of this is down to the fat tyre, the wooden frame or the wooden rims I cannot say but the overall effect is very nice. Firm and stiff and yet not harsh. Everyone who rides the bike is always surprised by just how comfy the Hoopy is to ride.

These are lovely wheels. A really lovely product that taken care of can last for years and years and certainly as long as any other kind of wheel. A hand made product can never be cheap, one must pay for quality. A pair of wheels fully built to my spec came in at about 600€, a lot of money yes but worth every penny and they certainly elevate the Hoopy from being a cool wooden bicycle to being a super cool one.

It is amazing how many people are surprised that it is possible to buy wooden wheels for a bicycle they are then further surprised when they discover they are not only beautiful but strong and light in to the bargain. If they have a downside it is that the finish needs to be maintained. It’s not such a big deal to remove the tyre and mask up the 28 spokes in order to put another coat of varnish on them.

All in all I am very happy with my wooden rims, they are light, strong and very very cool and they look amazing. Highly recommended.

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Wooden handlebar grips by Ghisallo. I removed the original leather so I could fit my own. They are hard but surprisingly comfy to hold. They need to be glued or screwed on.

There’s a lot more to Ghisallo than just wooden rims too, they also make rims in bamboo and a host of wooden accessories from hand grips to handlebars. Check out their site here

And if you want a set of 20” wheels like the ones on the Hoopy all you have to do is click here!

Check out this series of videos which demonstrate the process of making a wooden bicycle rim. Great stuff. Here’s part one. There are three videos to watch.

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SRAM Automatix 2 speed hub review

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SRAM Automatix 2 speed auto hub with coaster brake.

Bikes without cables are rare. It seems that most bikes today have a lot of cables to operate various things but they make a bike look fussy and they need maintenance and frequent replacement.

Some bike builders put a lot of effort in to hiding their cables by feeding them through the frame or guiding them using any number of clips. This looks nice but makes replacement a little more complicated.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a bike with no cables? One way to do that is to use a back pedal (coaster) brake rear hub. Straight away that gets rid of not only a cable, but a lever and a whole brake assembly. I don’t think there’s any great difference in weight but a back pedal brake is very simple and effective and will work in the rain, unlike many typical brake systems.

There are many manufacturers who make geared hubs for bicycles but most of them require cables to operate but there are a few that don’t. Many years ago I rode an old German shopper bike which had a back pedal brake and a two speed hub which was operated by back pedalling slightly so I knew that a cableless gear system was possible.

So I started researching and discovered this SRAM Automatix 2 speed hub. What makes this different to other hubs I have seen is that the gear change is completely automatic. You don’t even have to think about it.

It’s actually quite brilliant and the gear change is practically seamless. You start pedalling and the hub is in first gear and as soon as you get up to about 8 mph it changes. There are two bob weights inside the hub which swing out at speed and change the gear. It’s very simple.

As I am using 20” wheels it seems to change at just the right time. As you are thinking, ‘another gear would be nice’ it changes. However I have read reviews where the rider felt that it changed too soon. They took the hub apart and bent the springs on the bob weights slightly and fixed that. Here’s the link that shows how It’s a good article that talks in depth about many of the features so there’s no need for me to do the same.

It’s quite heavy at 1.3 kilos but when you consider it has two gears and the brake included and you won’t need cables, levers or brake,s so all in all it’s not too bad.

In use it works just fine but it does clatter a bit. It’s not the quietest hub when freewheeling but I forgive it all this because it’s awesome. I don’t find it changes too early but as I said I’m running 20” wheels and I guess this must make a difference.

This hub is available with freewheel sprocket, coaster, roller or disc brake. It’s certainly available with a 28 and 36 hole configuration.

Conclusion: If you want easy gear change and brakes with no cables then this hub is brilliant. If you didn’t like the way it changes gear you can change that so what’s not to like? Adds a touch of class to any bike. Also the price seems very reasonable to me at about 80€.

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F1 Making it better

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Formula 1 is the only sport I have any interest in. I’m not sure why F1 has such a hold over me but it does. There are so many reasons why I find it 3fascinating and sometimes even exciting. Those who run F1 have been aware for some time that F1 isn’t all it could be and there have been many complaints of late, from the sound the latest cars make to how easy they appear to drive. As a long term fan of F1 and a great lover of some of the excellent stories that come from this sport I do have a few ideas about to liven things up.

Before we can discuss the changes we need to understand the sport that is F1. Part of its appeal must surely be the history. The cars may have changed but at the end of the day, F1 is about the best drivers and teams competing against each other. There has been much talk of late about making the cars all the same but that would be a mistake. Much of the fascination of F1 comes from the individual teams who compete.

F1 is a team sport. Let’s not forget that. The driver might be the one who gets the limelight but for every driver there are hundreds of behind the scene players who all work extremely hard to ensure their team does the best job. A one design formula would ruin this fundamental fact of F1 and what makes it so interesting and often exciting.

Let’s define what F1 is or should be. F1 is the pinnacle of motor sport. Every racing driver would like to be F1 world champion. It is the greatest accolade for a driver. F1 is cutting edge. Whatever people say about how the cars are too complicated, the simple fact is that throughout the history of F1 teams and designers have always used the latest technologies and materials to get that small advantage. Technology is always going to be a part of F1. The clever part is not letting it interfere with the human being behind the wheel.

Should F1 be running hybrids and saving fuel? Yes it should. Every sport must behave responsibly and reducing the impact on the environment in what is already not a very eco friendly sport is essential if F1 is to remain in business. F1 is a business lets not forget that either. But there is no reason why a business cannot offer a great quality product for a price that is good value and yet enables a profit to be made so that it can be reinvested in the future of F1.

Further more, fuel is heavy and throughout F1 history there have been situations where cars run out of fuel long before they get to the chequered flag. The less fuel a car can carry, the faster it will be. It will also take less out of the tyres. The more economical a car is, the better too. Saving fuel has always been a part of F1.

So far so good. Everyone knows F1 is in a mess and no one knows what to do. This much is obvious because never before have the powers that be in this autocratic sport asked for the public’s help.

What I fear most is F1 changing because of a knee jerk reaction. F1 has been around for 60 years and is bigger now that ever. I think it is important to realise this. Whatever strange rules are introduced, F1 has survived so it can’t be that broken.

What I do think is that it is too expensive. I also think the BBC should show all live races. In my opinion this is one of the worst things that ever happened to F1. The very fact that it is now only watchable on Sky TV is a tragedy. How can it be that F1 now has adverts that promote Betting, money lending at extortionate rates and insurance. If anything cheapens F1 it is this. That people actually pay their hard earned cash to pay to view F1 races on Sky and then have to endure the worst adverts as well beggars belief. Personally I will not pay Sky one penny preferring not to watch the race at all. I doubt I am alone and I fear that F1 lost a lot of good loyal fans because of it.

It is not clear to me how not offering F1 races on the BBC (or now C4) helps the future of the sport. How are we to attract the young to this sport. Unless F1 attracts new customers it will ultimately fail. Making F1 accessible is essential. Making it even more elite by only offering pay for view is unhelpful, narrow minded and very sad.

The price of tickets has risen so much that hardly anyone went to the German grand prix to the point where it’s deemed too expensive to even have one this year. A great tragedy. F1 would be better served by less greed and more generosity. Larger profits may actually ensue. Better than upping the price of a ticket until only the very wealthy can afford it. F1 would be better received if ticket prices were less. High prices carry high expectations. Fans are much less likely to moan if their tickets were not so expensive.

It takes enormous skill to be an F1 driver today. Personally I always reckoned I had the skill to do the driving part and I would have been particularly good at developing a car but when it comes to dealing with the endless mindless questions from the world’s press I would have faired very badly indeed. I take my hat off to the drivers, top diplomats all, especially considering the rarefied atmosphere where they live and their often young age.

One of the problems is that despite excellent camera angles and stuff, on the tv screen you do not get just how hard it is to be averaging 100 mph around the narrow barriered streets of Monte Carlo. Back in the early 90’s things were very different. Even with the sound off this video of a lap of Monaco by Ayrton Senna is spell binding. It’s so quick you wonder how anyone could manage this. Of course Senna owned Monaco. Then they were changing gear 30 times a lap by hand, which of course meant taking one hand of the wheel for much of the lap! Things are very different today.  If F1 looked like this today things would be very different.

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Perhaps it’s possible with better editing or unusual camera angles, helmet cams etc but I can’t help feeling that even with the current F1 cars they could be made to look more exciting to drive. Obviously it’s not easy even driving a modern F1 car but it LOOKS too easy and that is part of the problem.

I think it would do no harm if F1 made the cars faster. How they do that is up to them but it would make for better racing. One thing is sure F1 should be considerably faster than ALL other forms of motorsport. It can’t be the pinnacle if it’s not the fastest.

There has been mention of reintroducing fuel stops and other such silly ideas. I just can’t see how it makes the racing any better to watch. The same is true of having different tyre manufacturers. Better that the tyres are the one constant. I do think that compound choice should be left to the teams and drivers to decide however.

The blue flags could be updated. I think they are important so that a slower car knows that a faster one is behind but I do not think they should have to get out of the way. Let the faster car get past anyway it can. It seems a shame that the slower cars, already penalised by their lack of pace have to lose further time getting out of the way of other cars. This is racing and back markers are part of it. It should make racing more interesting and bring in an element of luck to spice things up.

I also think that the idea of capping spending is just not realistic. Of course it is expensive to develop and run an F1 team but the big teams can afford it. I never understood why in season development was banned. What we end up with is one team doing really well and none of the other teams able to catch up. What this does is make for boring viewing. Witness Red Bull’s 4 years of dominance which only came to an end after the rules were changed. Now we have Mercedes dominating.

In the wake of the Austrian grand prix where the Mclarens were hit with 25 grid place penalties one has to question the wisdom of this rule. I just don’t understand the logic. OK, punish the team if they have to use another engine but why punish the driver and the sport? In the scheme of things, what difference does it really make if a team has to change engines every race? What we want is competitive racing and that is unlikely to happen if some of the teams are half way down the grid. No one understands the penalties, least of all the drivers or the commentators. How do these penalties help F1 to keep an audience?

Bring back in season testing. Throw as much money at the car as you like. Use wind tunnels when you want and do as much testing with the current car as you like. They are talking about making the cars faster, just let teams develop them and they will get faster. F1 is expensive and that is all there is to it. There’s no reason why even the smaller teams couldn’t manage to develop their cars. Their sponsors can help to fund the development as it is in their interests to do so.

Basically apart from these few niggles F1 isn’t in bad shape. Fundamentally it’s doing just fine. It just needs tarting up a bit.

And here are my two suggestions for improving the sport without ruining it, or changing it too dramatically.

The first thing I would like to see would be a read-out of drivers’ heart beats. It could be slipped in along side the other telemetry information and would give us a good indication into the head space of a driver. I don’t know why they don’t already do this. It’s one bit of extra info that would be very interesting.

But most of all, the question we all want to know is, who is the fastest driver? One of the issues with teams competing is that is hard to know who is the fastest driver? maybe they just have the best car? This question is at the bottom of why we all watch F1. To see who is the best.

Many years ago there was a race in Germany where all the current F1 drivers raced in identical Mercedes 190s. Senna won and Niki Lauda came second. It was brilliant to watch and very instructive.

What I propose is that at every F1 race there is also a race where all the grid drivers race in identical cars. The cars they use are not so important, perhaps in Italy an Italian car would be used, in Germany, a German one and so on. The races would have practice, qualifying and a race, albeit in a reduced form.

It could be run as a separate championship or the points won in these races would be added to the F1 championship. It would do three things. It would be a good showcase for a car manufacturer, it would show who is fastest and it would liven up F1 no end. I believe even the drivers would approve.

It would give rookie drivers a chance to earn a few points and show their skills when maybe they don’t have a competitive F1 car. Top drivers can hardly object as they would expect to be at the front anyway.

 

Update March 2016

Recently there have been some very silly developments. The revised qualifying is just a joke. How did anyone think that would improve the racing? This is the clearest demonstration yet that the powers who run F1 are deluded and out of touch. This is a mark of desperation, nothing more. What was wrong with Qualifying the way it was? All this talk about reversing the grid is just ridiculous. A qualifying place should be earned on merit otherwise, what is the point?

If you want to change qualifying then why not decide it by using road cars on a reduced track. They could be very fast road cars of course. I’m not saying it would be any better than the system currently in place but if you’re talking about entertainment then it would certainly make F1 more interesting to watch and would even up the field, at least temporarily.

The biggest problem with F1 is that it IS boring to watch for most of the time. To someone who cares nothing for motorsport it is merely some cars going around and around the same track and making a lot of noise in the process. Every F1 fan understands this. Not every race is a good one, but you wouldn’t want to miss any race in case that was the one full of excitement.

If F1 is ever to attract a new audience it needs to look at the sport with the eyes of someone who knows or cares little. Or it needs to teach the new audience the history and technical aspects of the sport in a way that is interesting and fun to watch. There is always a human story to be told, it’s just that F1 has become too money orientated. It is confused about what it is and the powers that be lack the imagination to change it.

Put simply F1 is too expensive and only showing it on pay for view is scandalous. After 2019 if they go ahead with this pitiful idea I for one won’t be watching it. I’m sure many people will crumble and pay Sky to watch but I’m not one of them.

Update: Just before the Russian Grand Prix 2016

Why can’t the powers that be just leave things alone? What was that pathetic attempt to change qualifying? I just don’t see how that makes the racing any better. Glad that we have reverted to a tried and trusted system.

The latest talk of halos and screens is just another nail in the coffin of F1. Motorsport is dangerous. Everyone knows this. Of course it’s dangerous. At 200 mph there are some serious physics involved. Nothing will ever change the fundamental fact that drivers may get hurt. We live in a ‘free’ world where if you do not wish to take the risk involved by getting in a race car, you do not have to do it.

Just as technology from F1 filters down to the road car, society’s ever growing fear of everything that might hurt you filters through to F1. I’m all for driver safety of course. No one wants to see anyone getting hurt but aren’t we just taking this a bit too far?

Would a halo have helped Senna? What is more likely, if he had that same crass in a 2016 car he probably would have walked away. Witness Alonso’s extraordinary crash when he clobbered the back of the Hass of Gutierrez and flew in to the wall at 180 mph. He walked out of that one yet that car was totally completely.

My opinion is that F1 is potentially dangerous but that these risks are managed and frankly the cars are so safe now that it is possible to see immense crashes where no one gets hurt. The progress made in the last 40 years is brilliant. However the drivers choose to race and they are very well compensated for the risks that they take.

Let’s just look for a moment at a few technical details. How is an aero screen going to stay clean during a race? Will it have tear off strips that the pit crew can remove? How will it work in the rain? It already seems to me that the drivers view out of the cars is ridiculously limited and the rear view mirrors are very small. Collisions between cars happens at every single race. If the drivers could see better what was around them, there would be less contact. Some may say that this makes the racing more exciting as it shakes up the grid but what I want to see in a race is fair racing. I want to see a win won on merit and not on chance because of a racing incident.

Reducing a driver’s vision even more is not going to help this. The screen itself causes more problems. It adds weight, which uses more fuel, the extra drag will probably have the same effect. There will be added complexity with whatever system is used to keep the screen clear during the race or if it is raining. Does F1 need to be more complicated?

The question I have to ask is this: Would an aero screen have helped Jules Bianchi or not? Since 1994, his has been the only driver fatality. I do not have all the facts but I would like to know the answer to this. If the answer is that the screen would not have helped then please explain why they want to fit one.

In my opinion we should leave F1 alone. Leave the rules as they are for a fixed three years. Stop adding unnecessary complexity and safety measures that are hardly justified.

 

2017. Making the racing better?

The idiots that manage F1 must only be using the bottom line to make all their decisions because it’s certain that the racing and the fans don’t come into their decision making very much. If they did they would just stop trying to fix what ain’t broke. The more they mess with it, the worse it gets.

What’s all this bollocks about changes for 2017. Just leave the fecking rules alone will you. This really winds me up. Perhaps that comes across? These days it’s all about the Aero. But the problem with that is that it makes it almost impossible for a car with similar power to pass. DRS helps a little but that is a fake tool which I’m not to discuss right now.

How will making the cars wider help overtaking? Surely they should be narrower if that is the case. More room on track = more overtaking opportunities. If the cars are going faster they aero will be more pronounced and that means even less passing as the car behind struggles for grip in the dirty air. You can be sure that the aerodynamicists take a great deal of care of how sweetly air moves over the car but they won’t do the same for the filthy stuff that comes off it, especially if that can disadvantage the car behind. It’s war out there, let’s not forget it.

If you want closer racing there are two things that need to be done. The first is to reduce the importance of down force, or only allow single wings without variable angles of attack which do not disturb the air so much when they create their down force. They would not be as efficient but it would be the same for everyone.

The problem is not in the speed of the cars but the closeness of the racing.

The second thing that needs to be done is to stop trying to change everything all the time. Bring in a new formula and leave it alone for say five years. It has historically been this way. Leave the rules alone and all the teams finally converge with very similar performances as they continually improve their design over the years. Change the regs too often and we get periods where one team benefits more than the others who do not have the time to catch up before the rules change again.

It really makes me laugh. They talk about spending too much money but if they stopped changing the rules all the time it would save the teams a fortune!

F1 may be a complicated and technically driven sport but it is clearly run by people who just don’t get it. There is too much fear for the welfare of the drivers and yet F1 has never been safer. Maybe the investors have too much say? Maybe F1 has just become too complicated with too many people wanted too many different things.

Some may say that by changing the rules you introduce uncertainty but I do not want that in my version of F1. I want all the teams to have developed their cars to the max so that they are all very similar and then I want to see good racing. When rules are stable, reliability gets better. Perhaps mine is an old fashioned attitude but if I were a team or a driver, I want to beat the competition on the track and not win because my nemesis had an electrical failure.

What I do know though is, new regs, wider cars and aero screens will NOT make the racing better. Leaving the cars alone and not changing the rules for a set period agreed to by all the teams would mean a much more even racing field and ONLY that will lead to closer and more exciting racing.

Update November 2016

The Brazilian grand prix was superb. Dull in places and far too much following a safety car in heavy rain but once the racing got started each time it was epic. There never was much doubt about Max Verstapen’s quality as a driver but if there were any doubters they must now be convinced. It was a superb drive from anyone, let alone a teenager!

A few more thoughts about how the powers that be can make things more interesting. Why not reintroduce refuelling but make it optional. So if you want, you can fill up your car and make no stops or keep it light and stop as often as you want. Would this help the smaller teams or would everyone opt to refuel? It would certainly liven up the tactician’s job!

Now that F1 has been bought by an American company perhaps we will see more audience participation? One of the things I liked from Nascar is the fact that fans can pay to take a ride around the track in a Nascar. Each team could make a two seater version of their car and take people around to give them a first hand idea of what it’s like to drive an F1 car.

Update November 2107

It’s been a busy year for F1. The new American owners seem determined to bring more of a show to F1 whether this actually works is yet to be seen.

They want to change the iconic F1 logo. I understand why, it’s all part of the new image they are trying to bring to the sport but graphically that logo is pure class. In my opinion it is too good to change. I have seen the suggested alternatives and they are not as good. I’m all for change but not just change for change’s sake. The new logo looks like a water tap. How is that supposed to represent the sport of racing?

But what really pisses me off about F1 moving forward is the halo head protection set to be fitted to the cars next season. Again, it’s easy to understand why they have done this and once suggested they sort of shot themselves in the foot because what if one of the drivers got injured and they HADN’T fitted the halo? But frankly I think F1 is more than safe and apart from the odd accident which I hope is learnt from to stop it happening again it it’s never been safer.

Back in the old days, I won’t say good old days because drivers died regularly, the drivers were in the sport for the glory and not the money. They ran the risk of dying at any given moment and yet they were hardly paid anything to compensate for that risk. Today the drivers are paid ridiculous amounts for way less risk. I just don’t get it. Lewis Hamilton is supposedly about to sign a new contract with Mercedes who will pay him and absolutely staggering £40 Million a year!!!!

Why are drivers paid so much? Normally jobs that involve risk are higher paid than low risk jobs. This seems perfectly fair and makes sense but the F1 drivers are paid way too much for the risk they take. I say if you want the halo reduce their earnings by 90%. If they take the risk of driving without it pay them more.

The halo looks ridiculous, adds weight to the car, reduces the chances of seeing the driver and probably restricts his already tiny view out of the car. Do we have to wait until some hapless mechanic is mowed down because a driver didn’t see him because of the halo before everyone realises how utterly ridiculous the halo is.

What happens if the car is in an accident and is upside down? How will the driver get out? How does making a car harder to get out of make it safer? It smacks to me of health and safety gone mad. Adding a safety feature for that one in a million chance something may go wrong.

It will not make the F1 spectacle better. It will not improve the racing and personally I feel that it will not improve safety and may even reduce it. It’s a bloody stupid idea. If the drivers were barely paid I might understand it but they are paid a fortune, an absolute fortune. Let them take the risk. That is what they are paid for. And if one of them should die well so be it. Life is full of risk. If you don’t want the risk, don’t get in an F1 car.

Look at Michael Schumacher. What good did a helmet do him? He had all the right safety gear on and yet it didn’t help him. Some might say he would have died had he not been wearing a helmet. Well frankly if it had been me I would rather have died than have to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. What is this ridiculous obsession about staying safe and not taking risks?

The halo is wrong for F1. Hopefully they will see sense one day and remove it. What, are they going to add it to all the other open cockpit vehicles racing? Go carts? When does this madness stop. Pathetic.

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Polyflex 3 YM Yanmar engine mounts Review

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The new Polyflex Yanmar engine mounts fitted to a 3YM 20

The Australians lead the way in Polymer technology. The reason why they are so good at it is because the extreme heat in their country destroys rubber in no time at all.

The engine mounts that come with the Yanmar are very poor, especially considering the price. Last time I looked they were about £800 for a set. The front mounts have a different elasticity to the rears but otherwise they are the same. They have two issues, asides from the high price. They are painted very badly and soon rust which makes a mess of the engine beds but worse than that, they are only glued on to the base and can simply come off. I had this happen on a 1GM. I could lift the entire engine clean off the mounts. Not very clever or seaworthy.

The advantages of the Polyflex are obvious. Because they have a (mostly) plastic body they do not rust and they also have a fail safe system so even if the polymer is completely destroyed, the engine cannot come off the beds! This is basic really and any marine engine mount should offer this.

They are not cheap. I paid about £600 for a set of 4. There’s only one mount stiffness so no more having to worry about using the right mount in the right place. They claim to be a direct replacement but this is not entirely true as the bases are much thicker and in my case (naturally) I had to order longer bolts in order to bolt them down to the beds. It’s worth bearing this in mind if you do decide to buy some.

Fitting them was the usual fight in a tight access area but eventually I managed to get them in. When I first started the engine I was very disappointed as there was more vibration than before. At tickover the ropes and rigging wobble. It never did this with the Yanmar mounts.

At higher revs it gets better but still has a vibration and it is harsher than before. I wrote to the company who sold them to me and asked what was going on. They demanded measurements from the base to the dished washer at the top but this is almost impossible to do given the poor access I have.

I didn’t get much joy from them so I decided to contact the manufacturer in Australia direct. That didn’t seem to do much good either. The usual, ‘we haven’t had any issues before’. If I had a pound for every time I had heard that I would be so rich. They also suggested that the exhaust could be causing the vibration. It is true that the pipe from the riser has a bend in it and is very short but it is still rubber and besides, I never had this issue with the original mounts.

So it seems that if you want these to work properly then as far as I can understand (although this is only conjecture as I can’t get any answers from Polyflex) then your beds must be perfectly straight, in line and parallel or you’ll have vibration. Despite asking repeatedly I have not been able to find out what the acceptable tolerances are.

As a boat builder of well over two decades I have installed many engines. Not once have I ever come across a perfect set of beds. There is always some inaccuracy. You might have thought that an engine mount would take up some of this slack but it would appear that the Polyflex ones do not. This is very annoying because my beds are not exactly parallel and they are on two levels which doesn’t help.

How accurate do the mounts have to be? I don’t know and Polyflex promise to write and answer my questions but I am still waiting. Meanwhile I am £600 out of pocket and have a boat that vibrates more than before.

So I would say that unless you have engine beds that are absolutely straight, level and parallel and an exhaust with lots of flex and rubber in it, avoid these mounts. I am not impressed with the way they don’t stop vibration and I am not impressed with the company who don’t seem to want to tell me what I would like to know. Why they won’t tell me, I cannot imagine. Perhaps they don’t know. It’s clear they consider their mounts perfect. Therefore I am just another stupid customer who knows nothing. having just spent £600 I had hoped for a slightly better response than this.

It is possible that I will have to shim the mounts to get their angles perfect in all planes. I know that my boat’s engine beds are not perfect because they were made by a human being. Levelling up the beds to get them perfect is a huge amount of work. This is why I want to know what the tolerances are but will any one tell me? No they will not. Very strange.

Of course it is possible that the mounts are all well within tolerance in which case the only explanation for why they vibrate more is that they are not very good at damping vibrations.

Update May 2015

Finally I received a patronising reply from Polyflex. If I want to stop my ropes and rigging from oscillating at tickover (apparently the term in Australia is idle) I should increase the revs! What a splendid solution, wish I’d thought of that. There was no definite answer to why the engine vibrates more, just some stuff about a boat being like a guitar. Bottom line: It’s Pacific Seacraft’s fault because they did not make the engine beds completely level and they fitted an engine that was too big.

Conclusion.

Unless your beds are absolutely level, straight and parallel you may end up with more vibration, not less. You may need longer bolts as the base of the mounts is thicker than the Yanmar ones.

They might be safer than the cheap Yanmar ones but they do not dampen vibration any better.

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Splinterbike Haibrid Wooden Bicycle

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The Haibrid from Splinterbike. Wooden frame, wheel rims and handlebars.

Recently I made a promo video to promote the Foldavan bicycle caravan and I thought it would be a good idea to borrow a wooden bicycle so I got in touch with a few companies who made them. I didn’t have much luck but I kept trying. Then I came across the Haibrid made by a very interesting fellow called Michael Thompson who you may have heard of from his previous project, the SplinterBike, a bicycle made entirely of wood which currently holds the world speed record for an all wooden bicycle. He kindly agreed to lend me his demonstrater for a week.

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Here you can clearly see the quality of craftsmanship that has gone into the T section frame.

The Haibrid is a different beast altogether. This limited edition is made from sustainably sourced American black walnut and European birch wood and is an elegant looking machine. Obviously a bicycle made completely from wood just isn’t practical for every day use so the drive train is metal but the frame, wheel rims and handlebars are made of wood.

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Even the detail on the wooden handlebar ends is considered.

Most of the metal parts are made by Sturmey Archer and they are very high quality. I particularly liked the ‘handbrake’ option on the rear brake. This is an essential option for any bike because it removes the chance of the bike falling over when you lean it against something. The brakes are in the hubs which helps add to the very clean look of the Haibrid.

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Sturmey Archer three speed hub and brake. It has a very smooth action.

There are three gears in the rear hub and the system is very smooth. I felt the bike could have done with a tooth less on the rear sprocket but this is something that is easy enough to change at some point.

The seat post and handlebar attachment is pretty standard and the Haibrid has a lovely Brooks titanium saddle fitted finished with copper rivets. I found it a bit hard but a Brooks saddle takes many weeks of use to become comfy. The handlebar grips are also made by Brooks and are leather with a metal end. Very smart and nice to grip. No expense has been spared on the gear on this bike, it’s all top notch stuff.

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Wooden rims and fat brown tyres is a unique look. Gives a comfy ride too.

The wheels are made of birch by August Wheelworks and are really quite something. Fitted with brown fat tyres for a very comfy ride they really look the business. There are many wooden bikes out there but few have wooden wheels. It’s a nice touch.

As a boat builder and someone who works with wood I can appreciate the work and detail that has gone into the bike. Michael tells me that 2500 hours of development and testing went into the Haibrid. I can well believe it. The frame is made with a combination of steam bending, vacuum lamination and CNC machining.

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What’s it like to ride? I prefer to sit a little more upright but that is just a personal opinion and in any case a change of handlebar would sort that out. Otherwise the geometry is good although the high cross bar might not be to everyone’s taste. Michael tells me he is working on a Ladies bike with a lower cross bar. It is a comfy bike to ride and very smooth. The brakes were a bit unfeeling but effective for all that. Gear changes are smooth and seamless.

All in all the Haibrid is a very sweet bike. It’s not particularly light but neither is it heavy. As one French mate said, it’s an ‘honest’ weight. I would say that sums it up about right. Michael tells me the frame itself weighs less than 3 kilos. The wooden wheels are about 40% heavier than metal rims.

This kind of exclusivity and craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap, nor should it. Each Haibrid takes 200 hours to hand build and finish in a special UV lacquer. The price of £6600 reflects that. Michael is working on bikes using other woods such as Brazilian Mahogany, Santos Rosewood and English Ash. Splendid.

Contact Michael Thompson at Splinterbike for more info or to place your order!

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Woodenwidget launch the Fliptail 9

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The Woodenwidget Fliptail 9 (2.75m) Stable, spacious and fun. Rows, sails and planes!

This is the biggest boat that Woodenwidget have ever made. It’s huge and it exists because customers kept on asking for it so here it is. Nine feet long or 2.75 metres long. It’s a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the Fliptail 6 and 7 and it has a slightly more pointy bow. It’s a nice proportion and is already proving popular.

It weighs about 23 kilos which is extremely light for such a spacious boat. It has three handles for carrying it so that one or two people can carry it. It is practically the same as the other Fliptail models but has an extra pair of floor and hoop supports otherwise there’s really not much in it. The Fliptail 9 is also able to sail using a full Optimist sail unlike the other smaller Fliptails which need the sail cut down a little.

The Fliptail 9 rows, sails and motors and it does all three extremely well indeed. With just a tiny 4 stroke 2.5 hp engine it gets up on the plane very quickly and flies along at over ten knots. It rows well and because of its extra length is quite quick. With an Optimist rig attached it also sails very well and slips along in the lightest of breezes.

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Room for all the family. Here is the Fliptail 9 in sailing mode.

It is a bit more complicated to make than the Fliptail 6 or 7 foot versions as it is harder to get one piece lengths of wood to make the hoops so it means joining shorter pieces of wood together and this adds time to the build though not so much really.

Plans are available for just £35 and Woodenwidget will plant a tree for every set of plans sold too. The plans are very comprehensive and walk you through the entire process in an illustrated step by step way. There is a mass of extra information included and a load of Internet links to help you find the materials and tools you need.

It takes about 50 hours to build a Fliptail 9 and that includes varnishing (or painting) so why not have a go and build yourself a family sized folding boat that weighs very little and goes perfectly on the roof rack of your car?

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The Fliptail 7 fits easily inside the Fliptail 9.

 

Fliptail 9 on the plane with just a 2.5 outboard

 

Fliptail 9 under sail

www.woodenwidget.com

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Smart Roadster Coupé

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Ten years old but looking very tidy. The Smart Roadster Coupe hard top in Champagne Remix colour scheme. It’s a lot of fun.

Sports cars these days are amazing but ridiculous at the same time. As beautiful as an Aston may be, in the real world it’s just a headache. Too big and hard to see out off in most towns and way to fast for the roads. Maybe some years ago you could have had such a powerful car and actually get to use it but now with speed cameras, mobile radar, average speed cameras, parking restrictions and congestion charges it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not to mention the envy created in others by owning a car that costs as much as a house.

You could do a track day I suppose but if you had the kind of money that would allow you to buy an Aston why wouldn’t you have a race car instead? Why use just a road car? You can’t use its full potential on the public roads, that would be just foolhardy and could only end in tears. You would be forced to occasional bursts of power when the rare opportunity arose. Personally I couldn’t own such a car and only use its power and performance so liberally. I’d want to push it and if I did, I would either crash or lose my license. Or both.

This is all academic. I can’t afford an Aston and even if I could it’s the last car I’d actually want to own. I would feel too guilty driving it. I would be constantly reminded that I was far better off than 95% of the world and that I clearly don’t care about the environment. I have never cared what other people think but I do care about how I think so I need to have a more realistic and PC approach.

Enter the Smart Roadster. An expensive (for what it was) car when it was launched in 2003. Today prices start at about £2500 which for a car that cost 6 times that just ten years ago is amazing. True to say that a lot of eager initial Roadster buyers lost out when they came to sell.

Mercedes also lost out as they had to pay about £3000 per car in warranty claims to right the leaks on the cars. Not every car was affected but they got a bad reputation that remains to this day. The other criticism is the gearbox which is slow and sometimes annoying.

That said, there is a lot to recommend a Smart Roadster. Now that they can be bought for a much more realistic price, they offer cheapish and fun motoring, the like of which you though you would never see again.

Forget all the problems. This car is just such a laugh to drive and lets face it, if you were interested in practicalities you would not be looking to buy a tiny sports car with only two seats, limited luggage space and a car so low that you run the risk of looking a complete tit as you struggle to get out in and out of it.

There are some things that are important buying a Roadster, one is that it is better to buy a higher mileage version because it means it has been used. If it is being used it suggests that it must be reliable. A full Smart service history is the other essential. If it has always been serviced by Smart, the chances are that any issues have long since been dealt with. The Roadster has a highly tuned engine which needs more care and servicing that most modern cars. It needs an exact type of oil and has 2 spark plugs per cylinder. It is a complicated little car that needs understanding. This is why a Smart dealer service history is so important. Even a Mercedes dealer service history could be suspect. Word is that Mercedes didn’t care for servicing these cars and lacked proper understanding.

I bought my roadster on line from a garage selling left hand drive cars in the UK. The idea was to drive it to the south of France where it will become my everyday transport and weekend toy. It had 60,000 miles on the clock and a full Smart service history. I could tell from the pics that it was a tidy car. The guy at the garage said that everything worked. That is true, despite having heated seats, cruise control, electrically heated and adjustable wing mirrors and gawd knows what else, everything really does work.

Really I think that is quite impressive. No ten year old car that I have ever owned can say the same. Will it prove reliable? There is no way to know although I can say this. I have just completed a 2500 mile trip around the UK and then to the South of France in it and it never missed a beat, as happy on the B roads or in the rain on the motorway.

I may feel different once I have had to replace a few parts but I’m not unrealistic about owning this car. I know it will cost me money. Cars do. But even if it does go wrong and cost me money I frankly don’t care because it is just such fun to drive.

There have been a lot of comments on various forums and articles slagging off the gearbox and because of this a lot of people have been put off owning one. Or perhaps they were looking for a valid excuse not to buy one knowing that as much as they wanted one it was too hard to justify for many reasons so it was better to say that you would have bought one if only the gearbox was better.

The funny thing is that I think the gearbox is a stroke of genius. It’s a clutchless manual 6 speed box that can be an auto as well. The best of both worlds. who wants to be using a clutch in the traffic that we see these days? Not me. I have wanted an automatic car for a long time but they are so drab that until now I have not been able to do that.

The car must be learned. I think it took about 1000 miles of all sorts of driving before I felt I had the measure of the car and the gearbox. You cannot do certain things because the car won’t let you. Fine. All you have to do is learn to drive the car within its limits and when you do you will discover that it enhances the driving experience. It keeps you more focused as you drive.

There are lots of tricks. They say that an engine remap often speeds up the gear change. I tried that but couldn’t notice the gear change being any faster. Still it was worth a try and has made the Roadster even more fun to drive. The adjustment of the clutch actuator is critical. If there is too much play the clutch action takes longer and since the gears cannot change until the clutch has done its thing it slows every thing down.

Using the Auto option also slows the gear change down. At low speeds or in town the gear changes are very smooth and imperceptible it’s just when you take the engine to the redline in every gear that the changes are slow and snatchy. However if you change gear manually you will find that the changes are much faster. If you can get it so that you change just before the redline it helps too.

But what helps the most is letting the car warm up properly before thrashing it. This is good for the turbo in any case but like an old Fiat it just gets better and better the warmer it gets. Once you get the hang of the gear change it is not really so slow at all. I would say it is like a leisurely change gear in a normal car. The reality is that this is quite fast enough for the road. Perhaps on a track you might lose a fraction of a second with every change but what most people fail to point out is that you don’t need to change gear as often as you think.

On the road once rolling you don’t change gear much. The little 700cc turbo engine is remarkably torquey and pulls like a train from 3000 rpm to the 6000 rpm redline which means that blasting down a country lane you are mostly in 4th gear. You can accelerate from 40 to 70 very quickly in the same gear.

The 0-60 time is misleading because it changes gear just a few mph before 60 which spoils an otherwise respectable time. Most decent remaps allow more revs in third gear so that it changes after the car has reached 60mph and this makes a huge difference to 0-60 times, I’m guessing about 8 seconds which is quick enough in the real world. There are a few methods for a faster get away. There is a switch at the bottom of the throttle pedal that speeds up the get away by raising the revs to 3000 before releasing the clutch. There’s also a way of using the ignition key to get the revs up before the clutch is released. It takes some practice to get right but does make the Roadster rocket off like a scalded cat but I doubt it would do the clutch much good.

Unless you’re drag racing the slow gear change is not a problem. On the road, in the real world the Roadster can hold its own against most challengers. This is where the Roadster shines. It has a low centre of gravity and a 45/55 weight distribution and ridiculously wide tyres for such a small and light car so it sticks to road and is beautifully balanced. I read somewhere it can generate almost 1 G which is astonishing.

The problem with the Roadster is not that the gearbox is pants it’s just that you can’t drive this car as it was an ordinary car. You have to rethink what you are doing and drive it as it dictates and then you will understand it’s charms. Sure, sometimes it seems a bit slow or snatchy but I’ll take that over a clutch. 99% of the time the gearbox works just fine so long as you stay within the confines of the system. No doubt this kind of thing disturbs the purists but the fact is cars have been taking over many functions from the driver for years now and no one complains about that. Things like auto choke and ABS for example. In the future, cars will do more and more for us so you might as well get used to it.

The technophobes of this world will always diss a new or different way of doing things. For years now Airplanes have not had mechanical systems to operate the wing flaps. It is all done by wires and servos. Yet planes are more reliable because the Human element has been taken out of the equation. No one doubts this because we still get on a plane and expect to arrive. The Roadster has no throttle cable. It too is ‘fly by wire’ and that seems to scare people. The simple fact is that electronics will rule our lives more and more. For those not afraid of technology the Smart Roadster is a great toy. To those pessimistic technophobes I say; Build a bridge and get over it. Even if it breaks down it’s not the end of the world. RAC membership and a mobile phone will get you home. Not like a plane that simply falls out of the sky.

The steering is direct and it changes direction instantly with no roll. It is only marginally affected by cross winds and passing lorries at speed. I don’t know why the Roadster has power steering but it does and it does make town driving a doddle and since it is speed sensitive you don’t really notice it. The steering wheel needs a fair bit of movement but maybe this just adds to the experience as you have to move the wheel so much. A bit like a kid with a toy car wildly swinging the wheel and making screeching sounds. The only thing that is missing from the Roadster experience is squealing tyres which it just doesn’t do. The standard wheel is quite large but you can fit the Brabus version which is a couple of cm smaller but it’s no prettier than the original wheel. The horn is operated by buttons on each side of the wheel but they are never to hand when you want them. I would prefer that the centre of the wheel operated the horn.

The handling is amazing. It just sticks to the road and seems completely unfussed how you drive. You can change direction mid corner, you can brake or accelerate. It just goes round the corner so easily. Perhaps it’s being so close to the road and since the centre of gravity is so low there’s practically no roll at all. I have not noticed much understeer and the back end seems firmly planted too. My guess is that if you really do push it it will be the back that goes first. I have yet to do much driving in the rain so I can’t really comment on what it will do if you over do it. In theory the ESP will take over the car and sort it out. The system is able to control the throttle, clutch and the brakes. It can even brake individual wheels to help the car back on line.

The ESP can be turned off but in fact it only allows wheelspin, it will still take over if you over cook it. That said despite some fairly spirited driving the warning light has yet to come on indicating that the system is taking over. Sometimes if you go over a bumpy road too fast the light can come on but I was not aware of the car taking over in any way. From what I have read it seems that even when the system operates it is never intrusive. I think the only way to tell is to do a track day and see where the limits are. On the road it is hard to know that.

The brakes are good. They are not sharp and require a fair bit of pressure but the car slows quickly. I tried braking hard from 70mph and it pulled up straight with no drama at all. A tiny bit of intermittent squealing could be heard as the ABS cut in and the car nose dives a little but the way it stops is very impressive. How they will cope on the track I have yet to find out but on the road I have not experienced any fade.

The motor is a fabulous creation. Three cylinders means it sounds like half a Porsche and the turbo waste gate makes a delightful chirruping noise when you change gear. You’re so low to the ground that you really think you’re going faster than you actually are. This is a good thing and is why I would rather have a Smart Roadster to drive than any of the latest Supercars out there. You can drive it like a nutter and still have a good chance of not having your licence taken away. What is maybe even more extraordinary is the fact that over that 2500 mile journey on all sorts of roads I still managed to average an amazing 45 mpg. Considering how much I was thrashing it that is a remarkable figure.

The Interior is a nice place to be. Once you have ‘fallen in’ to the car. It’s all a bit plastic and the switch gear isn’t the smoothest but it’s still cosy and yet spacious. Water leaks into the windows when you lower them as there is no roof gutter. But it’s a sports car. One expects some compromise. The answer is simple. Don’t open the windows when it’s raining! The sun visors are hysterical being tiny and unable to move to the side. Actually they work fairly well but clack back shut noisily. There is very little reflection from the dash and the instruments are easy to read although the speedo over reads but this just makes you think you’re going faster than you are.

The stereo in my car is the CD version by Grundig. It’s not bad. It’s easy to use and the sound is good. What is pants are the speakers so I changed them for some high quality German ones. Not cheap but the sound is excellent and the mounting tabs correctly placed for the Roadster, often people install a normal speaker but cannot screw down all four tabs and this leads to vibrations. The Stereo Koncept speakers come with tweeters which are supposed to be fitted below the speakers in the doors but since my car already had tweeters in the dash below the windscreen, I simply swapped them for the original ones. I also added some tape to the tabs that hold the speaker grills in place to stop them buzzing. The speakers are very small but they have a surprising amount of bass and sound very good. Just loud enough to listen with the top down.

The seats are firm and comfy but I find they lack lumbar support for me. Three hours driving is fine but after that you really fancy a stretch. The seating position doesn’t really work for me. I find that when the wheel is in the right place I can barely touch the pedals so I have to be closer to the wheel than I would like. I also find myself a bit low being a short arse. I raised the seat about ten mm and that has helped enormously. There’s plenty of headroom. The seats grip you well in the corners so you’re not constantly being thrown about by the considerable G this car can produce. The seats have metal backs and protect in the event of an accident which is a comforting thought and they have side airbags in their tops. (at least on my car).

The passenger seat folds down but the driver’s one doesn’t. The driver’s seat can be reclined but the passenger’s is fixed. Getting the passenger seat to fold is a two handed operation but that is because the seat has to be massively strong and needs two clips to lock it in position. I dare say Smart could have made a single lever system but the seat is not often folded so it’s no big deal.

Visibility is good considering although it’s impossible (for me) to see the front nearside of the car. The rear screen has no wiper but then it doesn’t need it as it just doesn’t get wet or dirty. The windscreen washers have 4 nozzles and do a great job of washing the windscreen. Side mirrors are electrically operated on my car and that can be helpful when reversing against a curb.

Air conditioning works well as does the heater and heated seats (ridiculous) but since my car has them, maybe one day I will be grateful for them. I used the aircon almost all the way on the last 2500 mile journey in the UK and France in July. It was hot and I was glad of it. Basically the car works just fine and most people when sitting in it for the first time are surprised at the space and the coolness of the interior.

What surprises most people is just how quiet and smooth the car is on the road. My car has 15” wheels which must help a lot. I can’t imagine what the 17” Brabus rims are like. Must be horrible. The Roadster handles bumps and potholes as well as you could expect for such a low slung and sporty little car. What surprised me most was the mellow way it deals with speed bumps. That is a helpful trait for any modern car what with so many speed bumps about. Passengers always comment on how quiet and smooth the car is. I guess having the engine behind helps to keep the noise behind you.

On the motorway the Roadster works brilliantly. My car has cruise control which is essential if you do a lot of motorway driving. I find that the throttle pedal is not well placed for me and if I didn’t have the Cruise Control I suspect that my foot would ache after a while. There is a fair bit of wind noise at 80mph but it’s not terrible. A strip of insulation tape along the front edge of the hard top cuts down the noise dramatically. But the Roadster is not a motorway car and any excuse to get off and find a B road is welcome.

There is a boot at the front that is quite commodious and for the overspill there’s always the rear boot which is 180 litres. The only down side is that it ruins your rear vision. The hard top stows in the back too so that cuts down the space you can use. That said this is a surprisingly practical car which can carry a lot of stuff considering its size. The power steering and auto box make town or traffic far more tolerable.

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A great looking little car. The wheel base is the same as a Porsche 911. These are the 15” standard wheels.

My car has the hard top roof only. It takes a couple of minutes to remove or replace. It’s very easy. It is a joy to drive with the roof off. It really transforms the car. For a start you can’t hear the creaking from the roof panels as the chassis flexes slightly. It’s so nice to have that open air right above your head and it is very nice to be able to thank other drivers by raising your hand out of the roof. Although you will not be popular with your passenger especially if she has long hair as the wind does buffet around in the cabin although it’s not too bad. There are two small plastic ridges on the top of the windscreen surround which may be there to cut down on wind noise or deflect air away. I can’t think what else they could be.

The outside of the Smart Roadster is clever too. All the panels are replaceable and made of plastic. So you could have two sets of panels and change the car’s colour in a couple of hours. One of the best things about plastic panels, apart from the obvious lack of rust is that they do not dent like metal. My last car was perfect except for a line of small dents down each side where people had been opening their doors on it in car parks. The Roadster might get the paint chipped but the door won’t dent!

The roof hinges are far too large and the paint flakes off them. I don’t know why they are so big. In my opinion they spoil the looks somewhat. The door handles work well and the doors open and shut easily and with a nice noise. Maybe they shut too easily and can get slammed by people used to much heavier doors. The electric windows are fast, quiet and smooth and although I prefer the switch on the door it’s not terribly hard to reach to the centre consul to operate them. Most of the switch gear is within easy reach.

Parts are available from a number of places and don’t seem too badly priced. I think the secret with the Roadster is careful and preventive servicing and maintenance. Only time will tell how reliable the car is and how often it needs parts such as clutches, brake pads etc.

There are also a lot of good sites with how to articles about all the aspects of the Roadster and that really is very helpful. When these cars came out they had a dedicated and keen following. Loads of companies offer tuning parts and wheels for the roadster. You can even buy doors that lift up when you open them just like a Lambo. The question is not what do you want to do to your Roadster buy how much you want to spend.

You can even buy active woofers that fit in the passenger foot well. The look a bit bulky and must surely take up some legroom but with the seat right back, there’s plenty spare. You can get chrome trims for the instruments and lowered suspension and uprated brakes. Quite a few companies make exhausts too. The one I keep coming back to is the Janspeed Stealth. Just like the original exhaust, you cannot see it’s exit hidden as it is behind the rear valance. The Brabus versions have a central exit that requires a new section of the valance.

The roadster looks great to me with it’s bulging arches and smiling face but some don’t like it at all. It’s true, the back end isn’t the prettiest and a centre exit exhaust doesn’t even help. In my opinion, the less you draw attention to the back end the better. The first cars had sections of dark grey plastic for the headlights and a part of the rear valance. I guess in a way to reduce visually the large area of paint. Some owners colour code these parts but I think it makes the car look a bit cheesy. Although the dark plastic bits aren’t too pretty they offer a good contrast to the paint. Despite that the Roadster is eye catching and unlike anything on the road today. It offers a welcome antidote to the majority of modern cars which are hard to tell apart.

It’s amazing how many looks the car gets. Kids love it especially and it’s always a treat to see another on the road. There are not many cars left that always flash and wave when they see another one the same. Just the other day I stopped alongside a Portuguese Roadster exactly like mine. The guy was so surprised. He was touring Europe with his girlfriend and having a great time. There are not many Roadsters on the road but if you keep your eyes open they are around.

There are problems with the car being so low is that it seems less visible to other road users. Or maybe they see a car and assume it’s as big as a ‘normal’ car and thus further away than they think. But I think it’s the fact that it has a very angled and small frontal area that’s just hard to see unless you’re looking and sadly today not everyone does look. However with good brakes and quick steering you should be able to stay out of trouble no matter what everyone else does.

There is also a cheeky aspect to the roadster, with the roof off, windows down you can change lanes and nip in front of people without upsetting them, a hand waved through the roof in thanks is all that is needed. No one has hooted me yet! Though I have been flashed at when overtaking sometimes. The car coming the other way just doesn’t realise how quick you can overtake and over reacts.

My conclusion is this: Who cares about all these details really? The one question you need to ask yourself is do you want to have fun when you drive? Do you want to enjoy the journey or do you just want to arrive? The Roadster is not for everyone but for those who want to let their hair down and simply have a laugh without losing their license or spending too much would be wise to consider the Smart Roadster.

The Smart Roadster has competitors. There’s the Mazda MX5 and the Toyota MR2 to name but two. Now I haven’t driven either of these and I’m sure they are excellent cars which are super reliable and quick enough to excite but I’ll bet they won’t make you smile as much as the Smart Roadster will. It’s not for everyone but if you want to have a laugh for not much money then test drive one. Bear in mind what I said about learning the car before you judge too soon.

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Update: After 10,000 kms

The roadster has yet to let me down but it did develop some faults. The first problem was a slipping clutch. It came suddenly so I suspected the actuator. My local friendly Smart garage greased it up and adjusted it, first by pulling the actuator towards the clutch using a special spring balance. Then the actuator is fixed in that position. Then the car must be attached to a computer which then adjusts it. This seemed to help.

Then on a long journey the car would accelerate in a weird way and the turbo boost gauge was not steady. Some quick research on the Internet and it soon became clear that the Turbo was knackered or the manifold was cracked or both. In any case the solution was a new turbo. It comes ready assembled on the manifold. Prices vary but I got one for about £400 which isn’t bad really. The Turbo is so cute, smaller than a donut with tiny little vanes. It seems impossible that so small a fan could boost the power on this little engine.

So while the Turbo was being replaced I also serviced the engine, changed the gearbox oil, replaced the two belts and even a broken front engine mount and the entire sump. Many roadsters have rusty sumps which can start to leak. I bought a plastic replacement which even has a drain plug, something the standard Roadster doesn’t have. Oil is extracted via the dipstick, a poor and inefficient way of doing things. I also replaced the aging actuator with a new one.

At first the car felt a bit underpowered and the boost was not rising above 1 bar. I thought for a while that the remap had been overwritten by the garage when they reset the gearbox and the actuator. Not so, after a few more miles the boost started to climb and now tops out at just under 1.5 bar. It never managed that before so I guess that the Turbo was getting tired even when I bought the car. No worries, now the Turbo is new it should last a few years.

Then the clutch started slipping again. One of the reasons for changing the actuator was so that if the clutch still slipped it would rule that out once and for all. A slipping clutch could only mean one thing, a worn clutch that needs replacing. So I ordered a clutch and release bearing and while I was at it, a new oil seal for the crank. It can leak and cause a slipping clutch though my Smart man thinks it unlikely. In any case since I ordered the clutch (about £250) the current one is working just fine again. In fact the car has never driven better. It is up on power, the gear changes are crisp and the throttle response excellent so for now the new clutch will stay in its box until needed.

Then today I booked the car in for an MOT and driving away the handbrake button popped out of the handbrake so the handbrake no longer locks. Most annoying. Here’s a fault I had not yet read about. In order to remove the handbrake it is first necessary to remove the carpet. In order to remove the carpet, you must first remove the stereo to get access to the bolts that hold the facia in place. Remove the seats (first disconnecting the battery because of risk of explosion from side air bags) and the gearlever, shaft and tunnel. It seems like a ridiculous amount of work just to remove the handbrake but actually it wasn’t too bad at all. I don’t suppose it took an hour and this was the first time I did this so I can only get faster. Having the carpet out was the perfect opportunity to wash and scrub it as it was not smelling so nice. Maybe from a leak that was since fixed. The car was immaculate under the carpet however.

The problem, and here is a classic example of why Smart failed with the Roadster. The ratchet that holds the handbrake is connected to a plastic arm with a hollow in it to catch the rounded top of the ratchet piece. Being plastic and poorly designed and engineered, it was only a matter of time before this happened. To have done a proper job with this piece might only have cost a few pence more but Smart decided to go with plastic and for moving parts it’s a poor idea.

Unfortunately the handbrake is not only hard to remove because of the aforementioned other dismantling that has to take part first but it is also NOT designed to come apart being riveted together. It is pretty nasty. I could buy a new handbrake for £100 but have decided to repair it by adding metal to the plastic to reinforce it. That way it will not happen again. Amazing really when you consider how much work it is to remove the handbrake why they used such shitty plastic that was bound to break one day.

So that is where I am today, with the car in pieces, seats out and handbrake in pieces. But I am not disheartened. The Roadster is such a clever car in so many ways that despite the failures here is a car which can go on forever because the plastic panels don’t rust and the Tridion chassis is very well painted and protected by plastic. Unless you prang the car it could go on for decades slowly replacing all the mechanical parts as they fail. In the future the Roadster would make a perfect donor car for an electric vehicle. Yes the car has cost me money but it has not stranded me and the pieces I have replaced are things that would need replacing one day anyway. So, until the next exciting episode. What will break next I wonder?

 

Update Nov 2013

A very amusing day was spent at a local race track. Most of the cars were Lotus and Porsche and I am pleased to report that the Roadster was not the slowest car by any means. The single seat racing cars were doing a circuit in about one minute. The Roadster managed a respectable 1.12. It scores well in the tight corners and corners which change direction quickly. It also scores on stopping, being able to brake ridiculously late.

It was let down by two things, one being the lack of outright acceleration although to some degree this was mitigated by not really needing to brake in the first place! The second thing that was a bit frustrating were some of the gearbox ratios. There were a couple of corners that required third gear but at the exit the revs just passed 6000 rpm so the gearbox would change into 4th when it should just stay in third. It was only a matter of a few hundred revs but enough that I had to back off the revs slightly so that it didn’t change. This happened again at the next set of bends where I needed forth but if I didn’t pay attention it would change to 5th and mess up the next set of bends. That said, this is true of any car on a track, gearbox ratios will often to finely tuned for particular circuits and corners. It’s a minor gripe but made more noticeable because of the Roadster’s gearbox.

What I did discover is that the Smart Roadster is a fantastically well balanced sports car with an astonishing level of grip and a very forgiving stance even on the limit. I found that even with the tyres screaming their protest it was still possible to change direction, exaggerate a slide or reduce it just but playing with the steering. Many sports cars rely on throttle response to change the car’s attitude in a bend. Not so the Roadster. It doesn’t have the power for this so it’s just as well that the basic chassis is so well set up and allows you to do this. I was very impressed.

I was surprised at how far I could push the car. The tyres, which never squeal on the road were quite vocal on the track. It might have been something to do with the surface which certainly seemed considerably more grippy than your average road surface. Maybe it’s the surface itself, or maybe just the rubber that has been laid down over the years or maybe it was the fact that I was driving it like a maniac.

I tried many different styles of driving to get the best lap time and the fastest was achieved by driving like a lunatic with tyres complaining on corners and ABS cutting in under heavy braking but it doesn’t seem very skilful so I tried a more elegant approach but times dropped by a couple of seconds. Most interesting.

The ESP was turned off and this allowed me to do 4 wheel drifts through corners. On the occasions that I forgot to turn it off I did notice it take over the throttle and stop the drift and in doing so slowed the car down enough to ruin a good lap time.

Under braking the car is so balanced and composed. I was in company with a French guy with a Lotus Exige who was about 6 seconds a lap faster than me and he was surprised how late I was braking at the end of the straight. From 100 mph to 30 mph in no time at all. He was braking before the 100 metre mark and I was braking well after it. Now, how much this has to do with the fact that although I was doing 100 mph at the end of the straight, he must have been doing considerably more so perhaps it is normal that he had to brake earlier than me. What I do know is that many of the slightly faster cars all used the hard right hander at the end of the straight to pass but with such late braking they were frustrated every time.

What surprised me most was that my lap time was about the same as the bulk of the Elises. I would catch them in the bends and they would catch me on the straights. The cars were well matched. In the end I let them go so as not to slow them down but would always catch them up again and they would let me go past. This alone is quite amazing that a car with just a 700 cc engine is able to hold its head high against some of the best sports cars in the world is very impressive. Remember also that apart from a remap, my Roadster has completely standard suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres while most of the Lotus have upgraded everything including special soft tyres.

What I have realised from this track day is this. If you want to have a laugh on the track for not very much money you would be hard put to do better than buy a Smart Roadster. Lots of other drivers commented on the handling of the Roadster and were surprised at how quick it was.

Just a couple of hours driving round a small track with quite tight bends took its toll on the tyres and they were all beaded up and torn although not as badly as some of the other cars I saw. It is a light car and so well balanced that although the tyres wear it’s not too bad. In any case brakes and tyres are bound to wear at a much higher rate on the track and of course this needs to be costed in. Track days are expensive all in all. The actual track only costs a couple of quid a lap but the wear and tear on the car, brakes and tyres will probably double or triple that figure.

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The result of over cooking it. The car ended up beached a surprisingly long way from the track.

Then there is also the chance of damaging the car, the paintwork and the windscreen. And of course if you push too hard and and end in the gravel traps then the wheels and lower bodywork will take a beating. That’s what happened on my second outing after about 15 laps. For no reason at all I lost it after a corner and I don’t know why. Probably the simplest solution is that I was going too fast but it didn’t happen again. It remains a bit of a mystery really but it does prove that it is definitely possible to spin a Roadster even with the ESP which never turns itself off completely.

The track day was a useful experience which has given me so much confidence in the car and its handling. There is no way you could drive like that on the road but it’s nice to know that even at good speeds the Roadster is well planted, offers excellent grip and handling. Powerful brakes that are undaunted by uneven surfaces. It does nice 4 wheel drifts and if you over cook it that turns to understeer and then if you really over do it, oversteer.

All I need to do now is polish out the marks made by the gravel in the bodywork and see if the wheels will polish up. If not, they’ll need to be resprayed. If I was going to do this more often I suppose the best would be to get another set of wheels and put racing slicks on them and change them at the track. Of course then the suspension and brakes would need upgrading. Then I’d probably start thinking it would be nice to have a bit more power. I think the standard Roadster is brilliant and can be used with much effect even completely standard.

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New wood technologies part 1 Tennage

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Tennage super thin veneer. Here is Walnut, Teak and Ebony.

Doing research for an upcoming project, I have been delving into the various wood technologies out there. What I am learning is that there are some truly amazing wood products out there and not only that, most are also eco friendly.

Since there are so many interesting new woods out there I will post about each separately. The first is a very thin veneer called Tennage. It is so thin that light can pass through it making it an interesting choice for lighting. It is just 0.2mm thick (or should I say thin?) and to keep it from splitting or breaking has a very flexible backing bonded to it.

This product’s green credentials come from the fact that it is produced from wood that would otherwise be considered waste. An astonishing 5000 square metres of sheet can be produced from just one cubic metre of waste wood! So although the wood itself may not sustainably managed it is still a step in the right direction. The backing is made from a natural resin so it can claim to be a non VOC wood veneer.

It can be bent around curves or even sharp corners. It can be pressed into a shape using a vacuum press. It can be laser cut and stretched out for a funky affect and it can even be sewn. It is more resistant to UV and humidity than normal thicker veneers. All in all this is a very exciting product with no end of possibilities for its use. 

Tennage is available in over 30 species of wood so should satisfy most peoples’ needs. It seems reasonably priced starting at about $150 a sheet rising to over $500. Sheet size is 900mm by 1800mm.

The only downside is that there is a minimum order of ten sheets which is over 15 square metres which is a lot if you only want to make a few lampshades!

As if the Tennage itself wasn’t amazing enough there is a product made from it which is totally extraordinary. Called Ki-Ori Tennage it is a woven wood fabric based on a traditional method invented by the Japanese over 1200 years ago called Kyoto-Nishijin-Ori .

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The Ki-Ori Tennage wood fabric. Quite extraordinary.

One might think that a woven wood would be rather stiff but in fact it is surprisingly supple and nice to the touch. It feels like a fabric but is made of 2mm strips of Tennage wood veneer. It is not strips of wood woven together but rather parallel strips held closely in place by thread. To all intents and purposes it appears as if the strips are woven together.

There is even a clearly visible grain pattern in the fabric. The look of the fabric can be changed by using any number of different materials for the thread. Cost is about $300 a square metre so it’s certainly not cheap but it can do stuff that no other woods can. Thanks to its weave, it can be formed over compound curves which makes it very versatile. It comes in one metre wide sheets 1800mm long but comes on a roll and can be made any length you like.

All this was too irresistible for me so I bought a sample pack. I am impressed with the quality and the concept. It amazes me that anyone can even produce a 0.2mm veneer in the first place. I have seen varnish thicker than that! It remains to be seen how the woven wood will look when it has been shaped and varnished but I’ll update this post with pics as soon as I get around to it.

Again, the only real downside is there is a minimum order of ten sheets which would add up to over $5000 plus import duty and shipping. I’m guessing that would equate to about 6000€. Ouch.

Here’s their website: www.onlyone-pro.com.

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Genelec 8020 and 5040 subwoofer review

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This is all you need for a great sounding hifi. A mains supply to plug the speakers into an an Ipod. Job done! (for the review of the 5040 Sub, please see the update below)

The first time I discovered Genelec speakers was when I was rummaging in a locker in the owner’s cabin of a Swan 65 yacht. The boat was owned by Richard Wright from Pink Floyd. I picked them up. They were quite small but very heavy. If they were owned by a musician of Richard’s calibre they ought to be pretty good. Richard used them with a keyboard so he could play his music on the boat.

No time was wasted plugging them in and seeing how they sounded. To say I was amazed by the clarity and quality of sound would be an understatement. I had never heard anything quite like them. Considering their size these speakers could pack a punch. I was highly amused by the health warning on the back of the cabinets warning that these speakers could seriously damage your hearing and could reach up to 106db!!! That is ridiculously loud and very ‘rock and roll’. I simply had to have some for my boat!

On researching Genelec some time later, I learned that they no longer made the exact model of speaker that Richard had and they had been replaced by the 8020 model which was smaller and rounder in shape and are made of die cast aluminium.

They are really designed to be part of a surround sound system and as such can be daisy chained together so you can have as many as you like. There is a matching 16” Woofer that goes with them for the full system and really big sound. They use the professional standard XLR ‘lock in’ connectors.

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Quality, cast alloy cases, professional XLR connections and clever rubber feet. Made in Finland by Genelec who have been around for over 30 years.

What makes these speakers different is the fact that they are active. What that means is that they have an amplifier built in. In fact, they have two in each speaker. This does mean that you need a mains supply to make them work but the great advantage is that the amp is perfectly suited to the speakers. One amp runs the woofer and the other amp the tweeter. It also means is that there is no crossover needed and so the sound is pure with all the components perfectly matched. It’s a very sensible and intelligent way to go about things.

When I bought mine about three years ago, they cost about £200 each, now they are about £300 each which is a lot of money for a small speaker. But they are quality and they sound fantastic and are worth every penny. When ever I turn them up, visitors are always amazed for two reasons, one, because they sound so ‘BIG’ and two, because they can’t work out where the sound is coming from. That is because they are so small that they are practically invisible, one on each side of the boat on a shelf above the forward bunk.

They are perfect for a small space and they really fill the boat with sound. If I had a criticism it is that they demand to be heard. Even at low volumes they want you to listen to them. They are not the ideal speakers if you want something to play background music with. But if you love music and like to LISTEN to it, then definitely consider a pair of these.

I do not have the matching woofer on the boat because there is simply no need. On paper, the frequency response for these speakers is nothing to write home about with the bottom end a piddly 66 hz but for their size they produce PLENTY of bass. They have a switch at the back so if you use them with the woofer you can reduce the bass still further and have just the mid and top end.

Whether I listen to them from the laptop or from an MP3 player, the sound is fabulous. Ever since I can remember I have been surrounded by quality hifi equipment. I well remember my dad’s leak speakers and very expensive Stax electrostatic headphones. I always had mates who were well into their hifi so I know what a good sound is.

I will try and describe the sound for you. The bottom end is tight and warm and really very good for such small speakers. After all the woofer is only 4” in diameter which is tiny. The bass sound is increased by the special shape of the cases which is round so that the sound gets focused as it works it’s way out of the speaker through a port at the back. The midrange is uncluttered, clear and punchy. The top end is sharp and clean, detailed and very realistic.

They sound best when playing quality recordings. They can be a bit critical as they reproduce sound so well that you really do hear everything. If there are faults in the recording, you will hear them.

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The Genelec 8020B active speakers. They can be adjusted for tilt a little on their rubber feet. On/off volume control and a green LED at the front, all other adjustments at the back. Heavy little speakers at nearly 4 kilos each.

When you place them about 2 metres apart and place yourself centrally about a metre and a half away, they have a very special quality indeed. Close your eyes and you can hear so much more. They really come alive when well placed with superb stereo separation. Voices and acoustic guitars sound so natural it’s amazing.

There are always certain tracks that I use as a reference. Tunes that are either beautifully played or sung and well produced, preferably all three. For guitar I like to listen to Steven Still’s Tree top flyer. Not only is it a great tune but it’s a beautiful recording (not the youtube version though I’m afraid!). John Martyn is always great to listen to. Here he shows his mastery of the echoplex. I love the bass on The Chain. And the Police are always worth listening to.  They seem to cope well with all genres of music old and modern, slow and fast, from easy listening to Motorhead.

But perhaps the best test for any stereo set up is this fabulous track (happiness is easy) from Talk Talk’s superb album ‘The colour of Spring’. If you don’t know Talk Talk, do yourself a favour and give them a go. You may not like them at first but persevere as I did. You will not regret it.

I had a problem with one of the speakers after about a year. It just stopped working. The problem was traced to a faulty transformer. It cost a very reasonable £20 to replace and was quickly dealt with by the UK company that deals with Genelec. Since then the speakers have performed flawlessly. They are left on for as much as 8 hours every day.

They do not pick up any sounds of interference such as alternator noise or mobile phones. This is a quality product. They are supplied with a special rubber stand/feet and a power cable but you’ll need to supply your own XLR cables to connect them to the source of your choice.

Depending on the power output of the source, they can be very very loud, with my Creative MP3 at full volume they are pretty loud but can be much louder with the laptop. They are certainly loud enough to thoroughly annoy the neighbours if necessary!

Would I recommend them? Oh yes. For their size they are fantastic and very portable. All you need is a power supply and you can have real quality sound wherever you are. Perfect for a small space like a boat although it is a bit of a shame that they are not 12V. It’s no real problem though as even the smallest inverter will power them as they only take 20 Watts each and that is at full volume. In practice they take much less than that. It’s almost perpetual motion as much more seems to come out than goes in! They sound much louder than 20 watts to me!

If you would like to know more about them, check out the Genelec site.

 

Update December 2012

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The Genelec 5040 subwoofer and remote volume control. Cast alloy and top quality. The sound that comes out is amazing.

Genelec recently launched an even smaller speaker than the 8020 featured above. They are the 6010s. It has a tiny 3” woofer but even though they are tiny they have been getting good reviews. To go with these little speakers, Genelec have produced a small sub woofer called the 5040. It has a 6.5”  speaker and a 40 watt amp built in. It can produce a very respectable 96 db and has a frequency response that goes down to 35 hz which is pretty low.

Like all Genelec products it’s beautifully made and thought out. Although it is really designed for the 6010s Genelec say it can be used with the 8020s too. It was too much for me to resist so I decided to get one. It lives under the bed in a locker which I rarely visit. A nice touch with the 5040 is that it has a separate volume control which simply plugs in to the 5040 with a standard 3.5mm stereo jack. This control lowers the volume of the sub and the speakers which are connected to it.

If you visit the Genelec site you will find all sorts of info about using a frequency generator to properly set up your sub and loads of advice about speaker position. However much of their advice is academic to me as I have no choice but to put the speakers where they will fit, not where they are best situated. There are a few adjustments you can make to the speakers and the sub to get the sound just right but Genelec suggest trying the standard settings first.

Let me tell you that right out of the box this sub is unbelievable. I don’t know what other word to use. I have never heard anything like it. Now that the 8020s have their bass turned off and the sub is handling that end they are even louder as the little woofer doesn’t have to even try and handle the bottom end. The noise that comes out of these speakers is astonishing.

A friend said that now I will have trouble with things vibrating in the boat but it has not been the case. The bass is so well reproduced and clean that nothing has been set vibrating yet which is astonishing considering the power of the bass now. You can feel it through the entire floor in the boat. It is incredible just how loud you can turn the music up with no distortion at all. It all remains very clear and sharp.

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The underside showing all the controls. This is a serious bit of kit. Designed for the 6010 system but also works perfectly with the 8020s. I see no reason why it wouldn’t work with any active speakers.

There are some tracks that are just extraordinary and have me laughing at the outrageousness of it all. Eric Truffaz’s song Siegfried and Less from his album Bending New Corners will amaze you with their clarity and fatness (for want of a better word!). This combination of 8020s and the 5040 is fantastic on my boat. I don’t know how it would fare in a bigger space but for my needs they are more than enough and loud enough for anyone’s ears.

The sub can be adjusted for volume so you match it to your other speakers and it has various inputs and outputs for many more options that I will ever need. The volume control is pure class. It is extremely weighty so that it doesn’t move when operated. It is just a rotating knob which lowers the system volume. This is a much better system for the boat because I no longer has to press the function and F keys to lower the volume on the computer which was a real pain.

What’s interesting is that the system now seems easier to listen to. The sub is not intrusive, merely doing what it should be doing. The overall sound is great, very addictive, warm, compelling and complete.

Genelec’s may be pricy but it’s a classic case of getting what you pay for. Active speakers may not be ideal for everyone but they make a lot of sense in many ways. We have an inverter on board that we use to run mains powered items including the speakers. At normal listening volume the speaker system takes about 2.5 amp/hr which isn’t too bad and compares to a typical car stereo unit. However when the volume is cranked up you can use three times that amount!

Conclusion:

If the 8020s were good on their own, they are incredible with the 5040 sub woofer. Genelec recommend a far bigger one for the 8020s normally but as far as I am concerned the 8020s go beautifully with the smaller 5040 sub.

The sound is (pick your own superlative) and the quality indisputable. The 8020s have been on board for a few years now and are used for hours every day. They are sometimes used off the boat too thanks to their portability. They get a lot of use and apart from the one small problem which was quickly sorted they have been flawless.

The volume control is a nice touch and makes the speakers very easy to use. They have plenty of adjustment but straight out of the box the system sounds perfect to me. Hard to imagine that I might get it sounding even better. If the sub needs ‘running in’ like most speakers then I can only imagine it getting better and better in time.

Bloody brilliant. Worth every penny. Very happy.