Carvana – The Next Best thing to Used Car Buying Nirvana

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If you happen to follow this blog, you know I normally I review books, sometimes music or movies and tech (at least when I haven’t had a month-long hiatus of late). I typically don’t review services, and certainly not used cars sales service. This post will be quite different in that regard. By the way, I’m not going review the car; the Kia Sorento seems to fit our needs perfectly, but I’m really not equipped to review it. Rather, I’ll focus on Carvana’s service. So, let me step back a bit. For various reasons, we were looking for a newish, reliable, practical midsized SUV. We first turned to a local used car dealership with whom we’ve had previous dealings. We’ve got to the point where we paid to have a mechanic inspect the car prior to purchasing. It became pretty evident that attention to detail and willingness to negotiate were no longer strong points for that dealership which had changed hands since our last encounter. I continued my search and through that search ran across a car that looked good, met our criteria, was reasonably priced and was with Carvana of whom I’ve never heard. As I dived in a little bit more, I saw that this was a new way to buy used cars. Essentially, you check it out on the Internet through photographs, descriptions, and some data, like data from Carfax. At this point, you can buy the car on-line, and while I didn’t take advantage of this they do offer financing and the ability to trade in on the site. They’ll have it delivered to your home. Now you’re thinking: “Sight unseen? You fool of a Took!” Well, you have seven days and 400 miles to check out the car; even Gandalf could see the wisdom in that. If you don’t like it, you can return it and have your money returned. Alternatively, you can ask for a different car and switch them out (paying/receiving the price difference). Nicely enough for us, the very first car was the car that we wanted to keep. I initiated this process the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend. It was delivered to my door the next Tuesday morning (that is, the next business day) at 10 AM. I believe it came from a location 400 miles away. That’s pretty swift service.

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Courtsey Carvana.com

Delivery isn’t just fast. It’s scheduled and done with friendly flare; our driver was a tad early and called about 30 minutes ahead of arriving. The car comes all shined up on a nice, neat truck with a polite and helpful driver (no, I don’t think he’s a Boy Scout). The folks at Carvana are smart enough to have the driver be a notary public so that they can take care of all the registration for you. The only thing you’ll have to do after the fact is pay property tax. Nice. You can have 15 to 20 minutes of driving it before they drive away, but I didn’t take advantage of that either. I really like the idea of having a solid week for a test drive to really get a feel for the automobile. So, from your couch to your doorstep, a vehicle is available with very little hassle. (I did have to get on the phone with Carvana and my bank to let those guys know that funds were available in the account being used, but that was it.)

Here’s a video walkthrough of Carvana’s web experience:

You might think that with this kind of set up, Carvana would be tempted to just fly under the radar for the next seven days so that they make sure you are on the hook for your car. Nope. Day six they gave me a call to verify that everything was looking good and I was happy with it (along with spelling out what to do if it wasn’t). Day eight I got a thank you note from Carvell (the professional, helpful and polite driver) with Carvana Raleigh. This is not your daddy’s used car buying experience. While I am willing to negotiate, this service’s model is similar to Carmax’s without leaving your home (you pay a fixed price), with the bonus of a seven-day trial and without the salesman looking over your shoulder. Oh, and it appears to be about $500 less than most of the places around my area, at least through what I briefly surveyed, including Carmax for similar vehicles (I know it’s a little tough to compare apples to apples with used cars).

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The end result of our buying experience

So if your time is valuable, you don’t live to haggle, and you like a good deal with the ability to really check out a car before committing, this may well be the service for you. One caveat. They only sell relatively late model cars; it appears that the only go back four model years. So, if you’re looking for an older vehicle, it’s probably not the place for you. It is, however, the experience for me; the next time I need to buy a car, I will be looking at Carvana. I highly recommend the service.

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MJ-12 Shadows – Coming out of the shadows with a cover reveal.

Readers of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog got first dibs, but they’ve now had their moment, so I’m gonna share with you, Valued Personal Blog Readers. Behold, the cover of MJ-12: Shadows! Oh, yeah. Sorry, I got tickets to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 next Thursday night in IMAX 3D and I’ve got […]

via And here’s the cover of MJ-12: Shadows — Michael J. Martinez

Grado SR125e Reviewed – Clear, Detailed, Warm with Tight Bass AKA Sonic Bliss

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The Grado SR125e headphones are a nearly perfect headphone for me. The have all of the tight bass punch I need in that jazz drum beat and bass strumming while maintaining the utterly crisp and detailed mids and upper register for which Grado is so famous. This is all within the context of a slightly warmer sound over the SR80s (which have a slightly warmer sound than the 60s). Mind you, I’ve yet to find a pair of Grados that I don’t like, but they do improve at each price point so that, at least for these three, they seem the best value of their respective price points for quiet listening. They also have a cool story behind them: they’re family owned and run right out of Brooklyn where they’re hand built. Read here for more about the Grado family. Oh, and all those cool pics of Grados in unlikely places (or dogs) are taken by Jonathan Grado.

 

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My LG V20’s Quad DAC does a marvelous job driving the SR125e’s

 

They are, after all, open air, hence the wonderfully large sound stage. So, sound seeps out and into the headsets. When I need to close off the world, I go to my Sennheiser Momentum’s (see Cans: A Personal Journey Through Soundscapes  for more on the Sennheisers) and for more mobility I use LG Platinum Tones with Comply Sport Earphone tips (see LG Tone Platinum Tone Brings the Clarity and Detail, Comply Sport Earphone Tips make Your Workout Bassalicous for more on these). There is another reason for the 125e’s to be perfect for me; I have moderate hearing loss mostly in the upper register as well as some in the lower registers. I have an amazing bit of tech in Receiver-in-Canal (RIC) Signia’s Pure Primax 5 hearing aids which accentuate these registers so that I do not need louder sound levels to hear them well (they also do a whole lot more; see Signia Pure Primax – Bionic Hearing in a Small Package for more). I’ll dive into the benefit of the design of all the Grado Prestige line that help with RIC hearing aids in a separate post. This is just to say, this combination is as good as it’s going to get; the sound is delivered into the RIC speakers that essentially provides an individualized equalizer to provide a fairly neutral sound by emphasizing the registers weakest for me.

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I have loved the Grado line ever since my first pair of SR60s which I bought a little over eight years ago. The hallmark of Grado headphones is clarity and detail combined with an open sound stage. The SR 60s bring exactly that. There is nothing that touches them in that price range. If they are so good, why move up? Two reasons: the supporting base is reasonable but it lacks oomph and the overall tenor of the sound is a little analytic. I prefer something slightly warmer. The SR125es bring all the richness with tight bass while keeping that sparkling clarity and penchant for detail. The also are relatively easily driven, so, while an amp will help these, they don’t require one. I mostly listen to them with my LG V20 phone which sports an ESS Quad DAC that can push 32 bit / 384 kHz sound with a solid amp. Much of my music is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files ripped from CDs in the standard 44.1 kHz, 16-bit mode.  I also have some lossless WMA files, 320 mp3, 256 mp3 and a smattering of others. However, I also have a mix of HD music (from HDTracks) ranging from 24 bit / 44.1 kHz to 24 bit / 192. I also traverse from classical orchestra and string quartet to jazz to electronica and mashups (think Lindsey Stirling’s dubstep pieces). The SR125es handle this eclectic mix of genres with aplomb. I would also say that the bass is slightly tighter than my Sennheiser Momentum as well a more detailed mids. That’s saying something since the bass and mids on the Momentums are smooth and clear with an astonishingly good soundstage for completely closed in over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones.

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Here’s Jonathan Grado with his love of tossing really nice headphones into the air – courtesy jonathangrado.com

What do you need to know about owning these? Well, when you first get them, the headband might be a bit tight; it loosens up over time. The cable to the headphones is thick and a bit stiff at first. It will also lose its tendency to not want to uncurl. It’s also permanently attached to the headphones, so if it breaks (unlikely with this set), you’ll need to send them in. I did this once with my SR60s; they were quick and the repair was reasonable. On par with a new set of cables. While breaking them in may improve them, they sound great right out of the box. As I indicated above, they need a relatively quiet environment but in such, your $150 will be well rewarded.

I cannot recommend these enough.

LG Tone Platinum Brings the Clarity and Detail, Comply Sport Earphone Tips make Your Workout Bassalicous

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I posted elsewhere the benefit that Comply earphone tips bring to the LG Tone Platinum Bluetooth headset; with the ear tips that come with the Tone Platinum, bass is anemic, at least for my ears. I put a set of Comply P-Series tips which allowed all of the crystal clear detail to come through while providing a solid lower end. No loss of the downbeat with the mids coming through in all their pristine form.

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However (it seems like there’s always a “however”), using the P-series during sweaty workouts degrades the experience. The tips become less elastic and the seal is not as strong. Your thinking “shame on Comply.” No, actually shame on me. Had I done a bit more research, I would have seen they have another eartip for that exact application, namely the Sport. They were just the ticket. Not only do they perform well, maintaining clear, detailed sound supported by a throaty lower end, they handle sweat with ease. They stay in the ear and the seal remains solid. So the P-Series are ideal if you don’t use these headphone during sweat-inducing activity, otherwise, I recommend the Sport tips.

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The tips are a bit smaller but still make a great seal

My LG V20 streams aptX Bluetooth beautifully to my Tones. The case in the background is Jumbl; I love this case. By the way, don’t simply look up which ear tips go with LG in the text, use their Compatibility Finder; that will take you to the specific tips for that headphone.

One more shot with my LG G Pad X 10.1 X. As I indicated in my last post, I went from no mobile LG devices to 3 in one fell swoop. So far, it’s been a great move.

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Déjà vu – Returning to the Android fold – the good, bad and ugly – Part 3: Living with the LG V20, related accessories and the Android ecosystem

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This post, third in the Returning to Android series, covers my experience with the LG V20 and Android 7.0 (a.k.a. Nougat) from a practical, field-tested experience after two months with related accessories such as the LG Tone Platinum. So I’ll be either go beyond my initial impressions or highlight some new aspects of my experience within the ecosystem. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive review but rather a walk through of some highlights and lowlights of my experience. Honestly, the highlights certainly far outweigh the lows.

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My overall experience Android 7 on LG V20 is that of a much more mature OS that is reliable and works well than my previous experiences. This is likely a combination of an OS that is more consumer oriented (although I still believe both iOS and Windows 10 Mobile hit that target better solely from an OS perspective) and some really rockin’ hardware; the LG V20 is a beast of a phone. Notifications between my phone and my Microsoft Band 2 are still over-the-top (despite turning most off) and the OS or it’s apps do occasionally sputter and have hiccups, but these are rare (2 or 3 times in 2 months)

Unsurprisingly, in-app experience and available apps that matter to me are better on Android 7 than Windows Mobile 10, but the differences are not a stark as I would have thought. There is the key app for Signia touchControl and the addition of some very nice, if not critical apps, but both platforms have most of my day-to-day apps.Now let’s dive into some area where I’ve noticed a difference.

  • Maps and navigations: there are certain features about Bing maps that I miss such as displaying the speed limit and gave me a warning when I go over it that are missing using Google Maps. However, Google Maps does a better job of telling you what’s coming next, highlighting when you are to move over, and which lane to be in; in some cases seems to pick a better route. My previous experience suggested that Google Maps has this propensity to love highways even when that doesn’t seem to be the best route; my current experience suggests that hasn’t changed. Overall my experience is fairly predictable and good with Google Maps. I miss some of the cool voices I used to be able to load with Here maps, Nokia’s version for Windows Phone, but I would rather have reliability than cool.
  • Android Pay: It works (where accepted) and kind of nice. I don’t see this as a huge plus, but I like it.
  • Shazam – I know this is a bit random, but the Shazam app is flipping amazing; it’s wicked fast and accurate. Soundhound a close second.I don’t know if it’s so much a better experience than, say Cortana’s song identification due to a faster processor and the LG V20’s amazing mics or the software, but it is inordinately rare it takes more than 5 seconds to identify a song and nearly instantaneous if the song is currently popular. To get an idea of how good it is at identifying songs, I would play the second movement from Shostakovich’s Symphony Nbr. 9.Not only did it nail the piece and the movement, but got the performer’s correct (Boston Symphony Orchestra & Andris Nelsons). This could take up to 20 seconds. It performed similarly on Basil Poledouris’s Nuclear Scam, and Bach’s Air from Anne Akiko Meyers. Songs with lyrics were more in the 5-second range to instantaneous. It’s fairly rare that I walk away from an app simply muttering “wow,” but I do with Shazam.
  • Microsoft Services vs. native Google Services: As a follow-up on to my note on Microsoft services about no longer having to drink all of a vendors kool-aid (see the previous post) that remains true, for the most part. There are two services, Bing search and Cortana (Siri & Google Assistant competitor), that I find myself rarely using on Android. Since they’re not baked, and their counterparts (Google and Google Now) are, I find the effort to try to use them too high – too many navigational steps and too much time to access them. While I like Bing, I’m just as happy with Google (although I think Bing organizes the information in a more helpful way than Google. I prefer Cortana to Google Now and don’t use the personal assistant aspect of Google Now. I tend to go to individual apps for those features. However, I suspect most folks that are already using Google or Apple services won’t move over so the whole “Mobile First” without hardware strategy (a phone) looks suspect to me.

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Hardware

  • Size: One of my biggest concerns with buying the V20 was its size; this is in the phablet bucket. I remain a little surprised that the size isn’t more daunting than I anticipated. Not only is it large, it’s also relatively tall because not only does have a 5.7 inch screen but it also has that secondary screen. I have not found it awkward at all. It fairly easy to use; I’m not a particularly big guy nor are my hands large and yet it seems to fit comfortably.  Part of that is it’s thin and tapered so that it fits well without sharp edges. Another part is the design of the handset and the materials used. One note is that I tend to do a lot with one hand but while that takes more focus, it’s doable. It just really seems to work well and, for me, fits better in my hand than the Samsung S7 Edge.
  • Feel: In a word, it’s great. It’s thin but nice to hold without edges digging in. It feels premium (as it should). I use a dbrand skin (see below) that provides a carbon fiber look (almost gives a 3D quality) and a bit better grip than the aluminum. When out and about I use a clear Ringke slim case that has a solid grip.
  • Using the 2nd screen: It’s more helpful than I would have thought. I’m still getting used to it, so I’ll forget about it periodically. However, it has helpful shortcuts and access to music controls without turning the phone on.
  • Build – The build is beautiful. It feels like a monoslab unibody phone made of solid, aircraft-grade, aluminum phone despite the ability to remove the back. I love the “button” that allows me to open it (yes it takes a bit of focus but I NEVER have it unintentionally open).
  • Fingerprint scanner – It’s fast and accurate. I’ve heard some complaints here, but I haven’t experienced any issues.

Now for more of my experience in the hardware (and related software) ecosystem

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Music: I previously highlighted the DAC and its specs, but how is in when used in the real world? Does it make a difference listening to music? Yes, yes it does. I typically listen to a wide range of music but focus on classical and jazz. Much of my music is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files ripped from CDs in the standard 44.1 mHz, 16 bit mode.  I also have some lossless WMA files, 320 mp3, 256 mp3 and a smattering of others. I use Spotify (typically in automatic mode since Extreme mode presents problems, see below). Thanks to the fine folks at HDTracks, I have a number of higher definition FLAC sourced albums including Detroit Symphony/Leonard Slatkin’s Aaron Coplan (Rodeo, Dance Panels, El Salon Mexico & Danzon Cubano, 192 kHz, 24 bit) , Berlin Philharmonic Holst/Simon Rattle’s, The Planets (44.1 kHz, 24 bit), Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Fabio Luisi’s Gustoav Mahler No 1 (192 kHz, 24 bit), Annie Lennox’s Nostalgia (44.1 kHz, 24bit), Detroit Symphony/Leonard Slatkin’s Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3 and Symphonic Dances (192 kHz, 24 bit FLAC), Doric String Quartet’s Schubert String Quartet in G major & String Quartet in C minor (96 kHz, 24 bit) and Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons’s Dmitri Shostakovich – Under Stalin’s Shadow (96 kHz, 24 bit FLAC). Of course, the better the source, the better sound it pushes across. I mainly listened to these with Sennheiser Momentum’s and Grado SR 80’s (for more on these headphones, see Cans: A Personal Journey Through Soundscapes.) The most initially apparent differences you notice are utter silence between notes, indicative of very clean sound, and the crisp, clear detail. Whether it’s the clarinet coming in, background percussion or sweeping strings, it’s all crystal clear. It also has a relatively wide and rich soundstage. So whether you’re listening to Marion Hill’s Sway, Boney James Futuresoul, Halie Loren’s Butterfly Blue or James Blake killer beats, it’s all there, crystal clear and rich.

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When I’m moving around a bit more or working out, I use LG’s Tone Platinum Bluetooth headset. While that bypasses the quad DAC, it passes a clear Bluetooth 24 bit sound (48kHz / 24bit) via aptX HD signal that your headphone can parse on quality DAC presuming your headphone support aptX HD and has a good DAC. I purchased LG’s Tone Platinum (refurbished) to go with this phone for that very reason. Music coming across the Platinum is stunningly clear and detailed. That part is lovely. Out of the box, it has an anemic lower end, even for me. To mitigate this issue, I got some Comply P Series eartips. While they don’t give the headset a good bass,  they do provide enough seal to provide a solid, if not stellar lower end. Coupling that improved base with the headphone’s clarity and detail, works well for my type of music listening, it. If you have a need for beat such as loving techno and beat-heavy R&B, these aren’t for you. Jazz and classical lovers, however, will get along nicely as long as you get a great seal.I use the Poweramp app to listen to music locally. (Rocket Player is also very good.)

 

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Poweramp powering the lovely voice of Halie Loren

 

Spotty Spotify: I previously indicated some challenges with Spotify. I dove in a bit deeper to verify it’s the app. So I had the random pause issue even when I had local files (downloaded) and was in the off-network mode. So it couldn’t be an issue with the wifi or my mobile network. It appears to be mostly resolved if I use steaming on the automatic or normal quality settings and download at normal quality. Now, extreme quality, I believe, is 320 kbps; clearly, this beast of a multimedia phone has no issue processing that. Moreover, the same issue doesn’t exist on Google Play Music which is also downloaded at 320 kbps; I can’t replicate the issue on Pandora, Amazon Music or Groove. It’s Spotify. So, one vaunted advantage of Spotify, high-quality, albeit compressed, music is not practical unless you’re willing to put up with long pauses about every 3rd song. Given the dearth of choices that cover iOS, Windows 10 Mobile and Android, I’ll keep with Spotify until the moment I move my twins phones from Windows, at which time I’ll move to Google Play Music or Apple music, whichever makes the most sense (unless, by some miracle, Spotify actually resolves this issue before then – given their track record – not likely). Given that Android is the dominant mobile OS and, I’ve got to believe, the vast majority of Spotify premium subscribers are on Android, this failure is insane.

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Photos/Video: It really is worthwhile to take the time to learn how to use the manual modes of still and video cameras. While the automatic mode is good, this phone shines in manual mode. Your ability to using focus peeking to get the perfect focus, manage the white balance, ISO and shutter speeds really allow for a wide range of wonderful shots. Similarly, when recording audio, it’s worthwhile to use the custom setting to manage gain and upper and lower cutoffs. Overall the recording is excellent with the exceptions that S’s can receive an easy spike; calibration can help mitigate this issue.

 

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Focus peeking using manual controls on the V20

 

 

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Nice to have a freshly charged battery whenever you need one

 

Battery: As others have noticed, this is a beast of a phone with a reasonable but not long battery (hey, at least it won’t go into meltdown mode). Quick 3.0 charging is just that, quick. I also have a couple of backup batteries (one I leave at home and one at work) as well as a couple battery charges (that charge the battery alone and don’t tie the phone down). LG’s own charging cradle (BCK-5200) and Monoy’s Battery Charger (with the added bonus of a USB port for power). This basically means that, wherever I am, I have a backup battery ready. So I go from 0 to 100% less than 30 seconds. It also means I don’t have to worry about watching my battery usage. I don’t sweat it when I have 20% left, I just pop in a new one. With batteries costing about $12 (from a fairly reputable manufacturer, Beltron, (you don’t want to go cheap with things that can melt and explode), this is a no-brainer. If you want to play it a bit safer, you can get LG’s official OEM battery for about $40.

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LG V20 with LG G Pad X 10.1

Finally, while not directly related to the phone but a quirk of my experience, when I bought the phone (for a lot of money) at AT&T, I had the option to buy the LG G Pad X 10.1 for $1. Originally I was going to pass (it’s LTE so it does typically require a $10 per month line for 2 years for this deal); I already use a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 from work and I have a Kindle Fire (7 in). Did I really need another tablet? No, I don’t need one but I decided to give it a try. It is a delight to use; it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised. It feels great, is thin and has a good screen. For simple consumption of videos, reading magazines (nicer in color than the B&W on my typically preferred Kindle Paperwhite for reading) and quick interactions, I love it. The battery lasts a long time and it’s amazing how well it handles standby mode. It does have LTE just in case I want network access without bothering to tether and don’t have wifi. So, it’s certainly no necessity but it is a joy. Even though the Surface’s screen is better, the lighter, thinner form factor and simple access mean for pure consumption, I actually prefer the G Pad.  If you’re interested, apparently this is the one to get. The other G Pads haven’t faired as well in reviews. Prior to getting the V20, I had all of 1 item from LG, a TV. Now I’ve added the phone, a Bluetooth headset, and the G Pad. So far,  life’s good.

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LB V20 with dbrand Carbon Fiber skin & back of G Pad X 10.1

 

The Woman in the Window Reviewed – A horror-thriller that takes on fear itself.

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The Woman in the Window is a horror thriller with an emphasis on thriller. Yes, there are some quite horrific things that occur and numerous terrifying situations, but the real draw the book is how our protagonist, Sarah, responds to the terror in an authentic and humanly heroic manner. By humanly heroic, I mean she feels all the terror of one hounded by an apparently paranormal figure combined with the depression of someone who is not believed, yet she still fights on. Does she make some, shall we say, less than optimal choices? Oh yeah. Then again, so did I at her age and I didn’t have “the woman” haunting me. (Alas, all too often my decision making isn’t optimized for best rests.) Before I continue, let me disclose that the author is a friend and while that influenced whether I read the book or not, this book’s genre is not in my typical wheelhouse, I do not believe it influenced my evaluation of the book. Honestly, if I didn’t care for the book, I would’ve told my friend that it’s not my cup of tea, which, in this case, is true. But I’m delighted that I partook of this particular cup because it’s really a solid thriller.

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Sarah is a high school teen girl with friends, a golden voice, boy troubles as well as challenges at home, but all within the norm. That all changes with the woman in the window. I want to stay spoiler free at this point, so I’ll keep my comments at a high-level. I loved the authentic, genuine feel around Sarah and her circumstances: what it would be like to be terrorized but disbelieved, ostracized and even more on the “out” than she already was. I’m not quite sure how the author pulled this off, given he is very much not a teenage girl, but kudos to him. R. S. Crow does a phenomenal job of building up just the right amount of tension over the life of the story; it builds and releases at just the right moments even as it escalates. He also has a supporting character I love, Dr. Tariq, who takes on the whole set of expectations of a ”professional counselor.” The notion of a disinterested scientific fix to a theoretically troubled mind is, I think, misleading at best. One of my favorite quotes, which is devoid of any significant spoilers is:

“‘Do you believe in God?’ It was the oddest question he could have possibly asked. “No. Not really. Do you?” “More than I believe in my own existence.” “I didn’t think psychiatrists were supposed to believe in God.” Dr. Tariq smirked at that. Smirked at me. “Ah, Sarah, do not be fooled by the seat I occupy as a psychiatrist. It is true, this profession entices intelligence, small faith, and even smaller imagination. I am a psychiatrist. Yes. Yet, each of us is quite different from one to the next, for we are only human after all. But do not permit the title to fool you. This labor, this practice, is one of subjectivity masked by objectivity, and while we may pretend to have the answers, we are simply men and women ourselves, and at times, we are no better than blind leaders of the blind, as one once said. So, Sarah, I ask again, do you believe in God?”

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R. S. Crow

I also like Mr. Crow’s world building and story pacing; he keeps us moving while developing relationships and characters and filling out his world. I also appreciate the way that he takes on fear; he doesn’t over-sentimentalize its challenges but rather addresses it head on, in a no-nonsense way. Finally, I appreciate the notion that everything has a cost. Quite often in contemporary writing, authors are more than willing to allow bad stuff to occur and avoid a Disneyesque plot; sometimes, it seems that some of that pain and misery is fairly arbitrary. The woes in Mr. Crow’s world make sense; they are portrayed as a natural cost of what must be done.

There are some admittedly nit-picky areas where I would have taken a different path, but to discuss those I have to reveal spoilers so I will save it for a later section. Overall, I found The Woman in the Window a good, immersive read with a solid ride, authentic characters, and an intriguing paranormal world. Despite the horrors inflicted within, it’s really not about the horror, but how we handle our own fears. It does a great job in building the characters and their relationships even amongst those who inhabit the said paranormal world. Despite her foibles (or, maybe because of them), Sarah is a compelling and interesting protagonist who moves us to care about herself and her story.

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A man in a window with The Woman in the Window – yours truly being meta

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to any teen or adult who can handle the horror/thriller aspect.

Phrasing: 3/5

World Building:  4/5

Character:  3.5/5

Narrative: 3.5/5

A Little Book Music: This is the section where I suggest some music that matches the read. I spent a good deal of time listening to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, Inception with its warping perspective. A little of the drive and ethereal nature of the book also comes through in his Interstellar soundtrack.

*****SPOILER ALERT – spoilers are revealed in this section.*****

So what are these admittedly nit-picky areas where I might make a different choice?

Once Sarah’s Mom comes to believe Sarah’s experiences with the woman in the window, why doesn’t she join the “team”? If we look at her responses when she didn’t believe, it’s clear that while she gives her daughter space, she is involved with her, she does care, and she will intervene to help protect her daughter. While we have a bit of an explanation for why she sits on the sidelines after she learns this is for real, it doesn’t seem to fit her earlier modus operandi or her character.

There’s a point where it appears that the witch is dead but apparently wasn’t fully dead (until after the burn). Unless that was on purpose, that was a little fuzzy.

While authenticity was a hallmark of the book, I’m not sure how realistic Clara’s reaction is when discovering Sarah will kill the woman, let alone place herself in that much danger again. Her ”go get ‘em” response seems a bit cavalier.

Finally, I felt a bit letdown after the buildup in Dr. Tariq’s office. While Sarah did operate on some of his advice and even tepidly attempted to pray, most of what occurred in that scene were wholly ignored for the rest the book. Now that may be a conscious decision. Surely teens in general sometimes don’t fully adopt adult advice especially when it doesn’t seem to work right away. It was just a bit of a letdown. It also could be that it will play a role later on in series, and it is a series. Even if it does come to the fore later, that still seems a little bit of a cheat but then again I think Agatha Christie cheats so the author is in good company.

Fitness Journey Continues: Health Goals

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Back in November, I celebrated meeting my BMI goal (the goal being “normal” at between 18.5 & 25); see: So I Met My Weight Goal. Now What?  I’m sharing this journey in hopes of encouraging any that might be on or wish to start their own health journey. My hope is that you can see it’s never too late and it’s not impossible. While your results may vary (and, if you’re female, alas, it almost certainly will be harder), it’s possible to make progress. Plus it’s always good to take moment in the journey to celebrate. For some more details of what I did on this journey see: Microsoft Band 2 – Real World Notes from the Field. Recently, I received my health assessment. Thanks in large part to Builders Mutual’s  great health program which provides lots of incentives and opportunities (like our gym), an encouraging family, and great tools like the Microsoft Band 2, my assessment proved out the benefits of the journey.

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November 2015 to November 2016 (I know – not great pictures but I typically take them, rather than being in them)

My lessons learned outlined in my previous post remain the same:

  • it’s not a diet, but a lifestyle.
  • Be you – don’t try to shoehorn into someone else’s plan for you.
  • Be patient – results will come.
  • Be healthy – you don’t need to be a super-sculpted fitness model (unless you want to be and it makes sense for your body).

So, yeah – let’s celebrate

As I’ve said before, I’m enormously grateful that I’ve been able to reach these goals. Indeed, it is grace upon grace that I could do so. Yes, I put in the effort, but it is the God in whom I live, and move and have my being, who has sustained me in it, made it efficacious and allowed me to do so with virtually no injury.

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Let’s take a lesson from Paul; it works for our physical life as well as spiritual:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 ESV

So, by God’s grace, I will continue in that work, looking for new personal bests and thankful for each day I can continue with a supportive family and work environment.

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Déjà vu – Returning to the Android fold – the good, bad and ugly – Part 2: The LG V20 Review

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I recently moved back into the Android fold from Windows Mobile (see my previous post for background and reflections on the move). When I knew I was going to switch over from Windows phone I then had to choose where I was going to go, Android or iOS, and if Android, which flagship phone. Here are my decision factors:

  • Apple / iPhone 7 Plus
    • Pros
      • Solid hardware
      • Software is well polished and, due to Apple owning the whole experience, optimized for the hardware
      • Consumer friendly
      • Independent of mobile carriers for updates
      • Robust ecosystem
      • Dust and water resistant
      • Well supported by Apple and Vendors
    • Cons
      • For my taste, iPhone 7/7+ phone and user interface are relatively stale and boring
      • It is very hard to use anything but Apple’s expensive services: from backing up to getting ringtones, it’s hard to do them on your own
      • For me, all but the basics are unintuitive to use. The vaunted user experience isn’t a good one for me.
      • No headphone jack (I have good, wired headphones). Yes, there’s a workaround, but it is a workaround.
      • Expensive ecosystem. Apps, music, peripherals mostly seem to carry an Applesque extra cost.
      • Won’t take an SD card
      • No replaceable battery
      • Expensive
      • Apple’s arrogance

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I’ve come to these conclusions after supporting my wife and son on their iPhones (currently both iPhone 6) and my own experience on iPod Touch and iTunes. These are well-designed, mainstream devices whose basic workings are easy to use. This is the device I would recommend to most non-technical people. While I was tempted, I knew that I would go slowly insane trying to work within the confines of Apple and iOS. I had some experience with the S7 Edge and heard about the amazing DAC on the LG V20 so my choice would be between those two. Note: Google Pixel wasn’t an option since I’m on, and want to stay on, AT&T. HTC 10 wasn’t an option either, for the same reason.

  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
    • Pros
      • Cool, striking design.
      • immersive screen
      • Popular and hence well supported amongst the Android crowd
      • Great camera; automatic shots are consistently good and the camera is very quick
      • Robust ecosystem with well-supported peripherals by other vendors
      • A major player who isn’t going anywhere
      • Wireless charging
      • Water & dust resistant
      • Ability to take an SD card
    •  Cons
      • The Edge is challenging to hold, for me, and as much of I argued against phablets, I preferred the larger Edge to the regular S7
      • Uses micro USB instead of USB C. Since my previous phone was Lumia 950, I already have all the USB C wires and chargers that I needed
      • Comes with Marshmallow (Android 6) (I believe it’s now being upgraded to 7 but that wasn’t announced even a month ago when I bought it).
      • Reasonable but not great battery life
      • TouchWiz UI; stock is typically quicker and less prone to update delays (or complete failure to update)

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  • LG V20
    • Pros
      • Quad DAC for wired headphones
      • aptX HD Bluetooth (48kHz/24 bit) support
      • Beautiful screen
      • For me, easy to hold (feels good in the hand and not too slippery)
      • 2nd always on screen – quick actions, time/status quickly visible.
      • Prosumer content creation with well-designed manual controls for camera/video, high-end (24 bit) audio recording, 3 high-end AOP mics
      • Wide-angle lens on front and back
      • Swappable battery
      • Takes an SD card
      • Has 64GB on board
      • Comes with Nougat (Android 7)
    • Cons
      • No wireless charging
      • Expensive
      • Peripherals are not supported as well as Samsung
      • UX 5.0+; stock is typically quicker and less prone to update delays (or complete failure to update)
      • Automatic-mode camera is not as consistently good as S7 nor quite as fast (manual mode it pretty amazing and makes up for this)
      • Reasonable but not great battery life
      • Video stabilization still needs work

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What finally edged out the S7 (pun intended) was the audio capabilities of the V 20, swappable battery (powerful Android phones tend not to have great battery life), the V 20 being on the current Android release (in the Android ecosystem, you never know if you can get an upgrade or not) and USB C. I really like wireless charging. Both of my previous phones supported it (Lumia 920 & Lumia 950), so that was a real loss, but I just couldn’t see going back to micro USB. I know a lot of folks say SD cards are less important, but with the ability to produce high-level video and audio, comes the need to use up some serious storage. Trying to do this completely in the cloud could be slow and likely expensive. Most of my local music is lossless (mostly FLAC, some WMA) and that uses a fair amount of storage as well. Typically trying to stream it from the cloud is either going to be exciting or down-converted. So that’s why those features were important to me. This is for the first time in quite a while that I had the dilemma choosing my phone, mostly because, in the Windows mobile world, there’s only a single flagship phone available from the carrier at a time in each size (like Apple).

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So I’ve had this for about a month; if I could go back and make the decision all over again would I still make the same one? Yes. Why? The ESS Quad DAC is the real deal. Music sounds flawlessly wonderful through it (for a detailed explanation of the DAC, see this article on Android Authority); aptX HD Bluetooth is also real. While not quite as full a sound as wired, it’s some of the best Bluetooth I’ve heard and better than most wired sound when coupled with LG’s Tone Platinum (which also supports aptX HD) and Comply ear tips (the ear tips are needed to have robust bass). The manual controls for stills and video are intuitive, well laid out and really allow solid control over both image and video capture. The AOP (Acoustic Overload Point) mics are icing on the cake. They do an amazing job at capturing high-audio (with video or separately). Overall day-to-day use is a pleasure; the interface is quick and smooth (using Smart Launcher Pro 3), The physical design, while somewhat bland, is still nice with beautiful fit and finish, especially the removable back. It’s wonderful to have a button that releases the back, so you don’t have to feel like you’re going to break it prying it open. It all seems as flush and “tight” as a unibody aluminum phone. The phone size has not been an issue for me and I’ve been able to get what I need for it in terms of peripherals. I’ll dive more into the peripherals and daily experience in the next post.

Déjà vu – Returning to the Android fold – the good, bad and ugly – Part 1: The OS

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I’ve recently fallen back into the Android fold after having to, alas, leave Windows Mobile. While the app gap has always been a bit of a bummer for the Windows Mobile platform, I never found an app so compelling that I was willing to leave, until now. If you happen to follow my posts, you know that I recently joined the world of hearing aid users (see my post on Signia’s Primax Pure). Signia has a few apps, one of which, touchControl, allows me to control listening signatures, for example, one for listening to music, one for being outdoors etc., as well as a plethora of other features. I have an iPod Touch that allowed me to control this but I didn’t want to carry around two devices all the time; since there is no Windows mobile app, this necessitated moving to iOS or Android. While I appreciate iOS (and iPhones), this is just not the platform for me.  I have previously been on Android way back in the day, I think under Froyo on a Galaxy Epic (Samsung Galaxy S device with a physical keyboard). Diving back in allows me to see where the platform has come, including hardware, the OS itself and related applications. This is a first of a series of post on reflections around my experience moving back to Android. In this post, I’ll focus on the Android OS itself (but can’t completely divorce my experience from the device). I’ll then post about my new device, the LG V20 (hint – it rocks) and finally reflect a bit more on the ecosystem with a focus on supporting products like LG’s Tone Platinum Bluetooth headset (it too, rocks with help from Comply ear tips).

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LG V20 with Tone Platinum Bluetooth Headphones

The LG V20 is on Android 7 (AKA Nougat). While it has obviously improved from its Froyo days and is more consumer-friendly than it once was, a number of the platform’s challenges remain such as requiring too much active management and tweaks, a new one have arisen regarding notifications galore and some have mostly disappeared (the OS itself it fairly stable and no longer has the experimental/beta feel of Froyo). So, let’s look at the improvements first. Navigating within the OS is buttery smooth and quick with no glitches or hiccups. I didn’t mind LG’s skin (UX 5.0+) as much as some do; it’s relatively unintrusive and quick. However, I love Smart Launcher Pro 3 with Smoke and Glass theme. I love it when eye candy meets productive function; this combo does so in spades. The OS continues to support a lot of freedom in launchers, widgets and fairly fine, detailed control of the user experience, it works well out the box and the “tweaks” don’t seem to erode your experience. So, while Apple maintains control with the safer and more easily supported route of few customizations, Android continues to embrace the options. That freedom used to come at a higher cost of widgets, launchers or apps failing; that is much less the case now. Overall, the apps work well with two notable exceptions: Spotify will simply  pause for 30 seconds or more (mostly when the phone is handing off to a different network connection) and Disney Movies app crashes whenever you switch audio output (take out the headphone jack, use Bluetooth, or plug in a new headphone jack).

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Smart Launcher Pro 3 with Smoke & Glass Theme

So, what are some of the advantages of moving to Android over Windows Mobile?

  • The apps – yes, there are more apps. Clearly, the relative dearth of active users of Windows Mobile means developers are less likely to support Windows Mobile apps. Even beyond the critical ones I wanted for the hearing devices, I do like having some additional native apps although my top five haven’t changed. Not only are there more apps, many are better designed and have richer features than their Windows counterparts. Unfortunately, Spotify is just as spotty (sorry, couldn’t resist) on Android which is a real shame. If it is consistently worked, it would be great. Ironically, Microsoft’s own apps are as well supported on Android as they are on Windows except for Groove (music app) and the fact that their services aren’t as baked in.
  • The expanded hardware choices and ecosystem. Again, due to the relatively small share of the smartphone market, Windows Mobile doesn’t receive the love Android does. Not only are there few phones to choose among, not a huge deal for me since I loved the Lumia 950 (a post some context on how I used it as well as my post when I moved from Android to Windows Phone), but there are fewer accessories (screen protectors, cases etc) to choose among as well as compatible equipment such as fitness wearables and smartwatches. Again, not huge for me right now because I love my Microsoft Band 2, but it will be an issue in the future. The ability to get high-quality screen protectors using Corning’s Accessory Glass 2, for example, is nice, and it’s non-existent for Windows phones. Lumia 950 doesn’t support aptX Bluetooth, let alone aptX HD which allows for better Bluetooth streaming of music; LG V20 does. Typically this competition allows for better quality at less cost. As much as I loved my 950, the LG V20 is a better phone for me.

What are some of the disadvantages of moving to Android from Windows Phone?

  • Microsoft services vs. Google services I actually prefer most Microsoft services over Google. I’m an Office 365 user; while Google’s docs, spreadsheet etc apps offer slightly better collaboration, Microsoft’s offerings are considerably richer and are quickly catching up or surpassing Google’s collaboration advantage. I prefer Cortana to Google Now (we’ll see if Assist is any better once (if?) LG V20 goes from 7 to 7.1. The good news is that nearly all Microsoft services are well-supported on Android even if they’re not as natively baked in such Bing Search and Cortana. I understand that, for most, Google services are preferred and, quite honestly, both work well.
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Some of Microsoft Services on Android

I used to believe that one should drink the kool-aid of your ecosystem (go all in on Google with Android, Apple with iOS and Microsoft on Windows phones), however the cross-platform access to many services from both Google and Microsoft (and to a much lesser degree, Apple), I think that using other vendors’ services works much more naturally than it did previously. It also makes the transition simpler. So, I’m still mostly using Microsoft services even on Android.

  • Android Fragmentation, Upgrade Limitations and Lack of control of applications On Windows Mobile, upgrades are driven by Microsoft, not your carrier (unless it affects the radio stack on the phone). So, all Windows Mobile 10 users can update no matter the device and carrier, although some handset makers still fail to make some updates available. I can uninstall any application, included those added by the carrier. I can also push almost all apps to an SD card, where it’s really hit or miss with Android apps. My ability to update is controlled by the carrier under Android. You never know if you’ll ever get the next release or not.
  • Notifications This is probably the biggest pain point of moving over to Android. Dumb, multiple reminder notifications. I have turned off most notifications and keep to those apps that I really need to have. Android is known as a system that allows you to really tweak your experience but both in installed apps you cannot remove and in notifications (on or off at the app level and nothing in between – yes you can indicate to “show silently”, on the lock screen or whether they can kick through do not disturb but there is nothing to intelligently manage frequency and to turn off on any acknowledgement that you received it, for example on another device) are two places that really need some help. Not only do I receive multiple notifications for the same item, but there are ways I can acknowledge it where there is no recognition of the acknowledgment (AKA notifications keep coming). I really hate the way notifications are handled on Android.

Bottom line, my experience with Android is mostly quite good. Would I have moved over if the Signia hearing aid apps were on Windows Mobile? No. I think the overall user experience is still better in Windows. I believe that Apple iOS is the most consumer friendly but also the most restrictive and costly (and it comes with Apple’s arrogance). Android has the entire gamut of low to high-end phones and allows for much more freedom, but is a little less consumer oriented; while better than the Froyo days, it still feels a little like an engineering experiment. Windows, for me, strikes a nice balance. However, it’s not like my experience is bad on Android (except notifications). I’ll have to figure out what to do about Spotify – my challenge is to find another streaming service on Android, iOS, and Windows since I have all three in my home (2 iPhones, 2 Android, and 2 Windows). If Groove had a family plan like Spotify, I would move to it in a heartbeat. If Amazon Music, Apple Music or Google Play supported Windows devices, I would move to them. Alas.  If Spotify were stable, I would happily stay with them. Argh. I know, first world problems.

Next post will all about the LG V20; while I wouldn’t have encountered the cost of a new phone (I was fine with my Lumia 950), once I needed to move, I’ve loved the new handset. In the next post, I’ll tell you why along with highlighting its challenges.

Doric String Quartet’s Schubert String Quartets 12 & 15 – pure liquid loveliness

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Have you ever had one of those moments when, checking out some new music, time seemed to stop, breathing halted and you seemed utterly and irretrievably transported to another place? I had this experience from the first note of Anne Akiko Meyer’s Air: The Bach Album playing “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. I had this experience with Doric String Quartet’s new album Schubert: String Quartets Nos. 12 & 15. From the moment you hear the opening of the String Quartet No. 12 in C Minor, D. 703, “Quartettsatz”, you know you’re in for something special. Of course, your next thought is: “Drama much”? Schubert goes full tilt from the opening and the Doric String Quartet transport us into Schubert’s wide-ranging controlled chaos. There is care even in the initial intensity; it is fluid yet precise, sonorous yet buoyant. It is pure liquid loveliness.

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While I have listened to Schubert’s string quartets before, I’ll admit to not being hugely intimate with them. My bad. I love the playful dance-like quality that is interspersed amongst more reflective movements. They embody so much – ethereal light bonbon moving to an earthy cello repast, sweeping passages of quick action with slower sections evoking a more serious gravitas. I love how they bring out the sense of this mild-mannered Schubert smelling the roses then his inner Teutonic intensity bursts upon us. These various emotions, settings, and passages are ordered to fit like puzzle pieces so that it’s hard to imagine any different musical construction.

 

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Doric String Quartet

 

This is my introduction to the Doric String Quartet, Alex Redington (violin), Jonathan Stone (violin), Hélène Clément (viola), and John Myerscough (cello), and most definitely will not be my last record of theirs. (I’m thinking the Janáček/Martinů for the next one). They have a lovely touch that mixes delicate precision with emotion and lyricism. Moreover, the recording seems to be a nearly perfect blend of intimate sound while preserving an open sound stage. While their recording venue, Potton Hall, Suffolk, seems low key (you’ll never confuse their control room with the one at Abbey Studios), the sound signature generated there is spot on. It doesn’t hurt that Chandros put these out in 24 bit, 96 kHz release (available on HDTracks in the U.S.) During some of the earthier passages, you can hear and almost feel, the grip of the rosin on the cellist’s bow. Pauses are utterly silent with no recoding noise. I had an opportunity to listen to this on my LG V20 (review to come – spoiler, overall I love it) phone alternating between Grado SR80s and Sennheiser Momentum headphones (more about these in Cans – A Personal Journey Through Soundscapes). The V20 has an ESS quad DAC capable of 32-bit 384 kHz PCM and DSD51 which is a geek-speak for “it outputs faithful sound for a smart phone.”

 

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Potton Hall Recording Studio

 

I think my teen son may have put it best – when done listening to ‘Quartettsatz’ (Quartet, D 703, String Quartet 12), he said “That was amazing. It started…” then he made a grrr sound while shaking his head, AKA said Teutonic intensity, “then…” and he waved his arms and slowly waved his head around apparently mesmerized by the more melodic movements. I feel. My son, Guy, is not inarticulate; attempting to put into words what Doric String Quartet brings out of Schubert in this recording is a Sisyphean task. So, seriously, just go get this album. Plunking down your hard earned cash will rarely be so rewarded.

Some Haydn from Doric as an introduction:

Available in Hi-Res on HDTracks (US) and Chandros (EU)

Also available on Amazon CD and MP3 (256K)