Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012 Gear Awards

I wanted to do this last year, but I did not have enough information to do it then.  Now I have a little bigger database and I thought it would be fun.  I am only going to hand out awards for NEW stuff.  New is hard to define, so I will use a loose definition.  I also want to highlight as many products as I can, so I am not going to repeat winners (for example, the overall product is barred from winning its product category).  The measure here is not quality, as there are things on this list I have not reviewed, but, instead impact, as broadly defined as I can make it.  Here is what I want to know: which new pieces of gear had the biggest impact on gear enthusiasts this year? 

This is my list.  These are my opinions.  Feel free to disagree.

Overall Best New Product of the Year: Triple Aught Design Production Dauntless

This was a close call between the Quantum DD and the Production Dauntless, but in the end, the tie breaker between two well-designed products is the insane amount of hype (that was lived up to) surrounding the Dauntless.  The production run, according to various sources, was 158 pieces.  All were at least $300.  All sold out in about 10 minutes.  That is an infusion of cash so fast and large that it would transform most gear companies.  For a company as small as TAD, it had to be a watershed moment.


It was a watershed moment for gear geeks too.  For the first time people had a semi-realistic chance of getting their hands on a Dauntless.  These blades, with their muted tones and classic design flourishes, push just about every single button us gear geeks have.  The choil, the over the top, deep carry pocket clip, the fullers, the smooth glassy pivot, Ti frame lock--everything about the Dauntless screams lusty goodness.  Those lucky enough to get their grubby mitts on the blades were delighted.  Here is a You Tube video demonstrating just why these knives lived up to their hype.


Secondary market prices also attest to this being the most important EDC gear release of the year.  Prices for Production Dauntlesses are hitting Custom Dauntless prices on ebay, even with knowledge that another release lurks around the corner.  The TAD brand has been so carefully and meticulously managed and the Dauntless craving has been so perfectly fed that when unleashed on the knowledgeable gear buying public, nothing matched the wave of money or desire this year.

Runner Up: Quantum DD

Best Piece of Production Gear:  Steve Ku Quantum DD

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Steve Ku's lights have reached a pretty rarified space in the custom flashlight world.  His Ti upgrade to the LiteFlux AAA light is one of the most expensive and hard to find customs on the secondary market.  Prices of over a $1,000 aren't uncommon.  His upgrades to the Nitecore EX10 is also a very sought after item.  Steve has decided to focus on his own designs and push the upper limit on lumens outputs for very small lights.  First there was the 38DD.  Then a slightly larger light, one I own, the 40DD.  Both were custom gems and now fetch much more their price on the secondary market.  Both also happen to be tritium laden, technology gems.  Alas, their brief custom runs have long since passed.

Every flashlight fan that remembers the axiom of flashlight design (small size, long runtime, high output: choose two) was stunned when Steve released a production version of the 40DD, the Quantum DD.  It was essentially the 40DD in a more polished and complete package.  He designed included an excellent USB charger and a 10180 cell in the production.  The overall package is a stunner, a great light at a great price that you should buy as soon as you can.  Once they are gone I think finding them anywhere near their retail price will be impossible.

Runner Up: ZT 56X (see below)

Best Piece of Custom Gear: Jake Hoback A-10

This would be the Aeon Mark II, but it is scheduled for a mid to late January release now, so we have to look elsewhere.

Maybe it is the circles I run in but everyone seems to be talking about a new knife maker named Jake Hoback, a guy that has a great aesthetic and the machining chops to support it.  He make some really beefy and gorgeous flipper folders that all run on his own bearing pivot design.  Jake Hoback's A-10 is the knife.  Here is a quick TuffThumbz peek:

 

The knife received rave reviews from literally everyone that handled one.  Aaron seemed more than stoked to receive his.  The ergos and materials are one thing, but the stone acid wash is something completely and totally amazing.  It is stonewashing turned up to 1000.  Here is a shot of the rough and tumble tank (or in this case, tank killer) from Knife Thursday (photo by shuttersandtriggers):



Runner Up: Any knife from GTC

Best New Knife:  ZT 56X

How good is the ZT 560 and 561?  So good that more than one person confirmed seeing Rick Hinderer wearing one at BLADE this year.  That is pretty amazing.  ZT has been on a roll recently, and the RJ Martin blade coming out next year looks awesome.  The ZT 56X (560 and 561, they are virtually identical other than handle color) has a list of feature bullet points that make every knife knut lust for this blade, from the steel, to the designer, to the gunner grip on the Ti, to the KVT bearing pivot.  This is a dream knife embodied in a production blade.  The price is not that bad either, considering what you get for the money.  It is a big knife, but the liner is skeletonized lightening it up considerably.

Honestly how much better is a real Hinderer?  5% better?  1%?  Not at all (no XM model has Elmax steel or a bearing pivot as an option)?  I don't want to pick a fight, but really these knives stack up to their custom progenitors quite well.  If you factor in cost, I am not sure there is a rational way to argue that the XM is a better blade.  I'd still take an XM over a ZT 56X but only for exclusivity reasons.  Just sayin'.

Runner Up: CRKT Eraser

Best New Light: Zebralight SC52

This was a bumper crop for flashlights this year.  The S10 Baton from Olight looked awesome.  The selector ring only lights from Sunwayman and JetBeam were great.  But, in the end, Zebralight took the crown, doing so at the very last minute as the SC52 was released in the second half of December.  But what a release it is.  It is, of course, a compact light with a nice built in pocket clip.  It can, of course, convert to a headlamp (as most if not all Zebralights do).  But it is the amazing output and runtimes that you get from this light that set it apart from the crowd.  280 ANSI lumens on high with rechargeable AAs and .01 lumens on low for THREE MONTHS.  It is official--there is now no real performance gap between good AA lights and CR123a lights.  Yes I know the best and competitive outputs require rechargeables for the AA lights to be competitive, but even on primaries this new generation of AA lights can do everything you need them to do.  If I were to start over, this would be my first flashlight, no questions asked. 

Runner Up: Sunwayman M11R Mr. Elfin

Best New Multitool: Gerber Dime

This was not much of a competition.  There were a few new large Leatherman multitools like the Rebar.  There were also a few new Gerber multitools, one with a tripod even (ugh...).  But the Dime steals the show with ease.

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The runner up, the Leatherman OHT, is really running behind.  The Dime is an amazing package for $20, a true 21st century multitool with a package cutter that works and a bottle opener because, well, everything has to have a bottle opener, right?

Runner Up: Leatherman OHT

Best New Bag: Tom Bihn Dyneema Synapse

In a market as crowded as the backpack market is with two dozen Camelback releases a year and a huge slew of MOLLE covered Maxped clones, this little bag beats them all.  The Dyneema shot through the regular nylon makes the Synapse lighter than a feather and tough as nails.

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The pockets and organization are sublime.  But its real genius move is how well it works loaded and on your back.  Thanks to a balanced pocket design with a spine composed of your water bottle, the Synapse works like a dream.  Its pricier than a Maxped clone but nothing like a Kifaru or a GoRuck, both of which are as modular or more so, but traditional in their designs.  High tech fabric + brilliant design=bag of the year.

Runner Up: GORUCK Echo

Best New Value: Cold Steel Mini Tuff Lite

Cold Steel's addiction to giant blades, even with their change over to more practical designs, still skews their line up to less utility designs.  Then, bang, they release the Mini Tuff Lite (how funny that the Mini version was released first).

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This is a great little high utility blade.  This is a great small EDC blade.  This is a great budget knife.  This is...okay...a great knife.  Only the ricasso is a stumbling block and that is not really a big deal at all.  The steel is decent, for the money, the blade shape is good, and the knife feels superb in hand.  The clip is good and the size is quite pleasant.  If you are looking for a beater utility blade, look no further.  You might just realize, once the hammering stops and the smoke clears, that your Mini Tuff Lite is giggling at your attempt to break it or its impervious lock. 

Runner Up: Olight i-3 EOS

Best Accessory: Prometheus Pocket Clip

The best accessories make the main product better than it was before, but the truly elite gear is something that seems like it should have been included in the first place.  The Prometheus Pocket Clip is the best flashlight clip on the planet, bar none.

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It is better than my old favorite, the McGizmo clip, because it is just as secure and can be added and removed from a light without tools.  It is simply, unquestionably the best design out there.  Its so good that absent a few tritium inserts I can't think of a way to make it better.  The titantium is very flexible and smooth cut with a perfect amount of tension.  Let me put it bluntly: if you own a light compatible with this clip buy it. 

Runner Up: Skinth Sheathes

Best Gear Related Website: Edge Observer

Andrew's slick, machine-precise videos and ethereal stick-in-your-brain music are icing on the cake.  The real treat is his amazing knowledge of blades, pronounciation of Japanese words, and an abundance of photographic genius.  It may not be purely new, but I think that most of us found Andrew this year and are glad we did.  Even the Canadian accent is cool, eh.

Runner Up: Practically Everyday 

Worst New Product:  Kershaw Cryo

There is no knife I have despised more than this one over the past year.  It was something I was practically doing flips for and it turned out to be utter and complete garbage.  How do you know it is garbage?  Whenever someone defends it, they always mention the price.  For example, "oh this a great knife for $30." I want a great knife.  Not a great knife for $30.  And, by the way, it is not a great knife for $30.  Here is the thing that makes the Cryo so painful--the bones of a good or even great blade are there, Kershaw just cheaped out.  This is a cash in plain and simple, as bad as the mid-90s CKRT version of the Sebenza.  That knife was so bad that Chris Reeve backed out of the agreement and refused to let them release it.  The Cryo is that bad.  It is heavy, slick, has crappy steel, is wide, has an ineffective and problematic thumbstud, and has mid-80s Hyundai level fit and finish.  This is a piece of junk, with a bullet list of features and a big name designer.  It's true purpose is not as a cutting tool, but as a prying device.  It pries money out of our wallet in exchange for crap. 

Runner Up: Nothing was even close...  

Best Year by a Gear Company: Cold Steel

TAD would win, not just for their release of the production Dauntless, but also for their steady stream of great custom knives, but I don't want to repeat winners, so this category was wide open.  Spyderco's year was good, but not great by Spyderco standards.  A large number of the most wanted blades are not being released until next year (Ti Delica....).  Benchmade seemed to be going to a million different directions at once, issuing tiny 2.38 inch blades with MIM injected backspacers among other touches right next to beasts like the Adamas.  Kershaw, other than the ZT line of knives, seems to have fallen into a rut of bead blasted blades and black handles.  ZT looks to have a good 2013, but they really only released one new product this year, albeit a superb one in the ZT56X series.  That alone puts them in the running.  On the flashlight front, 47s product line seems unchanged from last year, with all of the money going to the new fancy site, which is nice, but not a new flashlight.  JetBeam had a great year, releasing a ton of nice and innovative lights, but their habit of pirating other's hardwork bars me from giving them positive recognition.

In the end it came down to three companies--CRKT, Olight, and Cold Steel.  All three released not just new products, but entirely new product lines and they were very well received.

CRKT's year was marked by the release of a number of new, very good blades.  The Eraser is an amazing knife.  The Foresight is equally impressive.  These knives marked what is hopefully the continued upward ascent of the company, a move that started with the release last year of the IKBS-equipped blades and Ken Onion designs.  They also hinted at, in the more obscure parts of their catalog, the use of better steel (there is an auto version of the M16 that has 154CM steel).  If this was a question of the best two years, CRKT would win hands down.  In the end, too much of their innovation happened last year, but be certain--they are on the rise.  A classically styled 3 inch Ti framelock flipper with IKBS and 154CM steel would sell like hotcakes and really put CRKT in the upper echelons of the production world.

Olight's new stuff was definitely more concentrated than the two-year run CRKT has had.  The Baton series of lights along side the updated i-series gave Olight an impressive 1-2 punch in the EDC light arena.  I really liked a lot of what they did this year and their lights are on my "to-review" list.  The S10 Baton seems to be universally beloved and the magnet in the tail is a great new feature that I hope becomes standard in coming years--yet another hands free way to use a light is always welcome.

In the end, though, Cold Steel released so many new, so many updated and so many very good products that it was hard to ignore them.  Its not so much that Olight stunk, they didn't; they just happened to break out new gear the same year that Cold Steel essentially reinvented itself.

Once the proud home of Mall Ninjas and fatheletes (Lynn Thompson used that term in an interview, I am not smart enough or mean enough to coin it myself), since the addition of Andrew Demko's lock Cold Steel has been hammering home runs with virtually every release.  2011 was the year the Tri-Ad lock debuted but it came on such ridiculous blades like the Rajah and the Espada XL that only the two aforementioned groups knew of its benefits.  This year the lock spread to virtually the entire product line.  They released what has to be their smallest folder in the Mini Tuff Lite and it was an excellent blade.  They made a slightly larger version, the Tuff Lite, and it was an excellent blade.  They reinvented the Voyager line, giving folks a pretty economical way to get the Tri-Ad lock on a full sized knife.  They added the lock to the AK-47 and Lawman series, both series of knives made better for the addition.  But it was the reconstituted Recon line that really sold me both on the lock and on Cold Steel's transformation.  The Cold Steel Recon 1 Mini Spear Point is an amazing hard use knife.  At three inches and three ounces, it carries like a Delica and cuts like an axe.  In the end, the addition of the Demko designed lock and the new, lighter, smaller blades made Cold Steel a real competitor in the low and middle priced production knife market.  Of course they did release insane knives like the Hold Out XL, but Mall Ninjas and fatheletes need knives too, right?  If they keep pushing the new designs with the amazing lock and they upgrade their steel Cold Steel, like CRKT, will be a force to be reckoned with.

All of this is a sign that the recent boom in EDC gear is going well.  The market is expanding and there is real competition.  The top three companies in terms of design and quality remained the same--Spyderco, Benchmade, and Kershaw, but the second tier of makers have all but closed the gap.  If Buck, Cold Steel, and CRKT make concerted efforts to upgrade their steel, target the 3 inch and under class of products, and produce things people want to buy like flippers and Ti framelocks, the second tier will disappear and we will have six strong and competitive companies making cutting tools for us.

Runner Up: Olight

Thanks for reading and argue away in the comments.  

6 comments:

  1. "It can, of course, convert to a headlamp (as most if not all Zebralights do)."

    What attachment did you get that allows this to be used as a headlamp?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They sell a headband that allows it to convert.

      Delete
    2. I just emailed them trying to know which headband to get. This is the reply:

      "Sorry, there is no headband designed for the SC52."

      But they do have a kind of universal headband, I think, so that'd probably work.

      Delete
  2. Great post man, thanks for the shout out. You know I actually sold my A10 and bought another true lefty. Should come later this week.

    -a

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  3. These were great! I don't see anything to argue with. I agree that Cold Steel is kicking all kinds of butt lately. I would be real curious to see what you would make of one of the 2011 Voyagers.

    (I am hoping to unwrap a second flat ground Endura 4 for Christmas tomorrow -- that is a blade totally worth owning in multiple colors -- but I will probably spend some of my holiday cash on a large CS Voyager.)

    The Zebralight sounds amazing for a 1xAA.

    Finally, I really enjoyed the little geyser of Cryo hate. Just in case we thought you were going soft on that knife. :)

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  4. When I read your award to Cold Steel, I couldn't agree more. I went from being a big fan to neutral ocer the years, but their recent improvements like the Lawman and Voyager line has me back in.

    Wish they'd offer the lawman without the black finish though... and get rid of the mall ninja blades.

    I also love the re-creations they do with swords. Beautiful stuff.

    ReplyDelete