Friday, January 9, 2015

Cool Fall SPY 007 Review

Let me get two points out of the way immediately--price and hypocrisy.

New, this flashlight costs $1295.  No flashlight is worth that much money.  Well, if you were trapped in a cave and came across one with batteries, it would be priceless, but under normal circumstances no flashlight is worth that much money.  So in a sense I cannot recommend this light to anyone.  Its too expensive.  Note that through a series of trades too complex to recount here, I have about $500 in this light.  Even my beautiful and tolerant wife would have killed me if I spent a grand on a flashlight.

In another sense, it is WAY TOO CHEAP.  As Justin Laffer discussed on GGL 49 there is a sense in which custom knives are cheap. High end craftsmanship, say in the form of custom kitchen cabinets, is much, much, much more money.  Even if you compare custom cabinets not to knives, which are generally cheaper than cabinets, but to other cabinets (production cabinets, if you will),the custom stuff is orders of magnitude more money.  Similarly, custom cars are orders of magnitude more expensive, proportionally compared, than custom knives.  And I would argue that in this sense, given the level of programming knowledge, electrical engineering expertise, and machining abilities, the SPY 007 is a bargain.  This is an all-weather computer, housed in a custom made titanium body, that produces light. Seen from that perspective, the price tag, compared to other finely crafted things, isn't too bad.
All that said, this is still a flashlight that costs more than a grand. Its not quite Roland Iten belt buckle territory, but it is closer than I am comfortable being to that ludicrous line.  Which brings me to my second point--hypocrisy. 

I am, like most people, a hypocrite.  On the heels of discussing the stupidity of expensive watches, I am writing a favorable review of a $1,300 flashlight. All I can say is this--the light has cutting edge performance (unlike high end watches) and it is still not THAT expensive. This isn't ten grand for a wristwatch expensive. Its stupidly expensive, but not something-you-fight-over-in-a-divorce expensive. So go ahead and comment below.  This is me being a hypocrite. I know that.  

But here is the thing, just like sports broadcasters have their "favorite" sport, the sport they cut their teeth on (Chris Berman's is football, Joe Buck's is baseball, etc...), so too with gear. I am, at heart, a flashlight guy.  I love flashlights.  They were my first gear love.  As much as I like a good knife, there is something about the complexity and size of a flashlight that I can't get over.  And so the SPY 007 is the Everest of gear reviews for me.  If I were writing for Motor Trend, this would be the Bugatti Veyron test drive.  In order to be comprehensive, in order to speak with competence and some authority, I feel the need to have, use, and review this light.  

And so, yes, its too expensive, and yes, I am hypocrite, but I am going to review the SPY 007, my grail of grails, anyway.  Its too amazing not to.

Here is the product page.  The light is available exclusively through Cool Fall's subforum on CPF.  Here is an amazing wiki-style user manual that is, like the light itself, an fascinating piece of work.  There are no retailers (God, the affliate commissions could pay for the server fees on the podcast for almost a year). There are four variants--the original XPG model, the even more expensive Tri-V (which incorporates two other emitters, and the Tri-V 2.0).  There is also an earlier model, the SPY 005, which is also awesome and has a very art deco feel. Beware there is a complete ripoff out there called the Niteye ZIP 20 (no link in protest of the blatant thievery; for more on Sysmax's bullshit, see here and here.  The quick summary is that Sysmax is the parent company of Nitecore, JetBeam, and Niteye and they have been less than scrupulous in mining custom light makers work for their own benefit on at least three occasions--this, the one time payment to McGizmo for the PD system that they then turned around and patented, and then the rip off of Muyshondt's Aeon design).  Despite the fact that this is been on the market for more than a few years now, this appears to be the first review.  Geez, I wonder what is taking so long?  Here is my video overview of the light:



Here is my review sample (purchased with my own money and being passed down to my sons upon death or blindness):

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Twitter Review Summary: Illuminating the thin line between perfection and insanity.

Design: 2

Revolutionary in every single way.  Its physical design is different.  Its programming abilities are insane (especially at the time it was originally released).  Its form factor is great, getting two batteries in to a footprint that normally only houses one.  That makes the light a bit heavy, but that's okay.  

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Mine is a modded version.  The original emitter was an XPG--fine, of course, but not, well, superb.  A light like this deserves the best so there is a Nichia 219 emitter in mine.   Note that this screws up all of the output and runtime measurements, which, in turn, makes the ratios impossible to calculate.  This says nothing to the complexity of the programmability features and their impacts on runtime and output. 

Fit and Finish: 2

Oh serious...fuck this shit.  Perfect is not the right word.  What's better than perfect?  Mind-blowingly insane.  Its not just that it is perfect, but its also a high degree of difficulty item.  This is like nailing not just the hardest move in diving, ice skating, or gymnastics in the world, but inventing a harder one and nailing THAT.  

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The body of the light is milled from a single piece of titanium and it is immaculate.  The battery compartment has two alignment posts in it for the battery cover and they match perfectly, so perfectly in fact that they allow for a great seal, even before you snap in the spring mounting in the cover.  This isn't just straight lines and circles either, its also all sorts of curves and lines and figures.  Honestly nothing I have ever seen in the gear world comes close to this.  Nothing.  

Grip: 2

Ever since the "palm beacon" flashlights of Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG or simply TNG to get super nerdy), I have always thought that there were ways to make flashlights that work better with the human hand.  A tube is okay but not great in terms of grip.  Well, fortunately, the SPY 007's configuration is both totally different and totally awesome.  

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Not only is the light securely buried in your closed hand, but your fingers are in the right spot to control the light. This is a great out of the box design (JESUS I hate that phrase) that really works.  One of the many reasons the SPY 007 is a singular achievement.  

Carry: 2

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Do you want a pocket clip?  I did until I started carrying this thing. Its size and shape is perfect for coin pocket carry and given that, I wasn't sad there was no clip.  The light is very dense, two CR123a batteries in a small titanium package, but you get used to it, especially if you keep it nicely confined in your coin pocket. 

Output: 2

The new model has insane output, but my modded version hits around 350 lumens, plenty for my tasks. The real genius of the light however, is that it can be programmed to do just about anything. Check out the user manual for more.   The low is quite nice and the runtimes, given the two batteries, are great as well.  Stock, this is very good.  Programmed, all of which can be done without a computer, its so advanced its DARPA-level tech.  Modded, well, I have no idea what the highs and lows really are beyond simply--blinding and whisper, with lots of levels in the middle.  Its good enough to say this--the light can give you anything you need.  

Runtime: 2

Again, its hard to judge given the programmability, but stock, its quite competitive on high and low. And this is a light that is like five years old, which, in flashlight years is like 250 human years (every human year is equal to 50 flashlight years given the pace of technological improvements, which seem to happen weekly).  

Beam Type: 2

Okay, since this website was founded in 2011, the Haiku has been the gold standard for beams....There is a new king.  The balance between spill and throw is perfect, with a tight hotspot and good spill.  This combined with the precise control over the outputs gives you a light that can do quite a bit from true throw to up close work.  

Beam Quality: 2

While beam type has a lot to do with emitter design and reflector design, beam quality has a lot to do with how the light is made and as with everything on the SPY 007, the light's beam quality is unparalleled. There are a lot of shots on this site where my sole light source was the SPY 007.  That's how good the beam is.  No artifacts, no holes, no rings, no imperfections of any kind.  

UI: 2

The HDS Rotary's UI was great.  Here, with a few less modes (making the difference even more significant), the UI is even better--no button needed. Its important to note both the programmability of the light's brains and the splendid feel of the rotary knob. Both make the UI better--one makes the light more flexible and the other makes it more of a joy to use. 

Hands Free: 2

The light can tailstand, doesn't roll and because of its design can be used in hand and still allow you to use your fingers. Hard to beat.

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Overall Score: 20 out of 20, but hold on a second....

I love this light.  Price blind it is not simply the best light I have ever seen, it is the best piece of gear I have ever seen or handled.  Even as emitter tech has made the original emitter "dim," the form factor is just brilliant.  The quality of good bourbon and flashlights is not measured by a number, either proof or lumens, but by the excellence of execution.  The SPY 007 is the embodiment of the excellence of execution.  The fact that you can get one that runs an XML2 emitter means that this great body remains uber competitive.  Brilliant, innovative design, excellent execution, great grip and look.  EASY 20 out of 20.

But price justified I can't give this light a recommendation.  Its not $700 better than a Haiku, even when you factor in the notion that increased performance at the top of a scale costs exponentially more.  I am glad I own this light.  It is, as I referenced, the end of a long journey.  But this is not an item I can recommend, even to people with the financial means or trade stock able to acquire it. Its great.  Its a piece of brilliant design, but owning one is totally irrational.  Its price is a fatal flaw.  I reviewed one other product, the Lighthound AA, with a fatal flaw, and thus regardless of score, this is not something I can recommend.

But, if you have the means, if your significant other won't kill you, and if you are a hardcore flashlight fan, the SPY 007 is an absolute treat to own, fondle, and use.  But there is nothing rational, prudent, or justifiable about this light.  It is a light for oil barons that need something to illuminate their gigayatch's interior at night or the glove box light for their Bugatti Veyron (do they even have glove boxes?).  I love it.  You'd love it (price blind), but I can't recommend the SPY 007.  The Haiku or Aeon Mk. II seem like the most expensive, price justifiable light.  But if you want to sniff the rarified air of absolute extravagance and perfection, this is it.  Just be sure it matches your stupidly expensive watch and your Roland Iten belt buckle.

In some regards, the upper end of anything--cars, loudspeakers, gigayachts is not about rationality--its about a desire.  And I have wanted this light since I saw it debut on CPF.  Getting one has proven to be a massive chore, but it was worth it.  I am not recommending this light, despite the score.  But that doesn't mean I can't revel in its charms, of which there are many.  Most forms of desire are irrational.  And here, in this one instance, I am glad I am irrational.

Don't buy this light.  Its too expensive.
Do buy this light.  It is a wonderful testament to the state of the art, the passion of a single brilliant person, and how far flashlights have come.

As you can see, I am a bit divided on this one.  That's why this review took so long.  But its hard not to be divided about something as polarizing as a $1300 flashlight.  

Is the halo too much?

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21 comments:

  1. I am on CandlePowerForums. I've owned Mcgizmo's, Mac's Customs, and Vinh-modded hot rods. I'd sure love to own one of these. But the price is just way too high. Good luck with yours! Enjoy it in good health!

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  2. One of the best reviews I have ever read. Giving a perfect score to an item, classifying it as "above perfect" and still understanding it's irracional and not recommend it is a beautiful paradox, making perfect sense.

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  3. I just grinned the whole time I read this. Happy for you. Love reading passionate prose ;-)

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    1. Thank you for reading this in the spirit in which it was written.

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  4. Tony, I think you're confusing price with value. Just because something costs a little bit of money, and excludes some part of its audience because of that, doesn't mean its bad value and shouldn't be recommended.

    Whether someone can afford it or not is entirely individual but whether or not its good value is an objective property. So don't make excuses and keep from recommending it because it's a stretch for your and some other peoples gadget budget, see it for what it is and let other people decide for themselves whether they can afford it or not.

    As I see it, and as you've described it so brilliantly, the SPY 007 is a unique concept with custom engineering, flawless craftsmanship and fit and finish and best possible use of materials. I'm prepared to pay for that and many others as well, so please keep a value discussion from the cost that goes into each light and how it compares to its peers. Anyway, please keep it up, and we can take the "expensive watch discussion" offline ;)

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    1. I think what Tony is trying to get at, is that while this light is an incredible piece of engineering, it is, in the end, just a flashlight. While there is still value that can justify the price, there isn't that much functionality over and above a $500 Haiku, or even a $300 Prometheus, that necessarily justifies the price tag. Make no mistake, the 007 is an amazing design; but in the end it is a luxury item, and the value of a luxury item is intrinsic to the buyer.

      All that said, IMO, a fantastically honest review of an incredible flashlight.

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    2. Yes, I agree and it is in comparison to these two lights that I would've liked to see a value comparison, not on absolute dollars.

      Most types of items have a "cost/performance ceiling", above which you don't get any better performance since that price allows for the best possible engineering and materials (true for wine and spirits as well) but where you start to pay for other criteria such as craftsmanship or embellishments.

      I'm not sure where I'm going here except that I believe a value comparison to a Haiku would've been more appropriate than concluding that $1300 is too much to pay for a flashlight.

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  5. Could you explain in more detail how the UI works?

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  6. It's art, pure and simple. View it in that light, and it seems much more reasonable in price.

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  7. The product is excellent. Excellence takes time. It also takes money, since people need to eat while studying, developing their skills, thinking about a design and how to execute it,producing a great product. In my opinion, money on an item that is excellent to be well spent since one is funding excellence. And without this we would have no excellence, no graduate school, no artistic masterpieces, no innovation of time consuming designs.

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  8. The SPY 007 is undoubtedly an exceptional flashlight, a bit pricey but nevertheless a worthwhile lighting tool for those who have the means.

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  9. In my mind, it sounds like a piece that brings you true pleasure in owning. At the end of the day, if you can swing it, that's justification enough. Guys with the EDC affliction oftentimes go well beyond what would be considered anywhere near normal, but it is what it is. Kudos to the fact you state right off the go it's way out there. I've never judged anyone for anything they own, but snicker when guys try to justify owning pieces of kit costing mortgage payments by stating they "need" them.

    Thankfully, I'm blissfully ignorant of the whole light part of EDC and am more or less content with my old ARC P. I have a hard enough time as it is keeping the knife wants in check!

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  10. I, for one, am glad you review products like this. Most of us here will never buy a light like this, but we can appreciate it, and it's fun to read your hands-on take. I have made similar comments on both Dan and Andrew's sites after they reviewed certain knives that I can only assume most of their readers will never have access to. I don't always read a review as a purchasing guide. Often I just want to read about your experience with using something that I think looks cool.

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  11. That's a really awesome light! I am considering to use one for EDC but noticed that it doesn't have the functionality of a momentary switch on/off. Do you find that clicks are still better UIs?

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