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Thread: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    I made the trip down to Nashville Yesterday to have my annual Mandolin Tasting Day with a friend. The drive from Louisville is less than 3 hours and it's a fun way to catch up over the holidays.

    Caveat...just squeezing all my random thoughts in here. Sorry if it's a little disorganized...rambling.

    Prior to departing I made a spreadsheet with Google Drive to write notes on each mandolin that I really wanted to play and test out. I wanted to have a guide to remind my mind in the future which ones i really liked, etc. On the spreadsheet, I rated each mandolin in several categories. I rate the bass strings, GD, in terms of "modern" vs "traditional" tone. I also rate the A and E treble strings on the same 1-10 scale in terms of "modern" vs "traditional". I also rate overall volume, responsiveness, finish quality, etc. I wrote a few notes about each one too.

    I'll start by saying I brought a snark tuner along and a CT55 to test every mando...strings however...wow. Some were new, and some looked like LLyod Loar himself put them on. This accounts for a very different tone.

    I've been playing a LOT this year and my ear has gotten much better. This trip completely changed my thinking about several opinions I had formulated prior to yesterday.

    One such notion I had prior to yesterday was that higher appointed models tend to sound better. I know on the Cafe here I've read many accounts of people who claim lesser appointed models sounded better than higher appointed models. An example would be the MT2 Collings vs the MT, or the Pava Satin vs the Pava Pro, The Eastman 305 vs the 805, etc etc etc.

    Prior to yesterday most higher appointed models that I had played blew away the lesser appointed models... specifically in my history; A Gibson A9 vs A5, a few MT's vs MT2, and the Pava Pro vs the Satin. Well... Yesterday my mind was changed COMPLETELY. One particular Collings MF blew away two different MF5's that I played. A 2015 Gibson F9 was one clear winner above some Gibson F5Ls! that Gibson f9 was mind blowing... I remember report of a fellow cafe'r who'd done a blind test last month and chose a Gibson f9 even though his budget was much higher!

    There was GREAT inconsistency among the models I played yesterday. (As in, the same model #, but one was awesome and the other was not...This was across the brands...) One giant victor on the day...top 5 definitely, was a 2003 Gibson Doyle Lawson. It was heads and tails above all the other Gibson f5Ls. The Doyle Lawson Gibson was only $6750 and it rivaled the Ellis models, and several of the Altmans, etc. The F5L's were very inconsistent. That Doyle Lawson though... WHEW! It could blow away nearly ANYTHING...EVER.

    I didn't rate my overall ratings on whether or not I liked the tone, which is why I rated on modern vs traditional tone, as well as overall responsiveness and quality. (I tried to keep it objective.) I was shocked that some of the Gibsons were NOT as much in the traditional tone camp as I expected. Specifically, the new f5G and the F9 that I played which had an amazing bass course, rich deep rich woody lows, and clear loud ringing treble courses with no tinny metallic ringing.

    The f9 I'm raving about was loud and rich, but the tone wasn't as complex as some of the more expensive models. The brand new F5G was firing on all cylinders and POWERFUL! Its hard comparing it to my dream mandos, the Ellis A's and F's. They're both nice.

    The Gibson doyle lawson, the 2015 f5g and 2015 f9 were powerful and begging to be beat like a mule, they were responsive, loud, complex etc.(the f5g was way more complex than the f9) The Ellis A5 was very complex and beautiful, but not very loud, and the E and A strings were a little too traditional for my tastes...not what i was expecting. Don't get me wrong. I REALLY liked it, but it wasn't the holy grail I was expecting. I prefer my Collings, or at least I don't feel like selling my collings MT2 to buy the Ellis A5 which I thought I would. It was quite a delicate exquisite mando, but not powerful... more dark and complex. There was a big difference in two of the Ellis f5s. I loved one...it was probably in the top 5, and the other didn't impress me as much. Needless to say...great mandolins, and to be honest...I played some Collings MF's that were stellar.my personal Collings MT2 held it's own against most of what I played, but some of the MF's...wow. awesome. I still prefer my MT2 though.

    My absolute favorite on the day was the Heiden A5 and the Altman F. One of the Altmans said "The Altman" on the headstock, and the other just said Altman. I MUCH prefered the one that said "The Altman". It matched or maybe beat the Heiden in terms of power, responsiveness, etc. The Altman was $13500 and the Heiden was $6750. the Heiden A5 was preferable to me over the F on tone, overall build, volume, power,etc. surprising.

    I'd say my top three...
    Heiden A5 $6750
    The Altman F5 $13500
    03 Gibson Doyle Lawson $6750

    Close contenders.
    2015 Gibson f9.
    2015 F5g. (I'm not a Gibson person, so that says how amazing these new ones are. They are GREAT)
    2010 Ellis f
    2015 Summit f200 MAN OH MAN! This was a BEAST! Explosive and loud, perfect. I don't like traditional tone, but this is a world class mandolin.
    Wilson f5. this was a good one.
    The Webers were all typical Webers. Very nice and consistent.
    I wrote that the Henderson F should be in my Top 3, but I don't know what happened. I got hung up on the Altman and Heiden. I would like to play it again.

    I played hendersons, gilchrists, giacomel, brw,duff,kimble, pava, summit etc. But the above are just my personal favorites. this could be due to strings, etc. Who knows.

    Oh...I ended up buying a Northfield f5s! Crazy good. Was it as good as a few of the $5000 mando's? NO. But it was pretty awesome.
    Last edited by 9lbShellhamer; Dec-19-2015 at 2:07pm.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Cool project.

    One take away is how much difference strings make. The best of mandolins can sound mediocre or worse with old worn out strings.
    Indulge responsibly!

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    That's great, hammer, thanks! Can you give us some notes on the Northfield? What you loved about it, why you picked it? Especially since it's more in the price range many of us can afford. I played Jerry Hutchison's the other day and it was sweet.

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Regarding the Northfield;

    My current stable consists of: 2002 Collings MT2h, 2013 Kentucky KM950 and KM160.

    I was blown away the first time I played that MT2 and I love it, but you know how MAS is... I always assumed my realistic "holy grail" mando would be an Ellis A. They have always intrigued me. I also played a Pava Pro that blew my mind prior to buying my Collings MT2. I wanted to see if it was like I remember, and compare it to the Ellis A5. I would love an F style, but I am more concerned with tone and figured the most I could afford would EVER be $5000, so the Ellis A5 seemed perfect. I think they are just cool!

    I am a huge fan of my Collings tone. Specifically on the treble strings. I don't like treble courses to be too "tinny". The Collings doesn't just "cut" in a jam. It like it has a turbo booster and it soars over the mix to be heard. I really like it. Every Collings MF or MF Deluxe has sounded pretty good to me. I can't say the came for every MT, but I have only played two.

    The Northfield was a great neutral tone. It's not too modern or too traditional. It was VERY open and resonant and loud! The strings were BRAND new so I know this affects things... From the first note I was impressed. I will be completely honest. It's just a fact that the fit and finish on the Collings MF is better than the Northfield. The tone might even be a tiny bit better, but honestly, not $2000 better. (And, I ALREADY have a Collings.)

    I also compared the Pava Pro to the Ellis A. The Pava is a beautiful high quality mandolin and it's priced right where it should be. The Ellis A5 was more complex, but the volume on each was the same, and the Pava sat solidly in the modern sound camp, while the Ellis A5 I played was teetering in the trad camp.

    In the end, nothing for $5k really beat my Collings MT2. The Northfield is a steal at the price, and they are going up a few hundred in January. You can pick up a Collings MT2 for $2500. That is the biggest steal in all of the mandolin world in my humble opinion. The Northfield, if you like F models, is also an outstanding value.

    The Northfield was open and resonant, and the bass popped! the only thing that competes with Northfield are the Gibson F9 which can be awesome, and the collings mf, and both are firmly over $4k. Are they finished more cleanly? Yes. But you pay for it. the tone might even be a little stronger on the Collings Mf and the F9... but for $2k more.... nah...meh...I dunno. (And I've already got the MT2...which I prefer to the MF anyways...)

    I know the Northfield will sell if I ever need to. I take great care of my tools, and the only thing I'd rather have would probably cost $6750 give or take $2k...
    Last edited by 9lbShellhamer; Dec-19-2015 at 2:11pm.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    From that lineup I'd guess your trip included a stop at Carter's Vintage. If so, I may have played that same Heiden A5 in September. It was a top contender for me as well. I also loved an older Kimble two point with block inlays that nearly played itself (block inlays are not my thing, but they were fine on my Southern Jumbo). I'm not at all confident I could segregate mandolins or even string pairs into modern vs traditional sounding. But, I would be willing to listen to some examples. I was able to piggyback my visit to Carters and Gruhn that day onto a family visit. Both shops were very welcoming and provided a nice setting to try out instruments until my fingers gave up. I concluded that my own Pava A5 gives me enough of everything for now.

    Scott

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Yes! I started at Cotton, and moved on to Carter.

    You can't go wrong with Pava or Collings. Great Stuff.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    I am guessing from the instruments and the comments that you are mainly a Bluegrass player. I would be interested in someone doing a similar comparison of instruments with folk/classical instruments (A-style mandolins.) I admit to a trifle of MAS (under control right now as 5 mandolins are all I can keep played,) but am curious what I might like to try.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    great post, thanks for putting in the time to do the write up.
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    any chance you played the Givens A at Carters?
    if so, what were your feelings on it.

    thanks for the review(and yes, the Northfields are excellent mandolins)

    The Summit, was it the one at Carters or another shop?

    thanks
    d

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Great report. Did you get to play any of the recent batch of Gils? Been wondering about that Heiden A5. Want

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    daryl,
    The Summit was the F200 at Carters. It was truly a world class mandolin. It was loud and resonant. It had complex tone. It could possibly be one of the most traditional sounding mandolins I've ever played. The only that sounded equally as traditional and jumped out of my hands with such force was a Gilchrist I played a few years ago.

    It is a steal for that price.

    The overall finish quality was great too.

    The Givens was solid. A good mandolin...but didn't impress me as much as others only because the strings were pretty old.

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by JWalterWeatherman View Post
    Great report. Did you get to play any of the recent batch of Gils? Been wondering about that Heiden A5. Want
    I played the Gils there, but not the new ones. The ones I played were older and didn't impress me as much as other Gils I'd played. Great mandolins...but any other time I've played a Gil, they have shocked me with power. The ones I played Friday simply didn't stand out as much as others...

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by LadysSolo View Post
    I am guessing from the instruments and the comments that you are mainly a Bluegrass player. I would be interested in someone doing a similar comparison of instruments with folk/classical instruments (A-style mandolins.) I admit to a trifle of MAS (under control right now as 5 mandolins are all I can keep played,) but am curious what I might like to try.
    Yes... I play mostly BG. I currently own mostly A style F hole mandos... I played Kimble A's and of course the Heiden. I played the Gilchrist oval hole too. Unfortunately they just don't have as many oval holes. The Gil oval was very nice, but for the cost maybe a bit much.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by 9lbShellhamer View Post
    I know the Northfield will sell if I ever need to. I take great care of my tools, and the only thing I'd rather have would probably cost $6750 give or take $2k...
    Is that for the Heiden A5? good report! Not sure when I'll get to Nashville but sounds like a fun trip. TBH - If I played that many and found one that speaks to me I would have a hard time leaving it there.

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    delete. duplicate

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Wilson View Post
    Is that for the Heiden A5? good report! Not sure when I'll get to Nashville but sounds like a fun trip. TBH - If I played that many and found one that speaks to me I would have a hard time leaving it there.
    The Heiden or the Gibson Doyle Lawson. Both were $6750 and amazing. That F5G was pretty awesome... It'd be interesting to lock yourself in a room and compare the:

    F5G, F9, Collings MF, Collings MT2, and the Northfield.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Wilson View Post
    Is that for the Heiden A5? good report! Not sure when I'll get to Nashville but sounds like a fun trip. TBH - If I played that many and found one that speaks to me I would have a hard time leaving it there.
    How many Pava's would you be willing to leave in its place?

    In all seriousness, yes $6750 is the asking price for the Heiden A5:

    http://www.cartervintage.com/mandopa...e.html#heidena

    And it is an instrument I have considered for some time. I have no reason to doubt Troy's report any more than the glowing reviews that Shaun Garrity and Don Grieser shower on their Heiden A5's. My question for Troy -- and I'll extend it to you, Mark, and anyone else who feels like answering it -- is did you ever consider combining the cash you put toward the Northfield with the money you could realize from a sale of your Collings and Kentucky KM950 to go all in on the Heiden? It is a possibility that I entertain often -- turning 2 or 3 different voices into one higher tier A5 to rule them all -- but I think I'd need some hands-on time with the instrument to determine whether it speaks to me first.

    I'm also curious about the Wayne Benson model. Is this the same one with the creased top that was at Gruhn earlier this year? I remember some players, including AtlantaMandoMike, raving about that one's tone. And Emmett Marshall likes his enough to have sold off the rest of his stable. I'm wondering if that whole run was spectacular.
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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    pheffernan,

    I thought long and hard about that. It's the reason I decided to buy the Northfield. There is nothing in the $5k range that really striked my fancy so much I'd consider selling my MT2 for.

    To get a $5k mandolin I'd have to sell my Collings and my KM950, and I'd only be left with the really nice mando and the KM160, leaving me with no mid range mandolin. I travel a lot and usually bring a decent mandolin. That's what I'll do with my Northfield. I also spend a lot of time backpacking, and this is why I have my KM160...maybe a bit too nice to backpack with as a Rogue set up well would suffice, but I digress.

    For me personally, I like having my KM950 to travel and fly with, etc. I go out of town about once a month and bring it along. Its much nicer than the KM160. It's a really good mando.

    To sell everything and get the Heiden is still out of my price range. Maybe in 5 years for my 40th it'll be my present. HA. Maybe I should get over my love of having a nice travel mando... In only a year or two I could maybe afford the Heiden then, and I would just have to travel with it, and then backpack with the KM160. I mean... Professional musicians put their instruments through hell...so maybe I should get over it.

    I won't get a really nice mandolin until I can afford it AND something decent like the Northfield to travel with,(I'm selling my KM950 and the Northfield is now my travel mandolin), and still have a KM160 or whatever for a "campfire" and backpacking mandolin. To be honest, I don't think the Northfield is much better than my KM950, I just prefer the tone. I like more modern sounding treble courses.

    Regarding the Benson model. Yes. I played it, and it didn't speak to me personally. Once again, not trying to dog on anything which is why I didn't share the actual ratings sheet I created, (didn't want to publicly call some mandolins "Dumpy".) I really don't like non-scooped floridas anyways...but as mentioned, that's just a preference thing. When it all boils down, the Benson I played sounded dull and muffled compared to the F5G, the F9, and the Doyle Lawson.

    I think in a perfect world, I'll have one really nice mandolin, a decent travel mandolin, and a beater to backpack with. That's what I've kind of got going on now at least. I wouldn't trade the MT2 for anything really shy of $5k.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by 9lbShellhamer View Post
    Maybe I should get over my love of having a nice travel mando... In only a year or two I could maybe afford the Heiden then, and I would just have to travel with it, and then backpack with the KM160. I mean... Professional musicians put their instruments through hell...so maybe I should get over it.
    The Heiden A5 does come with a Calton for traveling purposes. Seriously though, your vision of a really nice mandolin / travel mandolin / beater makes a lot of sense. Ultimately, your instruments should provide what your needs require and your budget allows. And some times those needs require a quality instrument for a defined role. For instance, it took me two years to give myself permission to keep more than a beater at work despite the fact that my work mandolin gets more play time, as it has my undivided attention, than the instruments at home (which have to share me). I can understand your reluctance to upgrade one of the three roles if it comes at the expense of another which needs to be filled.
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by pheffernan View Post
    The Heiden A5 does come with a Calton for traveling purposes. Seriously though, your vision of a really nice mandolin / travel mandolin / beater makes a lot of sense. Ultimately, your instruments should provide what your needs require and your budget allows. And some times those needs require a quality instrument for a defined role. For instance, it took me two years to give myself permission to keep more than a beater at work despite the fact that my work mandolin gets more play time, as it has my undivided attention, than the instruments at home (which have to share me). I can understand your reluctance to upgrade one of the three roles if it comes at the expense of another which needs to be filled.
    Bingo. You nailed it in one paragraph.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Great read! Like I need two more mandolins. . . I do sort of want a Heiden and my last names's benson.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by 9lbShellhamer View Post
    daryl,
    The Summit was the F200 at Carters. It was truly a world class mandolin. It was loud and resonant. It had complex tone. It could possibly be one of the most traditional sounding mandolins I've ever played. The only that sounded equally as traditional and jumped out of my hands with such force was a Gilchrist I played a few years ago.

    It is a steal for that price.

    The overall finish quality was great too.

    The Givens was solid. A good mandolin...but didn't impress me as much as others only because the strings were pretty old.
    Troy
    was the Summit the one with a satin finish and flowerpot inlay?

    they have two Summit's in stock(F100S on the website), the F200 is not on the website, just talked to Walter and he said oddly enough the 200 arrived and it carries a full satin finish-which is something I really like myself.

    Walter had not played it himself, so he tuned it up, played it over the phone and i heard "wow, this thing is nice" in the background. he told me it was quite nice and didn't break up in areas where many do. I'm quite interested in this as I've had hands on with an A Summit in the past and it was a really neat mandolin, and just so happens i have a supposedly brand new MF due to arrive this Wednesday(acquired in a guitar trade) and i could sell it as I'm well stocked with my MT2V in the Collings arena.

    thanks for the review and replies
    d
    Last edited by darylcrisp; Dec-20-2015 at 2:58pm.

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    Troy Shellhamer 9lbShellhamer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Quote Originally Posted by darylcrisp View Post
    Troy
    was the Summit the one with a satin finish and flowerpot inlay?

    they have two Summit's in stock(F100S on the website), the F200 is not on the website, just talked to Walter and he said oddly enough the 200 arrived and it carries a full satin finish-which is something I really like myself.

    Walter had not played it himself, so he tuned it up, played it over the phone and i heard "wow, this thing is nice" in the background. he told me it was quite nice and didn't break up in areas where many do. I'm quite interested in this as I've had hands on with an A Summit in the past and it was a really neat mandolin, and just so happens i have a supposedly brand new MF due to arrive this Wednesday(acquired in a guitar trade) and i could sell it as I'm well stocked with my MT2V in the Collings arena.

    thanks for the review and replies
    d
    Yes. It was the F200, with full bling and appointment. It's a beauty. They have in a ton of mandolins right now which aren't on the site.

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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Did you make any notes on neck profiles? Did you play the Voight A5 at Carter's?
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    Default Re: Mando Tasting Notes... Wow. 35 Mandolins in a day.

    Appreciate you reporting. How was the '99 Heiden F model compared to the Heiden A? I'm guessing you didn't like it as much as I'm sure you would have mentioned it but just curious.

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