Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Escort Passport Max Review: Escort's First Bipolar Radar Detector



Escort Passport Max

Updated: 1306Z-5, 27 DEC 13, By Veil Guy

Escort Passport Max Review: A Contradiction of the Extremes.

Developed over a five plus year period, the Escort Passport Max was billed as being the quickest, most sensitive, and most false resistant radar detector of all time--employing new technology never seen before in a consumer radar detector.

Eye catching terms--such as HD (high definition), radar DNA, advanced digital processing, NASA-based, and military-grade technology--were ascribed to the Passport Max's new capabilities, capabilities yet to be seen in any consumer-grade radar detector.  The result was to be a radar detector possessing extreme range and quickness while being the most sophisticated at filtering out false alerts--the bane of all radar detector users.

Woah!  More than bold claims, to be sure, but quite believable at the time of the Max's launch, as the Escort Passport Max followed hot on the heels of the release of, unarguably, the highest performing dash-mount radar detector ever produced--the revised Escort Redline Expert Edition.

I would say its launch was the most highly anticipated event of the year by the hardcore online enthusiast community in quite some time.  Not surprising, as Escort's marketing machine was in overdrive.  The typical "authoritative" sources of early product promotion, including SML and Radar Roy, confirmed the marketing claims of Escort.  Even I got caught up in the buzz initially and penned an early Escort Passport Max preview where I explored the possibilities of such "advanced" technologies being incorporated into a radar detector.

Enthusiast forums were buzzing with the idea of a new ├╝ber high-end radar detector that promised to exceed the performance of the Escort Redline while providing the advanced GPS capabilities of Escort's Passport 9500ix and Beltronics GX65 radar detectors.  This detector was to have it all or nearly all (only lacking the RDD invisibility of the Redline).

Once again, Escort was kind enough to send me an early production model less than two weeks before the expected  launch.  SML, Radar Roy, and a couple highly respected forum members had also already gotten their hands on pre-production versions.  The early votes were in and the verdict was unanimous, this new Escort was something very special.

Being unusually short on time, I committed to spending an intense four days of multi-state long-distance testing with the hope and expectation of experiencing first hand its touted capabilities. The timing couldn't have been better as the July 4th weekend was soon upon us.

As the weekend approached, I set off driving through PA to NJ and NY then back south to DE and returning through MD.  I hoped the roadways would be heavily enforced during the busy holiday and I wasn't disappointed.

Over the course of four days, I experienced it all:

10.5Ghz X-band and 33.8Ghz and 34.7Ghz Ka-band in NJ
24.1Ghz K-band in Pennsylvania
34.7Ghz Ka-band and redlight camera photo enforcement in Delaware
35.5Ghz Ka-band, police laser, and 34.7Ghz K-band photo radar in Maryland

Never in such a short period did I accumulate so many encounters, including instant-on and constant-on radar.  Although I had some close calls, I emerged ticket free and had an extended and exhilarating weekend.

With all the driving, the video documentation, the near real-time posting of experiences online, I barely managed any sleep. I was entirely satisfied that I had fully profiled this detector like no other that I have profiled previously. I certainly gave it my "Max" effort and my mission was accomplished, or so I thought.

What I found was that the new Escort Passport Max was unlike any other radar detector I had previously reviewed.

So, what exactly did I find in the real-world of testing?  A contradiction of extremes.

The good stuff:

It was clear to me early on that the Passport Max was superb on X-band detection--the best I believe I've experienced in a windshield-mount.  Ka-reception, in general, was also exceptional often coming close and occasionally exceeding my reference Beltronics STi-R, STi-R+, and Passport 9500ci remote mount radar detectors.

Impressive stuff, to be sure.  The Passport Max was also adept at identifying photo-enforced red-light intersections successfully alerting me to their locations while driving in Delaware even though I would occasionally be alerted to its presence while driving on a highway (not uncommon with any GPS enabled radar detector).

Even more impressive was the extreme quickness of detection, something I have been a long advocate for and have only found with the top-of-the-line Whistlers, such as the Whistler Pro-78SE and Whistler XTR-695SE, band-segmented M3s (Beltronics STi-R, Beltronics STi-R plus, and Redline Expert), and the Valentine One.

Up to that point the Max had appeared to be living up to its claims.

That was until I experienced several take-aways.

The not so good stuff:

At times K-band reception was exceptional and at others it appeared to lag a bit. Sensitivity to police laser appeared to be only fair.  Most importantly, my very early production model failed, on multiple occasions, to alert to a 34.7Ghz instant-on speed trap when I made multiple runs at it.

This particular experience was quite troubling, especially given the speeds at which I often test.  Fortunately for me, my trusted reference Beltronics STi-R and Beltronics STi-R+ did their jobs at providing more than ample warning to the impending threats. I chalked this failure up as one resulting from testing an early firmware version which was promptly updated by Escort prior to shipping units to the general public.

Although Escort never fully articulated or defined the Max's new features, I saw no evidence whatsoever of DNA or HD "technology" in play here.

What I found was a detector that was admittedly more sensitive than the Escort Passport 9500ix--the detector the Max superseded --but also somewhat less sensitive than the M3 based reference detectors.  It also appeared to be more prone to falsing than the more sensitive reference detectors, at least in my region of driving.

In fact, it was almost ridiculous how often the Passport Max falsed, certainly at a rate that was much higher than any V1 I have ever used.  To be fair, much has changed on the roads since my V1s have been relegated to my desk drawer. 

The proliferation of radar assisted lane departure and cruise control systems are wreaking havoc on the radar detector community. Not having driven with a V1 for a such a long-time, I can't as yet comment on what the relative falsing rates would be.  That is going to have to wait until I conduct a real-world review of the latest Valentine V1C.

The bad stuff:

One of the promises made by Escort was the capability of being able to quickly sort out the bonafide radar sources (those of police speed enforcement traps) from the "noise" of other false non-threatening sources--through the use of the most advanced digital processing, all in less time than the blink of the eye.

The falsing to X-band and K-band door openers has always been tough to eliminate as they appear genuinely as weak off-axis  police radar.  Since all of the magical new DNA processing apparently wasn't able to filter these signals out (the "noise")--as was suggested, non-specifically, by Escort and their marketing arms--one has to rely on GPS lockout to do the trick.  A feature that has been in existence since the first Escort GPS detector appeared years ago, the Escort Passport 9500i and one feature that I am personally loathe to employ. Nothing new here, then.

Beyond the ubiquitous stationery X-band and K-band door openers--the notorious sources of all X and K falsing--the most menacing new development adversely impacting the enthusiast driver who owns a radar detector has been the explosive increase in the use of FMCW K-band radar based lane departure and cruise control systems in cars of every price point.  These obnoxious systems first started appearing on German-only imports just a few short years ago. Now they can be found in entry level Kias and GMs.

(Side note: If you ever driving your new car and find other vehicles abruptly braking for some inexplicable reason in front of you, it may be prudent for you to determine if your vehicle has one of these systems so you can promptly disable it before you rear-end someone you've been tailgating.   Also, be mindful of your rear-view mirror if you begin to notice chain reaction accidents that occur closely behind you.  At some point you may begin to suspect that these events have something to do your "safety-enhancing" radar polluting vehicle.)

Unlike stationery falses--which are readily identifiable by drivers--these new sources of falsing are moving and not stationery and consequently will be encountered anywhere on the road.  The fact that they are moving sources of interference eliminates the possibility of successfully using GPS lockout even if one were inclined to do so. Worse still these devices mimic the behavior of traffic enforcement radar.  Frankly, car companies and manufacturers of such systems should be ashamed of themselves for polluting the roads with these garbage signals.  But that's another story.

Because FMCW (frequency modulated continuous wave) radar actually manifests itself differently than conventional CW (continuous-wave) radar (the type used by traffic enforcement), I couldn't think of a more apt waveform which could (should) be potentially analyzable for its "DNA" (its makeup) and therefore be filtered out completely by the Max.

As it turned out, I was wrong.  Apparently there's no DNA to be found there, either, although I am virtually certain it is there.  It's just the Escort hasn't found it yet.  In fact, I have yet to discover the DNA of any "noise" the Max can identify and "filter" out, relative to any other radar detector.

It consistently falses when in proximity to these rolling nuisances.  To its credit, it falses better than the any of the M3-based radar detectors (which alert as if they were picking up strong I/O radar).

The Max, on the other hand, presents a more constant and gentle alert that waxes and wanes gradually when one approaches and overtakes a radar-equipped vehicle.  In the event* you are overtaken by one of these vehicles, be prepared to get blasted with K-band so you won't instinctively just hit the brakes.  It's going to take some conditioning, I am afraid.

In fairness to the Max, these sources present falsing challenges to all radar detector manufacturers.  In my opinion, only Whistler has devised an effective solution to these systems (more on this subject when I release the review of the new Whistler CR90/CR85).

The contradictions of the extremes:

Initial presentation

When opening the box of previous top of the line models from Escort and Beltronics, you felt you were opening something special.  The carrying case and packaging material exuded quality.  Opening the Max's packaging is somewhat anti-climactic in comparison and more typical of a conventional piece of consumer electronics.

I fondly remember the packaging of the Beltronics STi Driver. Now that was something!  But, that special something, call it mystique--the demonstrable pride a company has for its flagship product--is missing here.

Packaging

The Escort Passport Max retails at $550 and $600 (for special "limited" editions, comprised of special colored cases), amounting to $50 to $100 more than the Escort Redline Expert Edition.

Despite the large increases in costs, the product construction and packaging appears to be a step down from the tank-like features of the Escort Redline and Beltronics STi Driver/Magnum or even the Max's predecessors: the Escort Passport 9500ix and Escort Passport 8500 X50.

The Max is the most software driven radar detector, sporting firmware that is meant to be easily and frequently upgraded as improvements are made.  Despite this, Escort failed to provide a small USB to mini-D cable that is required for connection to a computer to perform those updates.

I am at a loss to understand how the highest priced dash-mount radar detector of all time, doesn't come with a $0.99 cable.  Even Whistler provides a USB to mini-D cable on a their detectors that run nearly a third to a quarter of the price tag.

Display

The Max is the first dash-mount radar detector from Escort that utilizes an advanced OLED display, following in the footsteps of Cobra and Whistler.  And while the OLED displays of the Whistlers and especially Cobras are very bright, brilliantly colorful, and eminently readable in all levels of lighting conditions, the Max's display by comparison is small, dull, dim, and virtually unreadable in most lighting conditions.

The information displayed though small and sometimes difficult to read, even at night, could be improved.  Some real-estate is wasted on the over-speed alert setting or OSP, something that I wouldn't use anyway.  Surely something more useful could be put in its place.  If not, perhaps the information that is worth reading could be made larger instead.

Mounting Bracket

The mounting bracket is huge and looks like it belongs to a much bigger GPS system.  The new sticky cup was designed to stick to the windshield better than any other detector mount and to be a step up from the conventional two-suction-cup mounts that we typically see with radar detectors.   At first blush, this sounds most promising.  Anyone who has driven with a radar detector for any period of time, will sooner or later experience the suction cup one drop phenomenon.

Thing is, the sticky cup is not necessarily sticky at all.  It is, though, very susceptible to attracting even the slightest amounts of dust and debris when it's not attached to the windshield.  While it appears to adhere well, initially, I have found the detector on more than one occasion resting on my dash, the following morning.  That's a lot of weight to drop from a height and repeated impact trauma to the case and internal electronics can not be a good thing, long-term.

To maximize the sticky cup's potential of sticking, I highly recommend washing it every time you attach it and if you elect to remove it over night, be sure to put the mount in a place that won't attract any dust.  That's easier said than done.  Otherwise, be prepared to carry a small bottle of water with you in the car to wash off (but not wipe dry) the suction cup prior to attaching to the windshield.

My recommendation would be to leave the mount on the windshield as I ultimately believe it is not practical to attach and detach it from the windshield as one would normally do with a conventional two-cup mount. When the sticky cup does stick, it does so ferociously, so much so that it feels as though the plastic components of the mounting bracket are stressed prying it off and may eventually break as a consequence.

One of the problems of leaving the bracket attached to the windshield is that it is very conspicuous and will draw attention to thieves scouting parked vehicles for expensive electronics to liberate. It is also a bear to attach and detach the Max from the mounting bracket as the space for your fingers is so confined that one often has to loosen the leveling screw and tilt the detector downward to get at it.

It's conspicuous nature can also work against you while driving.  Beyond taking away a fair share of your view out of the windshield it also calls attention to itself. I found out the hard way while test driving the Max in NJ.  I got pulled over by a traffic patrol officer as he was passing me.  I wasn't speeding at the time and was concerned as to why he pulled me over.  He informed me that in the state of NJ, as it is the law in some other states, that they are entitled to ticket drivers for driving with devices that obstruct the view forward.  It was especially annoying to him that the device that was causing the obstruction was a radar detector.

I was certain that he was going to ticket me, but I turned on my charm, told him who I was and what I was doing (professionally testing consumer electronic equipment).  He got a chuckle and gave me a pass.  But the experience did stick with me.  Know if your state has such laws on the books before driving with this bulky mount.  I don't know if Virginia specifically has similar laws on the books, but if you are going to risk the wrath of the Virginia state police they won't need to rely on an RDD to see that you have one in your car.

Another challenging aspect of using the sticky cup is that it prevents extremely high and discreet mounting of the detector.  It is simply too bulky for doing this.  Its configuration also tends to cause the detector to bounce somewhat more than what would be expected when mounted to some windshields.

I contend that the sticky cup belongs more with the with likes of the Passport iQ than a diminutive radar detector.  At a retail cost of $25 for the sticky cup alone, it may have been more practical for Escort to price the Max at $525 while offering the sticky cup as an optional accessory as it does for its other detectors.  Of course, this is a merely my opinion.

In its place, I would have prefered a standard high quality, smaller, and stickier clear two-cup mount that can be used with a host of Escort and Beltronics dash mounts, not just be dedicated to the Max.  Other manufacturers offer sticky two cup mounts, I should think Escort can as well.  Call NASA, they should be able to point you to some special material that would do the trick.

Case design and construction quality

Case construction design and quality have been brought into question, with reports from other users and my own experiences that rear lenses have popped off and outer cases have separated at the seams.  The rear lens of the radar detector comes in direct contact with the mounting bracket, and I believe is subject to stress that in time will take a toll on it.

The Max simply does not feel as though it is built to last as long as its less expensive and more proven siblings, including the Passport 8500 X50, Passport 9500ix, or the Escort Redline.

K-band reception

A special filtering mode, called TSR or traffic sensor rejection, seems to reduce, but not eliminate, the occurrence of falses originating from the aforementioned FMCW K-band lane departure systems.  But its use comes at the noticeable expense of K-band response and apparent K-band sensitivity.

This doesn't present much of problem for drivers in states that primarily encounter Ka and police laser, but most surely does for drivers, like myself, who drive in states where I/O K-band is readily used.

Furthermore, the reliance on TSR (a feature that has appeared on many of Escort's and Beltronics' products) runs counter to the nature of the radar detector's otherwise high-levels of sensitivity and quickness that are to be found on the other bands.

Even with its high level of K-band sensitivity, since there is an additional delay introduced with TSR, it is entirely possible that a Max so configured could fail to alert entirely to an approaching I/O K-band speed trap.  If given the choice, I would rather drive with a radar detector that provided lower levels of K-band sensitivity but was quicker in reacting to brief appearances of radar, like those of an I/O trap, than one that offers higher levels of sensitivity, but is intentionally slowed, that may not. 

Where's the HD and DNA analysis when we really need it?

Laser reception

Appears to have taken a step backwards versus the impressive performance of the Passport 8500 series of detectors or Escort's SmartRadar.


The ugly stuff:

Erratic behavior

The most troubling aspect of the Max, I believe, is its erratic behavior.  At times it performs like a world-class champ.  At other times, an also ran.  No single detector has presented such a plethora of conflicting behavior.

The Max falses often and at frequencies, particularly, in the extended Ka-band, that are outside the range of police radar.  While many like to point to Cobras as being the source of Ka-falsing in general, the truth is, Cobra models have, for some time, been much better in their designs and present less of an interference issue than they once did (time to get a new whipping boy).  In any event, I am certain that the excessive falsing that can be seen with the Max is a result of something going on inside of it.

Quality control

At the heart of many of these odd behavior characteristics, I believe, is a QC issue of some nature.  It appears to me that there have been an excessive amount of returns to Escort for repairs to address varying issues that have manifested themselves.  As of this writing and according to a running online poll, a whopping 70% of enthusiast users have reported one issue or another requiring one or more service returns.  Granted, the polling size is small, but the initial results do point to something unusual and suggests an unhealthy trend.

Whether certain issues stem from components, assembly, design or both, is not known, to me.

Most recently, as the temperatures have dropped in our region, the Max has begun exhibiting an unusually high frequency of false falsing (alerts to radar signals that simply don't exist) for extended amounts of time and they have been occurring more frequently.  The frequencies reported rapidly change and have appeared on just about every police band sometime in quick succession.  There is no rhyme or reason to it.  I can only suspect that the cold weather is either causing an expansion/contraction issue or is causing an internal component to act erratically. Interestingly, this is not the first time an Escort model has reacted adversely to temperature swings.

For existing owners there is a simple way to test if you unit is experiencing this issue.  First, use the following band reception settings: X, K, Ka, and Laser all set to ON.  SENS mode set to highway.  Drive with it this way for an extended period of time.  If you start receiving questionable alerts in the manner as described above, change the detector's SENS to AUTO NoX.  If the alerts cease, then the unit should be serviced by Escort.

To be clear, not everyone is experiencing these occurrences and many are quite happy with the Max overall.

The Lithium Treatment

Despite these idiosyncrasies, the Max does show promise.  I like to think of it as a diamond in the rough.  Even though its development spanned more than five years, the Max feels as if its release to the public was rushed.

What I believe the Max needs the most, is time.  Time to evolve. I am pleased to see that there have been general improvements made with each new release of firmware (currently at v1.7).  Yes, there are bugs that remain, but with each subsequent release, I am hopeful that team Escort will squash them.

Improvements, to the packaging and construction, must certainly be taking place.  To Escort's credit, their online representatives have stated that they are listening to the feedback of the enthusiast community.

As a new platform, the "digital" back-end should easily be applicable to the mighty M3-antenna front-end that is found in the Redline and their high-end remotes.  And while it is still unclear what the new digital processing back-end accomplishes as a practical manner (perhaps an increase of a couple of dBs in overall sensitivity?), its coupling, along with refined software, improved QC, may be the end-all be-all winning combination for the enthusiast community (and everyone else). We won't really know what is possible until Escort actually attempts it.

Whatever flakiness that is appearing in some units, I trust, will be sorted out in time.  Apple, itself, has had its fair share of early fumbles with the iPhone 4 series of phones and has managed to successfully evolve the model, despite some bumps in the road.

A recalibration of the marketing message wouldn't hurt either.  Had the Max been presented to the enthusiast community more appropriately as an improvement to the outgoing 9500ix, the Max would have been more universally accepted (not withstanding the QC issues).

Now that the holiday season of shopping is essentially behind us and the doldrums of the winter weather (sales) are upon us, this would be the most opportune time to do so; to emerge stronger next spring just ahead of next year's driving season.

Yes, relative to my other reviews, I have reported a fair share of perceived shortcomings, but with each one a "fix" is also readily apparent.

For those not in the know, Escort has been historically comprised of two independent companies.  Escort and Beltronics.  In my view the Beltronics organization (or what's left of it), was the real technological driving force behind both companies.  The venerable S7 and M3 platforms are all designs of Beltronics.  Escort is clearly an effective driving force of sales and marketing.

But in my opinion, certain recent products branding the Escort name feel to me to have been cooked up in a boardroom full of marketing personnel and not engineers.  Products such as the original Passport 9500i, Passport 9500ix, Passport 9500ci, Passport iQ, and the initial Redline, while impressive on paper, each has fallen somewhat short in my book in one fashion or another.  The same goes for the Max.

Products from Beltronics, on the other hand, have consistently been power houses.  Recent models that come to mind are the original Beltronics RX65 S7, S7 versions of the Escort Passport 8500 and Passport 8500 X50, the revised M4 Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black (which now feels like the S7 version), Beltronics STi Driver, the top-of-the-detector-food-chain killer Beltronics STi-R and STi-R plus M3-based remotes, and the Escort Redline Expert Edition (which I contend is a windshield mount STi-R masquerading as an Escort product).

To me there is a clear pattern here as well as a path towards future greatness for both brands.

If I were ever asked to attend a board meeting (yeah right!), I would suggest to the team to leave the product development to their proven engineers and the marketing to their proven marketers.

Now that Escort has new owners, I hope the individuals and supporting teams that have proven themselves historically will be allowed and encouraged to work their magic without undue oversight or influence from inept or marketing-centric management that is out of touch with what it actually takes to inspire and produce brilliant products, worth marketing.

Conclusion

More than any other radar detector, I have produced an extensive collection of unedited made-in-the-field videos.  There are far too many to include in this writeup, but they are provided in the above link for those interested in closely examining its real-world performance.

As it stands now, I can not specifically recommend the purchase of this radar detector at this particular moment in time.

For those on the fence, Escort does offer a risk-free 30-day money-back guarantee test drive, making it very easy for anyone to safely try it for themselves.  For those unsure, I would encourage potential buyers to read other sources and get different perspectives.

For first time buyers or those relatively new to this industry, I caution you.  Escort--like all companies that have large market share--exerts tight control over their marketing messages both in print and online, as they have the right to do so.

When it comes to reading any review for any product, I suggest following some general guidelines.

Be wary of any "review" or "post" that proclaims the benefits of marketing buzz-words mentioned by the manufacturer's press releases or sales copy.  Also consider the source--such as a car magazine, in this case--and whether or not it contains full-page four-color ads from the very manufacturer whose products they are also reviewing.  Those suckers cost a mint and the old-style (in-print) press has been feeling the pressure of Internet copy and enthusiast forums for some time and as subscription levels continue to fall, so may journalistic standards. 

Furthermore, when you read a "review," be sure to ask yourself if the reviewer sounds credible or qualified to review such a specialized product--in our case a radar detector.  Without naming names, I came across a review which ranks very favorably with Google.  It appears to have been written by someone I never heard of before (and I've been involved in the industry for a long time) that appears to have just gotten his learner's permit.  In the "review," the author speaks of its ability to see and alert to laser coming from around a bend--which for all intents and purposes is a physical impossibility.  Clearly this young and inexperienced individual is not qualified to make an informed judgement one way or the other.

One site I have come to appreciate is consumersearch.com.  This site not only nicely summarizes its take on any given product, it does the unique thing of reviewing the quality of their sources, with which they draw upon to make their assessments. I often find myself referring to them when I begin researching some new product.

And if you still haven't gotten your fill of information, you've got another ace in the hole!  This detector has been one of the most thoroughly vetted radar detectors online by some very knowledgeable enthusiasts who actually use products such as these on a daily basis to protect their own personal driving records. Links to such resources are provided at the end of this article.

But even there you have to be careful because the same dynamics of influence can be present.  In the case of forums, ask yourself is it truly independent or closely aligned  (cozy) with any one or more manufacturers or dealers?

While this is not necessarily a bad thing (in fact the opposite is often true), be mindful.  It should be relatively easy for you to spot which reviews and online posts are genuine, unbiased, and informed versus those that are uninformed, biased, or read like marketing pieces.

It may take a lot of work initially, I know, but once you get familiar with the nature of the communities and their internal politics and you have formed friendships and trust-bonds with other members, it becomes a much more simple task of becoming an informed and educated consumer, yourself.  Be forewarned. Participation may become an addiction!

For those intending on purchasing thsi detector, I would suggest the purchase of an extended warranty.

Please support the dedicated independent authorized dealers by purchasing directly from them.  They can also provide expert guidance on other related products to keep you ticket free, something a big box shop like Amazon, eBay, Best Buy, or even the manufacturer themselves simply can't do.

Recommended purchasing sources:
If and when this detectors evolves to the point that merits my reconsideration, it will be my pleasure to do so.

Happy and Safe Motoring! 

Veil Guy

Postscript:  I would like to express a sincere thanks to Mike (forum handle: mfs165) who was gracious enough to purchase me a unit for review and for his selfless support.

Post Postscript:  If you wish to delve deeply into the online enthusiast community, I recommend you visit: radardetector.net, radarandlaserforum.com, or escortradarforum.com (mfr. owned).  Here, you can engage in plenty of illuminating and lively discussions with an informed community of certifiable nut-cases, just like myself. Just remember to bring your meds.

* Thanks OpenRoad for the edit check






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