Backstage: Review of Oakley’s Thump MP3 Sunglasses
Sure, we’d seen the front lobby (and O Store) ten or more times before, and attended the Thump launch event last week, but we would never turn down a full tour of Oakley’s headquarters in Foothill Ranch, California. To put such an opportunity in perspective, imagine being given an all-access look inside of Nike right before the launch of Air Jordans - a point when you realize that with every step you take, you’re surrounded by ideas that could very easily become the next big thing. Except in Oakley’s case, shoes are almost the least compelling part of the story: the company’s 2005 and 2006 sunglasses, watches, apparel and accessories ride the fine edge of wicked. In both senses of the word.
Our full review of Oakley’s Thump is now available from the Read More link below. You can also see our new Thump Photo Gallery here - this is a separate gallery from the Thump launch gallery we previously published.
Though both companies have flown pirate flags at their buildings, Oakley is to Apple what Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is to Virgin’s Richard Branson; both companies have gone more mainstream in recent years, but Oakley’s designs retain a certain trademark darkness and edginess, while Apple’s have taken on a British-inspired casual elegance. Like reformed renegades, neither company is trying to scare customers away, but both constantly challenge people to reject the status quo. And cutting-edge industrial design is at the heart of both companies’ offerings.
We were invited back to Oakley because of Thump, the company’s unexpected mix of MP3 player and sunglasses previewed in our earlier Backstage entry. Our tour included additional time with Thump and its product manager, as well as a glimpse at what the future may hold for evolutions of the product - everything from transparent frames to sleeker designs and the tantalizing (if long-term) prospect of a metal version. Best of all, we walked away with our own set of Thumps to test, which we’ve been doing over the last few days.
Our earlier description of the Thump’s look and feel still stands, but now we’ve had the chance to put them to the test in public. As sunglasses, they’re half Oakley, half Robocop chic (if there is such a thing); the design is rendered pop futuristic by its large electronic temple pieces and pivoting integrated headphones. Police officers, members of the military, competitive bicyclers and other male fans of Oakley’s M-Wires will find them most attractive. While the design is decidedly masculine, it actually works on a female’s face too, and wouldn’t look out of place on most outdoor athletes we see in these parts. Internationally, we think the look’ll do pretty well, but its appeal to the average joe is still somewhat of an open question.
We walked around with the Thumps in public to gauge reactions and test their general daily utility, and found that while we occasionally elicited stares, they were more of the “what’s that?” variety than the “you look like a freak” kind we had feared with such substantial frames. The population - at least locally - has apparently become accustomed to Oakley’s distinctively thick and artistic uses of plastic, though we remain much bigger fans of the company’s metal products.
During testing, the only negative comments we received on the Thumps regarded their flip-up front lenses, a feature designed to let them be worn indoors. While a valiant effort, the flip-ups are cheesy in a distinctly non-Oakley way, and anyone who saw them let us know as much without asking. We eventually came to the conclusion that the Thumps are strictly a product to be used outdoors and during the daytime, unless of course you’re a fan of Corey Hart or looking to elicit occasional giggles from passers-by.
Thumps feel comfortable both as sunglasses and as a music device. Despite their thick frames, they’re not heavy, and their lenses (using Oakley’s XYZ optics) are only a step (or two) short of spectacular. We reserve that phrase for Oakley’s polarized prescription sunglasses, which are the best we’ve ever owned; the low-end Thumps ($395) include non-polarized, non-prescription lenses, while the high-end ones ($495) include polarized, non-prescription lenses. (Oakley’s representatives seemed open to doing prescription Thumps, only not quite yet for fairly obvious reasons.) As shipped, we still think that the Thumps are better sunglasses optically than most people wear today, but it wouldn’t have hurt to include polarized lenses even in the $395 Thump model.
The earphones are similarly only a step shy of greatness. At the last minute, Oakley improved the physical movement of Thump’s earphones, replacing their smooth rotation with a ratcheting part that locks more crisply into the position you determine. We liked them before the change, and even more after it. In terms of comfort and fit, they’re as good as externally suspended traditional circular buds could be, though we wouldn’t mind dangling silicone in-canal parts more like the ones Sony sells as MDR-EX71s - they wouldn’t be as easy to remove from your ears to hear outside sounds, but they’d feel better when inside. After further testing, we remained pleased with the sound quality of the earphones, too, subject to only one factor we’ll explain further below.
As an MP3 player, Thump is about as simple as it gets, thanks to a directive from Oakley’s head honcho Jim Jannard to made the device accessible to anyone. Files are transferred onto Thump using the completely standard and easy Windows or Mac operating system drag-and-drop process - no special software is needed. Plug Thump in with its USB cable and it acts just like a hard disk drive; four sample songs are included, and you thankfully won’t feel guilty deleting any of them.
Control buttons are subtle rubber nubs colored to match the frames, and the only light on the device (indicating battery charging or low-power) is hidden on the inside. Volume adjustments are made with two buttons at your left temple, forward/play/reverse as three buttons on your right. Pressing both volume buttons together can flip through different equalizer presets if you desire, though we don’t think many people will care about this, and you can randomize playback with a button combination on Thump’s controls. Holding down the play/pause button powers Thump on and off; a heartbeat plays in the headphones to signal both on and off.
Unless you’re using randomized playback, songs play in the order they’re transferred via USB cable (included) to the device, and the included lithium-ion battery will runs for 6 hours before USB recharge under fairly loud volume usage conditions. Oakley reports that they’ve hit a 7 hour, 20 minute maximum under milder but still listenable usage.
Our biggest problem with Thump is its price-to-performance ratio, which is accentuated by some contradictory and actually misleading packaging of the product. Oakley’s current marketing of the 128MB Thump is as a 60-song device, and the 256MB version as a 120-song device. But when you look in the manuals, Oakley uses lower and more accurate numbers - 30 and 60, respectively. And when you actually test your own music collection with Thump, you may be able to store something significantly less than that.
For example, with a 128MB pair of Thumps, we could only fit 20 songs in our first transfer of music - a little more than a single CD. In our case, the problem was that a substantial portion of our music collection is encoded at higher-than-average bit rates, but even when we went with songs encoded at only 128kbps, we fit only 30 songs onto the Thumps’ 128MB storage. And it was hard to pick only 30 songs, accustomed as we are to just dumping an entire genre or three of songs onto an iPod mini.
The other problem with dropping down to a 128kbps bit rate: when using quality headphones, you start to hear more defects in your songs. And the Thump headphones are good enough to make this an issue indoors. With only 128MB of storage, you’re therefore forced to make the choice between carrying only a single album (or album and a half) worth of music at a respectable MP3 bit rate, or two and a half albums at a passable one. True, Thump supports Windows Media Audio (WMA) and digital rights management if you want to download or use WMA-format music that’s even more compressed than MP3s, but that’s not where the market is headed - and unlikely to be your format of choice if you’re using iTunes, as Oakley has demonstrated with Thumps.
We had the sense that Oakley would have supported Apple’s AAC and iTunes Music Store downloads if permitted to do so, but absent that feature, the 128MB Thump package isn’t compelling for high quality music playback. It’s an unfortunate combination of quality headphones, a great audio chip (SigmaTel’s STMP3550, which supposedly will also appear in upcoming flash-based iPods), and way too little storage capacity. The 256MB version is more useful, though also more expensive.
We were also more than a bit surprised that Thumps are sold so threadbare: each package includes glasses, a microfiber cleaning and carrying bag, instructions, an accessories catalog, and a super cool Oakley USB cable. Almost instantly, it seemed like a couple of key items were missing for the price - a power charger and a carrying case.
As owners of a pair of Oakley Water Jackets, which for $190 include not only glasses and the bag but a large “soft box” ballistic nylon carrying case and water-resistant fluids, we were surprised that the $395 and $495 Thumps don’t include a wall charger ($45), small carrying case ($25), large carrying case ($35), or car charger ($35). Notably, however, like the number of songs marketing (60 versus 30) we mentioned earlier, Oakley’s prices for some of these items differ from the web site to the included accessories book, which lists the wall charger for a still steep $30 and the car charger at a more reasonable $25.
On the positive side, Oakley bothered to design seriously cool cables and chargers just for Thump, but it’s hard to imagine paying extra for a wall charger given the entry prices. And in day-to-day usage, the lack of a small carrying case meant that our Thumps either stayed on our heads or hung uneasily from our lapels, occasionally falling off our shirts (ouch!) if we had to bend down for something.
Based on our testing, our recommendation on Thump would be as follows: if you’re going to buy a pair, the $495 version is the one to get - not necessarily because it’s a great value, but because you’re going to want the 256MB of storage capacity if you have a need for the glasses. No matter how you break down the features of the 128MB version, that’s just too little memory these days (especially for $395), and we found it painful to fit music on the low-capacity Thumps we tested.
But would you really want a pair? If you’re a male athlete with extra cash, you’re more likely than anyone else to say yes. Right now, the styling of Thump is best suited to a man, and its features are most useful to a person who will actively use both music and sunglasses at the same time, yet doesn’t want to deal with cords. If cords don’t bother you, it’s tempting to say that $395 could buy a pair of Oakley Monster Doggles or Monster Dogs and a 20GB iPod, but we’ll leave it to you to decide whether the extra storage capacity and indoor utility of this option offsets the extra bulk.
While we don’t think that Thump will be Oakley’s Air Jordan - yet - we strongly believe that the company is ready and able to take further real stabs at designing cool wearable technology. For a number of reasons, it’s clearly not an iPod replacement, but it’s also a viable and fun complement for those who have the money to buy both. Based on the concept art we’ve seen and ideas Oakley is throwing around, we think that an eventual Thump 2.0 would have a strong shot at excellence, and we would encourage Oakley to actually develop it - and other similar ideas. If an MP3 player works in glasses, could cellular phone glasses be far off? Six months ago, we wouldn’t have expected that we’d be looking to Oakley to develop it, but now we’re anxious to see anything the company’s doing next.
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