Review: Oakley O ROKR Bluetooth Eyewear
Pros: A combination of high-quality Oakley sunglasses with a very comfortable stereo Bluetooth wireless headset, capable of running off of rechargeable battery power for 5 hours. Works with both iPods and cell phones, assuming they’re Bluetooth-equipped. Typically good sound quality by Bluetooth 1.2 standards, boasts solid audio receiving performance to distance of 20 feet without major interruptions, max of 30 foot distance when standing still. Sound quality of phone calls is very good on both sides of conversation.
Cons: Separate iPod transceiver is required, at a cost of $99. Styling and pricing will limit technology’s appeal to specific audiences. Intended primarily for use outdoors, and not as comfortably used indoors. Inner labels of track forward/backward buttons are reversed.
Though we’ve opted not to cover just any old Bluetooth product that comes along, we wanted to review Oakley’s new O ROKR Bluetooth Eyewear ($249), a relatively novel new accessory that’s about to be aggressively marketed towards iPod owners in the United States. Like three earlier Oakley products we’ve covered on iLounge Backstage - the MP3 players Thump and Thump 2, plus the monaural Bluetooth headset RAZRWIRE - the oddly-named O ROKR is a pair of sunglasses with electronics inside, designed to let active users enjoy audio without wires. A family photo appears below, with O ROKR at back, Thump at front left, Thump 2 at front right, and a RAZRWIRE earpiece at center.
This time out, Oakley has taken the general body design and stereo headphones from Thump 2 - itself heavily inspired by the company’s popular Gascan sunglasses - and eliminated the bottom part of their frames, enabling users to swap out the included lenses with six planned color options ($60 and up, per pair). Three frame and lens pairs are initially available, specifically black with gray lenses, white with gray lenses, or smoke (clear brown) with bronze lenses. As you’ve probably guessed from O ROKR’s “Bluetooth Eyewear” subtitle, the company has placed the Bluetooth wireless capabilities of RAZRWIRE inside a Thump 2-like shell, but removed the integrated MP3 playback found in the Thump series. The result is a pair of sunglasses that can bond with a cell phone to let you make and receive phone calls, and bond with an iPod to let you enjoy your entire music library wirelessly in stereo, rather than the Thumps’ iPod shuffle-style subset of that library.
Well, that last part is true under two conditions: to use O ROKR, your cell phone has to be Bluetooth-equipped, and so does your iPod. Oakley’s partnered with Motorola for the cell phone part, so you’ll notice that the O ROKRs sport small silver M logos on each of their earpieces, right next to the silver O logos for Oakley. There are two key points worth noting here, though: virtually any Bluetooth cell phone will work with the headset for telephone calls, and some phones - essentially 3G phones and their late 2006-anticipated U.S. equivalents - will also let you wirelessly listen to music in stereo, as well. If a phone supports music playback, plus the A2DP and AVRCP wireless protocols, as do Motorola’s next-gen RAZR V3x, ROKR E2, and similar models from Nokia and others, O ROKR will let you hear that music wirelessly. If it lacks either music playback or the wireless features, you’re out of luck…
...unless you have an iPod equipped with a Bluetooth set. Oakley’s currently selling a special version of TEN’s naviPlay (iLounge rating: B) separately and at a discount for use with O ROKR: $99 buys you a transceiver that’s compatible with all Dock Connector-equipped iPods, minus TEN’s original headphones or audio receiver kit. Oakley’s version of naviPlay is white; TEN and others will sell the black version. But certain other Bluetooth add-ons for the iPod will also work with O ROKR; a full list hasn’t been provided at press time.
We’ve spent several weeks with O ROKR, a naviPlay kit, and a few standard Bluetooth cell phones, and our impressions have been generally very positive: like Thump 2, O ROKR blends a legitimately excellent pair of sunglass lenses with a comfortable, enjoyable listening experience. Both parts of that require additional discussion: on optics and customizable cosmetics, Oakley’s lenses remain our absolute favorites for outdoor use - iLounge’s editors have purchased and continue to wear numerous pairs of Oakleys, and have nary a complaint about strained vision or the ability to get something with the right color, polarization, and long-term resilience we want. The company has done nearly as good a job on its earphones, which use three joints - two of them ball joints - to make repositioning and comfort an easy task for virtually any size of ears. Put simply, these are the most comfortable athletic Bluetooth earphones we’ve ever used; the only issue is that they’re blended with sunglasses, and thus not quite as wearable indoors.
They thankfully sound quite good - not perfect - whether you’re inside or outside. If you haven’t heard a telephone call through a stereo headset yet, you should: as we’ve noted in earlier reviews of Bluetooth kits with similar abilities, phone calls become twice as audible and engrossing when heard through two headphones, despite the fact that you’re not receiving actual stereo sound from your caller. Callers also commented that we sounded very good on their ends of our calls, just as they had with Oakley’s earlier and similarly impressive monaural RAZRWIRE. Pairing O ROKR with your phone is a virtually effortless process, as is pairing with the naviPlay-equipped iPod, from which the audio is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from Bluetooth 1.2 headsets: close enough to CD quality that most people won’t know the difference. O ROKR’s sound has enough bass to satisfy most people, and enough detail to compare favorably against the better Bluetooth earphones we’ve heard so far. We noticed a little sizzle in the high-end of songs that lacked for bass, but didn’t find it especially objectionable by today’s wireless standards. You can definitely do better with wired headphones, but not much better with wireless ones. It’s also worth a note that O ROKR properly interrupts and resumes iPod music when phone calls come in, a convenient feature we’ve seen in earlier Bluetooth products.
As with Thump 2 and RAZRWIRE, O ROKR’s controls are super-simple: your left temple gets three buttons from RAZRWIRE (volume up, power/telephone call start or end, and volume down), while your right temple gets three from Thump 2 (track backward, play/pause, and track forward). With one exception, the buttons worked flawlessly in our testing with phones and iPods alike: they responded quickly to all presses, but the button labelled inside the glasses as track backward actually advanced forward, and vice-versa, which we didn’t mind much given that the labels are basically user-invisible, anyway. Button and audio performance were consistently good at straight-line distances of 20 feet, surprisingly even through a wall, with interruption only when we moved past the 20-foot mark. Once we became stationary, the audio and buttons typically continued to work even at a distance of 30 feet away.
A microphone and rubber-covered USB port are built into the bottom of the right temple piece, a location that similarly posed no problems under typical conditions in our audio and charging testing. The mic only had issues when we tried crazy tests, like trying to have a conversation with O ROKR while driving in a convertible on a freeway - our voices weren’t audible to callers over wind noise, but we could hear them; no headset we’ve tested did better. You can use Oakley’s included wall charger, or a standard USB cable, to recharge the unit’s internal battery. Run time is around 5 hours when used at close distances from your audio device (cell phone or iPod), which will fall short of naviPlay’s typical iPod run time by about 3 hours, but that’s enough to accommodate the length of most outdoor activities, and more than most cell phones can operate in Bluetooth mode, too.
In our judgment, the only issues that have limited the appeal of Oakley’s various electronic sunglasses are frame styling and price, and those issues haven’t disappeared with O ROKR. The Gascan-styled large frames undoubtably look better on some people than others, and bigger (read: men’s) faces tend to do better than smaller (women’s) ones; you’ll also need to like thick plastic on your temples and around your eyes. When we gave our pair to a female user to test, she loved how the glasses sounded and worked, but didn’t find them a good fit for her face. For these reasons, we continue to heavily prefer Oakley’s thinner wire frames, like the ones used in RAZRWIRE, to the larger plastic designs used for the Thumps and now O ROKR. You’ll need to try on a pair of these glasses for yourself to see whether they match the shape of your face and fashion sensibilities.
Similarly, Oakley’s $249 price tag clearly isn’t for everyone, and makes sense mostly in the “add up the component prices” math that companies insist on using for hybrid products like this one. What you get for the price is roughly equivalent to a $40 pair of earbuds, a $50 Bluetooth receiver with rechargeable battery, a $90 pair of Gascans, a $20 wall charger, and the included ~$5 microfiber cleaning bag, which when summed up falls a bit short of O ROKR’s MSRP. The separately-sold naviPlay doesn’t help matters; that brings the total cost for an iPod user up to only slightly under $350.
But when you begin to factor in the fact that the earbuds, Bluetooth, and sunglasses have all been merged into a single device that’s easier to carry than all three items separately, and the headset’s athletic applications, you’ll realize that this is necessarily a niche product, but one that’s undoubtably convenient enough to merit some design premium. While there are surely ways that O ROKR could and should be evolved further, namely to enhance its aesthetic appeal, affordability, and utility indoors, we think Oakley has the general technology and comfort levels very close to right here, enough so that we’re comfortable recommending today’s O ROKR to active iPod and cell phone users, assuming that the glasses are a good physical fit for their needs, and that they can afford the total package. Even if you don’t want to use O ROKR with your iPod, you’ll still find it a superb Bluetooth headset for your current Bluetooth cell phone, and a superior listening alternative once stereo phones begin to become more widely available.