If you’ve been following Backstage for any length of time, you already know that we’ve been fans of sunglass maker Oakley for years. We were already strong believers in the build and optical quality of the company’s products before we had a chance to visit its design and primary manufacturing center last year, but that experience took our appreciation level up three notches. We’ll explain why in a moment.
After months of teasing us about its secret new products, Oakley had us over for another peek behind its curtains, and what we can talk about is the start of a very exciting time for the company – certainly bigger than last year, when it released its first digital sunglasses, Thump. Since then, Oakley has been working to expand its electronics portfolio, collaborating with Motorola and making some very smart decisions about its own upcoming products in the process.
The company’s new RAZRWIRE Bluetooth Eyewear package ($295) incorporate two key components – metal-framed sunglasses and a detachable Bluetooth earpiece. As you’ve probably guessed from the name, the earpiece is Bluetooth-compatible (1.2 and 1.1), and most appropriately (but not exclusively) paired with Motorola’s RAZR. You know the RAZR. It’s the phone we recently reviewed; the one that everyone’s loving and two out of four key cell companies are selling – or at this point, almost giving away if you sign a cell contract. And the one that is going to continue to have sequels (RAZR V3x) and related products (Q/RAZRberry) for the foreseeable future.
So Razrwire (minus caps from here on out) is well-timed. It’s also a legitimately excellent product. Our full review continues when you click on Read More below.
Background: Why Oakley?
Permit us a brief, but relevant aside. It’s one thing to read marketing talk about Oakley’s “Plutonite Lenses” and “XYZ Optics,” which essentially promise optical perfection from corner to corner of their curved sides. It’s another thing to own and love a pair (or three) of the awesome lenses, and get the sense that your eyes are feeling a lot better because of it. And it’s still another to visit the manufacturer and shoot projectiles at the lenses, project lasers through them, and witness how competing sunglasses fail in direct comparison tests. Jaws dropped, for instance, when the company showed how certain Nike sunglasses will actually cross your eyes rather than focus them on a single point, as Oakleys will. For a sunglass wearer, the experience is illuminating in the way that Galileo would have felt to actually walk on the moon. It’s one thing to see; another to know, and Oakley should have those comparisons running in its stores.
Since Oakley’s optics are great, and the company generally has a strong grasp on fashion, pairing Oakley sunglasses with other technologies is inherently a good idea. But there are three major hurtles: first, features; second, styling; and third, price. Last year’s Thump got number one almost entirely right, number two partially right, and number three – well, that depends on what you define as right. Oakley anticipated the growth of flash-based digital music players, picked a good chipset, good earphones, and made Thump easy to use. From a features standpoint, the worst thing one could say about Thump was that it was low on storage capacity (128MB or 256MB) at a time when Apple was just about to declare 512MB the lowest common denominator for digital music.
And visually, the Thump glasses were a bit of a fashion risk, a point we won’t rehash much beyond what many people said last year. Oakley makes some great looking glasses, but they also make some good and some decent ones. Personal taste dictates which of those categories you think a given pair falls into, but we’re generally fans of Oakley’s wires (original A Wire shown above), with a couple of plastic exceptions. Gascan, which gadget sites have widely reported is the basis of a forthcoming Thump sequel, is one of them.
Price? Well, that’s the trickiest one. $400-$500 for 128MB or 256MB of storage space was a way hard sell, even if you love Oakley’s sunglasses, as we did back then, and do today. When Thump released, that was enough to buy an iPod and a pair of Oakleys. These days, it’s enough to buy three iPods and a pair of Oakleys. Is that sort of pricing crazy? Depends on your manufacturing capacity and ambitions. Any undergraduate economics class will teach you that supply and demand are directly linked by price. If you can only manufacture a few of something, price them high and you’ll still sell all of them. But if you want to be a big player, selling millions of units, price low. Like the iPod shuffle, which devoured the entire flash player market whole by hitting the magic $99 number. Now you can get 1GB for $129, and very soon, much less. Pricing technology products is different from pricing other luxury goods, unless you’re Apple or Vertu, and even then, price adjustments are necessary.
That Brings Us to Razrwire
All of that build up leads to a critical concept: with the right technology, an appealing aesthetic design, and the right price, Oakley can become a huge player in the consumer electronics business. As a follow-up to Thump, Razrwire has taken many steps in the right direction.
Why? After a long period of dormancy (read: only techies bought in), Bluetooth is finally becoming relevant. It’s now the wireless headset standard of choice for multiple mobile phones, and it works. With Bluetooth 1.2, it even works well. Motorola’s adopted it across virtually all of its phones, and released several HS series headsets – the HS810, HS820, and HS850 among them. (We’ve played with each, but prefer the HS820, shown below, which is apparently the most popular of all of the company’s headsets.) Each one mounts on the edge of your ear, positions a microphone in the general direction of your mouth, and includes buttons to change volume, disconnect calls, and so on.
Razrwire combines an HS series-class earpiece with a pair of Oakley metal frames – made from lightweight “O-luminum” – a set of Plutonite lenses, a custom-made earpiece, and a microfiber cloth bag. Thankfully, unlike Thump, it comes with a wall charger, so you can recharge the earpiece’s internal battery with ease. You just pop the Motorola-badged rubber lid off of the mini-USB port, connect the charger, and watch the unit’s single LED go red while it’s charging. An 80% charge takes 1.5 hours, while full charging takes 2.5 hours, resulting in talk time of up to 6 hours and standby time of up to 100 hours.
There are statistics, we were told, suggesting the prevalence of left- and right-ear wear of phone headsets, based first and foremost on majority user preference (right ear), and secondarily on scientifically demonstrated ability to perceive language and meaning (left ear). Razrwire’s detachable earpiece ships configured for the right ear, and converts easily – even more easily than Motorola’s earpiece – for the left. You turn its top 180 degrees and rotate its flexible earphone into the correct position. Simple.
Attaching the earpiece is even easier – turn the top 45 degrees, and the hinge lock pops open. It won’t open unless you want it to; and mounts equally well on either of the sunglasses’ stems. The one and only visual oddity of Razrwire is its lack of parallelism once the earpiece is attached to one side, but then, it’s far less odd than wearing any other pair of sunglasses with a HS820 dangling off.
But the real joy of the Bluetooth earpiece, and the critical selling point for us, is the earphone. Evolved from Thump technology, it pivots on one axis and rotates on two. Practically, that means that it would be virtually impossible to find an ear that it can’t fit comfortably. Wear it in the ear or outside – your choice. Slide it up or down the stem to find the right position. We found it to be extremely comfortable and natural – much more so than the HS series earpieces. And it sounds “very good” or “great,” too, both to us and to people on the other end, as expressed using those words. The only complaints we received during testing were attributable either to a weak phone signal or high wind conditions, which are going to screw up virtually all of the headsets we’ve tested, wired and otherwise. In blind tests with the HS820 and a separate cellular phone with a wired connection, we were told by multiple listeners that Razrwire sounded superior to both by at least a small margin.
The bottom of the Razrwire earpiece has three buttons. One closest to the earphone powers Razrwire on, activates voice dialing if your phone supports it, and establishes the Bluetooth connection – a process that was surprisingly fast and easy, even by Bluetooth standards. Our RAZR detected the headset as Oakley Razrwire on screen, guaranteeing that we weren’t paired accidentally with the nearby HS820. It was incidentally fairly easy to switch back and forth between them for our tests, though Motorola still needs some help with simplifying its interfaces.
The other two buttons primarily adjust volume up and down, but all three are actually multifunctional. You can transfer a call from headset to phone or put the phone on hold by holding down the volume up button, mute calls by holding the volume down button, and redial by holding the power button, in addition to connecting and disconnecting calls.
There’s only one primary way the Razrwire’s earpiece could be improved: it could be convertible into something wearable without the sunglasses. Yes, you can hang it from your ear (our thought, not Oakley or Motorola’s recommendation), but you really won’t want to do this. Admittedly, living as we do in Southern California (where sunglasses are a year round thing and cell phones bridge extended gaps (commutes, exercise, etc.) between being indoors), Razrwire more than makes sense. It’s what we’d wear in the car or at a park instead of one of those damned wired headsets that keep falling out all the time. But outside of sunny climates, it might not be as easy a sell.
Oakley has at least a partial solution to that. The Razrwires we’ve tested are the Mercury frames with “Light Grey” lenses and a Mercury earpiece – the frames and earpiece match the silver RAZR phone, and the Light Grey lenses are tinted only 40% rather than being opaque. Consequently, you can wear them indoors. And at night – though you probably shouldn’t if you’re driving. We tried them indoors and outdoors at night, and found them totally usable – certainly more than the flip-up Thumps we’ve tried. That said, we wish we had the Pewter/Black Iridium lens/Black earpiece Razrwires, which might go better with dark complexions, or one of the many custom versions the company will make for an additional charge upon request. Oakley also makes a Platinum/Gold Iridium lens/Rootbeer earpiece color combination for no additional charge, just in case we go blonde or Wesley Snipes.
Coloration aside, we really like these sunglasses. Love is too strong a word, if only because the ultimate Razrwire concept would be a headset compatible with any pair of Oakley wire frames (keep dreaming, right?), but we definitely like Razrwire’s style (inspired by Half Wire XL, it seems) more than Thump’s. Even with the earpiece attached, they feel lightweight – lighter at least in perception than our earlier pair – and minimally adorned with unnecessary curves. Spring-loaded hinges have a little less give than the A Wire 2.0s we’ve liked, but more than the original A Wires (none) and most of the company’s other frames, for that matter. And the lenses are typically excellent – optically correct, 100% UV protective, and cool to look at. The only Oakley branding is a single-word logo etched on the bottom of the right lens. It’s classy.
There are times when you don’t want to wear the earpiece. Detach it and just wear the sunglasses. Reattach it in a few seconds and take a phone call. It’s your choice. Unlike Thump, these are part-time technology sunglasses, full-time sunglasses. That’s a good idea.
The harshest thing we can say about Razrwire is that we wish there was a way we could use the earpiece more, and by “more,” we mean full-time. In a perfect world, we could link it into a home telephone system and use it instead of a cordless phone. Technology aside, it would need two physical changes to accomplish that – straight-to-ear convertibility, and/or a pair of lenses that would shift from transparent to opaque under sunlight, assuming you’d want to wear glasses indoors.
As it is, Razrwire is more than a good start in this category: on features, styling, and pricing, it shows that Oakley’s learning, and learning quickly. And on a personal level, we’ve really enjoyed using ours with and without the earpiece. More comfortable than Thump, more mass-market priced, and more versatile for the person who wants a part-time sunglass and technology solution, Razrwire deserves to be a success. If your phone supports Bluetooth, we strongly recommend that you take a test drive. Cingular’s stores are currently the exclusive vendors, and who knows, by this time next week, perhaps you’ll see something else there worth picking up at the same time.
And Oakley, if you’re listening, this concept really needs your help. Like, now. You know why.