“Put them under your arm on your way out,” she said in almost hushed tones, handing me a black microfiber pouch. “No box?”, I asked. “Not yet. We won’t have those until later in October.” I knew exactly what was concealed in my hand. We’d seen it in person a month ago – two of them, in fact, in different colors, in a closed conference room. But apparently most people at Oakley’s headquarters hadn’t. A smile and the word “thanks” later, I was walking out the front door to start the first hands-on test of Thump 2, the second iteration of the company’s hybrid of sunglasses and digital music player. They were on my head the moment I got into my car, and I didn’t want to take them off.
First, we can confirm the rumors: Thump 2 is indeed based upon the company’s super-popular Gascan sunglasses, a fact that merits a pause for reflection. Unlike the first Thump, which had to win people over to both its looks and its sounds, the sequel roars out of the gate with two pedigrees: people already love Gascan, and Oakley proved its audio mettle with the prior Thump music player. You know, the one that used the same Sigmatel chip as Apple’s iPod shuffle – the iPod that bassheads prefer for its low-end frequency handling?
The company’s also improved upon many of Thump’s features, most notably its earphones. We liked the prior versions (left), but the new ones (right) are unquestionably better. They rotate roughly 270 degrees around the center point on the hinge, and now use two pivot balls to flex far more precisely where you want them. Oakley’s also tipped their outer edges with rubber to make them more comfortable to leave sitting in your ears than before. The result is sound you can still hear when wind is ripping through your hair on a bike, a major part of Thump 2’s appeal: one device, no headphone wires, and nothing to fall out of your ears while you’re on the go outside. Once those earbuds are in, they stay in unless you want them out. And like Thump, music sounds great coming out of them.
Did we mention Thump 2 is more affordable than before? And can hold more songs? And play back AAC files? We have more details. Lots of them. Click on Read More for the complete story.
Let’s start out with some numbers. Last year’s 128MB Thump started out at $395, which we said at the time was too expensive, even given Oakley’s standard premium for sunglasses. Thump 2 starts at a more reasonable $299 for 256MB, and is available in two colors: “polished black” with gray lenses, or “brown smoke” with bronze lenses. Polished black is opaque, and its gray lenses, like the ones we’ve tested in Oakley’s RAZRwire, are clear enough to wear indoors if you want. Brown smoke is translucent, and not the same as Oakley’s Gascan color Rootbeer.
If you’re thinking of buying one of the cheaper models, you might face our dilemma. The brown smoke ones are super cool because of that translucent design, but don’t go with our complexions. We wish they did. Last year, we saw a prototype Thump 1 in clear frosted plastic, but Oakley passed on producing it as too nichey. Brown smoke seems to be a compromise or a test – maybe both – to see whether the “I’m wearing technology” thing can work, only more subtly than a clear frame. If either of us had the (blonde) hair for it, we’d be wearing the brown smoke one just to do it. But the black version is plenty good. Better looking than the original Thump, in our view, by quite a margin. Gascan good.
You can jump up to 512MB for $50 more – $349 gets you either polished white Thump 2s with black iridium lenses, or polished black ones with black iridium lenses. At the top of the line is the 1GB polished black with black iridium version ($449) – the one shown in most of our photographs. To put that in perspective, today’s most expensive Thump 2 has four times the memory of the first top-end Thump, and costs less. While the $299 entry point is not cheap in an absolute sense of the word, Oakley definitely deserves some credit for becoming more aggressive on pricing.
At first blush, you can see that the top of Thump 2 is a lot cleaner than the highly textured design of Thump. The melding of electronics into the Gascan frame was easier, and looks less forced than it did with Thump. A direct comparison image is below.
The rounded buttons are easy to use – the first three buttons are used for track backward, power, and track forward, while the other two are for volume control. Unlike the iPod shuffle, which uses similarly simplified controls, Oakley’s also come up with secondary button features and combinations – instead of a power switch, holding play/pause for a couple of seconds turns Thump on or off, and a combo triggers alternate equalizer settings.
What you won’t realize from these shots is that Oakley’s also made less obvious improvements from the prior iteration of Thump. Gone are the goofy flip-up shades: Thump 2 can now be worn indoors by flipping the frames around to rest the lenses on the back of your neck, then re-adjusting the earpieces. The power indicator light (which is to the right of the 1G sticker) now glows in three stages. You can also see a hint of the small bottom-mounted rubber lip for the unit’s single USB port, which is used for both data transfers and recharging.
Thump 2 has three playback modes: straight progression through your playlist, shuffled play (the playlist is randomized, and one song is chosen from the list until none remain), and random play (each song that plays can be any song from the list, even if it’s played already). And now it plays AAC files, too – not, regrettably, the protected iTunes Music Store ones, but any ones you encode yourself and don’t encrypt.
And there’s one last shot of the earbud and frame stylistic differences. Oakley was able to do away with the separate volume control circuit board in the other stem, reducing the associated weight and the need for bulging plastic moldings. The result is a Thump 2 that looks as good on your head as Gascans would, without the compromises. There are some subtle differences in the shapes of the glasses, though. I found Thump 2 a comfortable fit, but Dennis found their shape (unlike Gascans, interestingly) not to be right for the contours of his face. Oakley attributed this to slight “Asian fit” differences in bone structure, so like Thump, you’ll need to try these on to see if they’re a good match for you. They also lean even more masculine in design than the last Thumps, so it remains to be seen whether women will go Yoko Ono for the sake of ditching their headphone wires.
Overall, we’re definitely more impressed by Thump 2 than its predecessor, and think this has the potential to be a big deal for Oakley when it launches at the end of October. History has shown that a sub-$300 entry point is infinitely more mass-market than a sub-$400 one, and now Oakley has two models at the lower level. Plus, as the company noted in our discussions some time ago, the appeal of this device – and its associated pricing – is unlike an iPod shuffle in that you may well find that the cheapest 256MB model is perfectly adequate for use during shorter-duration outdoor activities. You could step up to the premium 1GB model, or pay a smaller premium for a different set of colors, but you don’t have to.
In our testing, we’d generally agree. Even after loading Thump 2 with a gig of music, we found ourselves listening to around 10 or 20 songs in a session – 40 or 80 megs worth. Whereas this was a problem with the original 128MB Thump (30 songs), Thump 2 starts at a 60 song capacity – closer to right. We’d still drop the extra $50 for one of the 512MB models. They are available in Gascan-style white, after all.