Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Sunglasses That Bring Music to Your Ears

Despite their huge popularity, iPods and other portable music players force people to walk around with wires coming out of their ears. That’s an anachronism in an age when everything is going wireless. While there are some attachments for the iPod that allow the use of wireless headphones, both the attachments and the cordless headphones are bulky and ungainly.

mossberg
The Oakley Thump 2 from Oakley Inc. scores points for style, but costs between $299 and $449 and has limited functionality.

But there’s another approach to getting rid of the wires: make the music player wearable. This week, we tested just such a product — the Thump 2 from Oakley Inc., the same company known for its stylish and expensive sunglasses with the signature “O” imprinted near your temple. The Thump 2 is a pair of Oakley sunglasses with an MP3 player and earbuds built into its foldable arms, eliminating the messiness of dangling cords.

After trying out the Thump 2, we agree that the sunglasses/earbuds combination works pretty well, is comfortable to wear and operates rather easily — using a series of buttons on the top side of each sunglass arm. But it’s very expensive and rather impractical.

The Thump 2 is an improved version of the original Thump that came out about a year ago. That first version was built on the thinner frames that you might conjure up when you picture a pair of Oakleys. This Thump uses shades that have a boxier look.

This gadget is very light, weighing only 2.1 ounces, and comes in three capacities — 256 and 512 megabytes, and one gigabyte, which would provide room for about 60, 120 and 240 songs, respectively.

Along with the designer look, all three versions of the Thump 2 have a designer price tag — $299, $349 and $449. To give you an idea of how that pricing compares with an iPod, made by Apple Computer Inc., the same $299 that you’d spend on the cheapest Thump 2 would buy you the second-most-expensive iPod, which comes with 30 gigabytes of memory, a color screen and video viewing capabilities, not to mention the other features that a regular iPod offers. Instead of 60 songs, that $299 iPod can hold 7,500 songs.

Oakley reminded us that the Thump sunglasses alone cost between $90 and $180, depending on the lenses, which makes the price seem a little less ridiculous, but the Thump’s price tag is still a lot to pay to lose the wires.

Pricing aside, the Thump 2 is seriously lacking in practicality. First and foremost, it is built into sunglasses — meaning unless you want to look like a Secret Service agent, you can only use the product outside. Oakley suggests turning the Thump backward (resting on the back of your head) while indoors, but it was immediately obvious to us that this work-around isn’t what the Thump is made to do. The adjustable earbuds still reached our ears, but the sunglasses didn’t stay put — and we weren’t even exercising, like many people do while listening to their music players.

Another issue with the Thump 2 is its lack of a screen. There’s absolutely no way to view song information, nor can you see the contents of your music player without plugging it into a computer. No screen also means you won’t see a battery indicator, like that on an iPod. Instead, you must listen for a special tone that sounds to indicate a low battery. A tiny indicator light also glows when you’re low on battery, but this is poorly placed so far back on one glasses arm that you must take off the glasses to see it.

We easily copied music onto the Thump 2 by attaching an included USB cord to a small port on its right side and plugging it into one of our computers running Windows XP; it is also compatible with Macs. Our test Thump 2 — the one gigabyte, $449 version — was recognized on our computer like any USB thumb drive, and we simply dragged and dropped songs onto it. We dragged a handful of music files over, including MP3s from the pop band Fountains of Wayne, and a few AAC (iTunes format) Bob Marley tunes. The Thump can also handle WMA and WAV format files.

The speakers sounded rather good to us, and we liked being able to adjust the earbuds in five different directions to make sure they were comfortably snug. The earbuds were designed to be comfortable for long-term use, so they won’t start hurting after a while. You can also crank up the volume and angle the earbuds away from your ears if you don’t want to block other sounds out as much.

Two buttons on the left sunglass arm adjust volume (up and down), and three buttons on the right arm enable seeking forward or back and play/pause. We skipped through songs with ease, and were able to rewind or fast forward within songs to find certain spots. A combination of buttons can be pressed for other functions, such as skipping 10 songs ahead (by pressing Pause then the Next Song/Fast Forward button) or setting songs in shuffle mode (by holding the Next Song/Fast Forward button and immediately pressing the Previous Song/Rewind button once).

The Thump’s battery is rechargeable by plugging into any computer, again using the USB cord, and the indicator light glows green when the three-hour charge is complete. After an hour, 80% of the battery is recharged, which is convenient. We ran our Thump 2 for about six and a half hours; Oakley says its battery will last for six hours.

We got a few stares while wearing the Thump 2 on the street, but for the most part, the earbuds weren’t noticeable at a glance — especially when worn by someone with long hair that can hide the earbuds. If this gadget had earbuds that could fold into the sunglass arms, the shades themselves would be more versatile for use even when you’re not operating the MP3 player. As is, the earbuds can be straightened out to run along the arm of the glasses, but they’re never totally hidden away.

The Thump 2 would also benefit from a screen — perhaps even one that could flash on the lenses while you’re wearing the device. But that kind of technology would probably push the price point even higher.

Unlike the iPod, which brilliantly combines stylish form with practical function, the Oakley Thump 2 is strictly a style item. Still, if you’re already used to spending hundreds of dollars on sunglasses, the Thump 2 might seem like a deal. Everyone else would be better off suffering with wired earbuds for now.


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