Originally created 12/13/04

Sunglasses-turned-digital music player are no bargain

LOS ANGELES - It seems like a cool idea - sunglasses with a built-in digital music player and speakers.

No headphone cables to untangle as with most portable players. Music actually riding on your ears. Zero retinal damage from ultraviolet radiation.

And if Oakley's new breed of eyewear, dubbed Thump, retailed for about $100, it might be a tempting alternative to some of the rudimentary flash memory card music players on the market.

But these supershades cost $395 for a pair with 128 megabytes of memory and $495 for the 256-megabyte version, which sports polarized lenses. With typical audio compression rates, that means the larger version holds roughly 64 four-minute songs.

By comparison, the smallest of Apple Computer Inc.'s stylish iPod music players has 4 gigabytes of memory and retails for about $249. And flash-memory players of comparable memory size, such as the Creative Nomad or the Rio Cali, come with loads of features to arrange playlists and tweak sound settings, and typically go for less than $150.

Still, for music fans looking be rid of tangled earphone cables and arm or waist-riding players, Thump at least delivers a solid playback - as long as you can keep the earbuds in place.

Oakley mounted the digital player's hardware on the frame's temples, including a sliding and pivoting feature to help adjust the speakers to the wearer's ears.

But slight head or neck movements often result in the speaker buds separating from the ear, diminishing the sound quality. Jogging or exercising only makes this worse. And if you can't drown out the unwanted music blaring from the gym speakers or the sound of traffic when working out outdoors, what's the point?

The contoured frames with dark flip-up lenses, which come in colors including "Red Camo" (that's camouflage if you're unhip) and Tortoise, are stylized in true Oakley fashion, with design touches meant to appeal to the extreme sports set.

The frames feel no different from other sports sunglasses, even with the five tiny rubber buttons to set volume, turn the device on or off, play and cycle through the tracks. Thump weighs less than 1.8 ounces.

Loading the eyeglasses with music is pretty simple.

The Thump works with both Microsoft Windows-run personal computers and Apple Macintosh PCs. It comes with a custom-size USB cable (it uses the faster USB 2.0 standard) that plugs into a computer just like any removable drive.

Users can swap music in WMA, MP3 or WAV formats by simply dragging and dropping files to the virtual Thump folder using the operating system's file management software. There is no support for playlists, or even for shuffle.

The player gets its power from a Lithium Ion Polymer battery that automatically gets recharged when the device is plugged into a PC. Oakley says a full charge equals six hours of playback time.

Target customers for the Thump are active, athletic people who make at least $60,000 a year, says Oakley. Sounds similar to the iPod target market.

But I also have to wonder about practicality here: When was the last time you wore sunglasses to the gym?

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