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Cool Look, Hot Sounds

By Jay Greene


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good A music-to-go offering that looks good and sounds great.

The Bad Not ideal as your sole digital music player.

The Bottom Line A pricey but way cool way to take tunes for a run or ski.

Often technology companies think just because a product is technically feasible that it will be commercially desirable. So they mix two products -- a watch and an Internet news feed, for example -- and come up with a technological jackalope, a hybrid product that does neither of its functions particularly well.

So when I first heard of the Oakley Thump -- sunglasses with a digital music player built into the frame -- I was ready to dismiss it as the bizarre love child of street-cool designers and tech-savvy gearheads. But then I used them.

As wacky as the Thump might sound, it's really good at what it does. It's nowhere near as heavy as you might imagine, weighing in at just 1.8 ounces. And performance-sunglass maker Oakley (OO) hasn't spared any of the industrial chic for which it's known, coming up with a pair of high-end specs that wrap around your face and come in five color options. But what's most striking about the Thump is its easy-to-load and easy-to-use music players.

NO STRINGS. Let's be clear, though. The Thump shouldn't be your first digital music player, or your first set of sunglasses either. Plenty of times you'll want to listen to music and have no desire to wear sunglasses. Think nighttime. Oakley's answer to this was to engineer lenses that swing up, but you'll look a bit like an outfielder who forgot to take off his flip-up shades when he left the ballpark.

The glasses also don't include a screen to display the song currently playing, so you might struggle to remember the name of whatever track you're listening to -- or find the song you want to hear. Then there's the matter of having to recharge your sunglasses every few days, a slightly peculiar but necessary evil since the battery only lasts about six hours.

But if you've ever tried to take your digital music player out for a jog around the park, you've probably figured out a few of its shortcomings. First, those dang wires. It's just plain annoying to have the headphone cord bounce off your arm or chest each time you take a stride. And with some players, when the hard drive shakes, the music skips. Take your music player skiing, and it gets even more problematic, as you try to find a secure, dry spot for it while weaving the headphone cord through your parka.

EASY LOAD. The Thump's brilliance is that it does away with all of that. Slip the high-fashion Oakleys on, and you've got your music to go. The frames have the guts of the music player build right into them. The ear pieces have earphones that can flip up when they're not in use. But when you put them down and adjust them so they fit over your ear canal, they pump out great sound. And the frames include five innocuous buttons -- two on the left side of the ear piece to control volume and three on the right to skip ahead a song, go back, and turn the Thump on and off.

Putting music on the device is snap, in many ways much easier than most digital music players. That's because you don't need to transfer metadata -- information such as the song title and artist -- in a format that devices use to display it, since there's no display. Instead, you simply connect the glasses to a PC's USB port, using a cord that's provided, and the Thumps appear as an attached hard drive on your PC. Then, just open up your music folder and drag and drop songs in the order you want to hear them.

A few caveats. First is the price. The most capacious model, a 256-megabyte version that holds about 120 songs, runs $495, while the 128-megabyte version is $395. Second, the Thump play songs ripped to your PC in the MP3 format, as well as Microsoft's (MSFT) WMA format. But you can't play music ripped in Apple's (AAPL) AAC format, including songs purchased from Apple's iTunes store.

That said, the Thump is a great second digital music player for folks who run or ski. It may be a bit of a digital jackalope. But Oakley's combination still really rocks.

Greene is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief

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