In the realm of odd audio gadgets, the Zelco Outi earphones definitely rank somewhere near the top. These uniquely designed earphones feature mini speakers that rest outside the ear and give off a vibration that let you feel the music as well as hear it. While they certainly look a little strange when worn, the Outi 'phones deliver on their promise. At $110, these unique earbuds aren't cheap, so we only recommend them for those who are comfortable having something shaky clipped onto the back of their ears. It's not for everyone, to be sure.
The Zelco Outi earphones are bizarre in many ways, not the least of which is the design. The speaker drivers themselves reside in two round, flat discs, each measuring about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Coming out of each disc is a bendable plastic clip with a soft silicone tip that you secure inside your ear. Unlike with other earphones, the speakers actually rest on the backs of the ears. As Zelco claims, this setup is indeed safer for your hearing in the long run, since you don't have high volumes of sound being directed straight into your ears. Still, the look is something you'll have to get used to--it's not as low-profile as other earbud-style headphones. It is nice, though, that Zelco gives you three color options from which to choose--white, black, and pink--since you have to wear them so prominently.
The Outi earphones have several other attributes of note. Foremost is the vibrating mechanism located in each disc. This in turn is controlled by an amplifier situated about halfway down the 44-inch cable (which is topped by an additional foot of Y-cable leading to each ear). The amplifier is an iPod Shuffle-size module that features a removable belt clip and a single button that serves to turn the Outi on and adjust between four vibration levels. The earphones require battery power to operate, and the built-in cell is rated for about 6 to 8 hours. Zelco includes an AC adapter for charging purposes.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the Outi is the actual vibration--it just feels very, very odd at first, and if you're ticklish, you may find the sensation alternately irritating and amusing. You do get used to it, but even then, these earphones aren't the most pleasant to use. There are a couple reasons for this. First, the nature of the clip-on design is that it puts pressure on your ear cartilage and this can cause some pain after a while. Also, even with the proper positioning of the speakers--which takes some practice--the speakers vibrate little else besides your actual ear and the area right around it, namely the back of the jaw and sides of the neck. It's not the "full body" sensation that Zelco advertises. Finally, you can actually hear the vibration, and this does not bode well for sound quality--it sounds like blown-out speakers even though you're not listening at high volumes. Other than that, the sound quality is reasonable and we must admit, it's really interesting to feel the varying levels of bass and percussion. Acoustic guitar in particular offers a really cool sensation, like it's strumming right against your ear.
In the end, we applaud Zelco for trying something different. It's definitely a compelling idea and we hope the company continues to refine and expand upon it. As it stands, we're not really sure it's worth the hundred or so bucks to try out the first-gen product.