Ears-on with Sanpei Optics' audio sunglasses

Dual-purpose polarized shades currently making a run on Indiegogo combine earbuds and eyewear, which could be especially nice for the active crowd. Crave's Leslie Katz gives them a listen.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read
General contractor Richard Sanpei came up with the idea for the dual-purpose hinged sunglasses while watching construction workers fumble with their earplugs. James Martin/CNET

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades. Ideally, they'd have built-in earbuds. And now they do, thanks to Sanpei Optics.

Sanpei uses fancy lingo like "audio-adaptable glasses" and "hinged temple bar design eyewear" to describe its new product, but it's really pretty simple. The glasses look like regular shades, but you can slide the included earbuds into a dock at the end of each arm, pop the securely fixed 'buds into your ears, and connect to your smartphone or other mobile device right from your glasses.

Getting the glasses to fit just so depends on adjusting the aforementioned patented hinged temple bar (tilt it down for a tighter fit, up for a looser feel). That took some fumbling when I first got my hands on a pair of these, but once I'd angled the arms right, the polarized glasses felt lightweight and comfortable. The earbuds rested at a slightly strange angle when attached to the shades, but I'm still not sure if I need to further fiddle with the dock and three sizes of included silicone earbud tips -- or if, like my former CNET colleague Jasmine France, I'm just weird-eared.

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt models Sanpei Optics' new audio-adaptable sunglasses. (Click to enlarge.) James Martin/CNET

In any case, when I put the glasses on and made a couple of calls using the inline mic, everything worked fine. Music sounded clear and bright. Sanpei's earbuds come with a 3.5mm jack and work with iPhones, Android phones, iPads, Nooks, and other popular devices.

If this concept sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen Oakley's MP3-playing Thump glasses. Sanpei Optics' models don't have an integrated MP3 player, but you can certainly use the attached earbuds to listen to MP3s, or audio books, or your mom telling you to be careful when you're tearing down trails on your mountain bike.

Indeed, I'd venture to say it's sports enthusiasts who are likely to be the most, well, enthusiastic about these. Sanpei is clearly targeting the active crowd, as its promotional materials feature images of a biker, runner, and snowboarder.

But the glasses are flexible, literally and figuratively. Because of the hinge design, you can opt to wear them with only one earbud in for increased awareness of the world outside your MP3 player, or snap the earbuds out altogether for traditional sunglasses, something you can't do with other audio-enabled sunglasses.

One of the things I like most about these is that they don't scream "I'm wearing the sunglasses of the future," but really look like standard sleek jet-black shades. That said, unobtrusive volume controls right on the eyewear would be a great addition to an already smart design.

Sanpei Optics, based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to bring its first two models to market (one is designed to accommodate prescriptions). As of this writing the company had reached a little more than $3,500 of its $30,000 goal, with two weeks left in the campaign.

Contributors at the $25 level get Sanpei's high-fidelity 10mm waterproof earbuds with an in-line mic, while a higher early-bird pledge of $90 gets you glasses, waterproof earbuds, earbuds with an inline mic, and a carrying pouch. Regularly, the glasses are expected to go for $150.