Jabra Elite Sport Review

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had opportunities to try out various Jabra earbuds, from the Sport Pulse, Sport Rox (discontinued), and Sport Coach. Earlier this month, the new kid in town, Elite Sport dropped and I had the pleasure of putting them through some routines consisting of workouts of various paces and some cross-training. Marketed as “True Wireless Smart earbuds”, Jabra has somehow managed to incorporate the everything but the kitchen sink into the Elite Sport. In a (large) nutshell, here are what the boffins at Jabra managed to squeeze into 2 typically premium built buds:

  • HR monitor
  • Tri-axis accelerometer Motion sensor
  • 4 x digital MEMS microphones with advanced noise cancellation
  • Passive noise cancellation, with HearThrough feature streaming in external ambient noise for awareness.
  • BT 4.1, completely wireless between left and right units
  • IP67 rated to be waterproof in fresh water up to 1 meter for 30 minutes.

On top of the usual volume and playback controls, the user can enable HearThrough (more on this below), activate Siri/Google Now, and manage calls. When paired with the Jabra Sport Life app (iOS and Android), the user will also be able to start/stop/pause a workout and get realtime coaching feedback as well. In short, the JES is a souped up Sport Pulse and Sport Coach.

My first experience what somewhat a clumsy one on my part when, to my horror, I dropped it as I was unboxing it. However, the JES is made of sterner stuff and no harm was done. My heart rate shot up for a brief second though! As you can already guess, the JES comprise of 2 wireless earbuds where the connectivity is not only wireless between the playback media device but also between the left and right earbuds. That means, each unit houses its own battery. The clamshell case that comes with the JES functions not only as a storage but also a power bank. With a full charge lasting around 3 hours, the case holds enough juice to charge the earbuds twice, extending the number of hours before the next top up to 9 hours.

This is great for travelling but unless you’re a very fast marathoner, you won’t have enough charge to last your race. Nevertheless, under normal use it’s a perfect option.

As usual, prior to using any new piece of electronics, it’s a good idea to charge it up. In the case of the review unit, the battery level indicator was already in amber. You can get an indication by opening and closing the case. A 2-hour charge later via the supplied micro USB cable and you’re good to go. Basically the front indicators reflect the earbuds’ charge level while the side indicator, the casing’s charge level.  The casing has a little rubbery feel, so it won’t easily slip out of your hands.

Note: Charging isn’t NFC charging but instead via the contact points on the earbuds and the casing, so you’ll need to place them in the correct left/right position.

Once the trivialities are done, it’s time to have a good look at the JES. They’re small but not as compact as the Sport Pulse and a little larger than the Sport Rox. The right bud functions as the Master and houses the HR monitor which you can see from the photo (right) below. The right unit also controls the power, pause/play, call answering functions, while the left (let’s call it the Slave unit) controls the volume and track selection.

Pairing the JES to a media device is ridiculously easy. I’ve used the JES with the iPhone and iPod with no issues and they always connect at the first instance.

The Jabra Elite Sport allows a great degree of fit customization. Choose from 3 sizes of EarWings, EarGels or opt for FoamTips. All bundled, of course. The availability of the FoamTips hint at its premium leanings.

  • 3 sizes of EarWings (S, M, L)
  • 3 sizes of silicone EarGels (S, M, L)
  • 3 sizes of FoamTips (S, M, L)

It took me a while to find a good fit especially with my right ear but I finally found the best position to wear them – at a slight upward tilt. Different wearers will find their best fitting, of course.

It’s amazing that the BT connection goes from the device to the right unit and to the left with little to no noticeable lag. Once paired, pressing the play/pause on the device resulted in near instant response from both Master and Slave. There’s a very very slight lag, only noticeable if you’re really paying attention. I suspect, the JES has some kind of memory buffering. The sound quality is trademark Jabra – punchy and clear in the mids and highs. Definitely enough kick to get you going.

So it has been 2 weeks since I got hold of the Elite Sport. I’ve worn it for weekday running outdoors and on the treadmill. I also wore them while performing core exercises on the mat. On the treadmill, they’re paired to the iPhone, running the Jabra Sport Life app. Outdoors, they’re paired with the iPod because I dislike lugging a phone around. The HR detection and readings are pretty accurate, within 3 bpms of the Garmin chest strap’s readings. Only twice did the readings dropped over the weeks’ usage, which is admirable.

aired with the app, the Sport Elite can provide audio prompts for Time, Speed, Distance, Pace, Steps, Cadence, Calories, Heart Rate, Heart Rate zone, VO2 Max estimation, Repetitions, and Real Time audio coaching. To read more about the cool functions of the Sport Life app, pop over to my review of the Jabra Sport Pulse or Sport Coach. P

Another observation I logged during my weeks’ of use was that I noticed the connectivity range between the Master and Slave units are very short. Remove the right unit from the ear and connection to the left unit will be cut. Remove the Slave unit however, and the Master keeps on pumping the tunes while the Slave is silenced.

While the units are as solid as can be – their weight palpable in the hands – it isn’t an issue when worn. In fact, the longest period of time I wore the Sport Elite was 2.5 hours. I put them on as I left the office listening to music from the iPhone. As I was walking along Jalan Ampang towards KLCC, the evening traffic was at its worst. A double tap on the Master enabled the HearThrough function which immediately amplified the ambient sound. The music continued streaming from the iPhone in my pocket but there was a heightened sense of awareness of my surroundings, without having to remove the buds. Jabra relied on the built-in mic to amplify the sounds, in case you’re wondering. Neat! The feature can be enabled/disabled via the Sport Life app.

Call handling was seamless and sound came out excellent. The caller on the other end of the line could hear me clearly, even with the background traffic noise and placement of the mic at the ear level. I’m very impressed with this. In case you’re wondering how the units look like when worn, check out the photos below.

The bottomline? The Jabra Sport Elite’s total wireless features will prove the most appealing to gym and fitness buffs where cables and cords often get in the way of gym equipment. Whether you’re on the mat or going through high intensity routines, you wouldn’t want any semblance or cords to get in your way. It’s a niche product for sure but if that’s what you’re waiting for, the Jabra Elite Sport warrants a serious consideration.

Pros:

  • Completely wireless.
  • Quick and easy connection to devices.
  • Superb Jabra sound.
  • Feature-filled Sport Life app.
  • Secure fit (after tweaking around).
  • Solid build.
  • Nice HearThrough feature.
  • Fantastic call quality.
  • Very nice bundle of tips, including foam types for even better sound. I use Comply tips for my night listening sessions on my Shure earphones, so I appreciate the fact that Jabra bundled the foam tips.

Cons:

  • Tricky to handle for butterfingers.
  • Short battery life of 3 hours per charge (carrying the case will get you 2 more charges).
  • Need to bring the case wherever you go.
  • Price. The Jabra Sport Coach, which has plenty of features too, is a much more affordable option, although without the heart rate monitoring.

The Jabra Sport Elite retails for RM1,259.00 and is available at selected outlets from the following retailers and selected Jabra resellers: All IT Hypermarket, ViewNet Computer, Thundermatch Technologies, Mobile Arena, NOP Cellular, HLK Superstore, and Lazada is the exclusive online partner and reseller http://www.lazada.com.my/jabra-official-store/?spm=a2o4k.brand-212.0.0.lq4yuA 

Word of caution: Regardless of the earphone designs, please be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume or over prolonged period of time.

Disclosure: The JES is a review unit kindly provided by AMT PC Distributors Sdn Bhd, the sole distributor for all Jabra products in Malaysia.

Jabra Sport Coach Wireless Review

Jabra, one of the world’s leading producers of headsets and earbuds recently added the Jabra Sport Coach Wireless (SCW) to its range of great-sounding, tough-wearing Bluetooth earbuds. Having put it through some sessions, I can now share some of my experiences with you. It helps if you’re familiar with their Sport Pulse Wireless and Sport Rox Wireless but if you aren’t, you can read about them by following the links provided. With that, let’s get going.

The SCW is optimized for cross-training and indoor workouts when paired with the smartphone but it works perfectly fine as standalone Bluetooth earbuds should you work it with your other Bluetooth enabled devices such as the iPod. The SCW rides on the Jabra Sport Life app on the smartphone, the same as what the Sport Pulse Wireless works with. But because the SCW is geared towards indoor workouts and drills, you’ll be prompted to update the app the very first time the SCW is paired with the smartphone. The update presumably includes additional voice prompts and programmed workouts.

The SCW shares the same design queues and battery life (5.5 hours) as the Sport Pulse Wireless (SPW). It’s lightweight, comes with different sets of EarGels and EarWings for a custom fit. Likewise, a FitClip is bundled for the wearer to secure excess length of cable behind the head such that the cable doesn’t flop around at the back. Once you’ve found your fit, the earbuds stay put – I can’t emphasize how important this requirement is, given how the SCW is intended to be used. A flat unit charges up to the max in 2 hours and this is done via a micro USB cable. The charging port is cleverly hidden away under the right side earbud. Connectivity with the smartphone or media player is made either via Bluetooth or NFC and like any sports earbuds worth mentioning, the Sport Coach is IPX55 certified for water and dust resistance.

So far, everything that has been covered is pretty much the same features you’d find on the SPW (minus the heart rate monitor) and Sport Rox Wireless. Now comes the feature-set that’s unique to the SCW, and that’s the audio coaching features. The SCW comes with the TrackFit motion sensor which measures distance, pace, steps, cadence and calories burned. Geared towards the fitness crowd, the SCW has more than 40 exercises built-in, catering to beginners and advanced enthusiasts.

A sampling of the workouts the SCW can handle.
Each workout comes with static images and descriptions.

The workouts are grouped into several circuits, 5 of which – CardiCore, TakeOff, BellyBurn, PushPerfection and MadCore – comes preset with the Jabra Sport Life app. Since I’m the curious type, I poked into the MadCore circuit just to see what’s in there. You can see from the screenshots below that it consists of a single set of workouts based on timing and reps, with 10 seconds’ rest in between.

If you’re mad enough, just hit the “Use Circuit” and you’ll get started right away.

If the preset is a bit much or still too mild for your liking, you can go ahead and duplicate the preset and then customize it according to your needs. You can tweak parameters such as number of sets, rest time, and add additional workouts. In the example below, I duplicated the MadCore circuit.

And since MadCore didn’t sound badass enough, I went ahead and created a circuit called Get Hammered. Just because I could 😀

“Can’t touch this” would be a nice track to be included in this playlist.

Thankfully I checked myself before I got started and promptly changed my workout to CardiCore, albeit the modified version. I kicked things off with a slow jog, drills and some ROM routines. I selected Running as the activity and had the Jabra Sport Life app playing from my iTunes playlist. It was just a short run on the warm sunny morning yet I was sweating like I had just completed a 10K. The SCW performed as expected – it sounded just like any Jabras that I’ve worn, which is a good thing. The ROM routines didn’t dislodge the earbuds as I bounded here and there. Ending the warm up will bring up the summary screens. You can add a photo and share your session on several social media sites, no different from the usage experience as the SPW.

Then, it was time to get down, literally, to the circuits.  Press the Sports button located on the left earbud to call up the Sport Life app on the phone. Then on the phone, just select the desired circuit. I kept things relatively straightforward but over-estimated my fitness! In the course of performing these workouts, I also discovered that overall strength was unevenly distributed – something not surprising since running is just about the only sport that I do on a regular basis. Therefore the 20 reps of lower body routines were QED since squats and lunges are already part of my weekday post-run regimen. The push-ups are another thing, though 😦

Now comes the part where my rating of the SCW drops a couple of notches. Conceptually the on-board TrackFit motion sensor should allow automatic tracking, progression and guidance for the athlete. It should be able sense how many reps have been executed and therefore knows when to move along to the next phase. The SCW, however, didn’t realize that potential. For example, it was able to track the time-bound routines but found itself at sea with the repetition-bound ones. What this means to the user is that she will need to count the number of push-ups, crunches executed and upon completion of those tap on the phone to progress the workout to the next routine.

Try doing that when you’re huffing and puffing, and trying to get into the zone and you’ll understand how frustrating the user experience can be. On the other hand, the transition screens were functional. Enough visual cues on your routine and the remaining time till the next one will keep you apprised. As will the audio announcements, inter-playing with your music playlist. However, since the SCW is unable to track certain types of routines, slowing down when completing a particular routine (for example, as you’re tiring) will not trigger a motivational message. It’ll be nice if the voice could scream out, “C’mon move it, you slug!” in full Dolby quality sound when you’re struggling 3/4 into your session!

Once you’ve completed the required sets (I only managed 3), you’ll be able to get a snapshot of what you’ve just accomplished. I seriously doubt that what I did burned only 55 kcal even though I rarely pay any attention to that measurement.

I’ve since used the SCW without the Sport Life app a number of times, pairing it with the iPod 7th Gen and the iPhone 6+ with no problems. In fact, switching between previously paired devices seemed easier with the SCW – I just needed to hold down the multi-function button for 5 secs till the blue light comes on for a new acquisition.

So is the SCW for you? It depends on the type of athlete you are. As a runner, I can see incorporating it as part of an overall fitness or post-run regimen. It works well as Bluetooth earbuds and if Jabra can work out the kinks in the tracker (not sure if it’s sensor or firmware related), the SCW will present a good buy for those seeking their first wireless earbuds. The other option is of course the cheaper Sport Rox Wireless, which is a solid alternative.

Pros

  • Retains the good stuff that Jabra is known for – build and Dolby sound quality, lightweight construction, custom fitting courtesy of EarWings and EarGels.
  • Less finicky pairing and repairing process in a multiple device environment compared to the Sport Pulse Wireless and Sport Rox Wireless.
  • Conceptually good, catering to the fitness crowd and the cross-training athlete.
  • Customizable circuits with a wide variety of routines that the user can mix up.

Cons

  • Tracking of repetitions is not quite there, resulting in a less-than-desirable user experience.
  • Battery life is still constrained to 5.5 hours.

Disclaimer:  The Jabra Sport Coach Wireless is a review unit courtesy of Jabra Malaysia. It retails for RM649 (including GST) and is now available at IT Hypermarket Sdn Bhd, Harvey Norman, Machines, Radioshack and Viewnet Computer Systems. Jabra is an official partner of International Triathlon Union events. For more information please visit: http://my.jabra.com/Products/Bluetooth/JABRA_Sport_Coach_Wireless/Jabra_Sport_Coach_Wireless

Previously reviewed on Jan 6th, 2016

Jabra Sport Rox Wireless Review

With the current health and fitness boom, choices are aplenty when it comes to shopping for a set of Bluetooth earbuds geared towards the active person. In my opinion, it all comes down to three factors: fit, sound and price consideration, in no particular order.

I reviewed the Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless (SPW) in April [read it here] and found the lightweight premium buds with integrated Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) to offer excellent sound quality. More importantly the SPW has the best and most comfortable fit I’ve experienced in a pair of sports earbuds. That counts for a lot since I sweat buckets and have flippant ear canals that has floored every sports earbud that I’ve popped in. The downside? The SPW needs a smartphone to work and no matter what, it couldn’t connect with the 7th Generation Bluetooth-enabled iPod Nano. Since I dislike lugging my phone on a run, my time with the SPW is pretty much limited. Then, there’s the eye-popping RM899 price tag as well.

There’s a lower-priced alternative to the SPW, and that’s the award-winning Sport Rox Wireless (Rox). At RM549 it’s not exactly pocket change to be sure, but if sound quality, comfort and fit, ease of use, and durability are what you seek in a sports earbuds, it could be something for you.

Where’s the Rox? I already had them on, rocking out some tunes!
“Massive Wireless Sound”
Print on the box pretty much states all the features.
In the box: Carry case, micro USB charging cable, 3 sets of EarGels and EarWings. Not shown are the user guide pamphlet and activation code for the Jabra Sound app

The Rox is not as featherweight nor has the HRM features (and therefore assisted training modes) the SPW comes with. Neither does it have the extensive set of voice prompts of the SPW. It does, however, have the same great fit of the SPW, with 4 sets of ColorCore EarGels and 3 sizes of EarWings in the box. It retains the Dolby HD sound support on top of the standard BT 4.0, NFC connectivity, and is built to U.S. Military standards for weather (IP55), shock, sand and dust protection. Like most sports earbuds in the market, there’s a built-in mic to take calls (should you pair it with your phone).

When you hold the Rox in your hands, you’ll immediately feel the fantastic build quality from the cord down to the metal bits. The Rox comes out of the box without the EarWings attached but since I really like the secure fit it provided in the SPW, I fitted the Medium-sized ones to the Rox. I’ve not experienced excessive bouncing of the cord behind me to necessitate attaching the Fitclip but it could be an option for you.

Charging is via the micro USB port located under the left ear bud cover. Out of the box, this unit charges fully in about 1.5 hours.

A feature unique to the Rox are the magnetic earbuds. Both can be joined or separated to enable/disable the standby mode. Another battery-saving feature is the 5-minute auto off when the buds are separated and not connected to any device. Charging the unit is simple; flip up the back cover of the right earbud to expose the micro USB port and the rest is a no-brainer. It takes around 2.5 hours to fully juice up the unit. Pairing the Rox with the Bluetooth device is also a simple affair. If your phone or device is NFC-ready, you’ll just need to slide it along the Rox’s volume rocker where the NFC zone is located to pair up.

The Rox doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the sound department. Music is punchy and lends workout-tunes the needed excitement to pull you through the workouts. Synth, dance, house, and rock all shine, and while it won’t be the final word in terms of audiophile quality (c’mon, the source files are in compressed MP3 format after all!), acoustic-leaning tracks in Everything But The Girl’s Amplified Heart, SEAL’s Best 1991-2004 Acoustic, and Tristan Prettyman’s Say Anything track in Cedar+Gold albums is as involving. Marc Shaiman’s The Ruling/Graduation track in the Patch Adams score got the rightful ground-shaking treatment while pounding hip-hop grooves threaten to turn you into Snoop Dogg.

The Rox isn’t marketed as noise isolating buds but as the seal is good, ambient sound is almost negligible. The secure fit means going through drill routines on top of hopping and bounding will not dislodge the buds. I’ve done a couple of runs in heavy downpour without losing a beat too. As you can see from the topmost photo, I went with the double-flanged EarGel, which I felt gave me the best fit for the sound.

Bluetooth buds appear to still be limited by the sub-6 hour battery life. In the case of the Rox, the published battery life is 5.5 hours. I can understand this shortcoming since these buds are designed with size and weight in mind. Don’t go expecting a device this small to pack a 3100mah battery! If you need to listen for a longer duration, the wired option is still the way to go, at least until the day technology brings high capacity micro-sized batteries (at a low cost) into mass market devices. The other question is whether the wearer can tolerate a 10-hour continuous listening period. Is it even safe to plug in for that long a period?

So, is the Rox for you? If it’s Bluetooth sports buds that you seek, and won’t mind the slightly higher price (to basic Bluetooth options) in favor of the build, fit and sound quality, then the answer is yes. If you need and can tolerate even longer listening period, stick to the wired type. Personally, I’m hooked to the wireless buds and unless I’m in an event exceeding 10 hours (which is super rare!), I won’t be reaching out for the wired buds anytime soon.

Pros:

  • Great fit and sound for a pair of Bluetooth sports earbuds.
  • Fantastic build quality that’ll stand up to real-world use.
  • Accompanying Jabra Sound app provides sound customization.
  • Unique magnetic earbud cover that doubles up as standby feature.
  • Easy pairing with the 7th Generation iPod Nano and iPhone.

Cons:

  • There are cheaper Bluetooth sports earbud alternatives (but not by much and not necessarily as great fitting and sounding).
  • Battery life of 5.5 hours is 30 minutes more than the SPW but some folks will demand more. Real world experience (during the recent Gold Coast Airport Marathon) puts the battery life somewhere around 4 hours. Battery low messages were prompted at around the 3 hours 45 minutes mark.

Word of caution: Please exercise caution when plugging in during an outdoor workout. Be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. The majority of my listening happen at the KLCC Park (where there are high human traffic) and 1K loops around my housing area. I don’t recommend running solo with the ears plugged. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume, nor for an extended period of time.

Disclaimer: The Jabra Sport Rox Wireless is a review unit courtesy of Jabra Singapore. It retails for RM549 (including GST) and is now available at all ALL IT Hypermarket Sdn Bhd, epiCentre, Machines, Radioshack and Viewnet Computer Systems around the country. You can learn more about the Jabra Sport Rox Wireless here.

Previously reviewed on July 9th, 2015

Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless Review

The usage of Bluetooth-enabled headsets and earbuds are fast gaining popularity amongst runners. Through casual observation of plugged-in runners as I went through my training runs last week at the park, I counted at least half of the peripherals worn were of the wireless variety. The advantage is obvious – less cables flopping around.

I love my music. I believe it has its place in a runner’s kit. The tunes will take away the boredom of a solo run in a looping course. The runner will find it easier to practice pacing with the aid of music. However, some of the reasons why I rarely do so are:

  1. I like to run light and dislike carrying stuff.
  2. Earbuds that fit my problematic ears are impossible to find. I’ve tried Sony (many variety including the version with ear loops), JBL and Yurbuds but they all slip out once I get all sweaty.
  3. The sound quality of “sports buds” aren’t that great. The music are either too tinny or bass-heavy.

With the launch of the award-winning Sport Pulse Wireless (SPW) late last year, the Danish company Jabra has suddenly made a compelling case for me to carry my phone along for some of my workouts. The SPW is essentially a set of Bluetooth (BT) 4.0 earbuds with a built-in electrocardiogram (ECG) accurate Heart Rate Monitor. Jabra commissioned Campbell University in North Carolina, USA to independently verify the performance of the heart rate monitor technology for fitness and active usage. The comprehensive trial included runners on a treadmill and simultaneously tested Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless against a medical ECG machine. The results clearly showed an extraordinary accuracy with a 99.2% correlation. We’ll get to my field test observations shortly.

Before that, here’s the tech spec sheet for those of you techies out there.

Unboxing
The SPW comes in a sturdily constructed box with a magnetic latch. Flip that open and this is what you see.

The earbuds, a clam-shell case and a quick user guide.

Unzip the clam-shell case and here’s what you get.

4 Fitclips, 3 extra sets of EarGels™ and EarWings™ in a selection of sizes. And a short micro USB cable.
Close-up of the EarGels™ and EarWings™

The heart of the SPW lies in the left earbud, identifiable by the little heart icon you see below. There’s also the grey coloured Sport button in the middle which you press to start the tracking.

The heart of the matter.

Readying the SPW
As with all new gear, it’s always best to temper the excitement by first charging the unit. To charge the unit, just pull aside the right side silicon EarWing to expose the micro USB port. Fully charging a unit will take up to 2 hours. While charging, a tiny red indicator will light up. The same light will turn green once the juice is fully topped up.

There you are!

There’s an app for that, unless you’re a Windows Phone user
While the charging takes place, you will want to download the Jabra Sport Life app. You can get the app from iTunes [link] or the Google Play Store [link]. Sorry Windows Phone users – the app’s not available for you. I’m an app hoarder and I can tell you that this app is one of the most loaded fitness app out there. It utilizes your phone’s GPS for distance/pace/time/speed tracking, and reads out real-time customizable key metrics. The app even allows you to set your target pace, heart rate zone or interval training segments. Press the Sport button on the left earpiece and you can get auto coaching feedback. Then there’s the 3-mode fitness test function where you can run your own periodic analyses.

The 3-mode fitness tests are:

  • The Rockport Test – designed to measure your VO2 max level, which gives you a precise measurement on the volume of oxygen you can consume while exercising at your maximum capacity and guidance on how well it rates against your age, weight, and gender.
  • The Orthostatic Heart Rate Test – monitors your current state and helps you understand if you’re overtraining or under stress.
  • The Resting Heart Rate Test – a great way to understand your base fitness level. Over time you can see how your resting heart level is trending.

As you can see, it’s clear that the app was not designed as an after-thought.

On top of that Jabra Sound app [link] which comes free with every SPW purchase via a code redemption. This app complements the SPW by adding the signature Dolby sound to your music amongst many other features such as equalizers and playlist management. All rather impressive, and you can find out more about the app here.

Pairing
This is a simple process of pairing the phone with the SPW, no different from pairing of your other Bluetooth accessories. Just enable Bluetooth on the phone, press the Multi Function button (the middle one on the control) and a voice with confirm your connection. Once connected, you’ll be able to see the battery status of the SPW on your phone as well (see screen shot below, indicator is to the right of the BT one). Now, if you own one of the newfangled phones with NFC, you can connect the two that way too.

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Customizing
Like all other lifestyle tracker apps out there, you’ll be guided through your profile setup, in this case a very quick process.

Next would be selecting the right EarWing and EarGel to fit your ears. The manual recommends the user to test out with all the sizes provided as not only will proper sizing enhance your listening experience and comfort, getting a proper fit will ensure the HR reading is accurate.

Just another step before you head out and that would be to calibrate your HR reading. I was seated when I did this and my HR read 58bpm. Not bad if I may say so 🙂 .

After which you’re pretty much good to go. I was in a rush when I tested the SPW, so I didn’t toy around with the other tracking modes like target pace/HR setting. As mentioned earlier, you could even setup HR Zone Training or Interval Training, as well as your playlist of your choice.

Note: If Strava, MapMyFitness, Runkeeper, and Endomondo are your preferred fitness apps, you’d be happy to know that the SPW works with them too.

The photo below shows how the buds look from the rear. The cord is very light and not too long. In my several sessions with them, it never got in the way of my run despite my attempts at dislodging it – very secure. My first run with them was a short 5K covering a number of training zones, from fat burning to cardio to VO2Max. For that run, I had the phone in my hand. As such the tracking was very accurate against my Garmin’s – from the distance, pace to the HR call-out. In fact whenever the variance of the HR recorded by the Garmin HR chest strap and the Jabra was within +/-3bpm. I was very impressed coming off the first experience.

To put the SPW through more , I made sure I wore them for my box jump drills 2 days later (I didn’t bring them along for the Shape Run as I prefer to race light). Again, the buds stayed put in my ears! You can get pumped up with a kick-ass playlist while you’re doing your weights, plyos, drills and so on. Not to mention having your HR read out to you at regular intervals. This is great stuff.

The 3rd run in the SPW was a mixed experience. I carried the phone in a waist pouch and the BT connectivity was occasionally wonky. This went on for a few kilometers when the buds died on me, its battery completely drained. I suspect the weak battery level was the cause of the unstable connectivity and I’ll be sure to report back after several more runs.

Data Logging
The Sport Pulse Wireless is able to capture a ton of data. Utilizing an accelerometer, it’s able to record what you see and more below. The mapping feature is achieved in conjunction with your phone’s GPS.

Listen, listen, listen!
One of the outstanding features of the SPW, other than the HRM function, is the sound quality. This earbuds have got to be one of the best, if not the best I’ve heard. I’ve dabbled in hi-fi separates some time ago to recognize that. The sound that the SPW dishes out have great separation. Highs doesn’t sound tinny nor wreck your ear drums. Bass is tight and punchy as how it should be. Once burned in, I’ll bet they’ll sound even sweeter. Instruments that get all muddled up in the mix when I listened using other brands are revealed. It has knocked my 3 Sony buds (RM300 and below) and my previous favorite, Griffin, out of the park. It performs better than the JBL too. I’ll admit that it’s the earbuds I use even when I’m not working out.

More running and working out to do then!
It’s only been a week of living with the SPW but I’ve thus far been impressed with it. While I don’t usually listen to music when I’m out running (I believe that at times, the runner needs to connect to and deal with the mental side of running), I don’t totally discount the fact that music does add to the enjoyment of working out, especially on easy and recovery runs or drills. Due to its feature-rich functions, I’ve yet to dig below the surface of what the SPW has to offer and I’ll be sure to do a follow-up post once I’ve bedded in after a few more weeks.

Pros:

  • Very accurate HR readings.
  • Light and unobtrusive.
  • Accompanying apps are well thought out and are feature packed.
  • Great fit, 4 customizable fit.
  • One of the best sounding buds that I’ve listened to.
  • Works with a host of popular fitness apps.
  • Supports NFC on top of the standard BT 4.0.
  • U.S. Military standards for weather, shock, sand and dust protection.
  • Trivia:
    • Jabra is an official performance partner for the ITU World Triathlon Series
    • Jabra has won numerous accolades like the T3 Gold Award, CNet’s Editor’s Choice, Red Dot Mobile Choice – Best Accessory, CES Innovation, and iF Product Design Award.

Cons:

  • Premium pricing could put it above many’s budget. There’s the non-HRM Jabra Sport Rox Wireless which has many of the SPW’s features.
  • Battery life of 5.5 hours could be better.
  • Inconsistent read out of pace when the battery levels are low.

Word of caution: Please exercise caution when plugging in during an outdoor workout. Be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. The majority of my testing occurred at the KLCC Park where there are high human traffic. I don’t recommend running solo with the ears plugged. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume.

Disclaimer: The Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless is a review unit courtesy of Jabra Singapore. It retails for RM899 (post-GST) and is now available at all ALL IT Hypermarket Sdn Bhd, epiCentre, Machines, Radioshack and Viewnet Computer Systems around the country. You can learn more about the Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless here.

Previously reviewed on April 17, 2015

AfterShokz Trekz Titanium Headphone Review

In all of my reviews on earbuds and earphones, I’ve always emphasized on the importance of exercising safety when considering running outdoors to music. I’ve my personal safety protocol when it comes to running with earbuds plugged in.

Music continues to feature in many of my runs these days, more so these days having moved nearly half of my weekday sessions to 5:30am. On double days, I alternate between the outdoors and the treadmill. Without some kind of diversion, I wouldn’t be able to get through the miles without losing my sanity!

When I read about a new sports headphones to hit the Malaysian shores recently that focuses on safety, my interest was piqued. Relying on bone-conduction, the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium (ATT) lets you listen through teeny vibrations generated by patented transducers which are then conducted to the wearer’s inner ear by way of the cheekbones. As you can guess, that method leaves the ear canals uncovered, all the better to allow the wearer retain a fantastic level of situational awareness. I’ve put the gear to test and came away pretty impressed. There are some compelling pluses and some areas which can be improved, so let’s get to it.

Where are the earphones? I was wearing it when I took this shot. 😀

The ATT comes in a medium-sized box and inside is where you’ll find a zippered soft carry case, a QRG (Quick Reference Guide), a pair of foam earplugs, a pair of silicone FitBand (should you require a snugger fit), a micro USB cable, and a small 2-year warranty card with online registration. The earphones itself is made of flexible titanium encased in silicone sleeve so you can confidently handle the device with confidence. The micro USB charging port is located under the rubber seal and 45-minute charge from a PC topped up the juice – charge indicator will change from red to blue. The unit probably still had a good amount of juice left hence the shorter than the published period of 90 minutes.

Micro USB port for charging.
Blue = fully charged!

The Volume Up button doubles up as the power button as well and the wearer will be greeted by a female voice prompt. The first pairing was with my iPhone which was very easily and quickly done.

Pairing was very easily done.
Bluetooth and battery level indicator are displayed on the phone.

From then on, it was a matter of getting acquainted with the unique listening experience. Unique because with the other earbuds, surrounding sounds are always blocked out, allowing for an immersive musical experience. With the AfterShokz, you get to hear everything from the sound of the photocopier, colleagues chatting and of course, your music. Audio quality (AQ) is a mixed bag. On paper, the frequency response ranges from 20Hz to 20KHz, which isn’t the most dynamic in the market. Given that the Trekz Titanium adopts an open-ear concept, the music will always lose the low-ends. If you’re looking for thumping bass, the ATT will not impress. However, the mids and highs were surprisingly open and presented with great clarity. The AQ will vary by wearer due to anatomical differences, sensitivity to frequencies and how one positions the device. You do have the option to stick the 2 foam plugs in to block off the outside noise resulting in AQ changes – bass levels are immediately boosted, ideal for casual listening when not working out.

A point worth noting is that there’s a little sensation of vibration when music is being played depending on how loud you’ve set the volume. It isn’t uncomfortable but I thought it’s something I should mention.

Sweating profusely but the ATT still held on nicely.

With the indoor listening out of the way, it was time to take the ATT outdoors. Since I dislike lugging my phone when I run, I paired the headphones to the iPod Nano 7th Gen. To pair the ATT to another device, just hold down the power button to put it back into search mode. The Bluetooth pairing was quicker than my Garmin in acquiring a sat lock, so it was a very quick affair as well.

Again, there was practically no bounce from the ATT, even when the pace picked up. I was able to detect all ambient sounds, passing traffic, approaching vehicles from behind and to even engage in a conversation. It was as if I was running to background music rather than an in-your-face experience. If anything, I found toggling the volume to be a rather fastidious affair, finding it hard to engage the correct buttons.

The ATT fits over the ear and the transducers rest just in front of your ear, on your cheekbone. Looking at the Trekz Titanium’s band, I thought that the headphones will bounce a fair bit as I run but none of that happened. Well, I’m pleased to report that I thought wrong. The fit was secure from the get-go. Changing of the tracks were easily done with the multi-function button on the left earpiece. Double-tapping it will advance to the next track while triple-tapping it will reverse the selection. Pausing requires a single tap as is taking a call (which I separately tested at home) via 2 noise-canceling mics located at the tip of both earpieces.

Techies will be interested in the spec sheet below:

 

So the AfterShokz has surprised me. Granted, one shouldn’t expect ground-shaking audiophile quality music (even though the mids and highs are pretty sweet) out of it but as workout headphones with a strong emphasis on safety, it performs as described. A few friends and I remarked that it would be nice if a 4GB flash memory for music storage can be incorporated into the left earpiece so that there’s no need to carry around another MP3 player or phone.

Pluses:

  • Excellent situational awareness.
  • Bluetooth.
  • Good fit with no bounce.
  • Very easy to connect.
  • Voice prompt.
  • IP55 sweat-resistance.
  • 6-hour battery life should accommodate most training runs.
  • Open mids and highs.
  • Reasonable pricing for a pair of Bluetooth earphones.

Can Be Improved:

  • No internal flash storage.
  • Weak low end
  • Access to volume controls needed some getting used to.

Word of caution: Regardless of the earphone design, please be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume.

AfterShokz Trekz Titanium is distributed by Distexpress (M) Sdn Bhd and retails for RM499. is available at TheMarathonShop outlets.

Disclosure: The product was made available for my use as an AfterShokz Ambassador.

Previously reviewed on June 22nd, 2016

Saucony Freedom ISO

 

The above is an excerpt from the Saucony blog post about the Freedom ISO. When early photos of the shoe appeared on the Internet last year, the first all-EVERUN (topsole and midsole) shoe from the company generated considerable excitement. Now that the launch in Malaysia is imminent, and that I’ve put in more than 60K in them, it’s time to put out this review.

But first, the specs…

  • Full length EVERUN midsole and topsole.
  • Engineered mesh with ISOFIT.
  • Totally rad translucent Crystal Rubber outsole.
  • Significant toe-spring.
  • Support frame for the heel.
  • Blue-black-citron colorway for men, blue-citron for women.
  • Stack height of 19mm/15mm (heel/forefoot) for a 4mm offset.
  • 9.8oz for my US10.

The Freedom ISO (FISO) comes with a spare set of flat laces. I switched the blue ones out for the yellow purely for cosmetic reasons 🙂 . The shoes look amazing out of the box, the design is one of simplicity. No superfluous overlays and strips. Even the traditional heel counter is absent, replaced by a single thin strip of plastic called Support Frame (a little more on that below). A one-piece engineered mesh upper is a little stretchy and its integrated lace loops complement the ISOFIT system. This iteration of ISOFIT has seen some refinement since the first Zealot, and I’ve not encountered any bunch-ups in all runs. Reflective elements are generous – on the tongue, logo and heel.

The wide tongue has some ribbing which cushion against pressure of the laces. So you can lace up for an even greater locked down feel. Since the tongue is integrated with the ISOFIT system, there’s no chance of it ever slipping. In your hands, the shoes certainly don’t have the flyweight feel of a racing flat. Although weighing in at 9.8oz (a tad heavier than the Kinvara 8, TPU being heavier than traditional EVA), they’re still what majority will call lightweight. Employing a minimal approach on the upper has allowed Saucony to pare away the unnecessary “fat” and thus offset the TPU “weight gain”.

Flip the FISO over and you’ll see the very colorful take on the full-contact outsole. It’s not carbon nor blown rubber but a compound called Crystal Rubber. I wasn’t able to get more information on Crystal Rubber but it has a translucent look allowing the designers to go a little wild. It’s said to be just as durable, if not more, than the traditional rubber. The shallow lugs are still in TRI-FLEX configuration and the strip of hollowed out section reveals the EVERUN material. As with the Kinvara 8 (K8), the Freedom is true to size for me. Nevertheless, it’s always good to try several sizes out at the stores. Step-in feel is very comfortable, and you do feel the 3mm layer of EVERUN topsole just under the sockliner. The upper and ISOFIT combines well and it feels like having thin socks with a slab of cushioning on. The stitching around the edges of the wide tongue were executed very well – there won’t be any rubbing around the edges for sure. You don’t get nor feel much structure anywhere around the upper. Even the so-called Support Frame is not stiff, ultimately minimalist – more of a clip than a full-on heel counter. At this point, you’ll probably be wondering how the Freedom ISO rides and how it compares to the K8 [reviewed here]. The curiosity is understandable, since both are within an ounce of each other, are light, versatile and have 4mm offsets. Well, the FISO has more ground contact feel, what with its lower stack heights. Its cushioning is a lot subtler than the softer and bouncier K8. It’s there all right, but it’s not in-your-face. The FISO’s ride is firmer and feels more planted. Those expecting a mushy run will have to look elsewhere. You’d want to go fast in the Freedom. Transition is silky smooth, offering an assured hold on the road, wet or dry. I’ve took them out in the rain, covered some sections which are pebbly and sandy and have come away pretty impressed with the Crystal Rubber material. It has an almost tacky feel like that of PWRTRAC, Saucony’s other outsole material. I’ve not had any issues with the breathability in this hot and muggy climate as ours and as with the K8, my preference has been to go with thin socks. However, if your socks collection consists of the thicker variety, I’d suggest upsizing to allow for some room in the toebox area.

The FISO joins the K8 as my go-to shoes of late and both will be in my packing list for the Gold Coast Airport Marathon this July.

The Saucony Freedom ISO will be launched very soon, and will be available in Stadium and Running Lab stores as well as selected RSH outlets nationwide. They will retail at RM529. Do follow the Saucony Malaysia Facebook page (link below) for information about the Freedom’s launch and availability.

Disclosure: I am a Saucony Malaysia Ambassador but the opinions expressed above is based from my own personal experience and miles logged in the shoes. This review is in no way whatsoever influenced by Saucony Malaysia.

Sony Smart B-Trainer: A Do-It-All Device

Working out, specifically running, to music isn’t something I normally do, mainly due to safety reasons. However, under certain circumstances and in a secure environment, doing so can play a part in getting the workouts done. The 6 weeks of training prior to tapering for GCAM saw a number of double workout days and increase in mileage. Anyone can run a marathon but if one has a time goal, you need to put in the work. Since I’m not genetically gifted it’s been challenging, like any paths towards improvement should be. Music makes those hard days a little more bearable.

Note: I’m not here to debate the merits and demerits of plugging in when running. Whatever rocks your world. However, please read the cautionary note at the bottom of this post.

That precursor out of the way, let’s get on to the Sony Smart B-Trainer (SBT). The SBT is the 2nd wearable from Sony that I’ve had the experience of using. The first being the NWZ-W262 Meb Special Edition [review]. Since the W262, what a difference 3 short years have made. Where the W262 and W273S were mostly about the music, hence their Walkman branding, the SBT is a different beast. To the point that the company tries hard not to associate it with the Walkman. Nestled within the earpieces are Heart Rate, GPS, Accelerometer, Gyro, e-Compass, and Pressure sensors. Other features are of course the MP3 player, NFC, and Bluetooth components. It’s the market’s first all-in-one device that I know. No longer will you need to slap on the chest or wrist straps or hook up your smartphone or iPods. Because it’s IPX5/6 and JIS/IEC waterproof grade, you can wash it or wear it swimming (if you must have music while doing your laps in the pool).

Out of the box, the SBT looks very unassuming. Several sets of buds (for regular or swimming use), HRM covers, a carry bag, USB charging cable/dock, and quick guide.

The included pouch is to store the device and the accessories.
There’s a holder or hook thingy to secure the SBT
From left: HRM covers, swimming buds, regular buds

The iconic Walkman logo is hard to shake off. The exposed pins on the right ear piece are charging contacts, not heart rate sensors.
Slide the right earpiece into the charging dock like so.
Red indicates charging and green, complete.

Even though there’s always the excitement about using new gear straight out of the box, it’s my habit to first charge it up. Slide the right ear piece into the dock and plug the dock into the computer’s (PC or Mac) USB port. You’ll get a prompter to install either the Media Go (for Windows) or File Transfer (for Mac) software. (Windows Media Go (how-to setup) | Mac File Transfer how to setup). The installation is very simple and this software allows you to manage your music files, just like iTunes. The supported audio files are MP3, WMA, AAC, and Linear-PCM. The interface is easy to understand and use – the gold old-fashioned drag and drop method. To get the most out of the SBT, it’s advisable to export a large selection of music tracks to it’s 16GB memory. This is so that there’s a wide range of tunes assigned to all the training intensities. So go ahead and fill up your playlist.

This is how the Windows based Media Go User Interface looks like. The SBT appears as a removable device on the left panel – be sure to eject it like you would any flash drive before unplugging it. The UI is pretty intuitive and you can see from the highlighted column the track BPM. Some are blanks, which I’m not sure why.

And below, the rather inferior and spartan UI of the Mac version. Even the name of the software, Mac File Transfer, doesn’t inspire any excitement :D. To add salt to the Mac user’s wounds, the Mac File Transfer offers no calibration of the music tempo. There’s a workaround though, and to do that you’ll need the smartphone app – more of that in awhile.

It takes a couple of hours (max 2.5 hours from zero to full) to top off the battery so while that’s going on, it’s time to download and install the B-Trainer smartphone app to ensure that you get the most out of the device. It’s available for free on the iOS and Android (iOS | Android) platforms. This is the app that will get you going like setting up of a training plan, charting your workouts and getting everything sync’d with the device, not to mention the calibration of the track tempos done. With the app installed on the phone, it’s time to pair both the SBT with the phone. I had the opportunity to test it out with the Sony Experia Z3+ and connectivity is ultra easy with NFC (on the SBT, the NFC sensor is located on the right earpiece). On my iPhone 5S, I’d to toggle to the Bluetooth settings to get that done. Next, 2 screens will guide you on how to wear the SBT properly, which is important since the HR sensor needs a good contact with the outer ear to get an accurate HR reading.

Next will be the app settings you may want to get out of the way. It’s not something critical which can’t be done at a later stage.

Sorting out your music tracks.

I mentioned earlier that Mac users won’t be able to get the File Transfer software to calibrate the music tempo? You get around that limitation by going into the smartphone app menu and selecting Device Info > Retrieve song information and follow the onscreen instructions.

There’s a wide variety of training modes that are up for selection. For example, you could train by time, calories burned, pace or use the preset Fat Burning or Endurance training modes. There’s also the Custom option where you can tweak to your heart’s content, right down to what data you want read to you and at what intervals. Due to Sony’s partnership with Asics, there’s also the  Do note that whenever you select a workout mode, you’ll need to sync it to the SBT. Otherwise, the SBT will run on the same mode as the previous workout. I kept things simple and opt for the Free training mode every time. A great thing about this is, once sync’d, you can pretty much leave the phone behind and just go run without your ridiculously large phones strapped to your arms.

Set it up your way, if you so choose. Or go Free mode.

Now that all the setup is out of the way, you’re pretty much good. I pretty much had all the gear on for the first run – the Garmin watch and chest strap, and the B-Trainer. Although I’m no expert at determining which is the more accurate, this is necessary for comparison. The SBT’s GPS acquisition speed is impressive, and I noted that as you log more workouts with it, the acquisition gets increasingly quicker. This is consistent with the behavior of the wrist-based GPS devices. HR acquisition is even quicker and once both are established, all I needed to do was to press the Start button on the left earpiece. The Free training mode essentially allows you to run according to your music tracks. There are toggle buttons to allow the forward and backward skipping of the tracks. At the preset intervals, voice prompts will keep you updated on your distance, pace, HR and any other metrics you set to. Press the Info button anytime and the same set of data will be read out too.

Once your run is done, you can sync the data to the phone. Below are some of screenshots from the workouts.

There are several analysis you can make of your workout once the data is sync’d, for example, comparison between any 2 readouts from pace, elevation, heart rate, stride and cadence. Like any social apps worth their salt out there, there’s the sharing of your exploits on Facebook or Twitter too.

 

Past workouts can be easily searched from the logs and they can be viewed by the various measurements below.

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Note: As mentioned earlier, the SBT can be worn during your swim too, although several functions are inactivated in the water. I don’t swim but a friend who does, reported that the measurement is not as accurate given the bobbing motion of the head. He pointed out that his Suunto also has this shortcoming, and thus Sony isn’t alone in this area. The product website does, after all, states that only the music function is enabled during the swim mode.

The Bluetooth button toggles between Device mode and Swimming mode. By default, it’s on and set to Device mode.

The distance readout performed flawlessly and each kilometer was ticked off within 3 seconds of the Garmin. What proved more challenging was the HR reading, which depends largely on how well the device fits. This is critical especially if you’ve chosen the preset training modes where you could, inaccurately, be prompted to slow down or speed up. I was experienced enough to know that I wasn’t running at 170+bpm but beginners may be alarmed. So, be sure to get the correct earbuds fitted.

The GPS lock was good throughout the run, which was done on neighborhood roads. It only faltered when I logged my runs at the KLCC Park where the surrounding skyscrapers dropped the signal a number of times. Tall buildings are a bane to GPS devices and the Sony isn’t exempted. While the wrist-based devices only alert you in cases of extended loss of signal e.g. transitioning from running outdoor to a treadmill, the SBT will alert you each time the signal drops. In the case of my week day runs, drops can be experienced a few times over the course of a workout session, especially when I run along the KL Convention Center frontage. To be fair, the reacquisition is pretty quick.

I’ve used the SBT for a couple of months and the initial few weeks had been like discovering easter eggs. Many of the functions are not as obvious from the get go and some buttons serve multiple functions. Here are some of those that I’ve discovered:

Bluetooth button

  • Short press – toggles between the Swimming or Device Mode.
  • Long press – turns the Bluetooth on or off.
  • Short press (when paired and used with the smartphone) – Toggles between playing songs stored in the sport device and songs stored in your smartphone

Info button

  • Long press – Power on or off.
  • Short press during workout – Info readout.
  • Short press (when paired and used with the smartphone) – Answer or end calls.

Memo button

  • Walkman mode – Play, Pause.
  • During workout – records voice memo via a mono mic. Recording length is configurable via the app.
Memo button doubles up as a music and voice memo recording

Depending on the usage, published battery life ranges between 3 to 13.5 hours. A friend wore it for the recent Gold Coast Airport Marathon and managed to squeeze 4.5 hours out of it. If the battery saving feature is enabled (via the app), 5.5 hours is a possibility. Given the size and weight of the device with so many sensors, this is expected.

So, is the Sony Smart B-Trainer for you? On paper, it’s a solid proposition from the company, especially to those who place a premium on working out to music without having to lug around a smartphone or a HR strap around your chest. On top of that, it has every other important features – GPS, HRM, cadence sensor – a runner would look for.

Pros

  • All-in-one device. Has pretty much everything you’d need to track your progress.
  • Option to leave the phone behind.
  • Fast GPS acquisition.
  • Good sound quality.
  • Not noise isolating, hence the wearer retains some awareness of the surroundings.

Cons

  • No cloud sync. Storage and viewing of data are limited to the smartphone.
  • Battery life is around 4.5 hours per real-life use.
  • May be an overkill for those who don’t need as much in a product.
  • Price. Some may compromise convenience with carrying separate devices.

Word of caution: Please exercise caution when plugging in during an outdoor workout. Be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. The majority of my testing occurred at the KLCC Park where there are high human traffic. I don’t recommend running solo with the ears plugged. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume.

Disclosure: The Sony Smart B-Trainer was a review unit courtesy of Sony Malaysia. The SBT is available from Sony Centers and The Marathon Shop outlets in Malaysia and retails for RM999. More information on the SBT here.

Originally published: July 19th, 2015

Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest

The Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest (SJUV) is the medium-sized hydration vest in the Ultimate Direction Signature Series. On a more minimal side of the scale is the Anton Krupicka Race Vest (AKRV) while on the other end of the scale, the 12 liter Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest (PBAV). The SJUV is not my first experience with a hydration vest, my first being the Nathan HPL020 (reviewed here) purchased back in 2008. Even though not used as much as I’d like to, the Nathan is still in great condition, but I’ve been entertaining a ridiculous thought recently that calls for greater specs than what the Nathan can support me. More importantly I purchased the SJUV with clear requirements on what I need in a pack given the kind of event. Popular brands like Salomon cost nearly twice more, and would be overkill for me.

What I need:

  1. Lightweight low profile fit
  2. No-bounce
  3. Plenty of storage
  4. Versatile
  5. Ease of maintenance
  6. Durability

Stupe sporting the AK race vest and me, in the SJ ultra vest. Photo courtesy of Stupe – visit his website at http://www.tristupe.com

Per the UD website, the SJUV weighs in at 7.5 oz (13 oz with bottles) and has a 9.2 liter storage space. The marketing blurb maintains that “the SJ has the best weight-to-capacity ratio of any hydration pack on the market.” And if you’re interested in what kinds of storage the vest has, see the specs below as provided by UD. To know which pocket is designed for what purpose, watch the short video where Scott Jurek himself explains the use of the product.

The vest, after removal from the delivery package.

First impression I had of the vest was how light and compact it was. Ultimate Direction claims the UDSJ has the best weight to capacity ratio out there and holding it in my hands for the first time certainly gave me that impression. Weight may not be an issue on a short weekend trail outing but multiply that over hours and miles upon miles of climbing and running, every ounce saved is hopefully going to make the journey a little bit more bearable. At least you won’t feel like carrying a donkey on your shoulders, although I’ve a suspicion that after 12 hours on your feet, nothing much matters anymore!

The first outing I had with it was an 8K trail run which was part of the TNF workshop – my load-up was pretty minimal, consisting only of my iPhone, a lightweight low-bulk Nike jacket and the 2 bundled 20 oz (591 ml) UD bottles with kicker valves. I tested the included whistle (loud enough) and tucked it into the velcro’d shoulder pocket. The 2 bottles were 3/4 filled as it wasn’t going to be a long run. Here’s how the unique kicker valve works. Pull it up and bite to suck in the fluids, flick it to retract the teat. I found taking in fluids via the valve is a hit or miss, depending if you get the bite right. I withheld my verdict on the bottles after the run.

Whether you’re carrying a bladder or 2 bottles, I suppose there’s no escaping the sound of fluid sloshing sound.The good thing, however, was the absence of insecurity and bounce. My vest were lashed down and compacted by the extensive network of bungee cord and hooks. As a result the vest were like part of my t-shirt. I’ve never felt such a good fit before. There was no sideways sliding, nor up and down bouncing. I came away very happy. We were out on the trails for about 1.5 hours and the fluids on board were sufficient. For longer races, one will need to review the distances, weather conditions and terrain between the refueling stations. There may be a need to supplement the 2 bottles with a bladder. Or just rely on the 2-liter bladder, freeing the front pockets for supplies and a camera.

When the 2nd trail outing was planned, I got the trekking poles out to check how I could carry them along with more stuff. Some of the photos show Snickers and even a tube of Vitamin C solubles being stashed into the pockets merely to show what the pockets could or couldn’t handle. The best way is to take plenty of photos to show you, so that’s what I’m going to here.

Extensive network of bungee cords and hooks to lash down and compress the vest.

One of the two main compartments will accommodate a bladder and more. More bungee ensures the bladder is lashed down and will not slide around.
The other main compartment is smaller and has a cuten fiber backing which prevents your sweat and moisture from entering it. Use this compartment for things you’d like to keep dry.
There are ports to run the hydration hose through on both sides on the vest. Depending on your preference.
The left shoulder pocket has a included whistle and space for a bar or GPS or thrash.
2 bars are OK too, with the stretchable mesh.
The right pocket is supposed to accommodate a smartphone but the iPhone 4 could hardly fit in if the 20oz bottle is also in the holder. Not recommended to carry the phone or camera there.
Both sides of each bottle carrier can hold up to 3 gels, a total of 6 for both sides. From the photo you can see a Clif bar (can carry 2) peeping out of the velcro section of the lateral storage space. The stretchable zipped section can hold your beanie and gloves.
The 2 gels in one of the pockets.

If there’s one disappointment, both the pockets under the lat pockets are too small to hold a tube of electrolyte tablets – see 2 immediate photos below. No issues if you’re using S-Caps because you’ll be stashing the pills into a zip lock.

The cuten fiber pocket is too small
Also too small! This one is mesh.

My trekking poles, while extensible and retractable like most others, aren’t the very compact nor foldable type. The plus side is that being fully carbon, they’re light. When fully retracted and secured using the Powerlock System, the Komperdell C3s are still pretty long and stick out like crazy. It took me awhile before finding a viable way of securing them. This setup will need some testing before embarking on a longer run of, say, 50 miler. Always test and train in the gear that you race in, the wise ones would say.

The experimental setup. Removing the baskets would allow the poles to sit lower down the vest.

The next thing to do was to take the vest and poles out on the trail. Purposely started at 6am to get an hour of darkness and headlamp time – creepy at first but comforting to have the company of a fellow runner. Covering the terrain in the dark trail certainly takes some getting used to, and we spent more time walking and trekking than running. No face time in the dirt from tripping on roots thankfully.

The vest performed superbly and I’ve absolutely no complaints on the fitting. One of the very lightest and best fitting I’ve tried on. Just by comparing the SJUV’s weight against the Salomon XT Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 and you’ll appreciate the fact that you’ll be lugging less weight 60K into your race. The issues I had were more on the access to the side pockets and stowage of the poles. As you can see from the photo below, I screwed up the whole thing and ended up like a Ninja Turtle. Even so, because everything was compressed close to the body, the awkward positioning didn’t impede my running. We ended up with close to 2:30 of time on our feet in the trails, an awesome way to spend Sunday morning. No such issues if trekking poles aren’t part of your carry-on. Otherwise, do experiment.

Ninja Turtle. Photo courtesy of Yvonne Teo

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a noob and am learning as I go along 🙂  but here’s my take after 2 runs in the SJUV:

The good:

  1. Amazing fit for size S. No issues yet as mentioned in the Blue Ridge Runner’s review, but I’ll be looking out for issues.
  2. Truly lightweight even with 2 full bottles
  3. No-bounce
  4. Expandable compartments
  5. Cuten fibers feel strong, lends some confidence in rough handling the vest

Could be better:

  1. The nozzle on the bottle’s kicker valve takes some getting used to. No big deal really.
  2. The finger loop on the bottle is unnecessary in my opinion.
  3. Shoulder pocket can’t really fit an iPhone much less a ruggedized point and shoot camera.
  4. Not too ideal if you’re packing poles.
  5. Not easy to stow and remove things from the small lateral pockets as they’re located more to the back than to the side. Needs practice.

Further experimentation is necessary of course. I’ll probably do a follow up post on how much the vest can carry. If you’re on the look out for hydration vests, there are many options out there in the market, with many really good ones from Salomon, Nathan (the 6.5L Vaporwrap looks darn good) and of course if you need a larger vest, check out the PBAV from Ultimate Direction.

Photo credits: Runwitme and TriStupe

I purchased the Scott Jurek Ultra Vest from The Ultramarathon Running Store (UMRS). I highly recommend them for their excellent service, very reasonable pricing and prompt delivery. They’re also expanding their range of products. If you want to check out the Signature Series, head on to the Ultimate Direction website.

Originally published: May 22nd, 2013

Running With The Ultimate Direction Fastdraw 10

I’m glad to have wrapped up the final week of the year with a rolling start to my training plan. It’s super to also see quite a few of my friends getting a head start to the year. All but yesterday’s run were great and enjoyable. A serving of weak coffee failed to pick me up (intake of coffee or tea after 12pm has detrimental effect to my sleep) somehow and I felt sluggish.

But a workout is a workout. Commitment is such that once you’ve penned it down, you will complete whatever task it is. Well, at least most of the time.

Yesterday was an opportunity to test out the Ultimate Direction Fastdraw 10, a 10 ounce (300ml) handheld water bottle. Prior to the UD, I’ve had many experiences with the various hydration options for runners. There’s the waist belted option like the popular FuelBelt, Nathan or those from nearly every major sporting brands. For ultra runners, backpack types like Camelbak and Nathan are ubiquitous. Finally there’s the handheld type. I typically stay away from hand-holding water bottles because I’ve never liked the stress it placed on my hands, arms and shoulders. But the UD design proved to be very appealing when I tried it in the RunnerzCircle store and decided to invest in it.

Just some of my bottles. From left: the UD Fastdraw 10, its holder, the Nike 3-bottle hydration belt, Brooks handheld bottle
Just some of my bottles. From left: the UD Fastdraw 10, its holder, the Nike 3-bottle hydration belt, Brooks handheld bottle

It’s basically a removable clear BPA-free bottle (so that you can check the fluid level) held by a compact holder. You slip your hand in and the entire package fits inside your hand. It’s designed for ambidextrous use, so you can switch it from left to right hand easily. You can customize the fit by pulling the cinch cord. There are plenty of reflective strips to ensure visibility. The small pocket will allow you to carry cash and your keys or a single gel pack. Unlike the 20-ounce bottle option, the 10 ounce bottle cap is the traditional pull and suck type. The 20 ounce bottle option called the Fastdraw Plus [brief review here] has the patented Kicker Valve, a very neat device, but I felt that it’s too large for me and will just put a strain on my hand and shoulders eventually impacting my natural running movements.

It helps that UD (based in Boulder, CO) is managed by athletes. It shows in their design.
It helps that UD (based in Boulder, CO) is managed by athletes. It shows in their design.
The bottle and the holder
The bottle and the holder

I filled up the UD with 50% isotonic drink and 50% Mountain Dew, all chilled and headed out. The small and compact build of the Fastdraw 10 fitted near perfectly in my left hand. The holder and bottle felt very comfortable and fitted so well and I needn’t even clasp my hand to hold on to it. I could relax my hold and even ran with open palms and the UD will stay in position. The pull action of the cap was the smoothest I’ve found. Drinking off it meant squeezing the bottle or just sucked as usual. Even with fluid sloshing around in the bottle, there was no spillage. I overturned it and the drink stayed where it should.

Worn on the left hand
Worn on the left hand. See how snug it is? The cinch cord has a reflective strip and allows you to customize your fit.
The little zippered
The little zippered

Overall, I can safely say that the UD is the best handheld I’ve used. The 10 ounce capacity is just enough for a 10K run on the road or trail, refillable at the various water stops on long runs. The pocket fits my car keys and cash. Most importantly it’s very ergonomic, fits like a glove, and felt so secure that I could run without always exerting pressure by having to grab it hard. Even after using it only once, it’s now my favorite water bottle, and that’s saying a lot from a person with too many bottles in the cupboard. RunnerzCircle stocks the UD Fastdraw 10, Fastdraw Plus and the Access Single Bottle Pack (a waist belt option).

Note: Do also check out Andy Bowen’s post on finding out which hydration system is best for you.

Originally published: Jan 3rd, 2011

Salomon Advanced Skin LAB HYDRO 12 Set

 

As far as hydration vests go, I’ve used 2 brands – Nathan HPL020 and the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest. Both have different capacities but they’re very light. I’ve always put a premium on using products that offer a blend of performance in a lightweight package and both have not disappoint. I wore the Nathan in TNF 50K in 2008 and found it to work well. While stilla race virgin, I’ve been very happy with the UD in training. Its shortcomings are a few – a little issue with the sizing/fitting and lack of use of its tiny pockets. Despite that, it’s one of the best vests around, supremely lightweight and stable.

The problem for me started when the race I’ve signed up requires the content of the drop bag to be brought along (or face disposal). This meant that while I can spread out the lugging of my fueling needs and other ancillary gear, I won’t be able to leave behind the stuff that I may no longer need. Runners will also have to contend with wearing a single pair of shoes after several stream crossings.

Tried as I may over several separate attempts, I’ve been unable to cram the gear into the UD and my outer gear are already all of the packable and compact variety! No choice then but to cast my eyes on 12L packs. For a moment, UD’s PB pack seemed a valid choice but I didn’t want to face the UD design of “neither-here-nor-there”. My requirements are simple – lightweight, 12L capacity, non-bladder setup – yet choices are limited. Raidlight’s OLMO, while has the right capacity, felt a little too sloppy.

Until Salomon (it had to be Salomon!) came along. Prior to the Salomon Advanced Skin LAB HYDRO Set (5 and 12L options), the Advanced Skin LAB Sets were the bladder types. While the brand prides itself as battle-tested by its stable of elite athletes in exotic races, I’ve not really gravitated towards it for reasons of cost and them not being exactly lightweight (I’m spoilt by the UD’s featherweight!). The HYDRO Set, introduced as part of their 2013 Fall/Winter lineup, changes all that. It’s heritage is the 2013 bladder version and therefore retains most of the features that Salomon vests are known for.

Closeup of the pole cord. The S logo is printed on a dual pocket which fits keys and at least 3 gels.

However upon closer look, the vest has gone through several important tweaks. First, the Salomon Advanced Skin LAB HYDRO 12 Set comes with 2 500ml Soft Flasks that are carried in front, has 2 large drop in pockets, side webbings that can actually accommodate gear and energy bars and 2 very nicely implemented lateral pockets with vertical zippers. Other than the top main compartment, the wearer could extract stuff from these pockets without having to remove the vest. With the simplification of the construction, there’s now less material used and the HYDRO 12 Set weighs only 340gms compared to the 530gms of the bladder version. It’s also 20gms lighter than the already lightweight SJ vest (368gms) and way lighter than the PB pack (496gms). The Soft Flasks alone already shaved off some weight compared to hard bottles.

The included safety blanket (a mandatory item in many ultras) and an instruction card on how to secure trekking poles to the vest.
All good vests come with a whistle, mandatory in many ultras.
One of the Twinlink straps. Removable for personal fit customization.
Cavernous top main compartment.

No change are the fully customizable elasticated Twin Link, Sensifit, Load lifter, insulated bladder pocket, 4D pole holder, safety blanket, whistle and reflective trims. With 10 pockets and more compartments, there’s now enough room to carry the full load of battle gear. Since I prefer the Soft Flasks, the space vacated by the bladder pocket can fit a few more items.

Removable insulated bladder sleeve.
The space vacated by the sleeve means more space for essentials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first outing with the HYDRO was for RJM recently. Though it was a road event, the distance and leisure nature of the event was perfect to test the vest out. 42K and over 5 hours would give me adequate time to get to know the product. So what did I pack into the vest? A tube of electrolyte tabs, GU Chomps, 2 GUs, a tablet carrier, the Olympus TG-2, a rain jacket (just to simulate partial load-out), 1 headlamp, an old iPod Shuffle, and of course the 2 soft flasks.

Photo courtesy of Alvin Ang
Photo courtesy of Khairi Muin.

As expected, the HYDRO acquitted itself very well. What I love in particular are the well thought access to gear, from the direction of the zippers to the large access of the compartments. Even the small pockets were useful. The other thing about the Soft Flasks was the near complete absence of sloshing. As a bonus, you could actually drink from it without having to remove it from the sleeve. Just squeeze and the fluids squirt right into your mouth. Thirdly, the vest doesn’t slide around laterally nor bounce, even though I didn’t really adjust the fit out of the pack. When the sun was scorching, things didn’t get uncomfortably warm either.

Give it a squeeze and the fluids will squirt out. No need to remove from the sleeve.

A few days later, I started putting stuff into it just to get an idea how they’ll fit into the HYDRO. I gathered up the following items: 1 sachet of Perpetuem, 1 sachet of Heed, a tube of Fizz, chomps, 2 gels, a bottle of Endurance Amino, 2 packs of batteries, a packable Inov-8 Mistlite pants, packable TNF Venture jacket, 2 headlamps, the TG-2 camera, beanie, gloves, iPod Shuffle, trekking poles, safety blanket and the 2 Soft Flasks. Of course in this simulation, the Hammer and GUs are insufficient but there are plenty of room left.

Gels go into the pocket above the flasks
Hammer Fizz the other side
Fueling stuff go here, where they’re within easy reach.
Batteries, spare socks, beanie go into the top compartment.
2 headlamps go into the zippered pocket. The other side will host the camera.
How the pole is secured. Took me 8 minutes to figure it out. That’s the Komperdell Approach Vario 4 which wasn’t fully folded (similar to the Black Diamond Z-Pole).

The Salomon Advanced Skin LAB HYDRO 12 Set fits the bill if you’re looking for a vest that can carry plenty of gear while at the same time remain lightweight. It may seem like an intimidating piece of gear (the price certainly is so, since it’s a Salomon) but play around with it and you’ll realize that every component of it has been given a fair bit of thought in its design. In my opinion it’s leaps and bounds an improvement over the old Advanced Skin Lab 12 in that it’s lighter, tweaked zips and much better all-round accessibility. If there are some areas to improve it’ll be the following:

  1. There are straps running here and there and it’ll be great if some literature is provided. As it is, only a tiny card showing how to secure the trekking pole is included.
  2. Increase the size of the screw-on caps of the Soft Flasks. I needed to break the electrolyte tabs in two before being able to drop it into the flask. This is where the UD bottles triumph over the flasks.

In the coming weeks, there’ll be more and more opportunities to use the HYDRO. Can’t wait to use it on the trails. I bought my HYDRO 12 Set from the UltraMarathonRunningStore. Head on there for great products at very competitive prices.

Originally published: Sep 9th, 2013.