Technology

Pearl Izumi's MP3 Shorts: A Bit Off-Key


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Editor's Rating: star rating

These bibs come with a built-in MP3 player on the back, but you're better off buying your music player and apparel separately

Ever since the iPod revolutionized the portable music player business, the attendant accessory market has displayed a depth of creativity, not the least of which have been devices and controls built into clothing, from snowboard jackets from Burton to sunglasses from Oakley.

One of the more recent creations in this clothing accessory genre is Pearl Izumi's MicroSensor MP3 Bib Shorts for bicyclists. For noncyclists, bibs are those skintight overalls popular among riders who like to pedal long distances, as the elastic waistband in spandex shorts gets a bit uncomfortable after an hour or so. These new bib shorts come with a built-in MP3 player on the back and controls stitched right into the left thigh. There's also a microphone and Bluetooth wireless transmitter for answering calls without taking out your cell phone. Available only from Pearl Izumi's web site (www.pearlizumi.com), the bibs cost $500, with $100 of that going to the Davis Phinney Foundation, the former pro cyclist's charity for Parkinson's Disease research.

Let's first address the questions about riding a bike while listening to music with earphones. What about the inability to hear traffic or other cyclists? It's a legitimate concern, but I think it's up to each rider. I find myself much more visually observant when I'm listening to music. But for some folks, that won't be enough. They shouldn't wear earphones when riding. And I find that listening to up-tempo tunes is great motivation on a ride. My cadence jumps as the music gets rocking. When I want to push myself, nothing beats it for pedaling up a long and lonely hill.

Ready to Rock

The bibs come with a 512-megabyte MP3 module, about the size of a pack of gum. This player snaps into a small dock tucked inconspicuously just below where the two straps come together on the back, so it sits between your shoulder blades. To load it with your tunes, just slide that module out and connect it to your personal computer with the provided USB cord. Then you simply drag-and-drop songs from your PC to the device, which holds roughly 16 hours of music. The player charges while connected to your PC, providing eight hours of battery life.

Playing the music is just as simple. Slip the module back into the dock, and you're ready to rock. All you have to do is push the buttons on the control panel on your outer left thigh. For anyone who's ever worked an iPod or, for that matter, an ancient cassette player, it's pretty self-evident what to do. The play, rewind, and fast-forward buttons come with familiar arrow icons; there's a plus-sign and a minus-sign to control the volume.

Unfortunately, this technology looks better than it works. I gave the bibs their inaugural ride during a morning commute to my office in downtown Seattle. Nearly every time I took a pedal stroke with my left leg, where the controls are, the music skipped to the next song. Not a problem, I suppose, when coasting. Then, I could get 10 seconds or more of a tune. But otherwise, I was skipping songs pretty much every second.

Problems with Bluetooth Connection

When I told the folks at Pearl Izumi about this, they sent me a replacement set of bibs to try. This time, I slipped them on for a ride during vacation, pedaling through the Selkirk Mountains of north Idaho. This pair didn't have the song-skipping issue, and so I began powering up the climbs with help from bands like Gnarls Barkley and Spearhead. However pressing the buttons on the leg panel took a bit more focus that I expected. As I pumped the pedals, I needed to look down to make sure I pressed the button I intended.

I also had trouble setting up a Bluetooth connection with my cell phone. You have to press a series of buttons on the leg panel in just the right order to "pair" the MP3 module with your handset. The bibs have a tiny microphone sewn into the left shoulder strap. The fast forward button doubles as a call pickup switch. The rewind button ends a call. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. Once paired, I couldn't get the bibs to connect with incoming calls. I'm not so sure that's such a great loss, though. I'm not real keen on taking calls while riding my bike. I ride to get away from all that. And using Bluetooth sucks up power on the MP3 player and your phone.

Technological issues aside, Pearl Izumi makes suburb bike gear. The bibs are super-comfy. But if you want music on your ride, you'd be better off slipping an iPod Shuffle in the back pocket of your jersey. Even if you splurged on a pair of Pearl Izumi's top-end, non-MP3 playing bibs, you'd save money. You'd even have some cash left over to make a donation to the Davis Phinney Foundation yourself.

Greene is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief.

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