Slowly but surely, solar power is becoming a mainstream consumer technology. We’ve seen a plethora of solar-backpacks, solar-powered backup batteries, and even a solar bike lock. So it makes sense that sooner or later, someone would figure out a way to make solar powered headphones. We just weren’t expecting them to be so cheap.
Enter the $30 Sola Headphones, just launched on Indiegogo. Yes, they look a lot like LG’s Tone-series neckband Bluetooth headphones and that’s no accident. “When I ran a patent search,” Sola CEO, Scott Yasgoor told Digital Trends, “it revealed that the around-the-neck shape was not patentable.” This discovery led to the use one of LG’s first-generation casing moulds for the Sola. However Yasgoor wasn’t the first to make this discovery — we’ve found at least three models with a nearly identical design on Amazon, at rock-bottom prices. With the exception of the small solar panel embedded into the right lobe of neckband, the Sola is a virtual clone of these products, which themselves are clones of the now-discontinued LG Tone Plus, right down to the button layout and the magnetic latches that keep the earbuds stowed when not in use.
Technically, the Sola Headphones aren’t the first solar-powered units. There have been a number of products over the past few years that have more claim to this title than the Solas. For instance the Helios, made it to Kickstarter, but then never made it to market. The OnBeats look groovy, but they’ve been in pre-order mode for years with no ship date in sight. So the Solas — provided they hit their $30,000 funding goal — may yet grab the only title that matters: First solar-powered headphones you can actually buy.
So how much power can a tiny, 2-inch solar panel produce? Not much. Though the Solas might be the first solar panel equipped headphones on the market, you need to think of them as solar-enhanced. “You can’t start from scratch and expect them to power up with just solar,” Yasgoor said, noting that “under optimum conditions, it should take approximately 15 hours to charge the battery from empty,” using just the solar panel. In real-life usage, Yasgoor estimates an approximate 2:1 ratio of charge, meaning that every hour the headphones spend in full sunlight, 28 minutes worth of usage will be added to the battery. “We estimate that this will allow the user an additional 2-3 hours per day of active use,” he said.
The company could have made a more powerful solar system, but that would have increased costs significantly and also changed the form factor. Initially Yasgoor looked at placing a larger panel on the back of the neckband but his daughter, Jordan, nixed the idea. She pointed out that doing so would “eliminate women with long hair” from their potential customer base. Given that the younger Yasgoor happens to be a woman with long hair herself (and also the company’s CTO) this was clearly a non-starter. Scott tells us the entire product design was born of Jordan’s frustration with wires and poor battery life on the headphones she was using for her workouts.
Digital Trends wasn’t able to test the solar-charging function, but we were sent a pair of non-solar pre-production headphones to try out. The verdict: We hope the solar charging function is enough to lure buyers, because at $30, the sound quality isn’t acceptable.
Though the Solas might the first solar-panel equipped headphones on the market, you need to think of them as solar-enhanced.
Heavy on bass and treble with almost no perceptible midrange, the Sola will not satisfy anyone looking to replace their larger, bulkier over-the-ear cans, or even a basic pair of Apple Earpods. Yasgoor and his head of audio development, Paul Brown, characterize the Sola’s sound as decent sounding, though the company’s website goes a good deal further, saying, “the highest level of sound quality found in similar, professional headphones that can cost as much as $1000.” Yet when we compared them to the $30 Bluetooth Oittm RE-E01s, we found that the Oittm earbuds delivered a better overall balance, with much clearer sound on vocals.
Brown thinks the over-emphasis on bass makes the Sola sound better in noisy environments, while pointing out that “most young people like the low end boosted.”
Though the Solas may look like the LG Tone Plus, the choice of materials leaves the Solas feeling like knockoffs. From the weak magnets that barely have enough strength to keep the earbuds in place when not in use, to the flimsy neckband, and earbud wires, we found the fit and finish on our sample uninspiring and cheap-feeling. Our Canadian-flag wrapped sample unit inspired some patriotic feels, but not much else.
It’s possible that once Yasgoor’s full production run happens, the Solas will look, feel and perform as well as he claims, but for now we can’t help but feel disappointed. A feature as cool as solar charging should be the cherry on top of an already great set of headphones, not the one thing that might be of interest.