2016 Sunglass Review

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Extended daylight hours mean extended strain on your eyes during your outdoor adventures. Long trail outings expose your eyes to harmful ultraviolet rays, high-energy visible (HEV) light, dust, wind, glare and cumulative visual fatigue. Seasoned ultrarunners recognize the value of a great pair of sunglasses, and we’ve tested a number of models you should definitely consider for your summer gear checklist.

Our first company is one you likely haven’t heard of in trail-running circles. Electric sunglasses were born from the snow/skate/surf crowd of San Clemente, CA, about 15 years ago, but until recently they’ve been more about shredder fashion than performance athletic wear. That changed with the Knoxville-S ($120-$220, depending on polarization), part of the company’s S-Line of hybrid fashion and performance eyewear. The Knoxville is one of Electric’s most popular lifestyle frames, and the S version utilizes stronger, thinner frames plus performance grips at the nose and temples to keep them in place during activity. These glasses also include the key innovation found in all Electric glasses: Optical Health through Melanin (OHM) lenses, which have a synthesized version of the human pigment melanin injected directly into the lens material. Melanin blocks the harmful effects of HEV light, also called blue light, and has a protective effect on the skin around your eyes. OHM lenses also provide increased clarity, contrast and depth compared to similar lenses without melanin, and the process of injecting melanin is unique to Electric’s product line.

Electric’s newest model, the Fade ($160-$240), is a true performance model that still maintains its beachy-cool looks. It is the first in a new performance-specific line that is focused on outdoor activity, and maintains all the frame features of the Knoxville-S with additional tech features such as hydrophobic/anti-fog coating, anti-reflective lenses and oleophobic coating to resist smudging. One innovative design element is the use of a 6-base frame style with an 8-base lens; this combination provides the broad vision and protection of wraparound glasses with the stylishness of more fashionable eyewear.

Zeal Optics is a Boulder, CO-based company with a simple motto: Use Less, Give Back, Explore More. They use plant-based materials in all their sunglass frames and lenses to eliminate the need for crude oil use in their manufacturing. They have a number of partnerships that help reduce their environmental footprint and create social change, and their products are designed to help you experience the outdoors more easily. Their roots are in winter sports, but their catalog now includes a number of models that are targeted to trail runners and MTB riders. The Range ($139) is a polarized full-frame 8-base model that provides wide vertical and horizontal coverage: 41mm and 63mm, respectively. The frames are injected with Proflex rubber, which gives them a soft feel against the skin and helps them maintain shape and fit in extreme cold or hot temperatures.

Zeal Decoy

Zeal Decoy

The Zeal Decoy ($219) steps up the performance features, primarily through their Automatic lens, which adds photochromic technology to the polarization of the Range. It is also a full frame model, with slightly less vertical and horizontal coverage (37mm and 60mm, respectively), although your field of vision is still very wide thanks to the 8-base frame. Yellow lenses adjust their tint in a VLT range of 28% to 15% in response to external UV light. The Decoy also has an anti-reflective coating to further decrease reflections or distractions on the trail. One more noteworthy point about Zeal Optics is that both of the performance models in this review can have your individual eyeglass prescription built into them. This is done through a third party; you need to visit an optician who is an authorized dealer, and purchase the glasses through them for delivery once the prescription is entered.

Tifosi has an innovative product that bridges our review from full framed to wraparound style glasses – because their Escalate SF ($150) provides both of them in one product. An Interchangeable Component System allows you to snap/pivot the front of the frame away from the arms, and exchange the full frame structure for the wraparound Shield lens. The fit is more secure with the full frame than with the Shield, which takes some finessing to click into place. Additionally, the Escalate kit includes two different lenses for each frame style – effectively giving you four distinct options for the price of one pair of glasses. All of the lenses are hydrophilic, and the full-frame lenses have small notches in front for venting. Our preferred lens for trail running is the Smoke Fototec, which has a VLT range of 47% to 15%.

There are plenty of lens options to choose from with Julbo’s outstanding new Aero ($130-$180, depending on lens), which was designed last fall with input from elite ultrarunners and mountain bikers. These glasses come with a choice of three lenses; the Zebra lenses we tested have a VLT range of 45% to 6%, and there is a Zebra Light option with a wider VLT range of 80% to 15%. These are also available in Julbo’s non-photochromic Spectron 3 lens for the lower price point. The Aero is an interesting exception to the base curve rule, as it uses a 6-base frame for a snug fit against the face, but has a huge coverage area with wraparound-style lenses. This would normally lead to condensation buildup, but extensive ventilation across the top and on the sides of the lenses allows a massive amount of air flow, which minimizes fogging. The arms of the Aero also have large cutout areas to shave weight and increase comfort, with an innovation called Air Link that uses a shock absorbing elastomer material in the areas where the arms of the glasses rest on your ears. A 3D-fit nosepiece is fully adjustable for width and positioning, helping these glasses stay comfortably in place even on the gnarliest single-track trails.

Julbo Aero

Julbo Aero

Julbo makes an excellent female-specific model called the Breeze ($130-$180), which uses a smaller mid-size frame that is designed to fit women’s faces more easily. These are built in an 8-base framework that sits further off the face than the Aero, and ventilation on the Breeze isn’t as extensive but is still effective. The Breeze has most of the design, fit and performance aspects of the Aero, and can be ordered with the same lens options as well. The Breeze can also accommodate a prescription, and these can be ordered directly through the Julbo website if you know your prescription details.

Two value-priced models in our testing come from Optic Nerve, a Colorado company that seeks to serve “real life champions,” and intentionally spends very little money in advertising or professional endorsements. Their Vapor ($89) is a rimless wraparound model that comes with three separate lenses to change based on conditions. Its frame has adjustable Tactilite rubber on the nose bridge and temple tips for a customized fit. This style has great crossover potential for cycling and triathlons, although none of the lenses included are polarized or photochromic.

Optic Nerve Reactor PM

Optic Nerve Reactor PM

One photochromic option from Optic Nerve is the new Reactor PM ($89), which has a relatively small VLT spectrum of 28% to 15%, and a quick transition time of 7 to 11 seconds. The Reactor PM is the lightest model in our entire test group, and is the lightest in the company’s product line. Its thin lenses and minimalist frames allow air to circulate and diminish fogging, and the same customization at the nose and temples used on the Vapor are here also.

Unquestionably, the largest range of transition in photochromic lenses comes from Rudy Project, whose new Tralyx ($275) features a remarkable ImpactX-2 lens that allows a VLT range of 74% to 9%. By comparison, only the Julbo Zebra lens transitions to a darker tint, and only two other lenses in our review change to a lighter one. The ImpactX-2 lenses are guaranteed unbreakable for life, and are 10% lighter than commonly used polycarbonate. They also have a lower refractive index and chromatic dispersion than polycarbonate, resulting in increased visual clarity and sharper definition. The Tralyx utilizes extensive natural airflow to prevent fogging; most notably, ventilation on the front of the glasses is extensive, with cutouts in the lenses as well as across the entire width of the frame. Fully adaptable non-slip nose pads and temples ensure that the fit is secure. These glasses ride very comfortably, and were our favorites for all-day outings on the trail, where light conditions change constantly, such as when going in and out of tree cover.

Ryders Seventh

Ryders Seventh Anti-Fog

Ryders took a semi-casual approach to designing its Seventh Anti-Fog ($130), with a flat top frame to give it a less aggressive appearance than other wraparound styles. However, its performance standards aren’t compromised in the least; this photochromic model has a VLT range of 75% to 25%, with a unique dual-surface approach to preventing moisture buildup on the lenses. The back side of the lens has a permanent hydrophilic anti-fog layer that absorbs water vapor and disperses it, and the front of the lens has a scratch-resistant, hydrophobic coating that sheds water droplets to maintain a clear view. The Seventh Anti-Fog also has fully adjustable hydrophilic nose pads and temple tips to help lock in the perfect fit.

The only polarized wraparound-style glasses in our review come from Native Eyewear, whose Hardtop Ultra XP ($129) is an evolution of the company’s all-time best selling model. XP stands for extra protection, and this model has a slightly bigger lens than the company’s polarized Hardtop Ultra. These glasses utilize a premium N3 lens that blocks up to 4 times more infrared light than standard polarized lenses, and significantly reduces HEV light transmission. On the frames, the Hardtop Ultra XP uses a proprietary rubber compound called Cushinol at the nosepiece and temples, and co-injected molding that incorporates grippy molding into the length of the arms, further stabilizing the fit during activity.

Base curve: This measurement, referred to as “base” of a pair of glasses, is the radius of a sphere measured from the back of the lens, with the center point at the bridge of the nose. Six-base models generally have a flatter profile with less curvature, and are generally considered more stylish – think of a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers – while 8-base is typically used in wraparound style performance glasses.

Visible Light Transmission (VLT): The percentage of light that reaches the eye after passing through the lens. The lower the percentage, the less light passes through the lens. Higher percentages are preferable in overcast conditions, while lower percentages are preferable in situations with bright exposure.

Photochromic: The ability of a lens to adjust the amount of light transmission based on exterior conditions. Photochromic lenses contain organic carbon-based molecules that shrink or expand in response to the amount of UV light they encounter; this adjusts the tint level and therefore the VLT of the glasses. Transition time varies among the models, but typically happens within 30 seconds.

Polarization: A filter that blocks horizontally reflected light from passing through the lens in order to diminish glare. Direct light approaches the eye in a vertical wave pattern, but light that is reflected from surfaces such as snow, a large body of water or a long flat road travels in a horizontal direction – this is referred to as glare. Polarized lenses allow only vertically oriented light to pass through; this prevents glare, but also potentially impacts depth perception on highly technical terrain.

Anti-reflective: A coating applied to the backside of lenses to dampen light coming in from around the edges of your glasses. Sunglasses don’t encapsulate the eye like a pair of snow goggles, so light can enter the eye by bouncing off the backside of the lens from directly overhead, underneath or on either side of the frame. With anti-reflective coating in place, these reflections are minimized, decreasing the amount of eyestrain and improving visual contrast. Anti-reflective coating is especially beneficial when used on high VLT lenses that reflect more light than lower VLT lenses.

Anti-fog: A coating applied to the lens that prevents the condensation of water droplets on the surface. Fogging typically occurs when there is an imbalance between air temperature and relative humidity, and when excess water molecules in the air settle on solid objects. If you want to geek out on the chemistry, anti-fog compounds work by minimizing the surface tension of water, which causes the molecules to spread out in a transparent film on the lens rather than forming droplets you can’t see through.

Sunglasses at a glance

Brand Model MSRP Weigth Photochromic Polarized
Electric Knoxville-S $120-$220 26g optional
Electric (Top Pick) Fade $160-$240 29g optional
Zeal Range $139 30g
Zeal Decoy $219 30g
Tifosi Escalate SF (Full Frame) $150 31g
Tifosi Escalate SF (Shield) included with Full Frame version 29g
Optic Nerve Vapor $89 30g
Optic Nerve Reactor PM $89 25g
Ryders Seventh Anti-Fog $130 30g
Rudy Project (Most Innovative) Tralyx $275 28g
Native Eyewear Hardtop Ultra XP $129 28g
Julbo  (Best in Category) Aero $130-$180 26g
Julbo Breeze $130-$180 34g
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About Author

Donald is a physical therapist, California native, barefoot aficionado, and father of three with more than 25 years of experience in endurance sports. He was a collegiate rower at UCLA, then dabbled in marathons and Ironman-distance triathlons before falling in love with ultras in the early 2000s. His favorite locations to run include Marin County, CA, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and he loves exploring America's National Parks. When he's not training for ultramarathons, he enjoys hiking or slacklining with his family in Monterey County, CA.

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