These days, headphones for runners can track steps and heart rate. But a brand-new pair attempts to take that concept a stride further with a coach, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), that provides custom workouts and real-time advice.
Created by LifeBeam Labs, based in New York, Vi headphones (pronounced "vee") are now on sale via the company’s website and will reach online retailers including Amazon and Best Buy later this month, followed by wider retail distribution. Last year LifeBeam raised $1.7 million through crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Backers got the first batch of headphones earlier this month.
The public launch comes at a time when AI assistants have captured the public's imagination, sparking strong sales of voice-activated smart-home hubs such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. But at $249, the Vi earbuds are pricier than most sports headphones. The question is, Do the artificial-intelligence benefits they offer justify that cost?
To find out, I took a test unit out for a couple of runs. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that although I like to exercise, I’m not a big fan of running. On the flip side, I am familiar with AI and fitness trackers. Consumer Reports may choose to thoroughly test Vi down the road. In the meantime, here are my first impressions:
How Vi Headphones Work
Like many sports headphones, Vi connects to an app on your phone via Bluetooth. Sensors in the headset track your heart rate, cadence, steps, distance, speed, and other metrics. And the device's GPS capabilities identify not just your location but also the local weather.
Other sports headphones do many of these things, too. For instance, the Jabra Elite Sport, $250, and the Jabra Sport Coach, $125 (recommended models in our ratings), count steps, talk you through workouts, and offer playlist integration. The Elite Sport is a truly wireless model—a chief reason for the hefty price tag—which means there are no cords, not even between the two earpieces.
What makes the Vi headphones stand apart from those models is the fact that they don't just collect fitness data but they analyze it, too. LifeBeam Labs says it takes about 2 hours of running to give the device enough information to set up a training regimen.
But during my first run, Vi was already giving me advice. For instance, it told me to take shorter and quicker steps to prevent injury. It paused my music playlist and instead played a drumbeat and told me to step to it. When I failed to get the stride just right, Vi knew and assured me that it might take a few tries before I did.
To its credit, Vi was never obnoxious—its tone was always upbeat and positive. It’s not going to shame you for taking a few days off between runs, though it will notice and point that out. It won't admonish you for running too slowly, but it will urge you to pick up the pace if you start to slack off.
The headphones’ sensors were sophisticated enough to know when I stopped at a red light, and they automatically paused my workout; they did the same thing when I slowed to a walk to catch my breath, too. Also, I could manually pause the workout by tapping the right earbud.
The Vi headphones also respond to voice commands. Asking “How am I doing?” prompted a response with my running pace, the duration of my workout, and the distance I'd covered. “Step to the beat” triggered the drumbeat and prompted Vi to provide me with coaching on pace and stride.
Pros and Cons of Vi Headphones
I found the headphones to be pretty comfortable. They include earpieces and earhooks in three sizes to help you get the right fit. The downside to that flexibility is that I know it’s only a matter of time before one of my earpieces pops off and goes missing, forcing me to order a replacement or to settle for another size.
The buds themselves are attached by adjustable wires to a lightweight collar that drapes around your neck. When not in use, they fasten to the collar via magnets for safekeeping. The collar is also home to the battery and control buttons.
When you’re not running, you can use the Vi headphones to take phone calls and listen to music. But even though it’s not terribly heavy or bulky, the collar would probably keep me from wearing the headphones when I’m done with my workout. That means I have to hold on to my fitness tracker if I want to monitor my heart rate and steps throughout the day.
Music and Sound Quality
LifeBeam got engineering help from Harman Kardon, so that’s a plus. (Consumer Reports has not tested the Vi headphones.) And the Vi app integrates with Spotify, allowing you to use your streaming playlist. The artificial intelligence will even suggest songs suited to the pace of your workout. To take advantage of these features, though, you need to subscribe to Spotify Premium. (Read our review of the best music streaming services.)
On a related note, Vi is compatible with apps such as Apple HealthKit and Google Fit, allowing the AI to use the data the apps collect. Just keep in mind that it also supplies them with data from your workouts, which means you might not know where that information is going and what it's being used for. (Read "Consumer Reports to Begin Evaluating Products, Services for Privacy and Data Security.")
Where Vi really shines is when it talks to you and you talk to it. The AI's voice sounds surprisingly human—more so than Amazon’s Alexa and certainly more than Apple’s Siri. And I didn’t have any problems getting Vi to understand me: It responded to all my voice commands without issue. The only quirk is that you have to wait for Vi to play a tone before you say your command—it’s best to wait a second or two before you do; if you jump the gun, the artificial intelligence won’t hear you.
And although the AI has a vocabulary of hundreds of thousands of recorded words and phrases, it’s not as extensive as you might hope. Although programmed to call you by name, Vi can’t do that if your name didn’t make the list of options. Mine did not, so I had to pick from a list of suggested nicknames, including Tiger and Knucklehead.
The Verdict on Vi
While I’m still not a big fan of running, I'm inclined to take a few more jogs with Vi—to get to know its AI a little better and give it time to learn some more about me. According to LifeBeam, the more information the AI knows about your fitness and running habits, the better the advice it gives.
That's likely to appeal to seasoned and tech-savvy runners. If you’re less committed, though, this device probably isn’t worth your money. The same goes for people who do the bulk of their running on treadmills. Right now, Vi relies heavily on GPS to track speed and distance, so it’s not very useful indoors—unless you're content to track only your heart rate.
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