Style marries function in this new crop of eye protectors.
Roka Phantom ($275)
Gear of the Year
To glimpse what’s ahead in sunglasses, look back to the fashion-forward styles Grandma and Grandpa loved in their youth. The current updates, however, are much better than the originals: they have superior optics, lens tints, and coatings, and they’re more comfortable and safer, with lightweight, high-impact materials that can take a punch.
The Roka Phantom is a clear example of the new paradigm. The classic wire-frame, teardrop-lens aviator takes an epic retro-futuristic leap that redefines performance-sports sunglasses—and in turn earns these specs Gear of the Year. Credit goes to materials engineers for changing the game without messing with the look and badass vibe of old-school aviators. More specifically, Roka subbed in wonderfully sharp nylon Zeiss lenses for glass and titanium frames for heavier steel. Combine all that with ribbed, grippy ear and nose pads and you have lots of security for sweaty, high-speed descents on your bike. Teardrop lenses hug the contours below the eyes and above the brows for good coverage and protection.
True, the Phantom doesn’t provide the giant field of view you get with wraparound racing glasses. But it does what’s required while ditching the sci-fi style that rules performance eyewear. In fact triathlete Jesse Thomas worked on the design and now races in the Phantom. We can attest that the silver coating on the outside does plenty to mitigate glare, and the lack of polarization ensures you can clearly see digital readouts on electronics like heart-rate monitors, bike computers, and phones. In the end, premium-quality lenses like the Phantom’s tame sunlight and enhance vision, polarized or not.
Julbo Explorer 2.0 ($130)
Best For: Being way above tree line.
The Test: Julbo, the French house of sports shades, breaks a cardinal rule of pricing specialty gear by not charging an obscene amount for expedition-ready alpine eyewear. These lightweight nouveau glacier glasses have detachable side shields, which, like the leather blinders of old, close peripheral gaps against eye-frying glare on snow and ice and snap in and out nicely. Even sans shields, the big dark-gray synthetic lenses offer good protection and a super-sharp view. Little scoops in the temples promote airflow to prevent fogging, and a generous amount of rubber cladding keeps the Explorer 2.0 in place while you deal with the mountain.
The Verdict: High value for high altitude.
Tifosi Camrock ($70)
Best For: Budget-minded weekend jocks.
The Test: First, a value discussion—the Camrock costs a fraction of anything else here. These shades come with three lenses—gray for full sun, pinkish for low light, and clear for twilight and night—essentially giving you three pairs of sunglasses at under 24 bucks each. And snapping in and removing the synthetic lenses is graciously straightforward and solid. You also get frames with adjustable metal nosepieces and temples, plus plenty of grippy rubber to keep them in place. The angular sports-wrap design comes off just a hair cheesy, but with all those swappable lenses, a little fashion compromise is well worth it.
The Verdict: Scores a major value victory.
Rudy Project Airgrip Sailing ($200)
Best For: Paddlesports.
The Test: Polarized deep-gray synthetic lenses afford shark-tooth-sharp optics, slay glare, and make the water’s surface disappear—hello, marine life. A water-shedding lens coating helps sheet off spray, while detachable side shields beef up defense against sun and wind without adding much weight. Springy frames hold onto your head firmly but comfortably. If these shades go overboard, bright-red floats on the detachable leash keep them afloat. The aggressive design looks good for kayaking, SUPing, or sailing little beach craft. Bummer: the polarized lenses render big-boat digital displays nearly unreadable, unfortunately.
The Verdict: A multisport water performer.
Bollé Aeromax ($200)
Best For: Hitting the trail on fat tires or foot.
The Test: On a path up to a high ridgetop, intermittently sun-hammered and in shadow, we doubted our own eyes—can the optics really be this good? Oh yeah, said hiking companions who tried on the Aeromax, a shield with a singular lens perfectly tuned for the trail. Better yet, Bolle’s Modulator Brown lens (shown here) is photochromic, changing from near clear in low light to a warm earth tone in full-on sun. Though the look says racy road cyclist, these glasses are a friend to mountain bikers, trail runners, and anybody pounding unpaved ground. Applause for detachable shields for side coverage and a high, wide, unimpeded view.
The Verdict: An all-day, all-terrain, multigender standout.
Maui Jim Nahiku ($229)
Best For: Fit women who want a bit of fabulous, too.
The Test: On the outside, these specs are pure, flamboyant retro fashion, but the Nahiku sunglasses are also surprisingly competent for rec-level sports like bike commuting or an afternoon jog. The large frames provide good protection from sun and wind, and Maui Jim’s superb lightweight, synthetic polarized lenses boost vision into high-definition. We most appreciate how the gradient (i.e., darker on top) gray tinting defends against rays when the sun is high but allows for more clarity down low, while sticky pads on both the temples and nose rests prevent slippage. Squares may take them for old-lady Palm Springs. But you get it, they don’t.
The Verdict: Wear these anywhere for anything.
Smith Sidney ($169)
Best For: Hip chicks with high style.
The Test: Smith riffs on another blast from the past: cat-eye frames. Here the design is scaled up to ensure that others see what you’re wearing—as if anybody could miss two-tone white and tortoise frames with light-brown tinted lenses. Though the look is street, the Sidney is fine for mellow action off the pavement, like mountain-bike cruising or leisurely day hiking. Those polarized, bronze-tinted synthetic lenses punch up detail and depth, making your daily commute downright vibrant. The flattish lenses leave eyes too exposed to light and wind at the sides for truly hard charging, but so what? The real sport is in sporting the Sidney.
The Verdict: A cute crossover for street and light action.
Vuarnet Edge Round ($320)
Best For: Making other people’s eyes pop.
The Test: The beauty of the bunch, no contest. One look and our testers were arguing over who got to rock these sumptuous specs first. Superb detailing and build shine through, even at a distance. Gold mirroring adds sass. It’s bliss to look through the brownish-tinted ground mineral-glass lenses. Design-wise, the Edge is a hybrid, as if metal-framed aviators and round fashion frames had a baby. Glass lenses, which can shatter, and incomplete coverage from flattish fashion lenses rule out rough stuff. The fit is just a bit tight for folks with wider heads, though not enough to keep us from wearing them.
The Verdict: These look and feel even more expensive than they are.
Zeal Capitol ($149)
Best For: Regular guys and real life.
The Test: Look good without looking like you’re trying. This is a clean, he-man iteration of the keyhole design, so called for the shape of the bridge, which boosts airflow without compromising sun coverage. They’re quietly featurized for casual athletics, with soft, grippy patches at the ears and nose that keep them in place when you’re tumbling around and sweating. Big copper-tint polarized synthetic lenses are amenable to going fast and making quick moves—like in pickup soccer or hoops—and brilliant for driving. And we won’t complain that the Capitol also plays nice with a suit and tie when the occasion calls for it.
The Verdict: Handsome yet versatile sun protection.