By Steve Larsen
Sunglasses are very important to motorcyclists; they protect our eyes and enhance our riding experience by giving us the best possible view of the road and scenery. It’s not easy to find a good pair. Objective evaluations going beyond vague assertions of “fabulousness” are nearly nonexistent. Most of us likely fall into one of two camps: either we have several sets of cheap sunglasses and assume they’re good enough because we’ve seen no evidence that paying more would result in anything worth the difference or, at some point, we invested in a more expensive pair that we believe are pretty good, but have no real data to back it up other than the claims of the person who sold them to us. This is MCN’s sweet spot—a thorough analysis of issues important to motorcyclists. Are performance sunglasses that cost more than $100 better than the $15 model off the rack? What features make a great pair? How much do you need to pay? Which lenses have the best optic clarity and the least geometric distortion? Does UV protection matter? What about polarization?
To answer these and other questions, we began by looking at more than 20 pairs of sunglasses, finally choosing 15 different ones to compare. We focused our attention on models that billed themselves as high performance or referenced suitability for motorcyclists. Before getting to the results, let’s review the criteria.
A key section of our testing addressed how well each product protected our eyes and the quality of construction, both frames and lenses. Optical quality and peripheral distortion were also examined, as well as UV-blocking ability, weight, polarization, comfort and fit (especially in a helmet), and finally, appearance.
Motorcyclists do not have the security of riding behind heavy-duty, automotive-type windshields, nor do we want it. Some helmets have built-in eye shields, but we often supplement these with eyeglasses or sunglasses inside the helmet, behind the face shield. Sometimes helmet face shields are not used or are flipped up, exposing our eyes to potential debris, perhaps even a rock, thrown at our faces at great speed. Thus, a top attribute of any performance sunglasses is the ability to resist impact, both the frame and the lenses. Our valuations were aided in this respect by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a private, nonprofit organization that sets and reviews performance for assorted ophthalmic products. ANSI Z80.3 and the much-tougher Z87.1 are the standards relating to performance eyewear that you should care about, and the ones we consulted for this review.
Some companies have products that only comply with Z80.3, a less-stringent standard intended for non-prescription eyewear. There are no tests for frames in the Z80.3 standard. Requirements for the lenses are for light transmission, traffic signal color recognition, flammability and resistance to radiation. In addition, Z80.3 requires the drop-ball test (found in the tougher Z87.1 description for the lens only, which consists of a 5/8-inch steel ball weighing 0.56 ounce being dropped on the lens from a height of 50 inches). The difference is that in the Z87.1 certification, the lens must be in the frame and stay there, whereas in the Z80.3 test, the lens is placed on the end of a rigid tube when it is struck for the impact test. Certification to the 2010 versions of these standards was our requirement.
Sunglass manufacturers complying with ANSI standard Z87.1 and certifying their products meet this standard have both lenses and frames which pass the following criteria for lens retention and frame impact resistance, and received our highest score:
Lens retention is measured via a “high mass” impact: a pointed 1.1 lb. projectile is dropped 50 inches onto eyeglasses mounted in the eyeglass frame mounted on a head form piece. To pass, no pieces can break free from the inside of the eyeglasses, the lens can’t break and must stay in the frames. This test indicates a product’s strength.
The frames are tested at six specific impact points, and the projectile is a quarter-inch steel ball traveling at a velocity of 102 mph. The pass/fail criteria stipulates that no part of the glass or frame contacts the eye of the head form through breakage or deflection. Head forms are used. No actual eyes are harmed during these tests!
Our highest-rated sunglasses met these two criteria with distinction. Compliance with the standard can be self-certified. Independent certification from an outside laboratory is not required if the company has its own lab capable of performing the tests. Some companies, such as 7eye, use outside, independent optic laboratories, and forwarded those lab results to us. Wiley X has its own extensive laboratory. When a manufacturer’s analysis indicates they meet the standard, the product is allowed to carry a “Z87+” marking on the lenses and/or frame. Pure safety glasses may have a Z87-2+ certification if designed to meet even stricter impact standards. For our purposes, if they were Z87.1 certified, we scored them a 5.
SAFETY SCORES: 1–5/weight factor 3
We created two tests to measure the optic quality of a particular lens and its peripheral distortion. In the first, we used a Tomey Lensmeter TL-300B to measure optic quality, how well the lens blocked UV light and the peripheral distortion of each, measuring across from the nasal side to the outside edge. Tomey builds and distributes highly accurate diagnostic instruments for optometrists and ophthalmologists worldwide.
In the second test, we worked in a dark room. Here, we adapted a Topcom CP5D manual projector to project a light onto a wall in a narrowly focused halogen beam onto standard letters of various sizes in a rectangle—essentially an eye chart. We then began placing each of the lenses in front of the projector and closely examined the changes, with each tester examining the detail, fuzz and blur around the letters, comparing back and forth between when a lens was placed in front of the light source and when it was not there.
After providing a score for base optic quality, we moved the lens around on the light source, to provide a visual representation of the peripheral distortion we’d measured on the first machine. This score was also recorded. The combination of these two numbers formed the optic quality score on our ratings.
The dark-room test proved to be immensely informative, often confirming and bringing into finer detail what the TOMEY Lensmeter had told us. It ended up being the most valuable data point and the most heavily weighted score of all the tests. At the end of the day, how cleanly light is transferred through the lens is the key issue for determining optic quality.
To keep ourselves honest, the glasses were all numbered, with the optic performance appraisal made by one person and recorded by another. Testers were unaware which lenses they were evaluating and scoring. Then the glasses were mixed up and the roles reversed. Results were then entered on the score sheets. The final numeric score was an average of the opinion of all testers.
OPTICAL QUALITY SCORES: 1-5/weight factor 6
Often overlooked, but a critical reason for wearing sunglasses is to block as much ultraviolet light as possible from entering the eye. According to the Mayo Clinic, UV radiation from the sun can damage not only the skin of our eyelid, but also the cornea, lens and other parts of the eye. UV exposure contributes to the development of cataracts and, possibly, macular degeneration. UV damage to the eye, essentially “sunburn” of the cornea, is painful and does not heal easily. Dark glasses that do not offer UV protection make the problem worse, because the dark glass causes your pupils to dilate more than if you had no glasses on at all, allowing more UV light to enter your eye.
We used the Tomey Lensmeter TL-300B to measure each set of lenses and the amount of 385 nanometer wavelength UV light blocked and considered it a critical part of our assessment. UVA and UVB refer to the region between 280 and 400 nm (nanometer, one billionth of a meter) and include the wavelengths that are most dangerous for human skin and eyes. Lenses that block 100 percent of 385 nm UV are basically blocking all harmful UV rays.
Because all of the glasses in this review—with the exception of one—blocked 100 percent of UV light, we did not make this a factor in the scoring, but we did note the exception in our comments.
While not the most critical component, the weight of the eyeglasses seemed to matter, especially when it came to the subjective appraisal regarding fit and comfort. We weighed each set of glasses with a calibrated jeweler’s scale, the Tanita Model 14795, which has a range of 0.1–300 grams (0.0035. to 10.58 ounces). The lightest sunglasses in our experiment, by a large margin, were the Serengeti Sestriere PHD Sedona at just 0.63 ounces (17.86 grams). The difference was obvious. You can hardly feel them on your head, they are so light. The heaviest were the UVEX Tomcats at 1.45 ounces (41.11 grams). Besides the Sestriere, only the Wiley X BRICK and the SOS Mongoose weighed less than 1 ounce. Nine models were between 1 and 1.25 ounces, which is excellent, and we gave them an extra point for that. Unfortunately for the Serengeti glass-lensed models, they were heavier and lost a point.
WEIGHT SCORES: 3 extra points for less than 1 ounce, 1 extra point for less than 1.25 ounces, and no extra points for over 1.25
While we measured whether each lens had it or not, we believe this is more of a preference than a quality or performance aspect of sunglasses. In fact, many models can be ordered either way—polarized or non. The Smith Piv-lock Overdrive from Smith Optics comes with three sets of lenses, two that are not polarized and one that is. Of the two models we tested from 7eye, the PanHead was polarized, but the nearly identical Derby was not.
Polarization did not affect the optic quality of the lens in any way. That said, many motorcyclists are adamant that polarized sunglasses are for fishermen and not bikers. They will preach that bikers should stick with non-polarized options due to the odd color phenomena than can develop when you wear polarized sunglasses with your helmet face shield down, or when looking through a motorcycle windscreen. As one rider put it, “Plastic face shields and polarized glasses don’t mix, unless you miss your hippie days and acid trips.” We are more ambivalent on this point and consider it personal preference. We didn’t bother to check for vertical versus horizontal polarization. Typically, sunglasses are vertically polarized to reduce glare reflected from horizontal surfaces such as roads or water.
YES/NO (not used in scoring)
While weighted less for our overall ranking due to the individual preferences from various testers for comfort and fit, this is an important factor in choosing a particular product. 7eye, Wiley X and the Serengeti 811 have paid particular attention to ensure the temples bend and slide easily inside a helmet. Even when the temples are thicker, the 7eye has a slight bend at the tip of the arm and it really makes a difference under a full face helmet. Few riders have managed to avoid the headache one gets when frames push on your head behind the ears. Models with foam or other padding around the eyes to block wind, prevent dry eyes and allow people with serious eye conditions (such as Sjogren’s syndrome or side effects from surgery) to ride are welcome. Most of these surrounds are removable, although not all.
This part of our inquiry, which lasted several months and occurred before our optical lab tests, involved various testers grabbing a few pairs of glasses for a week or two and trying them. We all used them under different circumstances, including motorcycle riding, typically with a full face helmet. We also used them without a helmet in windy vehicles such as the Slingshot, a Morgan 3-wheeler and a Polaris RZR with no helmet or windscreen. We even incorporated road and mountain biking tests.
The comfort and fit rating was based on not just how the sunglasses scored when motorcycling, but in other activities as well, given the logic that we all would prefer one set of sunglasses for all activities. The ratings were then averaged to reach a final score. Due to the very subjective nature of this category, we weighted this score with a factor of just one, so it had a limited impact on the end results.
COMFORT SCORES: 1-5/factor of 1
Although appearance is another subjective factor, some of these sunglasses are clearly more attractive than others. For instance, one set of cheap safety-oriented glasses in the early mix (but dropped before the final 15) scored exceptionally low on the appearance rating with voters. Some suggested they were suitable only for riding home from an eye doctor visit or using alone in one’s garage. Appearance ratings came from the wearer’s opinion, as well as snarky comments from significant others.
APPEARANCE SCORING: 1-5/factor of 1
Our readers want to get the very best possible value, so cost is important. To score for price, models that cost less than $50 were given 4 extra points. Those between $50 and $100 got 3, and 1 point was given if cost was between $100 and $150. For sunglasses costing more than $150, 2 points were deducted, and heaven help those over $200, as 4 points were deducted from their totals.
PRICE SCORES: From +4 to -4 points
Many premium sunglasses offer a host of features. Nearly all have first-class hard cases and include a cleaning cloth. Others include additional lenses. Some manufacturers offer photochromatic lenses that darken in bright sun but lighten up on overcast days or indoors. 7eye pioneered their Airshield technology with patented vents designed for each type of frame. The size of the lens and its curve mean fewer blind spots and not having to turn your head so far around to see. The SOS Tech Evolution is an entire kit, including a removable adjustable head-strap, snap-in optical inserts for prescription lenses, removable foam padding and side guards for blocking debris, four sets of wraparound lenses, two sets of Soft-Touch nose bridges and a microfiber cleaning cloth and storage case.
Many models feature foam or other material around the eyecup to protect from wind, dust, dirt and anything that can cause dry eye. Some make this surround material easy to remove when you’ve reached your destination and are off the bike, although no one has yet found the perfect place to stow that foam eyepiece so you can find it again when you’re ready to ride.
Most performance sunglasses for motorcyclists have a concave shape, with nearly all of the glasses tested measuring a base curve rate of 8. We measured base curvature with a lens clock. There were a few exceptions. The Smith High Performance Piv-lock came in at 9. The pure safety glasses, the UVEX Tomcats, had a curve measurement of 10, so they are really designed to wrap completely around your eyes. The only ones with shorter curve rates were the Serengeti Dante, with a curve rate of 4.5, and the Serengeti Aviator Style with a 6. Traditional sunglasses for the beach or driving are in the 4 to 6 range. Units with a base curve of 8—which was all of the rest of our test subjects—wrap around the eyes for greater protection and move wind around the face.
It is interesting to note how the history and focus of some of the companies offering products here was reflected in the results. Wiley X, for instance, has a reputation for making glasses primarily for protection and provides products to the military and law enforcement. Agencies in these markets tend to care most about performance, validated by exhaustive testing and certification, and perhaps care less about fashion and attractiveness. So we were not surprised the Wiley X products aced all of the safety challenges. What surprised us was how good the optics were and how comfortable and decent-looking the glasses were, as well.
Conversely, the Serengeti versions clearly nailed the fashion side of this experiment. They’re gorgeous. Plus, when evaluating their optic quality, we kept wishing our optic scoring went to 11. That is the tradeoff of glass—the optics are superb and they’re scratch resistant, but unfortunately the lower ANSI standard and the lofty price reduced their overall ranking.
My personal favorites before this effort, the 7eye sunglasses from Panoptx, came in a close second to the Wiley X. This is not surprising as the company has been a real innovator when it comes to eyeglasses designed for motorcyclists. Although tempted, I found nothing in these tests that persuaded me to give up the 7eyes I’ve been wearing for years. They fit me like my own eyelids, and I like the way they look on my face. The safety rating is solid and the optics quality is probably better than my eyesight.
Some may wonder why there are no Oakleys here, because the name is so big. We found and tested a pair of Oakley Radar Shield glasses that were several years old, before the company was acquired by Luxottica and manufacturing was moved from the US to Italy and China. They retailed for $170 and would have performed well. Although not so good on the ANSI certification, the optics were excellent and the peripheral distortion was non-existent. We were unable to obtain Oakley’s motorcycle-oriented sunglasses, the Flak Jacket, Gascan or Crankshaft models, however, and suspect they are no longer being made.
It’s important to keep in mind the intent of this research is to identify the best choices for motorcyclists. Some sunglasses, such as several of the Serengeti models, feature glass lenses. While out-of-the-question from a safety standpoint for riding, these had the very best optic performance in our analysis. We would happily pick these up and use them confidently for driving, racing, flying, fishing, hunting or pretty much any outdoor activity where the risk of having high-velocity debris or bugs flying into our faces did not exist.
To determine a winner we looked at each score and then applied a weight to each category. For instance, safety and optic quality were weighted heavily, while fitness and comfort got less emphasis and the appearance rating least of all. A few bonus points were added for the lightest models. As mentioned, lower-priced models gained a point while high-priced glasses lost points for being expensive.
Overall, the top performing model in our estimation was the Wiley X-Slayer blue mirror glasses at $130 (though we’ve seen them advertised online for closer to $100). This is based on consideration of all aspects such as safety, fit, comfort and appearance, as well as pure optical quality.
Our Best Buy is a tie. First place goes to the $47 SOS Mongoose, which competes very well with pairs costing two to three times more. They’re simple and easy, good quality and have a lifetime guarantee. Our second place Best Buy is the Wiley X–Brick at $105. For a bit more money you get better optics with the Wiley X and the very best safety rating possible (and we were able to find these online for nearly 25 percent off list price). If you can spend around $75 on good sunglasses, these two should be a top consideration.
Both full kits, the Smith Optics and SOS Evolution should also be considered excellent deals due to the fact that you get two or three pairs of additional lenses and lots of extra goodies. Unfortunately for the kits, our scoring didn’t really provide bonus points for extra lenses. Of the two kits, we liked the Smith Piv-lock better. They have a unique system for changing lenses that works flawlessly. The Smiths frames feel rugged and durable, too. If you want something that gets you noticed, the SOS Tech Evolution has the most dramatic look with its multicolored frames and various lens choices. We loved the red mirrored lenses but may have damaged them in the testing, as they got lower scores on peripheral distortion than the others and, using a microscope, we saw some tiny cracks on the lens coating.
If getting the lowest price is super important, and your primary concern is safety, it’s hard to argue with the UVEX Tomcats at around $10 online. Although I found them heavy for day-to-day use, at this low price you can afford to pick up several and stash a pair in the garage, at the cabin or on the boat.
The Full Collection
This article would have been impossible without the professional expertise of Tommy Libert and the optical laboratory of Central Eyeworks at 100 E. Camelback Road in Phoenix, Ariz. (centraleyeworks.net; 602-279-0889). This retail store specializes in all types of eyeglasses for active people—not just motorcyclists, but everybody from wakeboarders and wind surfers to target shooters, hunters and auto racers. Their lab and its extensive array of computerized equipment, much of which they generously allowed us to use, was crucial for these evaluations.