- iOS and Android (tested) apps
- Collar design
- Voice command support
- 8-hour quoted battery life
- Heart rate monitor, 6-axis accelerometer and gyrometer, barometer
- UK price to be confirmed ($250 US)
- Manufacturer: Lifebeam
- Review Price: to be confirmed
WHAT IS THE VI PERSONAL TRAINER?
The Vi is a set of smart earphones that comes loaded with an AI buddy/virtual trainer. Manufacturer LifeBeam claims the headphones can offer real-time data and advice mid-workout, and intelligently create tailored training regimes based on a user’s biometric and activity data.
On paper, this makes the Vi sound like a great running companion for a variety of fitness goals, ranging from weightloss to shedding a few precious seconds of your 5K PB time.
After a solid two months with the Vi, I can confirm that the headphones display plenty of potential. But, be warned – a few teething issues with the pre-release software, plus some localisation issues, make the AI feel like an annoying pest at times, rather than a robo running mate.
VI PERSONAL TRAINER – DESIGN
On the outside the Vi looks like a regular pair of collar design wireless headphones, featuring a round base that fits around your neck plus side power and volume controls.
Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll see that LifeBeam has miraculously managed to load the earphones with an amazing amount of tech. The Vi’s sensors include a heart rate monitor, 6-axis accelerometer and gyrometer, barometer, in-ear detection sensor, automatic speech recognition, and an earbud touch sensor.
Outside of built-in GPS, this means the Vi matches the sensor arrangement of most competing dedicated fitness trackers such as the stellar Garmin Vivosmart HR+. This should enable the Vi to monitor cadence, heart rate, distance and elevation – although if you want location data then you’ll need to pair the headphones with a smartphone when running.
The touch sensor is another great inclusion, which on paper means you can enact basic commands such as skipping a track or stopping a workout, and asking the Vi such questions as “how far have I run” using voice commands.
Comfort and fit isn’t an issue, since LifeBeam has loaded the Vi with more bud and wing options than you can shake a stick at, making it easy to get a secure, run-proof fit and seal with the headphones; the flexible collar band helps in this regard, too.
This may sound insignificant, but it makes the headphones far more comfortable to wear than competing devices with rigid collar designs. The Vi can bend to the shape of your neck and naturally flex mid-run to avoid rubbing – a common problem I experience with rival running headphones.
The eight-hour quoted battery life is a little optimistic, but the headphones still managed to see me through at least three to four 20-25-minute 5km runs before I needed to reach for the charger, which is pretty darned good.
VI PERSONAL TRAINER – SOUND QUALITY
The Vi’s charms continue when it comes to sound quality. Although these headphones can’t match competing non-sports models for audio-quality, as fitness sets go they’re pretty good, easily matching the likes of the Jaybird X3s, for instance.
Featuring Harmon/Kardon-designed sound, the Vi offers reasonably well-balanced audio and avoids many of the pitfalls that rival sets find themselves in. Maximum volume levels haven’t been raised beyond the headphones’ limits, therefore distortion never creeps in, even when playing songs extremely loudly.
Highs are reasonably well handled. Although piano keys and acoustic guitar sections lack the sparkle of dedicated sets such as the Sony MDR-1000X, they remain nicely defined and clearly separate from the mid and low end.
Mids are also decent: they never sound overly acidic, even when playing attacking genres such as punk and industrial.
Bass isn’t overpowering, as it is on many gym headphones. If anything, it’s actually a little underpowered, which may well prove a minor issue for people who like to work out to low-end heavy music, such as dance or rap.
On the whole, as a basic pair of gym headphones, the Vi generally delivers. It’s only when you delve into its supposed smart features that things get a little tricky.
VI PERSONAL TRAINER – SETUP, SOFTWARE AND TRACKING
The VI’s setup process is pretty straightforward. Simply download the Vi app (iOS or Android), enter your height and weight details, then pick one of a variety of goals. These range from running faster and longer, to losing weight.
From there you have to clock two hours of run-time with the Vi so that the AI can get an idea of your current fitness level and habits, after which it will begin to train you. While this sounds simple enough, in practice I found the process frustrating.
During my first 5K, the Vi trainer’s perky American voice piped up within minutes, explaining the various voice commands I could use – which was all well and good, until I tried to take advantage of the features.
The headphones couldn’t understand my request to tell me my current heart rate, instead throwing up constant “computer says no” reports. The system failure was an annoyance that impeded, not helped, my performance. Trying to speak clearly and continually having to repeat yourself mid-run is an oxygen-draining experience, and one that caught me more than a few confused glances from other park-goers. On one occasion, I’m 99% certain that I heard a mother tell her kid to “not stare at the crazy man”.
The frustration continued on attempting to retest the voice feature in my flat. To date, I’m yet to get a single command recognised without great effort using the Vi’s voice commands.
I’m also not a huge fan of the AI’s chipper personality. Some people may like having a perky American AI chip to tell them “you’re awesome” or to “keep up the good work”, but as a grouchy Brit I found the experience jarring. Having an AI jump in to start singing “work, work, work” (apparently a lyric in a pop song) while listening to the Dead Kennedys was a particularly interesting experience – which again only served to interrupt, not help, my running rhythm.
On another occasion, an accidental reply of “s*d off, I will cut you” to the Vi’s instruction to run faster nearly led to a torches-and-pitchfork showdown with a group of picnicking parents. While it is possible to lower the Vi’s intrusiveness in the app, I’d have liked to have seen some localisation for the British/European market.
This is a shame, since the Vi’s training features and tracking are otherwise solid. As apps go, Vi’s is nicely laid out and features a barebones UI that’s super-easy to navigate. It lets you set distance and time goals for your run, or pick a simple free run option. Once your run is complete, the app also offers easy-to-read graphs that display your average heart rate, distance run and progress over the past few weeks.
A simple icon at the top-left of the app lets you access your historical data and neatly displays breakdowns of useful info, such as your average heart rate, km/hour pace and latest run distances; all data that’s useful for new, or mid-level runners looking to improve upon their performance.
After the first 50km the Vi began to offer information and advice mid-exercise, as opposed to the previously middle-of-the-road encouragement.
Pacing was an area I found particular helpful. Not only did the Vi automatically alert me about my pace after each kilometre run, it also provided advice and identified problems with how I had started each run. After 50km, the Vi would notify me when I was starting too fast and alert me when my pacing was erratic.
Although it would be possible to obtain such information simply by looking at the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ on my wrist, and using common sense, being told I was making a mistake mid-run made it all the easier to correct. This helped me to radically improve my pacing – and as a result, 90km in, I’m now a hair’s breadth from meeting my goal and breaking the 20-minute 5km milestone.
The Vi’s tracking capabilities are also solid. The heart rate monitor proved accurate and consistent, although a dedicated HRM strap is always a better option for more advanced runners. In addition, the distance it recorded compared to the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ has also never been radically different.
Although I find the voice annoying, there’s no denying that the Vi’s AI training functionality has potential. After around 100km with the headphones I’ve managed to shave precious minutes off my personal best, while also identifying issues with my pacing that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
However, the Vi’s potential is seriously hampered by ongoing issues with its voice command system – which, as it is, simply doesn’t work and makes accessing some of its best features impossible mid-run.
Thankfully, LifeBeam has promised a software update to fix these issues in the very near future. Here’s hoping it does the trick.