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Review: I wore Razer’s Zephyr N95 mask for two weeks so you don’t have to

Author Sam Machkovech wears the Razer Zephyr mask out in public.
Enlarge / Author Sam Machkovech wears the Razer Zephyr mask out in public.

Steve Haske

For the past two weeks, I’ve carried the $99 Razer Zephyr mask with me pretty much everywhere I go—but that’s not the same as wearing it.

Razer’s first foray into the world of high-tech wearables comes in the form of an “N95-grade” face mask that claims to go above and beyond what you can expect from cloth options. The company set expectations pretty high with the mask’s initial prototype reveal in January, only to cut down features to make the mask cheaper and lighter. Yet this launch version is still a far cry from the cloth masks that are so ubiquitous these days.

And since it’s from Razer, a peripheral manufacturer best known for neon-tinged gaming mice, headphones, and keyboards, the mask looks striking. Look at it! The Razer Zephyr is basically a gaming mouse that you strap to your face, RGB lighting and all. So I had to try it.

I’ve come away from my experience with the mask equally impressed and underwhelmed. If nothing else, Razer has taken an interesting first stab at making masks more fun. You’re going to wear a mask anyway, Razer seems to say with this product. Why not stand out?

With some everyday tech products, “imperfect but intriguing” might still be worth buying—especially if the product adds enough productivity perks to your daily life to outweigh any compromises. The same description is a much tougher sell for something you affix directly to your face.

So my Razer Zephyr mask has mostly been tucked in my bag, to be shown off as a party trick or worn as an experimental lark. But its spot in my bag is right next to my KN95-rated masks, and I’m always eager to switch back to those as soon as I can.

From Hazel to Zephyr

The Zephyr’s originally teased vision was tantalizing, even if it looked like a prop from that classic “cybergoth rave” GIF of old. The 2021 CES version advertised the following:

  • Transparent forward-facing plate
  • Interior lights
  • An array of interior microphones and exterior speakers **
  • Built-in interior fans
  • Exterior RGB light strips
  • Slots for replaceable N95 filters
  • Pair of rubberized ear straps **
  • An ultraviolet sanitation and charging stand **

Out of all those proposed “Project Hazel” features, only three didn’t the final cut, as denoted by asterisks.

The original pitch made me think that Razer understood some of the common issues with face masks. I was particularly optimistic about its mix of lights, microphones, speakers, and translucent plastic, especially because I have a few friends who are hard of hearing (normal masks muffle sounds and prevent lip reading).

Still, I was concerned that such an overengineered mask might lead to too much weight or heat. And clearly, something had to give, whether it was weight, heat, or cost. Though I’ll never know how the original model actually performed, the current model definitely doesn’t live up to my accessibility hopes.

Read my lips: Hmmmphh hmph hmph

At the right angle, a photo of the Razer Zephyr—with its translucent plastic and internal lighting—can look clear enough to allow for lip reading. But in practice, that translucent plastic creates more issues than it does lip-reading opportunities.

Razer has applied a darkish tint to this part of the mask, and the whole set is molded in such a way that manually replacing this part with a clearer option isn’t feasible. Why would Razer do this? Presumably because the plastic front’s shape distorts your lips just enough so that your mouth looks like it’s sitting in a tiny, attached TV.

To make lips visible, the Zephyr’s internal lighting needs to be set at a high, steady brightness, which creates noticeable heat inside the mask. This is where the pair of internal fans comes into play. They operate at two speeds; “low” makes a mildly noticeable whine, while “high” is loud enough to sound like a tiny leafblower attached to your face. You don’t need to have the fans on to use the mask, but “low” is imperative for long-term comfort, thanks to how securely the plastic gasket fits around the nose and mouth. And with internal lights on, nothing less than “high” will keep heat at bay and prevent internal fogging.

Either way, the lighting can’t make up for natural issues with fogging, viewing angles, and visual distortion. Lip reading is doable in certain conditions, but it requires the wearer to keep their head mostly still. And for those who don’t rely on lip reading, the plastic cover and always-running fans muffle average speech. Unless you’re in a quiet room, expect to have most of what you say lost. Or you’ll need to speak at a higher-than-usual volume with extra enunciation.

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