I'm wearing a mask with RGB lighting on my face.
Two years ago, the first part of that sentence would have seemed crazy enough. Wearing a face mask? On the subway? In the grocery store? Me? Everyone?
But nearly two years into a global pandemic, I'm used to that. When Razer announced "Project Hazel" at CES 2021, the idea of a gaming-grade face mask went viral. Like most of Razer's concepts, many thought it would never officially arrive. But it's here. And I'm wearing it. I have N95-level protection around my nose and mouth, and also RGB lighting. Fans are blowing filtered air towards my face.
Only time will tell whether the pandemic and its lessons are here to stay. And, for better or worse, the same can be said for the most extreme elements of gamer culture permeating our lives. But glowing and whirring aggressively at the intersection of both these phenomena, while also being sold at highly inflated prices by scalpers just like graphics cards or consoles, the Razer Zephyr face mask feels like the product of our human moment if ever there was one.
Razer Zephyr Design and Comfort
The Razer Zephyr’s design lands halfway between Marvel’s Star-Lord and the kind of gas mask worn by DC’s Golden-Age Sandman. Add in a sprinkle of Razer’s Chroma lighting, just like any of the company’s peripherals, and you have a gamer-focused face mask.
Face masks are inherently defensive tools, keeping you from spreading viruses and disease to others, as well as hopefully giving you a bit of protection from those around you who may be contagious. But the Zephyr is straight up aggressive, with clean lines that turn into sharp edges, making a huge Joker-esque smile with two nozzles jutting out of it (where the fans are housed).
In the center, there's a clear section that lets others see your mouth. This is a welcome feature, as most masks, by necessity, hide your face entirely. With the Zephyr, you can see someone speaking — a benefit for anyone who has difficulty hearing and needs to read lips — and get a better sense of their emotions. There's an anti-fog coating applied to the clear section, which the small print says should last about three months. Razer includes a 30-milliliter bottle of anti-fog spray to replace it with, which should be effective for two years from the manufacturer date on the bottle. We received our unit in mid-October, and our bottle was dated September 2021.
The nozzles, frankly, look ridiculous. It's bad enough we're in a pandemic, so I'm not sure we needed to go apocalypse chic with the masks. Each one has an RGB strip around it that can be customized via a mobile app. In addition, there’s more lighting in the mask, which can light up your mouth, making your facial expressions more clear in the dark — or just make them green, purple, red, or any other color.
The mask is secured to your head via two straps. Both go over your head when you put it on. The one on the bottom rests at the nape of your neck and can be tightened by pulling the top strap up. The one on the top rests on the back of your head, slightly above your ear line, and can be tightened with a pull string. It took me a while to find the optimal fit, but that part was largely comfortable, even after hours of wear. That's surprising, because I have a big head! But I also found that the strings could move around throughout the day, requiring readjustment.
But the silicone face guard was another story. This part is critical, as it's the component that makes a seal around your face, protecting you from the virus and others from getting anything you may be carrying. But Razer's one size fits all mentality means that this piece has to fit you for both comfort and effectiveness. Unfortunately for me, that wasn't the case.
I just got the faceguard over my mouth and nose. If I wore the mask on the very top of my nose, the bottom of the inside of the guard was brushing up against my bottom lip. Wearing it on the bridge of my nose was slightly better, but either way, I felt as if too much weight was on my nose. Oddly enough, I felt like perhaps the silicone wore in a bit and was slightly less painful against my face in subsequent days.
My wife, who has a significantly smaller head than I do, could fit her chin in the seal, though she too felt the pressure on her nose. (It also didn't particularly bother her having the straps in her long hair. She was less happy about the way the straps slipped and hit her ears, which I didn't have an issue with.)
I've had masks pull on my ears and the back of my head before. Here, the issue was too much pressure on my face, which made my long sessions testing the device agonizing. You bet it left a mark. There was a red half-moon mark around my face when I took this off after wearing it for just a few hours. Other masks don't do that to me. (It did, however, feel like a tight seal, similar to the KN95 masks I've tried.)
In fact, Razer's manual says to have the Zephyr cover your nose, mouth and chin. That's common guidance for mask-wearing, but there was no way I could fit my chin in this mask, so it was left hanging out. Honestly, I felt a bit naked. But even in Razer's promotional materials, many people, especially men, had their chins sticking out.
The mask looks bulky, but it's really only a front-facing piece. From the cheeks back, it's only held on with the straps. If you speak while you wear this mask, it will move around. Even moving your head around, like nodding or shaking, could cause it to move. That also basically banished its use for anything active, like jogging, unless it was tightened very securely. The parts where this is most noticeable are the tops of the plastic frame, which flare out into a wing shape. That's where it connects to the straps, but I can't help but think a stealthier design would have prevented some of that annoyance.
The Zephyr weighs 0.52 pounds (including the straps) and is 7.1 x 4.1 x 4.1 inches (181 x 104 x 104 mm). If you're the type to take your mask off and store it in a purse or pocket while you’re outside or otherwise don’t need it, that won't happen here. It comes with a cloth carrying case, which is good if you carry a backpack regularly.
By wearing the Zephyr, you also give up a significant portion of your peripheral vision. I definitely turned my head more often to see, but the biggest issue was looking down. Need to glance at a keyboard? Tilt your head. Want to check your phone? Be prepared to lift it higher than usual. Anything you usually dart your eyes down for is now basically blocked. In fact, this is why I preferred turning off the RGB lighting or at least making it a solid color. Out of the box, it flashes all its colors in the "wave" profile. However, it ends up being annoying to have it so close to your eyes all the time!
The first time I wore it outside, I was embarrassed. So I turned off all of the lighting and hoped no one would look at me. And that's on the streets of New York City, where there's still a decent number of people wearing masks outside at any given time (though most have taken to only wearing them inside). Eventually, I turned the external and internal lighting on in a shade of purple. It was enough to be noticed, but more stylish (and dare I say subtle?) than flashing rainbows. Over the next few days, I would stick with solid colors, if I used them at all.
That being said, I didn't get a ton of attention. One or two people seemed a little surprised on my first venture out, but for the most part, no one paid me any mind whenever I left my apartment. I was sure that on my first visit to a store, someone would say something, but no one kicked me out of the CVS — that's New York City, baby. But I sure wouldn't want to get on a plane in this. Or even go to the bank. Despite being largely ignored, I still felt conscious about this half-pound mask on my face.
Filters and Fans
Besides the seal from the silicon face guard, the protection comes from what Razer refers to as "N95-grade filters." One goes in each nozzle, in front of the fans, while the other goes just under your mouth. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test their effectiveness.
"N95-grade" sounds like it's doing a lot of lifting. They're not N95 - just of that level. Razer's disclaimers make it very clear these are not designed to be personal protective equipment (PPE) or be used in clinical or medical settings. In fact, Razer calls the Zephyr a "wearable air purifier" on the packaging. This feels like a cop-out, but it is what it is.
These filters are custom shapes (circles for the nozzles and a rectangle with rounded corners for the bottom) that you can buy only from Razer. The package comes with three sets, which the company recommends tossing out and replacing every three days (with a day being eight hours of use). That means you get nine days of filters in the box. Razer designed the Zephyr to only be used with its filter, which, for now, means going back to the source to buy more. Razer charges $29.99 for a 30-day pack (assuming that you wear it 8 hours per day), which eventually means you're paying Razer a $30-per-month subscription to keep using the mask you bought from them. That's on top of the face mask’s $99.99 price.
The upside of the filters is that they’re easy to change. The ends of both nozzles and the piece to exhale through your mouth are held on with magnets. They're simple to remove, slip in a new filter and replace. You can quickly complete the whole process in less than a minute.
Despite the filters, Razer improves airflow in the mask with a pair of fans. They have two settings: low (4,200 rotations per minute) and high (6,200 rotations per minute). The benefit here is to let you breathe more comfortably. I found that it works, to a point. If you don't like breathing in a mask now, the Zephyr isn't going to change it. But especially at the high settings, I could feel more fresh air in my mask at any given time. However, I tended to keep it on low. You can adjust between the settings (as well as turning the fans off) with a button on the back of the right nozzle.
But these fans are small and noisy. On low, it's an audible droning noise that I found annoying, though, with earbuds in I could largely ignore it. Set to high, and it's even louder and high-pitched, so much so that you can hear it from across a room. If I were wearing this in an office, I'd feel bad turning the fans on because it could disturb people around me.
Outside, I didn't notice the fan noise as much; ambient noise really does wonders there. But I also found I didn't need the fans as much outside, period, as fresh air was naturally flowing around me.
You can control the fans with the push of a button on the right nozzle. It's one of the very few extra features on this mask that isn't relegated to the smartphone app.
Razer's battery life estimates may be conservative. It has a number of them depending on fan speed and lighting:
|Low Fan Speed||High Fan Speed|
|Lighting off||8 hours||4 hours|
|Lighting on||5.5 hours||3.5 hours|
I ran down the battery with lighting in a static color and with the fan on the lower speed, which is how I used the Zephyr most of the time. After six hours, it was still at 50%. From there, though, it started draining quickly. Almost forty five minutes later, I got a notification on my phone that it was time to charge the Zephyr. When I checked the app, it was at 10% capacity. In total, it ran for just over 7 hours at these settings.
The app is the only way to check how much of a charge you have left. It would be nice to at least get a green, yellow or red flash based on how much battery capacity you have by pressing a button.
On the plus side, you don't need a battery for the Zephyr to work at all. The very basic filtration aspect, like other masks, doesn't require a battery. But if you want the fans and the RGB, you'll want to plug it in every day.
The Zephyr charges with a USB Type-C-to-A cable included in the box, but there's no wall wart. When it charges, the inner lights glow red and then turn green when the battery is full. A small gasket protects the port on the right side of the mask. Be sure to swing it as far as you can from the port because it's easy to block the cable from making a tight fit when you plug it in.
All batteries degrade over time, and there's no easy way to open the Zephyr up and replace the battery later on.
Razer Zephyr App
You could, if you wanted, never touch Razer's mobile app. After all, you can turn the Zephyr on and off using the button on the unit and control the fan speed.
But let's be real -- anyone buying this wants to control the RGB lighting, and you need the app for that.
The app, available on both Android and iOS, has toggles to turn the fan, internal lighting, and nozzle lighting on or off. It also shows the current battery level (in increments of 10%, until you get to 5%). There's also a prominent button to buy filters, though it just redirects you to Razer's home page as opposed to the exact page where you need to be to top up your filter supply.
Is lighting really Chroma if it's not tied to Razer Synapse? Razer claims it is, and the lighting here is fairly robust. Both internal and external lighting offer static colors, breathing effects (switching between two colors) and spectrum cycling. Only the outside lights get the "wave" effect that rapidly switches between colors, but those are obnoxious when they flash right in your peripheral vision
You can pick the lighting colors from a wheel, but there's also the option to change the RGB value numbers or type in hex codes. Colors can be saved in the app for later use, too.
The software also features customer support and feedback sections. Both let you choose between the "classic black" model I reviewed and a mysterious white option that hasn't, as of this writing, been announced.
"As of now there aren't plans to do additional color variants of Zephyr, unless there's community demand, so this is likely just a remnant of a very early idea when building the Zephyr app," a Razer spokesperson told Tom's Hardware.
The best mask for any sort of protection is the one you're going to wear. And while Razer goes to great lengths to ensure that this isn't meant explicitly for COVID-19 protection, we all know the context.
The Zephyr, while not too heavy, is bulky. That makes it difficult to take with you everywhere. And with its one size fits all approach, if you find it uncomfortable as I did, you may opt for something else. Perhaps tossing Razer's filters every few days creates less waste than an entire mask. But if that other mask is more comfortable for you, that's the one you should wear.
What Razer does offer with the Zephyr is a way to express yourself. If you love the cyberpunk Mad Max look of the Zephyr, by all means, go for it. In the same way many people get different designs on their masks, they can customize colors with Razer’s mask.
Razer has a ton of ideas to improve the mask experience. Having fresh air is nice, though we're unsure how that affects safety in the long run. The solid anti-fog system to make it easier to see mouth movements and facial expressions is a legitimately good idea.
But this mask isn't welcoming. It tries to do too much and ultimately masters none of it. It's big, it's aggressive, and it can even be loud.
If this mask helps you express yourself as a person, a gamer, a fan of Razer or even just lets you show off your favorite color, and that's worth $99 and filters to you, by all means, go for it. But the benefits that this mask brings come with an equal number of issues.
I think I'll be turning back to my cloth masks with built-in filters and some KN95's when I need them. They don’t have fresh air actively pumped through them or customizable RGB, but they're easy to carry and comparatively comfortable to wear. Before Razer gets there with a Zephyr for most people, we’re probably going to have to wait for version 2.0.