As infomercials go, it was an incredible one. A clip, less than a minute long, that somehow made compelling case that people should wear a piece of plastic on their heads, strap a piece of velcro to the back of their wired telephone phone, and get a truly hands-free experience.
This week, a tweet about an infomercial received more than 100,000 retweets and 380,000 likes, an impressive level of virality for a device that saw its heyday in the early ‘90s.
A newspaper ad for Phone Relief, circa 1994.
It is amazing because it makes anyone using it look like an absolute goober.
As the founder of a blog about Tedium, my interest was obviously piqued. So I got my hands on this device, after discovering that there was a company selling it on eBay. And, by golly, it is certainly a device. A quick review of the Phone Relief, something that should not exist, but does:
The packaging. These packing materials were not designed for an unboxing video. A drab cardboard box, with an address label taking on a whole bunch of space. Opening it makes clear that the care put into this product was not tender or loving. The joy of this product did not translate into a box worthy of, say, Unbox Therapy.
The fit and finish. It’s entirely possible that this object was new old stock, produced multiple decades ago. I can tell you this because the holder was not easy to move around, stuck in place as if it had been rusted. After a bit of pulling, I finally got it loose, only to learn that the thing that was holding it in was not a track, like you might find on a headphone, but glue. Old glue. Glue that made my hands uncomfortably sticky. The kind of glue that Apple probably uses to hold its iPhone batteries in place. The kind of glue that feels like it might minorly burn your skin. It made me somewhat sad that the build quality wasn’t as high as my daily driver, the Sennheiser PXC 550, but maybe I was expecting too much from a product that came in an unmarked box. (One nice touch, however: It came with two pieces of velcro: One for beige phones, and one for black ones. Glad to see style was considered in this.)
The author tests the device.
The look and feel. When I tried putting it on my head using an old rotary phone headset I had lying around, I found the headset fairly snug, but not to the point where it negatively affected the circulation to my brain. (That was already in trouble after I spent the money to buy this thing.) I also tried it on my smartphone with my wife around. She questioned her dedication to me. She asked, “Why would you do this to yourself?” Honestly, this product feels like a self-own, but I knew that going in. But if I hadn’t bought it, the internet would have no idea what it was missing and what exactly made that commercial so compelling way back when.
Should you buy it? If you have 16 dollars burning a hole in your pocket to buy one of these devices on eBay, you should consider getting a roll of quarters and using the rest as bus fare on a trip to the nearest arcade, even if you own a car. You’re wasting your money and time, but at least you’ll have fun doing it.
I should wear this out to a coffee shop sometime, just to see if people ask me if I'm OK.