So what’s the difference between Randolph Engineering’s Aviator Sunglasses, and the seemingly identical yet much cheaper Original Pilots from American Optical?
Aside from the price, Not much.
But first, some background for those not familiar with these two companies. Both make their sunglasses here in the United States. Both are based in Massachusetts. And both, at one time or another, held the contract to make sunglasses for the United States Military. Randolph Engineering currently has it, while American Optical’s Original Pilots were the first sunglasses on the Moon.
Randolph makes more than a handful of styles, while AO produces just a couple; their Original Pilots, and one other frame called “The General.” But for both, their flagship model is their classic aviator style, with the much-sought after slightly squared-off lens, metal frames, and style that works both casually and dressed up.
Lens, frame shape, bridge design… all virtually identical.
For that big of a price-gap you’d think there’d be a noticeable difference in terms of quality or comfort. But there just doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the two.
The aesthetics of the Randolph Engineering Aviator and the American Optical Original Pilots are virtually identical. Both are available in different frame and lens colors, with polarized lenses available for an upcharge. Randolph DOES seem to produce more options in terms of colors & metals, with availability of Rose Gold plated and even Platinum frames available. Y’know, in case you have to burn through an inheritance or something. The upper, outside curve of the AO frame might be slightly softer… maybe, but it’s basically imperceptible.
Branding on the AOs: Upper left lens + stamp on ear piece.
In your hands, and more importantly on your face, they’re awfully close. The brands attach their nose pads slightly differently, but that doesn’t seem to affect comfort. The hinges appear to also be identical in construction. Even the branding mirrors each other, with an upper left lens badge, as well as a stamped, tonal mention on the ear pieces.
Branding on the REs: Upper left lens + stamp on ear piece.
Each pair of Randolph Engineering Aviators comes with a soft case and maintenance kit (extra nose pads, screws, and small screwdriver). The AOs come with a noticeably cheaper case… but who cares.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s going to come down to frame & lens color. And unless you’re looking for something real specific, the American Optical Original Pilots are going to be the way to go for most. They’re cheaper. Much cheaper, while the Randolph Engineering Aviators just don’t look or feel twice as good to match their price.
Sure, you can now find RE Aviators on Sierra Trading Post for half off (size is 52mm? Those are small), but the American Optical Original Pilots are consistently going for around $50 – $75 on Amazon. With the Randolphs, you get better availability (like at Nordstrom), a better website, nicer presentation, and that maintenance kit. All good things. But for the guy who’s got affordability in mind, those extras just won’t add up to almost double the cost.
NOTE: Specific sunglasses shown in this post are as follows: Randolph Engineering 55mm Gunmetal/Blue Gradiant Aviators, currently going for $139.90 during the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale (normally a whopping $209). American Optical 57 mm Original Pilots Black Frame w/ True Color Grey Glass, $88 direct through AO or around fifty bucks on Amazon. Also, if I’m missing a major quality difference between these two brands and their aviator styles, please send in an email.