Real Life Comparison: Vivid Air and Vivid Coil 23

By Steve Wentz
I’ve been on both RockShox Vivid Coil and Vivid Air rear shocks for about a year now. In that time, I’ve seen a bunch of chatter on the web about them. While there are some solid opinions, there are a lot of “they're sick!” or “they suck” responses. I think either response is useless, so as an experienced user, I want to provide some insight into how these shocks perform and compare in a long-term, real-world environment.

Some Background
I'd like to provide some background about myself, the reviewer. I’ve been racing since 1996. I attended World Champs in Kaprun as a junior (don't ask how I did), I've done a few World Cups, raced NORBA Nationals when they were very competitive and have been all over the World, attending local races for fun and adventure. Since my first time using suspension, I've tried to learn as much as I could. Just as the products have evolved, so has my experience and knowledge. My opinion about what works best has changed over time, just like the change from elastomers to mega-shimmed dampers. 

Disclaimer that shouldn't matter
I’ve been a sponsored rider for a while now. I have helped both Fox and RockShox with product development. Both companies make great products and I think just about any suspension part you can buy now is pretty damn good. The Team I ride for uses RockShox and this is not a comparison of one brand to another. This is a detailed look at my experiences and setup solutions using Vivid Coil and eventually the new Vivid Air. Spouting off about using different brand in the comments will get you nowhere.

Just the Facts
Rider: 175 pounds, 182 or so with all gear, on the bike.
Frame: Medium 2010 Commencal Supreme DH. 8 inches of travel, progressive suspension design.
Fork: 2011 Rock Shox Boxxer World Cup. I usually have 65 psi in the fork, 12
clicks out (from full slow/closed) of low speed compression, 16 clicks
out on high speed. I don’t know what the rebound is at off the top of
my head, but most people say I run my
stuff at the faster end of the spectrum. I think it is prudent to note what is
working on the front of a bike as suspension setup is a balance between front and rear.
Notes: I ride flat pedals. That makes a big difference in my suspension setup, compared to when I was clipped in and racing.

Learning Vivid Coil
So, early this year, I received a Vivid coil to put on my DH bike. It is a totally stock, 2010 shock. I used a 400 pound spring, the same weight that was on my previous shock, the Fox DHX RC4. I mounted the shock and started twirling things around, making it slow, fast, firm, softer. I eventually settle in to the middle of everything for my first run.
     I chose a trail that I am very familiar with (something I feel is important when testing equipment). The trail is a fast, relatively well-known trail in SoCal that's about 2 minutes long. It has a few chattery sections, some corners and a few big compressions off of rocks.
     Since the Vivid Coil has compressing and 2 rebound circuits, I keep it simple on Day 1. I decide to only work compression settings. I leave my beginning stroke rebound four clicks out (red knob on the rear of shock) and three clicks out on ending stroke rebound (small allen key, silver knob by the blue compression adjuster). 
     On my first run, the compression is 3 clicks out from the least amount of compression damping and I'm very impressed with how the compression handles the big rock rolls and compressions down g-outs. My initial thought is that I don’t even want more compression and each click makes noticeable differences. Oh well, only one way to go from here...I try the shock fully closed on the compression, 0 clicks out. It wasn't ideal, but definitely worth trying to see how the bike and shock respond.
     The following run I was at full compression firmness. I didn’t think that I would ever want that after my first run, but halfway down I’m pretty used to it, and it is amazing to me how much easier preloading and bunnyhopping is. Coming into some S-turns in the bottom of the track is where I could really feel the difference, not necessarily in a good way, though. I was getting put over the front of my bike entering a bermed left corner, 20 mph or so. There were medium sized braking bumps coming into the corner, and the bike felt controlled, but very high in the travel coming in. I felt a bit more on top of the bike rather than ‘in’ it. I never thought that I would want to blow through the travel more, but for that section I did.
     I use one click less compression damping on the next run and it is a fairly happy medium. The run is fun, but I’m still a bit too far over the front in some steeper corners, so I settle on two clicks out from full closed for the rest of the day. It is still better compression than I ever had before that day, but the bike settled into the travel enough through entrance bumps (think thump, thump, thump, thump) to be level and confidence inspiring. Over the small chatter, coming into one of the fastest sections on top of the trail, the bike did move around a little more than when compression fully open, but that was a trade off I was willing to take for more control over rocks, compressions and hits that affect my front to back weight distribution.
     Lesson from day one? I should know this by now...don't be afraid about changing something that I think is good because it could be better. You don’t know what your bike can feel like unless you experiment, one click at a time.

Day two on the Vivid coil is on another trail that I'm very familiar with but has different characteristics. The trail there is a much steeper, tighter and has fewer sections of prolonged speed. It is around 3 minutes with decomposed granite and sand terrain.
     It was apparent to me rather quickly that the setup from yesterday's trail did not work here. I felt like I was falling over the front of the bike, but my fork wasn’t diving. I was just up too high on the bike. As with yesterday, today’s goal was to dial in one adjustment for the day. Since I felt too high in the bike, it was time to start fiddling with the rebound adjustments.
     I slowed down the beginning stroke rebound by two clicks, now four in from fastest. This adjustment made the difference that I wanted. The rear travel was settled into and felt balanced on top of the trail, where there were relatively few bumps. On the stutter bumps, the bike felt like it was a bit harsh. I didn’t know what to do about this really, so I increased the compression by one click (to one out from full closed).  That change helped the back end ride slightly higher in the travel, and have more travel in reserve for each stutter bump. My bike felt pretty good after that.
     Even though the rebound was set much slower for this track, for the slower speeds and steeper pitches, it still rebounded well on the stutter bumps. This was a revelation to me. All previous rebound adjustments I had made in suspension of years past seemed to be very one-dimensional. The suspension would feel stable, but pack up on successive hits if I made rebound slower. The suspension would feel ‘alive’ but would sometimes kick me up off of hard landings if rebound was faster. I could choose one or the other.  Now I had the ability to change just one part of the rebound, allowing the ending stroke (set in the middle of the range) to be relatively quick, allowing the suspension to still extend to get ready for the next hit.
     For this trail, I was able to set the compression circuit only for the bumps I encountered...amazing.  I didn’t have to make the compression more open to sink into the travel and squat the back of the bike, compromising the bike’s ability to stay on top of bumps. I only used the beginning stroke rebound to squat the rear of the bike down in the entrance to corners, effectively taking my perception of steepness out of the hill. 

Vivid Coil Setup Conclusions
If I was to keep writing all day, this guide would be a lot longer than it already is. I did some little changes throughout the season, but those mid-season adjustments were a compression click here for g-outs and bumps or a beginning stroke rebound click there to adjust the front-to-back weight distribution of the bike.
     The Vivid Coil was the best rear damper I had ever used. I would rather have the ability to adjust the two rebound circuits independently than to have more compression adjustments. The Vivid’s compression is very good, but you can’t adjust the air pressure or volume, which might be a good thing.

Time for Vivid Air
Fast forward to July and I have a chance to put the new Vivid Air* on my bike. I was pretty excited, but also very skeptical. As I swapped out the coil for the air, I did what all of us dorks do. I feel the weight difference between the two, with a Vivid Coil in one hand and the Vivid Air in the other. According to the scale, Vivid Air is about a pound less than my Vivid Coil setup (9.5 x 3 inch 400 pound steel spring). If I had a Ti spring, the difference would be about 1/2 a pound.
     I install the Vivid Air and I start with about 33% sag which is 170psi for me. Sag was easy to figure out with the sag-meter on the shock. I set the rebound to match what I was currently running on my Vivid Coil - 4 out on beginning stroke rebound, 6 out on ending stroke rebound.

Vivid Air Testing Environment
I’m riding at SolVista now and there are plenty of trail options. I go to my favorite trail for trying new parts, Cheez-It to Ashy Larry. This trail combo features natural and man-made terrain, stutter bumps, lots of mid-sized hits in the middle and bigger g-outs and jumps in the end - a good overall test of suspension. It is very hard to get suspension tuned for everything on this trail at once. 

First Runs, Confusion and Frustration
The Vivid Air basically felt bad in the top sections, but great in the bottom.  In the stutters and medium hits she felt dead, but came alive when speeds came up and I started hitting the g-outs and jumps. The compression was set at 2 clicks out, so I increased that to 0 out, full firm on the low-speed compression. The reasoning was to set the ride higher in the travel, so the bike would come alive and not feel so dead. This adjustment was not the cure, so I played with the beginning stroke rebound a bit, to make the shock more lively. The beginning stroke rebound helped up top, but it made the bike want to dance around a bit, lower on the trail. That wasn’t the fix either. 
     If all that sounds confusing, it was. I had no clue how to make the shock work well on the wide variety of terrain and I just wanted the Vivid Air to feel like my Vivid Coil did just a few hours earlier.
     And wanted the Vivid Air to work...I really did! For one, it seemed so much cooler in my head, not many people had it yet, it was light, and it was different. But, I did not think I would use the Vivid Air if it kept feeling like it did.

Don't Give Up, Ask for Help
I think a lot of riders would have ended their adjustments here, in frustration.  That would be unfortunate, because the shock would never feel like it could. I went through the next week just riding it and getting used to the feel it had before the RockShox guys came up to visit the following weekend.  This is an incredible perk of being close to Colorado Springs where SRAM R&D goes down.
     I talked to the RockShox guys and told them my experience with Vivid Air. They asked where my ending stroke rebound was (it was in the middle, 3 out) and they told me to change that setting. I had never touched this adjustment in the previous 4 months on the Vivid Coil, and I hadn’t on the VA either.  They suggested that I turn the ending stroke rebound out, making the shock react faster. I thought this would add to a sketchy feel, which is why I didn’t touch the adjuster before.  It was explained to me that the ending stroke rebound could act like a ride height adjuster as well, making the bike ride higher in the travel through successive medium hits where the shock was using a lot of its stroke.
     Riding the bike with ending stroke rebound 4 clicks out was a welcomed improvement. The bike stayed smoother through some of the chatter up top, and it didn’t seem to impair any big hit performance or jumping.  I ended up settling on the fastest ending stroke adjustment I could, 6 out, and was much happier.
     My teammates (MT and Moga) were trying out the Vivid Air and we were all trying to get it to feel like the coil, which we loved.  None of us could get it to do that until MT upped his pressure a lot. He weighs 215lbs (220 after cookies) and was running his PSI near to his body weight. He then put in 240 psi to see how it would feel and that’s where our adjustments all came together. 

Knowledge is Power
It turned out that we were just too low in the travel for the bike. The Commencal is a very progressive bike as far as the suspension design goes. I like that, but we found that the Vivid Air was also somewhat progressive in its rate.  The Commencal sits about a 35% of the way through its stroke with 150 psi in the Vivid Air and around 30% with 200 psi in it. That’s not a lot of difference in sag considering the pressure adjustments. The bike just gets stiffer a third of the way through, so nearly regardless of spring rate, that’s where the sag settled.
     The important part was when we were riding.  When we were hitting small and medium sized bumps with air pressure close to our body weight in the shock, we were already into the stiff part of the travel, so it felt harsh.  Big hits were unaffected because the suspension had some time to react and extend beforehand, so we were using the compression damping to control the bike instead of riding on a spring rate that was already compressed. Adding compression to keep the bike high didn’t help that much because we were still on the stiffer part of the spring and suspension rate for the bike.

Vivid Air Setup Conclusions
I ended up riding with 190 psi in the shock (up from 170 originally), which allowed the bike to sit with a little less sag than the usual 33%, but it rode through bumps really well.  The bike felt like it was suspended just high enough to allow the initial hit of medium sized bumps to feel controlled, not harsh.  That increase in air pressure along with the ending stroke rebound set to full fast made the Vivid Air the best shock I had ever felt on successive medium hits. On big hits it is always incredible...very, very difficult to feel it bottom out. 
End of Season Comparison
So what does all this make of the Vivid Air? It is a damn good downhill shock.  It is better than I thought it would be, and a REAL alternative to a coil shock for DH use. I’ve used the Vivid Air in full runs at Whistler, back at the original tracks I tried it on in California, Northstar, and a bunch of other places. I said in the beginning that this would be a comparison of Vivid Air to Vivid Coil, so in a nutshell, this is what I think:

Vivid Coil: In January, it was the best controlled shock I had ever used.  The ability to control the attitude of the bike with rebound while leaving compression adjustments for bumps is awesome.  I’m a believer in dual rebound control. 

Vivid Air: She has the same damping feel as the Vivid Coil, but the air spring rate allows the bike to feel more nimble, because it is inherently progressive. This is not the case with all air springs, which can fall victim to blowing through travel. I feel I can pump the bike from corner to corner better, preload it better and it is always ready for that ‘oh shit’ moment when I really need it.  There is no competition in my mind on big hits and jumping. Being able to change the spring rate with a shock pump is nice, too. I like to eat, so I never know when I'll need a spring rate increase. Coil springs cost money, take up room and vary in their consistency, so air wins in that respect.

End of Season Conclusions
I would rather have the Vivid Coil on the lower section of A-Line after a full Garbanzo run, where there are half a billion inch-high chatter bumps. Every shock heats up, everything fades a bit, and the Vivid Air can feel the effects of heat after a 15 minute, full-pace run that has 3000 feet of descending.
     Race runs around the 4 minute mark?  No question...the added control and responsiveness of the Vivid Air is a worthy trade off for the occasional washboard section at the bottom of a run. If that sort of thing bothers you, get the coil. For everywhere else? I prefer the Vivid Air.
     I have gone back and forth with shocks for the better part of the year and the Vivid Air feels better to me. It feels faster, skims over bumps better. Making my bike a pound lighter? That’s a nice bonus, too.

Whatever the suspension products you use, experiment, one click at a time. We live in a time where suspension is incredible and with some time, you can make your ride feel as good as ever. If you happen to be riding in Colorado next year, stop by SolVista, we help with suspension adjustment for free. The trails are rad too, but hey, I’m a bit biased with that.

*The Vivid Air shocks that were given to us had been run on a testing machine for the equivalent of 10 years of riding.  Oil was changed, shims replaced, but seals left in.  It was our job to break these for RockShox, but we haven’t been able to do that yet.

Vital MTB's Vivid Air Introduction video from April, 2010

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