This pick is based on our extensive testing of players over several hours (and miles) of pool swimming and further testing during open water swimming by 4 testers spread between California and Hawaii.
First things first: There is no such thing as a great waterproof MP3 player. The category is all over the place, and every player we tested had good and bad aspects. When searching for a waterproof player you’re going to find a few (what feels like) half-assed attempts by major brands—Sony, for example, has the Walkman Sports MP3 player, which we previously tested in the pool and found to be lacking (users on Amazon had even worse things to say about it.) And the Speedo Aquabeat and the Aquabeat 2.0 were so savaged by users in their feedback we didn’t even bother to test them ourselves.
First things first: There is no such thing as a great waterproof MP3 player.
You’ll also find a slew of off-brand, cheap (in price and, often, in construction) players that appear to be just off the boat from China.
Most of these are good enough for non-serious swimmers who aren’t going to put them through the ringer and don’t want to spend a lot of money. That said, according to a disproportionate number of user reviews, they also seem to be prone to breaking down, falling apart, or having bizarre warranty policies that mean you’ll be likely to shell out for replacements after long periods of use. On top of it all, because these off-brand cheapies aren’t backed by major manufacturers, what’s available in the category is constantly changing. After at least a month of testing and researching we discovered a bunch of new devices that we hadn’t seen before, either because they didn’t exist yet or weren’t stocked when we originally searched. There is little hope of talking to these companies directly, so if you go with an off-brand player be sure you buy it from a reputable seller that can replace it if it breaks down. (Users on SwimOutlet.com had a lot of good things to say about the site’s customer service and painless replacement of buggy waterproof players.)
There’s also a third category, which is basically aftermarket waterproofing of popular players. A bunch of different companies waterproof Apple devices for use in the pool or ocean. Waterfi is the most popular of these, offering an Apple iPod Shuffle (with regular non-waterproof headphones) for; UnderwaterAudio has the same deal (with special Waterfi waterproof short cord earbuds) for.
So what do the experts say about the waterproof MP3 player category? Well, there’s the rub. There are pretty much no waterproof MP3 player experts. None of the major gadget reviewing sites and publications have tackled this sub-category with any thoroughness. Likely this is because it’s too muddled and niche for their purposes. Every now and again there’s a review of a single player, or an untested roundup of what’s available from major brands in the category, but for the most part it’s an untested universe. This means we had to rely on Amazon and SwimOutlet user reviews, the occasional product test story, and an extensive look at what was available to determine what we were and weren’t going to test.
Testing We ended up testing seven different players. The criteria for our selection was as follows:
Did it have lots of user reviews? In almost every case user reviews were extremely mixed, so we selected players that seemed to be popular buys. Whether or not folks liked it, we wanted to try out ones getting purchased the most to see if they were worth the investment. Given the utter lack of professional reviews it was clear that people’s purchases were made completely in the dark.
– Did it have a goggle clip? Believe it or not, there are several players on the market that don’t have any way to attach the device to your goggles or swimsuit. We even ended up accidentally testing two with arm bands that didn’t because it’s not always clear that the device you choose will come with a clip or not. (Imagine getting tangled up in a long cable attached to your arm and head while swimming. Not cool.)
– Did you ask for it? We had a few queries on Twitter about whether or not the Waterfi-waterproofed iPod shuffle was worth the price so we tested it.
– What was the price? The price points for these things are all over the map, from the top-of-the-line Neptune to a not-so-well-constructed headphone/player combo from JLab. We wanted to test players in lots of price points.
How did we test?
Given that every single player we tested said it was good for ocean and pool use we tested players in both scenarios over several miles and hours. We swam laps with each one for about 30 minutes, give or take. We swam for about an hour in the open ocean with each. And then we also handed off the gear to two other friends to verify our findings. Overall, we estimate that four of us swam about 5.5 miles over the course of roughly 6 hours total swimming time. We listened to music as well as podcasts. While swimming we looked for whether or not there were enough earbud tips provided to create a tight seal, listened for sound quality, felt the buttons to see if they were easy to reach/decipher while swimming, and paid attention to how distracting the device was: Did it move around on our head? Did the water drag it out of our ears? Were the chords long enough to get tangled in?
The major takeaway from testing these things is that it really just comes down to the headphones. Even with players that had less-than-stellar sound, as long as the earbuds were able to create a tight seal in our ears the player was good enough. That said, variability in ear canals and buds that fit in them were such that we can’t really recommend any of the in-ear players for serious swimmers. Once water finds its way into the space between bud and ear canal it alters the sound in a distracting way. This is not exactly conducive to uninterrupted swimming and there’s clearly a lot of R&D work to be done in the universe of in-ear waterproof buds before somebody gets this right.
The better players were also ones that had short headphone cords and a tight clip (one player we tested had a clip so big that it didn’t hold the device in place and it slid all over our head while swimming). Button location and ease of pressing was also key. The last thing you want to do while swimming laps is stop to unclip your MP3 player so you can see the buttons to change the song or turn up the volume.
All of this is why we ultimately selected the Neptune from Finis. When it comes right down to it, the Neptune’s bone-conduction eliminates the majority of sound issues you’d have from using an earbud device underwater. Its controls are also large buttons, and the entire device is water sealed. This includes the cable port, which uses metal connections on a surface mount rather than in a hole to charge and sync music. This all amounts to a device that lets you focus on swimming, not fiddling.
The Neptune’s bone-conduction eliminates the majority of sound issues you’d have.
The Neptune has three parts. The player portion (note: this was one of the few devices we tested that had a screen) clips onto your goggles at the back of your head and two oval-shaped pieces clip onto your goggles in front of your ear. The bone-conduction pieces are meant to sit just over your jawbones (not over your ear). When music plays through them they vibrate your bone so you can hear them in any condition—your ears aren’t important.
The buttons on the Neptune are located in two places. On the player (at the back of your head) are shared buttons for forward/backward and volume up/down as well as a button for play/pause and one for previous menu (which you’ll never use while swimming). It also has a handy play/pause button on the right ear “bud,” which is really helpful for quickly stopping the music.
One of our testers, who had never used a waterproof MP3 player before, had this to say: “I’m not sure it ever would have occurred to me to shell out for one of these underwater players—even given how much time I spend in the pool—but now that I’ve had the chance to try one, I can sort of see the appeal, but only for certain types of swimming. … On the whole, I found it easy to put on and pretty comfortable to wear. I worried that the part on the back of my head would be annoying, but I got used to it pretty quickly.”
Finis has a 30-day return policy on all of its products, plus the Neptune comes with a 1-year warranty that will repair or replace the device if it stops working because of a manufacturing defect.
Adding music was very simple. It works with iTunes, which is unusual in the category, and it can also load songs using simple drag-and-drop. But you can’t use iTunes playlists—you have to make them yourself on the device by highlighting individual songs and adding them to your Favorites while you’re listening to the song. (Which is basically impossible while you’re also swimming.) The menu system is a little overly complicated and, frankly, given how little you’ll be using this thing compared to your regular non-water-based MP3 player all the extra bells and whistles (like an equalizer) seemed excessive. You’re not going to be scrolling through menus and playing with the bass levels while you’re swimming anyway. In an ideal world, Finis would simplify the whole device and lower the price.
All that said, the Neptune was easy to attach and use while not distracting us too much while we were swimming. If you’re a serious swimmer and you’re going to use an MP3 player on a regular basis, this is going to be a reliable choice for you.
There are a few caveats here, of course. First, the sound can sometimes be a bit funny because the device works best when it’s fully submerged. This means when you’re doing backstroke the sound is crystal clear. Breaststroke, however, where your head is bobbing in and out of the water, changes the clarity of the sound with every stroke and was seriously annoying to one tester but 3 other testers did not find this to be a major distraction. Finis recommends using these with earplugs and we found that this did, in fact, enhance the sound quality a bit. All that said, we do NOT recommend getting the Neptune if you want to listen to podcasts or audiobooks. Any type of sound that you have to hear clearly enough to make out individual words just plain doesn’t work with the Neptune.
We also managed to dislodge the “buds” a few times with our arms during backstroke and freestyle (and one time it slid in front of our ear and was so loud that we had to stop swimming). The other caveat is that, because the bone conductors rely on your goggles to stay in place over your jawbone, the device requires goggles for use, which is the case for any of our recommended devices.
The final caveat is the price. The Neptune is priced on the high end of all devices we tested.
What the Expert Says about The Neptune
There was one legitimate expert that we managed to track down who knew a thing or two about waterproof players. Ray Maker, aka the DC Rainmaker, has quite a bit of experience with all-things sports-gadget-related. He writes his own blog, called DC Rainmaker, where he reviews sports tech and writes how-to guides for integrating technology into an exercise routine. Ray also writes a weekly “sports electronic mailbag” for slowtwitch.com, where he answers questions about sports gear.
Ray has done two extensive posts cataloging waterproof MP3 players (though, oddly, we didn’t come across many of the players he mentions in our own research, which really highlights the fact that the non-brand-name units are inconsistently available) and the Neptune itself (as well as taking a looking at the now-discontinued SwimP3, Finis’s precursor to the Neptune). Ray had lots of good things to say about the Neptune, much of which was in line with our own testing. In fact, he mentioned in his review of the device that he would be returning the free unit he received from Finis and purchasing his own.
He also had the same issues we did with the overly-complex need to favorite songs in order to add them to a playlist: “The problem with favorites is that it’s incredibly tedious. You’ve basically gotta build your own manual playlist on the device itself, by wandering through all your artists, then albums, then tracks, to find the songs you want.”
And, in fact, at the end of his review he mentioned the lack of playlist functionality TWICE, just to hit home the point of how lame the missing feature was.
He also found that he preferred the bone conduction to using regular headphones (a topic that was a bit controversial for us — we argued about whether or not bone conduction was an enjoyable experience quite a bit during our testing, though 3 out of 4 of us didn’t have a problem with it). Ray also noted our biggest problem with all the other types of earbuds, which is that it’s extremely tedious to find the right fit:
“I’ve had no issues in hearing the music using the bone conduction method, and generally prefer it to earphones. I dislike earphones for a few reasons. First is that you’ve gotta find the perfect set of earbuds for your ears. Most of the swimming MP3 players out there do include a set of different sizes, but I’ve found that what works on land doesn’t always work in the pool – so it takes a few sessions to pick out the right ones. Second is that some (but not all) of the other units on the market require that the headphone plug use a specialized waterproof plug – which means that if for some reason the plug isn’t tight (usually they screw in), then you could kill your unit. Whereas in the case of the Neptune, there’s no way I can forget to do any waterproofing related activity. It’s always in a state of waterproofness.”
The step down
If you’re not a serious, regular swimmer (or you want to listen to podcasts or audiobooks while you swim, or you hate bone conduction) then the Neptune isn’t for you. It’s a pricey investment for occasional or low-impact use. And, while frankly it’s difficult to recommend ANY waterproof MP3 player, based on our tests the best option for a cheap player is the Fitness Technologies UWaterG4.
The UWaterG4 claims to be the smallest waterproof MP3 player on the market and that seems about right (it wasn’t much bigger than the iPod shuffle). It comes with short-cord headphones (and a headphone extension cord) and has a nice, tight clip that holds it firmly in place on the back of your goggles. We found that once we were able to figure out how to get a tight fit with the earbuds, it had really excellent sound—the best of the bunch, in fact. It works with iTunes and has a 21-day refund policy and 60-day extended warranty that includes repair or replacement.
That said, like all of the cheaper devices, there are lots of caveats. The buttons are a bit small and don’t have any touchable cues to help you tell the difference between them while you’re swimming. It only comes with one deep-in-ear bud option, which means finding a good, tight, earbud fit could be tricky. Online user reviews are extremely mixed. Folks are mostly unsatisfied with the earbud situation and some people note that the software starts to act funny after a while (we didn’t test long enough to experience this). There are also a few reviews that note the device didn’t work when it first arrived but the replacement worked well (we had this exact experience with another device, so it seems to be a trend in the lower-priced models).
Our expert, Ray, actually tested an older version of this unit in his waterproof MP3 player roundup (though it has since been rebranded to the unit we tried out). In his review, he calls the player “a great way to get into the underwater music player scene.” Though, from looking at the device he tested out, it’s important to note that the unit we tested is a slightly updated version and seems to have addressed a few of the issues he had with the older model.
Why we didn’t pick the Waterfi or any waterproofed iPod Shuffle
Several folks asked us to test the Waterfi, and it seems to be a very popular choice (possibly because it has the benefit of already being a respectable Apple product). So why didn’t we recommend it?
Well, the main reason was price. The Waterfi (and UnderwaterAudio’s comparable product for that matter) doesn’t come with waterproof headphones. They give you the standard Apple earbuds and you have to buy your headphones separately. Waterfi sells short-cord waterproof earbuds for. That brings the real price of the device up to an astronomical. And, unfortunately, we had some trouble getting a good fit with the earbuds. Both of our reviewers (ocean and pool) found the sound to be pretty muddy and there was a lot of messing with the buds to try and keep water out while we swam. Also, the waterproofing process does something funny to the Shuffle’s buttons and they were surprisingly difficult to press. We really had to get in there and push hard to get the device to respond.
Waterproofing an Apple MP3 player seems like a great idea, and we really wanted to like it, but it just didn’t seem like a great value. If it was half the price, with earbuds included, we might reevaluate that.
Other devices we tested and why we didn’t pick them
Aside from a slew of off-brand randoms (a couple of which were sturdy enough but didn’t come with any clips), there were a few devices that you’re sure to come across while researching, have extremely mixed user reviews across the board (from absolutely love to absolutely hate), and weren’t good enough for us to recommend. Here’s why:
JLab Go – This player/headset combo was the cheapest we tested and wasn’t the worst of the bunch (it had great sound), but it had some serious drawbacks that ultimately led us not to recommend it. Most disconcerting was that formatting the device’s drive voids all of its warranties. And the headset isn’t sturdy. Which means that if you accidentally format it and then it breaks (which we think it’s likely to do) you won’t get your money back. Also, of the three headsets we were sent, one of them wasn’t able to load any music and then stopped working before we could get it into the pool. Lastly, one tester found that drag from the water kept pulling it out of his ears while swimming.
Sony Walkman Sport MP3 Player (tested by a previous reviewer) – Our tester had the same problem as almost every Amazon user review—water gets in between the earbuds and your ear canal so easily the device is almost unusable. This was a problem with many of the players we tested, so it certainly wasn’t unique to Sony. What was unique, however, was how universally folks complained about this specific problem in user reviews leading us to believe it’s a flaw in the design and engineering (rather than simply a fit issue).
Nu Technology Dolphin 2.0 – This player was truly ridiculous (and it’s actually shocking to believe it’s a *second* iteration). The metal-ish finish was nice enough, but in order to attach the clip you have to go through an absurd process, putting a rubber case on the device and then manhandling the clip into place. Once it’s on there, the clip is so big it doesn’t make a tight fit on your goggles, so it slid all over the place while swimming. The sound on this thing was also incredibly tinny. That said, it had a ton of earbud choices, which was great.
Speedo Aquabeat – As we mentioned earlier, Speedo’s attempt at a waterproof player has been so universally panned by user reviews we didn’t even bother to test it out. The most common complaint: after a few weeks-to-months of use it simply stopped working.
QQ-Tech and WCI – Both of these players were constructed solidly enough and operated well enough underwater, but neither of them came with clips or ways to attach the players to yourself, which is why, though we tested them, we didn’t consider them contenders.
Pyle and GSI – We didn’t test either of these units, but they are analogs of the JLab and Sony Walkman “neckband” style player that combines the headphones and players into one unit. We had such a bad experience with the Sony (and trouble enough with the JLab) that we didn’t feel testing additional similar units was worth our time.
The bottom line is: you CAN go wrong when purchasing a waterproof MP3 player. All of the options in this tiny niche market of the music playing world are flawed in one way or another. There just isn’t enough dedication to engineering and software design, and many of these gadgets feel like they were just an afterthought, thrown together quickly without consideration of a user’s needs or the fact that earbuds just don’t really work in the water.
And while it’s true that listening to music or podcasts while you swim is a fantastic way to break up the monotony of doing laps, the devices available just aren’t up to snuff. (Though there is definitely something to be said for a Dr. Frankenstein mashup version of all of them.) If you can handle bone-conduction and are really serious about regular swimming, the Neptune is the most thought-out, well-designed and reliable option.