About a year and a half ago, I took up swimming. I’m not very good, or fast. When I swim, I look like a rotisserie chicken on a broken spit. But the water was a place where I could get away from electronics, at least for an hour or so.
Then I found out about underwater MP3 players.
For the past couple weeks, I’ve been testing two of these — the Neptune MP3 Player, made by a swim-equipment company called Finis, and a waterproofed iPod shuffle sold by a small company called Underwater Audio.
The $160 Neptune, a three-part gadget that attaches to a pair of swimmer’s goggles, is mostly aimed at competitive swimmers or athletes — people who are really getting at it in the pool and need some motivational music. Interestingly, the Neptune doesn’t use headphones. The sound is conducted through your cheekbones.
The Underwater Audio iPod can be used for both lap swimming and lounging in the pool. An added bonus: You can also use the iPod on dry land, whereas I doubt many people will want to go running with the Finis strapped to a pair of swim goggles. Underwater Audio sells the fourth-generation waterproof iPod shuffle for $149 as a standalone device, and for $165 with waterproof headphones.
To be clear, this product isn’t commissioned by Apple, though the device is a legitimate iPod. Underwater Audio buys a bunch of iPod shuffles, fills them with a proprietary waterproof sealant, marks them up and resells them. There’s no external waterproof casing or cover. A couple of other companies sell waterproofed iPods, as well, but I didn’t get to try those.
Of these two, I prefer the Underwater Audio iPod. If you’ve used an iPod shuffle before, the tiny, square-shaped metal device feels familiar, so you’re not fumbling to change songs while you’re also trying to stay afloat. It’s also less bulky than the Neptune, and with the iPod, I didn’t worry that other people at the pool could hear my music.
Transferring songs to the iPod was easy — it works exactly like an iPod. You attach it to your computer and, through iTunes, transfer selected songs over to the device. Depending on the sizes of your files, the two gigabyte device can hold up to 500 songs.
I clipped the iPod to the strap of my bathing suit; men can clip it to the side or back of their goggle straps, since the headphone cord is short. Then I went for a swim. I was hooked.
The sound isn’t amazing. In general, the music sounds better when you’re fully submerged than it does when you’re popping up for air. But the point of these devices isn’t to offer the most high-fidelity audio you’ve ever experienced; it’s to play some music and stave off boredom while you’re swimming. The iPod felt unobtrusive in the pool.
The only noticeable difference between the Underwater Audio iPod, which comes with a year-long warranty, and an actual iPod, is that you don’t feel a click when you press the play button in the center of the device. It stops and starts as it should, but it feels like you’re pressing on a really resistive touchscreen. This is because, when the company waterproofs the interior of the iPod, it leaves no room for the button to press inward.
As much as I liked using the Underwater Audio iPod, the over-the-ear Swimbud headphones that came with the device hurt my ears after a while. Fortunately, the package includes interchangeable earbuds. Switching to the smallest buds alleviated some of the irritation.
Underwater Audio claims that the iPod’s battery can last up to 24 continuous hours.
I started getting audible low-battery warnings after about a week of use, which included four swim sessions, some dry-land use, and a couple irresponsible moments of leaving the thing on and tossing it my backpack.
As for the Finis Neptune, it wasn’t my style, but for competitive swimmers who wear earplugs when they swim and want a music device that doesn’t go in-ear, it works as promised.
The four-gigabyte Neptune also works with iTunes. Transferring the files from a computer was simple, but I learned pretty quickly that the Neptune doesn’t like M4A music files — it kept freezing up. Removing all non-MP3 song files from the device fixed this.
The Neptune body — the control center for the music — is about the size of a matchbox. It includes a small screen, a power button, volume buttons and a back button. This part fastens to your goggle strap on the back of your head.
There are two wires extending from either side, connecting to the “bone-conducting speakers.” These looked, to me, like giant hair barrettes. These also clip to your goggles, and rest on each the side of your face. The left speaker has a play/pause button on it, so you don’t always have to reach for the back of your head to blindly control the music.
I’m not going to lie: It looks sort of geeky.
Like the underwater iPod, the Neptune sounds best when you’re completely underwater. The music is transmitted from the cheek-speakers, through your cheekbones, into your inner ear.
Unlike the underwater iPod, if the music on the Neptune is cranked up enough, people nearby or in the pool can hear it when you’re above water.
It doesn’t sound like you have a Jambox strapped to your goggles, but it’s audible. (It’s one thing to be a bad swimmer; it’s another to be a bad swimmer with a gadget strapped to your face and strains of Beyonce coming from your cheeks.)
So the bone-conducting speakers take a little getting used to, though they do provide good sound. I also had trouble adjusting the Neptune at times. If I positioned the speakers at the wrong angles, it would create gaps in my goggle straps and allow water to come in.
Finis says the Neptune should last eight hours before needing to be recharged. I used it for a handful of swim sessions, and the battery never died.
Since I haven’t been using these for months and months, I can’t vouch for their long-term abilities. The Neptune, like Underwater Audio, comes with a one-year warranty from the time of purchase.
I still like the idea of the water being a respite from technology, but if there’s one device that could interrupt that for me, it might just be the waterproof iPod.