Features November 2006 Issue

Waterproof iPod Cases

If you’re like many sailboat owners, you like a little musical accompaniment on board. But most small and mid-size sailboats, particularly older boats, lack the equipment. Well, digital electronics resolved this problem several years back with the introduction of mp3 players like Apple’s iPod. (PS tested the iPod and wrote about its performance earlier this year; see PS February 2006 “Ocean Tested.”)Mp3 players have amazing capacity, and their sound quality is generally very good. The main drawback is that these units aren’t water-resistant, let alone waterproof, so some sort of case to protect them from the elements is in order.

Floating and ready for service, from left to right, are the H2O Audio case with waterproof headphones attached and dangling beneath, Brookstone's iFloat (speaker-side up), and the Otter Box for iPod.

WHAT WE TESTED
The number of accessory items made for portable digital music players is astounding. There appears to be an entire sub-industry churning out products that merely facilitate the use of iPods and the like.

Among the products made to render these players marine-friendly are hard cases, soft cases, ones with external speakers, and ones with waterproof headphones. Some allow you to manipulate the player’s controls without exposing the device, and others have myriad accessories, like mounting brackets and neoprene straps for affixing the device to your body. 

We gathered three representative cases to have a closer look. Two play through headphones—the H2O Audio and the Otter Box—and one plays through a speaker built into the case—the Brookstone iFloat.

IFLOAT
The iFloat, the simplest of the three devices, is essentially a hard plastic, waterproof case fit with a simple speaker. The speaker is powered by a 9-volt battery recessed in the case. You snap the case open (by way of a hinged plastic clasp), turn the unit on, and connect the short cable into your player’s headphone jack. Then you activate the player, adjust the volume, and you’re ready to close the cover and secure the clasp. The lid of the iFloat is clear plastic, so you can easily read the player’s screen, and Brookstone includes a small sheet of foam to cushion the player inside the case. You cannot use headphones with this case.

The Otter Box for iPod, right, uses a hinged, single-snap latch to secure its lid while the H20 Audio case, left, uses a hinged, two-part clasp with a lock button.

Introduced this spring, the iFloat provides inexpensive protection ($25 at http://www.brookstone.com/) for your costly digital music player, but that’s where the positives end. The speaker quality is no better than those included in transistor radios of yesteryear, and a 9-volt battery gets you about six to eight hours of use before it needs replacing.

The iFloat does indeed float—we floated each product, loaded with an iPod, in the water for 10 minutes—but the iFloat’s sound became scratchy as soon as any water was introduced to the speaker. Even after the speaker dried out (for several days), the sound still wasn’t clear. Also, we noticed that the foam can tear off if accidentally trapped when the lid closes. This causes small bits of foam debris to attach to the device’s gasket and that in turn could compromise the seal and lead to leaking.

Bottom Line: Despite its attractive price, we can’t recommend it.

H2O AUDIO
H2O Audio of San Diego, Calif., markets several styles of waterproof cases specifically designed to accommodate various iPod models. The company, which has garnered attention for its waterproof headphones ($40 at www. H2O audio.com), claims that its see-through cases offer “the ultimate protection for your iPod.”

To seal out moisture, H20 Audio uses a silicone-hybrid gasket, and the hinged clasp includes a lock button as a safeguard. Without sliding the button, you cannot release the clasp and open the case, which means it shouldn’t open if dropped.

By coupling H20’s waterproof headphones with one of their cases, you can listen to your digital music player down to 10 feet below the surface. PS tried the headphones in a freshwater pool. Underwater, the sound isn’t very good unless you take the time to attach the ear plugs that come with them, and then it’s OK.

H2O's Audio case, new this year, comes with a neoprene arm band and built-in holster, as well as a small screwdriver and replacement brackets to accommodate two different sizes of iPods. To control the iPod, the H2O case uses a series of springloaded buttons and a scroll wheel. These buttons work well, but we remain wary of anything with moving parts that will be used in a marine environment.

The H2O case, which is manufactured in China, functioned well in our float test and immersion test—each case was fully submerged in the freshwater pool for five minutes, then wiped dry, opened, and checked for moisture intrusion. In fact, the directions indicate that users should test the product by placing it in the water for 30 minutes and manipulating the buttons before trying it with a music player. The headphones plug securely into the case, and the sound emitted above water was similar in quality to that produced by the iPod’s original headphones. The H20 case we tested (designed for 30 gig and 60 gig iPods) retails for $90 and carries a limited, one-year warranty, which doesn’t cover the iPod.

Bottom Line: This product is about half the size of the iFloat, and is more sophisticated and more durable.

OTTER BOX
We also evaluated the Otter Box for iPod case (for 20-, 30-, 40-, and 60-gig iPods). This company, based in Fort Collins, Colo., markets several products for iPods. (PS tested other cases from Otter Box; see “Dry Boxes,” April 15, 2002.) This case is advertised as having an “airtight seal, keeping out sand, dust, and water,” as well as “protection from accidental drops.”

H20 Audio's case sits snug in the armband holster, attached to the company’s waterproof headphones.

Instead of buttons, Otter Box uses a clear, thin membrane that allows you to easily control the iPod’s wheel and buttons. That works well, and we actually prefer it to the mechanical approach used by H2O. However, the Otter Box, which is built in China, is waterproof down to 3 feet, thus is intended only for use at the surface.

Otter Box uses a small, silicone gasket to make its airtight seal. The clasp is simply a hinged, plastic latch that snaps over a lip molded into the end of the case. The lip, the latch, or even the gasket could wear down over time, compromising the integ-rity of the case. Should that happen, Otter Box does supply a lifetime warranty for this product. That, however, doesn’t necessarily cover the iPod or its data. This case sells for $50 (http://www.otterbox.com/). The optional armband and bracket cost $15.

Of Note: The Otter Box did not work well with the H2O headphones, which the company’s literature claims are compatible. When we pushed the headphone jack all the way in, the phones didn’t produce any sound. We pulled the jack out one-eighth of an inch, and one speaker began working. Then we rotated the plug and got the other speaker to work, but the connection wasn’t secure.

Bottom Line: Although it’s less expensive, the Otter Box lacks the latch lock and depth capability of the H2O Audio case.

CONCLUSION
As we mentioned, there are many players in this game. Of the three tested here, we prefer the security and functionality of the H2O Audio case. The latch won’t open accidentally, the headphones played clearly from the get go, and the arm band accessory is more comfortable than the one sold by Otter Box.

These boxes fit the bill for keeping your iPod dry on deck or in the dinghy. But given the less-than-stellar performance of most of these devices, we’re still hesitant to risk a $250 piece of electronics by submerging it in one these boxes. If you’re not as faint-hearted, we suggest testing the box sans iPod first, and be sure to back up your tunes. H2O Audio’s case sits snug in the armband holster, attached to the company’s waterproof headphones.

CONTACTS

BROOKSTONE 800/846-3000
brookstone.com

H20 AUDIO 800/708-6080
h20audio.com

OTTER BOX 888/695-8820
otterbox.com 

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