Review: H2O Audio SV-iMini Underwater Housing
Pros: A beautiful and elaborate underwater housing for the iPod mini that provides full access to its screen, controls, and headphone port while it’s protected against up to 10 feet of water submersion. Includes solid waterproof headphones that work well underwater. An adequate neoprene armband is sold separately, as is a swimbelt.
Cons: Three times the price of a competing option that works equally well in water (and includes a belt clip, but doesn’t include headphones); does not include a belt clip or other wearable pack-in; isn’t intended for use outside of water.
Waterproof. The word immediately conjures up visions of ocean dives, breaststrokes in pools, and splashes of water. And the very idea of a waterproof iPod case with full control and screen access has been tantalizing us for years now. How would that go: 15,000 songs, 100 feet under the surface?
Until only recently, only Eroch Studios made a waterproof case for full-sized iPods (LiliPod, iLounge rating: B+), and then two waterproof cases were released in rapid succession for the iPod mini (Lili mini, iLounge rating: B+; and OtterBox for iPod mini, iLounge rating: A). Both provide watertight protection at depths of up to 10 feet, but only the OtterBox case offers access to the iPod mini’s screen and controls.
Now California-based H2O Audio is releasing a competing product, the SV-iMini ($149.95), another truly waterproof iPod mini case with a very elaborate control system - as well as included waterproof headphones. Unlike the other options, which are intended both for water submersion and general purpose outdoor activities, the SV-iMini is a dedicated underwater case built solely for underwater iPod listening.
A word on underwater listening for those who haven’t experienced it: the sensation of hearing music while submerged is vaguely magical. Ambient noise around you disappears and the sounds of whatever you’re playing on your iPod are crystal clear. It’s a great feeling, and generally worth the price of admission - assuming of course you can afford it, and are going to use the case and headphones in water with any regularity. How does the SV-iMini compare with our previously reviewed waterproof options? Read on to find out.
Concept and Pack-ins
Prior to the release of OtterBox for iPod mini, our conception of a truly useful waterproof underwater housing for the iPod was basically identical to what H2O Audio has actually released: a highly designed transparent clamshell with elaborate mechanical controls, a sophisticated locking and unlocking system, and a set of waterproof rubber gaskets to prevent leakage. We say “highly designed” because H2O Audio’s implementation is similar to transparent plastic digital camera housings we’ve tried, and equally impressive in implementation.
Such product-specific cases are entirely dissimilar from super-simple underwater plastic bags that have been sold for years. Both solutions keep electronics dry, but one end of the spectrum is custom-made, while the other is entirely generic and not especially resilient. The prices of such options vary commensurately, and while somewhat steep, $149.95 is not an entirely surprising price for any transparent underwater enclosure. H2O also adds value by actually including a quality pair of underwater headphones, which are exactly what you would want to use with such a case. The company’s competitors force you to find and buy these headphones separately.
Finally, the SV-iMini differs conceptually from the OtterBox and Lili mini cases in that it ships in a water-only configuration. Unless (and perhaps even if) you buy optional accessories from H2O Audio, you won’t be able to make significant use of it outside of an aquatic environment. There’s no belt clip, no necklace, and no armband in the package, just the case and headphones. Both the OtterBox and Lili mini include belt clips, and the Lili mini also includes a lanyard necklace, as well.
Insertion of the iPod mini in the SV-iMini is somewhat easier than with both directly competing products. H2O Audio’s clear shell opens wide and includes enough interior space to make sliding the iPod mini into position an effortless task; the mini comes to rest on a fixed gold stereo plug that goes into its headphone port. Closing the case requires a firm press on both sides and the movement of a fairly elaborate white hinged lock into the right position. Once locked, the case cannot be opened unless a gray spring-loaded nub on the case’s bottom is moved from locked into unlocked position.
The first of the case’s two rubber gaskets (called a T-Seal) is found between the two halves of the shell. White in color, it performed perfectly over the course of several different submersion tests, never letting a drop of water inside where it might damage the iPod mini. This is a marked contrast with an early version of the case H2O Audio sent out months ago, leading to some substantial negative publicity when an AP newswire reporter found that the seal didn’t work. H2O has now fixed the seal, and we were very satisfied with its performance in our tests.
We will note that H2O only claims that the case is waterproof to a depth of 10 feet, and we haven’t tested it below that level. Consequently, it’s appropriate for light pool, ocean, and shower iPodding, but not scuba or deep diving - equivalent in claimed performance to OtterBox’s iPod mini waterproof case. On a related note, a one year warranty applies to the SV-iMini, and H2O says that a year is the approximate life of the white T-seal; OtterBox by comparison offers an unconditional lifetime warranty on its mini case. Both companies, however, offer more of a guarantee than what’s being offered by Tunewear for its recently released WaterWear cases, which despite their names are heavily disclaimed against extended underwater submersion.
H2O’s second gasket is at the top of the SV-iMini, and is actually part of the unit’s included set of waterproof headphones. There’s a gray rubber cone with a gold-plated, rubber-sealed headphone plug inside; this fits onto a metal and plastic extended headphone port at the top of the case. Gold is also used inside the case’s headphone port, limiting corrosion of the one hole that might be exposed to some moisture with or without the included headphones attached. After our submersion tests, we noticed a small amount of moisture inside this gasket, but were not especially concerned by it, as it in no way impacts the iPod mini - just the anti-corrosion gold headphone plugs.
The headphones are a predominantly white plastic headband with arcs and adjustable speakers that should fit most ears. Detachable gray rubber flange cones are included for underwater use, channeling the audio from the speakers into your ears. You can cut the cones and move the speakers to accommodate the shapes and locations of your ears; we found that they worked entirely well without cutting or adjustment. A black wire runs through the headband and coils to the iPod mini, providing around five feet of extension from the case to your head.
We had generally positive feelings about the headphones. We’ve tested a total of three pairs of them - one problem set along with the earlier SV-iMini case, and two good sets subseqently. The problem set performed audio at only half the volume of a normal set of headphones, effectively reducing the iPod mini’s output volume to the point where it was only audible against ambient noise at its maximum setting. At the time, H2O Audio noted that some waterproof headphones were sensitive to being transported by air, a factor frequent travelers may want to consider.
However, the two working sets we’ve received have performed without a problem, and can be heard easily either in normal listening conditions or underwater. After discussions with H2O Audio, we’re under the impression that all of the issues with the initial run of cases and headphones have been resolved, and having used two good sets at this point, we feel comfortable with the quality of shipping hardware.
Control and Comparisons
Use of the iPod mini while inside the SV-iMini case was very simple. With the exception of the Dock Connector and extended headphone ports, neither of which we would need to access underwater, the only inaccessible component on the iPod mini is its hold switch. H2O Audio has done a superb job of creating mechanical buttons to provide access to the iPod mini’s Click Wheel controls, even including a unique volume control slider that has to be seen to be believed. There’s no problem whatsoever changing songs and volume levels, browsing through menus, or turning the iPod mini on and off underwater. It all works perfectly - a hint easier than in the OtterBox we’ve previously reviewed and strongly liked.
But the OtterBox product is the single biggest impediment to a highly recommended rating for the SV-iMini. At the time we first tested H2O Audio’s unit last year, the SV-iMini was the only truly waterproof iPod mini enclosure on the market, but the company rapidly stopped shipments when the seal issue was discovered. Since then, Eroch Studios and OtterBox have both released waterproof iPod mini cases, and they’re both substantially cheaper than the $149.95 SV-iMini. Though Eroch’s Lili mini isn’t anywhere as versatile as H2O’s product, the OtterBox case works almost identically, also offering full screen and control access. For all of the SV-iMini’s impressive aesthetics and mechanical engineering around the iPod’s controls, OtterBox’s rubber-sealed plastic control pad cover provides the same functionality.
As noted earlier, the OtterBox case also includes a detachable belt clip, which the SV-iMini does not - the latter case consequently requires you to hand-hold your iPod mini underwater unless you buy an optional accessory, a bummer for swimmers and surfers. H2O Audio separately sells a $29.95 neoprene armband (called the SV-iMini Armband Pro) and a $39.95 Swimbelt, the former of which we received and found to work just fine; a vinyl screen gives you access to the iPod mini’s screen and buttons, while a hole is cut to let you move the iPod mini’s volume controls. However, OtterBox accomplishes substantially the same thing with its optional $14.95 armband accessory, minus the neoprene. Given the price of the SV-iMini, and the fact that your only other option is to hold it at all times when you’re underwater, we’re a bit surprised that H2O didn’t include an armband or belt clip in the package.
H2O’s single biggest selling point and differentiating factor for the SV-iMini is therefore its headphones, which we liked a lot and found to work really well underwater. As the company doesn’t appear to sell them separately, buyers of the OtterBox and other waterproof cases have a bit of searching to do in order to match H2O’s package. But as there are other vendors of waterproof headphones out there, this isn’t a killer distinction: buyers of the SV-iMini just have it easier and are guaranteed to get something that’s fully physically compatible.
We’re very glad that H2O Audio has third- and fourth-generation iPod underwater enclosures coming in May, because there’s still no underwater full-sized iPod case with the level of screen and control access that this company’s cases can offer. If that’s still true in May, the company may have a hit on its hands. As it stands now, however, the SV-iMini is a few months late to a market that it could have owned until OtterBox came along, and now demands a $100 price premium for essentially equivalent underwater functionality, without the belt clipping and non-underwater utility OtterBox offers.
We recommend the SV-iMini to people who will frequently use an underwater-only case and would appreciate H2O Audio’s premium, no-questions-asked iPod mini control solution and packed-in headphones. While there are now cheaper and more versatile options available, nothing is as technically or aesthetically impressive as the SV-iMini.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge