Review: H2O Audio iSH2 Waterproof Headset
Company: H2O Audio
Compatible: iPod shuffle (aluminum)
After several years of active competition, H2O Audio has emerged as a company without rivals. The maker of waterproof iPod cases may have scrapped with competitors in the past, but today, it virtually owns the submersible iPod sports case market, and with the iSH2 Waterproof Headset ($80), it further cements its position. While not perfect, iSH2 offers swimmers and other watersport fans a convenient way to enjoy music in the water.
Waterproof iPod products we’ve previously tested were designed as two-piece solutions—the iPod goes inside a case and connects via a waist-high cord to a pair of special headphones—and H2O Audio’s initial offering for the second-generation iPod shuffle followed this mold. The $40 iS2 used a translucent blue rubber and hard plastic shell to protect the shuffle, including both a belt clip and armband as mounting options. By contrast, iSH2 combines a waterproof headset with a head-mounted waterproof case, allowing you to use the parts in one of two configurations.
In both configurations, you turn on the iPod shuffle and place it inside a black and gray plastic box that provides access to its face controls. A rubber O-ring, hinge, and clasp on this box seal it tight around the shuffle, enabling iSH2 to be safely used at 10-foot/3-meter depths. As with iS2, you lose access to the shuffle’s power and shuffle/ordered play switches, but continue to have access to its volume, track, and play/pause controls. Two wires come out of the box’s sides, each leading directly to an earbud.
Like earlier Arriva headphones, iSH2 assumes that the shuffle will always be close enough to your ears for the earbuds to fit inside of them—you get the choice of mounting the shuffle behind your head with an included hard plastic band, or two plastic clips that attach to the sides of swimming goggles. Two sets of rubber eartips channel the shuffle’s audio into your ears; both the goggle-ready clips and the headband let you adjust the height of the earbuds for your ears. Interestingly, iSH2 has been endorsed and tested by Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin, whose name appears on the package, but not the headset itself.
The good news is that iSH2 works about as well as the iS2 and other H2O Audio products, with the added convenience of a nearly wireless mounting solution. We had no problem with case leakage during our testing: the iPod shuffle inside remained completely dry when the case was submerged and splashed, and continued to play audio without interruption. Additionally, there’s no cable to get in your arm’s way, no armband to worry about wearing, and no need for a belt clip. As with the company’s earlier headsets, the rubber cone-like eartips let you hear the iPod’s music even over the rush of water, and though you don’t look super cool with the headband on, it’s not as weird-looking as the spring-armed Arriva design, and you always have the option of using iSH2 with goggles.
Several issues we experienced during testing varied from predictable to unexpected. On the predictable side was the audio performance of iSH2’s headset, which as we’ve noted in past H2O Audio headphone reviews isn’t stellar in audio fidelity, sounds tinny above water, and improves only when you’re submerged and the rubber cones can get a better seal with your ears. Above water, you’ll hear the iPod’s audio, but it may sound distant or shallow; it’s a better solution than going without music at all. Additionally, control of the shuffle wasn’t difficult inside of the iSH2 case, but the added pressure required for button presses did take a little getting used to.
The penultimate issue, headband sizing, will depend a lot on the user’s head size and shape. We found the band too snug by default, but could adjust it a little via slide-out rails for greater comfort; even then, the shape didn’t feel quite right to us. It fit, stayed on without an issue, and didn’t feel like it was constricting blood flow in any way, but the hard plastic material is no substitute for softer rubber. Because of the rigidity and size of the band, users with considerably smaller heads may find it a struggle to use at all, while those with much bigger ones may feel the earbuds pointing less than completely into their ear canals, resulting in less than optimal sound output. For the asking price, a second plastic headband—or one designed with softer, more flexible materials—would have been a good pack-in. Finally, as a small cosmetic issue, we found that iSH2’s internal headband markings started to come off after its first use, which didn’t impair our enjoyment of the headset but could easily be fixed with better ink.
Overall, our flat B rating of the iSH2 should be understood as more of a positive than it might initially appear to be: H2O Audio has created a watersport-ready iPod shuffle headset that currently has no peer for swimmers, and frankly seems unlikely to be duplicated by any waterproof case competitor in the near future. Assuming that it fits your head, or that you’re willing to use the swim clips with goggles, iSH2 offers considerable mounting and listening convenience, arguably more than the earlier iS2. So why, then, does iS2 rate higher? Value: at $80, iSH2 feels a bit expensive for what you get—the same dollars or less could buy the earlier model and a separate pair of headphones, gaining both an armband and belt clip in the process. If you prefer a head-mounted waterproof case, iSH2 is your only option; otherwise, consider iS2 a better option for the price.