Review: H2O Audio Surge Waterproof Headphones
When explaining the meanings of our letter grade-style ratings, we typically note up front that we reserve our "A" rating for products that actually excite us -- the reason you see so few of them these days is that so much of what we test is either unimaginative or overpriced in a way that dims our enthusiasm. So when we say that we're genuinely excited by two new H2O Audio products, a new set of Surge waterproof earphones ($60) and a series of Amphibx waterproof armbands ($80 each), that means something really great has happened here.
Before we go into greater detail on Surge and Amphibx in otherwise separate reviews, we’ll make one key point up front: both of these products take concepts that have been done before in products we’ve reviewed, and do them better. Surge is the best-sounding, best-fitting pair of waterproof earphones we’ve tested, and at $60, reasonably priced. And Amphibx, despite its odd name, is probably the smartest waterproof armband purchase we could advise readers to make.
With that said, let’s talk about Surge. To say that we’ve been waiting for it for a long time would be an understatement; while competitors have released in-canal earphones, H2O Audio has for years focused instead on neckband-styled water-safe headphones, occasionally hinting that it was working on a better solution. Though we’ve tolerated the neckband earphones, we haven’t been huge fans, as they’re typically a bit uncomfortable and don’t sound as good above water as they do under it.
Surge is a totally different type of headphone. In addition to being waterproof to depths of up to 12 feet waterproof, it’s an in-canal design, complete with five sets of rubber eartips to fit your ears. In our testing, these eartips provided a more snug, complete seal than with competing waterproof earphones we’ve tested, such as the Fire Fox Liquid Frequency or Aquapac 100% Waterproof Headphones, both pairs that sell for 2/3 the price. With Surge, you pay a bit more, but the sonic difference is considerable: what you hear is legitimately balanced, clear sound, complete with ample bass and none of the tinny, shrill emptiness that typically characterizes waterproof headphones. Besides the multiple eartips, you also get a nice waterproof carrying case for Surge, both parts better than the items included with competing offerings.
H2O’s earbud and cable design is pretty good, but not perfect. Some users might prefer either a less or more conspicuous color scheme, depending on their intended application, but we generally liked the black and blue look and the size of these earphones. There’s more than enough cable—44 inches—to run from your ears to a belt- or arm-mounted iPod or iPhone; the only way in which certain prior waterproof headphones did better was in coiling their cables so that they didn’t dangle as much as Surge’s. Slight microphonics are evident in this cable design, but unoffensive.
It’s worth a brief note that H2O instructs users to run Surge at high volumes with their iPods—but not their ears—for 30 minutes after initial delivery or any pressurized air travel to make sure that the drivers sound right. Most likely due to thoughtful water-friendly driver design, it’s also worth noting that Surge didn’t exhibit the same muffled, “give the earphones a chance to dry” audio issues that some other waterproof headphones have had after submersion. They just work, and sound very good, no matter whether you’re underwater, standing in the rain, or sitting indoors.
Compatibility is the last major thing worth mentioning. Thanks to the special shape of the headphone plug, which is designed to fit into H2O’s waterproof cases and armband, Surge is not compatible out of the box with the original iPhone, but can be used with that—and any other—device if it’s connected to a case with a pass-through headphone port, or an adapter. The Amphibx armband is fully iPhone-compatible, and Surge works with the iPhone 3G and all iPod models with or without a case; obviously, you’ll need to keep the device in something waterproof in order to take full advantage of the earphones.
Overall, as headphone and waterproof accessory users, Surge was most definitely worth the wait: it delivers a better overall audio and comfort experience than its competitors, looks nice, and sells for a reasonable price given what it offers. Though we’re now excited about the prospect of an iPhone-specific version with a waterproof microphone—Amphibx actually supports this functionality, and we’d love to be able to make and take calls when it’s raining or snowing—today’s Surge is certainly worthy of our high recommendation, and the first waterproof headphone to receive our A-level rating.