Review: H2O Audio SV-iP4G Underwater Housing
Pros: A beautiful and elaborate underwater housing for the 4G iPod 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. Works with both 20GB and 40GB 4G iPods. Compatible neoprene swimbelt and armband accessories are optionally available.
Cons: Three times the price of a competing option that works virtually identically 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. Not made for iPod photos.
Two months ago, we reviewed and liked H2O Audio’s SV-iMini (iLounge rating: B+), an underwater iPod housing that comes with its own set of underwater headphones. Now H2O Audio has released the SV-iP4G ($149.95), a case for black-and-white fourth-generation iPods that’s identical to the company’s mini version except for a few small changes that we highlight below.
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. How would that go: 15,000 songs, 100 feet under the surface?
Until only recently, only Eroch Studios made a truly waterproof case for full-sized iPods (LiliPod, iLounge rating: B+), which works underwater but doesn’t provide access to the iPod’s screen and controls. Now OtterBox is offering the OtterBox for 4G iPods and iPod photos (iLounge rating: A/A-), which is modestly more expensive but permits full screen and control access. They both have the same major restriction (they’re watertight only to depths of up to 10 feet) but they also have one nice benefit: they include belt clips and can be used for other outdoor activities - the OtterBox is especially brawny in this regard.
The SP-iP4G is another truly waterproof iPod case, but distinguishes itself with two major features: a very elaborate control system and included waterproof headphones, which you’ll need to buy separately for the other cases. Also unlike the other options, the SV-iP4G is a dedicated underwater case built solely for underwater iPod listening.
If you haven’t experienced underwater listening, you should: 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.
Design and Pack-ins
The SV-iP4G is 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.
The SV-iP4G differs conceptually from the OtterBox and Lilipod cases in that it ships in a water-only configuration. Unless 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 Lilipod include belt clips, and the Lilipod also includes a lanyard necklace, as well.
As of today, H2O Audio is now selling separately both an underwater armband ($29.95) and swimbelt ($39.95), both made from neoprene and both one-size-fits-all. We’ve checked out both of these optional accessories and found them to be durable, well-made, and a proper fit for the SV-IP4G; the swimbelt, however, is different from the armband in that it places your iPod on your lower back - a likely safer place than your stomach, depending on how and where you’re going in the water, but an inconvenient location for control and screen access. The armband is an easier option for practical use, but you’ll have to decide what’s best for the sort of watersports you enjoy.
Insertion of a 20GB 4G iPod in the SV-iP4G 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 into position an effortless task; the iPod 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.
Use of a 40GB iPod is a little trickier. The SV-iP4G ships with two plastic rails on the rear half of its housing, as well as a small green screwdriver that can be used to remove three tiny screws in each rail. This solution makes the case perfectly useful with both standard thicknesses of fourth-generation iPods, and allows it to be switched quickly between the sizes if you need to do so - a feature that’s not present in one of OtterBox’s offerings, but is available in the standard LiliPod case. On the down side, the SV-iP4G isn’t physically compatible with the 40 or 60GB iPod photos, so there’s no way to listen to 15,000 tracks underwater with this particular case - you’ll need one of OtterBox’s most recent offerings for that. H2O also doesn’t specifically offer compatibility with the 30GB iPod photo, which fits better inside the case than the 40GB and 60GB photo models, but still isn’t recommended for use.
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 and shower tests, never letting a drop of water inside where it might damage the iPod. We were very satisfied with its performance overall.
As previously noted, H2O Audio only claims that the SV-iP4G 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. On a related note, a one year warranty applies to the SV-iP4G, 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 case. Both companies, however, offer more of a guarantee than what’s being offered by Tunewear for its inexpensive WaterWear case (iLounge rating: B+), which despite the name is heavily disclaimed against extended underwater submersion.
H2O’s second gasket is at the top of the SV-iP4G, 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. H2O Audio now includes a small bottle of lubricant to create a barrier between the rubber headphone cone and the case’s metal, removing the one issue we noticed with small (but not especially important) moisture penetration in this outer portion of the SV-iMini.
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, providing around five feet of extension from the case to your head.
We had generally positive feelings about the headphones. We’ve now tested a total of four pairs of them - one problem set along with the earlier SV-iMini case, and three good sets subseqently. The problem set performed audio at only half the volume of a normal set of headphones, effectively reducing the iPod’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 three working sets we’ve received have all 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 three good sets at this point, we feel considerably more comfortable with the quality of shipping hardware.
Control and Comparisons
Use of the iPod while inside the SV-iP4G case was very simple. With the exception of the Dock Connector and extended headphone port, neither of which we would need to access underwater, the only inaccessible component on the iPod is its hold switch. H2O Audio has done a superb job of creating mechanical buttons to provide access to the iPod’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 on and off underwater. It all works perfectly - a hint easier than in the OtterBox we’ve previously reviewed and strongly liked. The “hint” is in shower use - heavy drops of water from the showerhead can infrequently move the volume on the Otterbox-encased iPod up and down, but they won’t affect the mechanical system used in the SV-iP4G. It’s a small difference, and one most people won’t care about.
That difference aside, the OtterBox product is the single biggest impediment to a highly recommended rating for the SV-iP4G - at $49.95, it’s substantially cheaper than the $149.95 SV-iP4G, which is easily one of the most expensive iPod cases we’ve tested. (Eroch’s even less expensive Lilipod isn’t anywhere as versatile as H2O’s product, but the OtterBox case works almost identically, also offering full screen and control access.) For all of the SV-iP4G’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 isn’t just for watersports - it also includes a detachable belt clip, which the SV-iP4G does not, so the latter case consequently requires you to hand-hold your iPod underwater unless you buy one of the aforementioned optional accessories. However, OtterBox accomplishes substantially the same thing as the armband with its optional $14.95 armband accessory, minus the neoprene. Given the price of the SV-iP4G, and the fact that your only other option is to hold it at all times when you’re underwater, we’re still 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-iP4G 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-iP4G just have it easier and are guaranteed to get something that’s fully physically compatible.
Timing is really a critical factor in the release of any product, and with the SV-iP4G and new waterproof OtterBox hitting the market at the exact same time, H2O Audio has a solid challenge ahead. It has a well-made, physically attractive product on its hands with two advantages - the packed-in headphones and an impressive wheel controller - and a few disadvantages, namely pricing, the need for additional “wearable” accessories, and its underwater-specific design when competing products offer more versatility. If the SV-iP4G had appeared weeks or months ago, it would have been the only really usable underwater iPod case on the market, but as it stands now, it demands a $100 price premium for almost identical underwater functionality to the Otterbox, without the belt clipping and non-underwater utility the latter case offers.
We recommend the SV-iP4G to people who will frequently use an underwater-only case and would appreciate H2O Audio’s premium, no-questions-asked iPod control solution and packed-in headphones. While there are cheaper and more versatile options available, nothing is as technically or aesthetically impressive as the SV-iP4G, and the company’s offering of both swimbelt and armband options will likely appeal to serious lovers of watersports with a bit of extra cash.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge