Review: Monster iSport Immersion In-Ear Headphones with ControlTalk
Depending on the ways you use your iPod, iPhone, or iPad, the very idea of waterproof or water-resistant headphones may strike you as either brilliant or ridiculous, but there's definitely demand for them: some people rely upon Apple's devices to provide music during runs in the rain or laps in a pool, and these days, iPads and iPhones alike sometimes even provide navigation assistance in boats. Once you've sealed your device in a waterproof case, water-safe listening gear lets you actually hear whatever it's playing -- and in some cases, actually talk back using an in-line microphone.
Today, we’re reviewing the latest batch of water-resistant and waterproof earphones from four different companies. Three of the earphones compete directly against one another: H2O Audio’s Flex ($30) and Dry Corp’s Dry Buds 100% Waterproof Headphones ($30) are extremely affordable options from established makers of waterproof cases, both silicone-tipped canalphones stripped bare of frills in order to hit their price points. By comparison, Monster’s new iSport Immersion ($180) is the most deluxe waterproof earphone we’ve ever seen, packed with frills and engineered to deliver superior sound to H2O Audio’s premium 2010 model Surge Contact—at more than twice the price. Finally, Scosche’s activeWraps II ($30) take yet another approach, using a hard plastic headband and earbuds while promising sweat resistance rather than submersibility.
While this review looks solely at iSport Immersion, these four headphone options collectively raise several important questions that, when answered, will lead you to know which product—if any—is right for you. What level of water resilience do you really need? How concerned are you about comfort and/or having your headphones tugged off during normal use? Does sonic quality matter to you? And what sort of interaction do you hope to have with your device?
Though its incredibly high price weighs down what would otherwise be a much higher rating, there’s no doubt that iSport Immersion is attempting to evolve waterproof headphones beyond where they’ve been floating for the last several years, and we need to be clear about this point: these are the best-sounding and most thoughtfully designed waterproof earphones we’ve ever tested. If price wasn’t a factor, it would be easy to offer almost uniformly high praise for iSport Immersion, as Monster’s latest design brings some neat new tricks to the table. But H2O Audio’s $70 Surge Contact comes so close to the $180 iSport Immersion that most users will find the huge price gulf impossible to justify.
Let’s consider all of the things Monster has done to differentiate iSport Immersion from Surge Contact. Whereas H2O Audio shipped Surge Contact with four different sizes of silicone rubber ear tips and one set of Comply foam tips—nothing else—the iSport Immersion package has some extra goodies. Monster includes five differently-sized pairs of silicone ear tips, as well as five sets of stiffer rubber and plastic outer ear stabilizers that work nicely to keep iSport Immersion firmly in your ears during active use. A detachable shirt clip is included for added stablization, and a nice carrying pouch can hold all of the various parts at the same time. Additionally, Monster’s packaging for iSport Immersion is nice enough to keep around, and can hold all of the spare pieces if you just want to keep the earphones inside the pouch.
Many nice little touches in the iSport Immersion design almost make you forget that these earphones were designed for use under sub-optimal listening conditions. Monster has brought over its tangle-free flat cabling from the Beats by Dre lineup, so it’s always easy to just pick up iSport Immersion without worrying that you’ll find the earphones knotted up. There’s an in-line cable manager to adjust the earphone cord tension, and a customized, case-compatible L-shaped headphone plug with a rubberized strain relief system. Every point of connection between cabling and something else feels secure and is marked with a little Monster logo. Even the microphone and three-button remote control box is marked “Monster waterproof,” using a blue rubberized volume and play/pause button panel with a hard black plastic and rubber enclosure. The mic is a recessed diamond in the back of this casing, which dangles down from the left earphone.
A few things should be mentioned about these elements, pro and con. The earphones are larger than H2O’s, and a little more difficult to put into your ears due to their stabilizers and size. On the other hand, they’re more secure, and compensate for their bulk by using little pivoting sound tubes that comfortably adjust to your ear canal angles. While the black and blue color scheme has been lifted directly from H2O’s Surge Contact design, all of Monster’s elements look and feel fancier. And as impressed as we were with H2O’s inclusion of a waterproof remote and mic system last year, Monster’s ControlTalk unit goes further with those added volume buttons—this is the first Apple-certified remote and mic unit to be found in waterproof headphones, and both the mic and remote work just as well as the ones in Apple’s own earphone accessories, plus they’re water-safe. Monster guarantees that Immersion will work after being tossed into a washing machine, which it has demonstrated at trade events. In short, iSport Immersion is a complete top to bottom upgrade to Sport Contact, leaving H2O with big shoes to fill.
But—and this is one of those significant “but’s”—the on-paper gulf between these two models is wider than the practical one for a variety of reasons. Consider the remote and microphone systems: under most conditions, H2O’s mic sounds indistinguishable from Monster’s, and just the same as Apple’s microphone, no shock given that the internal components inside are most likely identical. Yet when we tested both H2O’s and Monster’s headphones with Dry Corp’s Dry Case, callers noted weird interference in Monster’s mic that wasn’t evident in H2O’s. Problems like this are extremely case-dependent, and are more likely the fault of the pass-through headphone connectors in cases that were never tested with remote and mic headphones than anything else. But due to iSport Immersion’s L-shaped plug, which isn’t designed to fit H2O’s popular waterproof cases and armbands, and possibly other waterproof cases you might consider using, you may have a problem making a physical connection with the case. Since there are so few mic- and remote-equipped waterproof headsets out there, it’s also possible that neither the mic nor the remote buttons will be properly passed through in other cases. This isn’t not Monster’s fault per se, but your mileage will vary.
iSport Immersion’s other pros and cons relate to submersibility and sound quality. Unlike Surge Contact, which H2O guarantees for up to 12-foot underwater submersion, Monster is surprisingly ambiguous on just how waterproof iSport Immersion really is. Neither the packaging nor the current Monster web site make any guarantees as to submersion depth; only when you hunt through iSport’s instruction manual will you find the following language: “iSport headphones are designed and engineered for use with water sports, but not at depth: Good for swimming, surfing, jet skiing; Not intended for deep sea diving.” Next, Monster disclaims their underwater performance: If iSport is “used underwater at too great a depth for too long a time,” you’ll void the one-year warranty. What’s too great of a depth? Too long of a time? Monster never says.
That leaves only one asset of iSport Immersion undiscussed: the sound quality. While it needs to be noted up front that you can purchase any one of several outstanding double-driver earphones for the same price as iSport Immersion, none of them are either waterproof or even water-resistant, so the comparison’s not totally fair; we need to compare waterproof to waterproof. On a positive note, when iSport Immersion is compared directly against Surge Contact, the prior king of the hill, Monster’s design delivers similar clarity—very good by single-driver standards—but superior sonic balance, with richer mid-bass and bass to complement similarly detailed highs and mids. You don’t give up much treble with iSport Immersion, but you gain a comforting warmth and fullness that makes songs sound a little less clinical and a little more lifelike. These still aren’t earphones you’d rely upon to write a doctoral thesis on details in your favorite artist’s recordings, but by athletic headphone standards, they’re sonic overachievers.
Once again, there’s a flip side to consider, and that’s the reason why headphones used during workouts, swimming, and the like have traditionally not fallen anywhere near this price range: unlike most headphones, athletic accessories are by their nature intended to be used while your body is making plenty of its own sounds, which compete against and limit your accurate perception of audio. Put another way, if you sit in a quiet room and listen to iSport Immersion and H2O Audio’s cheapest $30 model Flex, you’ll immediately hear differences between them that will lead you to prefer Monster’s earphones. But when you’re jogging, swimming, or actually using iSport Immersion as intended, there’s a good chance that the differences between $180 and even these $30 earphones will be hard to notice. That performance gulf is lessened between H2O’s $70 Surge Contact and iSport Immersion. That leaves everything else—the microphone, remote, nice cables, and stability—as items that might possibly justify the added expense.
All of these points made iSport Immersion a tricky earphone to rate. At half the price, it would have held a $20 premium over Surge Contact, and would have been an equally great option for users desiring a waterproof headphone and microphone solution, delivering obvious sonic, stability, and functional improvements that more serious listeners and users might have been willing to pay a little more to enjoy. Even at a $100 MSRP, it might have just squeaked into high recommendation territory. But for $180, iSport Immersion drops from what would otherwise been a highly recommendable waterproof earphone to a limited recommendation. Practically, all you’re getting for a $110 premium over its closest rival are slightly better low-end performance, nicer cables, volume buttons, flat cabling, ear stabilizers and a carrying case. That’s not a short list, but none of those items will likely be a must-have feature, either. If you’re one of the rare users who might feel otherwise—you really need volume controls, or you really want added ear stabilization—and you’re willing to pay the steep price for iSport Immersion, we wouldn’t dissuade you from considering this option. But if you’re just looking for an excellent pair of iPhone-ready waterproof earphones, Surge Contact will be a much better pick unless there’s a big price drop… or H2O shows up with a more aggressively-priced, feature-rich alternative.