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.
The story with Amphibx is this: H2O Audio has previously specialized in making highly iPod-specific hard plastic waterproof cases—ones that we’ve really liked on technical performance, but also found to be very expensive. Though some divers, swimmers, and skiers might see the prices as acceptable given their personal needs, it’s hard for most users to consider paying $80 to $100 for a case that fits only a single iPod model, especially when those models change dimensionally from year to year. Consequeently, H2O’s nano case from two years ago doesn’t fit last year’s nano, nor does last year’s case fit this year’s nano, so every time you replace your iPod, you’re conceivably looking at another $80 to $100 waterproofing expenditure.
With Amphibix, that’s no longer an issue.
H2O has crafted a sturdy, nice-looking armband around a central waterproof pouch with a touch- and see-through face, and a hard plastic opening-slash-lock system off to its left side. You pick either a “medium” or “large” sized armband for $80, each with the same general black rubber, clear plastic, and Velcro design, connect your iPod or iPhone to an internal coiled headphone plug, stick it inside, and then lock the rubber and plastic clamp to seal the thing closed. Connect a pair of waterproof headphones, such as Surge or less expensive competing options, and you’re ready to either jog in the rain or submerge yourself and your iPod/iPhone to depths of up to 12 feet. While H2O’s own headphones use special plugs that are especially easy to connect and remove from Amphibx’s headphone port, any other headphones save for ones with curved or angled plugs will work, limited only by their inherent (in)ability to resist water.
We tested both medium and large versions of Amphibx in submersion, splash, and dry use, and had only one issue of any note: the large-sized version’s clear plastic face needed to be held down during sealing of the clamp so as to avoid vacuum puffing when the armband was closed. When that was done, we were able to use Click Wheel iPods, touchscreen iPods, and touchscreen iPhones without any significant problems: music selection was a snap, and on the touchscreen devices, we were even able to use the keyboard and other icons, with only a small bit of added pressure. Access to the controls even worked, albeit with diminished accuracy, while water was flowing unevenly on the screens.
Of course, our test iPods and iPhones emerged from the cases completely dry.
While sizing the armband itself is very straightforward, and the band is both snug and comfortable thanks to its rubbery material and width, choosing the right size for your iPod or iPhone may be a small challenge. Technically, all iPod nano users could use the medium version, though we found it to be slightly too snug of a fit with the fourth-generation nano; the third-generation version works fine. We’d recommend the larger size, which is compatible with both versions of the iPhone, both iPod touches, full-sized iPods, and iPod nanos as well; it may have a little more room for nanos, but the medium version most likely will have too little room for the next-generation of touchscreen iPods, just as it does with the current ones.
One major surprise: Amphibx is truly iPhone- and iPhone 3G-compatible. The headphone port passes through microphone audio and remote control button presses, so if you use the armband with Apple’s included headset, you can actually make and receive calls while wearing Amphibx. We tested this indoors and were really impressed, but there regrettably isn’t yet a waterproof microphone-equipped headset to use with the armband, making this a “wow, but wait…” sort of feature for the time being. We can’t wait for the day when we’ll be able to safely make a phone call while standing under the water at Niagara Falls; when that’s possible, trust us, we’ll be there with a camera.
The only things we’d hope to see in a next-generation Amphibx are tweaks to the armband’s physical bulk, and its insertion and removal design, both of which can likely be achieved at the same time.