Gear Review: SwiMP3 Player

author : DominiqueL
comments : 1
By Dominic Lazzaretto

Is anyone out there old enough to remember the Bone Fone? You know, the 1979 precursor to the Walkman?

It was a portable radio that transmitted sound by sending vibrations through the collar bones “all the way into the sensitive bones of your inner ear,” to use the company’s own marketing language. There was no need for headphones because the sound traveled through your skeletal system. It sounds a bit like the stuff of bad science fiction novels, but people were passionate about their Bone Fones. In fact, a quick web search shows that many still are.

Using the same bone transmission technology as the Bone Fone, Finis, Inc. has come out with the SwiMP3, the first MP3 player designed to be used underwater. The “speakers” on the SwiMP3 are two plastic discs that rest on your cheekbones instead of your ears. The company even recommends that you wear earplugs for better sound quality.

Everyone’s Favorite Disco-Skating Accessory
I won’t get into the science behind bone transmission, because I’m not that bright. For a full discussion of how bone sound conduction works, you’ll have to click here, where someone smarter than me took the time to explain it.

The thought of being able to listen to music while turning laps was enough for me to give this a shot, but I had some reservations. Was it heavy? Will nearby swimmers be able to hear it? How good is the sound? Oh yeah, and is it safe?

Out of the Box

The SwiMP3 comes fully assembled with a pair of Lane 4 goggles. A nylon carrying case, software CD, instruction sheet, and USB cable are also included in the package.

SwiMP3 in Use
Installation couldn’t have been easier. I dropped in the CD, followed a few prompts and attached the player to the USB cable. The computer sees the SwiMP3 as a portable hard drive so song files are easily dragged from the computer to the SwiMP3 drive. I also discovered that the MusicMatch Jukebox software included on the CD worked perfectly with the SwiMP3. Using MusicMatch allows you to play with sound quality and arrange your playlist before you transfer the files to the SwiMP3 with one quick click. Within five minutes, I had the device loaded with music and was ready to go to the pool.

The SwiMP3 holds 128Mb of music, which is around 30 songs at CD quality and many more if you want to downgrade them to FM radio quality. The player charges its internal battery through the USB cable when it’s attached to the computer so there’s no need for extra plugs or A/C adapters.

On the Head

When you first put on the SwiMP3, you feel a bit like… well… let’s put it this way: You know that pimply, brace-faced kid who had to wear the full neck and headgear and spit a little when he talked? He felt sorry for me. Paddles on your cheeks, looping wires, thick goggles, LEDs flashing. It’s not the stuff of high fashion. Or maybe it’s so shocking that it is. I don’t know. I never really understood high fashion.

Would Tyra Banks Wear This?

Here’s the thing: it’s not all about the fashion. The paddles sit snugly on your cheeks thanks to two small rubber pieces that rest on your temples. The main unit is curved so that it hugs the back of your head. The goggles are soft and easily adjustable. In a word, the SwiMP3 is comfortable.

In the Water

The high-quality Lane 4 goggles have clear lenses that offer very good visibility. I experienced some difficulty getting them to seal out the water but that’s pretty common for me – my, um, “high contrast” face can make goggle fit interesting. Fortunately, the SwiMP3 can be used with almost any regular set of goggles, so I switched the standard goggles for my own favorite pair. This had the added benefit of improving the overall look of the device.

The SwiMP3 has a lot of functions considering it only has three buttons: on/off, up, and down. The up/down buttons control both the volume and the track number, the on/off doubles as a bass booster, and working combinations of buttons can pause and shuffle the music. The buttons are easy to find on the back of your head and they work well. My only complaint is that they seem backward to me. The higher volume/next track button is on the left, where I would have expected the lower volume/previous track to be. Even with this quirk, the controls are very easy to master.

Pushing away from the wall is where the SwiMP3 shines. With my head underwater, the music was crystal clear and rich. Bone transmission technology definitely works. It sounded like the entire pool was alive with music. Even stereo sounds came through properly. You would swear that the music is coming through your ears.

I was also amazed at how low the volume could be while still being able to hear the music. Out of the water, you could barely tell the thing was on, but underwater, the volume was perfect. Rest assured, the volume can be turned up enough to satisfy the hardest of rockers out there. While I didn’t notice any significant difference with the bass boost turned on, it did enrich the tones slightly.

I’ve never been a big fan of using headphones during workouts and I’ve never really looked forward to swimming, but I found myself eagerly anticipating my next swim just so I could use the SwiMP3. My workouts were consistently longer than planned, simply because I would get lost in the music – 500 meter repeats went by in an instant.

The SwiMP3 easily stayed in place throughout my workouts and I did not notice any extra drag from the device (I’m sure there is some, I just didn’t notice it). It stayed put on every stroke style I tried… even my pathetic attempts at a butterfly. Occasionally, on a particularly poor and violent flip turn, a sound paddle would come away from my cheek, but it always returned immediately to its proper position.

Final Thoughts


Overall, the performance of the SwiMP3 far outweighs its aesthetic shortcomings. It was easy to install, easy to use, and offered great sound. You just need to expect to have people stare at you and ask questions about it. By the way, the teenagers think it’s “cool.” By definition, that makes me “cool” too, right? Right?

Everything I read on bone conduction said that it was a completely safe technology. I did come across a couple mentions of people getting headaches, but I had workouts lasting as long as 45 minutes without any problems.

With my head out of the water, people in adjacent lanes could definitely hear something. They couldn’t actually hear my bad music, but they could hear something. To guard against this, I got in the habit of hitting pause during my rest periods. While doing laps, the music could not be heard by anyone but me.

You should expect to lose track of your lap count while using the SwiMP3. You think counting laps is hard now? Try doing it while listening to the Violent Femmes. They should include a lap counter in the package just for sanity’s sake.

While the MusicMatch Jukebox software worked great, I should point out that the SwiMP3 can only work with unprotected, unencrypted MP3 files. That means that music purchased from the MusicMatch website won’t work on the SwiMP3. Any 12 year old can tell you how to get around this issue, but I won’t do it.

For those of you still wondering, yes, you could conceivably listen to the SwiMP3 out of the water, but it’s not designed for that kind of use. The sound quality is approximately 37,461 times better in the water and, unless you’re Kurt Rambis and it’s 1987, wearing goggles out of the water is generally frowned upon.

I can’t tell you whether $249 is too much for an MP3 player that only works in the water, but I can tell you that it works very, very well.

I can also tell you that I’ve seen it on sale for $199.95 at www.trisports.com (where our members get additional discounts).

 
  SwiMP3 (www.finisinc.com)
Category ScoreNotes
Battery Life I can’t even remember the last time I put the thing on the charger, but it keeps on playing. Finis says it has a 4-hour battery life.
Weight Heavier than you’d expect, but it’s only 5oz (including goggles) and you can’t feel it at all in the water.
Ease of Use Controls are very easy to operate on the fly, except for pausing, which could be a bit tricky.
Sound Quality You wouldn’t confuse it with a good home stereo, but it produces surprisingly nice sound. Very full with good tones.

Cosmo Factor

(based on the fashion magazine, not the sitcom character)

 For the first time ever, I was not at all worried that people were looking at my Speedo.
Overall Very high quality product. Definitely makes a workout more enjoyable. I just wish it looked better.


The Bottom Line: Recommended
If looks aren’t everything, this is just about perfect. Nice sound, easy to use, and makes swimming far more enjoyable.
 

SwiMP3 System Requirements:

Windows 98SE, 2000, ME, XP, Mac OS 9, OS X
Intel Pentium II 233MHz or equivalent
128 Mb RAM, 35Mb available hard drive space
USB port, CD-ROM drive
Internet connection recommended

MSRP: $249.99

A Note on the Author: Dominic Lazzaretto has completed four triathlons (generally in the middle of the pack) and has competed in dozens of road running races, mountain bike races, and road cycling events. He is one of the official gear reviewers for BeginnerTriathlete.com
 

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date: April 3, 2005

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DominiqueL

 






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