SwiMP3 Review

By Richard Menta 8/26/05

One of the early fulfilled promises of digital music players were how they catered so well to the athletic market. Prior to the introduction of MP3 devices music lovers used to jog with their walkman cassette players, bulky and heavy devices when compared with today's portable electronics. Despite their girth the music pumped by these devices served two very useful purposes. First, the music helped overcome the tedium of redundant training. Second, by selecting songs of specific tempo the user could use the music to guide the pace of their exercise.

Portable CD players were not so successful with this group. The players were not only larger and heavier than cassettes, but they tended to skip during anything quicker than a fast walk.

Then in 1998 the first digital music portables appeared, all which had favorable size and weight configurations for the exercise-minded. They weren't exactly designed for exercise, but it was easy to tuck them into a pocket (assuming your outfit had pockets) and they were skip-proof. Recognizing the potential Nike worked with the Rio people to design the first MP3 player purely for the workout maven. Released in 2000 the Nike PSA[Play 120 strapped to the user's bicep and was neoprene coated to ward of sweat.

All of this was fine for runners and people pumping iron in the gym, but what about swimmers? Water and home electronics don't exactly go together after all. Still, swimmers do fit the profile as they do lap after lap to build endurance. Enter swim suppliers Finis who have decided to cater to this niche with the SwiMP3.

The SwiMP3

Founded over a decade ago by John Mix and Olympic Gold Medalist Pablo Morales, Finis produces products for the rigorous needs of the competitive swimmer. The product line consists neatly of various training equipment and goggles, of which the SwiMP3 is a combination of both.

The SwiMP3 is not simply a portable music system for the pool, but a training tool. It consists of a waterproof player unit that slides onto a set of goggles (which come with the player) that secure the unit to the back of the head. Selling for about $250 the SwiMP3 has 128MB of memory. Two cheek-phones extend from the body, each connected through a single wire. These phones are likewise secured by the straps and positioned at the side of the goggles.

Look Ma, No Headphones

What struck me when I first learned about the SwiMP3 was that the unit used bone conduction to deliver music to the listener's brain. Well-known by audiologists, bone conduction is a technique where sound is transferred to the listener by resonating vibrations through the cheekbones. Vibrations passed this way directly trigger the movement of the fluid in our inner ear, transferring sound and bypassing the air conduction mechanism of our middle ear.

The technique has been used for decades to help those with certain forms of hearing impairment. The difficulties of delivering music through the human ear canal while swimming can also be transcended with this technique, though there still are a number of challenges and limitations to address.

Challenges

Turbulence is generated as you swim through the water and the end result is sound. With each stroke arms and legs are thrashing about, breaking above and below the water line and introducing a cacophony of splashes and churning bubbles. Furthermore, the exhaling and inhaling of air throughout the course of the workout is more pronounced than a runner's because gulps can only be taken at specific intervals when the swimmer turns their head sufficiently out of the water. This moving the head in and out of the waterline in itself presents challenges as sound waves travel at different intensities under different mediums.

Swimming makes a lot of noise and it is not necessarily something that an in-pool music device can completely overcome. This is the obvious and expected limitation as I first take the SwiMP3 into my pool. The SwiMP3 is not something designed to isolate me from the world around me, it is just a device that should play music well enough that it entertains and distracts me lap after lap after lap. It makes no sense for expectations to be unrealistic (like comparing S/N ratios with that of land-based portables) as this unit was designed for a practical purpose.

Getting Started

As I hold the SwiMP3 in my hand it is clear that the designers thought hard and carefully about the best way to create such a device so it would work in a solid, functional manner. Rather than attach it to a bicep or around the chest, the SwiMP3 is curved to wrap neatly around the back of the head. It is designed to integrate with any set of goggles, using the goggle strap to secure the device firmly to the back of the skull.

Two wires emanate from the player body and extend to the left and right cheek-phones that vibrate the sound through the bones of the face. These cheek-phones (I like saying that) also integrate well into the goggle strap. The wires are a little long and as I used the SwiMP3 over the course of two months they did have a tendency to get caught on my fingers when I pulled the strap to remove the unit. The wires seem quite secure, but a slight bit of caution will ensure no damage comes to them.

The entire unit is, of course, water proof. A plug in the part of the unit that comes in contact with the back of the head seals of the unit's USB jack from the water. The player itself works as a flash drive. Once connected to a PC the unit appears as an external drive and files are transferred to the player by drag-and-drop. This emphasizes the SwiMP3's design goal of keeping it all simple, a virtue in any portable unit.

The SwiMP3 can be taken to depths of about 10 feet, good for diving to the bottom of the pool. This device is not for diving deep in the open ocean in case some of of you snorkel or scuba folk are thinking of using it for that purpose.

Controls

If swimmers had to continually fiddle with controls the SwiMP3 would become more of a distraction than anything else, defeating the purpose it was designed for. This is why the unit only has three buttons. The buttons are large and they rise significantly away from the faceplate making them easier to locate. On the left and right there are two equally sized oval buttons (labeled Next and Prev) that with a quick click change the track forward and backward. Hold those buttons down and they do double duty with the left button increasing the volume while the right lowers it. On land-based players this same act will activate the scan feature. As a scan feature is useless in the pool a volume control makes sense here. When holding down the keys for volume control, the shift up and down of sound was not as smooth as land-based players, though it was adequate.

The third, smaller button is located in between the two larger ones and is shifted slightly lower on the faceplate. This is the unit's on/off switch. The user holds it down for a few seconds and two LEDs located just above the switch light up red and green. The music then begins to play. All of the keys initiated with a clear click.

At first I had some hesitation over the limitations of the controls (there is no display after all), but realized in the pool that it made things a whole lot easier. Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the keys. Keeping things to a minimum here are a virtue. A shuffle feature is toggled by hitting the the Next and Prev buttons at the same time. Pressing (but not holding) the on/off button toggles the bass boost.

Capacity

When the SwiMP3 was first released early last fall the average MP3 flash portable held 256MB of memory so the 128MB of memory used by the unit, while modest, wasn't that far off from what everyone else offered in the market. Higher capacity units were starting to appear for the Christmas 2004 season, though.

Units like the SwiMP3 - one which is targeted to a very specific and tight audience - is not produced continually in dozens of assembly line batches, but usually in only one batch. This reflects the fact that such a targeted device won't sell millions of units in the first month and so costs of production per unit are higher. This also makes them more exposed to quick shifts down in memory prices. The memory costs Finis paid reflect last summer's when the players started rolling off the assembly line.

I say this to illuminate the difficulties of producing for such a market. Now fast forward to January 2005 when Apple releases the iPod Shuffle and priced them at a new low (surprising for Apple since they never before sold their products as the lowest priced), $99 for 512MB and $149 for 1GB of memory. All of the sudden the SwiMP3's capacity seemed insufficient for the $250 price tag.

In all fairness the price above does not reflect the SwiMP3's memory capacity it reflects its unique purpose for training. As this is the first player of its kind and thus subject to more market risk it made sense to go with a lower memory capacity to ruduce cost risk. I do recommend that when they are ready to release batch two of the SwiMP3 they raise the memory capacity to 1GB rather than continue the 128MB version at a lower price. 1GB is more than enough.

The Swim

As I slip on the SwiMP3 I position the cheek-phones on my cheek in a way that felt most comfortable. I then turn on the unit and I can hear the slight humming of Rancid's Ruby Soho eminating from their discs. Hmmm, this doesn't sound very clear at all, just muffled. At that point I decided to dip my head under water and the moment my ears are fully submerged the sound came through clearly and crisply.

I pop my head out of the water again and as I do my brain shifts back from cheekbone audio to the ears and Rancid again is a soft (OK, not so soft) rumble. Drop my head underwater again and the volume and clarity return. Remember, this device is not designed for audiophiles it is designed for athletes and therefore has a practical purpose in mind. If you are looking for S/N ratio you have missed the point. The SwiMP3 is not for the casual swimmer who likes to sip a Mai Tai on an inflatable raft. It is for those looking to relieve the monotony of exercise.

I find that the ideal location for the cheek-phones are at a point where in the air-based world their sound is most dampened by their position on my cheek. As I continue to pop my head in and out of the water during the day I find that I can hold conversations with other people without having to touch the volume of the unit. As long as my ears are out of the water, the music is never more than a low hum.

The position of the cheek-phones seems less critical under water. Moving them to various locals along my cheek didn't change the sound intensity at all, excellent since any shifts caused by the motions of my body strokes will have no ill effect on sound.

As I begin my workout, slowly swimming from one end of the pool to the other, I find the reserved movement of my body does not interfere with the music. Long distance swimmers doing the Australian crawl will find that their fluid movements through the water will mesh quite well with the SwiMP3. As I swam lap after lap, the music played without a hitch. The soft splashes of my arms offered no interruption with the music nor did my breathing as at least one cheek was always under the water. Picking up my pace significantly I began to create more turbulence. Neither that nor my heavier breathing became a problem.

Different strokes have different results. A stroke like the butterfly creates not only a more vigorous clash between air and water, the proper form at intervals thrusts both cheeks above the surface of the water, exposing the cheek-phones to the open air. As I described earlier lifting your head fully out of the water reduces the sound to a hum, so such a stroke will create a repetitive on/off effect.

Overall, as long as one cheek remains in the water there is little disruption in the audio. There are limitations of course, but these were already described above. Overall, I was very impressed with how well it sounded and as guests came to use the pool I had fun watching their expressions as they lifted their SwiMP3 ensconced heads in and out of the water.

Conclusion:

The SwiMP3 helps overcome one of the toughest elements of all types of competitive exercise, the mental. Simply put, training for competition can be boring. Anything that relieves the monotony of exercise helps the athlete.

And there are plenty of athletes to target. If you think about it, if Finis could place two or three SwiMP3 units in every high school with a swim team they would have as equal a penetration in those schools than many non-iPod MP3 portables. Throw in all the world's tri-athletes and Olympic hopefuls and you have a nice little niche market going. As there is no competition for this group Finis has a good shot at success in this market. Because of that I bet you Nike is keeping their eye on this player.

If you are involved in any form of competitive swimming I highly recommend the SwiMP3. If you regularly (and steadily) do laps a few times a week for your health you too will welcome the SwiMP3. If you are looking for something to play music while you clean the pool then get a regular MP3 player with ear buds as a player like this one will end up sitting unused in a drawer once the novelty wears off.

I find 128MB of capacity insufficient for any music device, whatever the price, as it requires too many trips to the PC to refresh tunes. A 1GB version of the SwiMP3 would be very welcomed here and dramatic price drops recently make this possible. Hopefully, Pablo Morales is already beta testing the next version of this player. It earned a follow up.


The U2 iPod is available on Amazon

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