Headphones for the Pool: Finis Duo vs Sony Waterproof Walkman

As a way to move my creaky bones, I love to swim. But unless I get into my zen state, plodding along, lap after lap, can sometimes feel monotonous and lonesome. (What, I’ve only done 200 meters?)

...

Here is where underwater music players come in: These submersible products inject some welcome pizzazz into your aquatic antics—should you need a little musical company (or audio encouragement).

The $100 Sony Waterproof Walkman and the $120 Finis Duo are headphone-player combos: The headphones are attached to the player, and you load music or podcasts onto the player via your computer. Then you wear the all-in-one contraption on your head—with or without a swim cap.

Both models are fully waterproof and infuse your ears with sweet sounds underwater—the Duo to depths of 3 meters and the Waterproof Walkman to depths of 2 meters—but they deliver the goods in remarkably different ways. Both products gave me the zing I craved to do more laps—or to swim faster occasionally, if my music’s beat hit the mark. The Walkman gets extra brownie points for working well out of the water, too, such as at the gym or on a bike. But which model emerged as the smash hit in the pool?

{{product}}finis-duo-underwater-mp3-player-headphones{{/product}}
{{product}}sony-waterproof-walkman-nwz-w273s-headphones{{/product}}

The Scorecard

Finis Duo

Design

Though both the Finis Duo and the Sony Waterproof Walkman are waterproof audio devices, they’re as different as night and day.

The Duo uses bone-conduction technology to transmit your tunes: The device’s speakers rest flat against your cheekbones, and sound vibrations pass through those bones to your inner ears. You attach the speakers to your right and left goggle straps, in front of your ears, without blocking the ears themselves. (You must wear goggles to use the Duo.)

The Duo’s built-in clip is tight and durable. Initially, it took a little futzing to slide the goggle straps into the clip’s narrow slot and position each speaker—just so—on my cheekbones. But it was worth the effort. The Duo did not budge in the water.

Meanwhile, the Walkman pipes music through special swimmers’ earbuds, which you wedge inside your ear canals. You also loop the single cord over each ear. You can wear this device with or without goggles.

The Walkman required considerably more fiddling than the Duo did to get the right fit. The bundle includes four swim buds of different sizes. I learned the hard way that the small buds fall off their mounts all too easily: I had to pay attention to the task of twisting them firmly into place. Then, once the buds were secured on the headphones, I had to smush the earbuds into my ears and hook the cord over each ear to anchor the unit. As a final step, I used the sliding band at the back of my head to tighten the fit. Once I got the hang of things, the process took less time. And like the Duo, the Walkman stayed put in the water. Through all my flip-turns, the Walkman popped out only once—and that probably had something to do with the wonky nature of that particular flip-turn.

If you loathe the idea of wearing earbuds while swimming, the Duo might be the answer to your prayers. And the Duo leaves your ears uncovered, so—if your experience is anything like mine—you will retain greater awareness of your surroundings than with the Walkman.

Winner: Finis Duo

image alt text

Features

Both models offer 4GB of storage space, and their waterproof certification is the same: IPX-8 (translation: this rating allows for continual submersion in water). Beyond these specs, the Walkman fares better in the features department overall—with one exception.

You can wear the Walkman while you run, bike, work out in a gym, paddle, or immerse yourself in water (Sony throws in four additional pairs of earbuds for use on land). The Duo is designed exclusively for swimmers.

On the audio front, the Walkman supports more file formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, and Linear PCM. The Duo handles just MP3 and WMA.

I also appreciated the Walkman’s lock button; the lock-on mode prevents the Walkman from accidentally switching on when it’s not in use. The Duo lacks an on-off lock option.

That exception I mentioned? The Duo can be used in both freshwater and saltwater; the Walkman is meant for use in chlorinated pools only. I asked Finis about the materials it uses in manufacturing, but the company would only tell me that it uses gold-plated magnetic charging pieces—additional details are top-secret. Secrets aside, if swimming in rivers and lakes or snorkeling is your thing, the Duo can keep you company in the open water.

Bottom line: The Walkman still wins out, given its broader appeal.

Winner: Sony Waterproof Walkman

image alt text

Usability

I admit that I’m a super-klutz. So when it comes to operating controls—especially when they're out of sight—I like large buttons and audible or tactile feedback.

At first blush, the Duo was easier to use in the water. Its few controls are housed on the left pad (the forward/back tracking buttons double as volume down/up, for instance). Compared to the Walkman, the buttons are big and easy to locate by feel alone, and they feel reasonably snappy when pressed. That said, it did take a few stints in the pool with the Duo for me to familiarize myself with its buttons’ locations.

The Walkman, on the other hand, positions the controls on both the right and left earpieces. I have small fingers, but even so the buttons felt minuscule. On top of that, I was initially frustrated by how puny the controls felt under the pad of my thumb: The dedicated volume rocker and teensy Play/Pause button, for example, have very little travel when pressed.

My annoyance was tempered somewhat, however, by the fact that the Walkman provides audible cues for other functions. The track-advance and track-back controls emit a series of quick beeps to indicate that you’re switching tunes, and I liked the "Shuffle" and “Shuffle off” voice announcements when I pressed the random play button. The Duo lacks audible feedback.

Despite the Walkman’s audible help, the Duo earns the ribbon here, thanks to its friendlier controls.

Winner: Finis Duo

Comfort

The ubiquitous one-size-fits-all moniker rarely applies to the category of doodads that affix to your noggin and ears. But with the Duo, it does. There are no earbuds or hooks to fuss with, and your goggles take care of the fit around your head. Swimming with pads on each cheekbone may sound cumbersome, but it’s not. The Duo feels lightweight. The cord, which sits around the back of your head (and runs longer than the Walkman’s), does not flap or distract.

Meanwhile, The Walkman’s smallest set of swim buds felt a smidge too large for my small ears. Also, the buds felt more comfortable in the water than out. Even though the Walkman’s cord looped over my ears and sat behind my head, it didn’t get in the way. Still, when wearing a swim cap, I had to make sure that the edge of my cap didn’t cover the Walkman’s controls.

Unlike with the Duo, I noticed a hint of ear fatigue with the Walkman after a while.

Winner: Finis Duo

image alt text

Transferring Audio

Before you can rock and roll with either contender, you need to transfer music, podcasts, and so on, from your computer to the player.

With the Duo, you simply drag and drop files from iTunes onto the Duo drive on your desktop via the included USB transfer and charging cable.

The first time you connect the Walkman’s USB cable, on the other hand, Sony instructs you to install software so you can move your music to the player. Alternatively you can use Windows Media Player on a PC or Finder on a Mac.

I tested both units on both a Mac and a PC, and both processes worked as advertised—but the Duo’s setup is more straightforward, You attach the left speaker to the Duo’s cradle, where it snaps into place magnetically with a satisfying click. In contrast, both of the Walkman’s speakers need to be slotted into the Sony cradle, which is bulkier than the Duo’s, and the cord gets in the way a bit. (Like I said, I’m klutzy.) Plus, with the Walkman’s drive, you face multiple folders and additional clicks to complete the transfer task; the Duo’s approach is more streamlined.

Winner: Finis Duo

Sound Quality

The Duo’s impressive sound only becomes apparent when you’re below the surface of the water; the Duo is not designed to be used on terra firma. As soon as I moved underwater, the Duo’s immersive, surround sound-like experience kicked in. Overall, the music I listened to sounded balanced across the board, without unduly heavy bass. For example, Natacha Atlas’s vocals on some electronica tracks sounded crisp and clear. The Duo worked especially well during backstroke laps (because my ears stayed underwater). I also tested the Duo in the ocean, and its sound quality did not waver.

The Walkman delivered solid audio quality, too: My tunes sounded clean, with pleasing highs and a confident—but not overbearing—bass. Percussion instruments sounded particularly sharp when I listened to the Million Dollar Arm soundtrack, for example. Unlike the Duo, the Walkman performed better above water; when the headphones dipped beneath the surface, my tracks sounded slightly muffled. This change was subtle, though, and it did not affect my playlist enjoyment.

Both models handle music admirably, considering the environmental challenges facing the speakers during lap-swimming: churning water, ambient noise, and lane-mate capers. Overall, though, the Walkman’s sound felt richer and broader.

Winner: Sony Waterproof Walkman

image alt text

Battery Life

Sony claims that the Walkman will deliver up to 8 hours of battery life on a charge, whereas the Duo will last up to 7 hours. So at my slow-poke pace in a 25-meter pool, the Walkman would give me an extra 70 to 80 laps of music mileage (in theory). In addition, Sony promises a fast-charge option: A 3-minute charge yields an hour’s juice.

Winner: Sony Waterproof Walkman

Value

The Walkman offers more exercise scenarios than the Duo for 20 bucks less (based on list prices). Both models offer 4GB of storage, and the Walkman promises an extra hour of battery life, compared to the Duo.

The actual price gap changes if you shop around. At this writing, you can pick up the Duo for $95 on Amazon. The Walkman, meanwhile, costs $98 (black version), $96 (orange), or $88 (pink) on Amazon.

The focus of my review is underwater players. And the Duo can handle any body of water you fling yourself into. For its part, the Walkman is restricted to the pool. Even though the Walkman may win out on price—by a few dollars—the Duo’s all-water benefits and superior usability force a tie here.

Winner: Tie

Verdict

The Finis Duo wins the category-by-category matchup by a narrow 5–4 margin, but really the better choice depends on how and where you want to use your underwater headphones. If you’re after an all-water music player—for your swims in rivers, lakes, oceans, or pools—the Duo fits the bill. (And after all, bone conduction is safer for your ears than transmitting music directly into your ear canals.)

If you prefer earbuds, and you’re interested in a player that works in the gym as well as in the pool, the Sony Waterproof Walkman is a solid candidate to consider.

Photo credits: Finis, Sony.