A sound body for MP3 players

Ironman champ tests a stash of music players and accessories to judge sound quality, durability and comfort. Photos: Music gadgets hit the gym

For those who prefer working out to music but are afraid of banging up their precious iPods outdoors, there are plenty of rugged MP3 players made to withstand rain, sweat and the occasional unlucky drop.

Most MP3 players designed for athletes are modestly priced. Still, you get what you pay for. They are brawny enough to handle the elements, but most have limited storage capacity. A 256MB unit, for instance, holds 120 to 170 four-minute songs and has 20 hours of battery life.

For this reason some active people prefer to take an iPod Mini, with 4GB or 6GB capacity, wherever they go. For them, bike mounts and wristbands can keep tunes accessible.

Last week, during his swim-bike-run workouts, Christopher Bergland, a three-time Triple Ironman champion (who set the record for most miles run on a treadmill in 24 hours), tested a stash of MP3 players and accessories to judge sound quality, durability and comfort.

Among the devices he evaluated:

1. Sony NW-S23 S2-Sports Network Walkman Digital Music Player (256MB), $180. The device is about the size of a pack of gum and delivers 70 hours of play on one AAA battery.

Bergland's View: "It fit comfortably in my fist, and my thumb was perfectly situated on the trigger play button." He wished that its capacity was larger than 170 songs, but he found downloading a breeze and felt confident that the rubber covering would hold up to sweat and rain.

2. Marware Bike Mount, $7.95. This gadget can secure an iPod Mini ($199 and up) to handlebars so that cyclists can switch songs as easily as they shift gears.

Bergland's View: "I loved being able to see what song I was listening to," he said. "But looking down on a busy road felt dangerous," as did the "tight-rope effect" created by taut headphone wires connected to the handlebars.

3. Oregon Scientific 512MB Waterproof MP3 player, $129.95. The player supports MP3 or WMA files, with 16 hours of playtime and a rechargeable battery.

Bergland's View: For a quick dip in the pool, this might work well, Bergland said, but when he tried it while lap swimming, "the ear pods kept popping out." He also was frustrated by not being able to swap headphones. (The manual says it is possible.)

4. Marware Wrist Mount, $19.95. A Velcro strap fastens an iPod Mini to an athlete's wrist. Clever cord-management straps eliminate floppy wires.

Bergland's View: "It was easy to see and select songs." He also liked the way the neoprene material absorbed sweat.

5. Rio Forge Sport (256MB), $109.99. This stainless-steel-faced player, complete with a stopwatch and lap counter, stores up to 170 songs. Armband, sport clip and earphones are included.

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Bergland's View: At 3.2 ounces, this was the heaviest MP3 player tested. But it also had the best sound, Bergland said. "The bass and texture were so clear, I could hear parts of songs I'd never heard with my other MP3s," he said.

6. Aquapac Wire-Thru Case, $59.99. This vinyl case can keep your MP3 player dry. Just thread your headphone wire through the sealed locking mechanism.

Bergland's View: It took a few minutes to figure out the clamps. "But once you lock them down...," Bergland said, this bag provides "Fort Knox waterproof protection."

7. Finis SwiMP3 Underwater MP3 Player (128 MB), $249.99. The player attaches to swim goggles and the back of the head for streamline efficiency. The sound comes through pads that rest on cheekbones.

Bergland's View: "It was amazing to hear such crisp sound cranking underwater," Bergland said.

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