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Taking MP3 players in the water is not a new concept. First, we saw underwater cases--initially aimed at scuba divers--for iRivers and iPods. And then came the standalone underwater MP3 players for surfers and swimmers. Nu-Global's Dolphin Swimmer MP3 player straddles the line between the last two, offering a compact device that can be strapped onto goggles for swimming laps or secured in an armband for hitting the surf. The 1GB Dolphin is far from perfect, with the main concern being the security of the earbuds during vigorous water activity, but with its reasonable $110 price tag, it's a step in the right direction for waterproof MP3 players.
The Dolphin Swimmer is perhaps the most unassuming MP3 player we've ever seen. It's a small (2.4 inches long and 0.8 inch in diameter), simple cylinder that looks more like a pill case than an audio device. The player is wrapped in a smooth, brushed metallic casing that is seamless and--unsurprisingly--offers no place for a screen. The giveaways that this is indeed an MP3 player can be found on either end of the device. One side features a recessed, 2.5-millimeter headphone jack that has some ridging along the opening that allows you to screw in the included headphones for a watertight fit. This is a pretty neat feature, actually, because it allows the unit to keep water out while not using any sort of rubber flaps or seals, which would take away from the sleek feel of the device. However, we're not so thrilled with the non-standard headphone jack as it means that you'll need an adapter to use regular headphones while outside the water--something we definitely recommend (more on why shortly).
The other end of the Dolphin Swimmer features a tactile, rubberized control pad with five raised buttons: track forward and reverse, volume up and down, and play/pause/power. The keys being raised coupled with their orientation--track and volume buttons surrounding the slightly lower, rounded play/pause/power key--make them all easy to activate, even by water-numbed fingers. It's a small design detail, but it makes a difference.
For music playback, you get one option: alphabetical (or numerical) order. Any special ordering you want will have to be done in the Dolphin Swimmer's open window on the computer (appending numbers, for example). On the plus side, the player is compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems, and you're not limited to drag-and-drop transferring. We found that Windows Media Player worked a treat in filling up the device. Just click "shuffle to device" and--voila--you've got a gig's worth of random tracks. Note that the player only supports MP3 and unprotected WMA.
The Dolphin Swimmer offers a few notable extras, both in the box and optional. Of note in the package are two rubberized rings, which on first glance look like nothing more than odd accoutrements. However, these orange pieces in fact are quite useful, allowing you to attach the player to a pair of goggles. Also, as mentioned earlier, Nu-Global includes waterproof earbuds, which themselves have clips for fastening the cables to goggles. For surfers and other water frolickers, there's an optional armband for $14.99. A sport pack--which includes a hard plastic case (with lanyard), standard earbuds, a headphone splitter/adapter, and a thermometer attachment--also sells for $14.99.
It's tough to get good sound quality with a waterproof MP3 player, due to the fact that unless the unit uses bone conduction to relay sound (as with the Finis SwiMP3), you're probably going to get some water in your ears while swimming laps or getting pounded by waves. The Dolphin Swimmer attempts to solve this with graduated, earplug-like earbuds, but we found that the seal wasn't complete and some water could get in. Even above the water, the waterproof earbuds gave a slightly muffled quality to music. It sounded OK, but certainly not stellar. However, if you decide to swap in some quality earbuds for out-of-water use, the Swimmer is quite capable of providing good sounding audio. The tested battery life of 9.3 hours should be sufficient for most water play, though it's not great in the scheme of MP3 players.