I love swimming but I find it incredibly boring. There’s only so much time that I can be alone with my thoughts. (Hmm maybe I am boring?) Oh, to have my favorite playlist at the pool with me. Unfortunately, AirPods are not suitable for swimming. Few earphones or headphones are, mostly because of that whole water thing. The H2O Audio Tri Pro headphones, however, can actually work underwater, and they can even work independent of your phone (which is even harder to swim with). They’re also good for biking and running, but are they worth the $150 price tag? Here is my review of the H2O Audio Tri Pro.
You can run, bike or swim with these waterproof wireless headphones, which can hold 8 gigabytes of music for phone-free operation. Unfortunately, they’re a pain to use and don’t work well in the pool.
$160 on Amazon
You’ll notice from the photo that these don’t look like over-the-ear headphones or wireless earbuds. Rather, these are bone conduction earphones, which means their tiny speakers sit down next to the ears (instead of on or in them).
So they don’t sound… tiny? At all. Bone conduction is pretty ingenious: Vibrations from the earphones turn your jaw — your entire skull, really — into a loudspeaker. I won’t say the audio quality rivals anything you’d get from proper headphones, but it’s surprisingly decent, and certainly good enough for vigorous activities like running and cycling. (Learn more about swimming below.)
Meanwhile, since your ears aren’t covered or otherwise blocked, you can still hear external sounds: conversations, traffic, and so on. These are the opposite of noise cancellation; they are loud, which is sometimes desirable (and certainly safer because you are more aware of your surroundings).
Bluetooth headphones meet MP3 player
The lightweight neckband-style Tri Pro has two basic modes of operation: Bluetooth and Memory. The first is pretty straightforward: pair it with your phone, like any wireless headset, and play music or podcasts from your favorite source (Pandora, Spotify, etc).
Memory mode is where it gets interesting. The Tri Pro has 8GB of built-in memory, enough for a few hundred songs. If you have a library of digital music (M4A, MP3, WMA, etc.), you can fill the Tri Pro like you would an old-school MP3 player. But there’s another option: A feature called Playlist+ lets you “record” music from any streaming service (like Spotify) for offline listening.
This is the good news. The not-so-cool news is that you can’t just copy or download your favorite playlist and hit the road. Instead, Playlist+ literally does a real-time recording, which is problematic in several ways. First, if you want to save, say, an hour of music, you have to wait an hour while the music plays through your headphones and gets saved into memory. To save four hours? Allow four hours. And so on.
Second, since the result is straight, uninterrupted recording into a large audio file, there’s no shuffling, track skipping, or the like. Probably even worse, the first few seconds of the first song are cut short because the app won’t let you start recording until you launch the playlist from another app. Likewise, the last song is also likely to be stopped when the Rec Timer ends. If a call comes in while you’re recording, the upload process will pause and resume after the call ends, but you’ll end up with two split files in the end. (To help fix this, H2O recommends recording during the night, when calls are less likely, or pairing the headphones with a tablet or PC instead of a phone, at least for the recording process.)
Too bad the Tri Pro no longer functions as the Mighty Vibe, a tiny clip-on audio player that can soak up Amazon Music and Spotify playlists over Wi-Fi. This is a much easier and faster option and allows you to keep your playlist split into individual tracks.
All of this to say that Playlist+ is pretty bad. Too many circles to overcome, too little the final result. That leaves the MP3 option, which has its merits, although I ran into problems during my first few attempts at ripping some albums. Eventually I had to reset the headphones which fixed the issues but didn’t make a great first impression.
Another consideration: While it’s possible to stream podcasts or audiobooks from an app, there’s no easy way to download them to headphones for offline listening, not without some backflips, which I suspect are beyond the reach (and level of patience) of most users.
Tri Pro in the pool: all wet
All of this hassle might be worth it if I could swim while enjoying my carefully curated workout playlist. Unfortunately, the Tri Pro failed miserably in my tests. After inserting the included pair of silicone earplugs, I stood in the pool and hit play. The music was super muddy; not pleasant at all. Then I dipped my head under water and – surprise! — the sound has greatly improved. Just one problem: I don’t live underwater; I have to breathe sometimes.
When I started swimming, both breaststroke and freestyle, I quickly discovered the fundamental flaw here: every time an ear breaks the surface, the sound quality becomes awful. Plus, swimming is a loud affair, with breathing and splashing and all. You have to turn up the volume, but then it’s just one cacophony competing with another.
I tried again without the earplugs, and it was kind of the reverse problem: I could hear better above the water but not as good below. In the end it didn’t matter, because when you swim, you’re constantly hopping above and below the surface. It didn’t take long before I was eager to ditch the headphones.
Should You Buy Tri Pro Headphones?
I guess I’ll have to be alone with my thoughts, at least in the Olympic swimming pool. The H2O Audio Tri Pro headphones simply don’t work well for swimming, which means there’s little point in worrying about the clunky and wasteful Playlist+ feature. What you’re left with, then, is a bone conduction headphone that sounds pretty good and would be very welcome on a run or bike ride.
And if you load it with MP3s or similar, you can leave your phone at home. Is it a desirable option? Not really, at least for me. I want my phone nearby for navigation, emergencies, and a much wider assortment of listening options. A standalone MP3 player that you can wear on your head might have made sense 20 years ago, but I don’t see the value today.
These waterproof, noise-permitting headphones make listening while exercising safer by not shutting you out from the world.
$160 on Amazon