My name is Claire, and I have a problem. With digital audio player addiction. I swear, I have like forty of the things. I don’t use many of them…just my iPhone, and my old 60GB fourth-generation iPod jolts me awake to the melodious sound of DragonForce every morning. That doesn’t stop me from collecting more and more players, though…so when Julie offered me the FreeStyle Audio SoundWave waterproof MP3 player, how could I resist?
Turns out that resisting would have been pretty easy, had I known what I was in for.
I wanted to like this thing, I really did – the waterproof feature meant that I could take it in the hot tub or to the beach without worrying about it getting damaged, whereas I generally keep my iPhone in a Ziploc bag in such situations. While that’s a nice feature of this little guy, it’s just not enough of a reason to buy it.
With that in mind, let’s see what we have here…
What’s in the box
The SoundWave comes with everything to get you started:
- 2GB MP3 player
- 3.5mm-to-USB charge and sync cable
- Waterproof earbuds
- Earbud covers in various sizes
- Elastic armband
- “Floater” black vinyl thingy (I have no idea what this is actually for)
On the outside
At first glance, the SoundWave is pretty unassuming – it’s small, blue, and has rubber-coated buttons and a very tiny OLED display. It has little textured grippies on the side and a belt clip on the back. Strangely, even though the clip has a little note printed on it that it’s not meant to be removed, there was a second belt clip in the box.
This is all fine and dandy, until you go to use the SoundWave for the first time (after, of course, charging the non-removable battery via an available USB port on your nearest computer).
It turns out that those little rubber-coated buttons are a real pain in the butt to press down. They’re simply too small, and the rubber that covers the buttons isn’t raised enough to find it easily with your thumb. Not only that, but I had to press down hard to get a press to register. I quickly discovered that pressing down with the tip of my fingernail seemed to work best.
While this is bad design in any situation, one needs to remember that this player is specifically designed for active use in the water. I would given up a little of its compact size in order to have usable buttons – not to mention that other miniature players (the Sansa Clip and iPod Shuffle 1G/2G come to mind) have fully usable buttons in a compact form factor.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is no discrete audio control on this player. This is a huge mistake in my opinion – a music player must have an easily accessible volume control. Instead, you have to press the “Vol.” button and then use the track skip/search buttons to change the volume.
Thankfully, while the very mediocre earbuds are waterproof themselves, the 3.5mm tip that plugs into the SoundWave appears to be pretty standard – it doesn’t have a rubber sheath or anything, so I’d imagine you can use a different set of earbuds or headphones with this player without impacting its waterproof capability.
On the inside
As mentioned, the SoundWave is waterproof. It also sports 2GB internal storage, and FM tuner, and, oddly enough, an assortment of preloaded tracks. I have since discovered that I’m not a big fan of Led Zepplin, Van Halen is as awesome as I already knew they were, and The Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You” is actually pretty creepy when you think about it. Incidentally, The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” was also included – side note: watch Magical Mystery Tour if you get a chance. It’s…interesting.
You don’t just get a variety of classic songs, either – I also got to hear tracks from everyone’s favorite train wreck, Britney Spears, as well as Ricky Martin and Kelly Clarkson. I’m not entirely certain that the SoundWave ships preloaded with music, however – the only player I’ve ever purchased that came with (undoubtedly not-quite-legal) preloaded music tracks was purchased straight from China on DealExtreme, so this could have just been how my demo model shipped.
Music commentary aside, let’s see what this thing is like to use.
Using the SoundWave
Per my earlier observation, the little tiny buttons were obnoxious to press down. Not only that, but they’re only “labeled” with a little raised icon on each one – difficult to see, and difficult to use. I had to read the manual to figure out how to navigate the player’s menus, which was a little annoying.
The SoundWave shows itself as a run-of-the-mill removable drive, so you can drag-and-drop songs onto it to your heart’s content. You can also use Windows Media Player to sync it with your media library.
Once you get songs loaded up and the battery fully charged, you can start listening to your music in waterproof bliss. Kind of.
The player boots up with FreeStyle’s tagline, “Take Your Music There” scrolling across the OLED display. You can then navigate to the FM tuner, the digital equalizer, the settings menu, and (of course) your music.
This is another area where I think the SoundWave falls a little short. They tried to fit way too much information on that teeny-tiny display.
Let’s take a look at the Sansa Clip:
When a track is playing, you get some basic info…
- battery life
- track number/total tracks
- song info – artist, title, album
- graphic bar showing position in song relative to length of song
Hit the center button the player, and you can see a nice-looking graphic visualizer of the currently-playing track.
Not so on the SoundWave…instead, a playing track shows you the following:
- thin graphic equalizer bar
- song title
- track number
- total tracks
- file format
- equalizer setting
- battery life
- current position in song
- length of song
- a cryptic icon indicating the repeat mode
And, best of all, the top left corner of the screen is completely wasted with a music note icon. You can see the two side-by-side below:
Not only that, but the display itself is lower-resolution than the one in the Sansa Clip, so text is overly large on the song title (and scrolls by interminably slowly – it shouldn’t take half the duration of a song just to see the whole title).
Most of the information displayed is completely unnecessary, like the bitrate, file format, and equalizer setting. Even the repeat icon is unclear in its meaning, because the SoundWave has multiple repeat options (normal, song, folder, artist, etc.)
The menu structure is odd – there’s no clear way to get to the repeat settings while a song is playing, and there’s no apparent way to move back and forth between levels in the menu structure while a song is playing. I had to read the manual just to figure out the basics of the player, which is pretty inexcusable in 2009.
After trying to futilely navigate through the player for a few minutes, my thumbs started getting sore from having to press down so hard on the buttons to get them to respond. I eventually gave up and rather irritatedly threw the thing on the floor so I could finish writing up this glowing review.
I wanted to like this player. Really. Sandisk has proven that you can use a tiny screen on a tiny player and still have spectacular usability, even for the most noobish of users. Freestyle, unfortunately, didn’t come through. At all.
And, at $89.95 MSRP, I would recommend you save your money and just buy a Sansa Clip (buy.com has 1GB refurbs for $15 shipped) and a box of snack-size Ziploc bags (about 99 cents if you buy generic).