Water-resistant vs. waterproof headphones: what's the difference?

The difference matters—here's everything you need to know.

We dunked the Mpow Bluetooth headphones in water to see if they really are waterproof. Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

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If you're shopping for new headphones, you're probably wondering how well they can handle water. Maybe you need headphones for running, the gym, or just the occasional rough commute—either way, you've probably come across dozens of headphones claiming to be protected against sweat, water, splashes, and everything in between.

To find out, we actually put some headphones to the test. You can see our results below, but the most surprising result is that even affordable sub-$20 wireless earbuds like the Mpow Flame we tested can work just fine—even while sitting underwater for 30 minutes. The key? Knowing exactly what kind of waterproofing you're buying when shopping for headphones.

There are usually four terms terms used to convey how much water a pair of headphones can withstand: sweat-resistant, sweatproof, water-resistant, and waterproof. Are these just marketing terms, or do headphones have to be able to meet certain water resistance standards? Turns out, it's a little bit of both. The better headphones are at keeping out water, the higher their IP rating will be.

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To find out more, I decided to investigate the water resistance of three different pairs of headphones, and compare them to their stated IP ratings: the "sweat- and water-resistant" Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless earbuds, the "waterproof and sweatproof" JLab Audio Fit2.0 Sport Wired Earbuds, and the "waterproof" Mpow Wireless Bluetooth headphones.

Water-proof vs. water-resistant

So how do you tell whether a pair of headphones is "waterproof" vs. "water-resistant"? For that, you need to know how the IP rating—or Ingress Protection rating—actually works.

IP ratings are a (mostly) standardized way to describe how well a gadget can keep out dust and water.

IP ratings are a (mostly) standardized way to describe how well any gadget is at keeping out solids (like dust) and liquids (like water). Any IP rating you see has two numbers—for example, "IP67". The first number—6—tells you how good it is at keeping out dust, while the second—7—tells you how well it keeps out water. Higher numbers typically mean it's better at that task.

For example, if you see a pair of headphones with a rating of IP55, the first five indicates that headphones are "dust protected"—they allow some dust in, but not enough to interfere with the normal operation.

The second number indicates how well the headphones keep out water. So IP55 headphones can be sprayed with a stream of water for 5-10 minutes (depending on the test setup) without being damaged. Just remember the two numbers are independent, so if you have three headphones rated IP45, IP55, and IP65, they're all equally good at keeping water out.

Most water-resistant headphones now have a dust rating of at least 5 or 6, but our focus here is water. Assuming our imaginary pair has a dust rating of 6, here's how the IP ratings would differ for water:

What IP64 means: Water splashes over 5-10 minutes have no harmful effect
What IP65 means: Water projected from a small nozzle for 5 minutes has no harmful effect
What IP66 means: Water projected in a powerful jet for 1 minute has no harmful effect
What IP67 means: Can survive submersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes
What IP68 means: Can survive submersion in >1 meter or >30 minutes; terms agreed to by manufacturer

So if you want properly waterproof headphones, we highly recommend a rating of at least IPX7.

One annoying quirk of the rating system? Being rated for submersion doesn't technically mean that it is also certified to withstand water jets. If it can withstand both submersion and water jets, the headphones should have two ratings listed. Most companies just list the higher rating—likely because this is so confusing—so it's often unclear exactly what a buyer should expect.

If you see a non-standard rating like "IPX-68" it either doesn't meet the standard or it wasn't independently tested.

This is especially true because lots of small manufacturers write things like IPX-68, which is non-standard. It is very likely not conforming to the actual IP standard or the company didn't verify those claims independently. If you see a non-standard IP rating with a dash, extra letter, or anything else, you shouldn't trust the rating. If a rating looks good but one of the dust/water numbers has been replaced with an X—IP6X, or something—it just means it has been tested for one and not the other.

Okay, enough context. Let's talk headphones.

Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless - "Sweat and Water Resistant"

Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

We sprayed the Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless headphones with water, and used them during sweaty workouts.

You've probably heard of Beats—they're one of the most popular headphone brands on the market. With their stylish looks and ridiculously easy pairing with Apple devices, it's easy to understand why.

With the brand's signature earhooks and a short cable, the Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless earbuds are clearly designed for working out. On the Apple website, they're billed as "sweat and water resistant". However, there is no mention of an IP rating anywhere in the specs, so the sweat- and water-resistance of the Powerbeats3 hasn't necessarily been certified by an independent lab.

What it does mean is that the most likely places where sweat and water could get in and damage the electronics—through the speaker grill, around button edges, and around the earbud casing—have likely been reinforced to some extent with gaskets or sealed with glue. Indeed, if you actually look at the earbud with the sleeve removed, you can just barely see the grid of the speaker grill, which is a clue that additional measures have been taken to make the Powerbeats3 more resistant to intrusions.

Much to my delight, the Powerbeats3 were still working well after dealing with my gross ear sweat and some random water misting.

To put the Powerbeats3 to the test, I decided to wear them on my workouts (shout out to the Australian True Crime podcast for keeping me company on my runs) and just casually around town for a week or so. I also sprayed them a few times with a spray bottle, just because. Much to my delight, the Powerbeats3 were still working well after dealing with my gross ear sweat and some random water misting.

Unfortunately, the Powerbeats3 are somewhat notorious for not lasting for very long because of the speculated failure of the sweat-resistant design. One of my colleagues who bought the Powerbeats3 had them fail within a few months, mirroring the complaints of many other user reviews online. The pair of Powerbeats3 I have are still going strong, but that may change in the future if the non-IP-rated sweat- and water-resistant design features fail.

JLab Audio Fit2.0 Sport Earbuds - "Splash-proof and Sweat-proof"

Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

The JLab Audio Fit2.0 earbuds are rated IPX6, which means they can survive being washed in the sink.

In my opinion, JLab Audio has been doing a great job of making headphones with high-end features (like high quality active noise cancellation) available to those consumers in a lower price bracket. The JLab Audio Fit2.0 Sport Earbuds are no different; for about $25, I got these earbuds which have a wide variety of sleeve sizes and shapes, bendable earhooks for a better fit, a remote, and some degree of water/sweatproofing.

Now, while the Amazon link for the headphones I bought says that these headphones are "IPX5 Waterproof & Sweatproof" (one of the product images says "Everything-proof"), the box the earbuds came in actually reports that "The Fit2.0 is 100% splash-proof, sweat-proof, and washable with an IPX6 rating. Just finished a run? Wash off your Fit2.0 for your next round."

As we saw earlier, an IPX5 rating means that the headphones can survive getting sprayed with a moderately strong water jet for 3 minutes, and an IPX6 rating means that the headphones can survive getting sprayed with a very strong water jet for 3 minutes. If you look into the earbud, you actually cannot discern the grid of the speaker grill; it looks like the grill has been covered entirely. This is one of the ways that the JLab Audio Fit2.0 are more resistant to water than the Powerbeats3.

To me, "waterproof" means that the headphones can still work when they've been completely submerged in water. In this sense, the Amazon page is misleading, since the Fit2.0 are technically not rated to be completely submerged, even if they are "washable" and can withstand some pretty hardcore water spray action. To test the Fit2.0, I washed them in the sink. As advertised, they still worked perfectly.

Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

Even though the JLab Audio Fit 2.0 are not rated to survive being submerged, they still worked after being dunked.

Then, because I was curious, I also dunked them in a container of water for a few seconds. To my surprise, they still worked just fine afterwards. Then, because I was still curious, I hooked these up to my computer, played some music, and left the headphones sitting in water for 30 minutes. To my continued surprise, the headphones still worked.

I left the headphones sitting in water for 30 minutes. To my continued surprise, the headphones still worked.

So while the headphones aren't technically rated to withstand complete submersion, the Fit2.0 can survive being submerged in a glass of water for 30 minutes. However, when it comes to the dunking, they weren't in my ears at the time, nor was the music device itself (my laptop). This is probably the reason why, despite being able to survive in the water for 30 minutes, they do not have an IPX7 rating. If you tried to take an iPod and these headphones in the water with you, the water would short out the headphones at an unprotected juncture: namely, the place where the headphone jack goes into the iPod.

Therefore, if a pair of headphones is not rated IPX7 or higher, please do not stick your head into water while wearing those headphones, since there are probably very few instances where your head and wired headphones would be in the water and your music device would not be. Wired headphones, unlike wireless headphones, are at a disadvantage when it comes to being fully waterproof.

Mpow Bluetooth Wireless Sport Earphones - "Waterproof"

Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

The Mpow Bluetooth Wireless headphones still worked after being submerged in water for 31 minutes.

The Mpow Bluetooth Wireless Sport Earphones are one of the most popular pairs of wireless headphones on Amazon, and have over 12,000 reviews. This may or may not be related to the price of these headphones which, as of publication of this article, is ~$20. According to both Amazon and the box the headphones came in, these are rated IPX7.

Again, however, there's a discrepancy between the Amazon page's description ("waterproof") and the box's description ("water-resistant"). As I mentioned earlier, though, to my mind, a fair description of the IPX7 rating is "waterproof", since the headphones can be submerged for 30 minutes without being damaged. So, as you might guess, I did just that.

Credit: Reviewed.com / Jackson Ruckar

We submerged the Mpow Bluetooth Wireless headphones in water, and they still worked afterwards.

While the above gif is just of the Mpow headphones being dunked for a few seconds, I did also pair them to my computer, play some music, and then leave them in a glass of water for 31 minutes. The blue "connected" light still blinked happily at me through the glass for the whole 31 minutes, and I put the volume up high on my computer so that if the Bluetooth pairing failed at any point, the music would revert to playing through my computer speakers, and I would get a surprise blast of classical music.

The Bluetooth pairing didn't fail, however, and when I lifted them out of the glass of water and put them up to my ear, I could hear the music playing through the earbuds. Like the JLab Audio Fit2.0, the Mpow headphones appear to have a completely sealed speaker grill, which undoubtedly helped these headphones survive underwater (while playing music) for 31 minutes. Now that's what I call waterproof.

Additionally, during all of these tests, I realized that these headphones are slightly more durable than you'd expect based on their IP ratings. That's not surprising; manufacturers have to assume that some people, either accidentally or purposefully, are going to use the products beyond their stated limitations.

For example, this is one reason why a lot of dishwashers now come with reinforced doors; there's been more than one report of a kid or pet walking on the open door and breaking it. If manufacturers don't want their products returned prematurely, they need to be able to give the customer some peace of mind that the product has a chance of still working—even if something extreme happens to it.

That said, there are a ton of reasons why headphones may fail that have little to do with water. Bluetooth headphones, in particular, have a notoriously high rate of failure, as evidenced by the significantly lower average user reviews. They're just more prone to failure than traditional headphones. Even if they keep out water and dust perfectly, they may still stop working.

Either way, next time you buy a pair of earbuds, consider your general exercise/sweat/swimming level and buy the correct IP-rated headphones. Even if you find that more waterproof headphones are more expensive, they may pay for themselves over time by allowing you to avoid replacing cheaper headphones that may be more easily damaged when it comes to an intense workout.

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