IP ratings explained: how waterproof are your headphones?

JBL Flip 6 waterproof water promo pic
(Image credit: JBL)

Chances are you’ll have come across IP ratings if you’ve ever bought a pair of headphones, Bluetooth speakers or a smartphone, but what do they actually mean?  
It’s not always a consideration for any given bit of audio hardware, but if you’re planning on taking your new portable wireless speaker out on a rainy day or you’re limbering up for a run in the gloomy British summer and need a decent pair of sports headphones that won’t fall apart when exposed to a hint of drizzle, IP ratings are going to come in extremely useful for picking out suitable kit.

What are IP ratings?

The IPXX system is, in essence, a simple and handy way of classifying and rating products depending on how resistant they are to environmental factors, subdivided into physical particles (i.e. dust, sand etc.) and liquid particles, usually in the form of water. The IP in front of the numerals stands for “Ingress Protection”, literally how effectively a product can prevent the ingress of unwanted particles.

The IPXX rating system acts as a scale that companies can use to inform consumers about how waterproof and/or “dustproof” a product is. We often hear of products being described as simply “waterproof” or “not waterproof”, but the point of the IPXX rating is, as we’ll see, to account for both solid and liquid foreign objects. 

Huawei P40 Pro waterproof

(Image credit: Huawei)

How does the IP Rating system work?

When using the IPXX system, every audio product, be it a pair of wireless headphones or a portable speaker, will sport an IPXX rating. This is essentially a sequence of numbers and letters, starting always with IP and then ending with two interchangeable values. You’ll probably already be familiar with something like IP67, as many mainstream audio products currently tend to hover around this mark as a decent base standard.

There are also different rating systems that you should be aware of, such as the Nema system which classifies products into classes, groups and types, but we’re focusing on the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) IP ratings here. The IEC provides a standardised classification for tech products, providing a universal standard across the board. 

The “IP” part, then, signifies that this product is using the IEC system of waterproofing classification. The following digit(s) then represents the level of protection for the product, starting with 0 as the lowest level and then six and eight as the highest ranks for solid and liquid entry respectively. An IP69 rating, then, would give the highest protection of dust proofing and a decent level of protection against liquids. 

Bluetooth speaker: Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3

(Image credit: Ultimate Ears)

What are the IP Waterproof ratings?

Let’s start with the waterproof ratings. This is determined by the second number in the IPXX code. 

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IPX0 Allows for no protection at all against liquid or moisture of any kind. Even a moist or humid environment could cause damage
IPX1 Only provides protection from dripping water from vertically falling drops
IPX2 Gives protection from vertically dripping water when the enclosure is tilted up to 15 degrees.
IPX3 Gives protection against spraying water, meaning that water sprayed at an angle of up to 60 degrees on either side of the vertical will have no harmful effect.
IPX4 Gives protection against splashing water. This is essentially all water hitting the product from an angle.
IPX5 Provides protection against water jets, i.e. “water projected in powerful jets against the enclosure from any direction.”
IPX6 Allows protection against strong water jets.
IPX7 Gives protection against full water immersion for 30 minutes in water up to 3ft (1m) deep.
IPX8 Is better than IPX7, usually going to a deeper depth and for an increased submersion time. According to the IEC’s website, “ingress in water causing harmful effects shall not be possible when the enclosure is continuously immersed…under conditions which shall be agreed between manufacturer and user but which are more severe than numeral 7.”
IPX9 The highest level of waterproofing will safeguard your equipment against water both at high temperatures and high pressures. Powerful jets, then, and water getting up to around 80 degrees Celsius, shouldn’t have any harmful effects.

Wireless speaker: Bose SoundLink Flex

(Image credit: Future)

What are the IP Solid Foreign Object (dustproof) ratings?

The dustproof aspect of the IP is determined by the second number in the IPXX code. Unlike the water numeral, the solid foreign object aspect only goes up to 6 on the official IEC chart.

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IP0X Doesn’t give any protection against entry of small particles such as dust, dirt and other foreign objects. Anything with such a rating will be exceedingly sensitive and will likely be sealed off from the outside world.
IP1X Does provide minimal protection against objects of 50mm and over. Again, such products or equipment are immensely sensitive to foreign bodies.
IP2X Provides protection against contact with solid foreign objects of 12.5mm in diameter or greater.
IP3X Gives protection against solid foreign objects of 2.5mm in diameter or greater.
IP4X Provides protection against solid foreign objects of 1.0mm in diameter or greater.
IP5X Is the rating that actually assures protection against dust. Dust may enter but usually won’t cause any actual damage. This is defined as “Dust-protected”, but not “Dust-tight”.
IP6X This is the final and highest rating, and signifies fully “Dust-tight”, providing full protection against foreign physical bodies and particles of almost any size.

JBL Swim Powerhook promo pic

(Image credit: JBL)

Which IP rating is good for swimming?

The commonly accepted wisdom is that you certainly don’t want an IP rating lower than a 7 for waterproofing if you’re planning on taking a pair of headphones for a dip. As we’ve seen, the IPX7 rating gives protection against full water immersion for 30 minutes in water up to 3ft (nearly 1m) deep.

If you want to be on the safer side, an IPX8 rating should guarantee resistance to immersion in water up to around 3m (nearly 10ft), so if you’re planning on diving to the bottom of the pool to collect coins but still want to hear your favourite tracks, IPX8 will offer even more protection. 

Full protection from IPX9, the highest level of waterproofing, isn’t necessary considering the fact that 9 is more suited against high temperatures and extremely high pressures (and most products don't support this level yet). Unless you’re a lobster being thrown into the pot for tonight’s Thermidor and you want to hear Under the Sea one last time, it’s not really necessary.

Which IP rating is the best?

Going by the charts above, the IP69 is in theory the best rating possible, but we tend to see IP67 as the current best standard you can get in audio products like speakers and headphones. This rating gives the highest protection of dust proofing and the current best level of protection against water splashes and immersion.

For smartphones, IP68 is the highest rating we've seen on models far, including the latest range from Apple and Samsung (iPhone 14 Pro Max and Galaxy S23 Ultra).

It's worth noting that these products aren't entirely waterproof, they're water-resistant.

Which products are best for getting wet and dirty?

There’s no definitive answer to this question, although it’s well worth heading over to our list of the best outdoor speakers and the best running headphones if you’re of an outdoorsy or athletic inclination and want to take your music on the road, down a ravine or into a river. 

There are some brands that are more comfortable with delivering what one might term “rough and ready” products for places other than your well-furnished living room. JBL is very much the king of the rugged on-the-go speaker market with sizes to fit all occasions, whereas Ultimate Ears has forged out a corner of the market with some very respectable portable players that also 'float' in water.

If we had to make recommendations for your next Animal House-esque pool party, the five-star speakers JBL Flip 6, JBL Xtreme 3 or Bang & Olufsen Beosound A1 are all IP67-rated, whereas the JBL Reflect Flow Pro earbuds' IP68 score makes them the ideal pair of earbuds for any sporting activity that might result in full liquid immersion. 

Not all the latest devices carry the highest IP rating. Some of our favourite wireless earbuds – the current Apple AirPods Pro 2 and Sony WF-1000XM4 – carry a minimal IPX4 rating against sweat and moisture. And not every portable device is waterproof, either. The award-winning Audio Pro Addon C3, for instance, is a stylish, smooth-sounding operator, but it doesn't carry an official IP rating – so be extra careful if you are taking it outside in the British weather.


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Harry McKerrell
Staff writer

Harry McKerrell is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied law and history at university before working as a freelance journalist covering TV and gaming for numerous platforms both online and in print. When not at work he can be found playing hockey, practising the piano or forcing himself to go long-distance running.