Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pint-Sized Audio Gear

Ain't nothin' like the real thing

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

November 25, 1996 -- "Hands off!" is the message [Image]
kids usually get after their first few
experiments with the family stereo.

Sure, today's youngsters are spoiled by loads of
electronic games and interactive learning toys, but what
happens when your five-year-old wants to listen to music
by herself? She's not quite ready for her own delicate
audio gear, but that make-believe radio you got her two
years ago just won't cut it anymore. What she needs is
one of the new children's electronics that look like toys
but perform like the real thing. A cross between
playthings and audio gear, these products offer fun,
durability and a volume-limiter switch for parents -- to
preserve your child's ears as well as Mom and Dad's
sanity. Big buttons with a few simple functions (like
play, stop and rewind) make them simple to use while
letting your kid feel like she's in control.

Sony, one of the pioneers in this category, continues to
offer its successful My First Sony line with a Walkman,
tape recorders and microphones for kids to sing along.
They're chunky, sturdy and colorful, although their use
of strict geometric shapes and primary colors on white is
a little cliched for today's tykes.

Another red, white and blue favorite, the Playskool
Cassette Tape Recorder with Dual Sing-A-Long Microphones,
is quickly becoming a kids' classic. It's one of the
sturdiest tape players I've seen, but locate that volume
control switch. Quick! Two screaming toddlers amplified
through sing-along microphones on top of a Barney
recording can make you feel like the Road Runner's anvil
just landed on your head.

Meanwhile, Toshiba has made its pact with the Tasmanian
Devil [my man! -- Ed.] by featuring Warner Brothers
characters on its Toontronics line of products. While
they're marketed for kids, I think Bugs and Tweety aren't
quite as hip in their eyes as they are to dinosaurs like
me in the 20-and-over crowd. The characters look cute,
but the personal stereos have pretty standard overall
designs (gee, boxes -- how, um, exciting). For an
up-to-date licensing dream come true, the Toy Story
characters will continue to be stars this holiday season.
In the film, Mr. Mike is the robot who thinks he's a
cassette player, and Playskool has followed the craze
with its Mr. Mike Voice Changer Tape Recorder, which lets
your kids play recordings in normal or robot voice.

Another Disney-inspired personal stereo features the
overgrown mouse with his dimpled face plastered on a
sing-along tape player, walkie-talkie and personal
stereo. The headphones sport Mickey's gloved hands
positioned right over your kids ears in a "hear no evil"
kinda way. His omnipresence is a bit spooky, I must
admit.

Although Mickey can be scary to a grown-up like me, my
prize for the most nauseating kids' electronics goes to
the Barbie line of bubble-gum pink products. Along with a
Discgirl, clock radio and personal stereo, there's a
pretend cellular phone that lets your child hear Barbie
exclaim an inspirational, "Let's go shopping!" over and
over. Before you know it, your daughter will able to say,
"Oooh, I hope Ken can come over and show me how to turn
this icky mechanical thing on!"

One group of kids' audio equipment that really sings is
the Nickelodeon line, which includes the BlastBox
cassette AM/FM boom box, the CD BlastBox and the BlastPak
personal stereo. It's the only stuff I've seen that dares
to be funky while retaining the simplicity kids need. All
the products feature exciting designs with a
mad-scientist lab look. Squiggles, off-center graphics,
generous squishy "green slime" accents and offbeat colors
accompany well-thought-out details like large tactile
buttons and mesmerizing dials. Even the adults who caught
a glimpse of my BlastPak let out an envious, "Hey! *I*
want one!" I suppose I should've loaned it to a kid for
an opinion that really counts, but I didn't want to give
it up. [Carla has been listening to her inner child. --
Ed.]

It's clear that youngsters have got it made this holiday
season. Too bad the grinch who stole colors and exciting
forms has left us adults with black boxes and Chiclet
shapes instead of the fun stuff kids have.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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