By Evan Ackerman
Playaway, makers of a single-serving digital audiobook player, kindly sent us a review unit last week. Being a fan of audio and books (and free stuff), I volunteered to write it up. The particular audiobook that I’m listening to for this review is The Worst Case Scenario Handbook, read by Penn Jillette and Burt Reynolds. It retails from the Playawaydigital.com website for $34.99. Click on through for a brutally in-depth review.
First Impressions: It’s not in a heat shrink plastic package, that’s a +1 for usability right there. The package includes the player, some generic looking earbuds, a lanyard, and a small manual. My particular player is dressed in yellow and red, emulating the cover of the book I chose. The cover decoration on the front is complemented by some details about the book on the back. The player itself is about the size of a credit card and only a few centimeters deep. It’s also not a rectangle, which is faintly stunning and I have to turn it over three times to verify this… It’s shaped like a little wedge of pie. This means that when you set the player on a flat surface, it’s interface is tilted slightly toward you, and that brings me to:
The Interface: The back of the player has eight rubberized buttons and a teeny tiny calculator-style LCD that amazingly has room for 5 characters and a battery level indicator. The player won’t turn on until you remove the plastic tab that has been thoughtfully inserted into the battery compartment to prevent battery drain during shipping. It takes one AAA that should last about 12 hours. There are large power and play/pause buttons, as well as skip forward and back, volume up and down, a speed button (more on that later) and, for what it’s worth, an equalizer button. When the player is turned on, the display alternates between the chapter number and the time remaining on the chapter, which moves us on to operation.
Operation: The player starts up promptly, and there’s very little preamble before the audiobook starts. The vocal quality sounds compressed, which I’m sure it is, but it doesn’t matter much since you’re just listening to speech. At least there is no pervasive background hiss that you often get with compressed audio. Part of the quality is almost certainly the earbuds, which sound (and feel) about as generic as they look. Changing the equalizer settings doesn’t seem to make an appreciable difference to quality, although that may just be a characteristic of Burt Reynolds’ voice. The volume goes from 0 to 25 on what seems to be a linear (as opposed to exponential) scale, with 25 being not nearly loud enough… I’m currently in my fairly quiet back yard listening to Burt explain how to fend off a shark (go for the gills, not the nose), and I have the volume set at 18. I was most impressed with the “SP” button, which changes the playback speed between normal, fast, and fastest. It speeds up the audio while proportionally lowering the frequency, so it really does sound just like faster speech. Fastest mode is pretty quick, but still understandable.
The last feature which makes the Playaway worth considering is their RePlay Rewards program. As long as you haven’t caused any permanent damage, you can mail your Playaway audiobook player back to it’s birthplace in Ohio and get a 50% discount, and free shipping, on the next title you order. Currently they offer some 385 titles, with more on the way.
The Good: The controls are great, everything you want to be able to do involves one button push. The audio quality, while not stellar, is perfectly adequate for spoken audio. The speed function is nifty, and useful. It’s nice that (most of the time) it remembers my place. The battery life is good, and the unit runs off of one single AAA battery that’s simple to replace. It’s small enough to slip into your pocket, and the buttons don’t push themselves. It’s also, I’ve discovered, droppable.
The Bad: The included earphones suck (although honestly, what do you expect from included earphones), and the volume doesn’t go high enough. The player won’t remember your place unless you pause it first, and then let it auto power off. The equalizer is more or less pointless. There is no book index; I’m not sure where they’d fit it, but it would be more useful than the description that’s currently taking up space on the player.
The Ugly: It’s ugly. Or if you prefer, it’s utilitarian and functional. No design frills here, and it seems bigger than might be necessary. Also, it’s expensive: Audible.com sells the same book that I listened to for about $25, and I can keep the audio files.
The Nutshell: It’s almost exactly what you’d expect from a single serving audiobook player, but costs too much for what you get, unless you take advantage of the RePlay program, which makes it much more affordable.