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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007

TECHNOLOGY

NEW TWIST IN MUSIC PLAYERS

Transformers: more than meets the ear


Staff writer

Since 1984, Transformers has proven an immensely enduring toy brand, spawning a hugely popular TV series (which in turn spawned even more spinoff TV series), a couple of movies and ever more toys, right up to the present day. In fact, the toys have their roots in the 1970s Japanese toy lines Microman and Diaclone, which were bought and developed in the U.S. by toy maker Hasbro. The concept is simple enough: robots in disguise; visitors from the planet Cybertron, hiding on Earth as everyday vehicles and objects, fighting a war between good and evil. What kid wouldn't fall in love with that?

News photo
Optimus Prime (above) transforms from a gun-wielding robot into a truck cab toting an iPod and speakers, while Soundwave is a real music player at last. IAN DICKSON PHOTOS
News photo

In the new live-action movie of the same name, director Michael Bay drops a few select characters into a convoluted and confusing story that nonetheless offers a fun couple of hours' diversion, thanks largely to its convincing CGI and, well, having a bunch of bloody great robots smashing each other up on the big screen.

The giants in the movie barely resemble those we played with in the 1980s, but toy maker Takara Tomy has taken a different tack with its Transformers Music Label products, sticking closely to the original character designs to create functional toys that hit the nostalgia bone hard.

So what we have here is, ostensibly, an MP3 player, a set of iPod speakers and a pair of headphones. But is there more to them than meets the eye?

Soundwave was always the coolest Transformer. A spy for the evil Decepticons, he transformed from a giant robot into a tiny tape deck, speaking in ice-cool vocoded monotone and dispensing microcassette robots that he carried kangaroolike in the tape tray in his chest.

But time has been unkind to Soundwave. Tapes were made obsolete by CDs, MiniDiscs and DAT, with MP3 ultimately proving the format of choice for music fans on the move. In the new movie, Soundwave changed utterly, both in form (he is now a boom box) and function (he clunks around and squeals far too noisily to be a convincing spy, and seems to have graduated from the Jar Jar Binks school of subtlety). A relief, then, that this toy recaptures those 1980s glory days.

Available both in his original blue color and an iPod-inspired white makeover, this Soundwave figure looks just like the one you had all those years ago, but with one crucial difference: It actually works as a music player.

The "tape tray" takes a Mini SD card (officially up to 1 gigabyte, although my 2-GB chip worked fine), from which Soundwave plays MP3s. A 2-GB chip holds around 20 albums at 320 kbps. Buttons on Soundwave's chest offer play/pause, volume and track skip functions, and that's your lot. There is no display screen, but that hasn't stopped Apple's iPod Shuffle from being immensely popular. As for the sound quality, it is surprisingly full, with a beefy bass response and just a little clipping at higher volumes. The boxed earphones sound reasonable, although I had better results with my own earphones. In place of Energon cubes, Soundwave is powered by a single type 4/AAA battery, which lasts around six hours.

However, two things conspire to make Soundwave a little less than portable. Unlike the original (nonfunctional) toy, there is no belt clip — a must for a chunky player such as this — and the battery hatch is accessed with a screwdriver, hardly ideal for replacing on the move. But by far the worst design flaw is Soundwave's awful memory. Every time you switch him on, he will play tracks from the first folder on the Mini SD chip, rather than remembering where you had gotten up to last time. This is compounded by the fact that when you leave him paused for around a minute, he will switch himself off. In other words, when you pause your music to pay for something at HMV, you will have to navigate one track at a time (there is no folder-skip function) to where you had left off. Finally, some album folders were skipped altogether during playback, which is baffling.

But you wouldn't expect this to be the world's best player, and Transformers fans will likely froth at the gills over Soundwave's newest incarnation.

Soundwave's microcassette mates Frenzy and Rumble also make an appearance in the Music Label line, although the tiny, destructive robots now transform into a pair of headphones (sold separately). The less said about them the better, however: They sound appalling. I tested them with an audiophile MP3 player (Cowon's excellent iAudio X5) and recoiled in horror as track after track played through a wall of distortion at even low volume. And as robots they are flimsy and barely resemble their screen counterparts. A great idea on paper but a ghastly product.

The real winner in the collection is the Convoy iPod speaker set. Convoy, who is known in the West as Optimus Prime, was the leader of the heroic Autobots, and one of the most iconic toys of the '80s, transforming from a gun-wielding robot into a boxy truck, complete with trailer that housed a missile-equipped Combat Deck.

Here the toy is again whitewashed, a nod to the iPod, for which this is a licensed product. But aside from that, it looks identical to the original Optimus Prime (although of course his buddy Ultra Magnus was the "white Prime" back then).

Amazingly, the trailer transforms into a set of functioning speakers — and they sound pretty good. There is an iPod dock and also a line-in for other players, which is what I tested. Connected to the iAudio's line-out jack, the sound is fairly crisp, although there is not quite enough bass in there, and the speakers have no tone control. The maximum volume is quite low.

Connecting to the headphone jack, however, gives you whatever EQ control your MP3 player has and a lot more volume. In the case of the Soundwave player, the result is a well-balanced sound but with a little distortion; with the iAudio the results are fine. I didn't test the iPod dock, however.

With just 2 watts per channel, you are not going to bother the neighbors — the mains-electricity-run set is barely louder than nonpowered speakers, and levels out around the same volume as the Harman/Kardon speakers built into my laptop. But, y'know, it turns into a free-wheeling trailer and has a glowing Autobot symbol as a power indicator, and that wins a lot of points.

With just a touch more care, these three items could have been must-haves. But while there is room for improvement, there is no denying that these are some of the coolest audio toys ever to roll out.

Takara Tomy's Transformers Music Label products are now available, at ¥10,500 for Soundwave, ¥3,150 for Frenzy and Rumble, and ¥15,000 for Convoy.


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