by Brent Felgner, Playthings -- 2/1/2004
The toddler's mother was clearly annoyed with grandma's birthday gift-an audio toy-and she made her feelings known in an online review of the plaything.
"While it is an exceptionally cute little toy for a girl, it's most definitely NOT worth the money!," she writes. "I, for one, have no problem with the volume, although at times I pray that my 4-year old will turn it off. It's loud enough, but, as the other reviewers have mentioned, the quality stinks."
Another satisfied customer - NOT!
By now, everyone knows the cellphone TV commercials poking fun at static interference and bad sound quality. Or the one asking, "Can you hear me now?"
It seems the sound quality in many audio toys has never approached the realm of higher fidelity, either.
But just like cellphones, expectations of audio toys may soon be changing. Largely because of rapid improvements in microtechnology-and particularly, its cost to bring to market-there are some noteworthy strides taking place. Moreover, that progress appears to be supported by professionals in early childhood development.
Audio quality in many toys is "clearly connected to language development, so [that connection] should be addressed, and I think it is being addressed more by parents and manufacturers," Dr. Helen Boehm tells PLAYTHINGS. Author of The Right Toys: A Guide to Selecting the Best Toys for Children, she is an educational psychologist.
"More important, the bar is being raised in terms of the quality of sound and visuals," she continues. "Kids that have grown up with high-speed Internet access expect very good digital-quality kinds of products and they are probably less satisfied with the so-called 'rusty' sounds."
Moreover, achieving quality sound may be reasonably simple, and cost-effective changes in product design and specification just might make a measurable difference for many.
At least that was the experience of one company.
Buffalo, N.Y.-based Stetron International was approached by the sound engineer for a large toy manufacturer, seeking improvements to some toys being designed. The engineer had read an item about the company's Micro Speaker and wondered whether it might be applied to his designs. Along with his inquiry, he sent along a sample of a musical preschool toy currently in production. "The issue was that their toy simply couldn't play certain [musical] notes, so they were in a position where they had to actually edit the music" to accommodate the toy's design, a senior executive at Stetron tells PLAYTHINGS. "The problem was limiting their application and our challenge was to broaden that envelope to achieve better sound quality and meet their optimization criteria."
Stetron executives and engineers played with the toy. They listened to it. They took it apart and listened to the speaker separately. They placed it in an anechoic chamber (an acoustically isolated room where sounds remain "pure" and uninfluenced by surfaces within the room) and ran a series of tests.
"It's a problem that's confronted many large toy manufacturers," says the Stetron spokesperson referring to quality of sound. "They've tended in the past to really just leave the decision with their contract manufacturer who, in turn, have tended to treat audio quality as a commodity" rather than as a critical component of the toy's design.
In musical toys, he says, it's merely an issue of design integrity and quality control. In speaking and educational toys, the issue is much more critical, he notes, going to the heart of child's speaking and language skills.
Stetron then tried replacing the speaker with a higher impedance speaker (50 ohms instead of the original 8 ohms) and the results were stunning. It reported the toy's sound was much louder, clearer and less harsh. Objective audio lab tests later bore out those results with a markedly flatter frequency response, better low frequency response and more output capacity.
Less was 'more'
Moreover, it required less power-only 16 percent of the original design-resulting in a smaller battery and longer battery life.
But for the end users, the issues remain fundamental.
"I think these kids [today] are more sophisticated and used to a much higher quality of sound," Boehm says. "Those sounds that are not extremely authentic are just not as stimulating."
It's a cluttered environment and children have to work hard at focusing on important information and screening out irrelevant- or at least unimportant at the moment-data. Audio and video quality can greatly impact those unconscious decisions.
Boehm cites examples of higher quality on many handheld games, some dolls with surprisingly human sounds and playsets that accurately recreate sounds around the house.
"I've seen some very clever uses of sound and it really helps kids connect," she adds. "These can really reinforce the idea of nurturing and make role-playing so real, the kids can take it to another level."
As seen in the February, 2004 issue of "Playthings". http://www.playthings.com