Playaway All-In-One Audiobook Review

No matter how cheap digital audio players have gotten, the idea of selling a disposable one-time-use one would still make most consumers shrug with ambivalence. After all, the great thing about a DAP is its flexibility–you load up what you want, when you want. You are’t a slave to album track orders, and loading up new music is astonishingly easy.

So what could Playaway possibly be thinking by selling a locked-up DAP that comes preloaded with a single audiobook and no other discernable function?

These days, there seems to be a burgeoning market for gadgets aimed at technophobes. From a business perspective it’s brilliant–strip away key features and charge a premium for “simplicity.” Just look at those awful Jitterbug cell phones.

This seems to be the target market for the Playaway–people who have the need to do things like make phone calls or, in this case, listen to an audiobook, but fear things like power buttons and cords.

The idea is plain enough: You open the box and you have a relatively svelte DAP whose usefulness lasts only as long as included audiobook (to the best of my knowledge, no hackers have gone public with how to break into this thing and load up your own tunes, nor would I see why anybody would particularly want to.) Everything you need is included. And by everything I mean a pair of airphones that make the free ones they hand out on Delta flights seem like Sennheisers.

Our test unit came loaded with Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. The sound quality was decent enough. Although I’m sure there are some audiophiles who would scoff at the idea of losing some of the throatiness in Stephen King’s voice, smart people typically load audiobooks at lower sound quality anyway to save space (these things are huge.) The real problem is the included headphones, which suck. At first, no sound was coming through and I thought the whole thing was busted. A couple twists of the headphone jack later and I realize that the sensors on the craphones needed to be situated in just the right position–a common problem for cheap headphones you’ve had for a year, but ridiculous for anything right out of the box. Luckily you can pop your own into the jack, which I highly recommend you do.

One point of frustration: There is no discernable way of getting the book off of the player. I guess John Grisham doesn’t need to worry about his books showing up on SoulSeek now.

The included controls were more than adequate. You can skip between chapters, adjust the volume (thank god!), fast forward/rewind, and it even has an equalizer control and the ability to jack up the playing speed if you don’t mind the Chipmunks reading you your books. And, thankfully, when you turn this thing on, it automatically restarts just where you left off. Sort of a digital bookmark, I suppose.

And then there’s the question of waste. With all of the talk these days of gadgets filing landfills, something so blatantly wasteful may seem just gross. Thankfully, it comes with instructions on mailing back to the manufacturer for recycling in exchange for a tidy discount on your next purchase. Of course, to not include this would have been morally reprehensible.

So should you buy this thing? I guess it could make a good stocking stuffer, but smaller digital audio players are so cheap now that it only makes much sense as a novelty item. What is especially interesting is the price range for various books–some are as cheap as $30, while others cost up to $90. While this may seem like a lot for a disposable player, this is actually around what CD-based audiobooks cost, so you aren’t paying too much of a premium over the content alone. So get it if you are morally adverse to snagging your audiobooks off P2P, or you happen to be really, really techno-stupid (in which case, I can’t imagine you’d be reading CG right now.)

And it runs on a single, replacable AAA battery.