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Soundwave

Transformers
by yo go re

We previously posited that Soundwave's enduring popularity was due, in part, to the fact that he was the only Transformer who transformed into an object a child might realistically deal with. No, he wasn't the only one who turned into a human-sized piece of equipment, but kids don't play with microscopes and guns. Except at Black Mesa Research Facility's daycare center. Of course, the fact remained that Soundwave wasn't a real tape player; you couldn't actually play music with it.

The future is an awesome place to live.

In 2007, Hasbro's Japanese counterpart in the Transformers partnership, TakaraTomy, Music Label Soundwave introduced an odd new line. The Music Label Transformers comprised just three sets to begin with, all music-related in one way or another. The clear favorite was Music Label Soundwave, who was not only a real TF, but also a functional MP3 player.

The figure was available in two color schemes: Sonic White, which looked very "iPod-ish," and Spark Blue, which mimicks the original G1 Soundwave. Which one was more popular? We'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count. There were stories of people lined up outside stores in Japan before opening in order to get one of the players and, similarly, of stores only getting four in stock. Equitable importers ran out (of both versions) quickly, and less-reputable resellers only held onto their stock by putting a hefty markup on the popular blue version.

In his alt mode, Music Label Soundwave is basically a little block. He's designed to look like the G1 cassette player, so his design is more about that than about looking like an MP3 player. Of course, the modern design aesthetic means that there is less detail on this one overall - Spark Blue while the original certainly wasn't covered in useless Baroque details or anything, this new one is almost perfectly smooth and featureless. It's also smaller, measuring only 3¼" wide, 2¼" tall and 1¼" thick at its biggest point - the battery compartment.

There are no sculpted speakers on the front, nor volume and direction controls on the sides. The controls are flush with the surface of the player, rather than large, shaped buttons. There's no belt clip over the battery compartment (which is kind of disappointing and inconvenient), and instead of a flat cover held in place by friction, the door is slighly curved for a smoother profile, and is closed by a small screw. On the plus side, this mode is 99.44% kibble-free.

If Music Label Soundwave didn't transform, he'd serve no purpose - his eyes used to be yellow you could just paint your iPod blue and get the same effect. The general transformation is the same here as it was for his 1984 ancestor: the legs fold down, the arms come forward, the head pops up... simple stuff. It's a bit tougher here, since the player is designed to hold its shape better, so there are a few instances of tabs or bumps holding things in place until you separate them properly. Sometimes pulling them at an angle instead of straight-on makes it easier.

There are a few minor differences, as well. Instead of simply folding down in the front, his feet have a separate "heel" that folds down in the back. The arms don't rotate to face the front, but simply slide forward and up. The hands don't retract into the arms, and the head no longer folds upward to sit on his shoulders: four generations of Soundwaves it's spring-loaded and concealed beneath a sliding hatch, which is why the alt mode is so kibble-free. The robot, however, suffers a bit from the large battery compartment on his back.

In robot form, Soundwave stands 5¾" tall, a full inch shorter than the original. Shorter than the execrable Titanium version, too. The articulation is a nice step up though, with a balljointed neck, balljointed shoulders, hinged and balljointed elboes, balljointed wrists, balljointed hips, swivel thighs and hinged knees. YOU can even fake some ankle movement, thanks to the transformation.

Soundwave no longer has faux batteries that turn into weapons, but he still has both those accessories: the electric launcher for his shoulder, and the wave bluster for his hand. can you see the difference between the hands? No, I don't know what a "wave bluster" is either, but it's printed right on the gun. Ah, Engrish! He also includes two extra sets of hands, with the fingers in slightly different poses. Seriously. Since the hands don't retract into the arms, they just fold under his body in "tape player" mode. It's kind of like the hands on the Titanium Soundwave, but not as insipid or ugly. Anyway, only the fists will fit in that mode - neither of the hands with the index fingers extended will allow him to transform all the way. That's poor planning. The hands swap easily, but still; they could have done better.

So why two extra hands? One set is molded to hold the weapon, while the other is apparently intended to allow him to push the eject button on his shoulder. Yes, even though there's nothing to eject. And yes, even though the "weapon" hand could have done it just as easily. Man, Takara - your design really fell apart when it came to the hands, huh?

Just in case it isn't clear by now, let us state for the record that the old cassette tape TFs won't fit in Soundwave's chest - he's smaller than the old toy, so that idea is right out. he feels so empty inside One of the other Music Label sets is a Rumble and Frenzy specifically designed to go along with this release: they turn into headphones. They're sold separately, though, so for now Soundwave is lonely.

The toy part of this figure is good. The player has a classic look but also some modern touches, the transformation is clean yet sturdy, and the robot may be smaller, but he's also more articulated. As a Transformer, Music Label Soundwave is pretty much a success; how is he as an MP3 player?

For those who don't want Rumble and Frenzy, Soundwave includes a pair of white ear buds, just like you'd get with an iPod. They're comparable to any similar headphones, which means they provide acceptable sound through the player's entire volume range, but audiophiles will probably want to use their own high-end earpieces - the headphone jack is standard size. The cord is about 3' long, so you should be able to hold the player at arm's length without yanking your head to the side.

As mentioned above, Soundwave's battery compartment screws shut, and so it was that OAFE entered the lucrative world of product placement so you'll need a tool to change the batteries. Sorry, "battery" - the player runs on one AAA battery. Considering the minor storage capacity of a battery this size, the life is surprisingly good. I've been listening to music through Soundwave the entire time I've been writing this review - about 2½ hours now - with no evidence of a power drain yet. And that's after listening to a few hours of music most nights. As with any MP3 player, the battery life will depend on any number of factors, including volume and bit rate. I had nightmare visions of having to change that tiny battery every night, but so far it's been quite good for me. There's no sort of AC-in, so you can't use an adapter and a wall socket to extend the life, sadly.

Music Label Soundwave doesn't have any internal memory, but instead takes a Mini SD card, which isn't exactly easy to find. Regular SD card? cards shown actual size Sure, no problem. Micro SD card, which is even smaller than the Mini? Also plentiful. But ask for a Mini SD card, and most people will look at you like you just made up the words. Know what you're looking for ahead of time, and don't let clerks try to sell you something different. Mini SD cards should come with an adapter when you buy them: most computers only have a slot for regular SD cards, so the adapter will up-size your new Mini. The instruction booklet says the player will only recognize a 1gb memory card, but it will take a 2gb card. It may act wonky depending on how you format the card, but it will still play.

The memory card slot is hidden in Soundwave's chest - you know where the tapes used to go? That's where it is. That's some cute symmetry, right there. Press the button on his shoulder, and the door pops open, revealing the memory slot. The card goes in facing out: front of the card and the front of the robot point the same direction. The player will work with the door open or closed, which is a both strange and unexpected, but not a crippling flaw.

There's no obvious power button on the player - you can name your disc whatever you want to make it go, push and hold the Play/Pause button until the blue LED begind flashing, and the music will start a second later. The starting volume is a bit high, but it's not maxed out. The Up and Down arrows on either side of the Play button control the volume, while the ones above jump forward or back on the playlist. You can't fast forward or rewind. While you can put your songs in folders, there's no way to jump between them - it will still just play the songs in the order they were added to the card. Yes, no matter what the files or named or how you arrange them when viewing the contents on your computer, they'll still play in the order you put them on the card. There is no "random play" feature.

The blue LED flashes the entire time the player is in use, imagine that blinking at you which seems needless. It already flashes whenever you press a button, so did it need to blink constantly? On the plus side, it starts to fade when the battery life gets low, giving you some warning that it's time to find a new AAA. To turn the player off, hold down the Play/Pause button for two seconds again. The player has an automatic shut-off feature, as well - leave the music paused for two minutes, and it will turn itself off to save energy.

The player works just as well in robot mode as it does in alt mode, as long as you don't mind swapping Soundwave's shoulder cannon for your headphones - it would have been really cool if Takara had designed the cannon not just as a weapon, but as a pass-through for the headphone jack. You know, you plug the jack into the back of the cannon, then plug the cannon into the shoulder and it still works? That would have rocked. They didn't do it. Maybe if you have some engineering skills, you can make one yourself.

If you're judging this item purely as an MP3 player, it's sub-par. It's expensive, lacks even basic features, and has no internal memory. But if all you want is an MP3 player, go buy an iPod - that's not why you're getting this. You're spending the money on this because you want an MP3 player that turns into Soundwave, or a Soundwave that plays music. You're not dropping the dough because you're expecting the pinnacle of digital audio technology, but because you want a Soundwave that fulfills the promise made two and a half decades ago: a robot that changes into a real music player. On that (musical) note, this one is definitely worth it.


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