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Playaway: Preloaded Portable Digital Audiobooks

Playaway® Audio Player

In August 2009 I corresponded with one of Playaways Directors via email (they are located in Ohio, USA). To make a long story short, they shipped two Playaway titles to me. The Playaway is a portable audiobook with audio content pre-loaded on a "disposable" audio player. It’s such a clever and totally simple idea. Playaways are attractively packaged and include everything you need, audiobook, pre-loaded batteries, headphones and lanyard. Anything that promotes literature to an increasingly visual culture is most welcome.







Audiobooks have a curious history. They appeared in the format of vinyl records, cassettes and then compact disks. With the arrival of MP3’s we can put a few books on a single player and MP3 players are cheap and plentiful. An audiobook is a recording of a book being read aloud. There are tens of thousands of audiobooks available in the world, in various languages, covering topics from education to entertainment.

What is a Playaway?
Playaways are talking books in a small neat format that looks like an MP3 player. About the size of half a deck of cards, and weighs only 2 ounces, this player easily fits in your pocket. Each Playaway is a pre-loaded digital audio player with from six to forty hours of play time. Battery operated and with headphones, it's the talking book you can literally listen to anywhere. They come ready to listen and are completely portable. The Playaway is lightweight, compact, and very easy to use - simply plug in the earbuds and press play. Batteries and lanyard is included. You can find Playaways online from places like, eBay and at Playaways own store.

Close-up view

Close-up view and diagram of the Playaways controls and what they do:

Playaway controls



Pros and Cons of the Playaway
There are some things I really like about the Playaway none the less also lots of things not to
like about this product


Smily001Simple and immediate listening experience
Simple and easy to use, all you do is unwrap the thing, plug it in and go. Using a Playaway requires virtually no technical competency and no other player technology.

Smily001It's small and convenient
Size, it can easily slip into your pocket. The controls are also easily managed with the "play" button serving as a play/pause/on/off switch, all at once. There's also no hassle with charging the device as it operates off a single AAA battery which is preloaded (and they also include cheap earbuds and lanyard).


Smily001It's far easier than ripping audiobooks from CD
Having the audio content preloaded is more convenient than having the hassle of changing CD’s as with a six-CD audiobook, you're well aware of what a pain this can be. With the Playaway, there's nothing to do, it's just ready to go.


Smily001Universal headphone jack

The Playaway device was designed with a universal headphone jack to work with almost any type of headphone or speakers. 



Playaway_The power of one by Bryce Courtenay

 Smily002Audio quality
As mentioned earlier I have received two audiobooks from Playaway. The title ‘The power of one’ by Bryce Courtenay (A nonfiction book about a young English boy growing up in a South Africa with racial discrimination set in the 1930s and 1940s). I found that the narrator's voice sounded a bit hollow; however changing the earbuds with a pair of headphones I found that the sound quality was acceptable. The Playaway FAQ says "Playaway audio is of equal or greater quality to digital downloads available today, due to proprietary audio processing, production and leading edge codec’s, but my personal experience is that both my own audio rips and audio downloads from the internet are of noticeably higher quality.

Smily002Is pricey

This is where I really don't understand the business model behind the Playaway. For half the Playaways cost I could get the book. If a first class recent paperback is R100, I would expect a device like this to be under R150.00.
Even if I could get past the idea that carrying around a separate player for each book is somehow meant to be more convenient than carrying an iPod containing 100 books, or a CD player with a few unabridged volumes on discs, I still can't understand why anyone shopping anywhere but an airport departure lounge would have any interest in one (or more) of these.

Smily002Basic MP3 players are cheap
More importantly, they're one time purchases that can be reloaded time and again, the Playaway just gets tossed into that box on your shelf. Yes, it also can be said that, isn't the sign of a good book that it's worth reading more than once, in this case, listening to it again?


Smily002Lack of contemporary titles

Selection of titles is very limited. The titles list has been fattened up by titles in the ‘public domain’ e.g., Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and others. These are, of course, available at such low prices because Austen's work is no longer covered by copyright nor is it burning up the bestseller lists. But if you want a newer book, a hot bestseller, the economics change.


Smily002Download free audiobooks

There are a great number of websites offering free audiobooks to download from on the internet. Lots of people are looking for free stuff on the Internet. Maybe because they don't want to spend money, maybe because they live in a country where online transactions are known to be not 100% secure. Over the past years, after audiobooks started to become popular, there is a great demand to download free audiobooks. You may find a great number of titles being offered as a free download.

Free audiobooks



Playaway for Libraries in South Africa

While there are millions of people out there with cell phones, MP3 players, computers and other technology. There are even more people who don't have them. We may live in a world of digital technology but for many out there technology is not available to them.

Many people who listen to audiobooks do not own MP3 players and are not interested acquiring one. What they are doing is going to their public libraries and checking out Playaways. Many public libraries have been purchasing them since they became available (in the USA) and they are in constant circulation.


CDs are predicted to die out as choice for audiobook format in the next few years as did the audio cassettes books a few years back.


As mentioned, some public libraries in South Africa and many overseas libraries have begun stocking Playaways as a part of their media collection and are enjoying quite a bit of success. Public libraries seem to me to be the logical customers for Playaways. There are no cassette tapes to tangle, CD's to scratch, downloads to handle and there are few parts to damage.


Some library's put a copy of the book with the Playaway so a student can follow the text. These have been good especially for the struggling readers. They can enjoy the same books their friends are reading and concentrate on what is happening in the story instead of spending their time trying to decode the text. After all, reading should be a pleasure, not a struggle.

Yes, these Playaways can be initially more expensive than audiobooks on CD or cassette but the Librarian does not have to have extra equipment on hand to check out to a user/patron so they can listen to the audio. In the long run, the only additional costs are extra batteries and extra earbuds or headphones.

Earbuds = unsanitary
Due to sanitary concerns, most libraries request users/patrons to provide their own headphones or earbuds. At most libraries the headphones or earbuds may be purchased at the ‘Check out desk’. Earbuds and headphones are pretty cheap for users/patrons to purchase if they do not have their own. The Playaway device was designed with a universal headphone jack to work with almost any type of headphone or speakers.


AAA batteries

Spare batteries need to be purchased and held at the ‘Check out desk’ of the library for replacement requirements. Logistics of testing and supplying batteries can be a problem (need to keep a horde of spare batteries). Use rechargeable’s?

Protect Playaway units from theft & damage

Each Playaway should be packaged in a case similar to a video case:

Playaway Security Packaging 

Playaway Security Packaging:

-1 capacity

-Polypropylene construction

-Store Playaway titles within library stacks securely

-Remove tag at checkout using key and circulate case

-Protective die-cut foam insert allows safe return in a drop-box

-Earbuds sold separately
Key quickly unlocks case at checkout


Public libraries most common Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) with regards to Playaway

Is there a charge to check out a Playaway?

Headphones and a battery are not included but may be purchased at the ‘Check out desk’, if you should need them.


How does Playaway compare to audio on cassette or CD?

Playaway is more convenient and easier to enjoy than juggling multiple CDs, cassettes or a separate player. Playaway also offers various enhanced digital features, including the ability to control the speed of the narrator's voice and digitally bookmark up to 50 favorite spots.


Why can't I add, delete or transfer content to or from a Playaway?

In order to protect the copyrighted works of authors and publishers as traditional books do, you are unable to make copies of Playaway.


Once you're done with the audiobook, what do you do with it?

Playaway offers replay rewards that allow a consumer to return used Playaways (in good working condition) for discounts up to 50% off their next title!



Copyright laws

The Playaways are essentially MP3 players permanently pre-loaded with an audiobook by embedding a book into an MP3 player, the manufacturer/publisher can effectively stay on the right side of the copyright laws. The only real benefits I see to the embedded-book concept are that it protects the rights of the author, publisher and manufacturer, and it also does not involve downloading files to your computer, then transferring them onto your player. Rights protection is less important to the buyer than to the maker.



Digital Rights Management (DRM)

DRM-free audiobooks is on the rise. With DRM-free audiobooks continuing to make inroads into the retail market and scheduled shortly to trickle into the library arena. DRM has been the talk of the audiobook industry since late 2007, when eMusic launched the first-ever audiobook catalog (now offering some 2500 titles) in the universally compatible MP3 format. 

Other uses for the Playaway
It isn't just about audiobooks, think about curated museum experiences, walking tours, music collectibles at concerts, health care information for illiterate patients, read-along narrators for kids with dyslexia, etc.

Playaway FRONT Playaway BACK





The Playaway is for people who want to have a small package for listening to an audiobook (as opposed to hauling around multiple CDs/tapes and player). The target audience would be those that don't want to manage the media and as mentioned earlier. Public libraries seem to me to be the logical customers for the Playaways.

This audiobook player preloaded with a single audiobook that's essentially a "play and dispose" device. This, by itself, isn't necessarily a bad idea (other than environmentally). The price is too high it needs to be down in the same price range as the hardbound books titles. The trade-in (replay rewards) is a good idea, but will it be worth it, effort and cost wise? However I am sure that with time they would have a better sounding and less expensive Playaway.    



Library Suppliers/Distributors of Playaway

Library supplier/distributor of Playaway in South Africa:

Booktalk (Pty) Ltd

Library Suppliers

PO Box 81340

Parkhurst, 2120

(011) 325-2266


Playaway Resources

Date: 3 July 2010


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