iPods — the New Barbie

When Barbie was “born” into the Mattel family of toys in 1959, she wasn’t just a doll. She was the epicenter of a retail revolution.

When parents bought their baby-boomer girls a Barbie, they were agreeing to an unspoken but implicit contract with the toy store to return time and again and buy stuff – lots more stuff – for Barbie.

That’s how Mattel envisioned her. A kid wouldn’t be happy with just the Barbie and some clothes like any earlier doll would offer. Nope, Mattel created an entire fantasy world, with price tags attached to every damned thing in that world, from friends like Midge and sister Skipper, and of course, the sexless boyfriend Ken (whose irony-drenched advertising slogan was “Ken…. He’s a Doll!”) to Barbie houses, Barbie Sports cars, carrying cases, closets, apartments with Barbie-sized furniture, picnic sets and even a tiny Barbie Doll for Barbie to own!

That first Barbie cost $3, and made Mattel more money than anyone could imagine, in all the accessories and extras and yes, the many, many clothes outfits that were available.

It was such a success that it was inedvitable that someone withi a few years would come up with a Barbie equivalent for boys. That was Hasbro, and their G.I. Joe, which was marketed not as a “doll”? (because god forbid boys should play with dolls), but as an “action figure.”

G.I. Joe, like Barbie was all about the extra stuff you could buy for the guy, not just the “action figure” itself.

The modern equivalent for baby boomers like me (who by the way, didn’t play with Barbie or G.I. Joe as a kid, but had plenty of “Man from U.N.C.L.E” accessories that kept my folks going to Toys R Us) as well as younger generations, is the Apple iPod.

With 10 million iPods sold (including the tiny and affordable Shuffles), and 70 percent of the MP3 player market, the iPod is creating own retail revolution. Now, shops beyond typical computer outlets are making space for an iPod section.

I got a 20 GB 4th generation, “clickwheel” iPod for Christmas and filled it up so quickly that I upgraded to a 40 GB in February. It almost filled up within three weeks or so, but I’ve been keeping about 3 gigs open for new music or books by deleting some music as I’ve added more.

I have over 10,239 tracks in there now, which is enough to play for 26 days straight. That’s DAYS, not hours. It’s mostly music, but I’ve started adding audio books because I’ve found I pay closer attention to books sitting in a bus than I ever did while driving.

But what’s frightening – and for a shopaholic consumer like me, exhilarating – is that the iPod, though pricey, is, like Barbie, only the hub of a wheel of spending.

There are a bewildering array of accessories you can get for every iPod model, starting with cases and earphones (though a lot of people still think it’s hip to wear the iconic white Apple earbuds that ship with the ‘Pods, they actually don’t sound that great) and running to battery packs, remote controls, several ways to play your iPod through car and home stereos, and various speaker combinations that turn your ‘Pod into a portable boombox.

A consumer study in march found that the average iPod owner spends $150 on accessories.

Feh, that’s nuthin’ – peanuts, compared to my ongoing iPod-inspired spree. There’s a booming cottage industry in iPod extras, and I’m pretty sure I’m familiar with every company out there.

Although my Christmas present came with a Belkin accessory kit that included cables, everything I needed to help me hook up my iPod with the car stereo, and a leather case, I ordered an iSkin eVo2 silicone case. I didn’t like the bulkiness of the case I had, and think the “skin” type of case looks cooler.

The problem was, I also bought an Altec Lansing inMotion portable speakers so I could listen to the iPod all day at work without plugging in my cheapo computer desktop speakers.

And to use the speaker, which cradles the iPod, I had to take the thing out of its silicone skin every morning and slip it back in every evening. It got to be a pain, and I started realizing that although it protected the iPod from superficial bumps and scratches, the skin wouldn’t save it form a fall.

So last week, I bought a better case (it was on sale, so I don’t feel too guilty about it), the iShield from Pacific Rim Technologies. It’s a case made of aircraft-grade aluminum, lined with foam, that protects the iPod while still allowing access to all its functions. And, it’ll protect the iPod from the inevitable drop, since I’m a klutz.

It’s a great case, and I don’t think I’ll be ordering some other type… at least, not until something better comes around.

Meanwhile, I blew out my Apple earbuds in the first week (I didn’t listen to my music THAT loud, really), and instead of returning it for replacements I ordered a pair of Koss earphones called The Plug. I used to own the green, round, heavy Koss headphones that were the standard of the audio industry in the 1970s, so it was cool to get back to my “roots,” so to speak.

The thing about earphones for portable MP3 players is that they usually sound terrible, and rightfully so, since most costs between $5 to $20. You do get what you pay for. I’ve seen those $500 earphones in the airline catalogs, but I’m not that much of an audiophile fanatic. The problem is that cheapo earphones usually sacrifice one end or the other of the audio spectrum – the treble or the bass.

But the $15 Koss Plugs are pretty good for the price. They have much more bass than most, and still manage to squeeze in a fair amount of the high end. Most rock listeners prefer to have more bass than treble.

The Plugs are named because they come with various sizes of foam earplugs that have holes through them, and the earpieces have a plastic tube that fits into the holes.

Since I spent years as a music critic, I was used to rolling the foam between my fingers and jamming them in. It took me a while to figure out that one ear canal points up while the other points down but once I figured it out, I was able to get pretty good sound while blocking out almost all extraneous sounds.

But while cruising the forums on my favorite iPod website, the indispensable iPodlounge, I saw a mention of something called SlicSound, a silicone sleeve that slips over a variety of earphones including The Plug. I ordered it, of course.

It’s a $10 accessory (I wonder what the cheapest Barbie accessory ever was?) that comes delivered in a package with three sizes. After some experimentation I chose the middle size. These inserts, which are supposedly scientifically-designed by audiologists, are sort of curved. I found that by aiming the right ones upward and the left ones downward, they fit my ear canals well, and though they don’t keep outside noise out as well as the foam earplugs, they sound terrific – clear, thumping bass and crisper-then-ever treble, without having to crank the volume almost to the highest level.

The best part is, I don’t have to spend a couple of awkward minutes every time I want to listen to my iPod, first stuffing the foam plugs in and then stabbing the earplugs with the plastic tubes into the holes in the foam plugs. These silicone puppies stay on the earplugs, and they’re nice and secure in my ear.

Lessee, what else have I spent money on?

A Griffin iTalk voice recorder microphone, so I can record memos and ambient sounds. Belkin’s Backup Battery Pack so I can listen to my iPod when I’m not close to an outlet to charge the iPod. Some software to back up music on my computer (which I haven’t used yet). Some music downloads from iTunes – though mostly I check out the free downloadable tracks every Tuesday).

But the ultimate iPod accessory, which I have purchased, is another iPod – in my case, for my partner. Plus the Altec Lansing speakers and iShield case, naturally. No Shuffles in the house, or Minis, yet.

But just wait – if I get an itch to have just a collecton of classical, or jazz on one iPod, a Mini might be just the answer. Gee, I wonder how long it’ll take for Mattel to come out with an iPod Barbie?

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