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John Dowdell

A few years ago I shopped audio courses by the file format -- I knew the courseware I wanted, and waited until I could find it in CD to compress to iPod.

But particularly with this summer's intensives in Korean and Cantonese, I've tried to "flood" myself, soaking in the language for as many hours as I could. This required more audio material. I stopped avoiding tapes, and found some cool stuff.

It's not unusual to find a 12-tape courses for less than $10 at a bookstore, a tenth the price of the same material in new CD. Even if it's missing a tape, so what? I won't be building progressively through the course; I'll be listening, maybe ten times maybe once, to figure out what's going on in it, to see what learning I could pull out of it.

I've broken too many tape decks, they're harder to shop these days. Stuff at retail stores is priced more by pricepoint than workmanship.

Last month I picked up a $40 Sony sport model at Radio Shack which seems a lot more sturdy and well-designed than anything else I've used recently. It uses a single AA battery and includes digital AM/FM/TV.

The Sony headphones seem the most comfortable I've found yet. They have long clips which follow the shape behind the ear -- no binding. Good sound quality, and volume can be adjusted directly by positioning the clips -- the speaker is suspended rather than lodged in the ear -- I haven't been able to adjust for traffic so easily before.

I've got a cheap tape deck in the bathroom, hooked to a pair of pocket speakers. I wish there was auto-flip on a statically-placed deck -- hassle to walk across the room to reverse the tape when done -- I haven't found an auto-reverse decks recently, though.

There are devices which play radio or CD in the shower, as well as bone conducers which don't need a speaker, but I haven't gotten that strange yet....

I've tried different speakers to play while sleeping, but haven't found anything that works -- headphones hurt, those flat pillow speakers don't stay put, room speakers risk waking others, haven't seen good minispeakers for the headboard, and even so it's useless if I have to use earplugs when my neighbors get loud and stupid.

Other headsets are serviceable, but none has become a favorite. For a long time I liked the KOSS Plug, a foam in-the-ear speaker which blocked external noise, but they took awhile to put in securely and never felt quite clean enough. Sony has a $60 in-ear plug which is nice, comfortable, unobtrusive, and blocks out noise, but the wiring and balance never worked for me.

The iPod's remote control was handy, but I kept on breaking it, repairing it and around. Finally I started using a sturdy pair of black earbuds with the iPod -- these are open-air speakers and so usually have to be used at volume, which then makes placement in the ear a bigger variable.

Device placement and wiring still seems silly too. Lots of times I run the headphone wiring through my shirt or behind a button so that it doesn't flap around and get caught on stuff. Belt clips can bind when you sit, pockets sag, fannypacks tend to get heavier, armbands slip.

Anyway, particularly with an introductory "flooding" strategy, or if the budget is tight, then a solid portable tape deck is a good piece of equipment to have around.

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