Perhaps unsurprisingly, Disney is the Apple of the children's portable entertainment market. Still, as with the iPod, others will not stand idly by and let the Mix Stick and Mix Max go unchallenged. Enter the SanDisk Sansa Shaker, the latest MP3 player aimed at getting your youngster into the digital audio game. And at $40 with a dead simple design, it's definitely up to the task.
The Sansa Shaker was designed with the little ones in mind and it shows. Its hourglass shape makes it perfect for small hands, and as it's about the size of a salt shaker (3 inches tall and 1.5 inches in diameter at the wide ends), it won't be a choking hazard. The player has no screen--just a few simple controls. There's a play/pause button on the front with an LED ring that lights up when the unit is powered on. You can shuttle through tracks by twisting a ring around the bottom of the Shaker and adjust volume via a similar ring around the top. SanDisk has taken young ears into account and implemented a volume limiter feature that defaults to a safe volume every time the earbuds are plugged in, no matter how far the external speaker is turned up.
About that speaker: its presence at the top of the Shaker definitely adds to its salt shaker-esque appearance. SanDisk also included two headphone jacks, which is always a nice touch in MP3 players aimed at youngsters. However, only one set of headphones is included with the player. A flap on the bottom of the unit conceals a standard mini USB port, a battery compartment (one AAA included), and an SD card slot. The Shaker has no built-in memory, but it does come with one 512MB card, which should be plenty for the younger set. You also might want to consider picking up a few 256MB cards (at $10 to $15 a pop) and loading each one with different content (one for sing-a-longs, one for audiobooks, and so on).
As you might expect, the Shaker is light on features. It supports only MP3s, and there's no FM tuner or recording functionality. However, as the name implies, the Shaker has a motion-enabled audio feature that makes it part MP3 player, part toy. If you hold down play/pause and shake the device while music is playing, you'll hear a "shaking" sound and the music will shuffle. A different sound effect--the "boing"--can be heard if the player is paused while you shake it. The player also emits some bubbly sounds when it's powered on and off. Sure, this is all a bit gimmicky, but anything that gets kids into digital music at a young age is just fab in my book.
Let's be honest: a plastic MP3 player with a $40 price tag with kid-specific features is probably not going to be a top contender in the sound quality competition. However, the Sansa Shaker really doesn't sound half-bad. I listened to a selection of tracks through a set of Shure SE310s and was frankly impressed by the warmth and clarity of the music. High-end detail was also quite good, though bass was predictably lacking. I could detect some light static in bass-heavy and minimalist tracks and rock tracks sounded a bit muffled, but hey, is your 7-year-old going to be bumping jungle and blasting punk rock? Probably not, and the rousing rendition of "This Old Man" that came preloaded on the Shaker sounded just fine. You can certainly do worse for your children's ears than this player. The rated battery life of 10 hours for an AAA battery is pretty shoddy, but perhaps the player will surprise us in CNET Labs test results. Check back soon for that info.