May 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 3

Access Issues

From Vinyl to Digital: My First Experiences with Electronic Audio Players

I may argue that I am not really that old of an old dog, but working with Marshall University interns who are less than half my age continuously proves me wrong. This was never more evident than during a recent AFB TECH project to evaluate iPods and other digital audio players. iPods and other MP3 players are simply second nature to the interns who come from a generation that never played vinyl records. Although I have paid attention to the changes that have occurred, I did not embrace the digital music revolution before this project. However, that has all changed now, and this article discusses my transition to digital audio and some of my new favorite ways of listening to digital music and reading digital books.

Before I get into my personal experiences with digital audio players, let me state that this article is a precursor to a more comprehensive overview of digital audio players that will soon appear in AccessWorld. Thanks to grants from the Reader's Digest Partners for Sight Foundation and the Huntington Foundation, AFB TECH has been evaluating the accessibility of many of today's digital audio players. Our project has focused on using these players with digital music, as well as with books and other sources of digital information. Apple's iPod is certainly the most well-known product in this category of devices, which are referred to as both MP3 players and portable audio players. For this project, we gathered the complete line of Apple iPods, but we also examined several other mainstream devices, including the Creative line of players, the Microsoft Zune, the Sony Walkman and E Reader, and the Amazon Kindle. In addition, we included players that are designed to be accessible to people who are blind, such as the Book Port and BookCourier, the Victor Reader Stream, and the Milestone 311, as well as the media players that are included in several assistive technology PDA (personal digital assistant) devices, such as the PAC Mate, BrailleNote, Braille Sense/Voice Sense, and Braille+/Icon. Finally, we examined accessing digital audio on cell phones using the third-party screen-reader software products TALKS, Mobile Speak, and Smart Hal.

From Big and Bulky to Petite and Portable

Now that our AFB TECH project has dragged me into the 21st century, I realize how convenient digital audio is. Instead of performing a 5-minute album-changing ritual every 20 minutes, I can touch one button and listen to continuous music for days on end if I want to. The old furniture-sized stereo has been replaced by a tiny player like the iPod Shuffle or the Creative Zen Stone, smaller than a matchbook, that I can take with me anywhere. Of course, digital books are also a large part of the digital audio revolution. When I lost my vision in 1993, the first thing I got was one of the large, bulky Talking Book cassette players from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) with which most of us are familiar. We are all obviously thankful to everyone at NLS and the local libraries and the volunteers who kept the old machines working, but digital players are so much more convenient and efficient. I remember carrying my old cassette player and books around in a huge hiking backpack, and I can now carry hundreds or thousands of books in a small player in my pocket. That old player weighed 5 pounds, but my Zen Stone and iPod Shuffle each weighs less than 1 ounce.

A photo of Darren holding the huge old NLS cassette player and a box of cassettes in one arm, with the tiny iPod shuffle in his ear.

Caption: Darren Burton showing the large NLS player and cassette tapes with the tiny iPod shuffle in his ear.

What Are My New Favorite Ways to Listen to Music?

I still have my old-fashioned stereo, and my wife brought her CD collection with her when we got married. But even though I added braille labels to all the CD cases, it is still a fairly cumbersome process to find and play them. And I can't for the life of me remember the logic behind the position of the CDs when I remove them from the carousel CD player and often need to bother my wife to help me put the CDs away properly. However, now I am using Apple's iTunes on a PC as a jukebox. iTunes is not compatible with the JAWS or Window-Eyes screen readers out of the box, but T&T Consultancy has developed scripts that make it work well with JAWS. The scripts are available for $75 from Next Generation Technologies at GW Micro reports that it will soon have iTunes working with Window-Eyes.

I have used iTunes to copy all my wife's CDs onto the PC's hard drive, and iTunes allows me easily to choose the music I want to play or to create a play list of songs for a get-together with friends. It is also accessible to search for music with iTunes and buy individual songs from Apple's iTunes store. However, it is not yet accessible to purchase albums. So, if you want all the songs from an album, you have to buy each song one at a time, and you end up paying a bit more than a sighted person pays for an album. Even so, I have to admit that I love searching for music on iTunes and listening to the 30-second teaser samples of the music, but my wife reminds me that I can easily get carried away and buy too many songs.

I also like buying and downloading digital music from because the music files are unprotected MP3 files that can be easily loaded onto my portable players. I probably now listen to more music while hiking, exercising at the gym, or relaxing in my hammock than in my living room, so a small portable and accessible player is important. The Creative Zen Stone fits my lifestyle, and its $34.99 price tag fits my budget. It is small, about 2 inches by 1.5 inches by a half inch deep and weighs only 0.7 ounces, so it does not get in my way at the gym. It has tactile controls and no display screen, so other than some battery indicator lights, I am on the same page as my sighted friends. Its 1Gb (gigabyte) of memory holds hundreds of songs, and it is easy to use Windows Explorer to load MP3 or Windows Media Audio files onto the Zen Stone. There is also now a 2Gb Zen Stone with a built-in speaker for $49.99.

The Zen Stone also does a nice job playing and navigating through books from, allowing you to navigate from section to section as well as with standard rewind and fast forward. Navigating from section to section comes in handy if I accidentally press the Back button while working out or hiking because I can more quickly find my place than with other players that may take me to the beginning of the book. It also keeps your place in Audible books when you turn it off or move to a music folder to listen to music. You can listen to two informative podcasts on the Zen Stone by David Miles on, one of which describes a techniques for tagging folders and albums with voice tags that identify the folders' or albums' names. You can also read a comprehensive review of the Zen Stone by Janet Ingber in the November 2007 issue of AccessWorld .

What Are My New Favorite Ways to Listen to Books?

I had a great time broadening my musical horizons while working on this project, but I have to admit that it is the access to digital books that has really excited me. I enjoy downloading books from many online sources, including,, and the NLS digital download test site.

The Book Port from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and the BookCourier from Springer Design were the first devices designed specifically for people who are visually impaired that I tried for reading digital books. These are similar products, both featuring tactile buttons that are easy to distinguish. They both work with recorded speech books from and have built-in text-to-speech for reading electronic files from sources like and Project Gutenberg ( You can also play MP3 music files with these devices, and you can read a comprehensive evaluation of these devices in the July 2004 issue of AccessWorld .

The Book Port and BookCourier are powerful reading tools, and I enjoy using them. However, the Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare is my device of choice. At $329, it is $50 to $70 less expensive and has several advantages over the Book Port and BookCourier. I like its Vocalizer speech synthesizer over the Double Talk synthesizer used by the Book Port and BookCourier, but that is just a subjective opinion. A more objective advantage is how quickly you can transfer books to the Victor Reader Stream. An Audible book that takes over 20 minutes to transfer to the Book Port takes less than a minute to transfer to the Victor Reader Stream. I also like the fact that you can adjust the speed at which recorded books are played with the touch of a button, and I find the user interface to be more intuitive. The Victor Reader Stream also plays a wider range of file formats, including music in MP3 and Windows Media Audio formats, and has a button on the side to record meetings or lectures quickly and easily. You can read a comprehensive review of the Victor Reader Stream in the January 2008 issue of AccessWorld .

Another important factor that attracted me to the Victor Reader Stream is that it was the first handheld player that is compatible with the recorded Digital Talking Books that can be downloaded as part of the NLS test program. This test program is now open to all NLS-eligible patrons, allowing you to search for and download books quickly to play on the Victor Reader Stream. NLS will soon have a player available for these books, replacing the bulky cassette players that many of us now use. Other commercially available players will also soon be compatible with the NLS downloadable books. At the recent CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, I was told that the Icon from LevelStar and the Braille+ from the American Printing House for the Blind will be certified to play NLS books by the time you read this article.

The NLS books are professionally recorded human speech files, so they will appeal to people who are not familiar with or uncomfortable with synthetic speech. I have enjoyed participating in the NLS pilot test of these downloadable books and having them at my fingertips, rather then ordering and waiting for books on cassette to be mailed to me. It will be great when NLS begins to add thousands of books to their digital collection. However, I have to admit that I have been disappointed in the level of markup that has been included for navigating through the books. I know that these are mainly books for pleasure reading and are read straight through by many people, but I like more control of my reading experience. If I want to go back and check something I read previously, I want to be able to navigate by chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, word, or even character if I need to learn how to spell a word. That is why I am a big fan and heavy user of books from These books are available in DAISY format, ready to load onto a Book Port or Victor Stream, but you have to use your device's synthesizer to read them. I am comfortable with and, in many cases, prefer, synthetic speech, so these books are perfect for me. I am also able to navigate in many different ways to find the part of the book I want quickly. Bookshare also has more than 37,000 titles available, so I will not run out of books during my lifetime.

I have mentioned books several times in this article because they are high-quality human speech-recorded books that play on several handheld players, and the web site keeps up with best-sellers hot off the press. However, these books are not free, and I pay a $14.95 per month subscription fee, which allows me to download one book per month; and I have also paid anywhere from $15 to $40 for the extra books I have purchased. Bookshare has only a $50 annual fee, and the NLS books are free to eligible users. So comparatively, may not be such an attractive option. I will still use, though, because my wife and I come from huge families, and we like to put an Audible book on a Zen Stone and give copies away as Christmas and birthday presents.

The New KNFB Reader

I just received a new KNFB Reader the day I turned in this article, so I cannot report my experiences with it yet. The KNFB Reader is now a Nokia N82 Symbian Cell phone with the Reader software installed. It uses the phone's built-in camera to capture images of books, memos, or currency and then to read the print information or the denomination of the bill. The Nokia N82 is also compatible with the TALKS and Mobile Speak screen readers, so it has the potential to be an all-in-one solution. I saw Mobile Speak demonstrated at CSUN reading Bookshare books on a phone, and I cannot wait to find out how it all works on my new KNFB Reader. I have successfully used Mobile Speak and TALKS to access and read text files and Audible books on my other phones, so this takes it one step further.

Apple Accessibility

Apple's iPod is far and away the leader in the digital audio player market, and the term "iPod" has become widely used to describe this category of devices. The access barriers that are inherent in most of Apple's iPod line of products are well known in the blindness community, and Apple certainly has some serious work to do to make its products accessible. However, while working on the project at AFB TECH, we discovered some accessibility improvements from Apple, and some work-arounds to help in using their products.

We first learned to use the new Macintosh OS 10.5 operating system, also known as Leopard. Leopard includes VoiceOver, the free built-in screen reader that is used to access some but not all the applications on the Mac. The speech synthesis is outstanding, sounding better to me than any I have ever used, but it still does not speak as fast as I would like it, even at its highest rate. The Mac still does not provide nearly the access that we enjoy on a PC with the JAWS, Window-Eyes, or Hal screen readers, but you do not have to pay an additional thousand dollars or so either. iTunes was what we concentrated on for this article, and iTunes works well right out of the box with VoiceOver. Once I learned the keystrokes to use with iTunes, I found VoiceOver to be crisp in responding and doing what I told it to do. A big limitation with iTunes is that only Apple's iPod line of players is compatible with it, so I could not load the songs I purchased onto my accessible Creative Zen Stone or my Victor Reader Stream. An even larger problem is that other than the iPod Shuffle, I could not figure out how to load songs onto the iPod line of products. As with J-Tunes, I could not purchase albums, so I had to pay the higher cost of individual tracks. The Mac VoiceOver's responsiveness was slightly better than what I experienced with JAWS and the J-Tunes scripts on a PC, but I could actually load up my iPod with J-Tunes on a PC.

You may ask why, if iPods are so inaccessible, am I worried about loading songs onto them? Well, most of the iPod line of products are definitely not what one would call accessible. None has any speech output to help navigating its visual menus. The iPhone and new iPod Touch use a flat touch-screen interface with no tactile buttons and are about the most inaccessible products on the market in any category. The iPod Classic does have a tactile "click wheel," along which you run your finger to navigate the menus and that makes a click sound when you move from item to item in the menus. The extremely bright and patient among us have, with sighted assistance, learned to memorize the menus and count clicks accordingly. Although I am certainly not among that group, my clever interns told me that they could go into the iPod's settings and delete many of the menus to make it easier to navigate. Although doing so certainly takes away much of the iPod's functionality, it makes it easier to use for the basics. My iPod now has only two items on the main menu--Music and Settings. I can easily move my finger counterclockwise on the click wheel to choose music. Then, I have only two items on the Music menu--Playlists and Songs--so again it is easy to choose between the two and begin listening. The iPod Nano is pretty much the same as the iPod Classic, except that it is only about a quarter the size, and instead of holding 80 or 160 GB of music, it holds only 4 to 8 GB.

The iPod shuffle has 1 GB of memory and far less functionality than the other iPods. However, it is a tiny and easily portable 0.6-ounce player. It does not require any clever work-arounds and has no screen, so it is in line with the Creative Zen Stone as far as accessibility. I was able to use iTunes on the Mac and PC to transfer songs and Audible books to it, and it has a simple interface. It has a built-in clip, which makes it easy to clip to any part of my clothing, so I can keep it out of the way when I am at the gym. Although it does not have the section/chapter navigation feature that the Zen Stone does for reading Audible books, it does have an easy key lock feature that helps you avoid inadvertently moving to the beginning of a book or song.

Bose SoundDock

There are dozens of iPod accessories on the market, and I decided to check some of them out. By far, my favorite is the Bose SoundDock. This is a powerful yet portable, high-quality loudspeaker system for playing music on your iPod. It has a dock that slides out from the front, and you simply set your iPod into it and use the remote control to control your music. The remote has eight easy-to-distinguish tactile buttons, and it actually makes it a bit easier to play the music on your iPod. If you get sighted assistance to create playlists and load them onto your iPod, you can easily switch from playlist to playlist or song to song without having to go into the iPod's inaccessible menu system. You can also connect your accessible Zen Stone or Book Port or Victor Reader Stream to the SoundDock using a 1/8-inch stereo cable from a retailer like Radio Shack, but the SoundDock's remote cannot be used to choose the music you want to hear.

A Close-up of the Bose SoundDock containing the iPod Classic.

Caption: The Bose SoundDock with the iPod Classic.

Although the SoundDock is an expensive $299 to $399 accessory, it is certainly cool, and it produces phenomenal sound quality that is large enough to fill a gymnasium from its small quarter of a cubic foot 5-pound size. The $399 version has a rechargeable battery that lasts about 10 hours, so it is perfect to take outside on the patio for a cookout. My neighbors probably will not appreciate its huge sound, so I will have to keep the volume down a bit.

The other accessory that I am eager to try out is Apple's waterproof case for the iPod. I include swimming in my summer workout schedule, and musical accompaniment would be super. I cannot imagine that the case is waterproof enough to allow swimming, but I will find out soon.

OK Apple, What Next?

Certainly, Apple has made solid progress in making the Macintosh more accessible without the need to purchase an expensive screen reader, and improvements are being made in each successive release of the Mac's operating system. Still, the iPod line of products remains largely inaccessible, and the new iPod Touch goes in the wrong direction as far as accessibility. We would love for Apple to work with blindness organizations to improve the accessibility of the iPod products. The fact is that the iPod is a cool device. It is sleek and holds tens of thousands of songs. In addition to playing music and books, it also plays video and podcasts, and schools are beginning to use the iPod for educational purposes. It would be great if students who are blind or have low vision could use the same iPods as sighted students use.

The Bottom Line

These new digital audio players, especially the Victor Reader Stream, the Creative Zen Stone, and the Apple iPod Shuffle, have enhanced my workout and leisure time and have brought me back to listening to my old music as well as my new books. I also travel a great deal in my work, so they have made the inevitable flight delays much more bearable. However, this article just touches on devices and sources of media that I have found fit my tastes. I have in no way covered all the options that are available for digital music and books, so stay tuned to AccessWorld for my more comprehensive overview of the subject, and please write us with your experiences and let us know about options that we did not cover.

Although I have successfully transformed from an analog curmudgeon to digital devotee, I still cannot avoid being reminded by the college interns that I am indeed an old dog. While testing the accessibility of downloading music from a site like or from Apple's iTunes store, I would suggest searching for an artist or group that I used to enjoy like David Bowie or Cream, and I would be greeted with blank stares from my young assistants. Similarly, when they would play one of their current favorites, I would hear my dad's voice in my head as I would critique the song with a comment like, "That is nothing but loud obnoxious brain-rotting garbage." I guess some things never change.

Product Information

Product: iPod Shuffle.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; phone: 408-996-1010, Customer Relations: 800-767-2775; web site:

Price: 1GB (240 songs) $49, 2GB (500 songs) $69.

Product: iPod Nano.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; phone: 408-996-1010, Customer Relations: 800-767-2775; web site:

Price: 4GB (1,000 songs): $149, 8GB (2,000 songs): $199.

Product: iPod Classic.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; phone: 408-996-1010, Customer Relations: 800-767-2775; web site:

Price: 80 GB (20,000 songs): $249, 160GB (40,000 songs) $349.

Product: iPod Touch.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; phone: 408-996-1010, Customer Relations: 800-767-2775; web site:

Price: 8GB $299, 16GB $399, 32GB $499.

Product: Zen Stone.

Manufacturer: Creative Labs, 1901 McCarthy Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; phone: 408-428-6600; web site:

U.S. Sales Outlets: Numerous online and brick-and-mortar retail stores, such as,, Circuit City, CompUSA, and Wal-Mart.

Price: 1GB $34.99.

Product: Zen Stone with a built-in speaker.

Manufacturer: Creative Labs, 1901 McCarthy Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; phone: 408-428-6600; web site:

U.S. Sales Outlets: Numerous online and brick-and-mortar retail stores, such as,, Circuit City, CompUSA, and Wal-Mart.

Price: 2GB $49.99.

Product: Victor Reader Stream.

Manufacturer: HumanWare Canada, 445, rue du Parc Industriel Longueuil, Quebec J4H 3V7, Canada; phone: 888-723-7273; e-mail:; web site:

Price: $329.00.

Product: Book Port.

Manufacturer: American Printing House for the Blind, P.O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085; phone: 800-223-1839 (toll free) or 502-895-2405; web site:

Price: $395.

Product: BookCourier.

Manufacturer: Springer Design, 375 Diablo Road, Suite 105, Danville, CA 94526; phone: 925-838-1885; e-mail:; web site:

Price: $379 (discounts are available for subscribers and users of Kurzweil 1000).

Product: SoundDock portable digital music system.

Manufacturer: Bose Corporation, the Mountain, Framingham, MA 01701; phone: 800-999-2673; web site:

Price: $399.

Product: J-Tunes Scripts for JAWS.

U.S. Distributor: Next Generation Technologies, 20006 Cedar Valley Road, Suite 101, Lynnwood, WA 98036-6334; phone: 425-744-1100; web site:

Price: $75.

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