Hacking for Parental Sanity

This is one of a series of “classic posts“. Resurrections of old posts that I enjoyed writing, and you might enjoy reading.

There is a company somewhere in Asia that manufactures small speakers. Small piezoelectric speakers that can put out a surprising amount of noise. I would one day like to visit this company, and spend a little bit of time pressing each button on all of my son’s noise-making toys that no doubt contain the spawn of this hellish company. Small demons no less, screaming nauseating 8-bit music at the top of their lungs.

More than once I have worried about my son’s hearing. One such toy is a cartoon-like telephone. Apparently designed to be held to the head in a similar manner to Dad’s cellphone. This would be fine if the little phone didn’t pump out something in the region of 70-80dB of noise (I’m not joking – louder than conversation, and approaching a food blender in volume).

Thankfully I am not afraid of hacking. In fact hacking electronic devices can easily be a life and sanity saver. Hacking these noisy little beasts generally falls into two categories, named in suitable serial-killer chic as Muffling and Exterminating.

The Muffling hack is useful when you have a toy that is designed around the sounds it makes (e.g. the toy cellphone in my case), and also has a bit of space inside it. The approach I take is to find some decent compressable material (e.g. lightweight foam or dacron), open the toy, find the baby demon speaker, and wrap the fucker in a couple of layers of your material. You can usually then stuff the speaker back in its original location, and close up the toy. I find this technique can knock an easy 20dB off a noisy toy, making it comfortable to listen to at an arm’s length.

The Extermination hack is a more robust hack for those toys that are just plain obnoxious, and have no place emitting the noises they do. My example is a cool little firetruck that drives along and pops up a water-cannon. Great, except it also screams “Matchbox to the rescue!” at 80dB, which would be supremely ironic for a firetruck if it weren’t manufactured by Matchbox. The hack is simple: open the toy, find the speaker, and detach one or both wires from the speaker. A hard yank will usually do the trick (and is very satisfying), but you could use wire cutters or a soldering iron if you are a poof want to do it right.

There is probably a third hack that involves reducing the volume of the speaker through passive electronics, possibly by soldering a resistor in-line with the speaker. I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader. If you have any other suggestions (not counting the impact-with-concrete hack), then feel free to comment.

Update: Dan Rutter has a good writeup (second question down the page) on how to use electronics to quieten these offensive toys.

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  1. One trick we learnt was to save the AA batteries from our digital camera. There’s heaps of life left in them, but they’re so much quieter than brand new. They run out quicker which is a bonus too 😉

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Those toys sound painfully loud to me, and my ears are much further away from them than my kid’s are. I usually start with a couple of strips of tape over the speaker grilles of any toys on which grilles exist (especially effective on books with electronic noisemakers).

  3. Luckily we have an automated solution – any noisy or flashing toys are destroyed by the dogs within a few days.

  4. Ben – did actually you measure the dB rating of these toys? Do you have a recommended tool for measuring volume?

    Have been wondering if there’s an obvious and simple solution (iPhone app, simple app) or if I should be off to Jaycar / DSE / Surplustronics 🙂

  5. Another thing to do is to have half-flat batteries of all types on hand (not just the old AA batteries Joseph mentions) at birthdays and Christmas. You probably can’t hack the speaker of a new present, and this lets the little ones play with their new toys for a limited time.

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