As a child you likely had some sort of media player for your favorite tunes. Some might remember the Fisher Price record player, or maybe you had a My First Sony tape deck like I did. These days it’s a little trickier to build up a kid’s audio library — we don’t rely on physical media for our music and audiobooks anymore, and you might not be comfortable putting a smart speaker in your child’s room. Tonies is a connected speaker system for kids that eschews the microphone completely. Instead, your children will use $15 collectible RFID figures styled like their favorite characters to activate playback of downloaded songs and stories.
The main component of the system is the $99 Toniebox, which I must say is an incredibly appealing piece of tech. It’s a fabric-covered cube — well, almost a cube, as it’s 4.75 x 4.5 x 4.5, slightly wider than it is tall or deep. My sample came in a bright fire-engine red, though there are five other colors available. It’s covered in a rubbery, textured fabric, making it easy to wipe the whole thing down after sticky fingers have had their way with it. The only hard bits are on the top and bottom, where the RFID reader and charging port are located, respectively. There’s a headphone jack up top as well, plus two rubber “ears” that serve as controls. Squeeze the smaller one to turn the volume down and squeeze the big one to turn it up. This feels incredibly intuitive.
Getting started, however, is a bit trickier. The first thing you need to do is charge the unit using the included base station. It’s easy enough to slide the box onto the round white disc. A child three or older could easily do it themselves, but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near this thing because, well, just look at it:
It’s only a half-inch long or so, but that little metal plug in the middle just seems like it’s going to end up putting someone’s eye out. I have enough experience with kids to know they’re experts at stabbing themselves in new and creative ways and this looks like the kind of thing that, if left in their play area, they will somehow fall onto face first. However, as this is already available in Europe and there doesn’t seem to be an eye-gouging epidemic, maybe I’m not giving American children enough credit. But if you also get SNL “Consumer Probe” vibes looking at this thing, maybe keep it out of reach for now and make sure you, the responsible adult, charge the Toniebox yourself regularly.
You will also need to set up the Toniebox’s internet connection, which isn’t the easiest process. If you’ve ever had to install a smart home device, you know it isn’t always fun. You’ll have to do that whole thing where you connect to the device directly via your phone to then connect it to your WiFi, and sometimes it just doesn’t want to do either. You’ll also need to download the app and make an account for that, too.
Once you’ve gotten all that out of the way, you can step back and let the kid do their thing. The controls are easy enough; squeeze one of the ears to wake the device. To play a track, simply place one of the Tonie figurines, like Pinocchio or Elsa, on the top of the Toniebox and wait for the light to change from green to blue. If it’s the first time that Tonie has been used, the speaker will need to download the accompanying tracks, but once the music is preloaded onto the box it’ll automatically play. To pause the track, simply take the figure off; if the figure is placed back on top the audio will resume. The Tonies connect with magnets so it’s not easy to knock them off.
If the box is tilted to the left, the track will rewind tipping it right will fast-forward a bit. However, knocking it onto its side won’t put it into those modes permanently; it will go back or forward a little bit and then resume playback. A tap on either side should go back or forward a track, but I found that a little more force than that was required: a good smack will do it, and I’m sure your child will have fun with that. And the device can certainly take a beating; mine has fallen on the floor a few times with only some scuffs on the white plastic to mark its tumble (which I cleaned off with an eraser). The hefty, hand-painted figures are also pretty durable (though I haven’t tested them with a determined child yet).
The app lets you handle some functions remotely, like setting the max volume on the speaker and dimming its lighting. You can also see any figurines that have been registered on the device, and remove them from your library (if, for example, the figure was borrowed or lost). But the key function is the ability to record audio for your “Creative-Tonies,” which are special figurines that can have custom tracks assigned to them. You can sing songs, read stories or just leave messages for your kids. Other users you assign to a household account can do the same, so it’s easy enough to surprise your child with a greeting from a grandparent or a relative serving overseas.
Even though the audio is all stored in the cloud, the chances of someone hacking in and recording lewd messages for your child are low, since you need to physically press a button on the Toniebox to get the Creative-Tonies to load any new audio tracks. (I wouldn’t say it’s entirely infeasible, though.)
For pre-recorded content your choices are largely public domain audio like fairy tales, or popular cartoon licenses like Despicable Me and Frozen. At last, one more way for your child to put Let It Go on repeat!
The audio is all professionally produced — some of the tracks are licensed from established audio books made by companies like Scholastic, featuring known actors like Robert Guillaume and Imelda Staunton. But even the original content sounds great, and the fact that the company credits the narrators and production house is a sign of actual effort. Most of the Disney figures have about 22 minutes of content, while the song and story collections can be as long as 100 minutes.
For me the biggest sticking point, after the fussy setup, is the price: not the Toniebox itself, though it could stand to be a little cheaper than $99. It’s the Tonies themselves. If they remind you of Amiibo, well, guess what, they’re priced a lot like those at $15 each. The price is the same regardless of whether it’s licensed or public domain, or if the program is 20 or 90 minutes.
I’d say the generic Tonies are a better deal because they offer more programming. If you really need Disney content I really think you’d be better off purchasing an Audible audiobook for under $20 and piping it through an Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition. The Toniebox is for parents who really, really, really don’t want a smart speaker anywhere near their child, and it does its job well.