Cheap cell phones, better-sounding TVs and other great gizmos for seniors

You’re getting older. You may have issues. But the concept of “technology” isn’t scary, just tiresome or overwhelming. You were brought up on pretty cool stuff — tiny transistor radios, the magical transition from black and white to color TV, early and affordable home computers, microwave ovens, and cordless phones. And you still need your techie product fix for plowing through the day. Just keep ’em easy to use, OK? Consider these options.

TV Sound Sharpener: The speakers in flat-panel TVs are often pathetic. Older adults often experience high-frequency “sensorineural” hearing loss, which further diminishes the clarity of a TV program. Consumer Reports pal James Willcox recommends first trying to notch up the high-frequency audio settings on your TV set, if available, to see if that helps. And if not, invest in a soundbar — an external, amplified speaker that plugs in to the TV and sometimes features special voice enhancing circuitry. I’ve been doing “ears on” testing with two that do.

Camera icon JONATHAN TAKIFF / Staff Photographer
What’s that you say? ZVOX deploys hearing-aid style frequency enhancement to contour the output and make the vocals clearer in its new AccuVoiceAV200 TV speaker.

The ZVOX AccuVoice AV200 TV speaker ($249.98) improves speech intelligibility, with easy to use controls (on the included remote control) that turn on “hearing aid”-style, voice-brightening circuity. Users also can vary bass and treble controls and engage a nighttime listening mode that mildly compresses the loudest and quietest portions of a soundtrack. This versatile system doesn’t take up much room and connects to your TV via optical, analog, or headphone jack with supplied cables.

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Packing ten speakers (six mid-range, three tweeters and one downfire woofer) with an equal number of Class-D digital amps, the new Sonos Playbase turned this mild-mannered 32-inch Vizio TV into a monster.

For a better home theater-ish experience, though, the brand new Sonos Playbase (designed to sit under a 77-pound max TV) or the older Sonos Playbar (which plops in front or below the set) are hipper options at $699 each. Beside voice emphasis and nighttime modes, both offer access to dozens of internet-streaming music services, thousands of streaming stations and podcasts, many of them free, and deliver walloping performance with a quasi-surround impression.

With its bigger woofers, the Playbar offers a warmer, more traditional “console TV” sound, but this 3.35-inch-tall unit may block a little of the screen if your TV has a very low-slung stand. The slim-line (2.28 inches tall), under-set Playbase resolves that problem, cranks a tad brighter (with smaller, fast-action drivers), and kicks plenty of tight bass, especially strong with music and big-budget film scorings. Both models take cues from a terrific app loaded onto a smartphone or tablet, and can recognize volume commands from your TV remote, and network with other Sonos speakers. But be forewarned — the  Sonos pieces connect only to your TV via a fiber-optic cable. If your dark-ages TV lacks an optical "out," you’re out of luck.

Tablet Wars: Entrepreneurs used to promote dumbed-down computers for seniors. More recently, they’ve pushed easy-to-use tablets like the GrandPad, which charges a wacky $65.50-$75 a month to connect with Verizon Wireless service and customer support.

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Mayday, Mayday!: Can't figure out an operation on an Amazon Fire Tablet? Just tap on the help button and summon up a screen-sharing tech support person who'll walk you through the operation.

My advice —  go with an Amazon Fire tablet that connects to your Wi-Fi network. Nicely made and reasonably well featured, Amazon tablets serve as loss leaders (starting at a mere $39.99!) to get folks onto the retailer’s now $99 a year Prime service which comes with two-day shipping of products plus lots of “free” movie and music streaming (another investment in your loyalty and competitors’ demise.)

What really sets me on Fire is the recently added Alexa voice activation, great for calling out news and weather, making shopping lists, and starting music, just like the Amazon Echo and Dot smart speakers.

Better still is the Fire tablet’s integrated technical support. Just tapping the “HELP” icon on a Fire screen rouses “Mayday-powered” customer service — an expert who happily “screen shares” and “copilots” your device — drawing arrows and circles on the screen to show you how something works. Unbarred Genius!

Sleep Ease: The National Sleep Foundation says many people have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep as they age. And it dismisses the misconception that sleep needs decline as we get older. So what’s a body to do?  

Camera icon JONATHAN TAKIFF / Staff Photographer
No drugs, just the medicinal light and soothing sounds of the iHome Zenergy to help you drift into a mellow sleep zone.

You can try a nonchemical solution like the iHome Zenergy iZBT5W — a small, portable sound and light therapy Bluetooth speaker ($69.99 at Bed, Bath & Beyond). Working on the Circadian Rhythms that coordinate the timing of our bodily functions, including sleep, the device’s Color Light Therapy display simulates wavelengths and patterns that either calm the mind and stimulate the production of melatonin (which helps to prep the body for sleep) or inhibit the melatonin to increase morning alertness and energy. (Think orange/red light for for the former, swirling blues  light  for the latter.)

The wedge-shaped rechargeable Zenergy also outputs Sound Therapy loops on request — including digitally recorded storm and rainfall sounds, woodland bird chirps, and a relaxed heart beat — which I found useful for shutting down thoughts and drifting off to dreamland. The speaker likewise plays music wirelessly or wired from a smartphone, tablet, etc. with a 30, 60, and 90 minute switchable auto-cutoff for all.

Camera icon  SNAPFON
The Snapfon ezTWO3G mobile phone is the most affordable with a large dial pad and is hearing aid compatible. 

Gimme a Lifeline: While Consumer Cellular spends more to court seniors, the rival Snapfon seems an even better cellphone deal. For just $29.99 (with service activation), you get a nicely made phone with big buttons and oversized on-screen displays of numbers and letters. The Snapfon ezTWO also boasts enhanced (pumped-up) volume and speakerphone levels, a speaking keypad for entry confirmation, 8 speed-dial keys, an LED flashlight, 4 wailing-alarm modes, and a long-life battery. And it’s compatible with hearing aids (M3/T3). Texting is tedious, though, with old-school, triple-function buttons (tap once for A, twice for B, three times for C).  Runs on 3G, not 4G, on “America’s most reliable nationwide GSM network” — code for AT&T. But wait, there’s more. Damage a Snapfon, and they’ll send another, no questions asked. And if it's desired only for emergencies, try the no-contract $9.95 a month plan — including 60 minutes of chat, with 3 texts equaling 1 minute of talk time and 60 minute refills for $5. An emergency alert monitoring service (sosPlus) activates the Snapfon’s hot button for $15 a month.

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