TECHNOLOGY: IT'S MUSIC TO THEIR EARS

The party started for Candy Williams of Phoenix, Ariz., when she brought home a karaoke machine last year. Now she and her husband croon songs together after dinner--and even yodel, on occasion. Family members come over to sing "White Rabbit" (her mom's greatest hit) and Elvis. Sometimes their jam sessions last for six hours. "We just pass the mike around," says the 32-year-old hospital supervisor. "I can tell you my least favorite song: 'Love Shack.' They scream [it] into your microphone."

These days the spotlight on karaoke keeps getting brighter. U.S. sales of home gadgets at music stores more than doubled from 2000 to 2004, according to NAMM, the International Music Products Association. Now manufacturers are building off the appeal of karaoke bars and "American Idol"--which returned for a fourth season on Fox last week--to peddle the idea that anyone can be a rock star, at least behind closed doors. Their latest plug: new technology that offers more voice enhancements, such as pitch correction, to help people hit those high notes and sound like their favorite stars. They're also pushing new accessories that even "Idol" judge Simon Cowell would appreciate--cameras to film your own music videos or wireless microphones to let you roam around the house. TIP SHEET threw its own karaoke bash to try out the latest models:

Step up to the podium. Karaoke makers are thinking outside the box, trading in their square systems for rectangular podiums and lightweight models. The Singing Machine's STVG-988 ($225; walmart.com) includes a seven-inch monitor that displays song lyrics and an automatic voice control for beginners. Craig's "American Idol" 8251 player ($120; sears.com) comes with two microphones that look like the ones used on the show and an echo feature to give your voice an extra boost. Both include a minicamera--a new accessory on most machines nowadays--so that you can project an image of yourself onto a TV screen. But our testers described the sound quality as "tinny." (You can hook up the system to a TV's speakers, but that can be a pain.) And the bulky machine won't blend in with the rest of your furniture. Simon would say, "You sound better than Ashlee Simpson. But that's not really a compliment, is it?"

Mr. Mike. The next wave in karaoke machines are all-in-one microphones you plug into your television set. The songs are stored on cartridges or can be downloaded, depending on the model. The On-Key Karaoke Pro ($199; onkeykaraoke.com) will correct your pitch and speed up your tunes. It also has a feature that will change the gender of your voice or make it sound like it's from outer space (although our female singer sounded more alien when she tried to use the man's voice). The LeadSinger 3700 ($150; leadsinger.com) doesn't have as many quirky features. But our testers said it sounded a little better. The bottom line is, why lug around a big system when there's a more convenient alternative? Simon would say, "We have our winner."

Pay up. Karaoke buffs who want to put on a real show should look for a more upscale model. VocoPro's new Gig Man ($289; VocoPro.com for store locations) doesn't come with a screen. But once you hook it up to a TV, its 100-watt amplifier and two steel microphones will be the life of any back-yard karaoke party. And you can plug in a guitar or keyboard--to play, and sing, your own music. Simon would say... even he wants to give it a try.

Join the Discussion