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Nice starter set with a major flaw in the audio effects system.
on December 14, 2013
There is a ton to like about this train set from the substantial die-cast locomotive model to the remote control system, unfortunately poor execution of the audio electronics is a major negative in this set.
A couple quick observations that have not been mentioned previously - the body of the locomotive is die cast metal, not plastic, as other reviewers have stated. The paint color of the locomotive is a matte gunmetal gray-green which is subtle, not the bright forest green finish implied by the promo pictures. The caboose is no longer illuminated as it was in the 2012 version, the cars are otherwise identical with new paint schemes.
As far as basic operation, the brilliant thing about this set is that even at maximum speed around corners in either direction I could not get the train to derail, nor could my 2, 5 or 6 year old children. I seem to remember frequently derailing my father's O-gauge train sets running on traditional AC transformer controls back in the day so this is probably less likely to prone to damage as a result.
The issue with the tender car & Railsounds RC audio system occur on many levels.
First, the physical connector between the locomotive and tender that carries both power and signals from the Lionchief electronics in the locomotive are integrated into the coupler that is subject to constant mechanical stress and shifting. The wires on the locomotive end are very short and soldered to a small circuit board on a connector that swings around on the coupler arm as the train turns corners. When going around a curve (which on a beginner set oval is a LOT). When the locomotive goes around a corner the wires pull against the solder joint and, in the case of my locomotive, led to a break at the solder joint after about 2 hours of operation. There simply isn't enough slack in the connector and I expect more of these will fail after a few hours of operation. This isn't specific to this model, it's also a complaint that's shown up in the 2013 Polar Express set which shares a common locomotive-tender wiring connection.
While they worked, the audio effects themselves sucked. There are 5 audio effects included; two automatic and three user controlled. The two "automatic" effects are a "standing still" clanging/steaming effect (always on when the track has power and the train is still), and an "in motion" chuff sound that simulates the way a steam locomotive sounds in motion. There are also 3 user initiated effects via buttons on the remote, a bell (terrible fast clanging sound), whistle (only slightly less terrible than the bell, decidedly non steam locomotive sounding) and a completely strange bit of radio dialogue chatter that was lifted off of their modern diesel engine models but is totally out of place in an 1800's steam locomotive. Clearly money was saved by recycling audio samples from other sets rather than developing a decent sounding whistle or sensible dialogue for a steam engine ("All Aboard!" would have been fine on the middle button...). It would be ideal if you could also disable the standing-still sounds (or if they shut themselves off after 60 seconds) because short of powering off the track you cannot silence the train when it's not moving and the track has power, a frequent complaint from the earlier Thomas the Train remote control O-gauge sets with the same audio effect functions.
Regardless of your opinion of how the samples sound, the bigger issue is that the audio system electronics in the loco picking up horrible noise interference from the motor (probably due to the combination of a plastic motor housing and long runs of unshielded wire between the loco/tender through the previously mentioned coupler). When it works there is so much interference that the audio system is pointless anyway... not only does the noise of the train drown it out but at slow speed you hear mostly electronic buzz mixed in with the bad samples they chose to use.
Everything else about the train set is actually really nice and makes it great for a beginner, the complete failure from poor solder joints to noisy electronics playing poor samples in the Railsounds RC system is an unfortunate flaw specific to the Lionel 2013 LionChief steam locomotives with tenders (the Thomas/Percy and diesel locos like the Santa Fe Scout do not have the same issues). If the sound effects are not a huge deal it's an otherwise great starter set.