Gift Guide 2013: Audio gadgets

Gift Guide 2013: Audio gadgets

Music drives a lot of what we get out of our technology devices - if you can't hear the music from your device, or share it with others, it's just a bunch of ones and zeros sitting on a magnetic hard drive.

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS:See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

Get more from the music you are listening to on your mobile devices with some of these suggestions. They all make for great gifts for any music or video lover on your holiday list.

Product: M500 Hi-Fi HeadphonesCompany: KEFPrice: $300Buy this if: You want a high-quality pair of portable headphones that aren't endorsed by a rapper.

British speaker company KEF has been around for more than 50 years, providing customers with loudspeakers, home theater systems and other high-quality entertainment gear. The latest headphone offering from the company is the very nice M500 Hi-Fi headphone, which provides awesome sound for a wide variety of music, movies and other audio entertainment purposes. The light and refreshingly comfortable headphones are small enough to fit into a travel bag (the handy carrying case is always appreciated), which should make the decision to bring them along on your next trip easier to make (I can't imagine people bringing along their bulkier Beats headphones).

While I'm not a true audiophile as the likely market for these headphones, I did appreciate the higher quality sound I got from these headphones compared with using earbuds or other inexpensive versions (if you want the technical specs of the headphones, visit their Web site, where you can learn all about the neodymium drivers, apetures in tuning plates and copper-clad aluminum wire voice coils).

While I appreciated how the music sounded, more important to me is how the headphones feel. The lightweight ear pads never felt too heavy on my ears, so I wasn't uncomfortable after listening to an album or watching a movie for a few hours. I wouldn't go so far as to say that you could fall asleep with these on (you would definitely want to take them off before snoozing), they were comfortable enough where you didn't feel the need to take them off immediately to rest your ears.

The M500 features a "Smart Hinge" that helps the headphones "automatically conform to the shape of your head", which helps create a comfortable fit (it's never too tight or too loose). The hinge also helps collapse the headset for storage/transport. My only concern was that this hinge could potentially break off the earpads from the frame of the M500, but so far it hasn't happened yet (I was also concerned that the sharper corners of where the hinge is located could hurt me, but again, I've been careful).

In addition to the carrying case, the M500 headphones come with a flat-cable with volume control and microphone (if you want to use these while talking on the phone), flight adapter and a 6.3mm converter. It's a great package and would make for a terrific holiday gift for the audio lover on your list.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw


Product: Kransen earbudsCompany: UrbanearsPrice: $40Buy this if: You want a wired in-ear headphone that will still feel comfortable for long periods of wear.

The Scandinavian-based Urbanears makes some fantastic headphones -- we always enjoy seeing what this company comes out with each year. I was very impressed with this set of in-ear headphones -- it provides great sounding audio (including bass), with a design aimed at keeping the earbuds in your ears without making them sore after you wear them for long periods.

The Kransen earbuds have a unique feature for those times when they're not in your ears -- a snap construction system where one earbud can snap into the other one (imagine like you were connecting two Lego pieces), and the combined set could be connected behind your ears, creating a mini-necklace. Neat! The Kransen earbuds also offer a patented Cable Loop system where the headphone jack can loop around and fit into a small rubber hole, allowing you to wrap your cable so it doesn't get tangled, but in practice this was too difficult to manage correctly, and the tangled cable thing doesn't really bother me as much as it does others.

Most important to me, especially with earbuds, is a comfortable set that can also produce great sound. On both fronts, Urbanears succeeds here with its Kransen models. In addition, if you don't like black, you can pick from a wide variety of other colors.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw


Product: CoolStream Portable Bluetooth SpeakerCompany: Exeter Science & EntertainmentPrice: $60Buy this for: Any mobile device user who wants to boost the audio for music, movies, etc., for sharing in any environment (outside, on the road, etc.), without the extra need for cables.

I can't say enough about the high quality of products from Exeter Science & Entertainment, makers of the CoolStream brand of products. Their Portable Bluetooth Speaker delivers very good audio streaming for mobile devices such as an iPhone or iPad, boosting the volume for sharing things like music and/or movies with more than one person.

In addition to streaming via Bluetooth, the speaker can play music from an SD memory card or attached USB flash drive, and it also comes with an audio cable/jack for directly attaching a device to it. Buttons on the device allow you to skip ahead in songs, pause the action or even use it as a portable speakerphone in a conference room. At $60, this is a steal compared with similar portable Bluetooth devices.

My one complaint is that it doesn't come with a plug-in power adapter -- you have to recharge the unit via an included USB cable, attaching it to a computer system.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw


Product: Ear Force i30 Mobile Media HeadsetCompany: Turtle BeachPrice: $300Buy it for: Any mobile device power user who wants to get better sound from their phone, tablet or even PC without having to use wires.

Turtle Beach has been in the headphone/headset market for a long time, but they've always targeted the power gamer market (think hardcore Xbox, PS3 or PC gamers). With the Ear Force i30 (and i60) models, the company is expanding into markets for people who want the same high quality headsets, but for listening to music or watching videos via their mobile phones or tablets.

The company refers to the i30 as a "mobile media heasdset", providing great sound for using on those mobile devices, via a Bluetooth wireless connection. In addition to listening to audio, the headset includes a microphone for answering phone calls (there's no headset boom mic like you'd find on a gamer headset), and noise-cancellation features to help drown out unwanted noise from the rest of your family (or if you want to use these on the airplane). In my tests, sound quality was great, even via a Bluetooth wireless connection (which tends to compress audio for wireless delivery). The unit comes with a recharging cable (connect to a powered USB port), as well as a wired audio cable if you have any issues with the wireless connection for any reason.

At $300, these are geared for serious mobile device owners (let's say someone who really loves playing hardcore mobile games, not just Angry Birds) who expect to use the headphones in a lot of different locations.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw


Product: Epishock portable vibration speakerCompany: OrigAudioPrice: $45Buy this for: Someone who wants a very small and portable speaker for their phone, tablet or other mobile device with the capability of placing it on a very flat surface.

A few years ago, OrigAudio sent us their Rock-It device, which can turn any object into a speaker by attaching a pad to it. The Rock-It is now on its third version, but OrigAudio wanted to send us a new device called the Epishock, which it claims is 10 times more powerful than the Rock-It. In this case, the Epishock is its own speaker - you don't have to attach a pad to a box, plastic cup or window - you just need to place it on a flat surface. The vibration technology then helps amplify the sound, creating a boosted sound for your music. The larger the flat surface, the better - we found it worked great on our desks more so than on a box or smaller flat area. You can connect the Epishock to any device with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

The EpiShock's battery can be recharged via a provided USB cable, and it also comes with an additional audio cable and "BuddyJack", which lets you daisy chain Epishock speakers together to create even larger boosted sound. The device also comes in a nice package - an old-school metal lunch box houses the speaker and its cables.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw


Product: Solus headphonesCompany: Wicked AudioPrice: Between $50 and $60Buy this if: You don't want to splurge on a pair of high-end headphones but still give them a good pair of over-the-ear headphones.

The Wicked Audio brand of audio products (earbuds, on-ear and over-the-ear headphones) seems to appeal to a mid-range market - they're not as high-end as headphones like Beats and Bose, but still not as inexpensive as the low-end market. The Solus over-the-ear headphones provide decent sound for the price (as long as you're paying between $50 and $60, I'd avoid the MSRP of $120). The headphones feature a 40mm driver, 105 dB sensitivity, and a 20-20,000 Hz frequency. The 4-foot braided cord helps prevent tangling when you pack it inside your laptop bag, and a nice volume control sits on the cord, letting you adjust volume but also to switch between mono and stereo sound (mono for listening to podcasts?).

Comfort was OK, I expected more comfort from an over-the-ear style than an on-ear, but it still felt tight on my head after wearing these for extended periods. Again, if you can find these at a mid-range price, it might make a good gift for a young niece or nephew who might not yet be worthy enough for a high-end pair of headphones.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw


Product: Minx GoCompany: Cambridge AudioPrice: $150Buy this if: You're looking for excellent sound in a trim, stylish package.

I've tested a bunch of Bluetooth-enabled wireless music systems over the years, and the Minx Go from Cambridge Audio is the best. At 9.3 inches wide, 4.8 inches tall, 2.4 inches deep and only 2.4 pounds, this is a device that you can literally carry around in the palm of your hand. Just charge it up (two hours of charging gives you 18 hours of play time), double-click the power button on top of the device and point your smartphone's Bluetooth to the Minx Go.

The only other controls are volume up and volume down buttons on either side of the power button. With two woofers, two tweeters and a rear-firing bass radiator, the sound is pretty powerful. There's also a USB port, so you can charge other devices from the Minx Go. And there's a little kickstand that comes out from the back -- the Minx Go stands up vertically without it, but the kickstand provides a little extra stability in case the device gets bumped into by accident.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg


Product name: vQuietCompany: VelodynePrice: $300Buy this if: You fly a lot.

My first introduction to noise-cancelling technology was several years ago when I was working at a newspaper right next door to the Bose Corp. At one of their demos, they put me in a small room, turned on some music and then put their noise-cancelling headset on me. It was quite stunning to hear the sound just disappear. At the time, I think the technology was aimed mostly at airline pilots, but today you can't get on a plane without seeing a good percentage of passengers wearing noise-cancelling headphones, primarily made by Bose.

Velodyne, another company with roots in the noise amplification business, is getting into the game with a $300 noise-cancelling headset called the vQuiet. These headphones hit all the marks -- they're comfortable, they look great, they blocked 90% of outside noise and the sound they deliver is excellent. Plus, the piece that goes over your head folds up for easy packing. The only question would be whether you travel enough to make that $300 investment worthwhile.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg


Product: G-Boom wireless boom boxCompany: G-ProjectPrice: $100Buy this for: The music enthusiast looking for a powerful boom box that streams audio wirelessly via Bluetooth.

The G-Boom is today's answer to the old boom box from the 1980s. It's a rugged, powerful, black speaker system that tries to take on a bad attitude. The marketing materials say "G-BOOM plays loud with bass that carries. Enjoy with friends, family and even neighbors (whether they like it or not.)''

The device delivers as advertised. Perform an initial charge, connect via Bluetooth and the G-Boom delivers booming audio for up to five hours. The top of the boom box has controls that allow you to play, pause and skip songs, as well as control volume.  The device itself is pretty compact -- 10.2 inches high, 11.8 inches wide and 4.9 inches wide. There's a solid sturdy handle for carrying the G-Boom around, and for $100, this device is a bargain.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg

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