LISTEN: Audio-related gift ideas for 2012

Speakers and headphones that will make your ears happy

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If you're a fan of music, or have someone on your gift list who is still using the Apple headphones provided by them, you'll want to consider some of these items from our 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide.

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

Note: Products listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's web site or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

CoolStream Bluetooth receiver

CoolStream Bluetooth Receiver

$40

This tiny device attaches to any existing speaker/docking system for the iPod, iPhone or iPad (using Apple's old Universal Docking Connector, not the new one introduced by the iPhone 5), and allows Bluetooth wireless connectivity from your iOS device to the speakers. The device is very easy to set up (provided you know how to pair via Bluetooth), and works reasonably well (at times the connection drops, but you can quickly get it back).

The main benefit is that you can now hold your iOS device in your hand and stream the music to the speakers, rather than keeping it connected to the dock. This is particularly handy if you want to skip a song, for example.

For iPhone 5 owners who don't want to wait for an official adapter from Apple, this can let them stream their music from their new phone wirelessly, and not have to ditch their existing (and sometimes expensive) speaker/docking station.

- Keith Shaw

Libratone Zipp speaker family

Libratone Zipp Wireless AirPlay Speaker

$450

As the music world changed from physical media (records, cassette tapes, CDs) to digital format, and as music players shrunk into a very mobile world (iPods, iPhones, iPads, etc.), finding ways to play the music for multiple people became increasingly difficult. At first, we saw cables and connectors that aimed to take the music from the portable player to existing home stereo systems (these, obviously, still exist, for people with home stereo systems).

Then came portable speaker systems, and we've seen several come and go - some are good, some not so good, but they all did a good job of letting users take the music from their device and play it in a big room, for parties, etc.

We're now in a world where the music can be delivered without cables or direct connection - users can wirelessly stream the music from their player to the speaker in question. The Libratone Zipp is one such device. It utilizes Apple's AirPlay functionality (for iOS-based devices) - for two devices on the same internal Wi-Fi network (in this case, the player and the speaker), a user just needs to tap their AirPlay icon and pick the speaker's name to stream the music. For users who might not have access to a Wi-Fi network, you can use the system's PlayDirect mode - in this case, you can still wirelessly stream music stored on the iOS device to the Zipp. This also covers the audio track for movies - if you want to play a movie on your iOS device, but hear it through better speakers, AirPlay works great.

The Zipp speaker itself is a cylinder that includes three speaker covers made from Italian wool - you can unzip the wool cover quite easily and replace it with a different color. You can also buy different colors through Libratone's website. You can keep the Zipp connected to its power adapter, or use with its internal rechargeable battery, which Libratone says offers up to 8 hours of life. The cylindrical nature of the Zipp speaker means 360-degrees of sound coverage - you can place this in the middle of a room and everyone can hear the music clearly - no need to have to place the speaker in a corner or have people behind the speaker rely on the music bouncing off the wall.

For owners of non-iOS devices (such as an Android phone or Windows phone or older MP3 player), the Zipp includes an AUX audio port (but not a cable), and you can also stream music directly via a USB cable (again, not included).

One small nitpick, which is more the fault of Apple than Libratone. When using PlayDirect mode (wirelessly streaming without a Wi-Fi network), accessing Internet streaming music services like Pandora or Spotify require some additional tinkering. Libratone has a workaround in which you need to change the device's static IP address to enable this, but this also means that you have to stream the music over your 3G or 4G service, potentially causing data overage charges. If you do want to play music from those services, I'd suggest doing this only in the Wi-Fi (not PlayDirect) mode.

At $450, this might be out of the price range for several people - I'd suggest this as a gift option for someone who might not already own a speaker system (home or portable), rather than someone just looking for a way to wirelessly transmit music.

- Keith Shaw

Libratone Zipp speaker family

Jabra Solemate

$200

For most of us, trying to decide on what portable speakers to purchase can be overwhelming. Should we get a docking station so the device can charge while playing? Do we want a remote control so we don't have to get up every time we want to change a song and/or a playlist? Or do we get a Bluetooth system so we can use our smartphone or tablet as a remote? Once those questions are answered, there's the issue of size, portability and cost.

There are many Bluetooth speakers on the market, ranging from $50 to over $500, but at $199, you can't go wrong with the Jabra Solemate. Don't let the size deceive you, the sound produced was incredibly rich, even at the higher volume levels, and the Bluetooth range was excellent. The Solemate has a solid design, starting with a treaded rubber base that not only prevents the unit from sliding all over your countertops, but also acts as a vibration dampener, improving the sound quality. The unit also has a convenient "handle" that lets you carry it around, and it also comes with a splash-resistant bag if you want to take this outdoors or to the beach.

If you hate reading instructions and don't feel like spending hours to get to know your new device, say hello to the Solemate. Setting this up is as easy as it gets: Just slide off the protective plastic cover, press the center button on top of the device, and it literally speaks to you to tell you how much battery life it has. The volume controls are also on top, making the unit so easy to use - my 7-year-old enjoyed listening to her iPod with the Solemate. The side of the unit features the power button, an auxiliary port for music players that don't support Bluetooth, and a USB port for charging the Solemate's battery.

- Brian Hawthorne

Monster Inspiration headphones

$300

These high-end headphones could give Beats a run for its money - the noise-canceling headphones fit over-the-head to produce high quality sound for your movie-watching or music-listening pleasure.

Monster Inspiration headphones

The system comes with three different cables - one of them connects to a music player - the other two cables include ControlTalk - which includes a microphone that lets you pause music and take a phone call (if you're using them with a smartphone).

Personalization features include a removable headband that you can replace with another style - the company sells many different color and style choices (for about $25 each) to help you create your own look. The foldable headphones also come with a very nice carrying case, making this a nice set to bring along with you on your next trip (and the noise-canceling feature, powered by two AAA batteries, can help drown out the jet engines on your flight).

The earbuds are comfortable enough to wear for many hours, but not the most comfortable I've ever worn - they seemed a bit tight, but I figured that would loosen up with more wear and tear.

In my tests the sound quality from the headphones was fantastic, and the noise-cancelation features stupendous (especially when I can drown out the sounds of my kids running and screaming through the house). If you're looking for a pair of high-end headphones for a holiday gift, make sure these are on your short list.

- Keith Shaw

Eton Rukus Solar sound system

$150

One thing we can say for certain about the Rukus solar-powered sound system is that it works as advertised. (One thing to make clear - this product is made by a company called Eton, and it is not related to Ruckus, which makes wireless gear.)

Eton Rukus solar speaker

The sound system is relatively light (4 pounds), thin, black with a handle to ostensibly carry it to the beach or whatever outdoor, sunny location that you'd like to bring your music. There is a little pouch in the back where you can slip in your iPhone or other Bluetooth-enabled music source. To get Rukus up and running, you charge it via traditional USB, turn on your Bluetooth-enabled music source and Rukus syncs with your device and serves as a speaker system. And there's a solar panel on the front of the device, which keeps it charged.

We just happened to be painting the house while testing the device and used it on multiple days for long periods of time in varying degrees of sun and clouds, and it never ran out of power. So, we're using some cool technologies - Bluetooth, solar panels - but what exactly are we getting for $150? Here are some shortcomings of the Rukus: It has no ability to store music, and it's not a radio, it's simply a speaker system. You can take it to the beach and play music off your smartphone, but then you're running down your phone's battery. And as a speaker system, the sound is nothing to write home about.

- Neal Weinberg

Grace Digital EcoTerra ruggedized, waterproof boombox

$150

Yes, the boombox is back. The question is why? Audio specialist Grace Digital has come up with a boombox that's ruggedized and waterproof. The orange and black device has speakers on the left and right, with a rectangular space in the middle where you mount your music source (iPod, iPhone, Android phone) in a waterproof plastic case. Your music source plugs into the device and then you snap the lid shut with two large clips. A variety of push-button controls sit on the top of the device, allowing you to set the volume and move the songs along.

Grace Digital Eco Terra

We tried the EcoTerra and it worked as advertised, although I wasn't going to drop my iPhone into water to test the waterproof capabilities of the EcoTerra. The EcoTerra has those carabiner clips and a shoulder strap in case you want to listen to music while conquering Mt. Everest, although I would probably choose my iPod.

As a gift for the mountain climber who has everything or for someone who likes to listen to music while floating in the pool, EcoTerra could be just the thing. On the other hand, for me, it falls into that category of a product in search of a reason to exist. Just to make this clear - this is not a radio, it does not store music, it's just a set of speakers. You have to provide the music source, so now you're dealing with two devices just in order to hear your music.

- Neal Weinberg

HMDX Jam wireless speakers

HMDX Jam Wireless Speaker

$50

The HMDX Jam wireless speaker is a decent option for wireless audio playback, which, in an increasingly mobile world, is in much need of improvement.

There aren't very many affordable and effective options for speakers that play music stored on smartphones and MP3 players. Because of this, the Jam's Bluetooth playback feature is its strongest selling point. In my tests with the native iTunes app on an iPhone 4S, music was played through the speaker within minutes. Even users without much experience of using the Bluetooth function on a smartphone or laptop won't have much of a problem figuring it out.

The main tradeoff of the device is in sound quality. While the music was definitely louder than what you get on a standard laptop speaker, the sound quality fell short of traditional PC speakers enough to bother music nerds. That being said, it's a great option for listening to podcasts, audio books or other spoken-word audio file stored on a mobile device.

The Jam speaker could be a good fit in places where music or audio would fit in but doesn't necessarily need to be too loud, such as a workshop or a day care. It also comes with a USB converter for recharging the device when it gets low on power, meaning users won't need to keep buying batteries for it. The speaker can play three hours of audio before it needs to be recharged.

For those who wouldn't nitpick about audio playback - that includes most people - the convenience and price makes it a great gift.

- Colin Neagle

Marware UpSurge Mini Speaker

$30

The Marware UpSurge Mini Speaker actually is more than meets the eye. The 2-inch by 2-inch cylinder fits in the palm of your hand, and plays music back in that form factor. However, a slight twist of the top half of the device - identifiable at a discrete seam just above the logo - expands the speaker. The result is a 2.5-inch tall speaker that resembles a tiny, upright-standing accordion and packs an impressive punch.

Marware UpSurge speakers

The volume can only be adjusted on the source device, but when it is the UpSurge amplifies it well. Extending the speaker allows it to amplify bass and vibrate independently, eliminating the disruptive buzz common when other bass-heavy speakers sit on a table or desk.

Although the 3.5-mm headphone jack makes it compatible with nearly any device that may play music, the UpSurge lacks the convenience of fully wireless access. However, the 3.5-mm cord provided is the only one needed for playback; the built-in Lithium-ion battery is rechargeable, and comes with a DC-5V-to-USB cord so it can be plugged into a laptop when it needs to be recharged. On a full charge, the UpSurge can play up to four hours of audio at 70% volume.

As a compact speaker, the UpSurge may be best suited for laptop-wielding college students, although given how loud it can get, their neighbors might not appreciate it.

- Colin Neagle

Marshall Headphones Minor

$60

The first moment I laid eyes on these, I thought it was some kind of joke: there was no way these "Minor" headphones would fit in my normal, human-sized ears. Maybe the ears of a giraffe - maybe - but not me.

Marshall Headphones Minor earbuds

And yet here I sit, typing a review while using them to listen to Radical Face's "Welcome Home, Son" and being highly impressed with how they feel in my ears, to say nothing of the high audio quality produced by the Minor headphones.

They're intense looking, and I would be surprised if you didn't react in a similar fashion upon opening the box. But they work, and they work well. The Minor headphones produce excellent sound, and possibly a consequence of their monstrous size, they do a pretty good job blocking out ambient noise. They're surprisingly comfortable for such large earbud style headphones, but they can get uncomfortable if you leave them on too long.

They're also very well made, with high quality metals and plastics. The cord itself is made of the increasingly popular "rope" material, which is tougher and harder to tangle than traditional plastic cords.

The Minors come with additional ear pads of varying sizes, allowing a user to customize the pads to their ear size (medium are mounted in the box). I'm about average height and found the medium worked well for me. Because they're so well made, these Minor headphones by Marshall are highly recommended for the audiophile/mass transit commuter in your life.

- Dan Hunt

V-Moda Faders VIP earplugs

$20

These earplugs are advertised as being outstanding at blocking out noise for racing, musicians, clubs, concerts and other loud events. Being unable to get to one of those, I tested these earplugs with two other happenings - mowing my lawn and going to a firing range.

V-moda Faders VIP

The great thing about these plugs is that they do a great job transmitting noise you do want to hear: voices, music, etc. But they do a great job blocking out noises that could actually damage your ears. I discovered this firsthand when I took them to a shooting range with a group of friends. Several questioned how well they would work, and I was indeed a little worried when I saw the heavy duty plugs everyone else was using - but I'm happy to report the Faders VIP did a great job! They also worked very well mowing the lawn. All in all, they're highly recommended because they're discreet, affordable, and look better than most of the competition.

If you're concerned about protecting your ears at any loud event or occasion, check them out. They make a great stocking stuffer!

- Dan Hunt

PURE Contour 200i Air

$230 to $280

The Contour 200i Air is a wireless speaker system that lets you stream audio content from a mobile device (including a notebook, iPod, iPhone, Android or iPad) to the speakers. It supports Apple's wireless streaming technology, AirPlay, as well as its own technology (Pure Stream) if you want to stream Internet radio or other music via the company's Pure Connect app (for Android or iOS devices). It also includes a dock for the iPod, iPad or iPhone that can recharge your unit (at least the older models with the Universal Dock, not the Lightning adapter models).

PURE Contour 200i Air

The ability to send something from your portable devices or computers in an instant to an audio system makes this system a hit. For example, in my case I could leave this in my baby's room at night and wirelessly send a lullaby to her, without disturbing her more if she stirs a little bit.

Setup was incredibly easy - in my case I plugged an iPhone into the dock and pressed the Wi-Fi setup button in the back of the Contour Air unit. A message window popped up on the phone, asking me if I wanted to share my network settings with the Contour 200i Air. After choosing yes, the settings transferred.

I did have one issue - my 802.11n network is set up to only allow 802.11n devices - I had to change this to a mixed network on the router in order to connect the Contour 200i Air. This likely won't be an issue for most people, but we're mentioning this because we didn't see any documentation about this from PURE. If you don't want to change a wireless-n network to allow for mixed networks, the system does have an Ethernet port.

Once connected, the system worked great. I queued up a playlist from the iPad, chose the 200i from a list of AirPlay devices, and hit the Play button. The sound is room-filling and clean at most volumes. It's also very easy to control the volume via the iPhone or iPad.

I was also impressed with the unit's design. All of the control buttons are flush with the curve of the speakers. If you aren't specifically looking for a button, you might not even see them. The unit is compact and looks great sitting on a shelf or a bookcase. Even the dock doesn't look out of place, whether there's a device docked or if it's empty.

While the sound was good, it wasn't "audiophile great". For the price ($230 to $280), you might be expecting better speakers. A good part of the price is the addition of AirPlay support. If you're looking for higher-end speakers and AirPlay support, it will cost you a lot more money. If you have an audiophile on your list, you might want to consider other systems, but for the majority of us, if you're looking for a nice wireless speaker system that is very easy to set up, the Contour 200i Air should be on the short list.

- Tom Lupien

Nuforce AirDAC iWireless Adapter

$199.99 (list; other non-Apple versions available)

With the wild (and wide) popularity of wireless media player technologies, such as Apple's AirPlay, it's no surprise that products like nuforce's AirDAC are attracting significant interest - and positive reviews from the home entertainment community. Think of AirDAC as an AirPlay alternative. The version I tested includes a receiver with stereo RCA output jacks, and a tiny 30-pin wireless transmitter that plugs into any Apple product similarly equipped.

NuForce Air DAC

I used a lowly iPad 1 for this test, and setup is literally plug-and-play. Plug the little wireless adapter into the iPad, and the also rather-petite receiver into your home entertainment or similar system. Then press play on iTunes - that's it!

The AirDAC has been praised for excellent sound quality, and I can attest to that - a lovely acoustic guitar piece from Al Petteway positively resonated, and audiophiles will rejoice at both the convenience and the sound. In addition, up to four AirDAC receivers can simultaneously receive audio, making whole-house audio easy - provided you don't exceed the wireless range. This depends on absolute distance between the endpoints as well as your building's construction particularities.

While AirPlay may be more than adequate for many, the AirDAC will thrill those looking for the ultimate in sound quality without compromising the convenience of wireless. A USB adapter for the transmitter is also included, just in case you're not an iOS user.

- Craig Mathias

Braven 600 wireless speaker

Braven 600 Wireless Bluetooth Speaker

$150

I had low expectations for this speaker, as it took more than 15 minutes to just get it out of the box. The package is very artistic, but perhaps not constructed the way designers had in mind.

Once I got beyond that, the speaker was very easy to use, including connecting it to my phone via Bluetooth. After the connection was set up, I could rock out with this tiny speaker to Spotify and Pandora (as well as other music services). The speaker also has an AUX input jack, and could easily plug in to an iPod or computer.

The sound quality is unexpectedly terrific, considering the Braven 600 is only about 6 inches by 2 inches by 2 inches. It could fit in so many places! I appreciate that the speaker is a little rectangle. Unlike many other speakers, which focus on an eye-catching design and may have odd proportions, this speaker looks nice and functionally fits practically anywhere.

The Braven 600 can also be used for making and answering phone calls. The built-in microphone pauses your music and rings when a call comes in. It was a bit tricky and took some trial and error, but I probably should have read the online owners manual. The microphone on the Braven 600 also lets you use this for Skype calls if you want.

The size of the speaker would let you travel with it quite nicely, as you can fit it into small spaces, or just use on your desk. My only complaint is it might not be the easiest setup in the world for technophobes. But the price makes it a great gift for a wide variety of people.

- Jen Finn

iHome IP4GZ

$230

I think the majority of the pleasure that I derived from this speaker unit is from the appearance before even taking it out of the box. I got such a giggle out of the fact that it's built to look like a 1980s boom box. I was a little disappointed on the visuals once I got it out of the box though. This "boom box" is the most utilitarian, matte grey. I'd actually go so far as to say it's visually boring, but maybe it's just begging to be decorated and personalized with stickers.

iHome IP4gzc speakers

After getting it out of the box, and moving beyond the design, it's a pretty average speaker. The sound quality is pretty standard, although the bass boost leaves something to be desired.

Considering the size, I was expecting some serious sound quality, but it's really on the same level as the smaller systems, such as the Braven 600. It is about the size of an old boom box and for such average sound, I don't know if I would buy something that isn't easily portable. However, I never blasted the volume. It might be ideal for a Kid-and-Play style house party.

As for the speakers, it features two 4-inch woofers and two 1-inch tweeters. It also weighs about 12 pounds. Just like many other speaker systems on the market, it fits iPods, iTouches, and iPhones. Plus it has an AUX input jack for other options. It plays FM radio and the iHome Radio app for a thousands of Internet stations. It can be plugged into the wall or will run off six D batteries. It does come with a remote control, which is something I really appreciate for units that are most likely going to stay in one place.

I'm sure this has a market ('80s/'90s nostalgia?) and someone will absolutely love it. I'm just not sure that person is more likely to be a Gen X-er who appreciates the visual reference, or if it will be a modern Hipster who can't wait to personalize the body to the nth degree. The radio feature makes this product stand out to me, but the sound quality is only average. 

- Jen Finn

Jawbone Big Jambox

Jawbone Big Jambox

$292.87 (Amazon)

This is a pretty cool device given its portability and functionality, not only as a portable speaker system but also a speaker phone. This would be a great gift for people with music on their smartphones, tablets or iPods who want to play music for a roomful of people or outdoors. The speakerphone is fun but of lower quality than an actual speakerphone.

What it really is is a pair of portable speakers packaged in a crisp rectangular package measuring 10 x 3 x 3 ¾ inches that can play audio from Bluetooth devices. Set up is easy. Press the pairing-mode button, have a Bluetooth device search for it and when it appears, connect them. That's it.

Connected wirelessly to an iPad, it played an album (Meatloaf, Bat Out of Hell) from across the house. The sound was clean, but as you might expect from a device this size, a little anemic on bass. Buttons on the top of the device allow play/pause, jumping forward and back from cut to cut and turning the volume up and down. A sixth button is designated for voice and turns the speaker phone on and off.

Setup for speaker phone is similar to set up for the iPad: Press the pairing mode button on the side and when Jambox appears on the phone's Bluetooth connection screen, choose it.

When the phone receives a call, the recipient can pick it up by hitting the Talk button. The caller's voice comes through the Jambox. The voice quality is a little muffled and the cell phone to Bluetooth to Jambox relay introduces noticeable delay.

Apparently the microphone on the device is very sensitive. After connecting Jambox to an Android phone, the device was charged, turned on and placed in its original box in the backseat of a car when the cell phone it was connected to rang. Answering the cell phone set up Jambox as a speaker phone. Initially the caller couldn't make out what was being said, but speaking loudly - not quite shouting - made for a usable connection. The caller's voice managed to make its way through the packaging and could be heard over road noise. It's not a very practical use case, but it was interesting.

- Tim Greene

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