Portable Entertainment Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

Presenting the gems in portable entertainment.

In the category of portable entertainment, what once was filled with different portable music players has been replaced instead by accessories that go along with the iPod, iPhone or other smartphone device that can play music. Listening to music is no longer dedicated to a single device, but part of a comprehensive device. Instead, our portable entertainment category features a variety of cool earphones and speaker systems that you can take along with you when you travel or go running.

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this category

Jambox Bluetooth speakers, by Jawbone

Zipbuds earphones, by Digital Group Audio

People Get Ready earphones, by The House of Marley

True Fidelity Sound Isolation Sport Earphones, by Able Planet

Rock-IT 2.0 portable vibration speaker, by OrigAudio

EP-100 earphones, by dBLogic (division of Harman)

People Get Ready headphones – Redemption Song version, by The House of Marley

Sansa Clip Zip MP3 player, by SanDisk

MusiCALL stereo bluetooth headset, by Bluetrek

Legion ear buds, by iFrogz

Foxl personal audiophile loudspeaker, by Soundmatters

The reviews

Jambox Bluetooth speaker, by JawboneThe Jambox is a very stylish and small Bluetooth speaker shaped like a small brick, but light enough to travel with, yet powerful enough to produce fantastic sound from your portable music player or smartphone (up to 85 decibels of sound). The speakers also produce 360-degrees of sound, so you can place it in the middle of a room and people in front, to the sides or behind the speaker will be able to hear the sound. In addition to producing music for your smartphone or music player, the Jambox works with apps on the device, and can also produce sound from apps on your tablet, so you can get better sound when playing games or watching movies, for example.

The Jambox also doubles as a Bluetooth speaker phone – if you’re listening to music and a call comes in, the device pauses the audio and turns into the speaker phone. The 360-degree speakers then make it very optimal for a conference room situation where everyone around the conference table can hear the caller.

Buttons on the Jambox are simple, on the top of the unit there are two volume buttons (plus and minus), and a circular talk button that also wakes up the device for pairing with your Bluetooth phone or music player. On one side of the Jambox is the on/off and pairing switch (the on/off switch is good for saving battery life), a 3.5mm audio input for connecting an audio player directly, and a Micro USB charging port. I particularly liked how Jawbone gives you everything in the box, including two different charging cable lengths, the audio cable, a power outlet charger and a carrying case for the Jambox. It comes in a choice of four cool colors (red dot, black diamond, blue wave or grey hex).

One additional nice touch – the Jambox has an internal voice that tells you whether it’s in pairing mode, when the device is connected, and how much battery life the device has left. This definitely makes the pairing process much easier than without a voice.

If you have a gift recipient who wants a dual device that can act as a music speaker and speakerphone for their smartphone, tablet or other Bluetooth-enabled device, the Jambox is a stylish, yet very functional speaker system that will impress them.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $200

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Zipbuds earphones, by Digital Group AudioThese earbuds have a unique design and concept that help eliminate the problem of tangled cords for earbud owners. The majority of the cables are formed out of an integrated plastic zipper, which is extremely resistant to tangles compared to other earphone cabling. The earbuds themselves fit inside your ears, providing a noise-cancellation effect when listening to music, and the earphones come with three different ear tips to let you try to find a perfect fit, which should improve comfort (larger earbud tips tend to hurt my ears). The sound quality of the earphones was good, I didn’t notice any particular bad sound when trying these out with my iPhone.

The Zipbuds come in different colors (blue, black, pink and combinations of those three colors) – for some reason we were sent a purple version but we couldn’t find that for sale on the web site (maybe we’re special).

If you know someone on your list who is always trying to untangle their earbud cables, the Zipbuds can eliminate that frustration.

Cool Yule rating 3 stars

Price: $39.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

People Get Ready earphones, by The House of MarleyIf you’re a fan of the late Bob Marley, you’ll be very impressed by The House of Marley offerings, which offer Marley-themed products like headphones, earphones and speaker docks for fans. The company is also offering eco-friendly products, many of the devices are created from sustainable, renewable or recyclable products (including the packaging).

The People Get Ready earphones are part of the company’s Jamming collection, “where fun meets form and function.” Created out of eco-friendly material and recycled plastics, the in-ear headphones provide for deep bass (20 Hz to 20+kHz), a 10mm driver and 160 ohms impedance. The earbuds come with small, medium or large silicone ear tips that let you find the most comfortable tip (unfortunately, the samples we received only came with one size). A 52-inch fabric cord aims to help reduce tangle issues, but we found we were able to get these tangled quite easily. On the other hand, it was a very colorful, Jamaican-flag themed color. Speaking of colors, you can choose from three colors here – we had the Midnight pair, but you can also get royal (purple tips), roots (pistachio), and Rasta (chocolate). The brown wood-style on the outside of the earbuds was attractive.

These would be a great fit for any Marley- or eco-conscious music lover on your gift list, as long as they don’t mind wearing in-ear earbuds.

Cool Yule rating 4 stars

Price: $39.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

True Fidelity Sound Isolation Sport Earphones, by Able PlanetThese in-ear headphones are designed for the sporting person on your holiday gift list, since the addition of an over-the-ear flexible loop will help prevent the earphones from falling out when they’re running or exercising. But they also include Able Planet’s LINX Audio technology, which provides “full sound at safer lower levels”, to help protect the user’s ears a bit. In addition, the earphones feature “sound isolation tips” that block exterior sound for when a user is listening to their music or talking on the phone.

When connected to a phone, the headphones include a microphone on the earphone cable, allowing a user to take an incoming call. Sound quality is very good, and with the sound isolation it helps you hear your caller a lot better than when you’re holding the phone up to your ear or using a Bluetooth headset. However, I wouldn’t recommend wearing these when driving, so you’ll still need a hands-free headset for those calls.

Sound quality was as good as I expected – I couldn’t necessarily hear any “sound softening” that might protect my ears, but it wasn’t so bad in that I needed to turn up the volume to negate any such effect. Other neat features – the button on the microphone that lets you answer and hang up calls could also be used to pause music, advance to the next song (double-click) or go back to the previous song (triple-click). The package also comes with a carrying case and three earbud sizes that let you find a comfortable in-ear fit. Technical features include a frequency response of 8Hz to 20kHz, and a 15/7mm neodymium magnet speaker.

The earphones are a bit on the pricey side, but are worth it if you’re looking for a good pair of sport earphones that you will also be using a lot for phone calls, and you’re concerned about good audio quality and not damaging your eardrums.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $129.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Rock-IT 2.0 portable vibration speaker, by OrigAudioThis is the second version of OrigAudio’s portable vibration speaker, which can basically turn any object into a speaker for your portable music player. The device fits in your hand and includes a vibration head that you unwind from the rest of the device. A sticky pad on the vibration head can then be placed on any object to create your speaker, but the company recommends something that is hollow – we found it worked best with empty boxes and bowls (concave openings also seemed to work well). After connecting the other cable to our portable music player, you can then hear the sound quite well as if you had connected your iPod or iPhone to an actual speaker system. Again, depending on the sound of the object you connect it to, the sound produced will be louder or quieter.

The device runs on two AAA batteries – it was a little difficult getting the battery case open initially, but other than that I had no real problems with the device. The package comes with two additional sticky pads should your original one wear out. There’s also a USB cable if you want to power the device off of your notebook instead of the batteries.

If you don’t want to carry around a heavier or larger portable speaker system and you have an empty box, bowl, cup or even a garbage can just lying around, you can turn it into a speaker quite easily.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $50

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

EP-100 earphones, by dBLogic (division of Harman)How loud do I like my music? Let’s just say the neighbors have stopped talking to me and more often than not I could hear faint ringing in my ears through most of my weekends. These days I find myself relegated to using headphones on regular basis. They say it’s good for a person to know their limits, but if you’re like me there is always the dBLogic EP-100 earphones to offer a helping hand.

At first glance the EP-100s look, feel, and seem to perform like any other set of ear buds you might come across, but with one major exception. The EP-100 features patent pending technology known as “SLP2”, which stands for Sound Pressure Limiting. Basically SLP regulates volume pressure levels in the ear canal to a maximum of 85 dB, to put this into perspective; 0 db is the sound of silence while roughly 125 db is the volume you would expect from a large venue rock concert. Why the 85dB limit? Prolonged exposure to volume levels above 85 dB can lead to permanent hearing damage (now they tell me). Ask yourself this; do you really know how loud 85 dB is? Don’t feel bad, I didn’t either.

The EP-100s take a on a smaller than normal factor for an ear bud, but the sound that emanates from them is crisp, clean and with the right ear canal adapter (the package comes with small, medium and large) the bass is more than adequate to vibrate the ear drums at safe levels. The ear cone adapters are a unique design sporting a dual-layered system to seal off the ear canal. This design helps maximize the pressure feedback needed for SLP to function and limit outside noise.

The SLP technology is most prominent at the start of each new audio track – you can hear the adjustment performed as the earphones automatically regulates a normally loud song to fit under the 85 dB cutoff. The only drawback to SLP is the inability to drown out ambient noise (despite the dual layered adapters). For example, it couldn’t drown out the clomping of sneakers on a treadmill or a louder-than-average co-worker’s rants (you know who you are). Overall the Db logic EP-100s provide quality sounds at safe volume levels and sports a moderate price tag to round out the package. 

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price (Amazon) $34.95

Reviewed by Armen Brown

People Get Ready headphones – Redemption Song version, by The House of MarleyThese ear buds converted my boyfriend to an ear bud user. He’s never a fan of something being inside his ears, but he actually found these to be quite comfortable, and the material was a little more breathable than most. Most important for him though - as a very picky, musically oriented guy - the sound quality was a 4 out of 5.

These ear buds produced a good low range and a solid mid-range and treble. However, he prefers to listen to music at an ear drum shattering volume and he found that these weren’t able to handle the really loud volumes very well. The bass was first to distort at high volumes, mid and treble distort afterwards but at roughly the same rate as each other. However, even at a relatively low volume, the buds block outside sounds well, especially the sounds of other commuters on the bus.

The biggest detractor from the sound quality at an average level though, was the material of the cords. The cords are wrapped in thread. Whenever the cord touches itself or comes in contact with your shirt or a bag, that sound travels up the cord and into the headphones, often giving a weird feedback. Additionally, I tried running while wearing these headphones but they wouldn’t stay in my ears long enough to walk down my four porch steps.

The novelty of these is of course the Marley tie in. I’m sure most fans of Bob Marley would have a good time listening to the sound quality, but also enjoy the Rastafarian theme.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $100

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Sansa Clip Zip MP3 player, by SanDiskYou have to admire the tenacity of SanDisk to continually come out with portable music players, when the rest of the market has clearly ceded the role of leader to Apple and its iPod, iPhone and iPad devices. Other competitors have just added music player functionality to their smartphones, such as BlackBerry, Microsoft and the assorted Android phones. Even Microsoft got out of the market, ditching the Zune. So it's amazing to see another music player come out from SanDisk. Maybe they think the players will help spur sales of microSD cards, which this player takes, or they just want to keep the retail space on shelves that they earned. Whatever the reason, there is an alternative out there for people who don't want an Apple music player.

The Sansa Clip Zip features 4GB of storage capacity, which can hold about 1,000 songs. You can add more by adding songs to a microSD card (again, sold separately). In addition to playing music, the Clip Zip plays audio podcasts, has an FM radio tuner, and you can record voice memos. They've even added a stopwatch if you use this for running. In fact, fitness seems to be a main feature of the player, as the design includes a nice clip on the back that attaches to a pocket, shirt or running shorts.

The player has a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 15 hours, SanDisk says, and it recharges via USB cable with your PC or Mac (the cable is too short for my liking). The UI isn't particularly earth shattering, getting around the different menus through the 1.1-inch color screen doesn't require too many brain cells.

As additional incentive to potential buyers, the package comes with a $10 coupon for music from eMusic (with many tracks at $0.49, that's about 20 or so songs), and there's also a free trial of the Rhapsody music subscription service (included software is optimized for use with the Clip Zip). At $49.99, it's the same price as an iPod Shuffle, with twice the capacity and a bunch of additional features not found on that device. So it looks like SanDisk has filled a need between the 2GB Shuffle and the 8GB iPod nano, which costs $129.

This may not be the music player for someone who's had a music player for five to 10 years or more (the original iPod is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year), but for first-time owners, it's worth a look.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $49.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

MusiCALL stereo bluetooth headset, by BluetrekThis system includes a pair of in-ear earbuds with a cable that connects to a clip-on piece of metal that includes the Bluetooth transmitter, volume control and play/pause/advance/previous buttons. Like many other Bluetooth stereo headsets, the system lets you listen to music wirelessly (the wireless from the transmitter to the phone/music player), and pauses to answer any incoming calls. When the call is finished, the system goes right back to your music.

What's nice about this system is that the earbuds can connect directly to the phone/music player if you're just interested in listening to music and not in the call answer functions (or the Bluetooth features). The package also comes with a USB charging cable and carrying case - it's a nice basic package that lets users listen to their music wirelessly with a decent pair of earbuds, but also ready to answer any calls.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $59.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Legion ear buds, by iFrogzApple devices come with those generic, white ear buds, which are OK. But what if you want to make a statement with your ear buds? What if you want ear buds with an "edgy, jet engine design." And what if you want ear buds named after an X-Men character. Well then, the Legion ear buds from iFrogz are for you.

These ear buds deliver on all levels. The sound is great. They are comfortable in your ear. And they do look like a jet engine.

So, why did iFrogz pick Legion? Easy. “Amassing every possible personality, Professor X's son, Legion, was an Omega-level mutant. We’ve taken a leaf out of his book and collected every desirable feature for an ear bud.” Ummm, OK. Anyway, these are a good pair of earbuds, and you won’t need Professor X’s wealth to buy a pair.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $24.99

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Foxl personal audiophile loudspeaker, by SoundmattersThis portable speaker system lets users stream their music via a Bluetooth-enabled device (smartphone, iPod Touch, etc.) to produce great music or to provide great sound for watching movies or playing games. The unit is very solid, but small enough to pack into a travel bag.

On the technology side, the speakers utilize the company’s patented “Twoofer” system, which are tweeters that also woof, providing wide response through two dual voice coil 25mm magnetic drives. The company says this is tuned to 100Hz, producing eight full octaves of music. The BasBattery is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and an acoustic bass radio, which extends bass by an entire octave, the company adds.

In testing the system produced some great sound, although I needed to adjust the speaker’s volume in the back of the unit, and not just adjust it on the iPhone I was streaming from. Bluetooth pairing was very easy, it automatically tries to pair when you turn on the device. An on/off switch on the back is a nice feature that can save battery life, but you have to remember to turn it off – there’s no automatic shutdown if you stop playing the unit. Fortunately, there’s a power adapter included should you run out of battery life.

I still preferred the design and sound from the Jawbone Jambox unit, but this is a very, very, very close second for my portable speaker needs. For the audiophile on your gift list, check this out!

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $199

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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