Holiday Gift Ideas: Portable Entertainment

MP3 players, headphones and other gift ideas to keep you rocking over the holidays

Hard as it is to believe, there are other gift ideas in the portable entertainment space other than the iPod. Here are some reviews of some things we've tried over the past few months:

Sansa clip+ MP3 Player by SanDisk

Sansa clip+ digital music playerWhy on Earth would anyone want to make an MP3 player these days, considering the dominance from Apple and its range of iPod players? It seems like an uphill battle for a company like SanDisk to get attention for its music players, but the company has done a pretty good job with its Sansa players in recent years. This model, the clip+ player, offers 4GB of internal storage for music files, plus it includes a microSD slot that lets you add additional capacity for songs, as well as for playing the company's slotRadio cards (tiny microSD cards that come with 1,000 preloaded songs in different categories, such as Health & Fitness, '80s & '90s, or Oldies, to name a few). Transferring your music from the PC over to the player is as easy as plugging in a USB cable and dragging and dropping the music files (or folders) over to the device. The player also includes a digital FM tuner, a built-in microphone for voice recording, and its rechargeable battery lasts for up to 15 hours. It's the combination of the slotRadio card ability plus being able to add your own music that makes this device so appealing.

Did I mention how tiny the player is? You could fit about three of these in the palm of your hand, making this very convenient for using in workouts and other situations where you don't want a heavier player.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars (out of 5): $50 (for 4GB; 8GB model costs $70).

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

eBook Touch Edition, by Sony

Sony eBook Reader Touch EditionLike Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, the Sony version allows you to read electronic books in a portable device. Books from Sony's eBook Store can be purchased and then synchronized with the device. Book formats include BBeB (.lrf or .lrx), PDF, EPUB (.epub), text files (.txt), RTF (.rtf) and Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx). You can also view photos and listen to MP3 and AAC audio files on the device. You can also access content through an SD or Memory Stick memory card.

The device itself is thinner and lighter than a standard Kindle, and has enough memory (512MB) to access up to 350 books (more if you use the memory cards), and a 6-inch touch screen lets you turn pages by swiping your finger across the screen. The device includes a stylus that lets you do freehand highlighting and annotation.

The touch screen is very nice, letting you choose menu options and turn pages with your finger - i think it's easier to use this than the Kindle. There are five zoom settings that let you adjust type size to make it easier on older eyes. On the downside, there's no contrast or backlight features as far as I can tell, which made reading this in low-light situations (like in bed) difficult.

I'm still not completely sold on the e-book concept, I prefer the Touch Edition over the Kindle because of its smaller and lighter size, plus its ability to read multiple e-book formats (PDFs especially). Sony has a great contender in this device.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars: About $300

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Shure SRH 440 headphones by Shure

Shure SRH440 headphones"Oh yeah, that's what music is supposed to sound like." That was my initial reaction to the Shure SRH 440 headphones. Sometimes you forget how tinny music sounds on those iPod ear buds. Of course, you're trading sound quality for mobility when you walk around with your iPod. And these headphones don't really solve that dilemma.

The Shure headphones provide amazing sound, but they're heavy (.6 pounds) and bulky – there's no way you can use them on the move. However, if you're sitting at a desk, taking a train, plane or are otherwise stationary, these headphones provide superior listening quality and they do a nice job blocking out ambient noise. Everything about these headphones is top-of-the-line. The coiled cable is long – nearly 10 feet; and plugs into your music source with a sturdy, gold-plated jack.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars $77 to $125

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

HF2 high-fidelity hands-free noise-isolating headset + earphones, by Etymotic

Etymotic hf2 headset + earphonesAt first glance, the price on this headset/earphones combination ($180? what?) may turn you away - and if you're looking for just a regular set of earphones, there are less expensive versions. However, if you're looking to upgrade your earphones and also want to have a microphone that you can use with your iPhone (for talking on calls or even making voice memos with), the hf2 headset/earphones could be worth a look.

When listening to music, the earphones provide outstanding clarity, making for a very pleasant listening experience. The flanged earphones create a seal within your ears to block out incoming noise, making them very useful on an airplane or when you want to block the distractions from your kids. The microphone button doubles as a pause, forward or back button (depending on how many times you click).

When using the microphone on a phone call with my iPhone, the person I was calling could hear me clearly, without me needing to hold the microphone up to my mouth (it hangs off to the side).

I'm still not convinced that these are worth $180, but it does combine two features (noise-isolating earphones, plus a microphone for hands-free phone calls) in an excellent package.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars $180

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

ATH-ANC7B Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones by Audio Technica

Audio Technica Active Noise-canceling headphones (ATH-ANC7B)This was my first experience using anything from Audio Technica, and I was fairly impressed.

As standalone headphones, they work well. They're extremely comfortable, and I'm confident they will adjust to any size head. The ear cushions are very soft, and I've read they can be replaced if they wear down. I have a hard time imagining anyone using these to the point the cushions wear down, but it's great you can do that. They come with a high quality carrying case, which does a great job protecting your investment. The interior of the case has a little pocket that holds an extra 3.5mm cord – either the short (3 feet) or the long (6 feet) one – or the extra connector pin to connect to whatever that thing connects to.

Other than noise quality, the real attraction to these headphones is the "active noise cancellation". You turn it on by flicking a little switch on the outer left side of your headphone, and it's powered by a single AAA battery. Audio Technica claims battery life of 30+ hours. I've gotten at least 10 hours so far.

Even without noise cancellation, the headphones do an excellent job isolating extraneous noise – probably due to the very tight (but comfortable) fit and high quality padding. When you turn on the active noise cancellation (ANC), low pitch sounds disappear. It worked well enough sitting at my desk, but the first real test came on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. After takeoff, and the customary "you can now turn on approved electronic devices" message, I grabbed my PSP and threw these things on. I tried it without ANC at first, and I could hear the video game well enough. Then I turned on ANC, and I could suddenly decrease volume and still hear the game. I left the headphones on for about 20 minutes of gameplay, then decided to test them again by turning ANC off. I immediately gained a new appreciation for it when I was suddenly flooded by the noise of the aircraft's engines. I didn't realize just how much of a difference the headphones made until I took them off – it's significant.

I really don't have any complaints about these headphones. The sound quality is quite good, battery life is impressive, ANC works well, and they come with an excellent carrying case. It was a short flight from Boston to D.C., but I feel comfortable these headphones will improve my traveling experience on longer flights too. Until then, these headphones have my endorsement as a slightly more affordable alternative to the excellent offerings from Bose. If you're a regular traveler, I recommend giving them a try.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars $166.70

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Reviewed by Daniel Hunt

iBlink WLB2 Earbuds

iBlink earbudsThe iBlink Earbuds are trying to make headphones just a little more interesting. The headphones blink to the rhythm of your music, and the LED brightness depends on the volume of your music. Three locations on the earbuds blink: one spot on each earbud, and one spot on the controls near where the earbuds branch off from the main wire. The section on the wire is the only blinking that the wearer can see. The headphones also come with three sizes of gel inserts for the earbuds. When you're wearing the correct gel size, the earbuds fit securely and comfortably, I was a little surprised at how deep in my ear canal the bud sat. The sound quality was very crisp if you're wearing the correct gel size; if however, you have the wrong size on, it will sound as though you're listening to music through a cotton ball.

One reviewer on Amazon.com mentioned he liked the blinking feature for when he was walking outside at night. It really would help people, drivers perhaps, see you. However, I wouldn't turn the blinking on while at the gym. Luckily though, you can turn the blinking on or off. If you want to use the blinking though, you'll need to remember to charge it via a USB port.

The blinking is a fun feature for people who love LED lights, but I personally wouldn't replace my standard iPod earbuds for these.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars $29.99showTIME Audio/Video Cable for iPod and iPhone, by Scosche

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Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Scosche showTME audio/video cablesAn audio/video cable with composite (RCA) jacks that connect to a standard TV input, and a universal docking adapter that connects to your iPod, iPod touch or iPhone. Once attached, you can watch videos or listen to music from your iPod or iPhone on the TV, utilizing the bigger screen and better speakers.

As more multimedia gets placed onto portable devices, these cables are an easy way to showcase those files on a TV, or even to play music through the TV's speakers. Connecting them is easy, and ports are made of high-quality tapered metal. Scosche also makes cables that connect to high-definition TVs via component inputs ($50).

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars About $40

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Ultimate Ears 700 Noise Isolating Earphones

I was surprised the first time I tried the Ultimate Ears 700 over a month ago. I’m typically not a fan of earphones due to past experiences with large round metal versions that have to be wedged into your ear and only produced a tinny sound at best. The sound quality from the Ultimate Ears are better than the set of Bose headphones I typically wear. These earphones were tested on my MacBook Pro, but can fit an iPod/MP3 player or any audio source with a 3.5mm jack. The sound is crisp and clear, with decent bass and does not require cranking the volume to appreciate. The noise isolating feature worked well, as I tested them in my office which is directly across from a noisy printer that runs constantly.

Another nice feature is the three different sizes of silicone ear cushions included, which help create a comfortable fit. In addition to the silicone there are two sets of foam cushions that compress to fit snug. The cable appears to be of good quality and hardly became tangled up. Earphones can be a little more sensitive to daily wear, so it was nice to see a hard plastic case included.

There is also a sound attenuator that will help protect your earphones and your hearing if you have to hook up to an unstable sound source, such as on an airplane.

Overall I would recommend these earphones to anyone looking for high quality sound. They are a huge improvement over the standard earphones that come with today's iPods/MP3 players.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars: $169.99Reviewed by: Zachary Sullivan

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Able Planet True Fidelity (P5500MM) headphones

Able Planet True Fidelity (P5500MM) headphonesThis headset can serve many purposes – you can use them to listen to your music while at your desk or even if you're out and about with a portable device, as the Linx Audio technology lets you turn down the volume to a safe listening level without making you feel like you're missing parts of the music. A high-quality microphone lets you connect to the computer to chat over a Webcam or Skype audio call, and it's good for recording as well. If you happen to be an online gamer and use voice for coordinating efforts (either in an MMORPG or action game), these are a good fit as well.

The headphones are padded along the top (over the head), as well as the earphones themselves. A nice touch is the addition of a USB adapter that takes the headphone and microphone jacks and combines it into one thing to plug into your PC.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars $99.99

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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