Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Earphones and headphones

Etymotic Research ER4 earphones (ER4SR and ER4XR)
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With the availability of inexpensive earphones, headphones and speakers, you might wonder why you’d want to fork over about $350 for earbuds. For audiophiles, sound engineers and others looking for the highest accuracy in the mid-range and high-range frequencies (from 100 Hz to 10kHz), these earbuds are awesome. Using these compared to other earphones or headsets, you could hear the vocals a whole lot more.

While the rest of the world might be moving to a wireless world (thanks to Apple and its elimination of the headphone jack), there are still consumers who prefer a wired alternative. The ER4SR model (Studio Reference) is geared towards those looking for accuracy – the ER4XR (Extended Response) is geared towards those looking for some additional low-end enhancement. I couldn’t really tell the difference between the two models, but I haven’t trained my ears as much as other audiophiles would. All I could tell was that the sounds were a whole lot more crisper (especially vocals), and I could hear parts of the song that I normally don’t with a lower quality earphones. The higher accuracy also lets you reduce the volume when you’re listening, which can save your eardrums (yay!).

The earphones have a regular rubbery cable that comes up to the splitter, at which point the cables turn into braided cords to help prevent tangling.  A handy slider bar then lets you adjust the length to help secure the wires even more. A clip that attaches to the splitter can also be attached to your shirt for an even more secure hold.

The package comes with different-sized ear flanges, as well as foam eartips for those who prefer to create the noise isolation fit with foam. A ¼-inch adapter is included as well as a carrying case for portability.

-- Keith Shaw

Jabra Move wireless headphones
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A lot of headphones recently have been pretty large devices, so it was interesting to try out a smaller pair of headphones, the Jabra Move. These are designed to be more portable than a bulkier pair of headphones, yet provide enough great sound for your music needs.

I was initially worried about the fit being too tight, which creates ear fatigue if worn for too long, but in extended use I didn’t find that to occur. Pairing was simple (if you’ve ever paired things via Bluetooth you should be very familiar with the process), and the earcups and headband were comfortable.

The headphones offer a long battery life (up to 8 hours of listening time, 12 days in standby mode), and it offers a wired cable for users who prefer to not use the Bluetooth wireless option. The price is really, really good for a pair of wireless headphones with this quality.

-- Keith Shaw

Sennheiser Mobile Business (MB 660) wireless headphones
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Let’s get this out of the way pretty quickly – most of your co-workers are annoying. Especially when they’re having conversations or otherwise distracting you with stories of how their weekend went. If you work in a cubicle or (ugh) open-office area, these noises and distractions can make getting your work done a real chore. Or maybe you’re one of those people who like to focus by listening to your favorite music or podcast, but don’t want to do this via your computer’s speakers or external speaker system. You’re going to need a good pair of headphones, and one that can also cancel outside distractions.

The MB 660 from Sennheiser does this very nicely – it has Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation, which the company says will constantly monitor the background environment for ambient noises, adjusting the noise reduction level in the headset. If it’s really noisy, it kicks up the ANC up a notch.

The headphones are extremely comfortable – the padded earcups hug your ears ever so gently that it feels like you’re wearing two pillows on your ears. You can wear these all day and not get the typical “ear fatigue” you might get with other on-ear headphones. There’s a comfort competition between this pair and the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 (see below) – I still haven’t decided which one wins.

The system comes with some additional features, such as a Bluetooth dongle that integrates with UC systems and software for your PC; and a button on the headset that creates different sound effect modes (such as Club, Movie or Speech), depending on what you’re listening to. The unit also has an app (CapTune) that lets you adjust the headset even further.

If you’re fed up with those co-workers and their yapping – get your boss to buy you an early holiday gift with one of these headsets.

-- Keith Shaw

Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2
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When most people think about Plantronics, they think about their office telephone headset, their Bluetooth earpiece for their cell phone, or their unified communications headset for making video calls. If you tell them that they also make great headphones for listening to music and for gaming (see the gaming section), they might be surprised.

The BackBeat Pro 2 headphones will make you want to reconsider what headset you use for listening to music, not just when you’re out and about, but also when you’re sitting in the office or cubicle. The Bluetooth headphones feature active noise cancellation features that can help block out those annoying conversations from your co-workers, but Plantronics has also added an “open listening mode” switch that lets you hear conversations without needing to take the headphones off (for example, when a coworker comes by to tell you that it’s time for the free pretzel, or when the flight attendant asks you if you want peanuts or chips).

The other great thing you’ll notice is how comfortable these headphones feel on your head. Plantronics has recognized that you’re going to want to wear these headphones for long stretches, and not just for a few songs. The care in designing earcups that won’t push on your ears or a headband that pushes down on the top of your head is obvious, especially considering how many other headphones we’ve tried this year. As mentioned earlier in this guide, I’m still having a hard time deciding whether these headphones or the Sennheiser MB 660 headphones are more comfortable.

If you do have to take them off, the smart sensors on the headphones will automatically pause the music. When you  put them back on, the music returns. Plantronics has included these sensors on other systems, and it works as great as ever on the BackBeat Pro 2.

Like the previous BackBeat Pro headphones, this one has amazing battery life. Not only does the system offer up to 24 hours of listening and talk time, but it continues to use the “Deep Sleep” mode that puts the headphones into a resting state after a long period of non-use, slowing the battery drain. You know how the battery is usually dead after a few weeks of not being used on other devices? You won’t notice that here. If you do happen to misplace the headphones or not use them for a while, you’ll be amazed at how much battery life is remaining when you turn the system back on.

While the headphones include a cable for connecting to a headphone jack, for the first time I’ve noticed that I don’t mind using Bluetooth headphones as my main method for listening to music. It’s not because of the Apple thing (where they eliminated the headphone jack), it just feels like the Bluetooth wireless technology has advanced to the point where it’s not a pain to connect, and the audio quality is extremely good.

The $200 price point fits somewhere in the middle in terms of headphones – we’ve seen good sets for less money, and some good headphones that are more expensive. These are high-quality headphones on almost every feature – if you get one of these for anyone on your gift list, they’ll be more than happy with them.

-- Keith Shaw

Jabra Halo Smart wireless stereo earbuds
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If you’re not a fan of wearing larger or bulkier headphones when you’re out and about listening to your tunes (I know, shocker!), you probably go the route of earbuds. With the new iPhone 7 getting rid of the headphone jack, wireless earbuds will soon become more popular as a gift item this holiday season. But if you think you’re going to lose the Apple AirPods, you might want to get a pair that has a better chance of not getting lost – something where the two earbuds are connected by a cable/strap.

The Jabra Halo Smart is one such device – the two earbuds fit quite nicely into each ear (the design goes with the flow/form of your ear, instead of just jamming it in and hoping for the best). The two earbuds are connected by a flexible strap that goes around the back of your neck. It feels like you’re wearing a necklace, but in reverse style. In addition to providing a less-likely-to-be-lost unit, the earbuds also have a built in microphone (on the strap) for taking calls on your phone. The Halo Smart also features a button that can instantly connect you to Siri (via iPhone) or Google Now (via Android Phone), giving quick access to information through those voice-activated services. Android users also receive the ability to hear calendar notification, emails, text messages and social media with the assistance of the Halo Smart app.

In addition, Jabra is claiming an astounding 17 hours of talk time (or 15 hours of music time) with just one charge. That’s pretty amazing. For people with larger or smaller ears, additional EarGels are provided so you can get the perfect fit when using the earbuds.

-- Keith Shaw

PureBoom Bluetooth wireless earbuds
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If you're looking to cut the cord on your headphones, PureBoom Wireless Earbuds is worth a listen. Super lightweight, water- and sweat-resistant, these earbuds are geared for fitness use, but they would do the trick in any other environment where you want to tune out to the world around you — we're looking at you, noisy co-workers.

PureBoom charged quickly via the supplied Micro-USB cable and paired right off the bat. The pair came equipped with medium-size earbud cushions, but you'll also get small and large options to find your optimal fit. I've never been a fan of earbuds in general, but PureBoom was very comfortable and, most importantly, stayed in place despite a lot of activity. The latter is assisted by silicone ear hooks that naturally fit into an ear crevice. The earbuds, hooks, and cable are so lightweight and unobtrusive you'll likely forget you're wearing them.

Our favorite feature is the magnetic auto on-off. The earbud ends are magnetized to keep them together - and tangle-free - while you're not listening. Want to listen? Pull the ends apart and the earbuds are on. Place them back together and they shut off. This solves the annoying problem of either feeling around your ear for a tiny power button or forgetting to turn them off, accidentally draining your battery.

A slim, three-button control box on the cable pauses music, adjusts volume, skips songs, and answers/rejects calls, keeping your phone in your pocket. It boasts an 8-hour battery life, you'll get a verbal warning when the battery is down to 10%. They even come with a stiff-shelled carrying case to keep them from getting lost or crushed.

-- Melissa Shaw

LIVV Pro over-ear headphones
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These over-ear wireless (Bluetooth) headphones are targeting the active market – those  people who like to run or workout while listening to music, but prefer headphones instead of earbuds. To that end, the LIVV Pro is designed to fit tightly on the head, so any quick movements won’t cause the headphones to fall out. The tight fit also means that weather conditions – such as wind, dust and rain – won’t necessarily interfere with the music experience (LIVV says the device is water-resistant, which means rain and sweat won’t get in the way, but you still shouldn’t).

When I tested the headphones, the tight fit was uncomfortable at first, and figuring out the right way to put the headphones on was a bit of a challenge – for example, should I keep the headband bar connecting the two earcups on top of my head or behind my head? Eventually I figured it out, and the discomfort became less annoying than the initial fit.

The headphones include Bluetooth connectivity and a wired cable for use with devices that still have a headphone jack, but the LIVV Pro also comes with 8GB of memory, so you can install a bunch of music directly to the headphones. This means you can go out on a run or do a workout without having to bring your phone or other music device.

Music sounds great with the headphones, thanks to 40mm dynamic drivers (and the aforementioned tight fit, which contributes to noise isolation). It also comes with a nice hard case for carrying around if you want to use them when you travel.

-- Keith Shaw

Samsung Level On Pro wireless noise-cancelling headphones
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We were sent a pair of these headphones to go along with our review of the Samsung GearVR virtual reality headset. These headphones are so good that you will likely finding yourselves using them a whole lot more than the VR headset, for things like listening to music or watching movies on your phone or laptop.

The headphones are very comfortable, fitting not completely over your ears but covering them enough to create a good fit (you can adjust them as well). An “ANC” button provides the active noise cancellation feature, so feel free to bring these on your next flight if you want to avoid the noise from the engines or the annoying guy in the middle seat.

Audio can be streamed via Bluetooth, or you can use the included audio cable. The headphones also feature “Ultra High Quality Audio – UHQA” technology that “delivers a true 24-bit digital audio experience with up to 2x wider frequency range than standard CD quality wireless sound”, Samsung says. Some of Samsung’s Galaxy devices also support UHQA, so it makes sense to try these headphones if you also own one of those devices.

The headphones don’t include any buttons for performing actions like play, volume up/down or next track. Instead, the side of the right earcup has a touch sensor, letting you slide your finger in different directions to perform actions. Volume up/down involves sliding your finger up or down, and next track is a swipe across the earcup. To play/pause, you double-tap.

Overall these were a fine pair of headphones that you’d expect for the price Samsung is charging. If you are a loyal Samsung customer with the mobile device and VR equipment, it makes sense to look at these for your headphone needs.

-- Keith Shaw

Skybuds wireless earbuds
More info:

Wireless headphones and earbuds have gotten a higher profile after Apple announced the removal of the headphone jack for its new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus smartphones. Owners of the new device get to make a decision – either buy an adapter to use with their wired headphones or move to wireless. Apple hopes that you buy its own earbuds (Air Pods), but delays in shipping have left people looking for other options.

One such device aiming to fill that gap is Skybuds ($250, available in three color options) – these are individual earbuds (one for each ear) that provide Bluetooth wireless connectivity for your devices. While other earphone systems have a connected strap that usually goes behind the head, the Skybuds are free of such a cable (just like the Air Pods).

This brings both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, there’s no strap or cable that could get caught up in your clothing while you’re working out. On the other hand, it’s much easier to misplace or lose these if you’re not careful. Fortunately, the Skybuds fit quite nicely inside your ears, so the chances that these are going to drop out of your ears while you’re running are pretty slim.

For the full review, click here.

-- Keith Shaw

ROAM Ropes USA Wireless Earphones and Audio Amplifier
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Perhaps you were hoping to score a pair of Apple’s sexy new AirPods Wireless headphones this holiday season. Well, we’re all going to have to wait on those as Apple presumably gets the last few bugs out. These are now consequently in doubt for the holiday season, but wireless headphones make a dandy accessory and gift regardless – who isn’t sick of getting wired headphones abruptly pulled from one’s head due to a cable snag? Such happening should be illegal under both federal and state law.

Consider the ROAM Ropes wireless earphones as a possible alternative. The hybrid design combines ear buds connected to a “rope” (hence the name) that also includes a small amplifier. The really cool feature is that the amp also includes a digital signal processing (DSP) engine that lets the user change the equalization (EQ). Presets of specific EQ settings for specific environments can be saved – so you can have one for home, one for the office, one for out and about, etc.

The box presents the product beautifully, but it will take you a minute to unwire everything. Changing the soft rubber headphone tips was frustrating – it’s best to turn them inside out first, and then flip them back once you’re sure they’re seated properly. Four pairs are included, and I found I needed the smallest size. Charging the amplifier/equalizer is via USB; a short cable is included. There’s also a standard USB-to-old-fashioned-handset-phone-jack if needed, but Bluetooth is obviously preferred.

After charging the unit up, I paired it just that way with my trusty iPhone. No issues here, but all of those ropes involved might irritate some. It’s possible to adjust everything for reasonable comfort, but these aren’t for jogging or other motion-intensive settings. Sound is OK, but I personally have yet to find a set of earbuds that work as well as the on-ear variety (or at least earbuds that mount more securely than these do) in optimizing for sound.

So I must conclude that this product isn’t likely a substitute for AirPods. The bottom line for me is that I’m not sure the fact that so much cord is involved in these otherwise cordless earphone won’t be a hindrance for some.

-- C.J. Mathias

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