Welcome back for the second instalment of our 2018 Holiday Gift Guide. Last week in part 1 we rounded up a collection of some of the best and most noteworthy products we’ve seen this year in a variety of categories to help out you, our readers, with some suggestions if you’re stumped for what to buy for the iPhone or iPad user in your life. In this second part today, we’ll be highlighting some of the most interesting speakers, headphones, and other audio accessories we’ve seen this year, and later this week we’ll finish up our gift guide with a look at some good accessories for last-minute inexpensive “stocking stuffers.” We hope this helps you with some inspiration for your Christmas shopping.
On-Ear and Over-Ear Headphones
Wireless headphones are becoming more of a trend all the time, and the latest technologies like Bluetooth 5.0 and advanced AAC and aptX codecs mean that they’ve taken a huge leap forward in sound quality — there are not the highly compressed versions of yesteryear, and chances are that all but the most meticulous audiophiles will likely find themselves very satisfied with a set of wireless cans.
Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50xBT (Amazon – $199) were some of the best we saw this year for price and performance, offering all of the benefits of the company’s venerable M50 studio monitor, plus the addition of Bluetooth 5.0, and although the M50xBT sadly doesn’t yet push into the newest aptX HD and LDAC codecs, it does support AAC, making it a great choice for iPhone users. A 40-hour battery life along with an included wired mode that doesn’t require power and clean detailed sound make these a great value for the price, although they feature only passive noise isolation.
If you’re looking for headphones with active noise cancellation, on the other hand, there’s Marshall’s new Mid ANC Bluetooth (Amazon – $214, an on-ear headphone that adds a good level of noise cancelling technology to the company’s already solid Mid Bluetooth, which enhancing the physical design a bit as well. The noise cancellation isn’t as heavy as some headphones we’ve heard, but it also doesn’t prevent you from hearing what’s going on around you when you need to. The iconic Marshall styling also makes it an especially cool gift for the classic rock music fan in your life. There’s also Cleer’s Flow Wireless (Amazon – $250) that provide a design clearly inspired by Sony’s MDR-1000X, with solid active noise cancellation and smooth sound.
While almost all wireless headphones can be used as wired headphones as well, for those who prefer a pure wired experience, we particularly like Beyerdynamic’s DT 770 Pro & DT 990 Pro (Amazon – DT 770 Pro – $148 / DT 990 Pro – $145), two models of over-ear studio monitors that provide detailed, balanced, and accurate sound at a very reasonable price. They’re not the most attractive headphones we’ve seen, but they’re a great choice for the audiophile in your life who cares more about sound than fashion.
In-ear wireless headphones are still a mixed bag, and we actually have yet to see a set of “true wireless” earphones that have really impressed us, but one thing that is refreshing is how quickly prices in the wireless IEM market have been dropping. This may or may not be the result of Apple’s choice to drop the headphone jack a couple of years ago, but consumers are benefiting from it indirectly either way.
One of the most common uses for wireless IEMs is for sporting activities, so we liked what Optoma did with its NuForce BE Sport4 (Amazon — $67). These headphones use 6mm graphene drivers that provide surprisingly good audio for IEMs in this price range — and especially when you add in the fact that they’re also wireless. There’s also support for AAC and aptX advanced audio codecs, and a ten-hour battery life.
However, if you’re buying IEMs for somebody who is more of an audio enthusiast, you’ll likely want to spend a bit more and consider Marshall’s Minor II Bluetooth (Amazon — $105), which provide the best audio we’ve yet heard in this price class, although sadly at the cost of some comfort and noise isolation. There are also of course Shure’s SE215 Wireless (Amazon — $129), which take the well-known SE215 earphones and pair them with Shure’s RMCE-BT1 cable. Sadly, however, it’s not an ideal pairing, as Shure’s first-gen cable doesn’t support the higher-res Bluetooth codecs, which is somewhat limiting on an otherwise great pair of IEMs.
Of course, as mature as Bluetooth has gotten, many audio enthusiasts still feel that wired IEMs provide superior sound, and we certainly saw some great options in this area as well, such as Audio-Technica’s ATH-LS200iS (Amazon – $249), which were one of the best choices we’ve seen recently for rock and jazz fans, with a particularly balanced presentation, and a really cool and unique design.
Fiio also offers up a couple of great options are different price points, with the higher-end FH5 Quad Driver (Amazon – $260) that includes a huge amount of accessories to tweak fit and sound, and a seriously impressive driver design. While the FH5 actually do provide good value for their price, Fiio’s F9 Pro (Amazon – $140) is a triple-driver version that still sounds great, but is more affordable.
Home Wireless Speakers
2018 has been the year that wireless home speakers have really started to come into their own, and if there’s a time to take the plunge into voice assistant speakers, now is that time — and we don’t just say that because it’s the year Apple introduced the HomePod. We’ve seen a maturing and expanding of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant as well, with a number of manufacturers coming on board in a variety of different ways.
Of course, there’s Apple’s HomePod (Apple – $349), and while we wouldn’t be iLounge if we didn’t at least include it as an honorable mention, we also have to be honest and say that this is only a speaker for the hardcore Apple enthusiast in your life. It’s definitely on the boomy side in terms of audio presentation, doesn’t provide any real stereo separation unless you’re willing to buy two of them, and of course only works natively with Siri and Apple Music (although you can stream anything to it from your iPhone via AirPlay). That said, however, ours remains the prominent standalone speaker in our home, and it’s a great gift if you’ve got somebody whose world revolves around Apple technologies and services, as no other speaker supports Siri, and none works better with Apple Music, HomeKit, and AirPlay 2.
For the classic rock fan in your life, Marshall’s
Stanmore II Bluetooth (Amazon – $350) is a speaker that both looks and sounds great across all genres of music, providing great balanced sound with plenty of detailed and refined bass. You’re paying a slight premium for the Marshall name design here, but personally we think it looks great.
For the Spotify user who cares little for voice assistants, there’s Urbanears Lotsen (Amazon – $156). It’s a Wi-Fi speaker, but there’s no Alexa here, but rather a manual control knob that can be used to save and dial up internet radio stations and Spotify playlists. It’s a bit bass-heavy, so the sound signature won’t be for everybody, but we definitely like the old-school controls and the design, which looks like something that could be sold in an Ikea store (no doubt inspired by Urbanears’ Scandinavian roots).
We saw more than a few speakers jump into the Alexa world this year, including Ultimate Ears’ Megablast (Amazon – $180), a Wi-Fi version of the company’s classic Boom and Megaboom lineup. It’s technically a portable speaker — it also has Bluetooth and a 16-hour battery — but we included it in this category as the size of it along with the Alexa and Wi-Fi makes it feel primarily like a home speaker that you can occasionally take outside, especially contrasted with UE’s Boom lineup.
Portable Wireless Speakers
Speaking of which, Ultimate Ears’ Boom 3 (Amazon – $130) heralded the company’s first update to the Boom lineup since 2015. The sound quality hasn’t changed, so we don’t think this is worth considering as an upgrade for the Boom 2 owner in your life unless you think they’ll really like the new design, but overall we like the direction that UE has gone in here, with a speaker design that looks more classy and less sporty, and it still sounds great, especially for the price.
If you’re looking with something that offers more classy and unique design, Marshall’s Kilburn II (Amazon – $250) provides the iconic Marshall look, great sound, and 20 hours of listening time on a single charge. It’s also got a more muted and modern look than its predecessor, although at 5.5 pounds, it does stretch the definition of “portable” by a bit.
Cavalier’s The Maverick (Amazon – $200), on the other hand, does a really great job of blending attractive design, portability, and features. It includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and Amazon Alexa support, although it sadly lacks AirPlay. The machined aluminum and leather design is gorgeous, and it includes a matching charging stand, and a sound signature that seems to complement the design.
For audio on the go, Scosche’s BoomBottle MM (Amazon – $93) takes the company’s classic cylindrical speaker design that can fit into just about any bottle or cup holder, and adds magnets, letting you attach it to any metallic surface, in any orientation, as well as set your iPhone on top and have it held in place. If rectangular portable speakers are more your thing, there’s Divoom’s Voombox Power (Amazon – $100), which is rugged and waterproof and puts out quite a bit of power for its size.
Bookshelf and Desktop Speakers
Despite portable and Wi-Fi speakers being the thing this year, there’s still a lot of room for great desktop and bookshelf speakers. They offer better audio overall, with great stereo separation, and the versatility to be connected to traditional home stereo and theatre equipment, along with a trend toward building in advanced Bluetooth connectivity as well.
Edifier’s S2000 Pro (Edifier – $400) provides analog, optical, and Bluetooth inputs, although they lack a USB DAC option, choosing balanced audio inputs instead. These have great low-end response is great, although it’s still no replacement for a dedicated sub. While these are a powerhour, Edifier’s S880DB (Amazon – $300) is also a great option for those looking to spend a bit less, but they’re also better suited to a near-field setup, and don’t provide the room-filling sound of their larger counterparts.
Fluance’s Ai40 (Amazon – $200) are also impressive for their price, offering analog and Bluetooth input and 70 watts of output power. They’re small and stylish with a surprisingly neutral sound signature.
Many of your friends and family members who are into music probably already own a pretty good set of wired headphones that they like and are comfortable with, and the good news is there are ways to move into a wireless world without them having to ditch their favourite earbuds or cans, and they’re cheap enough to make for great gifts or even stocking stuffers.
Fiio’s newly-released BTR1K (Amazon – $50) is a nicely refreshed version of its earlier BTR1, offering high-resolution Bluetooth codecs, including AAC.
Fiio also offers the BTR3 (Amazon – $70) which is a slightly more premium model with a few additional features, as well as the budget-friendly μBTR (Amazon – $28), which still gets the job done in a cheaper and less powerful package, but should be more than enough for casual users.
On the flip side, if you know somebody who already has wireless headphones but is frequently lamenting the need to plug them into wired connections, Twelve South’s AirFly (Amazon – $40) may be just the device for them. Designed with air travellers in mind, this handy little device allows you to pair up any 3.5mm audio source with a set of Bluetooth headphones.
Digital Audio Players
There are a lot of music enthusiasts who still lament the death of the traditional iPod as a dedicated audio player, but while Apple has abandoned that market in favour of the iPhone, it’s an idea that lives on from other manufacturers, like Fiio, who have not only filled the gap but greatly expanded on the concept with advanced features that audiophiles will especially appreciate.
Fiio’s M9 (Amazon – $300) is the spiritual successor to the full-sized iPod, and, some may argue, what the iPod touch should have been. It’s got good battery life, support for every modern audio format, including the main slate of lossless codecs, and most of the mainstream high-res Bluetooth codecs.
Fiio’s M3K (Amazon – $70) offers a similar set of audio capabilities in a form factor and price that’s more targeted at fans of the iPod nano or iPod mini. It’s not as powerful, but for the price it’s an excellent DAP for those looking for high-quality audio, or those who simply want to separate their listening from their connected world.