Wireless audio gifts for less than $500
If "unplugged" acoustic music was a hallmark of the '90s, surely "wireless" listening is the big trend of the '10s.
Sure, we've been essentially wireless since the radio came out a century ago. But today's Internet-connected mobile devices often require cords to hook up to a myriad of accessories like speakers and headphones. And these cords can result in a knotty nightmare in your bag.
Several wireless gadgets I tried out recently should keep music lovers a bit more tangle-free this holiday season.
Beats Studio Wireless ($380): This plush set of over-ear headphones almost mirrors Beats' popular Studio line, but comes with wireless ability for an $80 increase in price. Like the wired-only model, this puts you in a cocoon with its noise-canceling technology, which works even if you just want padded silence. The sound is crisp, and the bass is deep.
A button on the outside of the left ear cup operates like the button on standard iPhone earbuds: one click to pause, two to skip forward and so on. A disc-shaped button turns the volume up and down. Pairing over Bluetooth was easy and intuitive. It also works fine as a headset for phone calls.
The headphones promise 12 hours of wireless listening and 20 hours if you connect the cord, which is included.
Nearly $400 for headphones is pricey, but whoever gets this as a holiday gift will be mightily pleased. It's an outstanding way to bliss out during a noisy commute or wander around your home with music in your head.
Monster iSport Freedom ($250): Meant for a workout, these on-ear headphones are made of sweat-resistant plastic and rubbery material and will give you a tight-fitting hug.
Although the headphones didn't jostle while jogging, there's something about completely covering your ears that creates a kind of bone-conducing sound. Every foot strike resulted in a thud inside my head, something that doesn't happen with $29 iPhone EarPods. In addition, on-ear headphones squish your ears against your frames if you are wearing glasses.
Separate buttons for volume up, down and skipping forward and back were difficult to use, partly because I often hit a much larger button for pause and play instead.
That said, the sound is excellent, and I appreciate not having to worry about yanking my headphones off accidentally by snagging the cord.
With 10 hours of playback time per charge, these should outlast all but the most enduring athletes.
Sonos Play:1 ($200): The little brother to the company's Play:3 and Play:5 speakers packs a big, immersive sound in a package the size of a pickle jar.
Unlike Bluetooth speakers, Sonos speakers run over Wi-Fi and need to be plugged into a power outlet. Through the end of the year, the company is throwing in, for no extra charge, a $50 Bridge adapter to attach to your router, so you can free yourself from having to plug an Ethernet cable into at least one speaker.
You can play digital tunes that you own or use streaming services such as Pandora and Rdio. I found Sonos' Wi-Fi connection to be far more consistent than using other speakers with Bluetooth, which can cause skips now and then.
The speakers are designed to disperse sound in a wide radius and fill a room. When two little Play:1s are paired for stereo sound, they deliver big time.
Beats Pill 2.0 ($200): The second generation of this Tylenol-shaped beat box puts out a decent sound, but to me, it's remarkably tinny for the Beats brand. This year's model, however, adds some cool features. It comes with a near-field communications chip, allowing you to pair two Pills together with a couple of long taps for stereo sound.
If you are on the road, you can lift a tab to reveal a full USB port, which you can use to charge your mobile phone if you don't mind giving up some of its seven-hour playback time. On a full charge, it can replace two-thirds of an iPhone 5S battery.
But the Pill is indeed round and will roll. One rolled off a shelf on me and dropped three feet onto the floor. It didn't miss a beat or get dented, but I wouldn't recommend trying it at home.
The NFC pairing tested my patience and required many do-overs. When pairing two Pills for stereo I accidently paired both to my phone at the same time, which caused a really choppy signal.
Marley Get Together ($200): This is what you want when you go on a picnic with your hippie friends. It's even made of hemp.
No kidding: The cloth enclosure is made of recycled hemp, organic cotton and recycled plastic. Its natural bamboo front gives this an Earth-loving, yet luxurious polish. Two big woofers and two tweeters on the front will reassure you that you're not compromising on sound.
Playing Bob Marley over Bluetooth on this modern-day boom box just seems right. It has eight hours of battery life. And I'm sure if the Rasta master were alive today, even he would appreciate the USB port on the back that can be used for charging mobile devices.
Soundcast Melody ($450): This Bluetooth speaker flips the idea of surround sound on its head. A speaker grill encircles a body that is shaped like a rice cooker. You can surround it from any direction and still feel the sound coming your way.
This chunky, 9-pound speaker is for people who want mobility from a speaker system, but for whom weight is no issue. With a full charge, it'll play up to 20 hours at low volume or two hours if you're blasting it.
At this price, it's pushing the upper end of wireless speakers. But it's an attractive travel companion with its four speaker sets pointing in all directions, quality sound, lengthy battery life and car-lighter charger attachment.
HMDX Jam Plus ($60): These stubby speakers the size of a tumbler glass are perfect companions to a laptop or tablet.
Pairing two of them for stereo sound was a snap thanks to a switch on the bottom that designates which one is right and left. The speakers have comically short USB cables for charging, no longer than a foot. Provided you have USB ports on both sides of a laptop, insert one on either side for stereo sound.
Mind you, the USB port doesn't act as an audio connection if your device isn't Bluetooth-ready. Unplugged, they should give you six hours of listening.
The fact that the speakers point straight up isn't a deal breaker somehow, as the sound is dispersed well.
For the price, a pair of these would make a nice stocking stuffer for any gadget lover.
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