Some gifts are used for a while and then discarded. But if you want to buy a gift that someone will take pleasure from for years to come, there’s no better choice for a music lover than some high quality audio kit.
Price-wise, these are special gifts for the special people in your life, but I’ve kept things below the stratospheric levels you could reach with some full-on audiophile kit. Prices range from $200 to an admittedly eye-watering $1500 at the very top end of the speakers.
So here are four headphones and three speakers that are likely to be greatly appreciated by any music lover …
The big change this year, of course, was Apple choosing to abandon the headphone socket in the iPhone 7, dramatically boosting interest in wireless headphones. More and more people are also choosing to go wireless with their speaker systems too, so all my picks here are cable-free.
Additionally, while tastes do vary, and I do include one Beats product, the majority of the kit included in this guide is focused on delivering accurate, neutral sound.
Let’s kick things off with headphones, before moving on to speakers …
Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless
I’ve been a long-time fan of the wired P5s from the British audio company whose equipment is used in music studios around the world. I made the transition to the wireless version three months ago, and I’ve been very happy with the switch.
The on-ear headphones combine the fantastic, neutral sound for which the company is famous with great looks and comfort. The earcups are made from memory foam covered with lamb’s leather, and a fold-flat design makes them comfortable to hang around your neck when not in use – as well as sliding into a bag without taking up much space.
They deliver all-day battery-life (17 hours), and also include a 3.5mm cable you can plug in for use on planes. For me, they have the right balance of sound isolation, blocking most noise but still allowing some awareness of ambient sounds, like PA announcements. If you prefer full noise-cancelling headphones, check out the Bose ones below.
B&W P5 Wireless Headphones have a list price of $400, but they are available on Amazon for $299.98. You’ll also see there the option of recertified ones for $239.99 – like Apple’s refurbished kit, these are indistinguishable from new but come in a plain box which is perhaps less suitable for a gift.
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H7
For someone who prefers full over-ear headphones, B&O’s BeoPlay H7s are a great choice. This is the wireless version of the H6, and like B&W’s offering above, are very hard to distinguish from the wired version once you’re wearing them.
They come in a range of colors, so you can choose one to suit the recipient’s tastes. I’m a black headphone guy myself, but I have to say that the alternative grey, brown and natural/tan options look great too. Again, lambs leather and memory foam earcups make them supremely comfortable.
You get B&O’s signature sound quality, again very neutral, with a perfect balance of bass, mid-frequencies and upper notes. The over-ear design means greater sound isolation than the P5s, which personally I find a little much for use on the street, but you can still hear when a PA announcement is being made. Battery-life is 20 hours, and they have touch controls that work even with gloves.
B&O BeoPlay H7 wireless headphones have a list price of $449, but are available on Amazon for $399.
Bose QuietComfort 35
This is the one to choose for someone who wants active noise-cancellation. Personally, I only like this on flights, where it’s great to be able to completely lose the combined drone of the engines and wind-noise, but some people love it all the time. You get 20 hours wireless use, though you can double this to 40 hours when using the supplied cable to reserve the battery purely for noise-cancellation.
Bose QuietComfort 35s are once more the wireless version of an extremely well-regarded wired model the QC25. They use dual microphones to identify and eliminate external sounds, even doing well with wind-noise when out and about.
Bose sound isn’t quite as neutral as B&W and B&O, with a slight bias toward upper frequencies, but there’s no loss of natural-sounding bass, and many do like the bright sound. Looks-wide, I’m not a fan of the silver option, which looks a little garish to me, but the black looks great in an understated way.
Bose QuietComfort 35 wireless noise-cancelling headphones cost $349 with free shipping from Amazon.
Beats Solo3 Wireless
I hesitate to include these, as personally I consider the only ‘premium’ element to be the price, but there’s no getting away from the fact that these are hugely popular headphones, especially among teens. They also feature Apple’s new W1 chip for instant and painless pairing across Apple devices.
They come in a choice of six colors, from a restrained black through the clean white shown above to the more garish gold and rose gold. They claim 40 hours of wireless use, which is well above other models out there, with a five-minute Fast Fuel charge giving three hours of use.
Sound-wise … well, these are Beats. You get booming bass, not much in the high frequencies and pretty poor mid-range. It’s not remotely to my taste, but then I’m not exactly a hiphop guy. The chances are, anyone whose ears favor the Beats sound will let you know about it.
Beats Solo3 Wireless headphones have a list price of $299.95, but are available from Amazon for significantly less. Amazon isn’t allowed to show the price until you add them to your basket, but suffice it to say that’s the place to buy them.
Bose SoundLink Mini II
There are Bluetooth speakers available at every price level, and you tend to get what you pay for. When you want to step up from ok sound to hifi standard, the entry point is around $200 – and that’s what Bose has achieved with its SoundLink Mini II.
Despite its diminutive size, it still manages an impressive level of bass without sounding exaggerated or distorted even at high volume. Unlike most Bose products, the bass actually dominates slightly, with the mid-range and treble sometimes a little over-powered, but for the size and price, it’s an impressive performance.
Design-wise, you get a choice of black of white (sorry, Pearl or Carbon) in an anodised aluminum casing. The battery claims up to 10 hours use, and you can recharge it from any USB power source, so you could add a battery-pack for additional life.
The Bose SoundLink Mini II has a list price of $199, but is available from Amazon for $179.
Sonos made a big splash with its updated PLAY:5 wireless speaker. This WiFi speaker system doesn’t offer support for hi-res audio, and you have to use Sonos’ own app to play Apple Music, but these are really the only negatives in an otherwise fantastic product. It’s a good way to add a Sonos speaker to an additional room, but also makes a great gift on its own.
While it looks on the outside like a single speaker, it’s in fact six separate speakers, each with its own Class D amp. You get three 10cm mid-woofers and three tweeters, one 23cm, two 20cm. The result is incredibly impressive, easily filling a small room with sound, and doing remarkably well in a mid-size one.
You wouldn’t think you could get enough bass out of a unit this size, but it really delivers. Indeed, for my ears it’s perhaps just a touch bass-heavy, but this is easy to adjust in the Sonos app. When you first do the setup, Sonos uses your iPhone microphone to determine the acoustic properties of your room to adjust the sound to suit.
Looks-wise, it’s extremely clean and stylish, and the choice of black or white means it fits into most decors.
The Sonos PLAY:5 speaker system has a list price of $499, but is available from Amazon for $469.
Naim Mu-so & Mu-so Qb
And finally, we break the bank …
Naim is another British audio company with an impressive audiophile heritage – its flagship amplifier system comes in at a cool $150k – which made a leisurely move into the wireless arena with two products this year. I reviewed both when they were launched, so check out the reviews of the Mu-so and Mu-so Qb for chapter-and-verse.
The original Mu-so costs $1500, which sounds an incredible amount if you think of it as a wireless speaker system, but this is a true, audiophile-grade complete replacement for a hi-fi system. It looks stunning, has an absolutely gorgeous combined touch-panel and beautifully-weighted volume control, and has massive cooling fins at the rear to keep things cool.
Connectivity-wise, the Mu-so does it all: AirPlay, Bluetooth, UPnP, Spotify Connect, Tidal, wired Ethernet, USB, optical and 3.5mm analog. It also supports mp3, FLAC, AIFF and WAV at up to 24-bit/48KHz, with 24-bit/192KHz available if you use Ethernet instead of wireless.
And the sound? It’s perfect. Chest-thumping bass and crystal-clear treble, and enough volume to fill any domestic room. This is a genuine hifi system in a box.
The mu-so Qb seems to have been designed to deliver something as close as the company could get to its bigger brother without compromising quality while hitting a $999 price point. It’s a lot smaller, and the 300w volume isn’t quite room-filling in larger rooms, but otherwise it’s a remarkably close emulation of its bigger brother in a more compact package.
The Naim mu-so and mu-so Qb are available from Amazon. List price is $1499 and $999 respectively, but you can save $100 on each from Amazon.