If you’re buying a gift for someone who loves music, and listens to it all the time, there are few things that will bring more pleasure than a really high-quality speaker or pair of headphones.
Not only will they allow your lucky recipient to experience their music at a whole new level, but premium audio is also a gift that will last them a very long time.
Granted wireless standards can change, so we may no longer be living in a time when we can say a great speaker or pair of headphones will last a lifetime, but they remain something which will be appreciated for at least many years to come …
This is unashamedly a premium audio guide – aimed at a main gift for someone close to you, with pricing ranging from $300 to $1350. However, for both headphones and speakers, I’ve also included an affordable option. Something which may not quite justify the ‘premium’ tag, but which offers decent quality for a more affordable price in the $100-120 range.
Rather than take a shotgun approach, presenting you with a long list of potential products, I’m going the curated route, covering a handful of products that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Let’s start with headphones …
Bose QuietComfort 35 (series II) wireless headphones ($300-350)
I haven’t always had good things to say about Bose products. In the early days, the company used cheap components wrapped up in pretty enclosures, but those days now appear to be safely behind it. Bose audio quality has steadily improved over the years, and its QuietComfort headphones in particular have long been the benchmark for really effective noise-cancellation coupled to a degree of comfort that made them the headphones of choice for long-haul flights.
The QuietComfort 35 brings wireless capabilities to the range for the first time, offering an impressive 20 hours of battery-life that can be boosted to 40 hours if you use them wired instead.
Looks-wise, they are sleek and understated, while the audio quality is neutral but not lacking in bass power.
Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 & PX wireless headphones ($300-400)
I’ve long been a huge fan of Bower & Wilkins on-ear P5 headphones. The sound quality is everything you’d expect from B&W: clear, powerful and beautifully neutral. The B&W sound is one that simply gets out of the way of the music.
The P5 combines this with fantastic comfort, a really practical folding design that enables them to slip easily into any bag, and great looks.
The P5 Wireless took everything that was great about the standard P5 and simply removed the cable (though you can still use the supplied one if running low on power).
The PX are chunkier over-ear headphones based on the company’s high-end P9 ones, but retain the fold and add noise-cancellation. Whether this justifies the extra heft depends on the environments in which they will be used. My personal tastes are for the P5 most of the time, but you can’t beat noise-cancellation on a long flight.
B&W P5 Wireless Series 2 cost $300, while you can pick up recertified Series 1 for a lot less. However, these are less suitable as gifts as they come in more basic packaging. The B&W PX cost $400 in a choice of Space Grey and Soft Gold.
Affordable headphone option: Bose SoundSport Wireless ($120)
Ok, I’m slightly stretching the ‘premium audio’ description here, but if you are buying for someone who’s expressed an interest in AirPods and – crucially – you think they might sacrifice the fashion appeal of Apple’s offering for the higher sound quality of an alternative, the Bose SoundSport Wireless are well worth a look.
No, they are not audiophile quality. They pump put too much bass, and the treble is perhaps a bit bright. But compare them to AirPods and it’s night and day. For the price, these offer remarkably decent audio quality.
On a practical note, they are sweat resistant and designed to remain in your ears while jogging. But the downside is a claimed battery-life of six hours, without the charging case option you get with AirPods.
Bose SoundSport Wireless cost $120 and are available in a choice of four colors.
Sonos Play 5 wireless speaker
While I’m not normally a fan of speakers that require their own app, you have to give Sonos a pass on this as it has created its own very effective and very popular multi-room audio ecosystem. The app does play nicely with both Apple Music and Spotify, so while I wish it supported AirPlay, I still happily use it.
The reason is that Sonos has pulled off a remarkable achievement, packing in a huge amount of punch into a speaker that – while chunky – is still sufficiently portable to be moved from room to room.
Aesthetically, this could have been designed by Apple. Beautifully clean and minimalist, with touch-sensitive controls on the top. The Play 5 is available in both black and white.
Sound-wise, this is effectively a hifi system in a box. Behind that grill are are six drivers – three mid-woofers, three tweeters – each with its own Class D amp. It has true room-filling capabilities without any hint of distortion. The bass, in particular, is hugely impressive in a box this size – so much so that I recommended backing off a little in the EQ settings.
A single unit will be more than enough for most people, while adding a second one allows stereo sound, a nice piece of future-proofing.
Naim Audio mu-so and mu-so Qb ($1350 or $900)
If you like the idea of buying someone a hifi in a box, but really want to step up the quality (and the budget!), then British firm Naim Audio provides true audiophile quality in a single unit, at a choice of two somewhat scary price levels.
The mu-so was the first ever wireless speaker from a firm with impeccable credentials. As I wrote in my review of the system last year:
This British company has for many years made some of the most respected amplifiers in the business. Naim long had an informal partnership with Linn, and if the standard audio system fitted to Bentley’s ultra-expensive cars isn’t good enough for you, the optional audio upgrade is to a Naim system.
The audio quality is perfect straight from the box. Indeed, so confident is the company in this that there are no equalisation controls, whether hardware or software. The company honed the audio balance to its own exacting standards and doesn’t want the likes of you or I messing with it.
Standards-wise, you get 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
It’s also a beautiful-looking piece of kit, and the touch-sensitive multi-function volume control knob is an absolute joy to use. It’s no surprise that Apple features the Mu-so on its website.
The mu-so Qb is a more compact version with a somewhat more affordable price-tag, with the same sound quality and same gorgeous controls. Amazingly, a pretty compact box pumps out a full 300 watts without the remotest trace of distortion.
Affordable speaker option: Ultimate Ears Roll 2 ($99)
Again, ‘affordable’ and ‘audiophile’ don’t go together, but this portable Bluetooth speaker is amazingly impressive for the price. The sound quality is better than anything else I’ve listened to at this price level, as well as not a few more expensive speakers.
It’s also a brilliantly practical outdoor speaker. It’s compact, rugged,has an impressive wireless range of 100 feet – and the battery lasts 5-10 hours, depending on how you use it. It’s also available in a funky range of colors and designs.
The Roll 2 is not only fully waterproof, certified to IPX7, but the company is so confident in this it even supplies a floatie so that you can take it in the pool with you.
The original UE Roll is almost as good, but only available now in recertified form, so less suitable as a gift.
If you have your own recommendations, do share them in the comments.