Music is, to me, one of the greatest things in life. Whether it’s sitting down to actively listen to an album, with nothing else competing for your attention … dancing … having music help the time whizz by on a flight or other journey … or simply adding to the ambience when having friends round to dinner, music brings a huge amount of joy.
It’s never been easier or cheaper to play the music of your choice. A tenner a month on an Apple Music subscription gets you access to around 40 million songs on demand. You can access that music through any of your iDevices, but if you want to enjoy the experience to the full, a good pair of headphones or speakers make the world of difference.
After Zac shared his smart home gift guide, I’ve pulled together some personal recommendations for audio kit that will really enable your family and friends to get the most from their music – together with a few other miscellaneous suggestions at the end …
What I’ve done is divide things up into categories, then give you my personal favorite as the top recommendation. That’s followed by other recommended products – and finally some best-selling products that may not be to my personal taste, but whose popularity justifies their inclusion.
The categories are:
- In-ear headphones
- On-ear headphones
- Over-ear headphones
- Bluetooth speakers
- AirPlay 2 speakers
- Grab bag of non-audio gift ideas
All my headphone recommendations are wireless, as that’s what you’ll need with the current iPhones and top-end iPads.
True wireless in-ear headphones are all about convenience. Slip them into your pocket or bag so they are available for use when you want them, but without any space or weight penalty when you don’t.
Top recommendation: Master & Dynamic MW07
In-ear headphones are the toughest challenge for audio companies: there’s only so much you can do with tiny drivers. That means you’re normally making a significant trade-off in audio quality for portability, but Master & Dynamic’s MW07 true wireless in-ear headphones deliver truly astonishing sound in a compact form. The polished stainless steel charging case also makes for stylish aesthetics. Check out my full review here.
Master & Dynamic MW07 cost $299, and are available in a choice of two colors.
If the recipient won’t mind a wire connecting the two earphones, Bose SoundSport are another decent-sounding alternative – if a bit heavy on the bass – for a more affordable $149, again often discounted.
More affordable yet are the Beyerdynamic Byron BT. These also have a connecting wire, and don’t compete in audio quality with my other recommendations, but they offer surprisingly good sound for a very affordable $70-ish.
Apple’s own AirPods are the most obvious alternative. The sound quality is distinctly average, but the clever pairing system and fashionable look mean many will appreciate them as a gift. Priced at $159, watch out for resellers charging higher prices at times of high demand.
On-ear headphones are, to me, the perfect balance between audio quality and portability. The best models get very close to the performance of over-ear headphones, but take up less space in a travel bag, and are less bulky when slung around the neck while out and about.
Top recommendation: Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless
One of the best bits of my job is that I get to play with new kit on a regular basis, but my recommendation for best on-ear headphones remains unchanged. The P5 Wireless offer superb audio quality, just the right amount of sound isolation, great looks, fantastic comfort thanks to memory-foam and lamb’s leather – and a neat folding design which makes them easy to pack and also comfy when hung around your neck. Plus you get a cable for use with in-flight entertainment systems.
Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless cost around $300.
If you’re after something friendlier on the wallet, you can get a really decent pair of on-ear headphones for well under $100. They’re not well-known outside audio circles, but AKG is a brand that is well-respected for delivering a lot of quality for a budget price. The AKG Y50BT are amazingly good for the money at around $75.
For listening at home, and for long-haul flights, over-ear headphones are the ideal option. They offer the greatest degree of sound isolation, and are the most comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
When it comes to over-ear headphones at a non-eye-watering price, I don’t think you can beat the Bowers & Wilkins PX. These offer the great audio quality you’d expect from B&W – based on the company’s high-end P9 Signature model – coupled to what the company calls ‘adaptable noise-cancellation.’ This offers three modes: flight blocks out everything, city allows in enough ambient sound to avoid walking under a bus, and office allows in nearby voice. They also pause automatically if you lift a cup away from your ear, and drop into standby mode if you switch them off.
Bowers & Wilkins PX cost around $350 in a choice of grey or gold.
Bose QC35 have long been the go-to headphones for frequent travellers, coupling decent sound to what has until recently been seen as the very best active noise-cancellation tech in the business. They also offer Alexa support, and the Series 2 remain a great choice at around $350.
But Bose has arguably just been beaten in the noise-cancelling stakes by the Sony WH-1000XM2. The Sony ANC is, in my view, even better. They also have a clever feature which allows you to hold your hand over the right earcup if someone wants to talk to you: this pauses the music but allows in ambient sound. The Sony headphones also allow the noise-cancellation to be tuned to your environment. Again, you’re looking at the same $350 price.
If money is no object, and they are for home use only, then the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless are your friend for a cool $700 – or a little less. The audio quality is incredible. But forget them for travel: there’s no ANC, and they are bulky, with no fold mechanism.
AirPlay 2 speakers are always going to be the best option for use at home, but if you’re buying for someone who wants something compact for travel use – or a speaker they can chuck in a bag to take to the beach – then, with one exception below, Bluetooth is going to be the way to go. Don’t expect hi-fi quality here, but for fun on a beach, any of the recommendations here will do the job.
The Ultimate Ears Megaboom 3 combines two 50mm drivers with two passive radiators to deliver an impressive amount of 360-degree sound with as good a quality as you’re going to find in a pure Bluetooth speaker. For $199, you also get something waterproof, dust-proof and, it claims, drop-proof.
AirPlay 2 speakers
For in-home speakers for use with iDevices, AirPlay has always been the way to go – and now AirPlay 2 is the gold standard for more reliable connectivity and no lag when playing video.
My absolute favorite AirPlay speaker got an over-the-air AirPlay 2 upgrade recently, so the Naim mu-so remains my top pick for the music lover you really want to spoil – with the mu-so Qb the next best thing. The unit comprises six speakers – two bass, two midrange and two tweeters – each with its own amplifier. There’s an utterly perfect combined volume control and touch panel, and it looks as beautiful as it sounds.
Apple’s own HomePod is a remarkable speaker for the money. Even a single speaker delivers a lot for the money at $349, but a stereo pair is well worth the money if it’s within budget.
The Sonos 1 – again, either a single speaker or a pair – is the next best thing, at $199 each.
If you want the best of both worlds – portability plus AirPlay 2 – then the Libratone Zipp is your friend, at $299 (or less). The Zipp Mini is less powerful, and given the $50 difference, I’d stick to the full size version.
The bad news and good news is that there’s not yet much choice in AirPlay 2 speakers. Bad news because options are limited, good news because you can’t really go wrong whatever you buy.
Grab bag of other ideas
If you’re looking for other ideas beyond audio, check out our other gift guides – as well as a few of my other suggestions below.
The BenQ ScreenBar is a really neat desk light that takes up no space, as it clips to the top of a monitor. Available in standard form for $99 or with a manual brightness dial in the Plus model for $129. Review here.
The iStorage DiskAshur Pro2 describes itself as ‘the most secure external SSD in the world’ – and with good reason. I reviewed the previous model earlier in the year, and the latest model has a whole slew of government security certifications. I’ve tried this one for myself, and another improvement is you no longer need to specify a Mac version: it’s formattable out of the box. Available from 500GB for $250-ish to 2TB for $400-ish.
One of the best presents you can get anyone is a robot vacuum cleaner, freeing them from one of life’s drudgeries. I reviewed the Neato Botvac D7 Connected in the summer, and was so impressed, I bought one.
It’s really intelligent, and I love the fact that we get a hoovered apartment every day for zero effort. It’s not cheap at $685, but that’s the Rolls-Royce model. The Neato range starts from $399, and there are of course many alternative brands from under $200. I’ll be reviewing a couple of them later in the month.
Touchscreen-compatible gloves are a great inexpensive gift now that the weather is chilly. They let people continue using their smartphone without removing their gloves. I reviewed Mujjo’s leather gloves a few years ago, and still use them today. I’m equally impressed with the latest model, designed for maximum warmth, for a little under $60. There’s plenty of choice in this market, from Mujjo and others.
While I mostly view photos on-screen, sometimes there’s no substitute for prints. For serious work, I send them to a pro lab, but if you just want a fun souvenier for a scrapbook, or to keep in your wallet or purse, the Lifeprint instant photo-printer is a really neat device that works directly from your iPhone. Think of it as Polaroid for the smartphone age. There’s also a fun Live Photos feature if you view the photo using the app. I reviewed an older model here, and the latest model – which I’ve also tried – is much neater. $120, or certified refurbished for $80.
When it comes to a really fun an immersive way to remember an adventure, or share it with others, you can’t beat 360-degree video. I tried out the original Insta360 ONE camera, and it instantly became an indispensable part of my travel kit. The Insta360 ONE X gets you higher-resolution video and slow-mo capabilities, at $400.
Check out our other gift guides for more ideas.