It’s time once more for my audio gift guide, and I’m again attempting to offer options at a range of price points – while mostly sticking to premium products.
For me, a premium audio product is one of the best possible gifts for music lovers, for two reasons. First, most people listen to music every day, so it’s a gift they will enjoy more frequently than almost anything else you could buy them. Second, giving someone access to better audio quality can massively increase the pleasure they get from listening to music …
I’m making recommendations in five categories:
- In-ear headphones
- Over-ear headphones
- Portable speakers
- Home speakers
Within most, I give you my top recommendation, a good lower-cost alternative, and a popular model that may not be my personal choice but by definition appeals to many.
Of course, AirPods get a mention, but we have a dedicated audio gift guide for those, together with accessories for them.
My choice: Master & Dynamic MW08 ($299)
Master & Dynamic have been my brand of choice for true wireless in-ear headphones, and each year I try competing models to see if anyone has wrested the crown from them. I even tried a pair recently with planar drivers, but the latest MW08 for me still offers the best combination of the best audio quality in the in-ear category, with a simply gorgeous charging case that really delivers on a premium look and feel. Check out my full review here.
Lower cost: Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus (From $191)
The older MW07 model offers near-identical audio quality with equally stylish cases, just in a slightly larger form. Some colors are available at around the $200 mark, while others go for $249 – where the latter are concerned, I’d suggest paying the extra $50 for the latest model.
Popular: AirPods ($150) / With wireless charging case ($200) / Pro ($249)
If you’re buying for a teenager, then there’s a good chance this is the only brand they care about. But AirPods are also popular with anyone who is okay with the sound quality and values the simple pairing and/or Spatial Audio feature.
My choice: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 ($399)
As with the in-ear category, I still haven’t found anything to beat the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 for audio quality coupled to highly effective noise-cancellation (way too effective, according to my girlfriend). They are also comfortable to wear, and their dual-pairing capability is something that, once experienced, you’ll never want to be without. You can be simultaneously connected to say an iPhone and a Mac, and as soon as you play audio from one or the other, the headphones Just Work. With 30 hours of battery life, and a 15-minute fast-charge for an extra five hours, they are also super practical.
Lower cost: Bose QQ35 Series II (around $200)
These were once the king of noise-cancelling headphones, and are still an excellent and popular choice today – at around half the cost of the PX7. In my view, you are sacrificing some audio quality, but they are every bit as comfy, and still very much a premium audio product.
Popular: Apple AirPods Max ($549)
At well over $500, these would be a generous gift, but I can’t really not include them. The audio quality really is up there with established premium brands, plus you get Spatial Audio and the unique Apple pairing experience.
The pandemic has meant that many more people spend half their day on Zoom calls, where speaking is as important as listening. Then there are gaming fiends, who need to be able to talk as they play. All the headphones listed feature microphones, of course, but you’ll always get better outgoing audio quality from something designed for the task, aka headsets.
Best for calls: AfterShokz Aeropex ($160)
These are bone conduction headphones, which will always be more comfortable than in-ear headphones, and cooler than over-ear ones. So for anyone who spends all day on the phone or in video conferences, the AfterShokz Aeropex are a great choice. I find them so comfortable I honestly forget I’m wearing them, and the microphones ensure you are heard as clearly as you can hear others. I also use them for cycling, as they allow me to listen to podcasts without blocking out the surrounding sounds.
Best for gaming: Master & Dynamic MG20 ($449)
These won’t be available until tomorrow (Nov. 22), but I’ve had the chance to try them ahead of the launch, and they seem to live up to the company’s goal of creating the ultimate gaming headset. They offer 50mm beryllium drivers and 7.1 surround sound support for fantastic in-game sound, together with independent volume controls for game sounds and chat. The lightweight magnesium, lambskin leather, and Alcantara construction makes them comfortable for extended wear, while the detachable microphone boom ensures great quality for your own voice. Comes complete with a low-latency wireless adapter for fast-action games. They look great too.
Lower cost: Sony SRS-NB10 (around $100)
If you’re buying for someone who works from home alone, the SRS-NB10 neckband system is another very comfortable option. Lightweight, 20 hours of battery life, and great microphones. However, it uses upward-facing speakers rather than headphones, so anyone around you will hear everything.
My choice: Sonos Move ($399)
This might be more luggable than portable, but if you’re looking for great outdoor sound, enough volume for a party, and enough battery life to last an evening (up to 11 hours), the Sonos Move is hard to beat. It offers two Class-D amp driving a mid-woofer and tweeter, and you get both AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth connectivity. Be warned, though, that it’s hard to find right now, and there are scalpers out there asking way over the $399 retail price.
Lower cost: JBL Charge 5 ($180)
This is a mid-range Bluetooth speaker with really amazing sound quality for the size and price. It’s waterproof, comes in a wide choice of colors, offers up to 20 hours of battery life, and you can pair two of them for stereo output.
Popular: Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2 (from $73)
If you want to get under $100, then the popular option is also the one I’d recommend. The sound quality is decent for the size, and it offers the same benefits as the JBL in terms of color choice, waterproofing, and stereo-pairing. Battery life of up to 13 hours.
For me, the single biggest development in home audio in recent years has been true single-box hi-fi systems that are worthy of the name – or worthy of the Naim, as my top recommendation hasn’t changed.
My choice: Naim mu-so (around $850)
This would be an incredibly generous gift, but also one likely to be valued for a very long time. I reviewed the Naim mu-so back in 2016 and was incredibly impressed. A British audio company best known for its $150,000 amplifier had produced an absolutely incredible sub-$2K all-in-one hi-fi system. The Naim mu-so 2 adds stereo, greater smarts – adapting the output of each driver to the room – and a bit more power, but it’s $1,700. You can pick up the original for around $850, which I think provides substantially better value given the very close performance in real-life use.
Lower cost: Original HomePod (from $250)
I said at the time that I was really saddened when Apple discontinued the original HomePod, which I described as Apple’s most misunderstood product. Forget the debatably limited Siri smarts, the HomePod was an extremely capable, highly advanced speaker that offered superb sound quality for the money. I have the Naim mu-so in my living room, and HomePods everywhere else. You’ll have to hunt for examples now, especially if you want them boxed and unused as you most likely would for a gift, but it’s really worth it for the right person.
Popular: Homepod mini ($99)
There was never any doubt about what had to occupy this slot! Sure, the sound quality doesn’t compare with its bigger and more expensive predecessor, but this gives a lot of people what they want: good enough sound and smart home control at a price that provides affordable multi-room music. You can even pick up new and boxed units for less than retail.
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