LISTEN: Audio-related gift ideas for 2012

If you're a fan of music, or have someone on your gift list who is still using the Apple headphones provided by them, you'll want to consider some of these items from our 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide.

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

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Note: Products listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's web site or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

CoolStream Bluetooth Receiver

$40

This tiny device attaches to any existing speaker/docking system for the iPod, iPhone or iPad (using Apple's old Universal Docking Connector, not the new one introduced by the iPhone 5), and allows Bluetooth wireless connectivity from your iOS device to the speakers. The device is very easy to set up (provided you know how to pair via Bluetooth), and works reasonably well (at times the connection drops, but you can quickly get it back).

The main benefit is that you can now hold your iOS device in your hand and stream the music to the speakers, rather than keeping it connected to the dock. This is particularly handy if you want to skip a song, for example.

For iPhone 5 owners who don't want to wait for an official adapter from Apple, this can let them stream their music from their new phone wirelessly, and not have to ditch their existing (and sometimes expensive) speaker/docking station.

- Keith Shaw

Libratone Zipp Wireless AirPlay Speaker

$450

As the music world changed from physical media (records, cassette tapes, CDs) to digital format, and as music players shrunk into a very mobile world (iPods, iPhones, iPads, etc.), finding ways to play the music for multiple people became increasingly difficult. At first, we saw cables and connectors that aimed to take the music from the portable player to existing home stereo systems (these, obviously, still exist, for people with home stereo systems).

Then came portable speaker systems, and we've seen several come and go - some are good, some not so good, but they all did a good job of letting users take the music from their device and play it in a big room, for parties, etc.

We're now in a world where the music can be delivered without cables or direct connection - users can wirelessly stream the music from their player to the speaker in question. The Libratone Zipp is one such device. It utilizes Apple's AirPlay functionality (for iOS-based devices) - for two devices on the same internal Wi-Fi network (in this case, the player and the speaker), a user just needs to tap their AirPlay icon and pick the speaker's name to stream the music. For users who might not have access to a Wi-Fi network, you can use the system's PlayDirect mode - in this case, you can still wirelessly stream music stored on the iOS device to the Zipp. This also covers the audio track for movies - if you want to play a movie on your iOS device, but hear it through better speakers, AirPlay works great.

The Zipp speaker itself is a cylinder that includes three speaker covers made from Italian wool - you can unzip the wool cover quite easily and replace it with a different color. You can also buy different colors through Libratone's website. You can keep the Zipp connected to its power adapter, or use with its internal rechargeable battery, which Libratone says offers up to 8 hours of life. The cylindrical nature of the Zipp speaker means 360-degrees of sound coverage - you can place this in the middle of a room and everyone can hear the music clearly - no need to have to place the speaker in a corner or have people behind the speaker rely on the music bouncing off the wall.

For owners of non-iOS devices (such as an Android phone or Windows phone or older MP3 player), the Zipp includes an AUX audio port (but not a cable), and you can also stream music directly via a USB cable (again, not included).

One small nitpick, which is more the fault of Apple than Libratone. When using PlayDirect mode (wirelessly streaming without a Wi-Fi network), accessing Internet streaming music services like Pandora or Spotify require some additional tinkering. Libratone has a workaround in which you need to change the device's static IP address to enable this, but this also means that you have to stream the music over your 3G or 4G service, potentially causing data overage charges. If you do want to play music from those services, I'd suggest doing this only in the Wi-Fi (not PlayDirect) mode.

At $450, this might be out of the price range for several people - I'd suggest this as a gift option for someone who might not already own a speaker system (home or portable), rather than someone just looking for a way to wirelessly transmit music.

- Keith Shaw

Jabra Solemate

$200

For most of us, trying to decide on what portable speakers to purchase can be overwhelming. Should we get a docking station so the device can charge while playing? Do we want a remote control so we don't have to get up every time we want to change a song and/or a playlist? Or do we get a Bluetooth system so we can use our smartphone or tablet as a remote? Once those questions are answered, there's the issue of size, portability and cost.

There are many Bluetooth speakers on the market, ranging from $50 to over $500, but at $199, you can't go wrong with the Jabra Solemate. Don't let the size deceive you, the sound produced was incredibly rich, even at the higher volume levels, and the Bluetooth range was excellent. The Solemate has a solid design, starting with a treaded rubber base that not only prevents the unit from sliding all over your countertops, but also acts as a vibration dampener, improving the sound quality. The unit also has a convenient "handle" that lets you carry it around, and it also comes with a splash-resistant bag if you want to take this outdoors or to the beach.

If you hate reading instructions and don't feel like spending hours to get to know your new device, say hello to the Solemate. Setting this up is as easy as it gets: Just slide off the protective plastic cover, press the center button on top of the device, and it literally speaks to you to tell you how much battery life it has. The volume controls are also on top, making the unit so easy to use - my 7-year-old enjoyed listening to her iPod with the Solemate. The side of the unit features the power button, an auxiliary port for music players that don't support Bluetooth, and a USB port for charging the Solemate's battery.

- Brian Hawthorne

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