LISTEN: Audio-related gift ideas for 2012

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Monster Inspiration headphones

$300

These high-end headphones could give Beats a run for its money - the noise-canceling headphones fit over-the-head to produce high quality sound for your movie-watching or music-listening pleasure.

The system comes with three different cables - one of them connects to a music player - the other two cables include ControlTalk - which includes a microphone that lets you pause music and take a phone call (if you're using them with a smartphone).

Personalization features include a removable headband that you can replace with another style - the company sells many different color and style choices (for about $25 each) to help you create your own look. The foldable headphones also come with a very nice carrying case, making this a nice set to bring along with you on your next trip (and the noise-canceling feature, powered by two AAA batteries, can help drown out the jet engines on your flight).

The earbuds are comfortable enough to wear for many hours, but not the most comfortable I've ever worn - they seemed a bit tight, but I figured that would loosen up with more wear and tear.

In my tests the sound quality from the headphones was fantastic, and the noise-cancelation features stupendous (especially when I can drown out the sounds of my kids running and screaming through the house). If you're looking for a pair of high-end headphones for a holiday gift, make sure these are on your short list.

- Keith Shaw

Eton Rukus Solar sound system

$150

One thing we can say for certain about the Rukus solar-powered sound system is that it works as advertised. (One thing to make clear - this product is made by a company called Eton, and it is not related to Ruckus, which makes wireless gear.)

The sound system is relatively light (4 pounds), thin, black with a handle to ostensibly carry it to the beach or whatever outdoor, sunny location that you'd like to bring your music. There is a little pouch in the back where you can slip in your iPhone or other Bluetooth-enabled music source. To get Rukus up and running, you charge it via traditional USB, turn on your Bluetooth-enabled music source and Rukus syncs with your device and serves as a speaker system. And there's a solar panel on the front of the device, which keeps it charged.

We just happened to be painting the house while testing the device and used it on multiple days for long periods of time in varying degrees of sun and clouds, and it never ran out of power. So, we're using some cool technologies - Bluetooth, solar panels - but what exactly are we getting for $150? Here are some shortcomings of the Rukus: It has no ability to store music, and it's not a radio, it's simply a speaker system. You can take it to the beach and play music off your smartphone, but then you're running down your phone's battery. And as a speaker system, the sound is nothing to write home about.

- Neal Weinberg

Grace Digital EcoTerra ruggedized, waterproof boombox

$150

Yes, the boombox is back. The question is why? Audio specialist Grace Digital has come up with a boombox that's ruggedized and waterproof. The orange and black device has speakers on the left and right, with a rectangular space in the middle where you mount your music source (iPod, iPhone, Android phone) in a waterproof plastic case. Your music source plugs into the device and then you snap the lid shut with two large clips. A variety of push-button controls sit on the top of the device, allowing you to set the volume and move the songs along.

We tried the EcoTerra and it worked as advertised, although I wasn't going to drop my iPhone into water to test the waterproof capabilities of the EcoTerra. The EcoTerra has those carabiner clips and a shoulder strap in case you want to listen to music while conquering Mt. Everest, although I would probably choose my iPod.

As a gift for the mountain climber who has everything or for someone who likes to listen to music while floating in the pool, EcoTerra could be just the thing. On the other hand, for me, it falls into that category of a product in search of a reason to exist. Just to make this clear - this is not a radio, it does not store music, it's just a set of speakers. You have to provide the music source, so now you're dealing with two devices just in order to hear your music.

- Neal Weinberg

HMDX Jam Wireless Speaker

$50

The HMDX Jam wireless speaker is a decent option for wireless audio playback, which, in an increasingly mobile world, is in much need of improvement.

There aren't very many affordable and effective options for speakers that play music stored on smartphones and MP3 players. Because of this, the Jam's Bluetooth playback feature is its strongest selling point. In my tests with the native iTunes app on an iPhone 4S, music was played through the speaker within minutes. Even users without much experience of using the Bluetooth function on a smartphone or laptop won't have much of a problem figuring it out.

The main tradeoff of the device is in sound quality. While the music was definitely louder than what you get on a standard laptop speaker, the sound quality fell short of traditional PC speakers enough to bother music nerds. That being said, it's a great option for listening to podcasts, audio books or other spoken-word audio file stored on a mobile device.

The Jam speaker could be a good fit in places where music or audio would fit in but doesn't necessarily need to be too loud, such as a workshop or a day care. It also comes with a USB converter for recharging the device when it gets low on power, meaning users won't need to keep buying batteries for it. The speaker can play three hours of audio before it needs to be recharged.

For those who wouldn't nitpick about audio playback - that includes most people - the convenience and price makes it a great gift.

- Colin Neagle

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