LISTEN: Audio-related gift ideas for 2012

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Marware UpSurge Mini Speaker


The Marware UpSurge Mini Speaker actually is more than meets the eye. The 2-inch by 2-inch cylinder fits in the palm of your hand, and plays music back in that form factor. However, a slight twist of the top half of the device - identifiable at a discrete seam just above the logo - expands the speaker. The result is a 2.5-inch tall speaker that resembles a tiny, upright-standing accordion and packs an impressive punch.

The volume can only be adjusted on the source device, but when it is the UpSurge amplifies it well. Extending the speaker allows it to amplify bass and vibrate independently, eliminating the disruptive buzz common when other bass-heavy speakers sit on a table or desk.

Although the 3.5-mm headphone jack makes it compatible with nearly any device that may play music, the UpSurge lacks the convenience of fully wireless access. However, the 3.5-mm cord provided is the only one needed for playback; the built-in Lithium-ion battery is rechargeable, and comes with a DC-5V-to-USB cord so it can be plugged into a laptop when it needs to be recharged. On a full charge, the UpSurge can play up to four hours of audio at 70% volume.

As a compact speaker, the UpSurge may be best suited for laptop-wielding college students, although given how loud it can get, their neighbors might not appreciate it.

- Colin Neagle

Marshall Headphones Minor


The first moment I laid eyes on these, I thought it was some kind of joke: there was no way these "Minor" headphones would fit in my normal, human-sized ears. Maybe the ears of a giraffe - maybe - but not me.

And yet here I sit, typing a review while using them to listen to Radical Face's "Welcome Home, Son" and being highly impressed with how they feel in my ears, to say nothing of the high audio quality produced by the Minor headphones.

They're intense looking, and I would be surprised if you didn't react in a similar fashion upon opening the box. But they work, and they work well. The Minor headphones produce excellent sound, and possibly a consequence of their monstrous size, they do a pretty good job blocking out ambient noise. They're surprisingly comfortable for such large earbud style headphones, but they can get uncomfortable if you leave them on too long.

They're also very well made, with high quality metals and plastics. The cord itself is made of the increasingly popular "rope" material, which is tougher and harder to tangle than traditional plastic cords.

The Minors come with additional ear pads of varying sizes, allowing a user to customize the pads to their ear size (medium are mounted in the box). I'm about average height and found the medium worked well for me. Because they're so well made, these Minor headphones by Marshall are highly recommended for the audiophile/mass transit commuter in your life.

- Dan Hunt

V-Moda Faders VIP earplugs


These earplugs are advertised as being outstanding at blocking out noise for racing, musicians, clubs, concerts and other loud events. Being unable to get to one of those, I tested these earplugs with two other happenings - mowing my lawn and going to a firing range.

The great thing about these plugs is that they do a great job transmitting noise you do want to hear: voices, music, etc. But they do a great job blocking out noises that could actually damage your ears. I discovered this firsthand when I took them to a shooting range with a group of friends. Several questioned how well they would work, and I was indeed a little worried when I saw the heavy duty plugs everyone else was using - but I'm happy to report the Faders VIP did a great job! They also worked very well mowing the lawn. All in all, they're highly recommended because they're discreet, affordable, and look better than most of the competition.

If you're concerned about protecting your ears at any loud event or occasion, check them out. They make a great stocking stuffer!

- Dan Hunt

PURE Contour 200i Air

$230 to $280

The Contour 200i Air is a wireless speaker system that lets you stream audio content from a mobile device (including a notebook, iPod, iPhone, Android or iPad) to the speakers. It supports Apple's wireless streaming technology, AirPlay, as well as its own technology (Pure Stream) if you want to stream Internet radio or other music via the company's Pure Connect app (for Android or iOS devices). It also includes a dock for the iPod, iPad or iPhone that can recharge your unit (at least the older models with the Universal Dock, not the Lightning adapter models).

The ability to send something from your portable devices or computers in an instant to an audio system makes this system a hit. For example, in my case I could leave this in my baby's room at night and wirelessly send a lullaby to her, without disturbing her more if she stirs a little bit.

Setup was incredibly easy - in my case I plugged an iPhone into the dock and pressed the Wi-Fi setup button in the back of the Contour Air unit. A message window popped up on the phone, asking me if I wanted to share my network settings with the Contour 200i Air. After choosing yes, the settings transferred.

I did have one issue - my 802.11n network is set up to only allow 802.11n devices - I had to change this to a mixed network on the router in order to connect the Contour 200i Air. This likely won't be an issue for most people, but we're mentioning this because we didn't see any documentation about this from PURE. If you don't want to change a wireless-n network to allow for mixed networks, the system does have an Ethernet port.

Once connected, the system worked great. I queued up a playlist from the iPad, chose the 200i from a list of AirPlay devices, and hit the Play button. The sound is room-filling and clean at most volumes. It's also very easy to control the volume via the iPhone or iPad.

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