LISTEN: Audio-related gift ideas for 2012

By , Network World |  Green IT, headphones, music

I was also impressed with the unit's design. All of the control buttons are flush with the curve of the speakers. If you aren't specifically looking for a button, you might not even see them. The unit is compact and looks great sitting on a shelf or a bookcase. Even the dock doesn't look out of place, whether there's a device docked or if it's empty.

While the sound was good, it wasn't "audiophile great". For the price ($230 to $280), you might be expecting better speakers. A good part of the price is the addition of AirPlay support. If you're looking for higher-end speakers and AirPlay support, it will cost you a lot more money. If you have an audiophile on your list, you might want to consider other systems, but for the majority of us, if you're looking for a nice wireless speaker system that is very easy to set up, the Contour 200i Air should be on the short list.

- Tom Lupien

Nuforce AirDAC iWireless Adapter

$199.99 (list; other non-Apple versions available)

With the wild (and wide) popularity of wireless media player technologies, such as Apple's AirPlay, it's no surprise that products like nuforce's AirDAC are attracting significant interest - and positive reviews from the home entertainment community. Think of AirDAC as an AirPlay alternative. The version I tested includes a receiver with stereo RCA output jacks, and a tiny 30-pin wireless transmitter that plugs into any Apple product similarly equipped.

I used a lowly iPad 1 for this test, and setup is literally plug-and-play. Plug the little wireless adapter into the iPad, and the also rather-petite receiver into your home entertainment or similar system. Then press play on iTunes - that's it!

The AirDAC has been praised for excellent sound quality, and I can attest to that - a lovely acoustic guitar piece from Al Petteway positively resonated, and audiophiles will rejoice at both the convenience and the sound. In addition, up to four AirDAC receivers can simultaneously receive audio, making whole-house audio easy - provided you don't exceed the wireless range. This depends on absolute distance between the endpoints as well as your building's construction particularities.

While AirPlay may be more than adequate for many, the AirDAC will thrill those looking for the ultimate in sound quality without compromising the convenience of wireless. A USB adapter for the transmitter is also included, just in case you're not an iOS user.

- Craig Mathias

Braven 600 Wireless Bluetooth Speaker

$150

I had low expectations for this speaker, as it took more than 15 minutes to just get it out of the box. The package is very artistic, but perhaps not constructed the way designers had in mind.

Once I got beyond that, the speaker was very easy to use, including connecting it to my phone via Bluetooth. After the connection was set up, I could rock out with this tiny speaker to Spotify and Pandora (as well as other music services). The speaker also has an AUX input jack, and could easily plug in to an iPod or computer.

The sound quality is unexpectedly terrific, considering the Braven 600 is only about 6 inches by 2 inches by 2 inches. It could fit in so many places! I appreciate that the speaker is a little rectangle. Unlike many other speakers, which focus on an eye-catching design and may have odd proportions, this speaker looks nice and functionally fits practically anywhere.

The Braven 600 can also be used for making and answering phone calls. The built-in microphone pauses your music and rings when a call comes in. It was a bit tricky and took some trial and error, but I probably should have read the online owners manual. The microphone on the Braven 600 also lets you use this for Skype calls if you want.

The size of the speaker would let you travel with it quite nicely, as you can fit it into small spaces, or just use on your desk. My only complaint is it might not be the easiest setup in the world for technophobes. But the price makes it a great gift for a wide variety of people.

- Jen Finn

iHome IP4GZ

$230

I think the majority of the pleasure that I derived from this speaker unit is from the appearance before even taking it out of the box. I got such a giggle out of the fact that it's built to look like a 1980s boom box. I was a little disappointed on the visuals once I got it out of the box though. This "boom box" is the most utilitarian, matte grey. I'd actually go so far as to say it's visually boring, but maybe it's just begging to be decorated and personalized with stickers.

After getting it out of the box, and moving beyond the design, it's a pretty average speaker. The sound quality is pretty standard, although the bass boost leaves something to be desired.

Considering the size, I was expecting some serious sound quality, but it's really on the same level as the smaller systems, such as the Braven 600. It is about the size of an old boom box and for such average sound, I don't know if I would buy something that isn't easily portable. However, I never blasted the volume. It might be ideal for a Kid-and-Play style house party.

As for the speakers, it features two 4-inch woofers and two 1-inch tweeters. It also weighs about 12 pounds. Just like many other speaker systems on the market, it fits iPods, iTouches, and iPhones. Plus it has an AUX input jack for other options. It plays FM radio and the iHome Radio app for a thousands of Internet stations. It can be plugged into the wall or will run off six D batteries. It does come with a remote control, which is something I really appreciate for units that are most likely going to stay in one place.

I'm sure this has a market ('80s/'90s nostalgia?) and someone will absolutely love it. I'm just not sure that person is more likely to be a Gen X-er who appreciates the visual reference, or if it will be a modern Hipster who can't wait to personalize the body to the nth degree. The radio feature makes this product stand out to me, but the sound quality is only average. 

- Jen Finn

Jawbone Big Jambox

$292.87 (Amazon)

This is a pretty cool device given its portability and functionality, not only as a portable speaker system but also a speaker phone. This would be a great gift for people with music on their smartphones, tablets or iPods who want to play music for a roomful of people or outdoors. The speakerphone is fun but of lower quality than an actual speakerphone.

What it really is is a pair of portable speakers packaged in a crisp rectangular package measuring 10 x 3 x 3 ¾ inches that can play audio from Bluetooth devices. Set up is easy. Press the pairing-mode button, have a Bluetooth device search for it and when it appears, connect them. That's it.

Connected wirelessly to an iPad, it played an album (Meatloaf, Bat Out of Hell) from across the house. The sound was clean, but as you might expect from a device this size, a little anemic on bass. Buttons on the top of the device allow play/pause, jumping forward and back from cut to cut and turning the volume up and down. A sixth button is designated for voice and turns the speaker phone on and off.

Setup for speaker phone is similar to set up for the iPad: Press the pairing mode button on the side and when Jambox appears on the phone's Bluetooth connection screen, choose it.

When the phone receives a call, the recipient can pick it up by hitting the Talk button. The caller's voice comes through the Jambox. The voice quality is a little muffled and the cell phone to Bluetooth to Jambox relay introduces noticeable delay.

Apparently the microphone on the device is very sensitive. After connecting Jambox to an Android phone, the device was charged, turned on and placed in its original box in the backseat of a car when the cell phone it was connected to rang. Answering the cell phone set up Jambox as a speaker phone. Initially the caller couldn't make out what was being said, but speaking loudly - not quite shouting - made for a usable connection. The caller's voice managed to make its way through the packaging and could be heard over road noise. It's not a very practical use case, but it was interesting.

- Tim Greene

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