Playlist Gift Guide: Speakers, headphones and accessories
It’s gift-buying season, when people are looking (or desperately searching) for gifts for their friends and family. If you’ve got an iPod owner on your gift list, we’re here to help with gift suggestions from Playlist staff and contributors. We’ve got a different category of gifts each day this week:
And don’t miss Friday’s feature, where we’ll be announcing Playlist’s 2005 Plays of the Year—our picks for the best iPod-related products of 2005. (You can also browse our Product Guide and Featured Reviews sections for much more product info, or purchase Playlist’s own book on accessories, Your iPod Life , from your local bookstore or online retailer.)
For the gift recipient who likes to listen out loud, we’ve got a few suggestions.
iHome Audio iH5 . For people who need music to get going in the morning, iHome Audio’s iH5 is the perfect nightstand companion. It provides a charging cradle for dockable iPods and great sound for its size, and will wake you with anything in your collection. (It also includes an AM/FM radio and a standard buzzer alarm.) Stash the $20 remote under your pillow, and you won’t even need to roll over to hit the snooze button ($100; iHome Audio). —JONATHAN SEFF
Klipsch iFi . If your lucky gift-getter has been asking for a new home stereo system, ask if he or she needs a CD player or radio. If not—many people listen to their iPods exclusively these days—the Klipsch iFi may just be the best (and most expensive) option. A true home stereo system designed around the iPod, the iFi’s Control Dock holds (and charges) dockable iPods; a wireless remote lets you control volume and iPod playback. The system’s impressive sub includes a 200-watt amplifier that powers the sub as well as the Reference Series RSX-3 satellites—the same speakers the company sells separately for home use. In other words, you get more power and higher-quality components than you’ll find in traditional “computer” speakers. And although you could put together a traditional home stereo that sounds better, you’d be hard-pressed to do so for the price of the iFi, including the convenience of the dock base and remote control. ($400; Klipsch). -D.F.
Logic 3 i-Station shuffle . If you’re looking for a system for an iPod shuffle owner, my favorite is Logic 3’s i-Station shuffle. It features decent sound for the price; a shuffle-only USB dock that charges your iPod as it plays; and a USB port on the back of the system that lets you sync your shuffle with iTunes. You also get audio line-in and -out jacks to listen to another source through the speakers or to connect the i-Station to a better audio system at home, respectively. Consider this: For $20 more than Apple’s iPod shuffle Dock, you get the same functionality plus some decent speakers ($50; Logic 3). -D.F.
Logitech mm50 . When it comes to portable iPod speakers, even the best models trade sound quality for size. But Logitech’s mm50 provides surprisingly good sound in a package that includes all the features you want in a portable speaker system: remote control, dock cradle, computer connectivity, and size small enough to fit in your suitcase or carry-on. And the internal rechargeable battery means that you can just plug in the mm50 when you get home, and both it and your iPod will be charged and ready to go the next day ($150; Logitech). -D.F.
Sonic Impact i-Fusion Portable Speakers for iPod . There are many portable speakers systems out there, but for go-anywhere types the i-Fusion is hard to top, being equally useful on a rock wall as it is in a dorm room. The four speaker system pumps out great mid-range sound at an economical price. And to protect it from the great outdoors’ little mishaps, the entire system collapses into a self-contained, rigid carrying case when not in use—there’s even a cargo bay that stores your iPod. Better yet, rather relying on ecologically nightmarish disposable batteries (or sucking power from your iPod), the iFusion has a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery built-in that provides up to 15 hours of playtime. Hook it up to your favorite solar charging system (more on that tomorrow) and you can keep your tunes pumping when you go off the grid ($150; Sonic Impact). -MATHEW HONAN
Tivoli Audio iSongBook . If you’re looking for more from a transportable iPod speaker system—for example, AM/FM radio with station presets, digital alarm clock, a remote control that works with both the system and a docked iPod, and good sounding speakers that can be detached for better stereo imaging—look no farther than Tivoli Audio’s iSongBook. This attractive white and silver, compact sound system features a unique flip-down universal dock that accommodates any dock-connector iPod. Although we’d be reluctant to toss it into a backpack or suitcase unprotected—it bears a couple knobs on the front that could be damaged—it can be easily moved around the house. Given its size, we’re not surprised that its speakers lack a lot of oomph in the bass, but we’re very pleased with its mids and high-end. At over $300 it’s not a gift you’ll give lightly, but it’s one that’s sure to be appreciated ($330; Tivoli Audio). -CHRISTOPHER BREEN
If the object of your affection would rather keep the music to him/herself—or if you just wish they would more often—one of the best gifts is an upgrade from Apple’s stock earbuds.
Etymotic ER-6i . We’ve long been fans of Etymotic’s ER-6i in-ear-canal headphones for their great sound for the price. Although bass-heads will want to check out our FS1 recommendation, below, for everyone else, the ER-6i offer pristine detail, excellent midrange, and good bass, along with excellent comfort as canalphones go. And since the new iPod nano and iPod with video are available in black, Etymotic has released a black version of the ER-6i (with gray earpieces) that matches the new iPods perfectly ($149; Etymotic Research). -D.F.
ezGear ultraEars SX70 earphones . It’s tough to find a set of good in-ear-canal headphones (a.k.a., canalphones) for under $100. However, I’ve been fairly impressed with ezGear’s new ultraEars SX70 (not pictured). They don’t completely seal in your ears—making them closer to Sony’s popular EX71/81 models than to traditional canalphones—but they still block out a good amount of external noise and are more comfortable, to boot (at least for my ears). And although the SX70’s audio is somewhat midrange-heavy, you get good bass and overall sound quality that’s noticeably better than most of the other sub-$50 “canalphones” I’ve heard ($50; ezGear). -D.F.
FutureSonics/XtremeMac FS1 . Two of the most common criticisms of canalphones are that they’re ugly and they don’t have enough bass. The FS1, a result of a collaboration between Mac accessory maker XtremeMac and in-ear-monitor specialist Future Sonics, addresses both of those concerns, and then some. Thanks to a curvaceous design available in white/gray or black/gray, they’re probably the most stylish canalphones I’ve seen. And if you get a good seal—not difficult, thanks to three kinds of eartips included in the box—you’ll get bass the likes of which you’ve never heard from in-ear-canal headphones. (In fact, although the FS1 provide very good overall sound, if you’re not a fan of strong bass, you might want to look elsewhere.)
Sennheiser PX 100 . Some people just don’t like earbuds (including canalphones like those recommended here). If you know someone with these preferences, check out Sennheiser’s PX 100—especially the iPod-matching white-and-silver version. These are a far cry from the cheap headphones that used to come with every Walkman and portable CD player. In fact, they’re quite possibly the best “lightweight” headphones ever—they sound great, are comfortable enough to wear all day, and feature a design that allows them to fold up like a pair of eyeglasses for travel. (A handy hard-shell case is included.) It would be tough to find better sound and comfort for the price ($50; Sennheiser). -D.F.
Ultimate Ears super.fi 3 Studio . Yes, another set of in-ear-canal headphones. But the super.fi 3 Studio stand out as likely the best bang-for-the-buck on the market by offering a taste of what you’ll get from the big boys for only $100. (Keep in mind that good canalphones have traditionally ranged in price from $150 to $1000.) Of course, you don’t get the reference-quality bass or detail of better models, but the super.fi 3 are the least expensive canalphones that can truly reveal your iPod’s potential (or your low-bit-rate music’s flaws)—if I had a $100 budget, these are the ones I’d buy ($100; Ultimate Ears). -D.F.
If the person opening your presents already has a good home stereo system, all they need is a way to connect their iPod to that stereo. Here are a few recommendations.
DLO HomeDock / Kensington Stereo Dock . For a complete solution for hooking your iPod up to your home entertainment system—dock, charger, remote control—Kensington’s Stereo Dock (pictured above) is a near-perfect accessory. It fits all dockable iPods, provides a line-level audio output for connecting your iPod to your stereo, and includes my favorite iPod remote (in terms of comfort and design). DLO’s HomeDock (pictured below) adds as USB port for connecting to your computer and a video output port for connecting your photo- or video-capable iPod to your TV. And unlike any other “dock” on the market, if you’ve got your iPod in a protective case, you don’t have to remove it from the case to connect it to the HomeDock (HomeDock: $100; DLO; Stereo Dock: $90; Kensington). -D.F.
Harman Kardon iPod Bridge . Harman Kardon ranks among the elite when it comes to consumer audio, so it was no surprise to see the company develop a product that would allow the iPod to interact directly with Harman’s high-end receivers. The iPod Bridge connects the iPod to a Harman Kardon AVR 40 Series A/V receiver in the home, providing an audio and control link between the iPod and the receiver that enables you to display on-screen menus on the front panel of the AVR 40. What’s more, if you have a TV or video display connected to your AVR 40, you can navigate the iPod’s contents from there. ($70; Harman Kardon). -JIM DALRYMPLE
SendStation PocketDock Line Out (FireWire or USB) . If you’re in the market for one of Apple’s iPod docks—to connect your iPod to your stereo via the line-level audio output from the iPod’s dock connector—consider a PocketDock instead. Both the FireWire and USB Line-Out PocketDock models include a line-level audio output via a tiny adapter that plugs into your iPod’s dock port. However, each PocketDock also lets you charge/sync your iPod using a standard FireWire or USB cable, respectively. In other words, PocketDocks are pocket versions of Apple’s iPod docks, only more flexible, since you don’t need a special cable to use them—keep a PocketDock in your bag and you never have to worry about forgetting your dock connector cable again ($30; SendStation). -J.S. & D.F.
Griffin Technology iPod Home Connect Kit / Nyko Stereo Link . Instead of buying a new speaker system for your iPod, why not hook your iPod up to your existing home stereo? To do so, you just need the right cable to go from your iPod’s headphone jack—or, even better, dock line-out jack—to the inputs on the speakers or stereo. Griffin’s iPod Home Connect Kit (pictured above) is a sure bet to get you hooked up right: Each of its two cables has a miniplug on one end that can be plugged into your iPod or dock. The other end of the 6-foot cable provides left/right female RCA plugs, perfect for connecting directly to the inputs on most stereo receivers and amplifiers. The other end of the 7-inch cable provides left/right male RCA connectors, which can attach to an existing pair of stereo interconnects. Or you can connect the two cables together to get a single mini-to-mini cable that will let you plug into most portable and “computer” speakers. Nyko’s Stereo Link (pictured below) provides an attractive alternative that combines the dock and cables into a single accessory: a cable with a dock connector on one end and left/right RCA plugs on the other. You lose the dock’s ability to hold your iPod upright, and when using the Stereo Link you can’t charge or sync your iPod, but for $15, the Stereo Link is the least expensive option on the market—and it doesn’t sacrifice sound quality to achieve that low price (iPod Home Connect Kit: $15; Griffin Technology; Stereo Link: $15; Nyko). -Jennifer Berger & D.F.
For more information on iPod accessories, check out the Playlist Product Guide.