By Macworld Staff, MacworldDEC 6, 2004 4:00 pm PST
It’s that time of year: the holidays. A time when many people find themselves scrambling to find gifts for their loved ones—hopefully, gifts those loved ones will actually use. If the object of your yuletide affection is an iPod owner, we’re here to help with a week full of suggestions for some of our favorite iPod presents—presents guaranteed to elicit a reaction far more positive than “Oh, gee, another sweater. And so garishly colored too! Thanks awfully….”
We’ve divided our gift nominations into five categories, one per day, so be sure to check back each day for the best in iPod gear. (You can also browse our
Product Guide and
Featured Reviews sections for much more product info.)
We claimed yesterday that the first accessory most iPod users need is a case. The second, in our opinion, is a better set of headphones. Don’t get us wrong—the iPod earbuds aren’t horrible, and many people insist on wearing them because they scream, “Look, I’m using an iPod! Ain’t I cool?” But if your favorite iPod user wants their music to sound as good as their player looks, a pair of high quality ’phones will bring an ear-to-ear smile to their face.
That being said, not everyone wants to spend their days in an audio cocoon; it’s nice to hear the outside world once in a while—without shutting down the tunes, of course. So the other “it” audio accessory for the iPod this year is a set of speakers. (They have the added benefit of letting iPod owners share their music without having to worry about sharing the detritus that collects on used earbuds.)
Here are a few of our favorite ways to listen to an iPod, for your gift-giving pleasure.
Most users are perfectly happy with earbuds and other lightweight headphones; they just want them to sound better or fit more comfortably. (These types of ’phones also tend to be relatively inexpensive, so they make great stocking stuffers.) If you’re looking to replace a set of stock iPod earbuds with other ’buds, check out the Sennheiser MX 500 (
$12 ). They don’t come in iPod white, but they sound better than the iPod’s earbuds, include an inline volume control, and come with a handy wind-up storage case.
Sennheiser MX 500
For the active iPod user, it’s hard to beat the Koss KSC75 ($20), which offer great sound quality (including much better bass than Apple’s ’buds) in a stylish earclip design—instead of a headband, the drivers clip securely onto each ear. The KSC75 won’t fall off when running/biking/playing around, and they’re comfortable enough that it’s easy to forget you’re wearing them.
Those who prefer more traditional portable headphones will love the Sennheiser PX 100 (
$40 ), an over-the-head model that offers impressive comfort and stellar sound quality for such a small package. You also get clever design: The PX 100 fold up like a pair of eyeglasses for travel, fitting snugly into the included hard plastic case.
If your iPod pal is serious about music, or listens mainly at home, consider giving them a good pair of full-size headphones, which, though bulkier and more expensive, will provide significantly better sound quality than lightweight/portable headphones. Our pick for “high end on a budget” are the Grado SR 60 ($70), which look a bit retro but will impress all but the most jaded audiophile with their awesome sound.
Grado SR 60
If you think your Secret Santa would prefer a set of full-size closed headphones—ones that block out a bit of external noise and, conversely, won’t bother the lady in the next cubicle or the nearby guy at the library—we haven’t found a better bargain than the Beyerdynamic DT 231 ($60). They look a bit cheap and plasticky, but in this case looks are definitely deceiving—after a few seconds of listening they’ll prove to be worth every penny… and then some. (And they’re quite comfortable, to boot.)
Beyerdynamic DT 231
Travel (noise blocking) Headphones
One problem with headphones is that people tend to listen to music in noisy environments—on planes and trains, out on the street, in cafes—so it’s difficult to enjoy the music without cranking the volume to dangerous levels. Save your loved one’s ears, and help them realize how good the iPod can really sound, with a set of headphones specifically made for noisy places. The
Etymotic Research ER-6i (
$130 ) canalphones seal in the ears like earplugs, blocking out noise and other distractions while providing detailed, crystal-clear sound. And with an iPod-matching white design, your iPod lover will gladly put their stock earbuds in the drawer, never to be seen again.
Etymotic Research ER-6i
For those with golden ears—and more generous friends and relatives—the Ultimate Ears UE-5c ($550) offer the ultimate in portable listening. The company takes the popular $500 Shure E5c canalphones, which feature dual drivers in each earpiece, and customizes those earpieces to perfectly fit the ears of the individual listener. (This process involves a trip to the local audiologist to get molds made of the listener’s ears.) The result is a set of audiophile-grade headphones that fit perfectly, sound amazing, and block out about as much external noise as you could want—in other words, they provide a private audio oasis. To add to the custom touch, the owner gets to choose their preferred colors for both the earpieces and cables. Just remind your recipient to re-rip their music at a higher bitrate—with headphones like these, the limitations of poor encoding are easy to hear!
Ultimate Ears UE-5c
If you don’t think your gift recipient would enjoy sticking things deep into their ear canals, an effective alternative is noise-canceling headphones, which use special processors to “cancel” constant noise like the sound of an airplane’s engine, the buzzing of passing cars, or just the constant hum of computer fans. We think the Sennheiser PXC 250 (
$130 ) provide the best bang for the buck here. Offering great sound—with or without the noise canceling feature activated—in a lightweight and comfortable package, they’re half the price of some competing models.
Sennheiser PXC 250
OK, so headphone amplifiers are neither headphones nor speakers, but we figured that if we’re going to recommend a set of $550 headphones, we should also offer a solution for golden-eared iPod owners to get the most out of those headphones. Contrary to what you might think, a good headphone amp isn’t designed to play music louder (although it can do that); it’s really made to improve the quality of that music by being better able to drive good headphones and, in some cases, by employing processors that help headphones sound more like real audio performances. The Headroom AirHead and BitHead ($149-$199) provide dual headphone jacks for listening alone or in tandem and feature HeadRoom’s image processor for fixing the extreme left/right effect so common in headphone listening. They also let you use power-hungry full-size headphones that normally don’t work well with portable players. (The BitHead adds a USB port for listening to your computer’s audio.) Headphone amps aren’t for everyone, but for those with great stuff up and down the chain—high bitrate music files, good ears, and great headphones—they’re the “next step.”
As convenient and enjoyable as headphones are, there are times when it’s more fun (not to mention more comfortable) to listen out loud. For a set of speakers that can be tossed in a suitcase, backpack, or carry-on, it’s tough to beat the Altec Lansing inMotion IM3 ($180). Offering good sound, 20-hour battery life (via 4 AA batteries), and compatibility with all iPods, the IM3 folds up into a package the size of a paperback book for travel. It can also sync dockable iPods with a computer using Apple’s dock connector cable, can connect to another audio source via an auxiliary input jack, and charges the iPod when operating off of AC power. The included remote control makes it possible to operate from across the room.
Altec Lansing inMotion IM3
If $180 is too rich for your blood,
Logic3’s i-Station ($90; US distributers include
MacConnection ) doesn’t sound quite as good as the IM3 and lacks a remote, but offers a similar size and folding design, as well as USB and FireWire connectivity, at half the price.
Radio lovers will appreciate the Tivoli iPAL (
$130 ), which offers one of the best AM/FM radios around and a suprisingly good sounding speaker in a water resistant, iPod-matching enclosure. The iPAL’s audio-in jack accomodates an iPod or other audio source, and a rechargeable internal battery offers 10-15 hours of portable playback time. (The company also sells a $30 carry bag that holds the iPAL, an iPod, earbuds and cables.)
For those partial to the bigger and louder, the DLO iBoom ($150) puts a modern-day boombox—complete with up to 15,000 songs—on your shoulder. Powered by 6 D batteries, the iBoom provides a dock slot for your iPod along with an FM radio in a portable system that offers more volume than the other portable solutions here.
Maybe your iPod owner doesn’t need to be able to stuff a set of speakers in their suitcase, but they still want to move their music from the family room to the kitchen to the den once in a while. “Transportable” (or “desktop”) speaker systems offer better sound than true portable models but are still compact enough to carry around the house if needed. Though pricey, the Bose SoundDock (
$299 ) is currently the best of this breed thanks to unmatched sound quality and an attractive design. It charges the iPod while playing and includes a handy remote for play/pause/skip and volume control.
For less money, JBL’s On Stage ($160) doesn’t quite match up in overall sound quality, but this unique donut-shaped speaker system still sounds good and is small enough to fit in a suitcase (although it doesn’t run off batteries). Like the SoundDock, it charges the iPod when docked, but it can also be used to sync dockable iPods with a computer and offers an auxiliary input jack.
JBL’s On Stage
Full Size Speakers
If your holiday honey has some extra room and won’t mind leaving their sound system in place, you can reward them with significantly better sound quality via a set of full-size speakers that use left/right satellites and a subwoofer. Our favorite system overall is the Altec Lansing FX-6021 (
$230 ), with its Power Mac G5-matching enclosures, six-driver, wall-mountable satellites, and multi-function controller that allows bass, treble, and volume adjustments and provides headphone and auxiliary-in jacks. A wireless remote allows across-the-room control and the sound is as good as we’ve heard from “computer” speakers.
Altec Lansing FX-6021
Our budget choice is currently the JBL Creature II (
$70 ). Although this system can’t touch the FX-6021 in terms of sound quality, it still sounds pretty good and features the coolest design of any speaker setup on the market with its ghost-shaped, iPod-matching white components.
JBL Creature II
Another option for listening to an iPod out loud is connecting it to a home stereo system. We’ll recommend some great accessories for accomplishing this task in tomorrow’s gift guide installment. Stay tuned!