Competition usually leads to better performance and that was certainly true this year in the stereo and sound equipment space. Consider that there are now dozens of reasonable wireless speakers and scores of high-end headphones now on the market. All that competition produced some real winners this year, the perfect gifts for the music lovers in your life.
1. Stereo Speakers
Most of us cannot afford a pair of $10,000 speakers, even though we may appreciate the musical qualities of the finest models. Fortunately, one of the industry's finest speaker designers, Andrew Jones (who designs speakers costing well above $10,000), has applied his talent to speakers most of can afford, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR's.
These unprepossessing speakers cost just $130 for the pair, yet deliver a sense of sonic accuracy--and respectable bass--that bests many other models costing nearly 4 times as much. The Pioneer pair can deliver the ringing guitars of a Tom Petty song with a sneer, or the subtle twists of Coltrane with finesse. Just don't tell the recipient how little you paid for them.
2. Streaming music system
Sonos all but invented the streaming wireless music system. The company has been building wireless speakers that connect to a home network and play online music for years, but the Sonos Play:1 may be the company's best and most affordable model yet. Priced at $200 each, the Play:1's can used individually or in pairs for true stereo.
They use digital signal processing to get the most of streaming sources, supporting everything from Pandora to Slacker. Buttons on top control volume and switching between tracks; selecting your favorite music channels is easily done via an iPhone or Android app. Just remember to get the $49 Sonos Bridge if you want to make a wireless connection to a home network.
3. Tabletop Speaker
There are dozens of wireless table top speakers that will play music from a tablet or smart phone. Cambridge's $449 Minx Air 100 will also stream Internet radio stations directly when connected to a Wi-Fi network. It also distinguishes itself by using a lighter touch than most hamfisted wireless speakers, making it better suited to folk and jazz. It works with Bluetooth and Apple Airplay devices, as well as the relevant apps or its own tiny remote.
NB: If you're looking for something smaller and portable, consider the $200 Klipsch GiG reviewed in the this column two weeks ago.
4. For the Traveling Audiophile
In days of yore, if you wanted high fidelity sound for private listening, you needed to get a pair of big cans (that's audiophile speak for big, over-the-ear headphones). But not any more. Sound engineers have been working on making better and better tiny earphones. One of the best this year are Sennheiser's IE 800 earphones. Extremely low distortion, ceramic housings, and a Kevlar reinforced cable are just a few of the high-end features here.
But the real star is the sound, which is effortless, accurate, and full (yes, it's got plenty of low-end bass without getting messy). Alas, the IE 800's are not for casual listeners: They cost a cool grand (although you can find them for the door-buster price of $700).