It’s no coincidence that I’m again choosing to put together an audio gift guide this year. There are few greater gifts you can offer someone than that of great sound.
It probably wasn’t actually Plato who said it, but I’m very much of this view:
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.
To me, great music deserves to be heard properly, whether that’s through headphones or speakers…
This year’s audio gift guide covers four categories, two each for headphones and speakers. In all cases, I’m limiting options to wireless, as that has clearly established itself as the new standard – though some products offer wired usage too.
- In-ear headphones
- Over-ear headphones
- Portable speakers
- Home speakers
In my view, in-ear headphones are now good enough to replace on-ear headphones unless you need a wired connection. Over-ear of course still offers the best quality.
For speakers, I cover portable speakers – those operating on battery power – and home speakers. The latter is a trickier category, as there are options at literally all budgets these days, so I give a range of price points here.
Within each, I’m giving you my personal recommendation for the best possible audio quality within what I’d consider to be ‘premium but sane’ pricing territory. I’m also providing recommended alternatives and finally noting popular options.
That latter category may not offer the kind of audio quality I can recommend personally, but when you’re shopping for gifts, you have to allow for the fact that some recipients may want the latest big thing rather than the best quality.
In-ear headphones are always going to involve a trade-off of convenience against audio quality.
The tiny drivers mean they can never match the audio quality offered by over-ear or on-ear headphones – but long gone are the days when that compromise was a dramatic one. Today, there are several companies that have achieved astonishing performance in an in-ear format.
The best of these in my view is the Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus. These replace my previous favorites, the original MW07, offering active noise cancellation, Bluetooth 5.0, the ability to use a single earphone for phone calls – and astonishing battery-life of 10 hours per charge, 40 hours total.
You’ve also got physical buttons for play/pause, forward/back and volume, which makes them easier to use than units with touch-sensitive controls – and beautiful polished stainless steel lights with separate charge indicator lights for each earphone and the case itself.
Check out my full review here.
Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus come in a range of three colors and cost $299.
Other recommended in-ear headphones
Best alternative: Sony WF-1000XM3
These cost $230 and offer the next best thing in audio quality with astonishingly good active noise-cancellation for in-ear headphones. That said, don’t expect them to match over-ear for ANC performance.
Budget alternative: Jabra Elite Active 65t
For $140, these deliver impressive sound quality – significantly better than AirPods – for a more wallet-friendly price. Your biggest challenge here is finding them in stock, as demand is high at present. The replacement model, the 75t, is on the way, but may not be available in time for the holidays.
Most popular: Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro
Whatever I think of the audio quality (which I’d say is mediocre rather than poor), there’s no denying that these are the most popular in-ear headphones on the planet. If you’re buying for a teenager, chances are, these are the ones they want. AirPods start at $159, rise to $199 for the wireless charging case model and top out at $249 for AirPods Pro. Less from Apple’s official Amazon store.
Also popular: Beats Powerbeats Pro
The sound quality of these surprised me given my experience of previous Beats headphones. Still not in the same league as either M&D or Jabra, but significantly better than AirPods, and still a fashionable brand for teens. Check out our two reviews. $250.
If you want no compromise to your audio quality and are prepared to compromise on portability, there’s no substitute for over-ear headphones. You can, of course, pay four figures or more ($65,000, anyone?), but I’ve stuck to a $400 maximum for the audio gift guide.
Best in this range in my view are the Bowers & Wilkins PX7. Successor to the excellent PX model, you get 43mm drivers – among the largest on the market – configured for balanced sound with fantastic detail. They also offer incredibly impressive noise-cancellation, running a close second to the Sony (below). Wireless use supports aptX HD Bluetooth, with 30-hour battery life, and as usual with B&W, you get the option of wired usage too, making them ideal for in-flight use. A carbon-fiber headband makes them lightweight and comfy to wear for long periods.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7 come in a choice of two colors and cost $400 (less on Amazon).
Other recommended over-ear headphones
Best alternative: Sony WH-1000XM3
The audio quality isn’t quite up there with B&W, but it’s still extremely good – and Sony has taken Bose’s crown when it comes to the ultimate noise-cancellation. If you’re buying for a music-loving frequent flyer, this is your best bet. $349 (less on Amazon).
Budget alternative: AKG N60NC Wireless
Ok, I’m compromising here and recommending an on-ear pair simply because they are such great value. These originally cost $300, but you can pick them up now for well under half that today. You get really good audio quality and impressive noise-cancellation for an amazing price. Check Amazon’s price.
Most popular: Beats Studio3 Wireless
I really can’t recommend these: the sound quality is not as bad as Beats headphones of old, but it’s still very mediocre for the money. But if you’re buying for someone who likes their bass and cares more about fashion than audio detail… you get a huge range of colors. $350 (less on Amazon).
Best Portable Speaker 2019: Sonos Move
If you’re buying for someone with existing Sonos speakers, then the company’s first battery-powered portable speaker is a no-brainer. But AirPlay 2 support makes it a great buy for any Apple user looking for great quality audio in a portable unit.
Ok, portable is a relative term – it weighs over six pounds – and there’s a lightweight option below. But for carrying out into the garden, yard or pool, or driving to a picnic or beach party, this is pretty much unbeatable. Claimed battery life: 10 hours. Check out our review.
Sonos Move costs $399.
Other recommended portable speakers
Best alternative: Marshall Kilburn II
The Marshall Kilburn weighs the same as the Sonos. It’s a little more portable, though, thanks to the carrying handle. I carried it on the last anti-Brexit march (with a DIY shoulder-strap) and it wasn’t too heavy. It’s also got great retro looks and the classic Marshall sound signature, heavier on bass and treble at the expense of midtones – which is fun for rock. $299 (less on Amazon). Claimed battery life: 20 hours. Check out the older model too for significant savings.
Best small portable speaker: JBL Charge 4
Delivers a lot of surprisingly good sound in a compact form factor. A rugged design and IPX7 waterproofing mean you can also carry it around without worrying about it too much. Lots of colors to choose from too. Claimed battery life: 20 hours. $180.
Best budget portable speaker: JBL Go 2
You’d expect a $40 speaker to be terrible, but it’s really not! I didn’t expect to include anything this cheap in my audio gift guide, but when one of my tango teachers turned up with this, I was blown away by the quality of this speaker for the size and price. Sure, it doesn’t compete with larger ones, but if you want something that’s perfectly pleasant to listen to at lower volumes and is as cheap as it is compact, you can’t go wrong. Again, lots of color options and IPX7 waterproofing. Claimed battery life: 5 hours.
Best wireless home speaker 2019: Naim mu-so
I reviewed the original Naim mu-so back in 2016 and was incredibly impressed. A British audio company best known for its $150,000 amplifier had produced a $1500 all-in-one hifi system that was truly worthy of its name.
The Naim mu-so 2 is a modest but worthwhile improvement on the original. You get a slightly more powerful amp, at 475W versus 450W but all the drivers are new to deliver true stereo, and you get more smarts. The unit now adjusts the output of each speaker to match the acoustic properties of the room, and you now get 5GHz as well as 2.4GHz Wi-Fi – alongside the same 10/100 Ethernet connection as before.
This truly is a complete home hifi system in a box. The mu-so 2 is $100 more at $1600, but the best news is that you can now pick up the original for half the price! Given that difference, I’d have to recommend the v1 as the best bang for your buck.
The Naim mu-so v1 costs $828.
Other recommended wireless home speakers
Best alternative: Naim mu-so Qb
The smaller brother, the mu-so Qb (reviewed here) originally cost $1000, but you can again now pick one up for less than half that – which is an absolute bargain.
It’s still room-filling sound for most rooms, has the same great audio quality, same fantastic design with that gorgeous weighted volume knob… just less of it. But 300W of power is plenty for most rooms. Originally $999, commonly available for around $700, and much less from Amazon Renewed.
Best for Apple fans: HomePod
Apple doesn’t always deliver the best quality in its audio products, but HomePod really is a very respectable speaker for the price. At $299 for one or $598 for a stereo pair, you’re getting audio quality way better than the price would suggest, and some of the smartest room-compensating tech available at any price. Plus great convenience for HomeKit control.
Budget alternative: See the portable speakers above – just use them on mains power.
2019 Audio Gift Guide wrap-up
If someone loves music, letting them hear it the way the musicians intended is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
There are options here from $40 to a little over $800, any one of which ought to put a big smile on someone’s face when they unwrap it.
These are my audio gift guide recommendations – what about yours? Please share your own favorite headphones and speakers in the comments.
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