Audio fans are tricky customers when it comes to shopping for presents. The further they are down the audiophile rabbit hole, the more likely they are to turn their noses up at certain brands and gifts. The ungrateful sods.
To steer you away from the duds and towards the sure-fire hits, we have nine audio gift ideas from the hundreds of products we’ve tried over the last year. And a few from before 2017 that are still hard to beat.
Sennheiser HD 660 S
Acoustic design: dynamic, open | Weight: 260 g | Frequency response: 10 – 41,000 Hz (-10 dB) | THD + N: Sound pressure level: 104dB at 1V 1kHz | Impedance: 150 ohms
Full rich tone
Design won’t be for everyone
It took longer than a decade, but Sennheiser has finally made a follow-up to its all-time-classic HD 650 headphones. New for 2017, we now have the HD 660 S.
In typical Sennheiser style, all of the good bits are still in-place. You get comfy velour earpads, open-back cups and a look more “studio” than “street”.
Their sound is somewhat similar to the classic HD 650 tone, with a full and rich tone, but Sennheiser seems to have given the treble a bit more energy. Like Sennheiser’s best, the soundstage is wide and involving: perfect for music, films, games… everything, really.
Are Sonos and Alexa a match made in heaven?
Dimensions: 16.2 cm (H): 11.9 cm (W): 11.9 cm (D) | Weight: 1.85 kg | Power source: AC power cord | Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Ethernet | Amplifiers: two Class-D amplifiers | Speakers: one tweeter, one mid-woofer | Microphone array: Six far-field microphone array
Full-bodied, rich sound
Combines best of Alexa and Sonos
Plays music while Alexa is muted
Google Assistant is MIA until 2018
Most people we know who went shopping for a multi-room speaker ended up with either a Sonos Play:1 or Play:5. It’s time for the Play:1 owners to feel short-changed, because Sonos recently updated this classic small speaker to let it connect with Amazon Alexa (and eventually Google Home). The new version is called the Sonos One.
You can simply ask for a tune from Spotify and the Play One will play it, no phone app taps required.
Sonos has kept the sound more-or-less the same, though. It’s far bigger, and more powerful, than the pure size of this little speaker column might suggest.
Google Chromecast Audio
Inject some wireless know-how into your ‘dumb’ wired speakers
Output: Stereo analogue, optical digital, High-Resolution Audio (96 KHx/24bit) | Weight: 30.7 g | Dimensions: 51.9 x 51.9 x 13.49 mm | Connectors: 3.5 mm jack, Micro USB | Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n/ac (2.4 GHz/5 Ghz) | Power: 5 V, 1 A power supply
Easy to set up
Universal app support
Missing some major streaming service players
Lacks multi-room support
This pick isn’t new, but here’s a reminder in case you’ve forgotten it exists. Chromecast Audio can be used to turn your old hi-fi or active speakers into an up-to-date wireless, smart system.
As well as being able to stream from any app that allows “casting”, which includes just about every major Android audio app out there, using Google Home you can ask for tracks using a phone or Home smart speaker.
Chromecast Audio may not be the most exciting gadget around, but when it could save a loved one spend hundreds on new speakers, it’s worth thinking about.
Q Acoustics M2
A TV soundbase that could replace your sound system
Dimensions: 550mm x 93mm x 338mm | Weight: 5.8 kg | Power output: 80W (2 x 20W + 40W) | Frequency response: +/-0.5dB 20Hz to 20kHz | S/N ratio (A-Wtd): -85dB | Inputs: Two RCA Phono, two 3.5 mm jacks) | Acoustics: L&R drivers, subwoofer | Crossover: 340Hz
Lacks bonus features
For the last decade Q Acoustics has been one of the easiest-to-recommend names for anyone after home cinema speakers. Its latest is a soundbase, a deep, ultra-convenient speaker designed to sit underneath your TV.
In typical Q Acoustics style, it’s not loaded with bonus features. However, it does sound great. As well as full-range BMR drivers that give this relatively small unit great sound dispersal, there’s a subwoofer built in. No need to fit another big box in the corner of the room.
The Q Acoustics M2 also has Bluetooth with aptX, letting you stream any audio from your phone. If you want it to be your main hi-fi (or a backup), it’s up to the job.
The little waterproof wonder
Dimensions: 102mm x 93.5mm | Wireless range: 33m | Power: Lithium-ion battery (10 hours) | Frequency range: 80 Hz – 20 kHz | Drivers: Two 40 mm active drivers and two 46.1 mm x 65.2 mm passive radiators | Waterproofing: IP67
Sound punches above its size
Slightly confined sounding
Small, unhelpful elastic hoop
If you’re dealing with a present for a real audio nut, you probably don’t even want to try to replace their main sound system. Not unless you want to spend big bucks.
So what about sound for the shower, holidays or when they’re making scrambled eggs in the kitchen? The UE Wonderboom is perfect for this role. It’s a Bluetooth wireless speaker that doesn’t mind being bashed about a bit, and can even handle being dropped (or submerged) in water.
Good looks and sound top off the package nicely.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Smart noise-cancelling headphones for voice assistant diehards
Form factor: Over-ear | Weight: 10.9 oz | Bluetooth version: Bluetooth 4.1 | Battery life: Up to 20 hours
Balanced, but soft sound quality
Class-leading noise cancellation
No instant mute
No auto play/pause
Plastic build, plain design
If you’re buying for someone who hates their commute – or travels abroad for work all the time – the Bose QuietComfort 35 II are one of the best presents you could possibly get them.
They are wireless active noise cancelling headphones that obliterate about 95% of ambient noise, silencing traffic, plane engines and air con unit hums. The first time you use them, the experience is eerie, as if the outside world has simply been “switched off”.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 II are also extremely comfortable and sound great. This second-gen version also has a button-based gesture that lets you activate Siri or the Google Assistant through the headphones’ microphone.
Audio Technica AT-LP3
A great turntable that won’t break the bank
Dimensions: 43.5×35.3×12.8 cm | Weight: 5.20 kg | Record speed: 33.33, 45 | Drive type: Belt drive | Tone arm shape: Straight | Cartridge type: VM Dual Magnet
Achingly simple to setup
Automatic settings are fantastic
Priming the needle is a little fiddly
It’s a touch chunkier than we’d like
One good piece of advice for vinyl lovers looking for a better player: don’t buy models sold in clothes shops. There’s better than a Crossley Cruiser on offer.
The Audio Technica AT-LP3 is one of the best sensibly-priced vinyl decks out there. It looks good, feels solid, sounds good and is fully automatic so there’s no need to learn how to use it. It also has a phono stage so you don’t have to worry about it not being able to hook up to your current amplifier.
Ifi Audio Nano
Get good quality audio on the go with this decent DAC
Dimensions: 106 x 67 x 28 mm | Weight: 162 g | Input: USB 2.0 | Power: Battery (10 hours) | Output: SPDIF RCA (only PCM up to 192KHz), Audio RCA, 3.5mm Headphone | Formats: 44.1/48/88.2/96/176.4/192/384KHz PCM, 2.8/3.1/5.6/6.2/11.2/12.4MHz DSD, 353/384KHz DXD, Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown (1-DAC Chip; 2-Channel; 4-Signals) | Dynamic range: >104dB
Hi-fi audio on-the-go
Compatible with iOS and Android devices
Could be cumbersome to carry around
It can be hard to get really high-quality audio on the go. Your phone probably doesn’t have the best-quality DAC, most streamed audio won’t get past the purists and high-end headphones don’t always like being powered by phone headphone jacks.
Ifi Audio has come up with a handy solution. It’s a battery-powered DAC and headphone amp, one not that much bigger than a phone.
It takes a digital input, going right to the source, bypassing the audio processing of your laptop or phone.
KEF LS50 Wireless
Superb sound, without the cables
Dimensions: 300 x 200 x 308 mm | Weight: 10.2 kg | Inputs: 2.4GHz/5GHz Dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, USB Type B, TOSLINK Optical, RCA Analog Line Level Input, 10/100 Mbps RJ45 Ethernet | Maximum output: 106dB | Drivers: One High-Frequency 25 mm, one Low/Mid-Frequency130 mm
Wonderful clarity and tone
Not totally wireless – speakers need to be connected to each other
Requires deep pockets
Let’s blow the budget. The LS 50 wireless are some of the best cable-free speakers money can buy, and they won’t take over your living room completely either.
These are mid-size bookshelf speakers, and the cabinets also feature high-end amplification. And that’s why they are almost three times the price of the non-amped, non-wireless LS50.
Their strongest area is detail. Clarity is through the roof, and the tone the stuff of true hi-fi. The way the LS50 Wireless work is a bit different from a Sonos setup, though. The two speakers still need to be connected to each other using an Ethernet cable, and there’s still as much focus on wired connections, with optical, phono and USB sockets on-hand. For wireless there’s both Bluetooth and WiFi.