Struggling for Christmas gift tech ideas? We can help...
Do you have a loved one with a weird fascination with the sound quality of record player needles, or who keeps on banging on about how Spotify isn’t high-quality enough? There’s a good chance you have an audiophile in your life.
Or perhaps it’s you afflicted with the audiophile bug yourself. You poor thing.
But what do you buy an audiophile for Christmas? It’s not an easy one, when they might be all too happy to drop hundreds of pounds on speakers while the mere idea makes you feel a little ill. We’ve put together some sure-fire audio fan Christmas hits, steering away from the bits of hardware you’ll need to remortgage your house to afford.
Best Headphones: Audio Technica ATH-M50X
Want to buy top-notch headphones for someone picky about sound? You only need to spend £110, not the near-£200 charged by many style-obsessed big names.
The Audio Technica ATH M50x are based on the ATH-M50, a classic pair of studio monitor/DJ headphones. However, this new version offers a removable cable and comes with three cables in the box - one designed for use out and about with a phone or MP3 player.
Sound quality is far in excess of the stuff trotted out by Dr. Dre and his friends. You get a little extra bass presence, but also excellent treble clarity and a soundstage much larger than most of the competition. At £110 we really don’t think you can do much better while still sticking with a ‘known’ brand. Audio Technica may not be on everyone’s lips like Sony, but it has been around since the 60s.
SEE ALSO: Best Headphones 2014
Best Earplugs: ACS Elacin ER20 earplugs
Music fans often turn their noses up at earplugs, especially among younger people. They’re seen as being for wimps, people who ‘can’t handle the music’. The reality is quite different. High-grade earplugs designed for musicians and gig-goers will actually improve music quality by bringing down certain frequencies as well as the general sound level, making things an awful lot clearer.
One neat side-effect is that it’ll also stop the gigantic PA systems of gig venues from damaging your hearing. And, yes, that you can damage your hearing permanently by prolonged exposure to loud music is not just something parents tell their children.
The ACS Elacin ER20 are audiophile-friendly earplugs, with a special filter running into the sort of flanged rubber tip you might see on a pair of high-end earphones. At just £15 they’re the perfect stocking filler or secret santa gift.
They’re designed to reduce the sound level by 20 decibels, rather than block it out entirely — like a foam bullet, which might claim to reduce levels by up to 35dB.
Want to go even higher-end? Elacin also makes a bunch of much more expensive earplugs for musicians, such as the custom moulded ER15. They’re not cheap, though, costing around £170.
Best Music Streaming Service: Tidal subscription
Have a friend who looks down on streamed music as too low-quality? Tidal should shut them up. It’s a music streaming service that offers lossless quality streams and has a library of 25 million songs. Unlike some ‘high-res’ music portals, it’s not just there to let you listen to Miles Davies albums on loop.
Aside from offering lossless FLAC streams, it works much like Spotify. You sign up to a subscription and can then stream from a phone or tablet — as long as it’s an Apple one or uses Android. Tidal is also available on computers, using a web interface. You’ll need to use Chrome to stream FLAC lossless, but then using Chrome is a pretty good idea anyway in our book.
There are just a few downsides to Tidal. First, it costs a fair bit more than Spotify at £19.99 a month. That’s twice the price. You also won’t find support for it on as many platforms: it doesn’t work on TVs, AV receivers and so on like Spotify. Maybe one day it will, but we imagine it won’t be any time soon.
The question: can you really tell the difference between 320kbps OGG and FLAC? Really?
Price: £19.99/$19.99 a month
Best Earphone Tips: Comply earphone tips
One of the cheapest and best ways to upgrade your earphones it to give them the Comply treatment. Most IEMs use little rubber tips to form a barrier between the outside world and your eardrum, but Comply tips use high-grade soft foam.
As well as being more comfortable than most silicone rubber tips, we find that you also get much better sound isolation and, in some cases, noticeably superior sound quality. As the foam moulds itself to the inside of your ear, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good fit as long as you buy the right pair.
Comply tips come in three main sizes much like rubber tips, but they’re generally a good deal more forgiving about fit thanks to the way foam contracts and expands. As well as differing sizes of outer shells, the Comply tips also come in loads of variations designed to fit different earphone apertures.
There are a huge number of earphone aperture types out there, so be sure to check the Comply website to find out which you need before ordering.
Best in-ear Headphones: Nocs NS500
Making earphones is not an easy business. Not only is brand a massive issue, and sound quality as important as ever, making earphones that don’t fall apart after two months tricky. And as headphone veterans will know, not every manufacturer gets all these elements right.
One of our favourite affordable-ish pairs from 2014 is the Nocs NS500, aluminium earphones with a sort of style that’s good enough to sit alongside an Apple product pretty happily. Isolation and comfort are good too, and having used them for a good long while after we finished our review back in October, we’re confident they’re made to last as well.
Their sound is perfect for detail freaks, with very revealing treble you don’t often hear in normal dynamic driver earphones — the kind you have to make do with unless you’re willing to spend well over £100.
Best Bluetooth Receiver: Neet Bluetooth receiver
Wireless audio is the future. And it’s already the present for many people. However, there’s no need to trade away your old hifi if you want to get in on the revolution. Boxes like the Neet Bluetooth receiver can do that job for under £50.
This is a Bluetooth receiver, acting as a middle-man between wireless sources like your phone and non-wireless systems like traditional separates high systems or older AV receivers. There are plenty of these about, but we think the Neet box is one to look out for.
First, it offers both digital and analogue outputs. This gives is greater flexibility, and if you want it to act as a DAC it has a high-quality Wolfson DAC chip that ensures high-quality sound.
Even more important, it uses aptX, a higher-quality Bluetooth codec that’s the only way to get reasonably high-grade sound when transmitting over Bluetooth. Just make sure your phone or tablet supports Bluetooth otherwise you’ll probably end up with sound that doesn’t really do justice to your hifi. AptX plus a good system is more than good enough for casual listening, though.
Best Custom Ear Tips: Snugs custom ear tips
If Comply foam tips are the cheap way to upgrade your earphones without buying a new set, the custom mould services from ACS and Snugs are the pricey routes. These companies offer customised silicone housings for your existing earphones that fit your ear canal exactly, offering just about unbeatable noise isolation and the best performance from your earphones.
While the ACS route is slightly cheaper, the Snugs is a bit friendlier, so we’ll explain how it works there. You buy a package online at the Snugs website, where you pick either to get custom moulds for you existing earphones or with a new pair bundled.
You then head over to your nearest audiologist to get a cast of your ears made — the Snugs website will tell you where. Your ear is pumped full of pink goo, which hardens for form the guide for the person who will end up casting your impressions in silicone.
Snugs offers the tips in a huge array of finishes, and you can pick separate finishes/colours for each ear if you fancy. Unlike ACS, Snugs also offers a VIP service where they come to you for the impressions process — but you have to pay a bit more for this.
Once the tips have been made, you’ll be sent them in the post. Then your existing earphones simply jam into them, just like a rubber tip.
Best Portable DAC: Audioquest Dragonfly
At first glance, the Audioquest Dragonfly looks like any old USB dongle. You might find it hard to take the thing seriously, especially when it costs upwards of £100. However, it’s actually a fantastic piece of hardware that’s probably the best way to upgrade your laptop’s audio on a reasonable budget.
It’s a portable DAC that only needs the power it pulls from the USB socket. It replaces the digital-to-analogue converter of your laptop, taking a pure digital signal from the USB and then doing the job itself. Then you simply plug your earphones or headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the Audioquest Dragonfly.
If you want a unit for your home office where it’ll be plugged in all day, this may not be the best solution: if only because something this small will probably prove quite easy to lose. Desktop DACs will generally offer much more powerful headphone amp sections too. That’s not what this unit is about.
However, if you want something to take with you, it’s fantastic. You can pop the thing in your pocket and just plug it in when needed. It offers a fairly obvious sound quality improvement with good earphones/headphones too.
Best High Resolution MP3 Player: FiiO X1
There’s a lot of talk about hi-res audio at the moment, and some manufacturers are using it as a way to try and get you to spend hundreds of pounds on new equipment. But you don’t have to fall into that trap.
The FiiO X1 has everything you need for a hi-res audio experience but costs just £90. It plays 24-bit FLAC, APE and ALAC files, and has a high-quality Texas Instruments PCM5142 DAC/DSP to provide the sound quality to do them justice.
FiiO has just had to make a few little sacrifices to get the X1 down to such an amazing price. First, it doesn’t support DSD files, the gigantic 1-bit files that are an audio nerd’s delight. Second, it doesn’t have any internal memory so you’ll have to get hold of a microSD card.
With 32GB memory cards available for around £10 and 64GB cards just over £20, it’s a sensible spec cut — and also makes it easier to switch your music collection between the X1 and a phone (assuming it too has a card slot). Why would you want to? Like just about every audiophile MP3 player, the FiiO X1 interface is a bit quirky meaning you might want not want to use it each and every day for casual listening.
SEE ALSO: High resolution audio explained
Best Wireless Speaker: Sonos Play:1
For real audiophiles, Sonos gear probably wouldn’t quite cut it as the basis of a main hifi. However, we think the little Sonos Play:1 would fit into just about anyone’s life. It’s a small wireless speaker that is just about the perfect size for bedrooms, larger kitchens and dining rooms.
Nowadays you don’t need any other hardware either — previously you needed a Sonos bridge to get the speaker hooked-up. Once hooked-up you can stream from wireless services like Spotify, internet radio stations or music stored throughout your home network. A Play:1 may not let you connect just anything to it willy-nilly, but there’s still an awful lot it can do.
It uses a 3.5-inch main driver and a tweeter, getting you all the components of an old fashioned hifi speaker in a thoroughly modern piece of hardware. As a breezy second fiddle to play when the main hifi is overkill, it’s fantastic.
For morning or night listening, or to have a few tunes while you’re cooking, we can think of few better wireless speakers. The only issue is it needs to be plugged in: it’s not portable. However, it tramples all over the sound quality of £150 battery-operated Bluetooth speakers.