Computerworld's holiday gift guide 2013: Audio gear

Part 1 of our annual cornucopia of gift ideas features speakers, headphones and earbuds that will delight the ears of audiophiles and casual listeners alike.

Music has been a part of human existence throughout history, but digital technology has made it accessible 24/7. The equipment for listening to digital recordings anywhere, anytime just keeps getting better -- and, more to the point for this story, it makes a killer holiday gift.

Whether you're looking for speakers, headphones or earbuds -- and whether you can shoot for the moon or need to keep costs under $50 -- we have gift suggestions that will make your audiophile friends and family members happy through the holiday season and beyond.

When possible, we've included a range of prices as offered by various vendors, but be aware that prices fluctuate, especially at this time of year. (And as always, be careful of false deals and scams.)

This is just the beginning of Computerworld's holiday gift guide: Check back each week this month for more great tech gift ideas, including smartphones, tablets, an array of gadgets and gear, and of course stocking stuffers.

Bluetooth speakers

Braven 850

Bluetooth speakers tend to get a bad rap -- the argument being that a small, brick-like box can't possibly produce the big sound needed to fill a room (especially a large, noisy one filled with partygoers). And if you want true stereo, forget it: A single, self-contained speaker can only simulate it at best.

The Braven 850 speaker performs two impressive tricks that defy such low expectations. First, it has no problem getting loud -- way louder than you might think, given its fairly compact frame. Second, it can pair with a second Braven 850 for honest-to-goodness stereo sound. It's not an inexpensive solution, but it is a highly desirable one.

Braven 850 Bluetooth speaker

Braven 850 from Braven

Direct price: $280  |  Retail price: $280 - $300

The Braven measures 9.5 x 4 x 2.8 in., about the same size as Jawbone's better-known Big Jambox. But this speaker looks and feels a lot more substantial thanks to its aluminum casing and attractive industrial design. At around 3.4 lb., it also has a pleasant heft.

Much of its weight comes from the 8,800mAh battery, which is good for up to 20 hours of playtime. That means the Braven's battery will probably last longer than your smartphone's -- so you can use the speaker's built-in USB port to juice up your phone (or tablet) for more music streaming. There are also handy top-mounted playback control buttons, a line-in jack for connecting non-Bluetooth music players, and a speakerphone option for making conference-room calls.

But the important thing is that the Braven sounds superb, much bigger and warmer than its size would suggest. And if you pair it with a second, you've got a portable audio solution that rivals a standalone home stereo.

You might also like: Sonos has always been synonymous with "expensive," but the Sonos Play:1 speaker lets you get started with the home-audio system for $199 direct. It's available in black and white versions.

-- Rick Broida

Panasonic SC-NT10

Budget speakers tend to have budget features, to say nothing of budget sound. Not so the Panasonic SC-NT10D, which not only produces robust sound, but also offers a ruggedized design and several features you wouldn't expect from a $100 speaker.

Panasonic SC-NT10 Bluetooth Portable Speaker

SC-NT10D Bluetooth Portable Speaker from Panasonic

Direct price: $100

First and foremost, it's waterproof, or at least splash-proof, meaning it's a fine choice to sit beside the pool or the bathtub. It can stand up to more than water, too: Panasonic engineered the SC-NT10D to be dust-proof, shock-proof and freeze-proof -- handy for the beach, the shop and even the skating rink.

The disk-shaped speaker resembles an oversize hockey puck, or perhaps a miniature Roomba floor vac. Either way, its black-with-orange-accents design catches the eye. The micro USB charging port and 3.5mm AUX jack both stay protected thanks to rubberized snap-shut covers.

The SC-NT10D sports clearly labeled and easily accessible buttons for power and volume; another button does triple duty as a control for play/pause, Bluetooth pairing and picking up calls. (The speaker pulls double duty as a speakerphone.) The unit doesn't have shuttle/track-skip buttons, but a big orange "Boost" button promises to hike the midrange audio presence -- a rather gimmicky feature (because shouldn't the audio always be at its best?).

In addition to Bluetooth, the SC-NT10D supports Near-Field Communication (NFC), which makes for even easier pairing with phones that support NFC: Just tapping the phone on the top of the speaker and gets it set to start streaming audio.

Panasonic promises up to eight hours of audio from the speaker's rechargeable battery. And thanks to the included AC charger, you won't have to seek out your computer's USB port every time you need to recharge -- though you certainly have that option.

If you place the SC-NT10D on a wood surface, an internal passive radiator will help boost the lower end of the audio range, effectively giving you deeper, warmer sounds. Not bad for a speaker that's nearly small enough to slip into a pocket.

You might also like: The Phoenix 2 ($80) from Beacon looks like a little subwoofer, which is fitting -- it packs one in alongside its two speakers. Available in four stylish colors, the Phoenix projects a 360-degree cone of sound and includes a microphone for making phone calls.

-- Rick Broida

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