It’s almost Christmas once again, which means it’s time to start thinking about gifts for your nearest and dearest, and there’s no group of people more infuriating to buy for than audiophiles.
It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s just that audio is such a broad category. There’s not only an infinite amount of choice when it comes to types of product, but also within each category the sky’s the limit in terms of price.
It can be tough to know how much you should be prepared to spend. Too little and you risk getting something that sounds weak and tinny, but spend too much and you can get into the area of diminishing returns, where extra cost equates to minimal improvements in sound.
We’ve tried to find a balance with our list, and have picked products at a variety of price points ranging from budget stocking fillers to premium gifts. In many cases you can spend more or less, but we think each product represents a rough sweet spot in its category.
The budget streamer: Chromecast Audio
Much like its older video brother, the Chromecast Audio represents an exceptionally fast and easy way to get your existing stereo speakers hooked up to modern streaming services. Once plugged in the whole system can be easily controlled by your phone.
It’s a very versatile piece of equipment. If you want to keep things cheap, you can simply buy a Chromecast Audio and plug it directly into the back of your stereo to use with an existing Spotify subscription.
Alternatively, a Chromecast Audio can play a part in a much more expensive Hi-fi setup. Since it supports digital output (via an Optical Audio cable equipped with a 3.5mm jack - sold separately) you can plug it into an external DAC and use it to stream a higher-quality streaming service such as Tidal with its lossless audio playback.
Read the full review: Chromecast Audio
A Bluetooth speaker for the shower: Creative Muvo Mini / JBL Clip 2
Having a Bluetooth speaker in the shower seems like the most decadent thing in the world up until the point you actually try it out for yourself.
But the truth is that there’s no better accompaniment to a shower than a little bit of music. It’s not going to change your life, but with bluetooth speakers being as cheap as they are now, there’s little reason not to.
If you’re prepared to spend a little more, then the JBL Clip 2 has an absolutely astonishing amount of battery life, and (as implied by the name) it also has a handy little clip which means it can be easily hung in your shower. It’s the little things right? The Clip 2 isn’t the best sounding speaker out there, but it works well enough among the suds.
Read the full review: Creative Muvo Mini
The smartest speaker around: Amazon Echo Dot
We’re stretching the phrase ‘audiophile’ here, because the Amazon Echo Dot is hardly the best sounding piece of audio kit out there. But its voice control mechanism means that it’s a great little device for the kitchen, where you might not want to put a nice piece of kit to use with your food-splattered hands.
The Dot is compatible with a number of different streaming services, including Spotify and the recently-announced Amazon Music Unlimited, and you can either connect it to a separate speaker via a 3.5mm jack, or else by using Bluetooth.
The Dot also has a built-in speaker, but if you’re going to use it for music listening we’d recommend using something external and audiophile-worthy, such as the Mu-So Qb, which we'll discuss in a second.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo Dot
Great wireless earbuds for the gym: Optoma NuForce BE Sport 3
Wireless headphones have come a long way. Whereas previously they offered poor battery life and even worse sound quality, these days you can actually get a very decent pair for not much more than their wired equivalents.
Better still, advances in battery technology mean that you can now get pretty good wireless in-ear headphones, which are absolutely perfect for taking to the gym.
Our pick in this category are the Optoma NuForce BE Sport3 headphones. They’re not exactly cheap, but they punch way above their weight in terms of sound quality, and they come with a number of different ear-tips so you can be sure they’ll stick in your ears even during the most frantic workout.
Read the full review: Optoma NuFornce BE Sport3
Noise-cancelling headphones: Bose QC 35
The noise-cancellation is great, and almost completely eliminates any background noise. However like most noise-cancelling headphones, it’s much better at eliminating lower frequency sounds rather than higher ones.
However rather than being a downside, we actually found this to be a benefit, since it allowed us to hear speech such as train announcements.
So if there’s someone in your life who likes to listen to music on a noisy commute or perhaps has to fly a lot for work, a pair of QC 35 headphones might be exactly what they need.
Read the full review: Bose QC 35
For the audiophile that has everything: Chord Mojo DAC
For the audio lover who already has a pretty accomplished setup, consider investing in a Chord Mojo, which is a nifty little device that can massively improve the quality if your music.
The Mojo is what’s called a DAC, or digital-to-analog-converter. These is a little device that will take the digital audio signal from your phone, laptop, CD player, or even Chromecast Audio, and generate an analog signal that can then be passed through to your headphones or amplifier.
If that sounds complicated then fret not. The Chord Mojo is a really simple little device to use. We’ve been using it to improve our laptop’s headphone audio for a couple of months now and have been really impressed, but it’s also got a built-in battery which means it can be used on the go if you want to plug it into your phone’s Lightning or USB port.
It’s not exactly cheap, but when paired with the right pair of headphones it can make an appreciable difference to the quality of your music.
Premium connected speaker: Mu-So Qb
If you’re going to spend a lot of money on a smart connected speaker then you can do a lot worse than the Mu-So Qb, which manages to pack a whole load of smarts into a great looking package (seriously, you would not believe how many people were stopping to have a look in the office).
As well as being compatible with most major streaming technologies including AirPlay, AptX Bluetooth, Spotify Connect and Tidal which you can control from your phone, the Qb is also a joy to control by hand, with a capacitive volume wheel that’s a lovely bit of design.
Most importantly of all, it sounds great, with a rich controlled bass that’s never in danger of overwhelming the speaker’s mids and trebles.
Read the full review: Mu-So Qb
High-end soundbar: Samsung HW-K950
We maintain that easiest way to give your television’s audio a boost is with a soundbar. These long, thin, speakers are easy to mount underneath your TV, and they’ll offer a much fuller and richer sound experience than the in-built speakers in your television.
You can find soundbars at a variety of price points, but if you want to go high-end then there are few soundbars out there that match the feature set of Samsung’s HW-K950.
It might be expensive, but this soundbar offers support for Dolby’s latest and greatest surround sound technology, Dolby Atmos, which makes it not only sound as though sound is all around you horizontally, but also creates the illusion of sound being above you as well.
It used to be the case that soundbars were considered a compromise for people who didn’t have enough space for a full-size setup, but in the case of the HW-K950 our reviewer noted that, “calling it a mere soundbar feels like an injustice.”
High. Praise. Indeed.
Read the full review: Samsung HW-K950
The hi-res service: Tidal
What's the point of all these great audio devices if you've got nothing decently decadent enough to play back on them? While it's still a bit of a pain getting hold of hi-resolution audio files, you can at least sign yourself up for the sonically-superior streaming service Tidal.
It offers 40 million songs at CD audio quality, and an increasing number of exclusives too. However, it's a bit pricier than the competition in order to get those hi-res sounds. In the US, it'll set you back $19.99, in the UK £19.99 and AU$£23.99 in Australia.
You can also get a cheaper subscription that doesn't offer CD quality audio, but at that point we'd suggest considering Spotify instead, which at this point still feels like the more complete streaming package.