2010 Cool Yule tools - Top 11 portable entertainment gift ideas

Here's our selection of headphones and entertainment devices for the music lover

Clockwise from top: Marvel Comics-branded headphones, by Coloud; Gorillamobile for iPod touch, by Joby; dbLogic headphones

Clockwise from top: Marvel Comics-branded headphones, by Coloud; Gorillamobile for iPod touch, by Joby; dbLogic headphones

The days of having multiple devices for listening to music or watching movies is basically over – Apple dominates the market so much so that it’s hard to find interesting devices that don’t immediately compare themselves to the iPod or the iPad. So a lot of the gear in the portable entertainment space this year focuses on the headphone space, where we are seeing lots of different choices, designs and styles. Here are our picks for favorites in the portable entertainment space: 

Products reviewed in this category:

  • Apple iPad
  • Sony Reader PRS-650 
  • Ultrasone HF1-2400 headphones 
  • Urban Ears Plattan headphones 
  • Marvel Comics headphones (Coloud) 
  • Shure SE535 Sound Isolating Earphones 
  • TDK WR-700 wireless headphones 
  • TDK EB900 in-ear headphones 
  • dbLogic headphones
  • Kidz Gear Wireless and Wired kid-sized headphones 
  • Joby Gorillapod Mobile (iPod touch)
 

iPad, by Apple 

I won’t go as far as Steve Jobs and call this device magical. There are no unicorns or leprechauns here, and the iPad won’t do things like make you time travel or teleport you to another location.

However, the iPad has transformed a lot in the personal technology space – it’s created a new market for accessories (including our iPad accessories category in this year’s gift guide), and has changed the way that consumers “consume” entertainment within the home.

Whether you think the iPad is just an overgrown iPod touch (and, in some respects, it is), or whether you think the iPad will replace the notebook (or, more likely, the netbook), you have to admit that this device will be one of the hottest holiday gifts this season.

Why? Let me count the ways. It’s an e-book reader, music player, video player, Internet browser, app monster, game player and kid distracter. Yes, my two kids get more face time with the iPad than I do at times – they constantly are using kid-friendly apps that let them color, read, draw, play games and do other things that would cost lots more money in software on the PC. This young generation and those beyond will grow up with touch-screen interfaces thanks to the iPad.

I still think the jury is still out about the iPad’s impact on the enterprise, but I wouldn’t bet against it. For every kid-friendly app and Angry Birds game, there’s a serious business app that wants to take advantage of the iPad’s screen, ease of use and portability. In 5 years, I may be producing this entire gift guide on an iPad.

But for now, let’s just enjoy the device as a great holiday gift for almost anyone on your wish list.

  • Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
  • Price: Starts at $499 
  • [Company Web site]
  • Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Sony Reader PRS-650 (Touch Screen), by Sony   The latest Sony Reader features e-ink technology and a touch screen, which make the device both easy and pleasant to use. At $229.99, it certainly isn’t the least expensive e-reader available, but you do get quite a bit for the money.

First off, I’ll admit, I’m a book lover. I have them stacked on shelves, in closets, and under furniture. I don’t think there is anything quite like a book, so I never even touched an e-reader. However, when I first turned this device on, it was pre-loaded with an excerpt from a book by Harlan Coben described as a “thriller” on his Web site. I sat down with the e-reader and began to read. I got sucked in to the story, and it was only about 15 minutes later when I was interrupted that I noticed what had happened. What can I say? I’m sold. Using this device is completely instinctive. I was turning pages without even paying attention or learning anything about using the device. The few buttons on the bottom are extremely helpful for navigating, though the touch screen works well also. There is a stylus provided for using the touch screen, but there really wasn’t any situation where I found the stylus superior to just using your fingers.

I spend long hours looking at a computer screen, so the e-ink technology was a pleasure (easy on the eyes). The one drawback to the e-ink is it does take a moment for the old image to fade if you sit too long on a screen, but this is more in the case of the home screen, which contains pictures, than with the individual pages of the books.

Battery life is also great, and the e-reader goes into “sleep” mode if you leave it sitting too long. It is comfortable to hold, and has some well thought out details. For instance, the back has a slightly more matte finish than the frame around the screen, which makes it feel slightly warmer and also makes it less likely to be dropped. Speaking of which, I did drop this going down steps (what can I say, books bounce!). Other than a minor scratch, the unit was fine, and didn’t even turn off. However, the SD cards popped out, so a case would definitely be recommended. 

  • Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
  • Price: $229.99
  • [Company Web site]
  • Reviewed by Claire Kiely

HFI-2400 headphones, by Ultrasone 

The Ultrasone HFI-2400 “Natural Surround Sound Headphones” are exactly that – they provide outstanding sound clarity and realistic feeling surround sound. It was almost disorienting to listen to them at first – I wasn’t expecting them to work as well as they did.

You warm up to these headphones quickly, as they’re comfortable and breathe nicely when you leave them on your head for any amount of time. Their aesthetic value is open for debate: my favorite comment from a co-worker was “it looks like you have two airplane engines strapped to your head”. The design is obviously German, and when you’re wearing the headphones, you’re obviously not looking at them. They fold up nicely when not in use.

They produced much less “strain” on my ears than the pair of Audio-Technica headphones I demoed last year, which led to noticeable fatigue (until you got used to them). That wasn’t really an issue with these.

I’m surprised they came with a cloth carrying case, to be honest. Considering the investment and quality of the headphones, you’ll want something a little more durable to protect your investment if you’re dropping $250 on these babies. Surprisingly, though, the headphones are pretty durable – the first thing they did when I got them home was slide off a kitchen counter and onto a tile floor. They held up fine, except for one of the ear pads popping out (it popped right back in). Obviously, it was a relief when I tried them out and they worked as advertised.

If you’re an audiophile, then price probably isn’t an object for you, and anything under $300 is chump change. These headphones provide fantastic clarity, great surround sound effects, and it doesn’t bother you to leave them on all day.

Plattan headphones, by Urban Ears   The Urban Ears Plattan headphones are unlike any of the other headphones I reviewed this year. Their style is distinctly simple, and they feature a “bootlace” cord. By bootlace, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish the difference between your headphone cord and a piece of rope. If you tend to rip cords frequently, you just found yourself a soul mate.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t simulate a rope burn in my testing of everyday movements. Your mileage may vary, but I’m fairly confident the cord won’t give you a rope burn if you somehow drag it across your body.

The headphones themselves define utilitarianism. They’re by no means ugly, and I wouldn’t hesitate even slightly to wear these at work – they’re just not pretty. I actually liked that about them. We received the matte black and chocolate brown colors, but Urban Ears offers a myriad of great color choices if you want to customize them a little more, and I encourage you to visit their Web site to see for yourself. Urban Ears is offering headphones that set themselves visually apart from all the other generic styles out there, and there’s a certain charm in that. They remind me of an old pair I inherited from my father when I was very young (except they don’t cut into my ears), and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The band that connects the two earphones is made out of quality cloth (as opposed to leather or plastic), making it comfortable to wear over the head. The headphones include a microphone button that lets you pause the music and answer an incoming phone call (if you’re listening with your iPhone or other music-enabled phone), and a “Zound” headphone jack underneath the right earphone allows another person to plug in a headset and listen along (a very nice touch!). Another nice touch – the headphones adjust through sliding the earphones up and down, instead of the clicking action that you get with other headphones.

The sound is acceptable. There are better sounding headphones out there, especially for the price – but there’s worse, too. I wouldn’t recommend these for an audiophile, but that goes without saying. The ear pads isolate noise well, and they don’t seem to produce noise fatigue if you leave them on a long time.

Bottom line - I like ‘em, that’s all there is too it. For strictly sound lovers, you’ll get a better deal with the TDK ear buds or some other headphones/earphones in this guide. For added style – at the expense of some sound quality – I’d encourage a pair of Plattans. Especially if you’ll step up in the color department.

  • Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
  • Price: $60
  • [Company Web site]
  • Reviewed by Dan Hunt and Keith Shaw

WR700 Wireless Headphones, by TDK 

I've had a love-hate relationship with wireless headphones, which help you eliminate the wires and separate yourself from the audio source (whether it's an iPod or other music player, or something like a DVD player/game console). On the one hand, the freedom to move around is nice (especially if you want to dance), but on the other hand, the pairing process can be a bit tricky, and if you move too far away from the transmitter (or walls/floors start to separate you), then the audio cuts out.

Some of these issues exist with the WR700 Wireless Headphones from TDK (pairing the transmitter to the headphones was a bit wonky), but for the most part I really enjoyed trying these headphones. First, the headphones are made from quality material, I felt like I could wear these for long stretches without hurting my ears. Second, the sound quality is outstanding - the Kleer technology preserves the original 16-bit, 44KHz digital audio (CD signal) quality, it doesn't compress the audio before it transmits. This produced great sound when listening to my iPod tracks, the wireless streaming didn’t diminish any sound at all. In fact, during some of my songs, I could hear lyrics that I normally don't hear when I'm listening with other headphones, or playing songs on a regular speaker.

The wireless streams at 2.4GHz, which could interfere with lots of other sources (particularly my wireless LAN), but the headphones could dynamically switch channels if it detected any interference. The 2.4GHz also gives you about 33 feet of range between the headphones and audio source (again, that gets smaller with walls or other obstructions).

The WR700 headphones are powered by two AAA batteries, and another two AAA batteries power the transmitter. A corded extension jack was appreciated, as the transmitter couldn't connect correctly with my iPhone 4's rubber case. It also has a larger stereo jack if you want to transmit audio from your home stereo system.

In-Ear Headphones EB900, by TDK   The TDK In-Ear Headphones are the only earbud style headphones I can recommend. They’re very, very comfortable, they isolate noise well, and they sound great. The cloth cord is durable, a good all around length (1.2 meters), and they look neat. They come with a small carrying case, along with a number of different size pads to fit perfectly to your ear.

The only drawback I found is that the cord – which looks neat and is more durable than a standard plastic cord – can cause sound interference when it rubs against collared shirts. One of my polo shirts in particular seemed to cause issues when the collar rubbed against the collar. Then again, you probably won’t be jogging in a collared shirt, nor will you wear one to the gym. It’s a minor annoyance, and certainly not enough to offset how great these headphones are.

I highly recommend these earphones, and at $35, everyone can afford a pair.

SE535 Sound Isolating Earphones, by Shure   I won’t claim to be an audiophile, distinguishing the difference between two sets of headphones or earphones in terms of how many decibels they deliver is not really up my alley. But I can tell when I'm wearing a good pair of earphones or headphones, and the Shure SE535 earphones certainly ifit that category. Shure says the SE535 features “triple high-definition MicroDrivers,” as well as “dedicated tweeter and dual woofers” that deliver “spacious sound with rich bass.” From just using the earphones, I got a great sound on all my music, so that must be working.

The sound isolation also worked very well – you don’t just jam these into your ears and hope for the best – the outer frame of the earphones are designed to secure within the cartilage of your ears. Once you get a secure fit between the frame and the foam-like earbud sleeves, the sound isolation kicks in. I didn’t test this on an airplane, but on a bus trip I couldn’t hear anything other than my music.

At $500, these are a major jump if you’re looking to upgrade from the basic Apple earbuds. You probably have to really be an audiophile or have a lot of money if you want to invest in a pair of these – at this price, the earphones will likely be more expensive than the music player you’re listening to them on.

The earphones come in clear or metallic bronze, and the premium kit includes extra foam sleeves of different sizes, as well as a quarter-inch adapter plug and a carrying case.

SleepPhones Headphones   Described as “pajamas for your ears”, SleepPhones are a simple, great idea – build headphones into a comfortable headband that can be worn while sleeping. As I understand it, many people have trouble falling asleep at night, leading some to dangerous prescription drugs, but many try the old-fashioned fall-asleep-to-music remedy. Of course, your partner/significant other/whatever might not appreciate your choice of tunes, but, apart from in an already uncomfortable airplane seat, have you ever tried to fall asleep wearing headphones whilst even partially horizontal? I thought so – it doesn’t work too well, does it?

That’s what makes SleepPhones such a wonderful approach. Our review product came in a medium-grey shade (yes, matching my natural hair color, thank you for mentioning that), and has the usual 3.5-mm stereo plug at the end of a thin white cord. Just plug it into any stereo source, like the iPod I used, and…

Well, you’ll need to adjust the placement of the speakers within the headband, and you’re not going to get kick-down-the-door bass out of these. But they are indeed comfortable, even lying down, and my significant other tells me that they are even quite fashionable (and she has them on long-term, um, “test” now, refusing to give them back). Yes, your sleeping mate might be able to hear these depending upon your choice of volume and genre, but there’s no more leakage than with most consumer headphones. And, no, they don’t sound as good as the headphones we use for recording in our studio here, but they serve their mission well.

Because I live on airplanes, I’m waiting for a noise-cancelling version, which I hear is in the works. In the meantime, this is one great gift for just about anyone on your holiday list – highly recommended!

  • Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
  • Price: $58.95 (direct)
  • [Company Web site]
  • Reviewed by C. J. Mathias

Marvel Comics-branded headphones, by Coloud   If you’re a technology geek, chances are you’re also a fan of comic books. If you also happen to enjoy music, you can show off your comic-book street cred (is there such a thing?) by sporting some Marvel-branded headphones by Coloud. The headphones (based on the Twelve model from Coloud) don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, and are pretty functional (40mm power drivers, 20Hz-20001 Hz frequency range, and 120 dB sensitivity) – the main appeal of the headphones are the Marvel designs on the earphone covers and the headband.

Coloud also makes other branded headphones, including Hello Kitty, the NHL and Star Wars, should you not be a comic-book geek, but maybe are obsessed with other properties.

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Network World staff

Network World (US online)

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