IT'S BACK for 2017, our never quite ending (that is to say regularly updated) guide to the best speakers and headphones that you can get your paws on, including some familiar names and some that could save you a ton by being awesome noobs. Keep checking back, we'll be adding more as the year progresses.
Blue Ella headphones
They're a bit (read: a lot) above the price range of most of the other audio products here (read: all of them), but Blue's Ella headphones deserve a mention. They're not the most affordable, and not even the most comfortable (the ear cups press together tightly, slightly digging in under the jawbone), but the sound reproduction is on another level.
The Ella are planar magnetic headphones, meaning that they have clear and accurate sound without distortion. They're an odd combination of wired (for audio) and wireless (for power). Basically, this means that you'll still be tethered - but the built-in amplifier makes the Ella sound incredible, no matter what the source is. Using the amp takes more power, but drastically heightens the listening experience. Blue has even built in an extra amp mode to provide more bass.
We could argue that the design (they look excellent, but can't be folded for transport) prevents the Ella from being truly mobile - and the weight stymies them from being used for long periods. But when they sound this good, we can forgive Blue for not getting it quite right.
Jam multiroom speakers
If the idea of something like Sonos is out of your reach and Chromecast Audio doesn't quite do it for you, then Jam might have the solution with its new range of multiroom speakers. The Rhythm is a smaller, more portable unit, while the Symphony provides room filling sound. Control comes via an app which integrates with sources ranging from Tunein to Spotify to Tidal, plus of course Bluetooth and DLNA. Sadly, it's a proprietary system, which given that Google Cast, DTS Play-Fi and Qualcomm Allplay could have opened it up to a wider ecosystem, it seems like an opportunity wasted. However as long as you don't mind being tied in, the sound is good enough to please all but the most demanding audiophiles. You can do a whole flat for a few hundred quid and that's got to be a good thing.
It's worth a footnote that Gear4 unveiled an almost identical, also proprietary, system before Christmas, and it has already been discontinued. Jam seems to be staying the course with its version though. We'd love to see more integration in future upgrades though.
Fugoo XL Style
It's rare that the INQUIRER goes begging to review a speaker, but the Fugoo range is something ridiculously special and the world needs to know that. We first met Fugoo when its original, smaller version came to the UK a couple of years ago, but now it has a big brother, and it's everything we hoped for and more. At its heart beats sound from every side, a waterproof interior with interchangeable jackets (for an extra outlay, it can become the Fugoo XL Sport with waterproof casing, or the Waterproof XL Tough which can survive being run over by a tank (probably). It's not light, but it comes with a shoulder strap and its perfect for festivals as it boasts a
It's not light (its little sister is better for that), but it comes with a shoulder strap and its perfect for festivals as it boasts a 48-hour battery. Oh, and a USB slot for charging. And, by the way, in case we've not made this clear it, sounds amazing. In short, Fugoo is the best speaker range you've never heard of and gosh-darn it, it's time you did.
We reviewed the Style. However the Tough was the only one we were able to find on Amazon in the UK - but shop around, they are out there. Alternatively, Fugoo's website has all the details.
There's so many Bluetooth speakers in anonymous black boxes around that they potentially all blur into one. Fortunately, the Olixar manages to create that holy grail of good audio, not too much tinnyness and then fill the room with it. The bass isn't anything to write home about, but there's still a pleasing full spectrum of sound, and of course hands free if you need it. We'd be hard pushed to find anything else in this price bracket that delivers such great value for money, especially with festival season coming up.
If we were to venture a term for the Aurabox, it would be "besotted". Yes, it's not the first time that lights have been added to an MP3 speaker, and yes, it's not the first time a lightbox has been turned into an information screen showing your missed calls and even Facebook messages, (you control the whole thing with the accompanying app) but the fact they've done all this, given the option to create your own patterns, and then put it in a speaker that's bloody ear-crunching in its loudness? Well that's a different story. Divoom had gone quiet for a bit, but they've come back with an absolute belter of a speaker that's like having a new toy every day, all for less than half the price of the nearest equivalent device, La Metric. Just... awesome. Buy two.
Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear Wireless
After demoing at CES, the Bluetooth-with-a-band party has a new arrival, and it's smashed everything else we've seen out of the water. Similar reinventions of the earbud with an all-day neckband from Jabra and Sol Republic have been great, but these are something else. First of all, let's be clear, Sennheiser Momentum is pretty much your guarantee of something special - ask anyone with the full overhead phones. But this expertise is matched by some serious style and comfort with a leather band that sinks seemlessly onto your neck and earbuds so comfy you'll wonder why you wore anything else. Superb.
Jabra Sport Coach earbuds
Jabra's continuing range of impressive sports earbuds continues with these bass-enhanced motion-sensing "TrackFit" rep counter, which will, with the aid of the accompanying app, keep track of your exercise so you don't lose track. The sound quality is a cut above, something that couldn't always be said of Jabra, while the addition of memory foam cushions for passive noise-cancelling is a work of genius. We still prefer the original Jabra Sport with its heart rate monitor, but there's not much in it.
Kitsound immerse active noise-cancelling headphones
Bluetooth. Active Noise Cancelling. Over-Ear. Comfortable. Good battery life (up to 12 hours) and a carry case. And all for 60 quid. There's no reservations to be had here, so let's not mince words - the noise cancelling is excellent, the sound range is stunning and they embarrass a lot of headphones at three times the price. Utterly recommended.
Kitsound Parallax Bookshelf Speakers
The vogue for all-in-one bookshelf speakers that connect your digital devices by Bluetooth or (in this case optical or aux) cable, has seen varying results. These remote clad speakers feel a little cheaper in build quality and more muffled in sound quality than some others we've seen (Edifier, for example) but they're not offensive, just perhaps not your "majestic" lounge speakers. Good for a spare set though. The remote is also a bit... well... meh. Not bad. Just, not on par.
Minirig 2 Portable Speaker
The Minirig is a British Built cylinder of quite magnificent power. With a choice of Bluetooth, or two cabled inputs - high and low gain (no volume control - this is for the loud), the Minirig 2 claims a battery life of 80 hours. That's more than even our beloved Fugoo. With colour choices, a carry case and an updatable firmare, there's very little not to like about the Minirig. Then you discover there's an optional subwoofer and a rucksack to carry the whole lot around in, and you're left with an aluminium and polycarbide marvel. Extra features are available with the Minirig app.
Sony MDR-NC31EM Earbuds
A funny beast these. They look a bit strange, but they feel really comfortable so we'll let that slide. Problem is, their big selling point the active noise-cancelling, doesn't work on every jack - only those compatible with a 5-pole plug. Unsurprisingly, Sony phones are a good example. But the sound quality is good and the noise-cancelling is surprisingly competent. Just check compatibility first.
Sennheiser Flex 5000 TV Audio System
We dithered over whether this belonged in audio or gift guide, as it would make a great present for a parent. A docking station links to your TV, and a wireless dongle allows you to plug in your headphones on the other side of the room. Any headphones. We tried it with the supplied earbuds, and a pair of HD569 over-ear and in both cases, what was really noticeable was how much clearer the voice dialogue was. In these ages of Jamaica Road and SS-GB, what could an older relative want more? And if your TV supports it, the rest of the room can carry on listening on the TV speaker. So it's part hearing aid, part wireless headset. But with your own headphones. Smashing.
iClever Boostsound Range
No audio guide would be complete (for us) without a mention for the little brand that could, iClever, which keeps churning out stunningly good mp3 speakers and headphones for a fraction of the cost of name-brands. The Utah/China based company has something for every situation from the smallest (the BTS07 with 6W and a hands free speaker), to the ruggedist (the BTS06 with ruggedised surround and IP67 certification) to the biggest (the BTS08 with 10W). They all come in a very sexy red and black livery, have Bluetooth 4.2 (yes, 4.2) and are a dream to use. If you're on a budget, or even if you're not - these are highly recommended.
Not all it's Mac'd up to be
X marks the smart home
The lens said the better