5 Great Audio Gifts Under $50

01
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5 Cheap Audio Gifts Under $50

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Brent Butterworth

With this under-$50 gift guide, I'm making amends for past crimes. For so many years, on so many magazines and websites I worked for, I acquiesced in the production of ridiculous gift guides packed with $500 or even $5,000 products I'd never even tried. Lame, yeah, but it's the norm in the publishing biz -- and I toiled at Manhattan-based magazines for more than a decade, so I know.

Now I'm making up for it -- at least a little -- with two real-world gift guides for stereos.about.com. The first is products under $25: perfect stocking stuffers or secret Santa gifts for audio enthusiasts and even, in a few cases, for non-enthusiasts.

This one's a little more high-end: products under $50, the kind you might buy for a good friend, a sibling, nieces and nephews, etc. As with my under-$25 guide, this is all stuff I've actually tried and recommend.

02
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AudioSource Sound Pop Bluetooth Speaker

Soundpop Bluetooth speaker
AudioSource

Yeah, there's a zillion Bluetooth speakers out there, but none quite like the Sound Pop, which is running about $27 on Amazon.com. The suction cup on the bottom of the Sound Pop lets you do three cool things:

1) Stick the Sound Pop onto the back of your mobile device. It's a stand and a speaker! (Not a dessert topping, though. At least not a tasty one.)

2) Stick the Sound Pop onto the walls of your tub or shower so you can play tunes while you're washing up. Because you can put it right by your ear, it'll play plenty loud enough. And it's IPX3 water-resistant.

3) Stick the Sound Pop onto your car's windshield and use it as a speakerphone -- or if your car doesn't have Bluetooth or an aux input, use the Sound Pop to play music or podcasts or Internet radio from your phone.

AudioSource says the Sound Pop is tuned using built-in digital signal processing -- incredible for a device of this size and price. After a few months of use, I can confirm that it sounds really, really good for its size.

03
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Bello Digital BDH821 Headphone

Bello BHD-821 headphones
Brent Butterworth

I haven't heard every headphone priced below $50 -- who has? -- but I can confirm that the BDH821 sounds good, is comfortable and looks cool. Well, it looks cool if you're into that Gucci blingy kind of thing. Which I'm not, but hey, every once in a while it's good to break out of your comfort zone, right?

On a jaunt from New York City to Philadelphia, I decided to cheap out and take the local NJ Transit train so I'd have time for a long listening session with the BDH821. By the end of the roughly two-hour trip, the BDH821 was just starting to make my ears uncomfortable. Most headphones would have made me miserable long before that.

I played lots of music on the headphones, and couldn't find a single cut that the BDH821 didn't sound at least pretty good on. It's got a nicely flat tonal balance, with a just-right mix of bass, midrange and treble that suits any music. If you want that pumped-up bass sound, this isn't your headphone, but if you want good, cheap sound, the BDH821 is your headphone.

04
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Firestone Audio Fireye Mini Headphone Amp

Fireeye Mini headphone amp
Firestone Audio

There's lots of times when a headphone jack doesn't give you enough volume. Maybe your headphones aren't very sensitive; some of the best aren't. Maybe the headphone amp built into your TV or laptop sucks; many do. Whatever your reason for needing more volume, the Fireye Mini is a cool, cheap way to get it.

Just use the included cable to connect your source device (phone, laptop, TV, tablet, etc.) to the Fireye Mini. Now plug your headphones into the Fireye Mini. Charge the internal battery using the mini USB connector. The Mini performs well enough to elevate the quality of headphone sound compared to, say, the headphone amps built into most laptops.

I measured +6.2 dB of gain at 1 kHz, and output impedance of 10.2 ohms at 1 kHz. That's not enough to drive some of the most demanding headphones on the market, but it's actually plenty enough to drive the HiFiMan HE-500, a moderately demanding, planar magnetic headphone.

Oh -- and it fits on your keyring and comes in five colors!

05
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Outdoor Technology Buckshot Bluetooth Speaker

Outdoor Technology Buckshot bike speaker
Outdoor Technology

The search for the ultimate bike speaker has vexed me for years. Either they're too bulky, or they sound crummy or both. The Outdoor Technology Buckshot is, in my opinion, the first one to get it really right. It's easily my favorite bike speaker.

Riding around L.A. with the Buckshot attached to the handlebar of my (geek alert!) Tour Easy bicycle, I got enough volume to hear music clearly over the traffic. It sounded surprisingly good, too, with just enough bottom end so it didn't sound thin. The fact that you can easily point the Buckshot directly at you helps -- you get more sound and the people around you get less.

(If you're more the type who wants to share your music with your fellow cyclists, you'd be better off with Outdoor Technology's Turtle Shell. Also, please do not move to L.A.)

The rubber-band-style mount holds the Buckshot fairly securely. It does jiggle just a bit with bumps, but not enough to affect the sound, and the jiggling probably helps absorb shocks. But the unit's pretty shockproof anyway. I dropped it onto the road a few times just to see what would happen and there wasn't a scratch. It even works as a speakerphone, although road noise and wind intrude on your call if you're moving.

One complaint: The opposite end of the Buckshot has volume up and down buttons, plus a multifunction button. They're all the same size. Thus, it's really easy to, say, accidentally call a client at 10 pm when you're trying to adjust the volume during a late-night ride. Said from experience.

06
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Ultimate Analogue Test LP

Ultimate Analogue Test LP
Music Direct

As I described in "4 Key Tools for Setting Up a Turntable," a test record is an absolute must for vinyl record enthusiasts who want to tweak their systems to perfection. I've used a lot of test records and the Ultimate Analogue Test LP is my favorite. It's packed full of test tones that let the dedicated audiophile fine-tune things like azimuth, vertical tracking angle, and anti-skating, and even check to make sure the turntable's properly isolated from external vibration.

Some of the tests found on this LP -- and on any test LP -- require the use of audio measurement gear, but you don't need anything fancy. In fact, there's free software available that will let you do enough basic audio metering to use the LP. Start with TrueRTA.