Audio gear for your smartphone or tablet [Gift Guide 2012]

More people are using their phones and tablets for media and as a result having a good audio output device is getting to be more important. I checked out many products this year and have a roundup of these reviews with some of my favorite gear.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

There are lots of streaming music clients competing for your business and it is now much easier to watch movies and TV shows on your smartphone and tablet. With all of this media content, it is great to have a nice set of headphones, earphones, or an external speaker to enjoy the content since smartphones and tablets generally give you a mono speaker with limited performance. Over the past several months I have had a chance to try out many products and wanted to round them all up and share my recommendations with you as you finish your last minute shopping and look for gifts.

Make sure to also check out the Portable Audio Holiday Gift Guide at CNET.com.

External speakers

You will find an amazing assortment of speakers at retail electronics stores, your wireless carrier store, and online. I can't recommend or discount any speakers I haven't personally listened to so am only covering the speakers I had to test out this year. Here is a list of the external speakers I evaluated:

  • Beats Pill Bluetooth speaker: great form factor, nice carrying case, speakerphone, NFC, and aptX. Seems that Apple's Bluetooth stack has some issued with the Pill. Priced at $199.95.
  • Libratone Zipp: AirPlay and PlayDirect support via WiFi connection, optimized for iOS, outstanding audio quality. Priced at $449 with three wool covers.
  • Auvio Bluetooth Portable speaker: speakerphone, external media controls, auxiliary in only. Priced at just $79.99.
  • Logitech UE Boombox: Large size and fairly heavy at 4.37 pounds, excellent audio performance, high quality design. Priced at $249.99.
  • Logitech UE Mobile Boombox: Compact, coated in rubber, durable material, 10 hours battery, 10.5 ounces, great audio quality. Priced at just $99.99.
  • Big Jambox: Large sound with easy update functionality, excellent design, microphone, external media controls, 2.7 lb weight, 15 hour battery life. Priced at $299.99.
  • Bose SoundLink: 2.9 lb weight, no mic, 8 hour battery life, high quality construction. Priced at $299.95.
  • Nokia Play 360: Option for two speakers for wide area sound, 2.26 lbs each, 20 hour battery life, aptX support, excellent audio quality. Priced at $298 for two.
  • Braven 650: Rock solid aluminum encased speaker, aptX support, ability to charge phone, line in and out for daisy chain, 20 hours of play, mic, external media buttons. Priced at $189.99.

Logitech UE is back in a big way this year while Beats shakes off the Monster partnership. I had two favorite compact portable speakers; the Beats Pill thanks to the slick form factor, NFC, and audio performance while the Braven 650 impressed with design, audio performance, ability to charge devices, and line in/out. I loved the Libratone Zipp, but it is very expensive and limited to iOS for full performance. Thus, my favorite larger speaker is the Big Jambox.

On and over-the-ear headphones

I personally don't wear these type of large headphones often, but I do like to travel with a pair of active noise-canceling headphones when I go on business trips or vacations. These are the different models I tested this year:

  • Beats Executive headphones: cable connection, ANC, do NOT work without power provided by two AAA batteries. Priced at $299.95.
  • Auvio Bluetooth headphones: Lightweight, no cable connection option, carrying case. These headphones are very lightweight and do require a Bluetooth only connection. Priced at $99.99.
  • Logitech UE 6000: ANC, on-cord mic and media controls, 40 hour battery life, great sound. Priced only at $199.99.
  • Logitech UE 9000: Bluetooth or cable connection, ANC, on-cord mic with media controls, rechargeable battery. Price of $399.99.
  • RHA SA950i: Lightweight, cable only connection with mic controller, great sound, soft earpiece. Priced at only $59.95.

It was easier for me to choose a favorite in this form factor and that was clearly the Logitech UE 9000 with top notch performance, cable or Bluetooth connection option, ability to perform with or without ANC enabled, integrated rechargeable battery, and attractive looks and design.


I personally prefer to use in-ear earphones/earbuds most of the time during my daily commute and while out exercising.

  • Auvio High-Performance In-Ear Metal Earbuds: Solid construction, good audio range, single button mic, 4.5 foot cable with flat rubber coated material. Priced at $49.99.
  • RHA MA450i earphones: 7 pairs of ear cushions, 1.5 meter tangle-free fabric cable, carrying pouch, mic/media controller, great sound. Priced at only $49.95.
  • Logitech UE 900: Two 48-inch cable options (one with a mic and one without), airline attentuator, carrying pouch, amazing audio quality, protective hard case, 5 pairs silicone tips, 3 pairs of foam tips, attractive blue and black colors. Priced at shocking $400 price level.
  • JayBird Freedom Sprint: 100% sweat proof, Bluetooth only, secure fit, 4.5 hour play time, lightweight. Priced at $129. New model available.

I honestly wasn't expecting much from a $50 pair of earbuds sold by RadioShack, but was pleasantly surprised by the Auvio quality and performance. The RHA MA450i impressed me even more so there are a couple of great choices at the $50 price range. However, if price is not an issue, the Logitech UE 900 earphones are definitely the top earphone for the serious audiophile at a price of $400.

There are lots of great options for mobile audio today. In general lower priced devices don't sound as good as the higher priced models, but there are some treasures out there too. The Auvio and RHA products are all quite good with low prices. While I like the Beats Executive quality, design, and performance, the Achilles heel of requiring power to work is something to consider. Ultimate Ears (UE) has always impressed me for the higher end and their new Logitech UE products are all outstanding. There are many more audio products available, some more are headed to me for evaluation, and if you have some recommendations I would appreciate you sharing those with readers as well.

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