The Rolling Stone Audio Awards 2021
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There’s no shortage of decent audio gear on the market these days, from Bluetooth headphones (that now double as a work-from-home essential) to wireless subwoofers that promise room-shaking bass. But which devices are actually worth buying? And what new releases actually live up to their hype? After all, your favorite songs and soundtracks will only sound as good as the devices they’re being played on.
Our editors have spent the past year testing out hundreds of headphones, speakers and sound systems to put together the list for our first-ever Rolling Stone Audio Awards. These products earned a place on our list for superior performance, advanced technology, inspired design and utility. From the best wireless earbuds, to headsets for gaming, here’s what caught our eyes (and ears) over the past year.
Best Wireless Headphones: Bowers & Wilkins PX7
Bowers & Wilkins PX7s prove wireless headphones can stand toe-to-toe with a wired pair.
If I could sum up their sound in one word it would be: detailed. During my listening sessions I could hear every note from every instrument with extreme clarity. In some cases, I listened to the same track a couple of times, focusing in on a particular element and appreciating how it contributed to the finished track. That was especially true when I listened to fast-paced jazz tunes.
B&W said the PX7s’ drivers were tuned by the same engineers who worked on studio monitors that are currently used at Abbey Road. I wasn’t surprised, as the headphones sound like reference-quality cans you’d use to approve the final mix of a track before it’s sent off to be mastered.
Audio quality is the most important factor when picking a pair of headphones, but it doesn’t hurt that the PX7s have excellent battery life, and surprisingly good active noise cancellation. These features make the Bowers & Wilkins PX7s a must-have for commuters or frequent travelers.
If you desire true sonic excellence everywhere you go, you won’t do better than Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Headphones.
Best Audiophile Headphones: Focal Celestee
If you want high-end audio on the go, you won’t find a more stylish set of cups than these Celestee Headphones from Focal, the luxury audio brand from Saint-Étienne, France. Chic, elegant and impeccably-designed, these closed-back headphones are hand-built using some of the finest audio components in the industry.
What that means: full-range 40mm aluminum/magnesium drivers, rendered in a unique “M” shape that offers a more detailed and precise soundscape. Highs, mids and bass are all impeccably-balanced, while the earcups are fitted with a special acoustic dampening to minimize any resonance or buzz.
Everything is housed inside a refined, closed-back design, with a navy leather-covered headband, plush leather earpads and fine copper detailing. These are the best-sounding headphones you can get for under $1000 — and the best-looking ones too.
Best Headphones for Travel: PuroPro Hybrid ANC
When it comes to blocking out the onslaught of sound you’ll have to face on your commute, or while traveling (think noisy public transport or honking cars), the PuroPro Hybrid ANC headphones can’t be beat.
Puro Sound Labs’ wireless headphones offer two levels of Active Noise Cancellation which give you a general or deep noise reduction of up to 32dB (you’ll probably want that so you don’t have to listen to your carmates arguing through an hours-long road trip.) The over-the-ear design also blocks out more sound than on-ear headphones typically would, with soft leather ear cushions offering unparalleled comfort for your commute.
If you’re the kind of person who loves to crank the volume to drown out, say, a baby crying on an airplane, Puro Labs has your ear health in mind too: the Puro Labs automatically limits the volume to protect you against permanent hearing damage.
The PuroPro offers an impressive 32 hours of play time on a single charge; at the maximum recommended sound level of 85dB, you’ll be able to listen safely for up to eight hours. Large 40mm dynamic drivers provide clear, full vocals and bass, all within volume limits.
PuroLabs’ headphones are your must-have travel companion, with studio-quality audio and noise-cancellation technology to help you listen to your favorite tunes in peace (or in quiet) during your most hectic trips.
Best Value Headphones: Anker Soundcore Life Q20
Anker packs a ton of features into their beloved, budget-friendly Soundcore Life Q20, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a more versatile pair at its price point.
These headphones feature incredibly audiophile-friendly custom 40 mm drivers, which produces “Hi-Res Audio” that’s particularly kind to higher frequencies for a budget pair. But these are great headphones for bass-heads, too—by analyzing and intensifying low frequencies in real time, bass-heavy genres like EDM and hip-hop will get a hard-hitting boost.
If you think you have to sacrifice ANC features to save a few bucks, think again. The Life Q20 has you covered, with four built-in active noise microphones, both internal and external. Anker says its engineers ran these through 100,000 tests of real-life scenarios to fine-tune them. What that means for you is they can detect and cancel out a wider range of low and mid-frequency noises, like cars and airplane engines.
Their charging capabilities are virtually unbeatable too, with up to 60 hours in standard mode and 40 hours in ANC mode. That’s enough to listen to nearly 600 songs on a single charge, but if you’re in a rush, just five minutes will give you four hours of listening. While the design could be a little sleeker, function wins over form here—the only thing this budget-friendly pair can’t do is build a playlist for you.
Best Headphones for Personalized Sound: beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC Traveller
The emerging market of wireless audio with personalized, or customized, sound is one that intrigues me, partially because you can experience the same catalogue of music in a way that’s unique person to person.
But despite the newness of this headphone genre, I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t pay through the nose for what can be, essentially, a glorified EQ adjuster. Enter: beyerdynamic’s Lagoon ANC.
The company’s MOSAYC sound personalization is quite innovative, since they worked in collaboration with Mimi Defined, an audio-hearing research company. You can compensate for age, hearing ability, and other biological factors, as the Lagoon ANC adjusts to your unique sound levels. With a simple, six-minute test on the MIY app, you’ll get a custom sound profile, and you’re able to modify the volume of each ear pad separately, which adds points for user-friendliness.
Although this will obviously vary, my custom listening profile adjusted low-frequency tones while still maintaining crisp detail, but the highs had a nice oomph without getting garbled. These headphones clearly stand out, but mainly due to their app collaboration. They have a few other neat features that make them worthwhile on their own, though.
The cups boast a decent hybrid ANC mode that works well blocking out the chaos of the city. Thanks to the latest audio codecs, they also offer unbreakable Bluetooth connection, and the call quality is very clear. But if you want to dip your toes into the world of personalized audio, the Lagoon ANC will let you experience sound in the way you should’ve always been listening to it, without breaking the bank.
Best Over-Ear Headphones: Sennheiser HD 560S
If you want to recreate the experience of listening to a high-end pair of speakers while sitting at your desk, or lounging on your couch, Sennheiser’s HD 560S Headphones will get you there.
The headphones have an open-backed design, which allows music to flow out of the vent-like grills. This eliminates the harmonic distortion that occurs when sound waves reverberate off the back a headphones’ ear cup and toward your ear.
The difference is noticeable immediately: Mid-range performance (guitars and vocals) sound a lot more natural, like you’re listening to a live track rather than a polished recording. Some open-back headphones I’ve heard have trouble properly reproducing bass frequencies, but that wasn’t a problem here.
I listened to the HD 560S on their own, with a DAC (AudioQuest’s DragonFly Cobalt), and using a headphone amp (Schiit’s LYR3). I had a good experience in all three situations, and can recommend the HD 560S Headphones to anyone, regardless of your current setup.
Best-Designed Headphones: Grado PS500e
Grado’s PS500s aren’t just a great pair of over-ear headphones, they’re a visual knockout. The headphones are hand-built in Brooklyn by the family-owned company that’s been in the audio business since 1953. You cannot find that level of care and commitment anywhere else in the audio industry.
In the age of disposable tech, the PS500s are made out of premium materials like aluminum, leather, and mahogany that are designed to last a lifetime. They may even look better with age. The perfectly-circular earcups have a mesmerizing mesh centerpiece that immediately catches the eye. We’re not always a fan of seeing logos or text on audio gear, but the words “Grado Professional Series” looks more like an official declaration than superfluous branding.
Instead of overstuffing the headband, Grado used enough padding to be comfortable without adding unnecessary bulk. This move helped to keep the headphones light. We were also fans of the thick cable Grado used, which felt solid.
Grado’s PS500es are a statement piece that look incredible and sound amazing.
Most Comfortable Headphones: Master and Dynamic MW65 Headphones
While noise-cancellation, Bluetooth and a long battery life are great to check off your list when you’re buying a new pair of headphones, making sure they’re actually comfortable and sound good just might be the most important part of all. Master & Dynamic’s over-the-ear MW65 headphones wrap around your ears with lambskin memory foam ear cups and an adjustable leather headband for all-day-long comfort in style.
But comfortable cups aren’t the only things that make the MW65s a steal — Master & Dynamic used anodized aluminum so, at about 8.6 ounces, they feel lightweight even when you’re wearing them for the entire workday or for the duration of your commute.
It’s a good thing the MW65s were made to be so comfortable — their long list of must-haves make it so you’ll never want to take them off, from active noise-cancellation and wildly good 40mm drivers to a 24-hour battery life and, yes, mics that you can use for better-sounding work calls.
Best Gaming Headphones: Razer Kraken Ultimate
Gaming headphones, more commonly referred to as a gaming headset,et is the most important piece of audio gear for any player who wants to stay competitive during online play. The Razer Kraken Ultimate
As an over-ear pair of headphones, the Kraken Ultimate stacks up nicely when compared to models that cost a lot more. Its frame is made out of steel and aluminum, and its earcups are large enough to fit entirely over your ear. This creates an immersive listening environment and blocks outside noise more effectively, which can help you focus on your game. The Kraken Ultimate has 50mm drivers (the part of a headphone that creates sound), so game audio will sound precise even if there’s a lot going on.
This headset’s most impressive feature is its use of THX Spatial Audio, a technology that simulates a 7.1 surround sound system. Being able to hear enemies as they approach you from all sides will give you a big advantage over your opponents. Additionally, feature can help you fully appreciate a game’s soundtrack if you’re playing a single-player title.
Part of playing games online is communicating with your teammates, and the Kraken Ultimate’s microphone is flexible, so it’ll never get in your way. It supports active noise cancellation, so your fellow players will hear you not the room you’re in. A proper gaming setup should have some flair, and the Kraken Ultimate delivers by way of built-in LED lights. You can set the headphones to one of 16.8 million colors to represent your team, or your personal taste.
The Razer Kraken Ultimate’s mix of advanced audio features, solid construction, and noise cancelling microphone will help you up your game.
Best Workout Headphones: Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphones II
When it comes to working out and listening to music in the gym or outdoors, earbuds aren’t the only option you have. If you want a pair of headphones that can deliver strong-and-powerful sound while you’re building muscle and burning calories, the Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphones II are the best workout cans around.
If you prefer over-ear headphones to earbuds on a daily basis, you’ll love the SoundLinks for exercise and beyond. Their around-ear cup design means you won’t have to find a specific ear tip size or worry about buds slipping out when you get sweaty, and they’re lightweight and comfortable enough that you won’t have to adjust them midway through your reps.
While they’re one of the most wearable workout headphones you can own, they’re also just as functional and easy to control. When you want to skip to a new, more motivating track or pause your tunes when you get a call, you don’t have to reach for your phone. Bose made it easy to do it all right from the headphones with easy-to-press buttons on the cups.
With a 15-hour battery life, they’ll last through multiple workout classes and routines. But most importantly, they won’t die on you in the gym when you need them most.
And when your workout’s finally over, you can store them in their own carrying case and pack them away in your gym bag or locker.
Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones: Sony WH-1000MX4
Almost a year after they first dropped online, Sony’s WH-1000MX4 Wireless Headphones retain their title as our favorite noise-cancelling headphones. The wireless cups’ sleek and streamlined design belies a host of advanced technical features, that work together to deliver a whisper-quiet, immersive listening experience.
Sony’s improved “Digital Sound Enhancement Engine,” which actively upscales your digital music files, for a cleaner, fuller, more finely-tuned sound. Big 40mm drivers resonate with a wider soundscape, and the headphones’ impressive 30-hour battery life means you can keep the music going for longer.
But what you’re really after here is Sony’s Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology, which continues to lead the back in terms of effectiveness and overall quality. Here, the headphones use four microphones (two on either earcup) to pick up ambient noise, which is then run through a special Noise-Cancelling Processor to help remove unwanted outside sounds. Turn the ANC on and you’ll hear a noticeable different right away, as if a tight seal has formed around your ears to transport you into a more focused audio space. It’s great for listening to music, but also for taking calls or watching movies and TV shows.
A bonus: Sony’s updated tech allows for multiple device pairing with these headphones, meaning you can seamlessly switch from jamming to your playlist on your phone, to taking a video call on your laptop with ease.
Most Forward-Thinking Design: House of Marley Champion Earbuds
Crafted from sustainable materials like bamboo and recycled silicone, the House of Marley Champion Earbuds truly are a pair of buds you can feel good about buying.
The eco-conscious ethos has long been a part of the House of Marley, the audio brand inspired by Bob Marley’s love for music and the environment. These true wireless earbuds, the company’s latest, are made from renewable bamboo, a natural fiber composite dubbed “REGRIND” and a repurposed silicone material, used on the soft and gentle ear tips.
Even the braided charging cord is made from 99% post-consumer recyclable polyester, and everything is packaged using 100% recyclable, plastic-free packaging made from FSC-certified materials.
The forward-thinking design extends to the audio quality too, with the Champion Earbuds offering well-balanced sound, easy Bluetooth pairing, and seamless voice calls with the built-in mics. Get eight hours of playtime on a single charge; get up to 28 hours with the included charging case.
Best Wired Headphones: Philips Fidelio X3
For audiophiles who don’t want just another pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones, wired cans help deliver your music just the way it was intended to sound. Philips’ Fidelio X3s are the best wired headphones for every music fan who wants to stream hi-res audio at home.
Philips outfitted the Fidelio X3s, which come with a 3.5-6.3 adapter, with 50mm drivers for hearing every little detail in your favorite music, along with Scottish Muirhead leather along the double headband that looks stylish and will feel even better when you plug them in, while memory foam cushioning adds an additional layer of listening comfort.
The cups themselves have a unique open design that’s wrapped with Kvadrat fabric, producing incredibly balanced acoustic sound that Philips sums it as a “concert hall for your ears” — the closest thing you can get to the real live thing right in your own home.
Sure, they’re not Bluetooth, but once you put these wired headphones on your ears, you’ll never want to unplug again.
Best Wireless Earbuds: AirPods Pro
What can we say? Even after facing steep competition, the true wireless earbuds we keep returning to are Apple’s AirPods Pro.
Rather than excelling in one area at the expense of others, the AirPods Pro remain our top pick because they have no obvious downsides. Their active noise cancellation is top-notch, blocking out the annoying drone of a commuter train or plane engine with surprising accuracy. The earbuds offer a consistent five hours of music playback per charge, with an additional 18 hours courtesy of their battery case.
In our listening tests, the AirPods Pro continue to impress. The tight seal they form around the eardrum allow the earbuds to pump out an impressive amount of bass. The AirPods EQ tuning isn’t neutral, but no frequencies seem artificially boosted to the point of making music sound fake. Instead, it sounds like the earbuds were optimized to make every track you listen to sound as good as possible.
The original AirPods brought true wireless earbuds into the mainstream, and Apple’s AirPods Pro only extended their lead.
Best Audiophile Earbuds: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
Apple may lead the market with their best-selling AirPods Pro, but Samsung has been quietly sneaking up the audio ranks with their Galaxy Buds line of wireless earbuds for the last few years.
Unlike Apple, which often favors a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro are specifically geared toward music fans, with Samsung’s team of engineers working on everything from the buds’ unique bean shape to microphone placement, to create the best listening experience possible.
What you get: studio-like sound with rich highs and pulsating bass that resonates across a wide, full soundscape. The two-way speakers are powered by AKG (a premium, professional standard for sound), with an 11-mm woofer and 6.5-mm tweeter built into every earbud. Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology helps to seal out outside noise so music sounds crystal clear.
Get up to 28 hours of battery life with the included charging case, and pair the Buds Pro to your devices easily with Bluetooth 5.0. Samsung also beats Apple when it comes to water-resistance. While the AirPods Pro are just sweat-resistant, the Galaxy Buds Pro are rated IPX7, to protect them even while (accidentally) underwater up to three feet deep for 30 minutes.
Best-Designed Earbuds: Earin A-3 Earphones
Don’t be fooled by the minimalist look of Earin’s wireless earbuds – the tiny buds deliver surprisingly expressive audio, thanks to custom speakers that draw out all the nuances of your music. The nickel-sized earbuds — the “world’s smallest earbuds,” according to the company — come in a sleek and streamlined case inspired by contemporary art and Scandinavian design. The aluminum case supports wireless charging, so you can pair it with a chic wireless charging pad too.
Sound-wise, the A-3s deliver surprisingly big sound, pumping out incredibly detailed audio from 14.3mm speakers. They feature an open style, so you won’t be cycling through different tip sizes just to find a small-enough tip for your ears (bonus points for a super ergonomic fit). We also like that you can use both of the earbuds in either ear. Earin says the wireless earbuds are sweat-resistant too, in case you want to take these luxe earphones to the gym or on a run.
The included case can recharge the buds for 30 total hours of use (or get five hours for the buds on their own, in between charges). Everything is overseen by Earin’s design team in Malmö, Sweden, who still inspect and assemble every pair of buds in-house.
Best Noise-Cancelling Earbuds: LG Tone Free FN7
There are a ton of noise-cancelling earbuds on the market, but LG’s Tone Free Wireless Earbuds top our list this year thanks to the company’s focus on technology and fit.
The LG TONE Free FN7 works to neutralize outside noise by using up to three microphones in each earbud to monitor — and muffle — external sound waves that could interfere with your music. The Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology effectively blocks out background noise and ambient sound, but it’s the earbuds’ unique shape that adds an additional layer of noise-blocking.
LG’s engineers created a spiral ear gel design that fits more securely inside the ear canals for a tighter seal. What that means: the tip of the buds work in tandem with ANC technology to minimize any outside noise from coming in (the ear tips are adjustable so you can find a secure “hold” that’s most comfortable for your ears).
Spec-wise, the TONE Free FN7s deliver HiFi sound thanks to Meridian Audio, with enhanced bass and a premium equalizer. Battery life is decent, at 21 hours, though a quick five-minute charge gets you up to one hour of listening time.
LG has worked hard to add voice features to its line of earbuds too, and the FN7s are compatible with Google Assistant and Siri, so you can adjust settings, change songs and more using just your voice.
Best Earbuds for Personalized Sound: NuraLoop
The real star of the show when it comes to NuraLoop’s Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds is their Nura App, which allows you to create an individualized listening profiling unlike any earbuds we’ve ever used before.
When setting up a profile (you can set up to three), the app conducts a hearing test, playing a series of sound frequencies for one minute to analyze your hearing, then making appropriate adjustments to volume, bass, and treble tones. Once complete, you can compare the neutral listening mode with your own personalized profile, represented visually in the app.
Experiencing the customized sound profile was like flipping a switch, where the audio became richer, and sharper than before. With these earbuds, you won’t feel the need to make any further volume or EQ adjustments, and you get the most out of your music catalogue without feeling like you need a degree in audiology.
One aspect that I think really enhances the overall experience is their active noise cancellation mode—there’s a “Social Mode,” which gives you the ability to hear your surroundings while still preserving the clear melodies from your music. But with full ANC activated, these earbuds impressively block out everything but your tunes, leading to the most immersive sound quality I’ve experienced.
Best Earbuds for Travel: Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earbuds
The thing about wearing earbuds when you’re traveling is that it’s easy to lose them when you’re on the go. The Powerbeats Pro are an essential pair of earbuds for frequent travelers thanks to their built-in ear hooks that sit comfortably over and behind your ears for a more secure and comfortable fit.
With a nine-hour battery life, they can last for a long flight from New York to Europe and to the hotel before needing to get charged again.
Touch controls on the outside of the buds make it easy to play, pause and change the song right from your ear without having to dig in your pack for your phone. They work with both iPhone and Android phones and you can control them with your own voice, too. Plus, if you’re sitting next to a friend on a flight, you both can use Beats or Apple’s AirPods to connect to an iPhone to catch up on a podcast or stream something on Netflix.
And with their charging case, you won’t have to worry about losing sight of them when you pack them in between uses. When it comes to earbuds for travel, no other pair of buds delivers the comfort, sound quality and convenience features like the Powerbeats Pro.
Best Workout Earbuds: Jaybird Vista Sport True Wireless
If you want earbuds that will stand up to your toughest workouts, Jaybird’s Vista Sport Earbuds gives the best combination of durability and comfort.
We’re not kidding when we say that these can withstand almost anything thrown at them—the Vista Sports has an IPX7 waterproof rating, and have been subjected to shock, drop, and crush tests as well as extreme weather conditions. Even if you’re not exactly running these buds through the ringer, you’ll still be able to job through a sudden downpour, or even swim with these on, and that’s pretty impressive.
But you’re still going to want them to stay secure during intense activity, and that’s where Jaybird has you covered. Three sizes of soft-tipped ear gels means they’ll stay locked during HIIT or other, harder workouts. They’re still surprisingly lightweight, at around 0.2 ounces, so you’ll hardly feel them anyways.
One caveat here is the battery life—these earbuds only get six hours of play time per change, with the case adding up to 16 hours in total, which is less time overall than the AirPods. But if you want your workout playlist to sound killer, there are a couple great features that make them worth it.
The Jaybird iOS and Android app that lets you play around with EQ for a customized sound experience (although the 6mm drivers already sound good.) That level of audio quality care, even for a pair of rugged workout buds, is what makes the Vista Sports stand out above the competition.
Best Running Earbuds: Jabra Elite 85t
The race for the best running earbuds has gotten pretty competitive over the last few years, and the Jabra Elite 85t earbuds have quickly become one of the undisputed frontrunners, thanks to their high-quality sound, 12mm speakers and water-resistant design.
These buds are active noise-cancelling earphones, too, and you can manage the level you want within the Jabra Sound+ app, taking a brief hearing test for the best listening experience for you.
Because they can help cancel outside noise, you won’t lose key parts of your music or a podcast like you might with other earbuds, especially when you’re running through strong gusts of wind or trying to listen for how many miles you’ve run in noisy areas. But you can also use the HearThrough mode on your route to make sure you’re not completely blocking out important sounds on the road.
A great training companion, the Elite 85ts boast a lengthy five-and-a-half-hour runtime with noise-cancelling kicked on. But when you do have to recharge them, you can slip them back in their protective charging case for a 25-hour total battery life.
Best Value Earbuds: TaoTronics SoundLiberty 95
TaoTronics SoundLiberty 95 True Wireless Earbuds are an amazing value, with the latest audio technology and a streamlined design making them worthy competitors against bigger-budget market players.
When my AirPods broke and I didn’t want to shell out for the price of replacing one singular earbud, TaoTronics was my go-to, with an ergonomic, comfortable design that absolutely rivals the AirPods. Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of typical in-ear, suction cup-type ear tips, but these felt secure and comfortable enough to wear for hours without really noticing them.
Audiophiles won’t feel like they’re missing out either, since these earbuds feature “HiFi Audio Sound” technology that deliver rich, clear sound accuracy over a full range of frequencies. The 13mm drivers and bass tubes also provide powerful, deep low tones.
What we like: you can listen on a single earbud with TaoTronics’ “Role Switch,” and switching between Mono and Twin mode is a breeze. They don’t pair as fast as other wireless earbuds, and you may have to manually turn off Bluetooth on other devices in the general vicinity, but the connection holds strong once paired.
The earbuds get up to seven hours battery life, pretty decent for their price, and a total of 28 hours through the charging case. They also handle travel or workouts well, since they’re sweat-proof, waterproof and weather-resistant with an IPX8 rating.
I’ve been using these earbuds extensively, and the SoundLiberty 95s offer a sleek design, good battery life, and unparalleled sound reproduction—basically everything you want in the best wireless earbuds, all at a reasonable price.
Most Comfortable Earbuds: 1MORE ComfoBuds Pro
The latest earbuds from upstart audio brand 1MORE have comfort built into the name. The 1MORE ComfoBuds Pro True Wireless Earbuds have been our go-to lately for travel, beach days and weekend listening sessions at home, thanks to their insanely soft and cushy eartips, which stay put — and stay comfortable — even for extended periods of time.
Unlike bulky earbuds, which tend to slip and fall out, the ComfoBuds Pro have a narrower, slightly angled tip, that fall more naturally into your ear canals. And unlike most brands, which offer 2-3 interchangeable ear tips with their earbuds, 1MORE includes four different ear tip sizes, so you can find the best fit.
Audio-wise, these buds deliver a lot of bang for the buck, with six microphones driving loud, crisp sound. The company’s proprietary QuietMax active noise cancellation feature, meantime, combines hybrid ANC technology, precise audio tuning, dual-band ANC and wind noise reduction to deliver an incredibly effective noise cancellation experience. You can swipe through five different noise reduction modes too, to control the type — and amount — of sound you want to let in (say, if you want it to be totally quiet, or want some traffic noise to seep in if you’re wearing the buds on a run or bike ride).
Get up to 28 hours of playtime with the included charging case. Just 15 minutes of charge fuels you up for two hours of listening time thanks to the company’s fast charge technology.
1MORE has positioned itself as the “AirPods Pro killer,” and while the company hasn’t topped the audio giant when it comes to pure sales just yet, with these ComfoBuds Pro, they’re setting a new standard for audio excellence that should make the industry take notice.
Best Surround Sound System: SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 System
There’s no denying that a surround sound system can create a transformative at-home movie experience, making it sound like you’re right there in the middle of the action — immersing yourself in the noises you’re seeing on screen and feeling the ground shake thanks to a subwoofer.
There’s no shortage of fantastic systems you could pick these days, but Youngstown, Ohio-based SVS’ Prime Satellite 5.1 System is on an almost untouchable level when it comes to premium audio for your home theater. Music and effects sound louder, sharper, more vibrant and life-like. The surround sound system lets you hear every whip and rumble, say, from an intense action scene, but also does an amazing job at picking out the tiniest whispers and nuances from dialogue too.
And you don’t need a huge entertainment space to use it in either — SVS says it’s an ideal system for “small to medium-sized” spaces, so you don’t have to worry about overpowering sound or a heavy footprint wherever you decide to set it up. The handsome housing looks great in any room or decor style too.
The set includes six total units: five of the brand’s Prime Satellite speakers to place around your living room, along with a subwoofer that SVS says is “like a stick of dynamite.” Boom.
Best Soundbar for Home Theater: Samsung HW-Q80R
What would happen if an audio tech giant teamed up with a home entertainment giant? You’d get Samsung’s HW-Q80R, made in collaboration with Harmon Kardon, for the most premium, unmatched audio you’ll get from a soundbar.
The surround sound from the unit’s 13 speakers is stunning, including two that fire upward and two that fire from the side, for a totally multidimensional effect. The wireless subwoofer also ups the intensity of the bass, which compliments the Dolby Atmos and DTS: X surround sound well.
Need more reasons to upgrade your sound? While it doesn’t have any smart features, what has impressed us is HW-Q80R’s “adaptive sound,” which automatically adjusts the EQ based on what you’re watching, even making speaking voices clear on lower volumes. Gamers will also enjoy a dedicated mode which optimizes sound of the game you’re playing in real time (though it’s only available on select Samsung TVs.)
The HW-Q80R features support for Bluetooth, Alexa voice control, and a variety of ports, but it really shines with 4K and HDR10 video sources, if you care about how seamlessly your audio matches up to what’s on the screen. With so many features packed in, one thing to consider is its size—it’s fairly large, at nearly 50 inches long.
But it’s worth the space (and money) for that level of audio reproduction. So if you’re looking for movie theater-quality sound in your own home, Samsung’s Harman Kardon HW-Q80R should be your first pick.
Best Portable Soundbar: Bose Smart Soundbar 300
Look, you don’t need us to convince you that your TV speakers just aren’t doing those epic movie nights justice anymore.
But creating a blockbuster-worthy setup with your sound system at home no longer means you need to haul in a movie theater’s worth of speakers into your living room — all you really need for better sound is a portable soundbar.
Bose is no stranger to making some of the top soundbars for any size of space, including the Smart Soundbar 300. It’s one of the best soundbars we’ve ever tested when it comes to clearer dialogue, and it sounds exceptionally good for its size. It’s about 26.5 x 2 inches, and it’s easy to fit underneath your TV or mount on the wall underneath your screen.
You can play music on the soundbar, too, thanks to Bluetooth, and it also connects with digital voice assistants including Google Assistant and Siri. Can’t find the remote to change the bar’s volume? Your digital assistant is there to help.
The bottom line: The Bose Smart Soundbar 300 is a versatile soundbar that produces unparalleled sound in a lightweight, portable design, perfect for any room in the house.
Best Budget-Friendly Soundbar: Roku Streambar
Roku packed an remarkable amount of technology into the Roku Streambar, which is even more impressive when you consider its price.
The Streambar is only 14-inches long, which makes it one of the most compact soundbars we’ve ever tested. Despite its size, the Streambar puts out a surprising amount of sound — more than enough to fill a mid-sized living room or large bedroom. Some treble sounds (think explosions) can sound a little tinny, but overall the Streambar sounds significantly better than the speakers built into your TV.
If it was just a sounder, Roku’s Streambar would be a pretty good deal, but it’s also a 4K media streamer. Plug it into your TV with an HDMI or Optical Audio cable, and you’ll have near-instant access to streaming services like Hulu, Peacock, Paramount+, and Netflix. If you’ve been relying on the streaming apps built into your TV, or an old streaming stick that can only output video in HD, the Streambar will be a huge upgrade.
Roku’s Streambar combines top-notch audio and streaming hardware into a single box, which makes it the best soundbar in its price range. The competition doesn’t even come close.
Best Hi-Fi Speakers: Fleetwood Sound Deville
Fleetwood Sound says its Deville speakers will be “the last loudspeakers you’ll ever need,” and the company is probably right.
Everything about the speakers screams perfection, from their cabinets — made from thermally treated solid ash hardwood — to the audio components inside. Each speaker has an eight-inch high efficiency woofer, and one-inch horn-loaded compressor driver.
Its internal wiring is made out of solid silver, and Fleetwood Sound emphasizes the quality of its crossover components, which separates frequencies between the speakers’ drivers. Fleetwood Sound compares the speakers’ transducers to the ones you’d find in the loudspeakers found in concert halls.
The Deville speakers are hand-built in the United States, which speaks to Fleetwood Sounds’ commitment to perfecting every aspect of their construction. Everything from the selection of the materials to assembly happens entirely in-house, which is a level of care that’s practically unheard of.
Fleetwood Sound’s Deville loudspeakers are among the nicest pieces of audio equipment we’ve ever seen, and will elevate any system they’re a part of.
Best-Designed Speakers: Mcintosh XR100 Floorstanding Speakers
Take this as a warning that you may have to pick your jaw up off the floor the first time you see these McIntosh XR100 floor speakers in real life.
We won’t blame you, as they’re not only one of the best speakers for serious music fans to have at home, but they’re also one of the most beautifully-designed, with a cool, retro-meets-modern vibe that doesn’t skimp on details and fine finishes.
While some audio equipment can really stick out (and not in a good way) when it’s mixed in with your furniture, McIntosh kept things timeless with the XR100’s warming wood design, wrapping the powerful 600-watt speakers’ frames in sleek gloss black, red walnut or pear maple. Every component and placement is carefully considered, with thoughtful attention placed on not only aesthetics, but the speakers’ acoustic performance as well.
If you think these speakers look cool, just wait until you hit play and hear what they can really do – the XR100 floorstanding speakers fill the room with concert-like sound thanks to a combination of 11 drivers and four built-in woofers. When it comes to well-designed speakers for the audiophile set, the XR100s are a standout in our book.
Best Powered Speaker: Klipsch The Fives
With The Fives, Klipsch makes a convincing argument that you may only need one pair of speakers.
Like a Swiss Army knife, this set of powered speakers can handle any task you throw at them. It has an HDMI port, so you can connect The Fives to your TV and use them as home theater speakers. Its built-in phono preamp allows you to connect any turntable to them right out of the box. Need a set of audiophile-worthy computer speakers? The Fives have a USB connector. They even support Bluetooth, so you can connect your phone, tablet, or computer to them without plugging in a single cable.
We’ve tested The Fives in all of these scenarios, and they constantly performed better than we could have expected. Music lovers will appreciate their dynamics, and ability to accurately recreate every note, beat, or sound effect with 100% accuracy. These are studio-quality speakers designed to deliver the absolute cleanest sound possible — and they succeed. The same is true if you use them as home theater speakers; dialogue sounds clear, and loud sound effects (think explosions) never cause The Fives to distort. This level of performance is downright astonishing.
Klipsch bundles the speakers with an all-aluminum remote, which gives you quick access to each of the speakers functions, so you can switch between them with a single tap. The company clearly sweat the details, and spared no expense when designing this pair of speakers. The Fives are the best powered speakers we’ve ever used, not only because of their impressive versatility, but their exceptional overall quality.
Best Bookshelf Speakers: Sonus Faber Lumina I
Bluetooth speakers are, of course, a convenient way to listen to your music without taking up much space. But for anyone who wants fuller, more substantial sound in, say, an apartment or an office, bookshelf speakers are one of the best pieces of gear music fans could own.
The Lumina I bookshelf speakers from Sonus Faber produce unbelievable sound with a design that can actually fit in your space, slipped right in next to your records.
They’re also some of the best passive speakers you can add to your audio setup, too (keep in mind you’ll want to pair them with your record player’s receiver before listening to your music).
For audiophiles, Lumina represents the next level in audio excellence, with loudspeakers that offer pristine sound as distinguished as its appearance. Sonus Faber fit 29mm drivers into the Lumina I’s well-designed frames, giving your ears an audio treat unlike other speakers of their size — think rich, detailed, distortion-free music, that resonates from a warm acoustic housing.
Plus, you’ll have no problem finding a home for them anywhere around your house: They measure 11 x 5.8 x 8.4 inches and weigh in at 9.7 pounds a piece — a beautiful companion for your bookshelf or table, sure to impress with good looks and good sound.
Best Home Speaker: Sonos One
The Sonos One was Sonos’ first smart speaker, and it’s still the best choice if you’re setting up a wireless home audio system.
The One sounds great, but its big advantage over other home audio speakers is its flexibility. You can set one up and play music in mono, or pair two together for true stereo sound. If you set up two Sonos One speakers in separate rooms, you can play music on them simultaneously. You can even use a pair of Sonos Ones as the rear speakers in a 5.1 surround sound system if you have one of Sonos’ soundbars.
The Sonos One has a microphone, which enables TruePlay, a Sonos-developed technology that can optimize the speakers sound based on the room it’s in. The feature may sound like a gimmick, but it makes a big difference. The microphone also lets you communicate to the Sonos One using Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant, so you can stream music from your preferred service without touching your phone. If you use Apple devices, you can stream music to the Sonos One using AirPlay 2, the company’s proprietary streaming standard.
With the Sonos One, you’re getting an excellent home speaker that can evolve over take on new roles as your needs change.
Best Outdoor Speaker: Ultimate Ears Hyperboom
If your patio could use a music boost, get ready to party.
Ultimate Ears has been making some of the best outdoor speakers on the market for years, from the water-resistant Wonderboom 2 to the Megaboom 3. And with its newest offering, the brand’s taking it to the next, loudest level.
Released just last year, the Hyperboom is perfect for everything from all-day outdoor picnics to summertime by the pool. It’s the largest and loudest speaker Ultimate Ears has ever designed, pumping out what the company describes as “Earth-shattering” sound for up to 24 hours, along with bass that’ll blow you and your guests away, no matter where you’re standing.
But it’s not just all about its bass — depending on where you’re playing music, the Hyperboom’s built-in equalizer adjusts the sound wherever it’s at, so it’ll sound its best no matter if it’s, say, sitting on your patio table when you’re grilling or next to the pool. Meanwhile, you and a friend can use Bluetooth to play music at the same time, and you can also connect with an optical cable or aux cord.
With its IPX4 rating, this backyard essential can even stand up to splashes, whether that’s from someone jumping in the pool or accidentally knocking a drink off the table.
Bonus: It also comes with its own carrying strap on the side, making it an impressive outdoor speaker that’s also seriously portable.
Best Computer Speakers: Audioengine HD4
You’ll never want to listen to your music catalogue out of tinny, built-in computer speakers again when you listen to the crystal clear sound of Audioengine’s HD4 desktop speakers.
Compared to your computer speakers, the Audioengine HD4 offers more detailed, high-fidelity stereo sound for your entire space. It reproduces sound the way it’s meant to be heard in a studio, with audio that sounds natural and clear, and a bass that’s leveled without being too heavy-handed. While the reproduction is great overall, it shines best in smaller rooms and spaces.
They also just look super classy—built-in analog power amps wrapped in finished wood-veneer cabinets giving the best blend of analog coolness and modern functionality. For a home music system, it’s surprisingly compact, and can perform just as well as an addition to a desktop computer as it can a replacement for a living room sound system.
Low latency aptX Bluetooth give these speakers an extended wireless range of up to 100 feet. Beyond Bluetooth, you can hook it up to a TV or turntable via the mini-jack or RCA inputs, connect via USB to your computer, or simply plug in your headphones at your desk.
Audioengine’s retro, yet high-performance speakers make it easy to merge old school looks with thoroughly modern features.
Best Portable Bluetooth Speakers: Sony SRS-XB23
Sony’s SRS-XB23 is a prime example of how bigger size doesn’t always equal bigger sound—this speaker is well worth it if you want to bring the party with you, never sacrificing portability for a bass that has serious oomph.
This is thanks to the tube-shaped speaker’s dual passive radiators, which gives that deep, punchy bass, but won’t drown out your mids and treble ranges. Speaking of parties, gone are the days of taking over the aux cord—amaetur party DJs will love the versatility the SRS-XB23 brings to the table. With the Sony Music Center app, you can fine tune the EQ to your liking, curate playlists over Bluetooth.
The SRS-XB23 also packs a lot of sound into a pretty small package, weighing in at just 1.26 pounds and 9.09-inches long. You could easily toss this slim model into a backpack or tote bag and take it with you camping, on a road trip, since it’s fairly sturdy too, with a waterproof and dustproof IP67 rating.
You won’t have to lug a ton of wires or chargers around with you either, since you can keep the sound going all day long with the SRS-XB23’s 12 hours of battery life. But if you want real room-filling audio, connect it with up to 100 wireless speakers (although, will you really need more than two?) with Sony’s Party Connect mode for booming sound without spending big bucks.
But for a smaller speaker that performs like a thumping, bass-heavy giant, Sony’s SRS-XB23 is a serious contender.
Best-Designed Portable Speaker: Libratone Zipp 2
Speakers are meant to be heard, but Libratone’s Zipp 2 was also designed to be seen.
Most of the cylindrical speaker is wrapped in a mesh fabric that’s available in several colors. The inviting shape and fun colors draw the eye immediately. Most audio gear looks either boring or imposing — the Zipp 2 looks fun without drifting too far into the world of pastels. Even Libratone’s logo — a small bird — looks cool as it glows on top of the speaker’s touch-sensitive button.
It may look like a casual piece of gear, but the Zipp 2 is all business under the hood. It features a pair of passive radiators, one 4-inch woofer, a 1.5-inch tweeter, and a reflector. These audio components pump out clear, well-balanced sound that never distorts at high volumes. The passive radiators send music out in all directions, so you don’t have to position the Zipp 2 in a particular way to find its “sweet spot.” Instead, you can perch the speaker anywhere, hit play, and enjoy your music.
The Zipp 2 is a portable Bluetooth speaker, but it also has Amazon’s Alexa built into it. You can use the smart assistant to play music from your streaming service of choice without touching another device. Portability gives the Zipp 2 a huge advantage over Amazon’s Echo, which has impressive audio hardware, but must be plugged into an outlet. Libratone says the Zipp 2 can last up to 12 hours on a single charge, so you shouldn’t worry about battery anxiety.
In a world where most portable speakers look bland, the Libratone Zipp 2 offers a refreshing pop of color. It’s a portable speaker you’ll actually want to take with you anywhere.
Best Smart Speaker: Nest Audio
Apple and Amazon made big splashes with their latest smart speakers, but it’s Google’s Nest Audio that made the most lasting impression.
That starts with its design: The linen-covered rectangular speaker comes in an array of colors that catch the eye without standing out too much. Most audio equipment is designed to look cool, and the Nest Audio achieves that without being boring.
Naturally, what impressed us the most was its sound. The speaker sounded big and bold despite its small size, and we could use it comfortably in a small living room without cranking the volume. If you want a smart speaker for a home office, bedroom, or kitchen, you’ll be fine having one. If you have a larger room, or want even better sound, get two and connected them together to listen in true stereo.
One of the Nest Audio speaker’s biggest features is access to the Google Assistant, a smart AI designed by the search giant. Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant can all do many of the same things, like controlling smart home accessories, setting timers, getting news updates, and answering your questions.
Where the Nest Audio pulls ahead is its integration with Google’s services. You can ask the speaker about how long it’ll take to get to work, and it’ll figure that out using Google Maps. If you have a Chromecast built into your TV, you can ask the speaker to “cast” audio and video to it totally hands-free. It’s these little features that make the Nest Audio more than just a great-sounding smart speaker.
Smart speakers are better than they’ve ever been, but the Nest Audio is the best overall.
Best Waterproof Speaker: JBL Charge 5
JBL’s Charge 5 proves that sometimes water and tech can mix.
The speaker is IP67 waterproof, which means you can hold it underwater for up to 30 minutes without risking any damage. Waterproof speakers have become popular lately, but the Charge 5 stands out because of its impressive 20 hour battery life, and JBL’s audio hardware.
The portable Bluetooth speaker has a large, 2.5-inch driver with two bass radiators for booming low-end, and a 0.8-inch tweeter to handle the highs. JBL’s Charge series speakers are known for their great sound, and this fifth generation continues that trend. It was designed to be used outdoors, and can supply enough sound for a backyard barbecue, or a day at the beach.
The Charge 5 also supports useful tech features like JBL’s PartyBoost technology, which lets you connect a pair of these speakers for stereo sound. You can even pair two devices to a single speakers to share DJ duty. Many waterproof speakers sacrifice audio quality, battery life, or other functionality durability, but the Charge 5 has no compromises.
Best Record Player: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO
Pro-Ject Audio’s Debut Carbon EVO Turntable is a stunning record player that sounds as good as it looks. The slim and minimalist design is backed by some seriously good tech, which results in smoother, warmer, more lifelike sound.
As the name implies, the Debut Carbon EVO starts with Pro-Ject’s one-piece carbon fiber tonearm and low-friction sapphire tonearm bearings, but the piece de resistance is the new Sumiko Rainier phono cartridge, which delivers amazing accuracy for more precise and balanced sound.
The turntable itself is engineered with a heavy 1.7 kg steel platter that’s lined with an anti-resonant thermo-plastic elastomer for damping. TPE-damped metal feet also help to absorb vibrations, while keeping the turntable level on your side table or shelf.
Premium gold-plated, chassis-mounted RCA jacks up the wow factor, as does the lacquered finish, available in more than half a dozen colors. A clear dust cover is included as well.
Best Audiophile Record Player: Rega Planar 1
Vinyl is designed to last a lifetime, and it deserves to be played on a turntable that makes your records sound as good as possible without the risk of damaging them.
Rega has a long linage of making great-sounding audio equipment, and its Planar 1 Plus turntable carries on that tradition. Each piece of this record player was designed to enhance the way your music sounds. Its motor was designed to run quietly, and designed to spin your records at exactly the right speed. Its feet absorb vibrations from your speakers to reduce distortion.
Rega even developed its own custom phono stage (preamp), so you can plug it into any A/V receiver or powered speakers. This ensures two components in your system were designed to work perfectly together, so you don’t have to worry about having a weak link in your audio system. The turntable comes bundled with Rega’s Carbon phono cartridge, so you don’t have to supply your own.
The Rega Planar 1 is a beautiful-looking, high performance turntable that ensures you have an audiophile experience every time you drop its needle.
Best Value Record Player: U-Turn Orbit Basic
U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Basic is for anyone looking to dip their toes in the waters of higher-end gear for the first time, all without breaking the bank.
It has the entry-level accessibility of a Crosley, since it’s pretty easy to set up, but with a few audiophile-worthy features. The turntable is belt-driven, which means the motor noise is kept to a minimum here for smoother sound (and you’ll get more speed consistency to boot).
The platter (the spinning surface your vinyl is placed on) is made out of a wood-based, low-resonance MDF. Some similar models come with acrylic platters, which minimize vibrations for cleaner audio, but we like that the Orbit Basic’s MDF platter helps the turntable’s speed consistency for more accurate playback. Combined with a minimalist design, and mono-color base, it’s great if you’re not looking for a super fancy set up.
What we love: the Orbit Basic features U-Turn’s OA2 tonearm, which uses a precision gimbal to allow the arm, and the needle, to move more freely, which in turn gives you less distortion. U-Turn’s turntable comes with the built-in AT91B cartridge, which is a dependable choice, but you can upgrade with any needle or cartridge if you want something more advanced.
The turntable comes with or without a built-in preamp, but the built-in version will save you a few bucks down the line, as you’ll need to make less adjustments to your home audio system. Bottom line—U-Turn designed the Orbit Basic so that you always have the option to upgrade your rig, or supplemental gear, down the line. But the Orbit Special is solid and versatile enough on its own to make your records sound great with just a few basic, finely-tuned components.
Best Portable Record Player: Victrola Vintage 3-Speed Suitcase
Victrola is the granddaddy of record players, and with nearly a 100 years in the audio technology game, it’s no surprise that their Victrola Vintage 3-Speed suitcase is a great blend of nostalgia, portability, and accessibility, offering a wholly unpretentious listening experience for anyone just getting into vinyl.
This was actually my first record player in college, and the vintage suitcase design meant I could effortlessly take it around with me anywhere. It also weighs under three pounds, and has a pretty sturdy carrying handle (I didn’t really consider I’d have to lug my records along with me too).
But I didn’t have to, since it features Bluetooth capabilities, meaning you can wirelessly stream your tunes from any enabled device up to 33 feet away. It also features a 3-speed turntable (33 1/3, 45, 78 RPM) if you want to get retro, though, and a 3.5mm aux-in, RCA, and headphone jack if you want to get a little less retro than that.
Built-in speakers are included, and the Victrola Vintage is no slouch when it comes to sound. With a custom-tuned Pre-Amp that has decently clear audio, the bass is certainly forward and sounds is surprisingly full.
If you’re looking for a portable record player that gives you the flexibility to listen to your vinyl whenever and wherever you want, all with a range of stylish retro colors and designs, Victrola’s Vintage 3-Speed Suitcase is the choice for you.
Buy Victrola Vintage 3-Speed Suitcase $54.99
Best Bluetooth Record Player: Audio-Technica Bluetooth Turntable
Nothing compares to the sound of a vinyl record. But if you try to set up a turntable for the first time, you’ll notice that you need a lot more than just the record player to listen to your growing collection.
Whether you’re trying to figure out which speakers you need to get and if you need a receiver or a separate pre-amp, there’s a simple solution that’ll have you spinning in no time. Now you can simply gear up with a Bluetooth record player. Our favorite Bluetooth player comes from Audio-Technica, which has made listening to your records easier than ever.
This AT-LP60-BT Bluetooth turntable has everything a standard record player has, including an RCA output and the ability to play at 33 and 45RPMS. But it also lets you sync up to your wireless speakers and keeps track of up to eight Bluetooth devices, so you can spin your albums right from the get-go. Once it’s connected, you can power up your device and hear your favorite records wherever your speaker can go.
Best-Designed Record Player: Schiit Sol
It doesn’t take long to realize that the Schiit Sol record player isn’t exactly your typical turntable. While it’ll play all your favorite vinyl LPs like usual, it doubles as a show-stopping piece of audio art that looks like you should have to pay admission just to see it every day. Fortunately for any vinyl lover, it’s meant to be used and not sitting behind a glass case.
While other record players often almost hide away the inner pieces that make it possible to spin your records, the Schiit Sol leaves everything out in the open, with an exposed design that looks both perfectly modern and minimal.
Schiit Audio makes the Sol in California, and it’s equipped the player with stylish features that any vinyl collector can appreciate. It comes with an Audio-Technica cartridge, along with an 11-inch tonearm made of carbon fiber, which the company says “means more accurate tracking” when you’re playing your records. You can play at both 33 and 45RPMs.
Best Turntable Needle: Sumiko Rainer
Sumiko’s Rainer Phono Cartridge is the upgrade your turntable deserves.
On the technical side, the Rainer has a vertical tracking angle of 25 degrees and a tracking force of between 1.8 and 2.2 grams. This means the cartridge’s stylus will be positioned to fall directly in the middle of your record’s groove, and sink deep enough to extract great sound. The company says this cartridge’s housing is optimized to reduce resonance (distortion), so that your receiver and speakers receive the cleanest signal possible.
In practice, the Rainer can help make your records sound incredible, especially if you’ve been using the same cartridge and stylus for several years. It’s easy to install, and we immediately noticed a difference in the sound of our albums: The bass was punchier, and vocals sounded cleaner. The audio quality jump you’ll notice is dependent on your turntable, the condition of your albums, and every other component in your system. But one thing is clear, the Sumiko Rainer can make a big enough difference that an entry-level turntable can sound more like a mid-range deck.
Best Turntable Speaker: Andover Audio Spinbase
One of the biggest barriers to entry when getting into vinyl is finding enough space for a home audio system; Andover Audio’s Spinbase is an impressive, creative solution to that problem.
The speaker has a flat shape, and purpose-built to sit under a turntable. With a turntable on top, this entire home audio system takes up slightly more space than a modern video game console. This makes it a lot more reasonable to set up a turntable in an apartment or home office, where space is at a premium.
The Spinbase has other key turntable-friendly features, like a built-in preamp, so you can use it with any turntable without plugging in an additional component. Andover Audio’s IsoGroove technology prevents the speaker’s vibrations from reaching your turntable and causing distortion (or causing your needle to jump). It even has EQ controls around the back, so you can adjust its treble and bass to your liking.
We were skeptical about how well the Spinbase would work, but were impressed from the moment we turned it on. Setting it up was simple, and every record sounded fantastic. This is a speaker every turntable owner dealing with space constraints should consider. It makes listening to records in small rooms viable. As a bonus, it’s also a great sounding Bluetooth speaker, so you can use it to enjoy your digital music library, too.
Best Podcast Microphone: Shure MV7
The MV7 is a modernized version of Shure’s SM7B, one of the most popular vocal microphones of all time. Shure took the SM7B’s iconic design, shrunk it down, and added features that makes it the new gold standard for podcast microphones.
That starts with its USB connection, which allows you to connect the mic to your computer (PC or Mac) directly. It still has an XLR input if you’d prefer to use a separate audio interface or mixer, but having a USB output streamlines the podcasting process.
Shure took this simplification a step further by making the outer rim of the microphone touch sensitive. With a single swipe you can adjust your gain (the volume of your voice on a recording), or how loud you sound when your headphones are plugged into the MV7’s headphone jack. There’s also a touch-sensitive mute button, which is useful when you cough.
The MV7 can make studio-quality recordings in just about any room, but what’s surprising is how much of the heavy lifting it does for you. The microphone works with an app (Windows and MacOS) that lets you make quick adjustments on the fly. You also have the option to switch between “near” and “far” settings, which will automatically optimize how you sound based on where your microphone is placed.
Whether you’re totally new to podcasting, or want to sound more professional the next time you record, Shure’s MV7 is a single, simple solution.
Best Microphone for Recording: Rode NT1000
Rode’s NT1000 should be your go-to microphone whether you’re recording vocals, or any acoustic instrument.
It was designed to produce very little noise on its own, so the only sounds that’ll get picked up on your recordings are the ones you make. This is a cardioid condenser microphone, which means the NT1000 is designed to pick up sound waves from whatever’s directly in front of it without interference from other sounds being made around it. This type of microphone design can save recordings made in rooms that aren’t pin drop silent.
The NT1000 is designed with an internal shock mount, which will keep it steady if it’s moved during recordings. Rode bundles the microphone with an adapter, so you can attach it to any stand. Because of its excellent performance in touch situations, Rode’s NT1000 should be the first microphone you consider when setting up a home recording studio, or taping a live show.
Best Audio Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 can help turn any bedroom, basement, or garage into a professional home recording studio.
The audio interface allows you to record two instruments or microphones at the same time at higher-than-CD quality. You can monitor your recording in realtime by plugging a pair of headphones directly into the Scarlett 2i2, so you’ll immediately know if you need to make volume adjustments or start a new take.
In our tests the Scarlett 2i2 produced excellent sounding recordings, even when using entry-level software like Apple’s GarageBand. Focusrite lowered the barrier to entry for making professional recordings at home by making an audio interface that’s friendly to beginners without sacrificing audio quality.
As a bonus, the Scarlett 2i2 runs on “bus” power, which means it’ll draw power from your computer’s USB port instead of a wall outlet. This makes it a great choice for musicians who want to record live shows, or make demos between gigs. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is an excellent recording interface for anyone who’s serious about making music.
Best Home Audio System: Mytek Brooklyn Bridge II ROON
Mytek’s Brooklyn Bridge II ROON solves one of the biggest issues with setting up a home audio system: Making sure each piece works together perfectly. A single weak link in your system can limit the quality of its sound.
The Brooklyn Bridge II ROON is an all-in-one music player with four components: A DAC (digital analog converter), phono preamplifier, headphone amplifier, and power amplifier. It can natively play any high resolution digital audio format with no compression, and its analog inputs can work properly with any turntable, whether it has a built-in preamp or not.
If you want to play digital audio files, the Brooklyn Bridge II ROON is built to handle any source. You can plug a flash drive into its USB port, or stream it from your favorite service (preferably TIDAL, Qobuz, or Amazon Music HD), using Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, or Chromecast.
The Brooklyn Bridge II runs Mytek’s custom operating system, which works in conjunction with software developed by the audio company ROON. This enables you to stream music from a network attached storage drive, which turns your local music library into a custom streaming service.
You can connect the Brooklyn Bridge II to any speakers with RCA or XLR inputs, which covers a lot of high-end gear. If you prefer headphones, Mytek says the Brooklyn Bridge II’s dual headphone jacks can drive headphones that have traditionally required a separate amp to sound good.
When you consider its audiophile components and multi-functionality, the Brooklyn Bridge II comes out looking like a relative bargain in the world of audiophile hardware. It’s a compact music player guaranteed to make your music sound unbelievably clear, and all you need to provide is a pair of speakers or headphones.
Simply put, Mytek’s Brooklyn Bridge II is the ultimate all-in-one audio system.
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