THE GREAT ELECTRONICS GIFT GUIDE

Best mobile gear

Find the right headphones, smart phone, and smart watch

Published: October 2014

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Shopping for mobile gear

The holiday season is once again approaching: Time to start making those gift lists for all your friends and loved ones (oh, and maybe to think about presents you might want for yourself!). If anyone has been especially good this year (yes, including you), headphones, a smart watch, or a new phone might be just the gift you need.

In our Great Electronics Gift Guide, we’ve gathered together more than 100 recommendations—from bargain to sweet spot to splurge—to help you choose. We’ve also included buying advice for consumers with specific needs—and their stories could match yours. Whatever you're looking for, we have ideas. Happy shopping!  

Don't miss the rest of our Great Electronics Gift Guide!
 
 
 
 

 

Headphones

How to shop for headphones

When you shop for headphones, you might find the array of types, styles, brands, and prices overwhelming. Here’s how to choose.

The type of headphones that work for you depends on your lifestyle, whether you’ll be using them at home or on the run, and your budget. Look for sound quality that’s good or better and a firm, comfy fit, especially if you plan to wear them for extended periods. Some people buy different types for exercising and for listening to high-fidelity music.

As anyone who has walked across a college campus or down a city street recently can tell you, the hottest headphones these days are $100-plus premium models. That kind of money will buy you a set of cans that are fashionable and celebrity-endorsed or a pair with superior audio quality­—not always the same thing.

Over-ear models, which surround the ears, are best for listening to music at home. Certain designs help block out noisy kids and keep your tunes from disturbing a sleeping spouse. But those models tend to be bulky, and the ear pads can get hot or sticky after a while. In-ear models, which are inserted into the ear canal, are widely sold on-the-go choices. The design helps to block out external sounds, but they can be uncomfortable. You might find some difficult to keep in place, depending on the shape of your ears.

On-ear headphones, which rest on the ears, provide a nice balance of portability and comfort. Open-back models allow some outside sounds to be heard, making them a good choice if you want to be aware of what’s going on around you—say, if you want to hear a car horn while crossing a city street. The downside is that they won’t block out annoying sounds such as construction noise. A closed-back model will generally do a better job blocking external sounds.

Headphones with active noise canceling use battery-powered electronic circuitry to reduce noise. They’re great for travelers who want to dim the roar of a jet engine. Wireless headphones, especially Bluetooth models, are a smart option for those who want to stream music or take a call without digging their phone out of a bag or pocket.

Polk Audio Neu Era

Portable models

Polk Audio Nue Era, $100
These deliver very good audio and come in tortoiseshell or black. The inline remote and microphone works with iPhones and other mobile devices.

Also consider

Monster DNA, $200
These distinctive-looking on-ear headphones come in a range of bold colors. More important, they offer very good sound and high sensitivity, so they’ll work well with lower-powered smart phones and tablets.

Onkyo IE-FC300, $100
Offered in black, white, red, or violet, this model delivers very good sound quality and has a detachable cable.

Beats by Dre Beats Executive

Noise-canceling models

Beats by Dre Beats Executive, $300
These over-ear headphones have ­excellent sound and very good noise reduction.

Also consider

Bose QuietComfort 20i, $300
It’s our top pick among in-ear noise-­canceling headphones.

SMS Audio Street by 50 - ANC, $280
These over-the-ear headphones delivery very good sound quality and excellent noise reduction.

Grado Prestige

Home/studio headphones

Grado Prestige SR225e, $200
This on-ear model is among the best headphones we’ve tested. It has medium-high sensitivity, so it works even with lower-powered devices. It has black polycarbonate enclosures and an adjustable headband. The even better SR325e, $300, has powder-coated aluminum housings, black ear surrounds, and a leather headband.

HiFiMan HE-400, $300
This top performer is being replaced by the HE-400i but is worth looking for.

Also consider

Grado Prestige SR60e, $80
This old-school retro-style model offers unequaled bang for the buck.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, $240
These studio-style headphones have swiveling ear cups for DJ-style single-ear monitoring. They deliver very good sound and fold flat for storage. They come in black, white, and tan and blue.

Shure SRH1440, $300
Excellent sound distinguishes these larger, over-ear headphones, which have a pro-style design with black cosmetics.

Which headphone brands score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

Expert tip

Sound quality is obviously a major consideration when you’re buying headphones, but the type matters, too. Think about the way you’ll be using them most—for sports or outdoor activities, on the go with your smart phone, or at home with your tablet or stereo system. That will determine which type—in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear—will suit you best. In-ear models, for example, might be most secure if you’ll be exercising. And consider whether you’ll need noise cancellation or Bluetooth.


Gordon Nasenbeny, 50, Grayslake, Ill.

What to buy for a cool dad

Gordon says: “I’m looking for headphones for my 24-year-old son and myself. He likes in-ear models—the smaller the better—and listens to techno music on his iPhone. But he tends to lose them. I want on-ear or over-ear headphones for music. My budget is $50 for my son and $300 for me. I’d prefer models made in the U.S.”

James K. Willcox, home entertainment editor, says: “For Gordon’s son, my pick is the Denon Music Maniac AH-C50MA, with very good sound and a $50 price tag. Their high sensitivity makes them a great choice for using with a phone, and the inline mike and controls will let him take calls. If he loses them, Gordon should pull out Panasonic’s $10 RP-TCM125 earphones as a backup—they’re very good for the price. For Gordon, I recommend Grado’s $300 Prestige SR325e over-ear headphones, among the best-­sounding models we’ve tested. They’re comfortable, they’re classy, and they are made in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the Grado family has built headphones by hand for 25 years.”

 

Smart phones

How to shop for smart phones

The world of smart phones is exciting again. The newest models have intuitive controls, stellar screens, better cameras, longer battery life, and other useful features. Manufacturers are moving away from confusing gimmicks such as some air gestures and eyeball tracking.

The new phones are smarter in ways that count. For instance, calendars can warn you to leave early for an appointment because of a traffic jam on your route, and fitness apps use sensors on the phone or a Bluetooth-linked smart watch to monitor your activity level.

New Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models have larger displays to compete with rivals from Samsung and LG, and many Android phones are being built tough enough to take a beating—or a dunking. For instance, Sony Xperia Z-series and some Samsung Galaxy S smart phones can be submerged in several feet of water for up to 30 minutes. And outdoor enthusiasts may appreciate the Samsung Galaxy S 5 Active’s Activity Zone app, which includes a barometer, compass, flashlight, and stopwatch in its arsenal of apps.

All of the models listed below are available on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. More than ever before, phone prices vary widely by carrier and plan.  

LG G3

Sharp display

The LG G3’s 5.5-inch quad HD display is among the sharpest we’ve tested, presenting photos, videos, and Web pages with more than 530 pixels per inch. The slim, curved design makes it comfortable to hold, despite its slightly large width. The keyboard is well-designed, and you can easily adjust its height with your finger.

A mouselike control allows the user to place the cursor precisely within text. You can even split the keyboard in two to access items behind it. The front and rear cameras take very good pictures, and the G3 is one of the few phones we’ve seen that can record video in Ultra HD (2160x3840 pixels of resolution). One caveat: The power and volume buttons are on the back of the phone case—not on the side, like on most models—which may take some effort to master.

Apple iPhone 6

The iPhone experience

Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are Apple’s comeback punch to technically advanced Android rivals from LG, Samsung, and others, starting with larger screens—4.7 inches for the iPhone 6 and 5.5 inches for the iPhone 6 Plus. Both displays are excellent. Double-touch the home button and the display slides down to make it easier to reach top-row apps and controls. In landscape mode, the keyboard expands to add more keys and rearranges itself for easier typing.

Battery life, a weakness for previous iPhones, is much improved. The camera, which has the same 8 megapixels as its predecessors, remains among the best we’ve tested. The 6 Plus adds an optical image stabilizer, which improves low-light shots. And the design is beautiful, as we’ve come to expect from Apple products.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Big, stunning screens

These “phablet” models have stunning quad-high-definition touch-screen displays, each measuring about 5.7 inches. The display on the Note Edge curves off on the right side, forming a second ¼-inch-high surface for notifications, controls, and frequently used apps. We haven’t tested these phones yet, but cameras on previous Notes have been among the best we’ve tested.
 
Each Note includes a stylus that can act as a writing instrument, photo editor, or select tool when you need more precision than a finger can provide. The phones are designed to be hard-core multitaskers that can shrink and juggle the windows of up to 16 open apps and jump between them without switching screens. You can also drag and drop files from one app into another.
HTC One (m8)
Photo: HTC

Super sound

This top-notch Android smart phone has a superb 5-inch high-definition display, great-sounding speakers, and two rear-facing camera lenses that let you produce striking photographic effects, including 3D. The Windows Phone version ships with Cortana, the voice-activated assistant with abilities comparable to Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now.

The phone’s front-facing speakers provide sound that’s loud and rich enough to enjoy music without headphones. The phone has a sleek, curved unibody design. The HTC One offers an alternate BlinkFeed home page, which is a magazinelike interface that pours calendar notifications, news, and social network feeds into a cascading blend of captioned photos and text boxes.

 

Which smart phone brands score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

Smart watches

How to shop for smart watches

Over the last two years, smart watches have evolved from techno-curiosity to one of the most intriguing product categories in electronics. Small companies such as Martian and Pebble, which pioneered the category, have expanded their selection of high-tech timepieces.

Meanwhile, big-name companies such as Samsung and Sony are now pushing forward with third-generation devices. LG offers square and round versions of its G watch. Motorola’s Moto 360 resembles a classic wristwatch. Google and Samsung have introduced their own smart-watch operating systems (Android Wear and Tizen, respectively), and Apple unveiled its first smart watch, the Apple Watch, this past September but won’t deliver it until early in 2015.

For all of the excitement, there’s still no consensus on what, exactly, a smart watch should do. All of them pair with a smart phone or tablet and can alert you to incoming calls, e-mails, instant messages, and texts. Some also serve as health and fitness devices, tracking your physical activity and sleep patterns. Others attempt the full Dick Tracy, letting the user take phone calls or even shoot photos and video directly from the wrist.

Many smart watches are big and bulky, but that’s slowly changing as companies realize that most people prefer something more stylish and comfortable.

Before you buy a smart watch, make sure it’s compatible with the mobile device you plan to use it with—some work only with Android devices or specific brands, and some require more recent OS versions than others.

Pebble Steel

Sleek and simple

Pebble and Pebble Steel

Pebble takes a streamlined approach to smart-watch design and functionality. The company’s devices use buttons instead of touch screens, and they have monochrome displays, which are easy to read in bright light. Pebble watches can channel e-mails, texts, and other notifications from Apple iOS and Android devices. There’s an active online user community and tons of apps available for fitness, gaming, and more. The plastic Pebble costs $100; the more upscale Pebble Steel, with a stainless-steel watch and leather band, sells for $200.

Samsung Gear 2

Full-featured

Samsung Gear collection

Samsung’s smart-watch operation has been busy since launching the Galaxy Gear in 2013. In quick succession, the company introduced the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, Gear Fit, and Gear Live. And in September it announced the Gear S (more details below).

Features vary by model: The Gear 2 has a built-in camera and runs on Samsung’s Tizen OS. The Gear Fit is a hybrid smart watch/activity tracker. The Gear Live is one of the first smart watches running Google’s versatile Android Wear operating system. Prices for the Gear models range from $150 to $300.

New tricks from trendy watches

Right now, smart watches are largely accessories to smart phones. The few that make phone calls can do so only within Bluetooth range of a paired phone. But that’s changing with the new Samsung Gear S, which has built-in 3G connectivity—enabling users to make and receive calls without a phone nearby. Some watches can do even more. The Apple Watch will measure changes in atmospheric pressure to calculate altitude, and use infrared and visible-light LEDs on the back of the case to shine into the wrist’s blood vessels to determine your heart rate.


Amy Garcia Phillips, 39; Rahway, NJ

What to buy for an iPhone loyalist

Amy says: “I’d like to buy a smart watch for my father and for my husband. My dad has an iPhone 4s, and my husband will be getting an iPhone 6. So I’m leaning toward an Apple product.”

Carol Mangis, wearable tech editor, says: “The Apple Watch, announced in late summer, would be Amy’s obvious choice, but that promising device won’t be on sale until early 2015 at the soonest—not in time for the holidays. If it’s not worth the wait, another excellent option is a Pebble smart watch. It doesn’t have all of the features expected from the Apple Watch, but it does work with iOS devices, and it has the key functionality you’d expect from any smart watch—along with a clean, easy-to-use interface. And as the upstart that helped spark the smart-watch trend, the Pebble carries some technophile cred.”

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine



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