Last-minute gifts for the audiophile in your orbit

Some of these still ship free for Xmas delivery, if you act ASAP, and you can pay to expedite otherwise. When it comes to music, here's to more in '24.
Best audiophile gifts sliced header

Amanda Reed

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Best bang-for-the-buck headphones: Meze Audio 109 PRO

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Since being launched in 2015, the Meze Audio 99 Classics headphones have been a gateway drug to the audiophile addiction because of the immediate rush delivered by the detailed but never-fatiguing sound. Well, that precision-driven high is heightened 10x by the Meze Audio 109 PRO, one of the all-star introductions of 2022, thanks to its comfortable balance of euphoria and technicalities. A dynamic, open-backed headphone, the 109 PRO shares the design language and agreeable ergonomics of its sibling but refines and reinforces the organic texturing and warm but never congested bass response thanks to a new beryllium-coated polymer + cellulose-carbon driver in the sustainably harvested walnut ear cups. Punchy with panache that performs well above its $799 price point, the 109 PRO can be another flavor to some and end-game to others, able to please an audiophile regardless of experience.

Never resting on their laurels, Meze introduced the extremely seductive Empyrean II in 2023, offering a flagship supple in sonics and aesthetics that outperforms many headphones in the $3,000-$5,000 range. But for pure value, the 109 Pro is still amazing (and cable upgrades can help it extract that last ounce of engagement).

Best professional-grade headphones: Audeze MM-500 Planar-Magnetic Headphones

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Know someone with a home studio that wishes they could work on their mixes more but is worried about disturbing housemates or neighbors? But they’re also just a music lover in general? Audeze—the Southern California-based headphone designer that probably did the most to popularize planar-magnetic headphones—introduced what amounts to a set of portable, personal near-field studio monitors in 2022. And they’re equally amazing for less analytical, more leisurely listening—especially with vocal material. Developed with renowned mix engineer Manny Marroquin, the $1,699 MM-500 feels solid in the hand but not excessive on the head. And, once music starts playing, it’s like the headphone itself isn’t even there—the song laid out before you without ever being overly diffuse, perfectly poised for a scintillating playback session or identifying where to apply that last little bit of EQ glue. Thanks to the lithe transients, spacious midrange, and energetic bass of its orthodynamic drivers, the MM-500 headphones can be both a daily driver and a sonic scalpel as it makes music more approachable and more transparent. It’s an imminently pleasuring, natural not just neutral response.

Does someone need to test the raw emotional response of a recording, whether a personal mix or a commercial one? The Sennheiser HD 660S2 stands as one of the best dynamic releases of 2023, thanks to its retooled, bass-reinforced revisions. It’s a supremely comfortable open-back headphone with a toned sense of imaging, offering a wide, silky soundstage buoyed by an underpinning of evocative sub-bass—great for sound design, gaming, or just lavishing in lush mids. Pair it with a deep well of output, a DAC/amp like the $399 HiFiMAN EF400, and become absorbed in pure engagement.

Best summit-fi headphones: Focal Utopia 2022 Headphones

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Suppose someone you love is looking to replicate the indulgence of a luxury listening station. In that case, the Focal Utopia headphones are as close to a pair of freestanding loudspeakers as you can slap on a head. These flagship open-back over-the-ear headphones produce an ultrawide frequency response and holographic imaging with startling realism thanks to 40mm M-shaped beryllium drivers inspired by high-end audiophile towers. Soft lambskin earcups and headphone padding make these headphones feel as good as they sound. As we said once in our best headphones roundup, the Focal Utopia 2020 is “the idyll ideal—impressing not with its sheer power, but with its absolute prowess.” And the $4,999 2022 model further enhances the emotional resonance while reducing the detrimental vibrations. Both highs and lows are extended without reduced focus or lightning-quick finesse, especially when paired with a DAC/amp such as the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition.

Best portable DAC/amp: iFi xDSD Gryphon

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Those new ’cans can’t showcase their best without proper power, which can be difficult to get on the go … difficult, that is, if someone doesn’t have the iFi xDSD Gryphon. The magic of the Gryphon lies in its versatility, which more than justifies its $599 price. You can cut the cord and use it, when fully charged, for up to 8 hours on the go with Bluetooth streaming over SBC, AAC for iOS, and up to 96kHz using LDAC, LHDC/HWA, or aptX HD/Adaptive on Android devices. Or you plug it in via USB, Coax, or Optical and ensure that no audio bit gets adulterated by wireless compression. Once you’re listening, you can enhance bass and/or upper midrange presence, as well as soundstage with iFi’s innovative XBass II and XSpace analog enhancements. Connected to your PC over USB-C, it will act as an external soundcard, eliminating the need for a dedicated desk setup—perfect with headphones and, when the Gryphon accepts a digital source, ports on the back can even be used to feed an external amp or powered monitors. The tremendous 1000mW @ 32 ohms of power on offer over its balanced connection also means this DAC can drive even very demanding headphones. The single-ended connection is much more limited at 320mW but is still enough to drive the vast majority of cans available today. And if you’re a fan of sensitive in-ear monitors (IEMs), don’t worry. The Gryphon also offers an iEMatch mode (assignable to either output) to prevent hiss from invading your favorite tracks, while maintaining dynamics.

Looking for something more pocketable but still powerful? The GO bar is a $329 32-bit/384kHz USB-C DAC/amp that offers 3.5mm and balanced 4.4mm outputs with 475mW max. into 32 ohms​/7.5V max. into 600 ohms, as well as support for selectable filters, iEMatch, XBass+, XSpace, DSD256, MQA, and more.

Got a pair of corded in-ear monitors and prefer to go wireless? The iFi GO pods pack much of the same codec support and compatibility as the xDSD Gryphon in two high-output rechargeable ear loops, turning any IEMs—thanks to exchangeable connectors—into “true wireless” earbuds.

Best no-app ANC headphones: DALI IO-12

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So you know someone (it can be you, we don’t judge) who wants to disconnect from the world and from wires … well, this person is in luck. Assuming the recipient of these Bluetooth headphones likes the color Dark Chocolate (not milk chocolate, not 70% cacao, the only finish is Dark Chocolate with matte gold accents), the IO-12 from Danish speaker manufacturer DALI is a sweet, sweet treat. At the heart of these $1,300 headphones are 50mm paper fibre woofers and a custom soft magnetic composite (SMC) voice coil system inherited from the EPICON loudspeakers, which can run over $10,000 each. The end result is a response that’s 10 – 48,000 Hz on paper and effortless, natural, impactful yet distortion-free in your ear (cradled in the generous, leather-clad earcups). Low mechanical loss means more high-level detail, and the IO-12 is imbued with ample agile definition throughout its reproduction. Want more dramatic bass? There’s a dedicated button solely for adding a bit more low-end presence (though I prefer the timbre without the thickening). There’s also a button for power/pairing, one for ANC/Transparency mode … and that’s the totality of the controls. Plus, there’s no app to distract you from what these headphones do best: sound fabulous. When some people speak of separation, they mean from their surroundings thanks to noise cancellation, which is present and effective for up to 35 hours on a full charge. But the even more striking separation in the IO-12 is found between the notes—the audible tangles and transitions of a superbly spacious closed-back headphone, whether connected via Bluetooth 5.2 (SBC, AAC, aptX Adaptive), USB-C (with a DAC supporting up to 24-bit/96 kHz sample rate), or passively to headphone jack via the included 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cable.

Best Bluetooth turntable: Cambridge Audio ALVA TT V2 Direct Drive Turntable

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If stability and versatility are the name of the game, Cambridge Audio is the name of the game-winner. The British audio engineers have delivered an attractive, well-appointed medium-torque direct drive turntable ready to integrate with nearly any system thanks to a built-in phono stage (which can be turned off if you prefer external components) and support for the SBC, AAC, and aptX HD Bluetooth codecs. And, no matter how the turntable is paired to speakers (or headphones), the inert plinth with its hefty lunar grey top plate and polyoxyethylene platter ensures no resonance introduces any distortion to the custom moving coil cartridge. That removable headshell, with its elliptical stylus and frequency response of 30Hz–20kHz, ±1dB, has a high output of 2mV@1kHz and digs up the top-end details of your albums without neglecting a grippy grounding in rhythmic precision. Whether spinning at 33 1/3 or 45, this $1,999 turntable is maximized minimalism and its noise-free tracking captures the dynamic flow of every full-bodied groove effortlessly. (Not sure if your recipient has enough albums? Consider a gift subscription to Vinyl Me Please.)

Looking for something more upper entry-level? Nothing wrong with that! Audiophiles don’t emerge like Athena, fully formed from another’s headspace and innately imbued with wisdom. No, they must be nurtured and taught the ins and outs of signal-chain foibles. And they’re not all going to have the space or inclination to start stacking components. A great entry point for the budding music-first audiophile is a turntable packed with connectivity options. The $399 Audio-Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB Manual Direct-Drive Turntable—featuring a high-torque DC servo direct-drive motor with selectable 33-1/3, 45, or 78 rpm speeds—is compatible with virtually any setup, thanks to its variety of outputs, both digital and analog. On the digital side, you can pair the turntable via aptX with Bluetooth speakers, headphones, or DAC/amps—like the Gryphon above of the KEF LS50 Wireless II below. Listeners can also use the USB port for copying your albums digitally to a computer. In the analog domain, the built-in preamp allows you to connect the turntable to line-level inputs on a preamp or receiver. You can also bypass the preamp to connect to an external unit. Thanks to its multiplicity of output types, the AT-LP120XBT-USB is a turntable you can hold onto as you amass a rig and bank account more in line with boutique turntables that cost in the multi-thousands.

Best streaming speakers: KEF LS50 Wireless II + KC62 Subwoofer

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If you want to give someone sonic depth without a deep footprint, package the KEF LS50 Wireless II standmount speakers with the KC62 subwoofer. The dual 6-inch woofers in the improbably small sealed subwoofer couple perfectly to one of our top powered speakers, an effortlessly integrated component capable of bringing a wide sweet spot to a small room. KEF’s striking, copper-hued Uni-Q driver—backed by Metamaterial Absorption Technology to reduce unwanted reflections and distortion—orients a 1-inch vented aluminum-dome tweeter in the acoustic center of a 5 ¼-inch magnesium-aluminum alloy woofer cone to create a wide listening sweet spot. A bass-reflex cabinet with elliptical rear ports is designed to maximize accurate, musical low end. And those bass notes can reach as low as 11Hz once handed off seamlessly via DSP to the KC62, opening the LS50’s headroom to soar. Plus, copious connectivity (Spotify to TIDAL to Apple Music; AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast, and Roon; Optical, Coaxial, and HDMI; plus Bluetooth 5.0 for one of the turntables above) means you’ll never want for showcase sounds. At a little under $3,500 for the pair, it’s not a cheap set-up, but its wow factor is priceless.

Prefer tower speakers to components? The KEF LS60 Wireless ($4,999/pair), released to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary, takes all the advancements from the LS50 Wireless II + KC62 and refines them in a floor-standing footprint. Their body is slim, while their soundstage is anything but thanks to that Uni-Q array. And the positioning around the tweeter-midrange woofer combo of four low-frequency drivers per speaker ensures absolute coherence in that substantial sweet spot. These are vertical and versatile.

Suppose you’re looking just for bookshelf speakers that still offer plenty of lows and hi-fi pedigree. In that case, we recommend the JBL 4305P ($2,200/pair), which debuted at CES in January 2022 and is the first powered model in its consumer Studio Monitor series. This fully loaded speaker features a 45-25,000 Hz frequency response, built-in Class D amplification, 24-bit/192 kHz converters, and six audio inputs that can connect to a huge range of digital and analog sources to provide comprehensive, hi-res wired and wireless connectivity. Each speaker features a 2410H-2 1-inch compression driver mated to a High-Definition Imaging horn for crystal-clear highs and lifelike dynamics. A 5.25-inch cast-frame, fiber-composite cone woofer operates in a bass-reflex configuration with dual front-firing tuned ports. The end result is the lively dynamics expected from a horn-guided tweeter presented with punchy authority, especially in its beefy midrange; that’s not surprising for a company with heritage firmly entrenched in both recording studios and live sound reinforcement. When it comes to high-res streaming, the 4305P takes quality to the next level, thanks to an integrated streaming engine that provides wired and wireless network audio capabilities via Ethernet, Google Chromecast Built-in, Apple AirPlay 2, and Bluetooth 5.1, combo XLR and ¼-inch TRS phono connectors, asynchronous USB and optical digital inputs and a 3.5mm analog in.

Much like KEF, JBL also offers a more robust upgrade in its powered speaker family. The JBL 4329P speakers ($4,500/pair) are standmount studio monitors with 8-inch woofers paired to 1-inch horn-loaded tweeters, powered by plentiful amplification. They’re accurate, articulate, but also very authoritative, bringing the best of the control room and the concert hall to your listening station.

Best two-channel setup: Bowers & Wilkins 607 S3

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If your appetite for audio is vast, but your space is limited, these entry-level two-way speakers from venerable British hi-fi brand Bowers & Wilkins won’t make you sacrifice room or resolution. Offered in black, white, and oak, these compact but highly capable speakers (which go for $900/pair) are perfect for a two-channel system flanking a turntable (may we suggest the Alva TT V2 above) or even on a desktop. Combining a 5-inch silver “Continuum” bass/midrange woofer with a 1-inch Decoupled Double Dome titanium tweeter behind an acoustically transparent grille, the 607 S3 speakers incorporate trickle-down technology from the company’s 700 and 800 series. The upgraded tweeter assembly (formerly featuring aluminum) has an elongated tapered tube-loading system, reducing standing waves and accentuating dexterity. Crisp, nimble highs dart through the open imaging, while the Fixed Suspension Transducer (backed by a dimpled, low-distortion Flowport) flexes with conviction no matter the rhythmic workout. The sound emanating comes across as bigger than its source, a richer response than the enclosure belies—one perfect for wiry genres from metal to jazz. Really want to open up their textured, punchy prowess? Refine your signal chain, increase the amplification, but most of all, dial in a subwoofer, such as the KEF Kube 10b, to augment the 607 S3’s 52-28,000 Hz (±3 dB) response. The 607 S3 speakers have the kind of sweet house sound that sparks a desire to invest in increasingly higher-end B&W models, but even after being upgraded, they can remain the perfect second system or even act as rear channels in a surround sound system.

Rated at a sensitivity of 84dB/W/m with 8ohm nominal impedance and power handling of 30-100W, the 607 S3 has excellent synergy with another product designed across the Atlantic: the $2,999 Cambridge Audio EVO 150, a 150W-per-channel Class D amp and high-resolution network player with an ESS SABRE ES9018k2m DAC, Bluetooth apX HD, AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Roon, HDMI ARC, Toslink, coaxial, and a MM phono stage built in. You’d be hard-pressed to find a centerpiece with more convenient connectivity and convincing musicality for the price.

(If someone is looking to assemble a system piece by piece and streaming capabilities are less of an immediate priority, the newly launched ARCAM Radia Series is ready to facilitate spacious musicality, midrange accuracy, and smooth highs without losing articulate timing, especially the ARCAM A25 stereo integrated amplifier.)

Best compact smart speakers: Bluesound PULSE M

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So far, we’ve suggested lots of gear for an optimized listening station. But maybe you are shopping for someone interested in a crowded kitchen, a cozy bedroom, a cramped home office, or all of the above. A great place to start with a multiroom set-up is any place with the $449 Bluesound PULSE M, a compact cylinder of a speaker that runs off BluOS, letting it stream music from a myriad of sources over WiFi. Whether in the corner of a kitchen counter or on a bedside table, the PULSE M’s upward-firing woofer and dual tweeters (angled outward 45 degrees) disperse a surprisingly expressive soundstage, considering its more diminutive dimensions. Pair two in parallel and you can have a wider, true stereo setup, or put them throughout a home and organize them by zones to handoff audio just to the speaker where the listener is or broadcast the same track throughout all rooms.

You can integrate these with any streamer, amp, or speaker system running BluOS; for example, augment them with the Bluesound PULSE SUB+ or put them as rear channels with the Bluesound PULSE SOUNDBAR+. You can play favorite songs throughout the house by having them in a different room but on the same network with a BlueOS streamer/amp and your own passive speakers, such as the $999 Bluesound Powernode and the B&W 607 S3 speakers above. Or have them share WiFi and distribute the jams with the $1,499 PSB Alpha iQ stereo speakers, if you have a surface/stands to take advantage of the true separation and expansive sweet spot of a more powerful all-in-one system with a 24-bit/192kHz DAC, full MQA decoding, plus a built-in MM phono preamp and RCA jacks plus ground terminal if that Audio-Technica turntable above was enticing. If you want to stick with just the PULSE M, however, AirPlay 2 or aptX HD Bluetooth let you stream directly to it (from a smartphone or, say, a Bluetooth turntable like the ones we recommended above), plus the PULSE M has a USB-A port for connecting file-filled thumb drives and a 3.5mm dual analog/digital input for connecting a source with an aux cable.

(Buying for someone already invested in the Sonos whole-home audio ecosystem? All good; we have thoughts on the Dolby Atmos-ready Era 300 that debuted this year.)

Best spatial speakers: Syng Cell Alpha

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This is definitely the least traditional audiophile gift on this list, and very indulgent, but sometimes the right choice is something outside the box and definitely outside the boxy shape of standard speakers. While the $2,499 Syng Cell Alpha wireless loudspeaker may be mistaken for a mid-century lamp or an image collection apparatus on some sort of Street View vehicle, it’s actually equal parts a multidirectional speaker packed with modern connectivity and a retrofuturistic conversation piece—a perfect present because the only thing audiophiles like more than listening to music is having people ask them how they like to do it. And the Cell Alpha, conceived by a former Apple industrial designer, gives you lots to talk about with its “Triphonic Sound”—a circular array of three coaxial drivers pairing 19mm soft-dome tweeters to 76mm midrange drivers in horns projecting the mids/highs in user-definable direction(s). Using the Syng Space app, you can shift the focus on each floor-, table-, or ceiling-mounted Cell Alpha independently, though where these orbs really dazzle is arranged and optimized in a constellation. This isn’t surround sound in the discrete channel home theater sense, but it’s definitely a (sur)round sound with a wide, enveloping soundfield. The Cell Alphas free you from the tyranny of the convention L/R stereo and a set sweet spot (one of several innovations to send some audiophiles crying sacrilege, but we have plenty of picks for a fuddy-duddy above). And, with two force-balanced 165mm carbon-fiber woofers, even a single Cell Alpha is capable of low-end extension to 23Hz, making them one of the most immersive party speakers we can imagine (and also perfected poised to deliver all the rumble movies demand with an optional HDMI link cable). Made for the streaming era while also compatible with USB-C sources, the AirPlay 2-enabled Cell Alpha is throaty, textured … bassy, yes, but a singular active speaker and definitely not a passive listen.