Over the course of a year, we test a lot of tech products, from laptops through tablets to mobiles, along with a range of other hardware from routers to external hard disks, and of course an abundance of software from office suites to security utilities.
And every year, products make improvements on the previous year’s offerings, both in terms of quality and value. Indeed, many product categories have a number of excellent offerings among their ranks – but sometimes you want things really narrowed down. Sometimes, you want to know the winner among the winners – and that’s what this series of articles is all about.
We’ve already looked at a number of categories thus far, including the best laptops of 2013, the top tablets, and the best smartphone and mobile devices (for more links, see the Related Articles section underneath the comments at the bottom of this article). In each category, we’ve highlighted the top product for 2013 across all the main sub-categories within. Today, we’re looking at the best audio products.
Each product mentioned is the top of its class for 2013, and as such comes with an unreserved recommendation.
So, which is our favourite set of headphones, or MP3 player of the year? Read on to find out… and stay tuned for more top products of 2013 in the coming days as we run up to Christmas.
Best MP3 player: Apple iPod touch 16GB (£199)
Smartphones are hogging the spotlight now, but there's still plenty of demand for dedicated music players. The Apple iPod touch (16GB) delivers much more than that. It's basically an iPhone stripped of its calling capability and GPS – meaning you can still run almost all of the 900,000-plus third-party apps and games in Apple's App Store.
A dual-core A5 processor, 1,136 x 640-pixel 4in display, and excellent sounding Apple EarPods help seal the deal. Oh, and it's great for playing music and watching TV shows and movies.
Best headphones: Bowers & Wilkins P7 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones (£330)
Bowers & Wilkins, long known for its luxurious high-end audio speakers, has taken its first shot at an over-the-ear (circumaural) headphone – and the company nailed it. The P7 sounds exemplary with all kinds of music. Not only that, but the black leather and aluminium design exudes luxury, and is extremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time. The P7 isn't cheap by any means, but you get everything you pay for, and more.
Best earphones: Klipsch Image X7i (£158)
The Klipsch Image X7i delivers amazing audio quality for its price tag, with tight bass, crisp highs, and a neutral well-balanced timbre. It's one of the smallest in-canal earphone pairs we've tested, and it's extremely lightweight. The inline microphone and three-button remote control makes it perfect for your smartphone. Sonically, it's more of a flat-response pair than one for those who love boosted bass response – so if that sounds good to you, the X7i is the set to get.
Best PC speakers: KEF X300A (£599)
Easily one of the most striking sets of stereo speakers we've ever seen, the KEF X300A is as close to perfect as we've heard in its price tier. It's an ideal pair of speakers for an apartment, office, or study, and its digital USB connection and 96kHz/24-bit digital-to-analogue (D/A) converters ensure pristine sound when connected to a PC or Mac. A switch on the back panel lets you select between "desk" and "stand" (or free space) placement, and KEF throws in a pair of baffles in the box – use them to plug up the rear-facing ports when positioning the X300A system closer to a wall.
Best wireless speaker: Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II (£250)
This sequel is a modest evolution of the first version and that's fine, since the original was great to begin with. At 1.4kg, the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II is compact and easy to carry. It folds up nicely with the attached cover which doubles as a power switch, and delivers smooth, balanced sound throughout the frequency spectrum. It also gets surprisingly loud and can easily fill a sizable room with music.
Best portable wireless speaker: Bose SoundLink Mini (£170)
For a speaker that's only 7in long, we won't blame you for thinking that the Bose SoundLink Mini is expensive. But of all the tiny portable Bluetooth speakers we've tested, it simply sounds the best, with surprisingly full, rich bass and a smooth midrange. The sturdy aluminium enclosure recalls the design of 1960s tabletop radios, yet sleeker and updated for today. It's ideal for a desk or nearby bookshelf, and thanks to the included charging cradle, the SoundLink Mini is easy to bring along for tunes on the go.
Best soundbar: Sony HT-CT260 (£249)
The Sony HT-CT260 soundbar is one of the most well-rounded speaker systems we've tested. You get a lot for your money here, including stereo Bluetooth streaming, a blue LED status display, three sets of inputs, and a remote control. With powerful bass response and a warm overall sound signature, this 2.1 channel soundbar is a good buy and an easy upgrade for anyone looking to augment their HDTV in a small living room or den.