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Hark! These Herald Headphones Sing

Editor's Note: Gary Krakow is an award-winning journalist whose columns help feed his personal passion for playing with gadgets of all types, shapes and sizes. Today we bring you part two of Gary's high-end holiday buying guide. Stay tuned to this space for more and click here for part one and here for part two.

There are many ways to make your portable music listening experience more enjoyable.

The first step is larger music files. You wouldn't settle for low-definition television -- why not high-definition audio too? The best sound comes from large WAV files (true CD quality). The problem with these uncompressed files is that you can't fit nearly as many tunes on your portable device.

The stuff you usually buy via the online music services is a compromise between near-CD sound quality and small file size. The smaller the files, the worse it sounds, but the more songs you can fit on your portable device.

Some services give you a choice of small files or slightly larger ones with better-quality sound. It's still a compromise, but make sure you opt for those larger files whenever you can.

The other way to get more from your music is to replace those "free" headphones that come with your player and buy a good pair.

My favorite "portables" are actually among the least portable headphones on the market. The Stax SRM-001 Mk 2 has a long name and high price: $325. These portables reside at the bottom of Stax's headphone line -- the company also makes non-portable headphones that sell for as much as $3,900!

The 001s come with a separate battery/AC-operated driver unit that supplies the proper voltages for the electrostatic elements inside (no woofers or tweeters). That means there's a separate small box to carry around in addition to your portable player and the earphones. Not the most portable solution around.

On the other hand, the 001s are capable of providing some of the best-sounding portable music on the planet. Great bass, smooth midrange and extended highs. If you own a hard drive-based portable music player, you should try to audition the Stax to hear what your music really sounds like.

There are many other premium headphones out there for you to choose from -- but none sound as good as the new Klipsch Image headphones. Image sits at the top of the speaker maker's new headphone line. They retail for $349, and they are worth every penny.

These are ultra-small, ultra-lightweight ear buds that sound amazing. They produce the deepest, most impressive bass I've ever heard coming from a set of headphones. You can almost feel the bass (like you do with Klipsch loudspeakers). Voices and midrange sounds are pretty amazing too.

The other thing you should know about Image headphones is their comfort level. They are very small, very lightweight and are the least fatiguing in-ear headphones I've ever used. Another feature to note is they also have a very small mini-jack -- small enough to plug directly into an iPhone without an adapter. A nice touch.

Photo: Klipsch

The Klipsch Image headphones are highly recommended.

Finally, if you hate headphones, I have a pair of speakers for you to plug into your portable that are worth their weight in gold. Luckily, they're priced more in the lead range.

The Audioengine 2s are made by a small U.S. company that specializes in super-affordable, audiophile-quality speaker systems. The slightly larger Audioengine 5s ($349) sound great, have built-in amplifiers and come with everything you need to hook them up and attach an audio source (iPod, CD player, etc.). The 2s ($199) are smaller in size, have smaller built-in amps and sound even better than their bigger brothers.

The 2s also have two-way system (woofer and tweeter) with its own built-in stereo amplification system. There are two inputs: a pair of RCA jacks as well as a stereo mini-jack. That makes them easy to attach to your music player or video-game player or computer. Basically, think in terms of plugging in anything with audio outputs.

Photo: Audioengine USA

But the best feature is their sound quality. These little boxes are simply amazing. Until you hear them for yourself, you will not be willing to understand what I'm about to say: The Audioengine 2 is the best-sounding speaker system on the market today for under $1,000. Not just compared with iPod docks or nifty computer speaker systems, but compared with separate, upscale speaker systems.

Plug in your iPod, and you have a top-notch home stereo system. In small rooms you don't need anything else. They're also the best computer speakers ever. I'm using a pair here in the office.

Bottom line: The Audioengine 2s are a bargain. Very highly recommended.

With 34 years experience as a journalist -- the last 27 with NBC -- Gary Krakow has seen all the best and worst technology that's come along. Gary joined MSNBC.com before it actually went online in July 1996. He produced and anchored the first live Webcast of a presidential election in November 1996. With a background as a gadget freak, audiophile and ham radio operator, Krakow started writing reviews for both Audio and Stereophile Magazines in the 80s. Once at MSNBC.com, Krakow started writing a column to help feed his personal passion for playing with gadgets of all types, shapes and sizes. Within a short time, that column became a major force in many electronics industries -- audio, video, photography, GPS and cell phones. Readership soared, and manufacturers told him they had actual proof that a positive review in his column sold thousands of their products. Many electronics manufacturers have used quotes from his reviews in their sales literature as well as on their Web sites. There have also been a few awards too, including Emmys in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

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