In this year’s Gift Guide, we’re going to focus on our favourite smartphones, tablets and accessories. In our first instalment, we take a look at some of our favourite smartphone accessories and peripherals.
We try a lot of gadgets, and have built up a bunch of favourites throughout the year. Some of them we use every day, and others we save for a special occasion, but all are great products that we readily endorse.
Best in Audio
RUGGED / Turtle Shell Bluetooth Speaker 2.0 – $130
Compact, water-resistant and shock-proof, Outdoor Technology’s Turtle Shell Bluetooth speaker is one of the best in its class.
Though its odd shape makes it look more like a futuristic garden gnome, the Turtle Shell sports some pretty amazing sound from its double-tweeter design. It sports Bluetooth 4.0 and can connect to any smartphone or tablet up to 32 feet away, though we had more luck under 15 feet. It supports the newest Bluetooth-over-audio codecs, aptX, as well as A2DP & AVCRP for remote track and volume control.
The bottom cavity actually lends the Turtle Shell some serious bass, and though the device does distort at higher volumes, it’s well capable of filling a modestly-sized room with sound. It comes with a microphone for voice conferencing and the battery lasts well over 12 hours.
See also: SuperTooth Disco Twin, a stereo pair of Bluetooth speakers that, together, drive some fantastic sound.
STYLISH – Ultimate Ears UE Boom – $229.99
A little more expensive is the Ultimate Ears UE Boom, a vertically-oriented speaker with some insanely good sound. It also happens to be capable of pairing with a sister device for stereo output (or double the power), and sports some incredible industrial design, but Ultimate Ears, recently purchased by Logitech, is focused here on sound quality.
With an accompanying iOS or Android app, the UE Boom supports equalizer settings and an alarm, so the Bluetooth-enabled speaker can be used on a bed-side table. There is something special about the way UE ships the Boom, too: beautifully-designed cases and flat, colour-coordinated cables in a range of hues.
The battery lasts over 15 hours, and has controls for power, volume and syncing as well. Phenomenal product.
See also: UE Mini Boom, the smaller, cheaper but just as excellent cousin, available for $119.99.
PORTABLE – RHA MH750i – $129.95
I love these headphones. They’re extremely versatile, well-constructed, and have a play/pause/volume combo on the canvas-lined cord. Did I mention they’re well-constructed?
This is British headphone company RHA’s first foray into the Canadian market, and they’re selling their flagship headphones for a couple hundred dollars less than the equivalent noise-isolating Shure or Sennheiser.
Sold exclusively through Apple Stores in Canada, the “i” at the end of the model number signifies its ability to control tracks on an iPhone, iPod or iPad, but I found that most Android devices responded well to at least most of the commands (double-tap for next song, triple-tap for previous).
Once you find a decent seal with one of the 10 pairs included rubber or foam modules — there are even triple flanges in two sizes for those with extra sensitive earholes — the sound is superlative. While noise cancellation is passive, it’s pretty much the best you’re going to get at this price range.
Though the cable can get a bit unwieldy, and it took me a while to find the right earpiece, I cannot recommend these highly enough.
See also: For something a little cheaper and less closed, but nearly as high-fidelity, I recommend the Phiaton MS 200 Moderna series. They look a bit (too much) like Beat’s Tour earphones, but they sound better, and at $69.99 they’re a lot cheaper.
NOISE CANCELLING – Phiaton PS 210 BTNC – $129.95
Another Phiaton headphone makes my noise cancelling recommendation. Light and extremely portable, with the electronics portion intelligently integrated into the wireless clip. Yes, these are not only actively noise-cancelling, but the PS 210 BTNC is one of the most affordable Bluetooth 3.0-based headphones in its category.
Like other Bluetooth earphones, the PS 210’s don’t sound quite as full or lively as their wired equivalents, but in transit — and on the plane, when they’re best utilized — you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The active noise cancellation emits a tiny whirr that absolutely blots out most egregious mid- and high-range noise.
The earphones are not only comfortable, too, but the battery lasts over 8 hours on a single charge, and can be easily topped up with an included microUSB port.
See also: Audio-Technica ATH-ANC1 QuietPoint, which packs excellent sound quality and an entry-level price into a very portable over-the-air package.
MONSTER SOUND – V-MODA Crossfade M-100 – $299.95
One of the most pleasurable headphone listening experiences I’ve had, the V-Moda Crossfade series is renowned for being well-made, comfortable, and easy to transport. The M-100 is the flagship model of the bunch, and combines extremely comfortable replaceable pleather earpads with a removable Kevlar cable, metal and wood finishes and 50mm dual-diaphragm drivers.
While the M-100’s are considered “closed” headphones, in that they don’t release air through their drivers, the soundstage is extremely wide, and the bass is tight and responsive without being overpowering. I found the highs to be smoother than a typical closed headphone, too, and at 32ohms they’re easy to drive.
The M-100’s come with their own travel case and replacement parts in case some of the removable pieces go missing. If you’re looking for a high-end closed headphone, this is the one to get.
See also: House of Marley’s excellent “Rise Up” over-the-ear headphones are not quite as well-made as the Crossfades, but are built from sustainable materials like canvas, bamboo fiber, recyclable aluminum and minimal recycled plastic. They’re also quite a bit cheaper and sound nearly as good.
Best in Cases
OLD RELIABLE – Otterbox Commuter – various prices
Otterbox’s Commuter series has grown from being a best-in-class dual-layer iPhone case to a widely-emulated solution for most smartphones.
With a silicon inset that absorbs vibrations and a hard polycarbonate outer shell, the Commuter series does a good job protecting smartphones without adding too much bulk. They’re also fairly modestly priced, between $30 and $60 depending on the retailer and model.
See also: Spigen’s Tough Armor series, which is available for a wide variety of devices at prices 20-30% less than the Otterbox Commuter.
GIVE ME POWER – Tylt Energi Sliding Power Case for iPhone/Galaxy S4 – $99.99
I have quickly fallen in love with this case for my iPhone 5s, but it is also available for the Samsung Galaxy S4. Typical battery cases, like the Mophie juice pack or MyCharge Freedom 2000, necessitate having to remove your passive case before installing them.
Tylt’s Energi Sliding Power Case solves that problem by including an admittedly minimally-protective plastic insert, but one that slides into the 2,500mAh battery pack without obstruction. The battery lasts a long time, typically doubling the iPhone’s uptime, and doesn’t take up too much extra space (though it’s not as svelte as Mophie’s excellent juice pack helium). It also looks better than most battery cases, which is due to Tylt’s eye for design, and is quickly recharged with an included microUSB cable.
See also: Four of the best iPhone charging cases compared.
ARTSY AWESOME – Cygnett ICON Series – various prices
A collaboration between Australian accessory manufacturer, who we’ve covered before, and a number of worldwide artists including Brooklyn graffiti group TATS CRU, graphic novelist Nathan Jurevicius, and indigenous artist Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, ICON series is a wonderful example of cases transcending function.
Available for iPhones and various Galaxy devices, ICON cases are typically made of thick, high-quality plastic that cover the back and sides of the device, and are a joy to feel as well as use. Each has a lovely matte finish, and there are a wide variety of designs to choose from.
My favourite is the one above by TATS CRU for the Galaxy S4, but there are so many other amazing designs.
See also: id America boasts some of the most interesting cases and stickers for the iPhone and various Android devices. Their Cushi sticker line protects without bulk, and is a nice departure from the typical plastic or rubber case.
RUGGED – Hitcase Pro for iPhone 5/s – $129.99
Probably the best all-round waterproof/extreme sports case for the iPhone, Hitcase Pro is extremely versatile and, most of all, easy to install.
While the company encourages attaching Hitcase Pro to its various other accessories, including ChestR, TubulR and StickR, it works extremely well on its own. Waterproof up to 10m/33ft, Hitcase Pro is shock- and dustproof, too, and comes with a wide-angle camera attachment for better photos, both underwater and in the open.
Its best feature is the (unfortunately proprietary) Railside mounting system, which helps the case attach to one of the three aforementioned utilities. Best is ChestR, which allows the Hitcase to stand in for a GoPro when off-roading or swimming.
See also: Griffin’s Survivor waterproof case is not quite as extreme sports-friendly, but it’s slimmer, lighter and looks much better than Hitcase Pro. It’s also a lot cheaper.
Best in Peripherals
KEEP ME GOING – MyCharge line of external battery packs – various prices
MyCharge makes some of the best external battery chargers on the market, catering to every ecosystem, size and price point.
Now in its third design generation, the latest MyCharge line offers solutions for Lightning users, including iPhone 5 and iPad mini, as well as the ubiquitous microUSB standard, often on the same device.
My favourite of the bunch is the $69.99 Hub 3000, which combines a 3000mAh battery and built-in Lightning and microUSB cables, along with a battery level LED and microUSB input for charging the battery itself. It’s portable enough to throw in a bag and forget about, but has enough juice to power even the biggest Android device.
Another top pick is the largest, more rugged $59.99 AMP6000XT, which is more weather-protected (to an extent) and features three USB outputs for triple charging, including one port rated at 2.1A for biggest tablets like the iPhone. The AMP6000XT also has a built-in AC plug for quick charging.
See also: Mophie’s $129.95 Powerstation XL will charge two tablets from zero to full with a 12,000mAh battery. It’s big, but it’s a beast.
Best In Peripherals
WARM HANDS – Glider Gloves Winter Style – $29.99
Since the dawn of the smartphone era, Canadians have looked for solutions to the dreaded problem of using capacitive touchscreens with winter gloves. Glider Gloves solve that problem, embedded capacitive threading into the fabric’s fingertips. They’ve also repeatedly come in ahead of the competition in style, comfort and quality.
This year, Glider Gloves has introduces a Winter Style version of the accessory, with brimmed cuffs and two layers for extra warmth. I used the lighter Urban Style Glider Gloves for most of last winter and found that they were not warm enough for mid-winter wind chills, but the Winter Style are for more appropriate.
Bonus: Glider Gloves is a Canadian company, and offers free shipping for most of their products.
TRAVELLING MAN – Belkin SurgePlus USB Swivel Charger – $29.99
One of the best ways to stay charged and connected while travelling, especially when sharing power outlets, the Belkin SurgePlus USB Swivel Charger has saved my butt at trade shows and conferences more times than I can count.
It sports a swivel plug for multiple orientations, three-plug expansion with a ground port, and two USB 2.0 input ports rated at 2.1A combined. It’s also a surge protector, for the times you need to charge during a thunderstorm.
STYLE AND FUNCTION – BlueLounge Milo Smartphone Stand – $14.95
We’ve covered a bunch of BlueLounge products before, and for good reason: this company makes some amazing, unique and highly-functional accessories.
Milo has consistently been the one I’ve used the most, though, despite some excellent competition. It combines strong aluminum construction with microsuction, so devices stay put regardless of orientation. The adhesive is not permanent, and will not tar the back of the smartphone at all; to keep it clean, just take some tape and remove any dust and debris to get it back to working order.
See also: BlueLounge’s larger $39.95 Mika tablet stand is just as good as Milo, but lacks the microsuction.