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Gift Guide for Geeks 2003: Hear

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Review

Gift Guide for Geeks 2003: Hear

by Michael R. Harvey

Audio goodies to please the ear

For the audiophile in your life, nothing is better than a holiday gift that appeals to their jones. If you are on a budget, however, the big super duper extra groovy surround system that teleports a real live symphony orchestra into your living room just isn't going to make the shopping list. Never fear, however, as there are options that are almost as good as teleportation, and slightly more affordable.

JBL Creature

It's straight out of B Sci-Fi flick, only not bad. Creature. This three piece, self powered, speaker set from Harmon Multimedia defines cool looking. All three pieces have the same bell curve/UFO look about them. You get the feeling that if the satellites weren't tethered to the Earth with wire, they'd fly right off your desk and back to the home world. Each of the satellites has a small LED underneath that lights up, adding to its other worldly appearance.

Beyond its looks, it is actually a nice sounding set of speakers. The Odyssey+ drivers in the satellites push a total 8 watts, while the Magnum driver in the subwoofer pushes 24. All three parts are shielded so they can be close to a monitor or other magnetically sensitive hardware. However, the bass the subwoofer pushes enough bass to rattle the image on a monitor, so don't put it too close.

Set up is pretty typical for any set of speakers. The power button, however, is on the back of the subwoofer, a necessary evil to keep the looks of the satellites intact, but highly annoying none the less, especially if you have the subwoofer on the floor. Likewise, the bass and treble are controlled from the subwoofer. The two spikes sticking up at the front corners are the knobs for that. At least you have the volume control on the right satellite. The controls for volume are quite nice, actually. They are pressure sensitive touch pads. Tapping once on either the plus or minus button will get you a 2.0 decibel increase or decrease. Holding down either for more that half a second will give you a continuous rise or decline in 5 decibels increments. Pressing both at the same time will mute your speakers.

The Creatures are a nice set of small speakers that will fit nicely into a small, cramped dorm room, the kids room, or anywhere you want to have some speakers ready to plug your iPod into. They have a suggested retail of $129, and come in three colors, white, black, or blue.

Altec Lansing VS4121

Now these are some interesting speakers. They are not nearly as cool looking as the Creatures, but they have a look all their own, and what they lack in outlandish styling, they make up for in pure sound. This set is also a 2.1, self powered unit, with subwoofer and two satellites. The satellites are comprised of tweeters in a sound stick type design, with downward firing midrange drivers incorporated into the base of the satellites. The subwoofer is little more than a wooden box, but the impressive 6.5 inch subwoofer capable of producing a maximum 19 watts of power takes that wooden box and pumps out some good, deep, rattle your fillings bass sound. One note, however. While the satellites are shielded, and can be placed next to the monitor, the subwoofer is not, and should be given some distance from magnetically sensitive devices. All the controls are easily accessible on the right satellite. Volume, power, bass and treble controls are plainly marked and clearly show what their settings are. It also has a headphone jack next to the controls, a very nice addition for those times when you have to be quiet. These speakers sound really, really good. Full sound that does justice to any kind of music you would care to pump through them. Altec Lansing lists them for $129.95, not at all a bad price for the nice sound the give you.

MacAlly Noise Canceling Headphones

Ambient noise can be a problem almost anywhere. Chatty coworkers, noisy kids, roaring jet engines, it's enough to drive you loopy. In steps technology with a solution, and cool technology at that. MacAlly has a set of noise canceling headphones designed to not only sound good, but also eliminate, or at least reduce, all the noise around you. They do this by picking up ambient sounds around you, and then generate a signal that cancels out the sound waves from outside. It works pretty well, too. For most room noise, you will immediately notice a difference. It works quite well on an airplane during flight. Take offs will overwhelm the unit, giving you a static popping noise in the headset while the engines roar. Likewise, under very loud conditions the noise canceling feature will fail. A big old truck with a busted exhaust system will wipe out the capability instantly.

The hardware is a pretty nice compliment the noise canceling technology. White plastics make up the case and other pieces of the headset. Batteries go in the right ear cup, while the controls for power and volume are on the left. The ear cups are well padded, and will remain comfortable during extended wear, although if you've got big ears, you might need to take a break from them sooner than other users. The cord is detachable from the headset, a very thoughtful feature. If you break the cord, it is easily replaceable. Try not to do that, though, as the included cord has an in line volume control, giving you a break from trying to adjust it up on the left ear cup, or digging into your pocket to adjust it on your iPod. There is also an adapter for plugging the mini jack into an airline seat audio jack. Last, the headset folds up and fits into a compact little carry case, a cool feature over some other headsets of similar type, and at around $70, MacAlly beats them all on price.


Whether you want to give that special someone a nice set of speakers, or have on your wish list something to let you tune out the world around you, any of the above audio systems will serve you and yours well. Their prices won't max out your credit cards, either.

Michael R. Harvey


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