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Gift Guide: Wireless audio gizmos under $500

Thursday - 11/21/2013, 11:46am  ET

This photo provided by Monster, Inc. shows the Monster iSport Freedom headphones. Meant for a workout, these on-ear headphones are made of sweat-resistant plastic and rubbery material and will give you a tight-fitting hug. (AP Photo/Monster, Inc., Stephen Gutierrez)

RYAN NAKASHIMA
AP Business Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- If "unplugged" acoustic music was a hallmark of the '90s, surely "wireless" listening is the big trend of the '10s.

Sure, we've been essentially wireless since the radio came out a century ago. But today's Internet-connected mobile devices often require cords to hook up to accessories like speakers and headphones. And these cords can result in a knotty nightmare in your bag.

Several wireless gadgets I tried out recently should keep music lovers a bit more tangle-free this holiday season.

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-- Beats Studio Wireless ($380):

This plush set of over-ear headphones almost mirrors Beats' popular Studio line, but comes with wireless ability for an $80 increase in price. Like the wired-only model, this puts you in a cocoon with its noise-canceling technology, which works even if you just want padded silence. The sound is crisp, and the bass is deep.

A button on the outside of the left ear cup operates like the button on standard iPhone earbuds: one click to pause, two to skip forward and so on. A disc-shaped button turns the volume up and down.

The headphones promise 12 hours of wireless listening and 20 hours if you connect the cord, which is included.

Nearly $400 for headphones is pricey, but whoever gets this as a holiday gift will be mightily pleased. It's an outstanding way to bliss out during a noisy commute. It works as a headset for phone calls, too.

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-- Monster iSport Freedom ($250):

Meant for a workout, these on-ear headphones are made of sweat-resistant plastic and rubbery material and will give you a tight-fitting hug.

Although the headphones didn't jostle while jogging, there's something about completely covering your ears that creates a kind of bone-conducing sound. Every foot strike resulted in a thud inside my head, something that doesn't happen with $29 iPhone EarPods. In addition, on-ear headphones squish your ears against your frames if you are wearing glasses.

Separate buttons for volume up, down and skipping forward and back were difficult to use, partly because I often hit a much larger button for pause and play instead.

That said, the sound is excellent, and I appreciate not having to worry about yanking my headphones off accidentally by snagging the cord.

With 10 hours of playback time per charge, these should outlast all but the most enduring athletes.

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-- Sonos Play:1 ($200 each):

The little brother to the company's Play:3 and Play:5 speakers packs a big, immersive sound in a package the size of a pickle jar.

Unlike Bluetooth speakers, Sonos speakers run over Wi-Fi and need to be plugged into a power outlet. Through the end of the year, the company is throwing in, for no extra charge, a $50 Bridge adapter to attach to your router, so you can free yourself from having to plug an Ethernet cable into at least one speaker.

You can play digital tunes that you own or use streaming services such as Pandora and Rdio. I found Sonos' Wi-Fi connection to be far more consistent than using other speakers with Bluetooth, which can cause skips now and then.

The speakers are designed to disperse sound in a wide radius and fill a room. When two little Play:1s are paired for stereo sound, they deliver big time.

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-- Beats Pill 2.0 ($200):

This Tylenol-shaped beat box puts out a decent sound, but to me, it's remarkably tinny for the Beats brand.

This year's model, however, adds some cool features. A near-field communications chip lets you pair two Pills together for stereo sound. If you are on the road, you can lift a tab to reveal a full USB port, which you can use to charge your mobile phone if you don't mind giving up some of its seven-hour playback time. On a full charge, it can replace two-thirds of an iPhone 5S battery.

But the Pill is indeed round and will roll. One rolled off a shelf on me and dropped three feet onto the floor. It didn't miss a beat or get dented, but I wouldn't recommend trying it at home.

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-- Marley Get Together ($200):

This is what you want when you go on a picnic with your hippie friends. It's even made of hemp.

No kidding: The cloth enclosure is made of recycled hemp, organic cotton and recycled plastic. Its natural bamboo front gives this an Earth-loving, yet luxurious polish. Two big woofers and two tweeters on the front will reassure you that you're not compromising on sound.

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