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Holiday gift guide for radio listeners and budding podcasters

Jennifer does such a great job at rounding up an eclectic list of fun and useful radio items of all types, so I like to complement her list with a focus on radios and listening accessories (though Jennifer also helped me this year). This year I’m adding some items for the current or aspiring podcaster (or radio producer), along side some radios and headphones.

I don’t make these recommendations lightly. I have used and tested all of this gear. So my recommendation comes from real experience. We only ask that if you buy these items, please use our links. We make a little money for the referral, but it doesn’t cost you anything extra. Consider it a holiday gift for Radio Survivor.

Headphones and Earphones

I can’t stress enough what a difference good headphones or earphones make for the radio, podcast and music listening experience. Last year I recommended some fantastic headphones that are all still available and highly recommended. This year I have a few more recommendations

Monoprice is a company I rely on for inexpensive but high-quality audio cables and electronics accessories. Their “Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style” headphones have quickly earned a reputation for being the best value in headphones out there. At less than $30 a pair, I can testify they sound better than any other headphones I’ve auditioned at twice the price.

They won’t win any prizes for style, and they seem kind of plasticky. But in use they are actually comfortable and stand up to wear. Aside from their sound quality, their next outstanding feature is a replaceable cord. That feature alone will probably extend their useful lifespan by a factor of 2 or 3. With a closed-back design that insulates you from outside sounds, they’re good for DJing, audio production and even airplanes.

I don’t always want to wear full-size headphones, whether at home or on the go. I’ve been really happy with JLab sound isolating earbuds. I’ve found them to have a great balance of build quality, fidelity, sound isolation and price. I keep a pair of the under $20 J3 earbuds in the office, and another pair in my travel kit. Sometimes I want one ear free in case I need to be alert, so I purchased the J6M single-ear earbud that also has a mic for smartphones, also for less than $20. These are the models I own myself, but I feel confident in recommending just about any of the earbuds that JLab makes.

Radios

For 2012 I’m adding two more radios to previous years’ lists (see 2010 and 2011).

This year I got C. Crane’s CC Radio 2, and it has become one of my most listened-to radios. The CC Radio 2 is designed for talk radio listening, with sensitive and accurate AM tuning and a very good FM section, as well. To my ears voices on AM sound more natural than any radio I’ve heard in more than a decade.

It also features a well-designed and useful clock and alarm, which makes it the perfect clock radio for the true radio lover. Mine has taken up residence on my bedside table, where I make frequent use of its sleep timer. While it’s not an inexpensive radio, I think the CC Radio 2 is one that will be used for years to come.

This year Jennifer’s husband gifted her with a Grace Mondo Wi-Fi internet radio, which I wrote about earlier this year. Jennifer says this radio “has changed my life.” She continues, “I know that sounds radical, but with this radio I can finally listen to KFJC (where I DJ) inside my house.” You see, KFJC-FM 40 miles from her house, too far to get good terrestrial reception indoors.

She’s also using the Mondo’s clock-radio functions so she can wake up to KFJC and enjoys being able to see the title for the track that’s playing on the radio’s 3.5“ color screen. For all these pluses, the Mondo is not quite perfect. Jennifer wishes it had broadcast AM/FM reception and more station presets. Also, she tells me ”[I] am at times frustrated because the interface isn’t as intuitive as I’d like.”

Gifts for the Podcaster

It’s difficult to overstate how much podcasting has helped revive interest in radio production. With inexpensive, high-quality computer audio gear and microphones it’s never been easier to record programs with sound quality that would have required an expensive studio just a decade ago.

A portable digital audio recorder is a great way to get started with audio production. Today’s recorders are like old-school tape recorders on steroids, packing much better microphones, audio processing and hours of storage in packages that aren’t much bigger than an iPod.

Zoom pretty much revolutionized portable audio recorders a few years ago, introducing models with great fidelity at very competitive prices. Zoom’s current line-up is popular with podcasters, radio journalists and independent videographers who need to record great sound without breaking the bank. Using SD memory cards, just like the ones used in digital cameras, it’s no problem to record tens of hours of CD-quality audio.

I’ve been using the first model in Zoom’s H2 line for more than four years, and it completely changed my approach to recording audio, like interviews in the field. With four mics built in–two on either side of the recorder–you can place the recorder between an interviewer and subject and pick both voices up well. It also does a great job with live music. The newest model in the line, the Zoom H2n, kicks it up a notch, while retaining all the original model’s strengths. At less than $200 the Zoom H2n is a bargain.

Amazingly, you can spend even less with the Zoom H1. The under-$100 H1 is smaller than a typical hand-held microphone and has two stereo mics and records audio with quality darn close to its big brother. It’s particularly popular with journalists who often hand-hold it just like a microphone and videographers who mount it right onto their cameras.

If you want the option to use external professional microphones that have XLR connectors, then the Zoom H4n is the best choice. Larger, with more heft, the H4n is well suited to more heavy use or circumstances where you might also want to jack into a existing sound system.

Since all of the Zoom recorders have very good built-in microphones the beginning podcaster really doesn’t need to buy anything else to get started. Just get a memory card, record, then transfer your files to your computer.

However, if you want to record in a more studio-like environment, it pays to have digital audio interface directly attached via USB to your computer, and some higher quality microphones. The step forward in fidelity will give your podcast a more professional sound.

I’ve been using the Presonus AudioBox 22VSL for almost a year. It works with both Macs and PCs over USB 2. It’s also a bargain at less than $200. Compared to a portable digital audio recorder, its microphone preamps are detailed with very low noise, and have plenty of gain to deal with a variety of different microphones. It has phantom power, which means it will work with high-quality condenser microphones. The AudioBox is also powered directly by your computer’s USB port, so you don’t need any extra power supply. At about half the size of a hardcover book, it’s also very portable, and could definitely be part of a mobile laptop recording rig.

The best value microphone to pair with the Presonus AudioBox is the Audio Technica AT2020 condenser microphone. Audio Technica has long been well known for the quality of its microphones. The AT2020 is its entry level mic costing less than $75, which is an absolute steal. It sounds particularly nice with voiceovers, making it ideally suited for podcasting. There is even a USB version which connects directly into your computer, without needing an interface.

However, because they are so sensitive, condenser microphones are particularly susceptible to popped “p”s and other mouth noises. It’s simple to eliminate these using a pop filter like the $18 Nady MPF–6. It bolt onto your microphone stand and the filter extends in front of the microphone.

Help your favorite radio enthusiast enjoy listening to and creating radio programming.


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