Billy Steele July 7, 2020
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Whether you need to tune in or tune out, having a solid set of headphones or earbuds will help make those commutes or walks around campus more enjoyable. And a noise-canceling model will block out distractions when you need to buckle down and study. We’ve compiled a list of the best options for students, along with speakers for your room or to use on the go. For the creators, we offer some suggestions on synths and apps as well as a transcription service that can assist with lectures and more.
True Wireless earbuds
Sony’s latest true wireless earbuds offer a lot of features from the WF-1000XM3 while saving you some cash. They’re water resistant, which means you can take them to the gym or on a run without having to worry. Plus, they offer Sony’s powerful Adaptive Sound feature that automatically adjusts ambient volume and active noise cancellation based on your activity or location. When you need to block out the noise in your home or dorm room (or, if you’re lucky, in the campus coffee shop), the WF-SP800N will automatically do it for you.
Skullcandy Indy Fuel and Sesh Evo
Skullcandy has offered affordable true wireless alternatives for a while now, and the Indy Fuel and Sesh Evo are just the latest. The company made some improvements though, by adding Tile tracking. The buds can be easily located with the companion app whether they’re in their case or not. These may not be the best sounding option, but that crucial feature could save you some headache. Plus, there are both AirPod-like (Indy Fuel) and more traditional earbud (Sesh Evo) options available. And if battery life is a concern, the Indy Fuel offers six hours in the earbuds with another four full charges in the case. That should be plenty to last you an all-night study session, or get you around campus for a few days.
Sony revamped its Extra Bass Bluetooth speaker line this spring, and the most compact option is definitely worth considering. It’s not enough to power a raging party, but it will do well when you’re lounging on the quad. The SRS-XB23 fits in a cup holder or side pocket of a backpack, or you can use its strap to hang it up. The company redesigned the speakers with a more oval-shaped design to improve overall sound quality. The XB23 also has side-firing radiators for deeper bass -- and it’s boomy enough to annoy your neighbor, should the need arise. Perhaps most importantly, this speaker is IP67 rated dustproof, water resistant and rust-proof. It’s also shockproof, so it should be able to withstand your weekend beach trip or patio party.
If you’re looking for a portable speaker you can also use in your room, Sonos Move is a solid choice. It’s pricey for a Bluetooth speaker, but you also get WiFi connectivity and all the other perks of a Sonos product as well. You can feel good about taking it outside since it’s water resistant, and TruePlay tuning is automatic. This is the speaker you consider when you want something that’s built to go outside, but offers all handy features like wireless connectivity and multi-room audio you need when you’re back indoors as well.
Amazon Echo Studio
Echo speakers are handy for interacting with Alexa, but let’s face it: most of them don’t sound very good. At least that was the case before Amazon debuted the Echo Studio. This beefed-up smart speaker gives you all the best aspects of the Echo line plus audio quality you’ll actually be satisfied with. It’s still relatively compact, and you can leverage Dolby Atmos Music or Sony’s 360 Reality Audio for more detailed and immersive listening (that is, if your budget allows for a pricier streaming plan from Amazon, Tidal or Deezer). If you’re looking for a smart speaker to park in your room or apartment, and need it to actually sound good, this may be your best bet.
It’s no secret that, if you want headphones that can block out the world, Bose’s noise-canceling lineup is among the best. With the 700, the company ditched its somewhat boring design for something much more modern. They’re pricey at $400, but the active noise cancellation and good overall sound are worth the investment. There are cheaper options, but when it comes to being able to quiet ambient noise when you need to study, Bose is undoubtedly one of the best choices.
If you don’t need all that fancy noise cancelling tech, you can save some coin without making too many sacrifices. Based on its popular M50 headphones, Audio-Technica has a wireless version in the M50xBT. This model has the same design as its predecessor, which includes rotating and swiveling earcups. Physical on-board controls are reliable, and A-T’s signature sound profile offers warmth and clarity to your tunes. If sound quality is your primary concern look no further.
There is an option if you need solid noise cancellation and good sound, but need to save some cash. For $200, Razer has the Opus: a THX-certified set of headphones that not only have great audio quality, but offer more immersive sonic qualities. They’re lightweight, which means they won’t become a burden during those extended study sessions. The Opus may not block out the world like the Bose 700, but they do a respectable job reducing distractions. Plus, you can choose from a smattering of sound profiles if you don’t like the default tuning.
Synths and gear
When it comes to synths, things can get complicated -- and pricey -- very quickly. If you want something simple that still sounds great, consider the Korg Monologue. It's a 100-percent pure-analog monosynth, plus the knobs and switches are deeply satisfying to turn and flip. You can also see your sound since the small screen acts as an oscilloscope. The filter will help you get some aggressive sounds when paired with the drive effect. There’s a 16-step sequencer and the Monologue can be powered by AA batteries. So in addition to being relatively simple to use and affordable, it’s also portable enough to haul to band practice.
If your music aspirations have more of a DIY bent, Korg has some options for you as well. The NTS-1 is a tiny synth that you put together yourself. This isn’t a massive sonic machine by any means, but it’s still capable of some great sounds. Plus, there’s an SDK that lets you run sonic profiles from more robust instruments and you can even use it as an effect on other instruments. And if you’re not super into synths, Korg offers similar DIY models for a headphone amp and a guitar pedal, both of which pack in the company’s tiny vacuum tube technology.
If you’re more of a beatmaker than a keyboardist the Elektron Model:Samples is a solid option for beginners. The device has a unique sequencer and tons of physical controls at a great price. What’s more, it offers plenty of room for those happy accidents. Model:Samples functions best as a sample-based drum machine, but it definitely leaves plenty of room for creative sound manipulation.
Blue Microphones Yeti X
Whether its Zoom-based class discussions, building your Twitch empire or creating a new podcast, a solid USB microphone is a good thing to have handy. While Blue has more affordable options, the $170 Yeti X has a robust set of features that are worth the extra investment. From LED metering to a quieter pickup pattern button, the design tweaks are a long overdue upgrade from previous models. When you add in the powerful suite of software tools to help you sound your best on streams and other recordings, you’re really getting a full package for the cost of admission.
I get it, we can’t all drop a few hundred dollars on a synth -- especially when you’re on a student budget. Thankfully, there are some app-based options that sound good and help you get a handle on the basics. Moog recently made its Minimoog Model D app free to use, and the software gives iPad users a taste of one of the most iconic synths of all time -- you know, without having to spend a fortune or sacrificing valuable desk space.
If your music-making aspirations are more collaborative, there’s an app for that too. Endlesss (yes, three Ss) facilitates live jam sessions with drums, synths and effects all built in. The software isn’t without its issues, but it’s free to use unless you desire instruments and tools beyond the basics. It won’t help you become the next Grammy-winning bedroom producer, but it will allow you to make some tunes with your friends -- especially the ones that live far away.
Otter Voice Notes
And now for something even the student least interested in audio gear can use. Otter’s handy transcription service has proven indispensable for interviews here at Engadget. There’s a free option too, which means you don’t have to pay to get a transcript of your lecture. Some paid services are more accurate, but Otter plays the audio when you click on text, so you can easily get clarity if something seems off. Plus, free with minimal extra work is still better than paying a premium. Otter also offers a Voice Notes app that has real-time transcription and the ability to record from AirPods -- if you’re into that sort of thing. For $10 a month, you can get 6,000 minutes of transcription help, which should be enough for lectures, interviews and anything else you need to capture.