A life without music is a pretty dull one. Obviously, you need to make sure you're ready for the school year with some solid headphones, a decent pair of speakers and something good to listen to. There's an overwhelming number of choices out there when it comes to personal audio, but because we review this stuff year round, it was easy for us to just cull the list for you. Whether you need something with noise-cancelling to block out an annoying roommate, or headphones for the gym that shrug off sweat, we've got you covered.
And, what you listen to on those speakers and headphones is just as important. You'll want to stay on top of the latest podcast sensation and you need a way to stream the new Bon Iver album for your crush. But remember, music isn't just a passive experience: We're also recommending a few tools for the budding songwriter and producer. It may sound cliché, but these are some of the most important years of your life, and how you soundtrack them will stay with you forever.
Lugging music gear back and forth gets tiresome when you already have dirty laundry and about 80 pounds of books you have to carry when you go home for breaks. The $119 Arturia KeyStep MIDI controller can greatly reduce your load with a light, easy-to-use keyboard that also happens to have a powerful sequencer feature. The 32-note keyboard supports MIDI in and out, plus CV output and clock sync for connecting to gear. For controlling your favorite DAW (digital audio workstation), it has the requisite USB port. It's a portable music creation station that's light and works with all of your gear. So no matter where you are, you can still create without adding too much more weight to your sack of laundry.
Buy KeyStep on Amazon - $119
These aren't noise-cancelling wireless headphones, but they are the best-sounding wireless headphones we've tested in 2019. Audio-Technica has made a wireless version of its popular M50 model while retaining that signature sound. There's stellar sound clarity with a wide stage that keeps things from feeling compressed. The M50xBT also handles most genres well, with the appropriate emphasis on lows, mids and highs that doesn't allow one to overpower the others.
Touch controls are all the rage on headphones in 2019, but they can be frustrating to use. The M50xBT has physical controls that are consistently reliable, because you have much bigger things to worry about than making sure your headphones pause the music when you need them to. Yes, you give up ANC, but the sound quality you get for $199 is worth the savings. These will make sure your Release Radar and Discover Weekly playlists on Spotify sound stellar, even during a long study session.
Buy ATH-M50xBT on Amazon - $180
Audioengine A2+ Wireless
When it comes to compact shelf or desktop speakers that sound good, Audioengine has quite the reputation for quality audio gear. It doesn't look flashy, but the A2+ Wireless has everything you need for a modest yet powerful setup. These offer wireless connectivity via Bluetooth aptX, so you don't have to worry about your dorm's unreliable WiFi to stream music without a tether. There's also USB and stereo inputs so you can connect directly to your computer or analog devices like a turntable.
None of that means anything if the speakers don't sound good, and that's not a concern here. Audioengine's trademark clarity is on display, and despite the smaller size, the A2+ Wireless is plenty loud. It'll be enough to provide tunes for impromptu dance parties, a weekend get-together and low-key study sessions.
Buy A2+ Wireless on Amazon - $215
Bose QuietControl 30
School is louder than you expected. People are excited to be away from their parents for the first time, and the result is a rambunctious dorm and talking in the library. Having fun is great, but you're paying a lot of money to get an education and sometimes you need to block those distractions out. The noise-cancelling Bose QuietControl 30 earbuds do a great job of digitally quieting other students while you're studying or when you just need to keep your sanity in a loud new world.
With a $300 asking price, they're not cheap. But they do sport some of the best noise-cancelling tech out there. Plus, because they're earbuds and not headphones, you can use them with a pillow to remove distractions while you sleep. That's probably one of the more important things to do in college, unless there's a really cool party going on.
Buy QuietControl 30 on Amazon - $299
Jabra Elite 65t
Why follow the Q-tipped Airpod hordes into classes when Jabra's Elite 65t true wireless earbuds are a great alternative? For $10 more than Apple's earbuds, they're a heck of a lot more discreet and deliver great sound quality across a wide range of music, from hip-hop to bluegrass to jazz. They're also extremely comfortable, easy to pair, dust- and sweatproof, and come with a convenient charging case. They are a bit costly at $170, but good-quality earbuds are a pretty crucial part of college life.
Buy Jabra Elite 65t on Amazon - $150
Truly wireless earbuds are great until one falls out of your ear or escapes out of your pocket into the great unknown. If you're someone who wouldn't do well with a fully untethered headset, something like the Jaybird Tarah is an excellent option. The sport headset is wireless, but the kind you'd call wireless before the AirPods and its rivals became big. Tarah's earbuds are tethered to each other, so you don't have to worry about one or the other getting lost while you're out for a run or at the gym.
Tarah is sweatproof, waterproof and promises six-hour battery life. Jaybird's app also allows you to create personal sound profiles for your headset and can locate your device if you ever lose it. At $100, it is definitely more expensive than off-brand options, but it still costs less than other models of a similar caliber, including the company's own X4.
Buy Jaybird Tarah on Amazon - $79
Korg Volca Nubass
Look, anyone can roll into a dorm room jam session with an acoustic guitar. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, show up with a pocket-size synth powered by a miniaturized vacuum tube. The Nubass is the latest entry in Korg's venerable Volca line. It is, as the name implies, focused on making bass sounds, and at that it excels. The sound is thick and warm, capable of delivering both punchy LCD Soundsystem-esque thumps and nasty acid glides. (You know, in case your dorm room jams are more dance party than "Kumbaya.") But the Nubass is capable of some pretty killer leads too. It's just about learning how to use it.
Like the rest of the Volca line (with the exception of the Mix), the Nubass is battery powered, which makes it perfect for carrying around campus and knocking out a quick melody if inspiration strikes. Plus, the MIDI in port and 1/8-inch sync jacks make it easy to integrate into a larger, more stationary studio setup once you're back in your room.
Buy Volca Nubass on Sweetwater - $200
There are free options for organizing and playing podcasts, but Pocket Casts goes a lot further for a small, onetime investment. For starters, the app is well-designed, and it offers features the free options lack. Episode search will save you a lot of time hunting for something specific, especially if it's an older installment or one you've already archived. You can also play a podcast without having to subscribe to it first. It sounds like common sense, but it's not always the case in some apps.
Pocket Casts also works well with Google Cast, AirPlay 2 and Sonos, so you can beam your podcasts to a smart or wireless speaker in your dorm or apartment. The app is also compatible with Android Auto and CarPlay, making it an ideal road trip companion for the trek home. You have to pay for both the mobile and desktop apps separately, but you can probably get by with just the version for your phone and save $9.
Get Pocket Casts on iOS- $4
Get Pocket Casts on Android - $4
Two years on, the Sonos One remains a great pick if you want an affordable yet powerful smart speaker for the dorm. It provides richer, more-balanced audio than rival speakers in its class, and it's considerably more flexible to boot. You can control it using Alexa, AirPlay or Google Assistant, and Sonos' apps offer access to seemingly every audio service under the sun. You can wake up every day to your favorite internet radio station or cue up a study playlist when you need to prepare for exams. It's not the most bass-heavy speaker on the market (much to the delight of dorm neighbors), but it's compact enough that it won't eat up too much of your desk space.
Buy Sonos One on Amazon - $199
You can't properly soundtrack the most important years of your life if you don't have access to all the music. From those moments of melancholia in your dorm room to parties on the quad and everything in between, you need good music. Our pick is Spotify Premium, especially since it's just $4.99 for students, and you get Hulu and Showtime thrown in for the money. You don't get any TV with the free, ad-supported version of Spotify, plus plenty of limits.
Why Spotify over Apple Music (or YouTube and the rest)? Price is one factor, but there are reasons too. Spotify works on more platforms, and more speakers, so you're not limited to using Homepod in your dorm. Plus, Spotify's AI-grinding will help point you to new music you'll quickly fall in love with, something Apple's curated playlists rarely do.
Subscribe to Spotify - $10 month
UE Boom 3 / Megaboom 3
Bluetooth speakers are almost a requirement now in any home, dorm or park. Ultimate Ears, a brand known for strong specs and reliable build quality, has continued that tradition with its latest Boom 3 and Megaboom 3 speakers. The exterior has a pleasing new design, robust battery and IP67 waterproofing, making them safe for full shower and pool use. The micro-USB port, meanwhile, is now conveniently located on the side, thereby cutting down on cable mess.
If you'd prefer wireless charging to plugging in, you can also get the Power Up dock so your speaker is always ready to grab and go. Unlike their Alexa-powered siblings, the Boom/Megaboom 3 retain stereo pairing as well as the ever-useful PartyUp mode. This allows one mobile device to connect to more than 150 Boom-series UE speakers at one time for an expansive, crowdsourced sound. On top of that, up to eight Bluetooth devices can be paired to one speaker at the same time for quick takeovers. And if you're strapped for cash, the reliable lineage of UE means an OG Megaboom is still seriously capable and often found at steep discounts.
Buy Megaboom 3 on Amazon - $170
Buy Boom 3 on Amazon - $120
Buy Power Up on Amazon - $40
ENGADGET'S BACK TO SCHOOL GUIDE
- The best smartphones, tablets and smartwatches for students
- The best creative and productivity apps for students
- The best laptops for students in 2019
- The speakers, headphones and streaming apps we recommend to students
- The gear you need for your dorm room
- The fitness gadgets and apps you should be using at school
- The best desktops for students
- The best electric bikes, scooters and skateboards to use at school
- The best TVs and streamers to use in a dorm room
- The best gaming PCs and accessories for students
- The best consoles, games and accessories for students
Check out our complete 2019 back-to-school guide and find all of our student-friendly buying advice right here!