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I've led a double life for the past 20 years. When I'm not chasing down deals or reporting on personal finance for Reuters, I produce and engineer albums, work as a studio musician, and co-own Kingsize Sound Labs in Chicago. Music is my passion, and with all the hours I've logged behind the mixing board, I've learned a thing or two about audio. While my personal favorite studio monitors are Mackie HR824s (which cost me about $900 a pair when I bought them a decade back), you don't have to shell out that kind of coin to get great-sounding gear nowadays. Here's a list of my top five favorite studio essentials that won't shatter your wallet.
X-Mini MAX II Capsule Speakers ($21.99 with free shipping, a low by $2)
Don't let the cute egg shape of these portable speakers fool you. Once you hook them up to your laptop or MP3 player, the X-Mini MAX IIs deliver impressive sound considering their price and size. Their innovative design allows users to extend their hidden, accordion-like speakers for better low-end response. CNET also raves that these are an "excellent option for anyone looking for an ultraportable speaker" because they offers "great sound quality at a very reasonable price." What's more, these speakers also scored as the highest-rated portable speakers at TopTen Reviews.com.
Sennheiser HD202 Headphones, 5-Pack ($89 with $12.40 s&h, a low by $34)
At Kingsize Sound Labs, no headphones come close to our HD202s, and we own dozens of different brands and models. There's got to be some magic in these 'phones, which deliver 18Hz to 18KHz frequency range and hold up well at high volume levels. Broadcast Supply Worldwide's deal on these, which they've been doing for years now, is a doorbuster: You can snag five pair for about $20 each. Keep a few for yourself and give out the rest as holiday presents. While not as ultra-durable as some pro models, the HD202s are comfy to wear and the sound quality is sparkling.
Shure SM57 Microphone ($99 with free shipping)
Never has a mic so indestructible sounded so good, and cost so little. Every recording studio worth its salt owns at least a few Shure SM57s: you can literally roll over one with a van and it will still work. Touring rock stars and weekend warriors alike use this mic for vocals. And you can even hook an SM57 up to your computer with a XLR-USB converter. For an affordable converter option, consider the Blue Icicle USB Microphone Interface ($39.43 with free shipping, a low by $1).
Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air ($599 with free shipping)
I've seen and tested quite a few speaker systems for iPods; most of them sound cheesy or look like repurposed bread boxes. The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air may cost more than its competitors, but nothing I've come across looks so sleek and sounds so sharp. It advances on the original Zeppelin by utilizing Apple's AirPlay technology, which lets you connect to any WiFi enabled device that uses iTunes so that you can play music from almost anywhere. The Zeppelin Air comes with two 1" tweeters, two 3" midrange woofers, an internal 5" subwoofer with rear-firing ports. And yes, it packs plenty of eye appeal with that fabulous oval shape.
Schylling Voice Changer ($12.99 with free shipping, a low by $5)
This gadget isn't quite high-end audio, but who says sound has to be so serious? I first picked up one of these megaphones-on-steroids at the end of a business trip and I meant to give it to my kids, but I loved it so much that I kept it for myself! The multiple switches on the side allow you to bend and twist your voice until you sound like a robot, an alien, a cartoon character, or an innocent bystander trapped in a time warp. Call the family to the dinner table with this thing and I promise that you'll get their attention.
Front page photo credit: eHow