The best gifts are often things that people wouldn’t get for themselves. Sometimes it’s because those items are too expensive or luxurious, and other times it’s because they didn’t even know they needed the item until after they received it. Over at the The Wirecutter and the The Sweethome, we spend all year squirreled away in our test labs, spending hundreds of hours trying to suss out the best items that would fit most people’s lives. So which of these make the best gifts this holiday season? We’ve put together a list of our favorite things from our collection that we think will make great gifts—even if you secretly buy them for yourself.
For the roving party-goer: the best portable Bluetooth speaker
This is an especially great gift for someone who makes frequent trips to the beach or lake in the summer, or likes to play music outside during a cookout or camp gathering. We also like it for party-hopping during the holidays (or any other time, really)—a powerful Bluetooth speaker like this one is a great option for bringing music to any room without having to move large sound systems or deal with annoying wires.
After hearing to 48 top-rated speakers in a head-to-head blind listening test, the $80 Logitech UE Mini Boom is the one we recommend for most people without hesitation. Despite its small size, it plays louder and sounds fuller and more natural than most of its competitors—including many larger models.
For the frequent traveler: the best UBS battery pack
Those who are on the road constantly—whether jetsetting for business or running around town with the band—are always running out of smartphone juice. A high-capacity USB battery pack eliminates the need to be constantly looking for power outlets by keeping smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and other USB items juiced. Plus since they’re still pretty small, they’re easy to carry around in your bag for whenever you need them.
We spent over 250 hours researching and testing USB battery packs with a former electrical engineer from NASA, and found that the IntoCircuit Power Castle 11,200 mAh is the USB power bank that most travelers should carry. Little touches like an LCD that displays the remaining charge by percentage and automatically starting to charge devices you plug in without a button press make it feel more thoughtfully designed than the competition.
The IntoCircuit Power Castle can keep a smartphone running for a few days away from an outlet, and it can add hours to the life of a big tablet when you’re stuck on a long flight. Portable USB battery packs are a dime a dozen, but this one saves space, weight, time, and money—even if just a little bit of each.
For the gym rat: the best exercise headphones
Headphones are already hard enough to shop for, and that’s before taking into account all the runs, jumps, and movements, and sweat—oh, the sweat—that enter the equation while working out. Whether your giftee is into jogging, weight-lifting, spinning, or anything in between, he or she could undoubtedly use a pair of workout headphones that sound great and won’t become fried the minute they become a little moist.
For this purpose, the Relays by Sol Republic make for a great gift. This recommendation comes after extensively testing 38 pairs of workout headphones with a professional listening panel, three stress tests, and real workout tests. The Relays are hands down the most comfortable headphones to wear while being active. They sound good, stay put without chafing or tugging, are light and resistant to sweat, and have a lifetime of free tips (because you know those lil’ buggers love to get lost in a gym bag). They have a remote and mic as well as a built-in, permanently attached (and unobtrusive) shirt clip that won’t get lost. Plus, at under $100, they’re affordable enough to be your giftee’s everyday sport headphone for miles and miles of wear.
For the vinyl aficionado: the best turntable
For our full guide, we spent 62 total hours comparing turntables and measuring their performance using $30,000+ worth of equipment to determine the Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB is the best turntable for the vinyl collector on your life—especially if he or she is also into digitizing music.
This turntable is highly adjustable, has a built-in phono preamp for hassle-free setup, sounds great out of the box, and even has a built-in USB port if you want to digitize your LP collection. Plus, according to our tests, it’s also very speed accurate—something competitors couldn’t exactly claim. It’s easy to setup, does not require a phono preamp, and can be used to transfer your LPs to a PC.
For the yogi: the best yoga mat
Beginner and experienced yogis alike love to talk about yoga mats, and everyone’s looking for that one magical mat that’s usable in all situations. Many casual and intermediate yoga aficionados don’t like to spend too much on their first mat, which is why our choice makes for a great gift that will help the yogi in your life step up their yoga practice.
After researching dozens of yoga mats and testing the 13 most well-regarded options over the course of 60 hours worth of classes, Lululemon Athletica’s The Mat was a cut above the rest. It was the clear favorite for keeping our panel of three professional yoga instructors in place during even the hottest and sweatiest of classes. In fact, the wetter it gets, the grippier it gets—a feature that none of the other competitors has. That may sound like a gimmicky infomercial tag line, but we found in our testing that it really does work.
All our testers declared The Mat to be the least slippery design they’d ever used. Whether moving vigorously through vinyasas (a series of poses and transitions done in quick succession) or holding poses for minutes on end, hands and feet stayed put. In fact, the more our testers sweat, the more firmly they stayed in place.
For the cord-cutting TV junkie: the best media streaming box
It’s all the rage to get rid of your cable TV subscription lately, but it doesn’t mean anyone has to sacrifice watching their favorite shows. For the cord-cutter in your life, or the person who travels so much that he or she can’t keep on a regular show schedule, a media streaming box can be a lifesaver that delivers all your favorite shows and movies on-demand over the Internet.
The best media streamer for most people is the Roku 3. It’s fast, responsive, easy to use, and versatile. Plus it supports almost all the streaming content you want, from Netflix, to Hulu, to PBS, to HBO Go, to ESPN, and much more.
But if your giftee mostly uses Apple products, consider getting the Apple TV instead. It has much of the same content as the Roku (here’s a list if you want to double check for your favorite stuff) and is functionally similar and easy-to-use. But if you happen to use other Apple devices with AirPlay, like an iPhone or an iPad, the Apple TV is a lot more versatile because it can show with whatever you’ve got on your iOS screen as well, including games and presentations.
For the sparkling water (or soda) fan: the best soda maker
We all have that friend or family member who’s really, really into drinking sparkling water, or who likes to make his or her own special soda flavors to be mixed in cocktails or other party drinks. That person is surely tired of wasting plastic bottle after plastic bottle from the grocery store, which is why the Sodastream Jet is a great gift. It’s simple to use, easy to clean, and made some of the best-tasting soda water in our head-to-head tests.
We spent more than 30 hours researching dozens of home soda makers, testing six models hands-on and even built our own machine to ultimately decide the Sodastream Jet is the best option available. If you’re in the market for a home soda maker, the Jet makes the bubbliest soda we’ve found.
For the coffee or tea addict: the best insulated travel mug
Once your loved ones are finished stuffing themselves full of birds and cookies, they’ll eventually head back to work or school in the icy cold winter weather. One way to make that commute much more enjoyable is to us an insulated travel mug to carry home-brewed coffee, tea, or even soup. With a piping hot cup of Joe during those dark months, your giftee will thank you every day for this fun and versatile gift.
According to our tests, the $30 Zojirushi Stainless Mug offers the best balance of heat retention and versatility. It has a svelte physical and lid design that’s easy to use, drink from, and clean. And, of course, it insulates hot liquids exceptionally well. After a full 8 hours of testing, coffee kept in the new Zojirushi Stainless Mug was a full 20 degrees hotter than it was in the next mug down in our test group—just enough to make the difference between drinkable and lukewarm.
There are a number of other touches that make this a great gift, too. It’s designed for one-handed usability for those who need to keep their eyes on the road (or sidewalk), plus it has a foolproof locking mechanism that guarantees it won’t spill if your giftee tosses it into a bag.
For the busy homeowner (or renter): the best robot vacuum
Robot vacuums are great for a few things: keeping up maintenance cleanings in your home or apartment so there’s less work to do later, and entertaining people (or pets) who love robots. Cleaning items may not always be the best gift, but a robot to do the work for you? Almost any home- or apartment-dweller would welcome that as a gift.
According to our research and tests, the best robot vacuum for most people is the iRobot Roomba 650. It’s easy to use, works on bare floors and carpets alike, and leaves out the unnecessary features that drive up the price on most bots. And when something goes wrong (an inevitability over time) a fully modular and easy-to-service design means you can repair rather than replace.
By scheduling the Roomba to run a few times per week, you won’t have to think very often about keeping your floors tidy. It probably won’t completely replace a regular vacuum, but it will prolong the time you can go between manual cleanings with very little effort and oversight on your (or your giftee’s) part.
For the dinner party host: the best steak knife set
Whether your giftee is serving a fine Ribeye, humble flank steak, or even a thick-cut pork chop, they need sharp steak knives. And, really, nice meat deserves nice knives.
After 28 hours of research, testing, and interviewing professional chefs and knife experts, the Victorinox Rosewood Straight Edge Steak Knife Set (set of 6) is the set you should gift to anyone in need of knives: newlyweds, young professionals, or someone who hosts a lot of dinner parties. The knives cut beautifully, they’re well balanced, and they come at a reasonable price. They’re also nice enough to complement a formal table setting—but not so fancy that you wouldn’t want to use them on a weeknight. In our tests, these cut just as well as those that were two to three times as expensive.
For the health nut (or smoothie maker): the best blender
Blenders aren’t just great for smoothies—they’re also good for making smooth emulsifications (like mayonnaise) or soup purées, too. If you’ve got a health nut or serious home cook in your life, going big on a nice blender is sure to make them thank you for years to come.
If you’re looking for a blender that will weather years of wear and tear and can finely process nearly any ingredient you throw into it, you want the Vitamix 5200. At over $400, it’s an investment, but our testing shows that it blows the competition out of the water. The Vitamix 5200 was the only model we tested that could handle everything from emulsifying mayonnaise to processing silky-smooth purées and nut butters—two things most of the competition could not handle. As Vitamix’s most basic and popular model, it has a great long-term track record and also happens to be the least expensive model the company makes.
For the bookworm: the best e-reader
Heavy readers may secretly like to hoard print books for the smell and feel of a “real” book collection, but that floor-to-ceiling library doesn’t help anyone out when they’re traveling. Whether your giftee is a globetrotter or is just constantly on the road to school or work, an e-reader is a convenient way to carry tons of books at once without giving up precious bag space or shoulder comfort.
The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is our favorite of the bunch, primarily because it’s affordable (at just over $100), is easy-to-use, and offers access to Amazon’s unparalleled book selection for the best prices. The Wi-Fi Only version with ads is great on its own, but if you want to impress your giftee even more, the Wi-Fi+3G version will allow them to download books from anywhere without having to worry about finding a wireless connection—from a cruise in the middle of the ocean to a camp site in the middle of Kansas, or anywhere in between.
Plus, Amazon is a company you can bank on to keep the updates rolling while you port your ever-growing library of books to better and better hardware over the years. If you look at it like that, you’re not “just” buying an e-book reader for your loved one. You’re buying a cheap window to see into a vast library that you will keep for the rest of their lives.