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Music Under the Stars

Dancers dance while purists weep. Today's sturdy, portable audio gear lets you bring your own playlist into the wild without straining your back or your budget.

By Steve Casimiro

Tiny and ubiquitous, the iPod nano is a marvel of musical portability. Beyond its 16-gig capacity, the player seduces with extras like a built-in pedometer (how many steps did it take to summit Whitney?) and its capacity to sync with the Nike+ training system to track miles hiked and calories burned. APPLE is no sustainability leader, but the nano inches in the right direction: It contains no mercury or PVC (often called the "poison plastic"), its glass is arsenic-free, and its packing materials have been reduced by about 50 percent. $149, apple.com

The headset that comes with your phone has the sound quality of a Victrola player, so the question isn't whether to upgrade but how much. ETYMOTIC's hf3s (for the iPhone) and hf2s (for all other smart phones) are moderately high-end and deliver a clarity that's worth every dollar. Whether you're listening to voice mail or the new Jay-Z drop, sounds are crisp and perfect. What you don't get is a deep bass or remarkably bright highs--these headphones live in a safe, pleasant middle ground. $179 for the hf3s, $159 for the hf2s, etymotic.com

Underwater music is an underappreciated pleasure, and once you've jumped into a lake wearing the SwiMP3 from SFINIS, you may never want to go without. It's a player and headphones in one, but rather than sitting in your ear canal, the SwiMP3 conducts sound through bone: The "speakers" rest against your jaw and broadcast Jack Johnson or U2 into your head as if by osmosis. The fidelity is terrific, the simplicity a joy. $150, finisinc.com

Though Apple grabs the spotlight, SANDISK's Sansa Clip Zip player is a worthy understudy. The diminutive device plays more formats than the nano and can hold more songs. A memory card adds 32 gigabytes. It records, too, and the price--are you sitting?--is only $50. sandisk.com

If stronger highs and lows are honey to your ears, the SHURE SE425s are a good bet. Their sound won't be confused with, say, Beats headphones' molasses-thick bass, but they give more bottom-end bounce, a similar middle range, and slightly cleaner highs--all around, a rich, warm sound. These are a great choice for rugged use: The cable detaches from the ear buds, so if you damage it during an outing, it's easily replaced. $350, shure.com

Everything's cuter when it's smaller . . . except sound. But the expandable iHOME iHM78 mini-speakers pump out music stout enough to fuel a wilderness dance party--which, of course, should only ensue if no other campers are within earshot. The power surprises, given their compactness: Fully expanded, they're each about the size of an espresso cup. The bass end of the frequency range won't blow you off your picnic table (there's no thump to speak of), but iHome makes up for it in portability, convenience (the battery's rechargeable), and great design. $50, ihomeaudio.com

Travel guitars tend to sound tinny and cheap, but CORDOBA's La Playa Travel acoustic has a tone so resonant that you'll forget it's only half size. If your hands have struggled with a traditional classical guitar's wide fingerboard, the narrower Cordoba is a relief. It comes with a battery-powered amp and a hip-looking gig bag. $279, cordobaguitars.com

Um, wow. At a street price well under $200, SONY's RDP-XF100iP Speaker Dock cranks out an impressive bottom end—unusual for compact speakers. The sleek black unit transitions easily from bedroom to campground. The dock fits iPods and iPhones, and there's a port for other players. And the rechargeable battery keeps rocking for about seven hours. $250, sony.com

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