Sound snobs are the easiest—and yet hardest—folks for whom to Christmas-shop. You know they want something audio-related, but you're probably not qualified to choose something. No problem. We've got this.
Go Mono Before he became famous for giant wigs and homicide trials, legendary producer Phil Spector used to proclaim, "back to mono!" An interesting retro-trend is the re-release of old monaural (single-channel) recordings in digital formats. Many listeners find these recordings to possess a directness and vitality found in few stereo recordings.
Noteworthy recent re-releases have included The Beatles mono set and the Dylan set "The Original Mono Recordings", featuring his first eight albums. Dylan completists may find The Wittmark Demos fascinating for its demo versions of 47 early songs.
Wanna nerd out about mono? Check Audiogon's Forums.
Hardware that's Easy to Buy Headphones can provide a huge step up from the ubiquitous earbuds, at reasonable cost. Grado offers the SR-60i, an improved version of a longtime favourite, for only $US79.
If your giftee already has a good set of cans, a headphone amp may be the next step to nirvana. Give them some really good Schiit. Schiit Audio, that is-makers of elegant, well-built, great-sounding ‘phone amps, both solid-state and tube. Starting at $US249, they're made in the US by veterans of hi-fi companies Sumo and Theta.
Hooking up an iPod to a big stereo rig can highlight some of its shortcomings; bypassing the ‘Pod's internal DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and using a higher-quality external DAC can drastically improve the sound. A good-sounding inexpensive DAC that's simple to use is the iStreamer from High Resolution Technologies; it's widely available at $US199.95, and can be used with iPad or iPhone, as well.
If the term "audiophile amplifier" brings to mind something the size of a Jetta, except costing more and producing more heat-well, you're mostly right. Virtue Audio, however, makes small, great-sounding amplifiers that fit in a lunchbox, but will still power a "real" stereo system. They start at $US299.
Too much money? This next gift won't fit in a lunchbox, but you can pay for it by skipping lunch for a week. Okay, maybe two weeks: Parts Express offers a pair of speakers and an amp for $US58, and they're remarkably good. The perfect dorm-room or garage system without breaking the bank.
Good luck in your shopping. And remember: when in doubt, save those receipts!
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Top photo courtesy of Flickr user william brawley