2016 Tech Guide: A Dozen Gifts to Give & Get
I love the retro styling of Kicker’s Bullfrog Jump Bluetooth Music System ($400). I also love the retro-esque inclusion of FM. Bravo—sometimes you just want to turn on the radio—especially if the pre-game broadcast is on during your tailgate party. The Car Stereo Gods at Kicker have put together a kick-ass speaker that will captivate the outdoorsman on your list. Its IP66-rated cabinet is waterproof, impervious to dust and sand, and houses a powerful amp that drives 4-inch speakers in the front and back and a pair passive radiators (no wonder it weighs 8.6 pounds!). This battery-powered baby will deliver big sound for up to 20 hours—a bit less when you’re rocking out to Metallica with the volume pinned. You can control the Bullfrog the old-fashioned way or use the Kicker Connect app, which adds tone controls and EQ presets.
Tunnel of Sound
You won’t find another Bluetooth speaker like Sony’s LSPX-S1 Glass Sound Speaker ($800) with its organic glass cylinder (actually a colorless polymer) and aluminum base. It’s not cheap, but it is unique. Part of Sony’s chic Life Space UX line, the S1 is elegant, impeccably built, and does a nice job delivering mood-lit background music. Let me explain: Apart from the unusual design, what makes the S1 special is its eight-filament LED, which can be adjusted from a warm glow to oh-my-gosh-that’s-bright using Sony’s free SongPal app. Sound is created by tiny actuators that vibrate the tube, a mini woofer that fires onto an acoustic reflector, and a bass-boosting passive radiator that sits atop the cylinder. Two S1s can be linked for stereo listening, and the rechargeable battery will keep the tunes flowing and lights glowing for up to 4 hours.
How Sweet It Is
A couple years ago, I visited Hitsville U.S.A., home of Motown Records where countless iconic records were made by Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations… the list goes on. Walking into the cramped Studio A, I got goose bumps imagining Berry Gordy standing behind the glass while Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Going On.” It was an unforgettable experience. Now the story of these hallowed grounds is brought to life through a treasure trove of rare photos and design iconography in Motown: The Sound of Young America ($45). The perfect present for music lovers, this 400-page coffee-table book is hailed as “the definitive visual history of the Detroit-based independent record company that became a style unto itself, a prolific and hugely successful production line of suave, sassy, and sophisticated music through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.” To that I say, amen.
Wireless multiroom audio is the rage, and the DTS Play-Fi platform is one of the few to offer streaming of hi-res audio files, not to mention built-in access to the most popular music services (including CD-quality Tidal) and, coming soon, integration with Amazon Alexa voice control via compliant speakers and adapters like the Dot. Paradigm’s PW Link ($349) preamp/player module, announced last year but just available this fall, is a superb audiophile entry point to the Play-Fi ecosystem, allowing you to turn an existing sound system into a Play-Fi zone controllable by the Play-Fi iOS, Android, or Windows apps. And it uniquely applies Paradigm’s well-regarded ARC room correction to your streamed content. Once you’re set up, you can start adding fine-sounding wireless Play-Fi speakers around the house from the likes of Paradigm, Definitive Technology, MartinLogan, McIntosh, Sonos Faber, and others.
If you have a music-loving history buff on your list, look no further. For less than 50 bucks, you get two fascinating documentaries. All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records ($22) chronicles the story behind the iconic record-store empire that created its own brand of sex, drugs, and rock & roll during a 46-year reign helmed by marketing genius/founder Russ Solomon. The 94-minute work features interviews, outlandish stories, and a wealth of archival video, including footage of Elton John at the celebrated Sunset Strip location stuffing records into a box held by his limo driver. In Sound City ($18), Dave Grohl recounts the history of the now-defunct recording studio and the legendary Neve 8028 mixing console (one of five in the world) used to record legions of rock greats—Fleetwood Mac, Santana, Elton John, Neil Young, Metallica, Tom Petty, on and on. Artists share great stories about recording at the notoriously grimy studio, and Paul McCartney jams with Grohl, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear while renowned producer Butch Vig mans the Neve. Stupendous.
Have a dedicated audiophile on your list (besides yourself)? HiFiMan’s svelte SuperMini music player ($399) puts hi-res audio and all of its 192-kilohertz/24-bit glory in your pocket. It doesn’t weigh much more than a typical key fob and supports all lossless formats, including DSD. At the risk of losing high-end sales, CEO/designer Dr. Fang Bian describes the SuperMini’s sonic signature as “similar” to the flagship HM901 ($1,499). The secret is a heavily modified low-power controller chip with a built-in DAC (high-end players have a separate DAC). Onboard memory is 128 gigabytes—expandable to 256 GB via micro SD—and rated battery life is a generous 22 hours. The company even throws in a set of in-ear headphones to use with the player’s balanced output.
Alexa in the Round
Amazon’s Alexa may be everyone’s newest friend, but she’s never arrived quite so well dressed as she does in Fabriq, the 3 x 3-inch Alexa-controlled cylindrical speaker from Shape Products. It comes in three funky fabric “finishes,” and supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming—all for only 50 bucks. Fabriq plays loud and sounds remarkably full-bodied for a tiny speaker. Mic, volume, and play/pause buttons are on a rubberized flap that conceals a USB charging port and two additional buttons: one for pairing and one for changing the color of the glow ring at the base of the speaker. Querying Alexa is great fun if not a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition until you learn her language. Stick with simple questions and math problems, and success is virtually guaranteed.
How many times have you found yourself slumped over on the couch at the end of a long evening, reaching for the remote to turn off the TV… when suddenly you catch a second wind. You’d love to finish the show upstairs, but you’re watching it on Blu-ray—not Netflix. Enter the Nyrius WS54 ($170), an unobtrusive system for sending video from any HDMI video source to a TV up to 60 feet away. Setup is simple: I grabbed a couple of short HDMI cables (one is included) and connected the mini transmitter to my player, the mini receiver to a TV a couple of rooms away, and plugged an IR extender into each box. Ten minutes later, I was watching a movie on the second TV, using the player’s remote, and marveling at how good the video looked. The WS54 might be just the ticket for that TV-obsessed person on your list.
Power to the Gamer
Power is a recurring theme in gaming whether you’ve set out to rule the world, slaughter the most zombies, or overthrow a totalitarian regime. It’s also an essential weapon in the arsenal of any serious gamer, which is why hard-core players will drool over Sennheiser’s GSX 1000 ($230) and GSX 1200 Pro ($250) amplifiers. Inspired by the instrumentation on high-performance cars and fighter planes, both feature a sexy LED touch panel display surrounded by an aluminum volume wheel, the ability to toggle between headset and speaker sound, and proprietary 7.1 surround-sound processing to enhance immersion, spatial awareness, and maybe even give gamers a competitive edge. The GSX 1200 Pro allows control of inbound and outbound chat and is equipped with advanced noise reduction and a Chat Link feature for connecting up to eight amps for lag-free communication.
True to its name, the VaVa Voom 20 ($80) is a rockin’ little speaker designed for up to 8 hours of grab ’n go listening in the house, on the patio, at the beach—wherever. Wireless Bluetooth/aptX listening, that is. Perfect for active outdoorsy types, it’s a tough 1.5-pound canister with metal speaker grilles and rubberized end caps and side panels. If you drop the Voom 20, no big deal—it’s designed to be tossed around and built to IPX5 standards, meaning it can withstand direct hits from a Super Soaker. The sound is clear and surprisingly robust for such a small speaker. Coolest feature: You can connect to two devices and toggle between them as I did with my iPad and S5 phone.
I Am Titanium
Bluetooth-driven wireless headphones continue to gain in popularity and may well experience a surge now that Apple has nixed the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. 1More’s over-ear MK802 ($130) adopts a bold, cutting-edge wireless design that will appeal to the millennial on your list. Available in bright red or blue—like we said, bold—the headband and adjustable earcups are made of synthetic titanium (a.k.a. TR90), which is lightweight, flexible, and extremely durable. The company enlisted the help of acclaimed Italian producer and sound engineer Luca Bignardi to do the final tuning. You can tell. The MK802’s oversized beryllium drivers sound warm and balanced, with delicate highs and just a touch of extra oomph in the bass to give it body and impact. Controls are located inconspicuously along the edge of the earcup—or you can use the 1More app to adjust volume, select songs, take calls, and more.
DIY for the Kids
A list of recommended gifts wouldn’t be complete without something special for kids. The “build-it-yourself” Speaker Cube ($149) from BOSEbuild, a recently formed division of Bose, is a hands-on project that lets children explore the science of sound while they build and personalize their very own Bluetooth speaker. Assembly is centered on discovery and education—from how a simple magnet and coil produce sound to how a speaker reproduces music—with step-by-step guidance and coaching via a free companion app. Apart from learning how to assemble a speaker, builders also learn the science behind frequency and waveforms. Icing on the cake: Multiple LED light options and interchangeable silhouette covers make it possible for every Speaker Cube to be uniquely customized. Recommended for ages 8 and up.