2015 Holiday Gift Guide

I know you don’t want to be the guy or gal who gives questionable—OK, useless— presents. Apart from the awkward head-nodding and forced smiles, the act of giving a bogus gift reflects badly on you, as in: I ran in Target a quarter to five on Christmas Eve and grabbed the first [tie/sweater/gloves/underwear] I saw. Don’t go there! We’ve already screened a dozen gifts for you at prices starting as low as 30 bucks. All you have to do is find a match for that special person(s) on your list. How hard can that be?

When I told the PR contact for England’s Ruark Audio we wanted to check out a pair of MR1 Bluetooth speakers ($500), his response was swift and very British: “Smashing!” Smashing, indeed. The gargantuan sound produced by these compact cubes will blow your mind as will their versatility and impeccable fit and finish. Hook ’em up to a PC for the ultimate desktop experience, jack in an iPod (minijack cable included), stream Brit pop from an aptX/Bluetooth-enabled smartphone or tablet, or connect them to a TV or home stereo—there’s even a subwoofer output and remote control. Aficionados will appreciate Ruark’s approach to speaker design: custom drivers powered by a serious Class AB amplifier instead of some tin-can digital amp. Finish options are gorgeous walnut veneer or a soft black or white lacquer. Go with the walnut.

The first Harmony Internet-programmable remote, introduced in 2001, represented a huge breakthrough that simplified the life of home theater enthusaiasts everywhere. Nearly 15 years later, Harmony remotes (produced by Logitech, which acquired the company in 2004) are still among the best. The Harmony Home Control ($150), a scaled-down version of the Ultimate Home remote carries on the A/V tradition—operating up to eight devices in this case—while offering an affordable path to smart home control. Pair it with the Harmony Hub ($100), and its sphere of influence extends to a variety of connected devices, including smart locks and thermostats, lights and cameras, and a host of wireless sensors. Our custom installation expert Darryl Wilkinson calls it an “amazingly impressive universal remote.”

Audiophiles have had a long-standing love affair with the seductive sound qualities of electrostatic and planar-magnetic speakers—and headphones. Problem is, planar cans tend to be expensive power hogs, which is why more than a few ears perked up when HiFiMan introduced the HE400S ($299) last summer. This super-comfy headphone excels at unraveling complex recordings, revealing subtle instrumental flourishes and background vocals you may have missed, making it ideal for hi-res duty. And, no, the HE400S won’t weigh down your loved one’s head like a helmet: It’s exceptionally well built yet remarkably lightweight with an adjustable headband and velour ear pads. A removable minijack cable (with phone-plug adapter) is included, but it’s only 5 feet long, so you might want to throw in an extension cable.

I know what you’re thinking. An alarm clock? Really? A fate worse than underwear. But I can assure you, the brick-size iHome Kineta K2 (a.k.a. iKN105, $100) has capabilities that go well beyond an ordinary alarm clock. In addition to obligatory dual alarms and an FM radio with six station presets, you have the option of jacking in an iPod or streaming tunes from a Bluetooth-enabled tablet or smartphone; you can even use K2 as a speakerphone, and it pairs instantly with NFC-ready devices. Sound quality is surprisingly clean and robust, meaning it’ll play obnoxiously loud when extra early morning encouragement is needed. But the coolest feature is the removable USB power cell you can take with you for on-the-go charging. When the cell’s depleted, stick it back in the K2 for a quick recharge.

In what may be the most creative implementation of the Bluetooth speaker, the impeccably crafted Kilburn ($299) pays homage to the iconic Marshall stack that has defined the sound of rock guitar for half a century and counting. Get your camera ready because rockers of all stripes will get giddy at the sight—and sound—of this mini (9.5 x 5.5 x 5.5-inch) Marshall as they marvel over its vintage flip switch and precision control knobs. Pair a phone or tablet and stream any song from Led Zeppelin II to revel in the classic Les Paul/Marshall sound—or use its minijack to play “Black Dog” from an iPod. Kilburn’s rechargeable battery is good for upwards of 20 hours—unless, of course, the volume is pinned to 11. Available in cream and black.

Smartphone-wielding app-sters—college students come to mind—will welcome the utility of Pulse Solo ($60), a smart bulb with three things going for it. 1) It replaces any incandescent bulb with an efficient, long-lasting LED light; 2) it brings app-controlled dimming capability to lamps or fixtures that are not connected to a dimmer; and 3) it doubles as a mini Bluetooth speaker. Screw the bulb into an existing lamp or light fixture and download the Sengled app, which lets you turn the light on and off and adjust its intensity by moving your finger around a ring. You can also control music volume by tapping up/down icons, but don’t expect to rock out—the tiny speakers do best with low-volume background music.

Readers of Sound & Vision have a duty to enlighten family and friends to the joys of good sound—especially anyone who inexplicably plays music through the god-awful “speaker” built into their phone. In other words, give the gift of a high-quality wireless speaker—but not just any speaker. Standing just over 8 inches tall (with the optional 6-hour battery pack attached to its base), the stylish Heos 1 ($199 or $298 with rechargeable Go Pack) is a study in versatility, supporting app-controlled playback over Wi-Fi, direct streaming via Bluetooth, and intuitive multiroom playback when part of Denon’s mix-and-match Heos system. The sound is impressively robust, and you get onboard apps for Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Tidal, and a handful of other streaming services. Available in black or white.

You don’t have to be a spaz to drop your phone. Everyone does it. Which is why the Flygrip Gravity phone grip/stand ($30) is such a great gift. Attaching this self-adhesive-backed doodad doesn’t guarantee you’ll never drop your phone again, but it will make it a heck of a lot easier to hold onto, particularly when you’re taking a picture or shooting video. I’ve had one on my Galaxy 5 for three months now and use it all the time. Flygrip is available in two sizes (to ensure a good grip) and a variety of cool designs and colors, ranging from Snake Skin to Magenta. They even throw in a free phone case.

If money’s no object and you’re looking to spoil someone special, why not give the gift of music? Having perfected the art of building world-class portable music players like the AK380, Astell & Kern developed a unique self-contained audio system that presents music in all of its full, high-res glory (don’t even think about playing an MP3 on this setup). Standing just over 3 feet tall, the sleek AKT1 ($3,700) houses six speakers—two tweeters, two midrange drivers, and two 6.5-inch woofers—in its angular (silver or black) aluminum structure. It plays 192-kHz/24-bit and DSD files and supports playback from any wired or wireless source, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth/aptX. The system can be controlled via its 4-inch LCD touchscreen or a smartphone app.

Game of Thrones is a no-brainer for fans (and would-be fans) of this medieval fantasy sensation. The limited-edition Steelbook box sets of Season 1 and Season 2 ($79.98 each) take binge viewing to new heights with extensive bonus content and state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos surround, making Thrones the first TV show to sport an Atmos soundtrack on Blu-ray.

Millennials won’t have a clue, but boomers will love this 50th Anniversary tribute to one of the most iconic TV shows of the ’60s—Lost in Space—which chronicles the adventures of the Robinson family and Robot B-9 as they travel through space in 1997(!). All 83 episodes, which aired between 1965 and 1968, have been remastered in high definition (with DTS-HD mono sound) and are presented on 18 Blu-ray Discs ($200).

I’m going to bet there’s at least one person on your shopping list who hasn’t gotten around to upgrading the lifeless sound that emanates from his or her TV. A pity—that is, until you rescue them with an awesome gift they didn’t even know they needed. The YAS-203 soundbar ($400) uses signal processing Yamaha has perfected over more than a decade to produce remarkably spacious sound from two speakers mounted at either end of a long, slender enclosure that’s only 3 inches tall and 5 inches deep (bass is relegated to a wireless subwoofer that takes up less than a square foot of floor space). The YAS-203 is extremely easy to set up and decodes Dolby Digital and DTS movie soundtracks for an enhanced experience. It even supports Bluetooth/aptX music streaming.

When The Who released Tommy in 1969, it became an instant classic, spawning “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and a string of other unforgettable songs. Three years later, the rock opera realized its full potential in a spectacular performance featuring the 104-piece London Symphony Orchestra, 60-voice Chambre Choir, and “guest soloists” Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle, Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, and others. Now, after more than 30 years out of print, the historic recording has been remastered (at 192/24 hi-res) and reissued on CD ($12) and LP ($25, as a limited-edition gray vinyl pressing). Both versions include the original libretto with a 20-page color illustration of the characters and lyrics. A must-have for Who fans or anyone who digs music of the late ’60s/early ’70s.
amazon.com (CD) musicdirect.com (limited-edition vinyl)