GOOD SOUND reproduction - crystal clear, dynamic and realistic - is a beautiful thing. It's a reason so many trade flimsy earbuds for better headphones or pay big bucks for the best seats in a concert hall. And it's a gift many would appreciate this holiday, in various and wondrous forms.
HEADPHONE HEAVEN: Beats by Dre gets the most attention, but there are far better headphone alternatives.
Take, for instance, the mighty Mo-Fi from Blue, a brand best known until now for microphones. With Mo-Fi's integrated audiophile grade amplifier, a user can extract intensely loud, clear sound out of a connected music maker (like a smartphone or tablet) without cranking up the latter's cheapo amp.
Mo-Fi's bigger and better drivers also contribute to the bold presence and musicality of its performance, while tight-cupping, adjustable earpieces block the outside world. Runs amplified for 12 hours between charges and also plays without amplification.
Downside? Mo-Fi's a literal heavyweight, tipping the scales at 17 ounces, and it costs a kingly $349.95.
Competitors cranking not quite as loud but with fine finesse include the Sony MDR-1R (8 1/2 ounces, $189), NAD Viso HP50 (9 ounces, $249) and newly refined Bose QuietComfort 25 (7 1/4 ounces, $299) - still the best active noise reduction headphones we've encountered.
COMPUTER SOUND FIX: Headphone amps built into computers are disgraceful, too - hissing audibly, always. DacMagic XS from Cambridge Audio ($189) is a terrific work-around, a tiny, 5-ounce DAC (digital to analog converter) box that plugs into a computer's USB jack and puts out high-quality, ultra-low-distortion sound. Just add headphones and serve.
BETTER BLU-RAY PLAYERS:There are lots of good Blu-ray players selling for about $100. Why invest four or five times as much for a Yamaha AVENTAGE BD-A1040BL ($399) or Oppo BDP-103 ($499)?
The difference is largely in sound performance and capabilities. Billed as "universal" players, these alternatives pack audiophile-grade chips to handle Dolby and DTS soundtrack formats more adeptly and play CDs (remember them?) more sweetly.
Universal players also process most any other digital sound format you might throw their way on a disc or plugged-in USB thumb drive, from lowly MP3 to AAC and FLAC files, uncompressed PCM streams and high-res disc formats SACD and DVD-audio.
For a guy with golden ears, such a gift would really rock his universe.
HIGH-END SOUND SOURCES: With barely any publicity, Universal has refurbished a couple dozen classic albums in a high quality format called Pure Audio that music buffs can play on any Blu-ray player. Selling for $15 to $25, the music is encoded with Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and PCM formats. (See sidebar.)
On another format front, the Audio Fidelity label has become a good source for "hybrid" dual-layer SACD reissues ($15 to $30) that play in stereo on any CD player and in high-res stereo (or sometimes multichannel surround sound) on a SACD-ready machine. Just out are multichannel treatments of George Benson's "Breezin' ", the Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills "Super Sessions" and an especially head-spinning surround treatment of the first Blood, Sweat & Tears album, "Child is Father to the Man," retooled by producer/original band leader Al Kooper.
What goes great with Sonos multiroom Wi-Fi sound gear? A subscription to Deezer Elite, the highest resolution (lossless FLAC), all-you-can-stream music service, and a Sonos exclusive, at present.
Deezer's globally-minded catalog includes more than 35 million tracks. Service costs $9.99 a month if you buy a year subscription, otherwise $14.99 a month.
SOUNDBAR HEAVEN: Flat-panel HDTVs, priced wacky cheap, are huge sellers this holiday season. While pictures look sweet, the sound is so-so, which is why an add-on, TV-oriented sound system is just what Santa would also want sittin' under the tree.
Vizio soundbars, some with separate subwoofers and sometimes rear "surround" speakers, are excellent deals, starting at $120.
If space crunched, look into a ZVOX SoundBase, a line of amplified speakers ($169 and up) that sit under your TV - adding just 3 or 4 inches of height - while producing a whole lotta love out of left/center/right speakers and built-in, downfiring subwoofer.
With bigger and bolder sounding models like the ZVOX SoundBase 670 Home Theater SoundSystem ($499), several audio sources can be plugged in and TVs up to 70-inches can be supported.