The Hub: Holidays gifts for yourself, or a friend.

Music-lovers and audiophiles may be the easiest, and yet hardest, folks for whom to Christmas-shop. Those who don’t understand our peculiarly particular interests may think the Collected Recordings of Al Martino is an ideal gift, when what we really want is that re-mastered Rammstein boxed set. Likewise, an audio-geek with a $100,000 system is unlikely to be thrilled by a spiffy interconnect from Radio Shack. And how do you re-gift that?

The overload of treacly Christmas music may be hard to take for the music-loving audiophile. Some of those old Mitch Miller tunes were great recordings, but musically, they may make you want to drive into a bridge abutment. Here are a few Christmas albums whose recording-quality may be variable, but which offer musical substance and, in some cases, a good dose of humor:

- Shawn Colvin, "Holiday Songs and Lullabies". Colvin is known for her intense, personal songs and adept guitar-playing; here she brings those talents to an interesting assortment of seasonal songs. Rather than relentlessly upbeat, the tone is wistful and melancholic; "In the Bleak Midwinter" is bleak, indeed. Lovely and a bit sad, don't play this if you're alone for the holidays unless you intend to get heavily into the eggnog.

- The Chieftains' "The Bells of Dublin" is not your father's Christmas album. While it features a few standards such as "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen", their treatment and the choice of voices are unique. Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne and Burgess Meredith (?!?) are among the featured vocalists. Lovely, high-spirited, and a bit twisted, like The Chieftains themselves.

- Reverend Horton Heat and The Roches both offer albums entitled "We Three Kings", but as you might imagine, the two are very different. The Roche sisters bring their tight harmonies to respectful and fairly traditional arrangements of Christmas carols, whereas Rev. Heat offers a hard-driving rockabilly take on holiday novelty songs, with the exception of the title track and "What Child is This". Both albums are enjoyable, but wildly different in mood; think of the Roches as before-presents mood-setting, and Rev. Heat as the backdrop for post-opening video-game play.

For more Christmas-music suggestions, take a look at this thread and others in the Audiogon Forums.

Even the best Christmas music wears thin eventually. In the spirit of old favorites becoming new again, how about a retro-nuevo look at some ghosts of pop music past?

Back before he became famous for giant wigs and homicide trials, legendary producer Phil Spector used to proclaim, "Back to Mono!”. A number of pop and rock classics have recently become available in monaural mixes. It’s an audiophile cliche' to say, “I heard things I’ve never heard before”, but these glorious single-channel recordings seem to convey a realism and life that the stereo mixes simply do not.

The Beatles mono box set brought a lot of attention to the mono reissue trend, largely by demonstrating what a mess the stereo mixes of the early Beatles albums were. A recent release is the Bob Dylan set, The Original Mono Recordings which includes Dylan’s first eight albums. The Witmark Demos are demo recordings of 47 early songs, which Dylan made for his publishers. While fascinating for the devout Dylanite, it may not be a good choice for the novitiate, given the rough nature of both vocals and recordings.

For further discussions of great mono recordings, check this thread in our Forums.

If your giftee has no shortage of software, perhaps a big-bang-for-buck hardware gift would be appreciated. Nowhere in audio is there a bigger bang for the buck than in headphones; it’s hard to imagine an $80 set a speakers that could come close to the performance of the Grado SR-60i, the recently-improved version of an old Grado standby.

Got Phones? Then maybe the next step is a headphone amp. Schiit is the awkwardly-named venture of Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat, veterans of Sumo and Theta, respectively. They offer striking, great-sounding amps made in the USA starting at $249, and you can choose between solid-state and tube flavors.

Got ‘Pod? These days, who doesn’t? The easiest and least-expensive way to improve iPod or computer output is an outboard DAC. High Resolution Technologies' iStreamer offers better sound and easy plug-in installation and compatibility with the iPod, iPad and iPhone, at only $199.95.

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 $299.

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 $58, and they’re remarkably good. It'd be the perfect kid's-room, dorm-room or garage system without breaking the bank.

Good luck in your shopping, good listening, and Happy Holidays! And remember: when in doubt, save those receipts!
Awesome piece as ALWAYS. I'm really interested in the new iStreamer from HRT. I read that it was Apple Approved, and its the first FULL DAC (not just a dock). We're gonna get into these ASAP!!

Thanx again for the informative piece.
Thanks for the kind comments. I'm sure the HRT people appreciate your enthusiasm, as well, and the iStreamer is also available right here on the 'gon: t

Merry Christmas!
Does the iStreamer access the digital out of the ipod as opposed to the headphone out? If so, it would be like the Wadia ipod dock. Now that would really be cool, only downside would be it not charging the ipod. I could not quite tell my info on the site.
Yes, it accesses the data stream and bypasses the iPod's internal DAC. The iStreamer is a DAC, so all one needs to do is plug the iPod into the iStreamer, plug the power line in (via a small wall wart and a USB mini b cable), plug a set of interconnects into a vacant line level input on your preamp/amp (or powered speakers), and you are good to go!