Radio Shack Sound Level (SPL) Meter ($50) go to radioshack.com
Virtually anyone who has just received or is contemplating purchasing a 5.1 surround sound system will thank you for getting this reliable little meter, because it will do a more accurate job of measuring the relative loudness of each speaker in a home theater system than any of the auto-setup circuits included in shiny new AV receivers. Available in an analog meter display (Model 33-4050) or digital LCD versions (Model 33-2055), the Radio Shack Sound Level Meter is a genuinely useful device that lets you manually calibrate your home theater speakers, ensuring a top-notch surround-sound experience. (Check on-line to see which Radio Shack stores in your area carry them.) (Note: Available only at Radio Shack in the USA.)
Axiom Algonquin Outdoor Speakers ($330/pair) see at axiomaudio.com
Nothing better for the audiophile who wants the crystal-clear sound and tight bass of Axiom’s rave-reviewed M3 speaker out on the patio or deck, but in a waterproof pest-resistant plastic enclosure impervious to the sun’s ultra-violet rays or winter blasts. Small, powerful, and authentically hi-fi, the Algonquins bring music outside to wherever you choose to use them. With threaded receptacles that accept most brackets, including Axiom’s own Full Metal Bracket, the Algonquins are available in Artic White, Spiced Rum, Almond Bisque or Cape Cod Grey finishes or can be painted to match the house or deck.
Digital Video Essentials Blu-ray HDTV Calibration Disc ($17) see at amazon.com
Fresh out of the box, any new HDTV projector or display — LCD, plasma or DLP — will benefit from careful calibration of color, brightness, contrast, black level, and other parameters. Newbies and seasoned video tweakers alike will appreciate the “Digital Video Essentials” setup disc, in Blu-ray or Standard DVD versions, from video guru Joe Kane. It’s inexpensive ($17) yet technically very detailed. If you already have the Standard Video Essentials DVD, the Blu-ray version has nothing new except much-improved menu navigation.
Gold-Plated Dual Banana Plugs ($8 ea.) see at axiomaudio.com
Any home theater or stereo enthusiast will appreciate a few pairs of dual banana plugs, which make connecting or disconnecting speakers and speaker cables a snap. With standard 3/4-inch spacing that fits most modern loudspeakers and AV receivers, these gold-plated connectors accept speaker cable as thick as 12-gauge and will never tarnish or corrode.
Energizer NiMH 15-Minute Battery Recharger ($33) see it at amazon.com
It’s frustrating when batteries in a music player or camera die and it takes hours for them to recharge. If the device uses AA- or AAA-size cells, Energizer’s compact new portable recharger will bring from one to four AA or AAA-size batteries up to full charge in 15 minutes. Unlike previous Nickel Metal-Hydride rechargeables, the Energizer’s 2400-mA NiMH cells claim to hold their charge for up to 6 months. The charger unit uses a built-in miniature hi-speed fan to cool the batteries during the quick charging cycle, extending their life significantly. Supplied with four NiMH batteries, two AA and two AAA cells, a 12-volt car plug and AC wall adapters. In my tests, the charger performed well.
Cable-TV Ground Isolator ($48) see at axiomaudio.com
Got a loud, annoying hum or buzz from your home theater or stereo system speakers / subwoofer when the volume is turned up? Chances are you have ground-loop hum, entering your system through the cable-TV feed to your cable box/DVR or HDTV. Short of totally disconnecting the cable TV (and no-one wants that!), there’s no way to eliminate the dratted hum unless you use one of these: a high-quality ground-loop isolating transformer, which will pass all HDTV signals without degradation but block the irritating low-pitched hum. With male and female adaptors, it installs easily between your incoming cable and the cable converter box. Note: Not usable with satellite/dish systems.
High Quality In-Ear Earphones ($20 to $200).
Almost anything sounds better than the crummy ear buds supplied with iPods and similar portable MP3 devices. There are lots of hi-fi in-ear buds available now, but the fit to a person’s ear canal is crucial for good bass performance, comfort, and noise isolation. Be sure the person on your list gets a selection of different-sized ear flanges and foam inserts with the ear buds, so the fit will be comfortable. Good performance needn’t be expensive: Koss’s The Plug, for under $20, is surprisingly smooth if somewhat bass-heavy. Shure’s E4c is top-notch in sound quality and noise isolation and sells on-line for $80 to $180, or opt for the newer and highly reviewed Shure SE310. If you don’t like the feel of ear buds stuffed into your ear canal, there is always the Koss Porta-Pro, which rest on the ear, look kind of retro and dorky, but have excellent sound quality and are extremely comfortable ($50 or less). No noise isolation, however.
Axiom Audiobyte Computer Speakers ($349/pair; sub: $179) see at axiomaudio.com
If the someone on your list has been making do with some of those anemic, tinny-sounding PC speakers, Axiom’s Audiobytes will forever change his or her notions of what computer speakers should sound like. As reviewer Kevin Hunt of the Chicago Tribune noted, “I have never heard sound like this from PC speakers,” a testament to the crystal-clear analytical transparent sound quality of these little dynamos. The Audiobytes include a separate 55-watt-per-channel hi-fi amplifier and will accept the output of any iPod, MP3 player or portable listening device. Available in four standard finishes or a variety of optional high-gloss and real-wood custom finishes.
Panasonic RP-HC55 Noise-Cancellation Ear Buds ($60) check price
While the big “B” seems to be the standard for sound-isolating headphones for those long plane trips, they are large and the whopping price charged doesn’t exactly ring out “economical.” Word on the street has it that a brash newcomer is highly effective and costs much less. Panasonic’s RP-HC55 in-ear ear buds contain excellent active noise-cancellation circuitry and are said to have good sound quality.
Sony XDR-F1HD AM/FM/HD Tuner ($99) check price
Fed up with the mediocre FM/AM reception of your AV receiver’s built-in radio tuner? Are you curious about the sound of HD Digital Radio? Sony’s compact AM/FM/HD Radio tuner uses adaptive noise reduction and innovative digital filters to greatly improve marginal or noisy FM reception. Early rave reviews suggest its performance outscores by a wide margin even expensive separate analog AM/FM tuners of the past. Moreover, its HD reception delivers virtual CD sound quality from hundreds of AM and FM stations that broadcast HD radio signals. At its bargain price, it’s a no-brainer for audiophiles looking for much improved radio reception quality.