2020 has been a rough year. For almost everybody.
Not Jeff Bezos. Just saying.
In these difficult times, I miss my grandparents very much. And I think about their life experiences and the lessons they taught us.
My Bubie and Zsa Zsa survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and pretty much saved every dollar they made for almost 40 years. They never bought themselves anything extravagant and only spent on their grandchildren. On his deathbed, my Zsa Zsa didn’t lament never owning the Cadillac that he always wanted. The irony is that he could have purchased any model he wanted, but instead spent money on cheap Scotch whisky, cigarettes (which ultimately led to the cancer that killed him), and tools to keep his dry cleaning and tailor shop open for business.
He made his own suits. Because he could.
He didn’t complain about his Twitter account being locked or how his feelings were being hurt by some idiot who wrote an article he didn’t agree with.
Before the war, he was a professional soccer player in Poland. The Germans tortured him and made sure he never played again.
They loved being alive more than anything else. They appreciated the little things but also taught us that life was unpredictable and that it was okay to work hard and buy the things that made you happy.
Most importantly, they told us to think about other people.
When they visited Israel for the first (and only) time in the early 1980s, they were showered with pieces of bread when they attended a reunion of survivors. An honor reserved for those who gave up what little they had; or who were brave enough to steal from the guards to feed those who were desperately ill from starvation.
Still want to complain about the availability of Charmin at your local grocery store?
So before you line up at 2 am for a PS5 or terrible 4K television manufactured in China that really can’t be that good if it’s only $300 – donate to a local charity.
People are suffering. Your neighbors or someone they know might need something new but can’t afford it due to a member of the family being out of work.
You don’t need $3,500 interconnects this year (or ever), but someone could probably use a new toaster or food.
Winter is coming. Donate new winter clothing to a local charity.
Millions of children have been stuck at home learning remotely and it has not been good for their mental health.
Find a local organization that is donating toys or books and help a kid have a better Christmas or Chanukah.
Now that you’ve done the mensch-like thing and donated to charity, it’s time to splurge on something nice for yourself, kids, and the lady who made sure that your weekly time card was processed on time and you always got paid during each week of this miserable year. Our very different holiday buying guide awaits.
Be grateful. It could always be worse.
Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated ($1,595)
Every piece of Croft Acoustics equipment is handmade by Glenn Croft and there is no question that you are paying for his design skills, and not a fancy faceplate. Croft has been manufacturing sublime sounding audio equipment for a few decades and the Phono Integrated might be one of his best products. The spartan industrial design and dual volume controls are how he does things; and why this amazing amplifier is affordable. The hybrid design incorporates a pair of 12AX7 tubes for the phono section (1.7mV sensitivity) and a single 12AX7 driver for the MOSFET outputs (40 watts/channel).
The phono section works with MM and high output MC cartridges (anything above 2.5mV should be fine) and has 46dB of gain. You’ll never find that on any piece of Croft literature, but I asked before I ran my Dynavector 10X5 HO MC through it.
Like all Croft gear, the Phono Integrated illuminates any selection of music that you feed it. Pacing is excellent, and vocals really reach out and grab you. What it lacks in features (no remote or headphone amplifier), it makes up for with its sonic prowess.
Partner the Phono Integrated with a pair of loudspeakers from Wharfedale, Q Acoustics, Spendor, or Harbeth and you’ll discover rather quickly that Croft knows how to build a superb sounding amplifier.
For more information: croftacoustics.co.uk
Zero Tolerance Model 0357BW Pocketknife ($133)
The 0357BW is made in America and a recent addition to my collection – a working knife built for tough conditions. A 3.25-inch drop point blade gives users plenty of edge for cutting tasks. High-end CPM 20CV blade steel provides reliable edge retention and corrosion resistance. The 0357BW is an assisted knife that features ZT’s SpeedSafe® system. The blade opens easily and locks into place with a liner lock. The reversible deep-carry pocket clip works well with pants and the handle is comfortable in large hands. If you’re looking for a quality blade for work, or the outdoors – the ZT gets the job done.
Buy: $133 at Amazon
Pendleton Original Westerly Cardigan ($249)
Yes, the same sweater worn by The Dude. The Westerly cardigan was introduced in 1972 and has been worn by millions of men for almost 50 years. It may have come back into fashion following the Big Lebowski, but this amazingly warm sweater is still made in America and ideal for those of us on the larger side who need something warm and rugged for those really cold days.
Allagash White Belgian-style Wheat Beer
Brewed in Maine, Allagash White popped up on my radar during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown in New Jersey. Our local liquor store was not allowed to let anyone inside, but they could bring it out to the curb. Sold in a package of 4, Allagash White features a refreshing balance of citrus and spice. Coriander and Curaçao orange peel round out the flavor and it’s a refreshing and not overly heavy beer that goes well with meat, pizza, and even sushi. A medium rare kosher ribeye is a personal favorite with this excellent beer.
Buy: $10.99 at Amazon
Meze Audio 99 Classics Headphones ($309/Walnut Gold)
This very entrepreneurial company based in Romania has been manufacturing some of the best headphones in the world for almost five years. Their flagship Empyrean ($3,000 at Crutchfield) planar magnetic headphones are on a very short list of headphones considered to be the “best” available. The 99 Classics are not in the same league as their more sophisticated sibling, but they are one of our favorite closed back headphones because they sound great, are incredibly comfortable on your head, and are strikingly better looking than a lot of the headphones below $1,000. I’ve used these as my daily headphone for almost two years and I see no reason to change.
Buy: $309 at Amazon
Lucky Foods Seoul Spicy Red Napa Cabbage Kimchi
Growing up, I was lucky to have access to a lot of Asian food. Toronto is best known for its Chinese food, but I ventured off the beaten path for Korean food when the first blasts of winter made their appearance. Kimchi (Kimchee) freaks some people out, and I’ve never been able to understand the “it’s too spicy” crowd who won’t go near it. It’s healthy, delicious with almost everything except for pancakes, and nothing like some great Korean BBQ with a few bowls of this excellent version that is very flavorful.
Buy: $24.98 at Amazon
Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet with Assist Handle Holder, 12″, Red Silicone
Do you cook? Do you enjoy a properly grilled piece of meat or hearty serving of Shakshuka? Having worked in restaurant kitchens since the age of 14, I’ve made more than a few meals with cast iron skillets. Don’t be seduced by the $200 Smithey skillets online – the Lodge will last forever and cooks the same. Just don’t put it inside a dishwasher. Not ever.
Buy: $50 at Amazon
On Cloud Running Shoes ($130)
My family finds its hysterical that I’ve made waking up at 5 am and running along the ocean in the dark a daily endeavor. Once upon a time, I was a scary person to play hockey against. I grew into my body at the worst possible time (when I was too old to play at a certain level) and then became the father of 3 wonderful kids. COVID forced me to double down on my heath and begin the process of getting back into fighting shape. I hate running. I hate it a lot less wearing these super lightweight running shoes that work well for a large man who doesn’t have the most graceful running stride. The On Cloud look rather sleek in Navy and have lasted a lot longer than some other more expensive running shoes that I’ve tried. These people make excellent shoes.
Andover Audio Songbird High-Res Streamer ($129)
Our detailed review is forthcoming, but we’re rather impressed with this affordable network streamer. We do wish that its digital output wasn’t limited to the Toslink optical variety, but this is an easy stocking stuffer or something to put next to the Menorah (just not under it because melted hot wax is not good for audio gear). The Songbird can support up to 24-bit/192kHz streams and works with Apple AirPlay, DLNA, and is Bluetooth-enabled.
Criterion Collection Blu-ray Releases
I purchased my first Criterion Collection laser disc in 1989 from Tower Video while a freshman at GWU, and I’ve never stopped buying from them. With over 200 DVDs and Blu-ray releases, it’s fair to say that I’m fully committed to their exceptional restorations of classic films. Not every Criterion selection is my cup of tea, but 2020 has been a solid year with some excellent releases.
It’s hard to believe that Parasite won the Best Film Oscar in 2020, but Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy looks even better in 4K, and the Dolby Atmos soundtrack really adds to the tension. Korean cinema has waited a very long time to be recognized by the mainstream media and this is a great addition to any film library. It may not hold up as well as Old Boy, but Parasite is not your typical Hollywood tripe.
Buy: $14.99 at Amazon
Burt Lancaster plays the heavy in this rather brutal prison drama released in 1947 which was directed by Jules Dassin. The 4K transfer is a huge improvement over the version that was available for free on Hulu (before Criterion pulled its entire library) and the cleaned up monaural soundtrack is much cleaner sounding and free of the artifacts that were audible in the streaming version. Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, and Hume Cronyn star in this gritty film noir classic.
Buy: $19.99 at Amazon
Who doesn’t love a scary WW3 drama with a first-rate cast and the prospects of nuclear annihilation? Henry Fonda and Walther Matthau star in this Cold War thriller directed by Sidney Lumet that took the opposite approach of Dr. Strangelove and tackled the military doctrine of MAD with not one ounce of satire. Lumet’s decision to use a very small set and create an overwhelming sensation of claustrophobia only adds to the tension as the fate of the world is fought over. The 4K transfer offers a significant step-up in image quality; the DVD looked rather worn and dated.
Buy: $19.99 at Amazon
NAD C 316BEE V2 Integrated Amplifier ($449)
You can find our review here (and we suggest you read it), but we are pretty confident putting this on our list for 2020. NAD is clearly focused on the network amplifier category right now and that’s fine. But for everyone else who still wants a great sounding class AB integrated amplifier with an excellent MM phono stage – the C 316BEE is one of the top options out there. It’s more powerful in real life than the specs would suggest, and it will likely last a very long time in your system.
Buy: $449 at Amazon
Need More Ideas?
- A Very Different Holiday Buying Guide Part Deux: Fish, Bagels, Jazz and the Frozen Pond
- Black Friday & Cyber Monday Deals That Never End: Discounts on Top-rated Audiophile and Home Theater Products