You don't have to be an audiophile to appreciate good sound and music, so I've put together a healthy selection of great gift ideas, all priced under $100. I'll soon post another blog with under-$300 gift ideas.
The AIX Records "Audio Calibration Disc & HD Music Sampler" Blu-ray ($25) is loaded with exceptional-sounding Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio music tracks. AIX refrains from using dynamic range compression, equalization, or signal processing, so the sound is as close to the original session as can be. And with the release of "Goldberg Variations Acoustica" AIX has ventured into producing original 3D video programming. The Blu-ray was shot with four prototype Panasonic 3D A1 cameras, and the sound was recorded in 96 kHz/24-bit high-resolution audio.
My pick for the best full-size headphone for less than $100 is the Grado Prestige Series SR-60i ($79). It's an improved and updated version of the original SR-60, which was a budget audiophile favorite for more than 10 years. The SR-60i sounds great at home or plugged into an iPod. The sound is nice and full, and since the SR-60i is an open-back design, you can hear the world around you. Highly recommended.
If you'd prefer an in-ear headphone, you should get the NOX Audio Scout ($79). The design features "balanced armature technology," which is rarely seen in headphones in the Scout's price class (I actually don't know of any others). It's very comfortable, the flat ribbon cable is as tangle-free as they come, and the sound quality is extraordinarily good.
Paul McCartney & Wings' "Band On The Run" Special Edition is a two-CD, one-DVD set ($30). Recently remastered by the team responsible for the Beatles 2009 remasters, "Band on the run" has never sounded better. The second CD has nine bonus tracks of rare demos and alternative takes. The original remastered album and bonus audio content are also available on a two LP, 180 gram audiophile vinyl edition that comes with an MP3 download of all 18 tracks.
Sony XDR-F1HD Radio ($100). I guess most people don't listen to FM radio anymore, but if you're lucky enough to still have a great NPR or college station nearby, you gotta hear this HD radio. Plug it into your computer or hi-fi and it'll sound better than Internet radio by a long shot. I have a Sony XDR-F1HD in my high-end system, and I think it's pretty terrific. Analog FM stations come in like gangbusters--clean as a whistle--and HD stations like my favorite jazz station, WBGO, have "CD quality" sound.
Mobile Fidelity remastered LPs, SACDs, and CDs (most are $30 each). Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has been perfecting the art of remastering audio since 1977. It currently offers a broad catalog of music, from Frank Sinatra and the Pixies to Yes and Little Richard on LP, SACD, and CD. Still, it's the LPs that show the most radical improvements in sound quality, compared with standard vinyl. It's worth noting that every MoFi LP that was originally recorded in analog is remastered from an analog master tape. That's interesting, because ever since digital came onto the scene, most (probably about 99 percent) LPs for sale have been cut from digital masters. So unless you're already buying MoFi LPs, you still haven't heard what a pure analog recording sounds like.
The Dayton B652 bookshelf speaker ($29/pair) quickly earned a reputation for producing audiophile quality sound for a ridiculously low price. It's a midsize, black vinyl-covered monitor speaker, 11.7 inches high, 7.1 inches wide, and 6.5 inches deep. The front baffle hosts a 6.5-inch polypropylene woofer and a 0.6-inch polycarbonate ferrofluid-cooled tweeter.
If you need an amplifier for the B652 or another speaker, check out the Dayton DTA-1 ($45). This little Class-T amplifier produces 15 watts of power per channel from eight AA batteries or the included switching power supply. One of my audiophile pals who designs and builds his own tube amplifiers can't stop raving about how good this little digital amp sounds.
Audiophile cables can get expensive, but Blue Jeans Cable offers a wide selection of high-quality wires, at down-to-earth prices. You can order custom cut lengths of pairs of speaker cables. For example, Blue Jeans Cable sells pairs of 10 foot "Belden 5000UE 12 AWG Speaker Cable" fitted with banana plugs for $32.25. Blue Jeans also sells "unterminated" cables for a lot less--$10.40 for that same pair of cables--sans connectors.