It's a given that the holidays mean different things to different people: family gatherings, memories of days gone by, hopes for the future and perhaps all of these. One element held in common — at least for many of us — is the desire to enjoy music and video entertainment at home and while traveling.
This year offers many options for audio and video users, some of which this reviewer found especially impressive. It's not too late to add some of these to your holiday shopping list.
Overall audio winner: Street by 50 headphones, $299.95 from SMS Audio (www.smsaudio.com). Celebrity-backed headphones appear to be all the rage (e.g., Beats by Dr. Dre and Soul by Ludacris), and by the time news that rap mogul 50 Cent was jumping in, I felt a tad jaded. Then a pair of his Street by 50 wired headphones arrived, and my skepticism vanished faster than the morning mist after sunrise. These headphones are worth every penny; the listening experience is just a hair shy of transcendent.
50 Cent, also known as Curtis James Jackson III, not only endorses the SMS-made headphones, he owns the company. His desire was to create a product that would reproduce the sound he hears in the recording studio. Not being a music-industry executive, I can't fully judge, but having heard quite a bit of music, live and recorded, I can say that the sound these headphones produce is exceptionally authentic. Whether it's maestro Herbert Blomstedt's rendering of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Mr. Jackson's (exceptionally explicit) "Queens (feat. Paris)" via a YouTube video, or tamer fare such as Taylor Swift or Jason Aldean, the fidelity to what was recorded is astonishing.
What's more, the headphones are very comfortable to wear, a good thing to know when traveling. Users of iPhones and similar devices will appreciate the built-in play/pause control and microphone in the detachable cord. This is an extremely good product any audiophile will enjoy receiving.
Audio accessory: Icon iDO digital output interface and headphone amplifier from NuForce, $249, www.nuforce.com. As good as the Street by 50 headphones are, place this product between them and your iPod (or iPhone or iPad) and get set for even more mind-blowing sound. The iDO will replace the built-in audio codec of the Apple device with one that extracts the digital audio data and converts it into better sound. There's less "jitter" in the audio, and the output is impressive. You also can pump up the volume with a separate audio control.
Though not designed for travel, the iDO is a great companion for the living room or den, where you could spend hours lost in beautiful sound, either via headphones or by attaching other speakers to the device. Indeed, the space-challenged could take the iDO, add some good speakers, plug in an iPod and have an excellent hi-fi setup.
Pocket cans: Many portable-device users prefer pocketable headsets, and the BA200 Dual Balanced Armature In-Ear Headphones, $249, from TDK Life on Record (www.TDKperformance.com) are among the best I've heard in a very long time. The maker says these headphones contain "two professional quality, balanced armature drivers in each ear to deliver music with detailed accuracy, providing pristine vocals and warm, rich bass at any volume," as well as "proprietary stabilizing technology for uniform, optimized sound across all devices, peripherals and amplifiers." I'll just say the sound is very, very impressive. Having taken a few overseas trips this year, I easily could imagine these headphones as a welcome companion on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, or on the Metro coming in from, say, Falls Church.
Overall video winner: DVDO Edge Green High-Definition Video Processor and Connectivity Hub Solution, $499 from DVDO, Sunnyvale, Calif. (www.dvdo.com). The thought of forking out five Benjamins for something whose purpose may not seem obvious is a daunting one. An examination of what this product does, as well as how it works, might erase those doubts.
The easiest thing to realize about the DVDO Edge Green unit is that it will take as many as nine different video inputs — five HDMI sources, four analog video inputs — and channel all that to a single HDMI input on your television. That may not sound like much, until you get your cable box/DVR, an AppleTV, a Blu-Ray disc player, a Roku video streamer, and perhaps a VCR and a Wii, PS3 or Xbox game console together. Suddenly, you need a way to bring order from all that chaos.
The DVDO does this superbly — I've got three or four devices hooked up right now — and even more. It processes various video source signals to deliver what the firm calls "professional grade" video to your display. That is worth the extra money you might pay over a regular HDMI switch; settings are fully adjustable to customize what you see on screen. Add this sleek, low-profile unit to your video corner, and it will bring order out of cable chaos, and a wonderful picture and sound experience to boot.
DVR: TiVo's new Premiere DVR/cable box, $99 at www.tivo.com, is an impressive value, storing 45 hours of digital broadcasts and offering a better and friendlier user interface than Verizon's FiOS service normally does. (One loses the ability to instantly order "on demand" broadcasts, but I'm not really into the latest UFC events anyway.) It adds Netflix streaming and other services such as Hulu Plus programs and YouTube videos; by connecting to a home wireless network, you can, using Roxio's Toast software, pull shows from the TiVo to your computer and burn DVDs.
But all that pales in relation to the basic functions: a way to make sure you don't miss your favorite shows, have them recorded the way you like and play them back superbly. All this will require a "cable card" from your local supplier (probably at a cost of $10 per month), and a $19.99 monthly subscription to the TiVo service, but the end result will be worth it. Also worth it is the $299 TiVo Premiere/XL, which offers three times the recording capacity and THX-certified sound.
Wireless HDMI switch: Vizio, the company whose flat-panel TVs have grabbed a fair chunk of the market, is expanding its lineup of accessories. The VIZIO Universal Wireless HD Video and Audio Kit, $199 from www.vizio.com (and $20 less at area Costco stores) will take your TV signals from four different sources and beam them to your TV without loss of quality, the maker claims.
For those seeking to eliminate cable clutter, especially with wall-mounted TVs, this seems like a reasonable alternative to the DVDO Edge Green, particularly if budgets are tight.