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Hey, Santa, Is the Beard Real?

Well, another year draws to a close. We've looked at interesting technologies and summoned enough pluck to discuss some pretty hairy subjects. This month,

Well, another year draws to a close. We’ve looked at interesting technologies and summoned enough pluck to discuss some pretty hairy subjects. This month, we’re going to slow down and check out a few toys, er, products, that, if you’re good, just may show up in your holiday stocking.

First, let’s look at optical disc players and the format war that resulted from what many see as too many formats and not enough consumers. I’m going to weigh in here and say, “SACD? DVD-A? Who cares?!” I’ll admit that surround is the killer app, at least in home theater and popular music. And, despite the trickling rollout, there are more and better choices for disc fulfillment this holiday season than before.

From HTIBs (Home Theater-In-a-Box) with stealth multichannel SACD playback to blessedly affordable audiophile systems, the consumer electronics folks have all of the bases covered. If you’re looking for the highest-fidelity reproduction of a surround aural experience, then go the SACD route. With Sony’s Dream Systems priced around $500 to $700, there’s no excuse not to pick one up. If better quality and more capabilities are attractive to you, then Eindhoven has your number: Philips’ LX8000SA includes, as does Sony’s, multichannel SACD playback hiding among its other HTIB attributes. For more discerning palates, Philips’ DVD962SA is a stand-alone multichannel player with SACD, CD-DA, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-V, DVD-R, DVD-RW, VCD and SVCD capabilities. It’s easy to use and makes even dusty old CDs sound sweet because all PCM is upsampled to 192kHz. Remember, only SACD can provide multichannel audio playback with the highest subjective fidelity and no stinking TV to distract your enjoyment of a pure musical moment. As an audio professional, it’s also comforting to know that you don’t have to spend an unreasonable amount of time and money to create a really great SACD title.

Now, if you’re looking for something that combines a potential authoring headache with all of the sights and sounds of a multimedia extravaganza, then DVD-A will keep even the most comatose couch potato amused. Only DVD-A combines quality multichannel audio with video if you just want to sit and be entertained rather than think. Onkyo’s DVD-Audio players are priced for every budget, down to its entry-level DV-SP300 at a suggested retail price of just $200. The step-up DV-SP500 and DV-CP500 five-disc DVD changer go for $300. All three, like Philips’ DVD962SA mentioned previously, upsample to 192kHz so the obligatory filtering exhibits better transient and phase response. Unfortunately, DVD-Audio can’t do multichannel 192k, so the King of Quality Subjective Listening award still goes to SACD.

For old-fashioned stereo, both SACD and DVD-A provide first-rate playback. But if you’re a producer and want to put off the decision until later, then pick one of the new “universal” players that can handle whatever disc you throw at ’em. For the past few years, you could choose either Apex’s SACD/DVD-A combination player, a product so bad that it wasn’t worth the plastic it was made from, or really great but way too expensive examples from Pioneer and Accuphase. Finally, vendors broke the price barrier with combination players, providing you with both SACD and DVD-Audio playback in affordable packages.

Continuing in its leadership role, Pioneer debuted the DV-47Ai, a $1,200 combination player with iLink out to its upcoming VSX-49TXi preamp/processor with iLink inputs. Okay, $1,200 isn’t affordable for many of us worker bees, so how about the $700 DV-45A with scaled-down video performance and no iLink? But wait, there’s more! Both Marantz and Onkyo have heard the siren song of interoperability (had to get the “i” word in at least once). Marantz has the DV8300 that, at $1,500, won’t be on my shopping list any time soon. Another audio-/videophile-grade product, the DV8300 includes multichannel DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, SACD playback, and MP3, CD, CD-R, CD-RW and Video CD. Not to be left out, Onkyo announced its DV-SP800 reference universal DVD/SACD player at a suggested retail of $1,000, and its high-end Integra division introduced the $1,200 DPS-8.3. Sweetness.

And now for something completely different, I give you the Vestax VRX-2000. Actually, I’m not sure this product even exists; it might be an urban legend in the making. I assume it can be purchased for whatever undisclosed sum but cannot confirm that, because its marketing contact, along with Elvis, appears to have left the building. The VRX-2000 is a mastering lathe for the desktop crowd. Lacking only a vacuum system and active cooling, it claims to be able to cut a 14-minute song on special vinyl blanks. The perfect gift for the DJ who has everything.

On to computer toys. Let’s start with the simplest of controllers, Griffin’s little dude, the PowerMate. Small, metallic and always affordable, the PowerMate is the adult’s minimum daily requirement now set by the U.S. government for USB controllers. Joining the PowerMate and me in the “Tiny Is Good” category is JLCooper’s new CD-sized MiniDesk. After leaving one of its full-sized controllers in the dryer too long, the company found that it shrank to a convenient size for traveling engineers. The result was the CS-32, a miniature USB/MIDI control, surface for the most commonly used functions in audio software. It sports 32 dedicated channel strips with 20mm faders, six rotary encoders and transport controls with a nice jog wheel. Another compact item of great utility is IOGEAR’s MiniView III USB two-port KVM switch. With onscreen display and built-in cross-platform emulation, it makes CPU sharing with a single keyboard, monitor and mouse easier than most KVM alternatives.

What else? Apple’s iPod — sheesh, what’s not to like? The price point seems high, but check out the competition, and you’ll see why it’s a peerless product. The 20-gig version holds enough high-quality audio to make anyone happy, while simultaneously acting as a boot volume and PIM, not to mention as a backup for those session files and all of the other crap one tends to accumulate while out and about. The ability to carry PCM files of mixes in progress is great for a reality check. Now, if someone would make an Optimod emulation plug-in for iTunes and the iPod, life would be complete.

Since big iPods arrived, only my Handspring is singing the blues. Just when you thought your goofy PIM would forever gather dust, Philips has given it a new lease on life. That company’s ProntoLite for Palm is a simplified version of Pronto software that turns a color Palm OS PDA into a really decent-learning universal A/V remote. With ProntoLite, you can teach your PDA to send infrared signals to control up to 10 A/V devices. Not bad for $19.95. Download it for free at

I know my studio/office could use a little snazzing up, and I’m sure a nice Xserve would make my day. Trouble is, it’s noisier than all get out. So, both AcoustiLock and XtremeMac have come to the rescue with iso booths for your rackmount gear. AcoustiLock’s Silent Server is a stealth black box either 4U or 7U high and features a home-grown, heat- pipe-cooling technology. It has a huge flat top, perfect as a coffee table for your clients or as a landing pad for the RC helicopter under the tree. The XtremeMac crew has chosen to go with a more metallic look with the Xrack iso product, keeping with the Xserve’s brushed-metal face. With a slew of options and plenty of space, both products work equally well to house your host computer or fan-ladened outboard gear.

This year saw the passing of audio pioneer Henry Kloss, though his legacy lives on in may ways, including in Tivoli Audio’s Henry Kloss Model Two AM/FM radio. Forget the cheesy computer speakers from Fry’s and lose the overpriced deck from Bose: This puppy will more than do justice to that less-than-awe-inspiring sound card you have — all with the look of real wood.

Though you claim you’ve been good this year, only Santa knows for sure. So, you may find yourself as the proud new owner of a nice lump of bituminous fossil fuel, in which case, whip out the credit card, log in or head on over to your favorite CE retailer and do your part to help the U.S. spend its way out of this slump!

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