What to buy your HiFi Starter for Christmas? After all, everything is sooo expensive in audiophile land isn’t it? Fear not, we’ve done some thinking for you and come up with a few options in three price brackets. Some mainstream, a few slightly leftfield. And most are available online – just remember to allow enough time for delivery (from experience the Jazz Kissa magazines won’t arrive before Christmas).
Stocking fillers – up to £20
1. It’s all about the music isn’t it, so how about a good book to widen your horizons. Two spring to mind; 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, and 1000 Record Covers. One is better for vinyl lovers, the other relevant to everyone. And if you’re a little strapped for cash – who isn’t these days – do like me and go for an earlier edition of 1001 Albums (mine’s from 2013, eBay was my friend).
2. Vinyl accessories. Keep those expensive records clean with a simple brush such as Pro-ject’s £10 BrushIT. Even better, zap the static from your LPs afterwards. Milty’s Zerostat 3 does the trick but at £60 isn’t cheap. Following a tip on a forum I use an £8 plasma lighter that emits plenty of ions and seems to work well (no I haven’t blind tested it!) Good for lighting the Christmas candles too.
3. If you’re more of a digital person, and use a dongle-DAC with your Android phone, then the sub-£10 USB Audio Player Pro app (UAPP) is an absolute must-have (find it on Google Play Store). In simple terms UAPP bypasses much of the Android software that limits sound quality. The difference it makes is far from subtle. A shame Apple won’t allow the required level of access to iOS.
4. Digital again. Why not give 3 months of Tidal or Qobuz? Particularly relevant to existing Spotify users who are still waiting for the CD-quality music they were promised over a year ago. They’ll hear the difference. £20 assumes a month’s free trial plus 2 months of paid service (yes that busts the £20 limit slightly.)
5. Prefer the real thing? Get a ticket to a gig and experience music the way that no HiFi system can match. No you won’t get Queen, Abba or the Berlin Phil for 20 quid. Search around your local venues and you might be surprised though. My last concert was John Smith & Katherine Priddy – £18 and truly lovely. Before that Clive Gregson for a ridiculously low £8 a ticket. At Ashburton Arts I’d get the pick of 10 gigs a month, each for £18 or less – you pay what you can afford. And the beauty is you’re supporting the musicians far more than streaming their music.
Between £20 and £50
6. Who’s for some Jazz Kissa then – Japanese cafes & bars with kick-ass HiFi systems, usually featuring huge (horn) speakers? Rafe Arnott’s article first turned me onto them. Which in turn had me scrambling to order Vol 1 of the 2014 magazine, now available in English. The postage was expensive and it took an age to come. Boy did I pore over it endlessly though, evocative photography doesn’t begin to describe it. All of which came back as I got the magazine out again for this article. Darn me if I didn’t order the next two!
7. Awesome kit for under £50? Absolutely, say hello to the Koss Porta Pro headphones. A full review is in the pipeline, suffice to say these are a steal for the £35 or so they’ll cost you. Yes they’ve been around forever. Yes they leak sound like billyo. Yes their looks are decidedly quirky. You’ll be sold within 5 minutes of putting them on your head though. And what audiophile doesn’t want another set of ‘phones to add to the collection?!
8. Vinyl again. How about a record weight for your turntable to dampen any unwanted vibrations and tighten up the sound a bit (or more, they can have quite an effect)? There are endless options at differing price levels and differing weights. Don’t go overboard on the latter, your turntable bearing won’t thank you. And make sure your lid can still close with the weight in place. Suggestions? Well this one from WAudio has served me well on an oldie but goldie Garrard 401. It looks fab too.
9. Back to the written word now, with David Hepworth’s book on the iconic Abbey Road studios. Hepworth is well known in the UK at least; as a scribe he’s started more music magazines than I’ve had hot dinners. He’s active in TV, radio and podcasting as well. Who better to take us through the 90 year history of this North West london icon. Oh and if you shop around you might get it for under £20.
Between £50 and £100
10. At this price level a few pieces of equipment come into consideration. The first being a Bluetooth speaker – IKEA’s Vappeby – for a mere £60. That surprised me too. Yes it’s a lamp as well (quite a good one actually). And yes it looks like a mushroom/ Darth Vader’s helmet (particularly without the handle attached, as in the photo). Quirky. What really stands out is the sound quality though, easily up there with sub £200 alternatives (of which I’ve reviewed a good few for the Radio Listeners Guide).
11. Alternatively who not grab yourself a USB DAC to turn your laptop into a high-quality source for your HiFi system. The sky’s the limit on cost but there are a few sub-£100 options that will blow the standard output on your computer to smithereens. I’ll highlight two. Firstly the daddy of dongle-DACs, AudioQuest’s Dragonfly Black at £79 (review here). It can double as a DAC / headphone amp for your phone when you’re on the go. For desktop-only mode try the positively dinky iFi Uno that I’m hoping to review soon. Also £79, shipping early December.
12. At £99 iFi’s ZEN Air DAC just creeps under the £100 barrier and has a few more features than the Uno. One of which is often overlooked; it can take power from an external power supply. Cue the next suggestion for Santa’s list, an iFi iPower2 power supply at £69. Or push the boat out further with the £99 iPower X. Their use isn’t limited to iFi equipment, use the 5V model for any USB device that takes external power. There are also 9, 12 or 15V options. The main benefit is lower electrical noise, which usually translates into a freer flowing sound with greater refinement. Subtle but worthwhile differences.
13. A good 5V power supply also benefits the Raspberry Pi, which is the next suggestion for the more tech-savvy amongst us. It makes a brilliant streamer, capable of holding its own in a £2,000 system (particularly with that external supply). On the downside it’s no looker, even with a decent case. There’s also a strong DIY element – you need to be comfortable loading software and configuring things (less difficult than it sounds). Still with me? Get your skates on and order one asap – the global chip shortage has made the RPi difficult to find. A situation that seems to be relaxing a little, hence its inclusion here. Make sure you don’t overpay though.
14. Finally, if you use small speakers on a shelf, sideboard or cupboard consider putting IsoAcoustics Pucks underneath them (there are three models that differ by the weight they support). I’m a huge fan of the Isoacoustics products – the Gaias in the second photograph sit underneath my main speakers. The fact that Isoacoustics products are used by many professional studios says a lot (engineers frown on audiophile ‘tweaks’.) And the Pucks will make a difference to even the lowliest of speakers. The only issue is their looks, which don’t always work in domestic situations. The Pucks minimise that problem.
The final word
As the photos show, many of the gift suggestions stem from personal use, so come recommended. Those that don’t may well find themselves on my own list for Santa this year (I rather fancy the Abbey Road book as well as the Jazz Kissa mags). If you have any other suggestions let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org), they can always be added to the article. But for now that is a (Christmas) wrap! Have a great break.