Sound Matters: A Gift Guide for Music Lovers, Audiophiles and Vinyl Junkies

Here's a collection of enticing items for the serious music aficionado in your life — or for adding to your own personal wish list.

Get in the Groove

So maybe you came of age after 1982 – the year in which the world met digital music via the compact disc. Your portable device is likely spilling over with mp3's, but now you're ready to dip a toe into the ultra-cool world of vinyl. A wide – and many would argue sonically superior – world awaits you. Where to begin? For the vinyl neophyte on a modest budget, you might start with a Crosley record player. They come in the irresistibly vintage look of the portable all-in-one players of the 1950s and 60s, and they play 33 1/3, 45 and 78 rpm records. Modern features include RCA audio outs for connecting to stereo systems, USB and (if you must) Bluetooth wireless. Available in a range of retro styles, including the Executive, the Memory Master, and the Dansette Bermuda$109.95 - $399.95; Crosley

Cocktails + LP's

These record-label drink coasters, created by Pennsylvania artist Jeff Davis, are made from the centers of actual vinyl albums. They have a protective seal to protect the original record labels. They come in sets of six and each set contains a unique assortment of labels. $18; UncommonGoods

Rock's Bold Visions

The Art of Rock by Paul Grushkin, an exhaustive, encyclopedic history of concert posters and other related art, is a visual feast — vibrant, color-drenched and covering the musical eras "from Presley to punk." It includes more than 1500 illustrations and features commentary from artists, musicians and other rock notables. It encompasses graphics associated with many of rock's icons as well as original art in a variety of distinct styles from early-rock letterpress bills to San Francisco's psychedelic scene to the minimalist aesthetic of New York punk and new wave. Featured artists include Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelly and Rick Griffin. $41.53; Barnes & Noble

When Collecting Becomes Religion (or Addiction)

Eilon Paz's coffee-table sized book Dust and Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, is an exhaustive study, and a celebration, of the world of vinyl obsession. Lavishly illustrated with photo essays set in the 'record rooms' of some 130 hyper-avid collectors, it's a fascinating and insightful journey into the mind and motivations some of music's most ardent enthusiasts. Available in various editions ranging from $49 to $120; Dust & Grooves

Analog Audio for the Masses

Those who aspire to (or long to return to) the satisfying experience of dropping a needle onto a record, and taking in that rich, warm sound of analog audio, might feel a bit lost when shopping for a new turntable. Pro-Ject Audio Systems offers a solution in the form of its 'Essential' and 'Debut' lines, putting quality analog hi-fi within reach. These solid, entry-level components have gained a strong reputation among audiophiles and favorable reviews as a worthy entry point into high-end audio. Prices start at $299;  available from Audio Advisor and other outlets

The Beatles for Purists

When John, Paul, George and Ringo recorded the bulk of their catalog, digital recording hadn't been dreamed of and "stereo sound" was still regarded as something of a novelty. Their albums, up until 1968, were recorded and mixed in mono. That format was the standard at the time, and all of the technical energies poured into production were within that sonic context. Ergo, the original mono master tapes are arguably the definitive document representing the lion's share of the Beatles' studio output. But for years, you'd be hard pressed to hear those recordings. They were supplanted by multiple generations of re-releases, remasters, remixes and digital transfers. Now that has changed. The Beatles in Mono is a 14-LP boxed set that lets you hear The Beatles' albums exactly as they were first heard. The set contains all the albums from Please Please Me through The White Album — cut from the original 1/4-inch master tapes and pressed onto high-quality vinyl. Also included are the 3-LP compilation of extras, Mono Masters, and  a 12"x12" hardbound book with rare photos and archival documents. Absoutely no digital mastering is in evidence anywhere in the lineage of these new and historically accurate pressings. Production work was done at Abbey Road Studios where most of the Beatles' albums were initially recorded. $329.99; MusicDirect (a CD version is also available for $199)

The Return of the Thin White Duke

An iconic musical figure whose catalog has, in recent years, been largely unavailable on vinyl is David Bowie, one of rock's truly great innovators. That notable vacuum is in the process of being filled thanks to a series of high-profile reissues. Who Can I Be Now? is the second in a series of career-spanning boxed-set collections (the first set was Five Years: 1969-1973) providing the artist's album catalog, meticulously curated and remastered on high-quality 180-gram vinyl. This 13-LP set represents Bowie's output from 1974 through 1976 and includes classic studio albums Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station to Station, as well as the David Live double LP, a previously unreleased live recording from 1976 titled The Gouster, a collection of obscure singles and b-sides and an accompanying hardcover book. Several of the LPs are represented in their original mix as well as a subsequent remix version. Mastering for this new set was overseen by long-time Bowie collaborator and producer Tony Visconti. $249.99; MusicDirect (a CD version is also available for $149.99)

Bowie in Berlin and Beyond

David Bowie: A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982) is the third in a series of boxed-set LP collections that, taken together, presents the artist’s album catalog in chronological sequence. As with the two such multi-disc releases preceding it, this meticulously curated collection provides faithful re-releases of Bowie’s albums from a particular stylistically defined period in his career. At the collection’s core is the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” – a trio of albums made when Bowie had relocated to Berlin and was (not for the first nor the last time) reinventing his musical style and persona. Those albums — Low, Heroes and Lodger — found Bowie entering a more experimental phase, frequently outside the bounds of rock, and collaborating with studio wizard and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno. The collection also includes Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), an album that helped position Bowie at the forefront of the nascent music-video revolution. Also included is a newly expanded live-album, an exclusive 2-LP set of rarities and an 84-page hardback book.  Rounding out the set is the 12” EP of “Heroes”, Bowie’s epic composition that, as one reviewer observed, Bryan Ferry would have hocked his best bottle of cologne to have penned. This is one of Bowie’s most creatively innovative periods, and these sonically superior versions of the original material are as real as it gets. $249.99; Music Direct.  A CD version is also available for $149.99

For related reading, check out Jerome Thomas Seabrook’s book, Bowie in Berlin, available from Amazon.

A Novel of Life, Love and Musical Obsession

Nick Hornsby's first novel High Fidelity follows Rob Fleming — the owner of a London record store that caters to a particularly devoted niche clientele — as he tries to recover from a romantic breakup and is drawn into an existential examination of past relationships. Among other things. It's a smart, humorous, incisive story — seen through a lens looking out onto a world filled with esoteric musical knowledge, obscure pop culture references and sharp repartee. You've likely seen the movie version with John Cusack, with the story transplanted to Chicago. The book is worth looking into as well, and is likely to ring true to music devotees, especially those with a strong connection to that time when "indie" and "underground" music was defining itself. $10 (paperback); Barnes & Noble

Zenith of Cool

Big Star may just be the coolest band you've never heard of. This enigmatic group's curious story is now encapsulated in a documentary film titled Nothing Can Hurt Me, available on DVD. Hailing from Memphis in the 1970s, and fronted by the devilishly charismatic Alex Chilton (who had already scored a hit single – "The Letter" – with the Box Tops), Big Star played a straightforward, hook-laden and (for the time) edgy brand of power-pop that made them critics' darlings and saw them lauded in some circles as the next big thing. They released exactly three albums while concurrently drifting through a series of odd and unfortunate circumstances – including lack of competent management or distribution and undeservedly poor record sales. The band essentially ceased to exist around 1974 following the death of founding member Chris Bell, considered by some to be one of rock's great lost geniuses. Their long-term impact, however, overshadows their failed commercial success. With a sound that many feel presaged what would later become known as indie or alternative rock, they have been cited as influences by members of R.E.M. and The Replacements among others. And though, while they existed as a band, they hovered below the radar of fame, Big Star's cultish popularity has survived through decades with subsequent crops of tuned-in fans discovering them again and again. $14 (DVD); Amazon

If you want a deeper dive, check out the retrospective box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky or Rob Jovanic's book, Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band.

The Boys With the Thorns in Their Sides

For a lot of people, The Smiths were flat-out the most important rock band ever. Though their trajectory as a band endured only five years and four studio albums, their rich and crafted music spoke to audiences and addressed subject matter in ways that had never been attempted in popular music. Where the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan defined one formative era of music, it could be argued that The Smiths — with their jangly, ringing guitars and whip-smart, poetic and feindishly off-center lyrics  — defined another. Part of a world of music aimed squarely at outsiders, The Smiths were far removed from the 80s-era material girls, princes of pop and flocks of seagulls — and instead occupied rarified air populated by the likes of Joy Division, New Order, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen on one side of the pond, and R.E.M. and (earlier) The Velvet Underground on the other. One UK critic called them “the one truly vital voice of the ‘80s”, and a 2002 poll in Britain’s New Music Express ranked them as “the most influential artist ever”, outranking even The Beatles. We’ll leave that debate on the table, but let’s just say they left a resounding impact, and any critically thinking person would be hard pressed to listen to their music without being effected on multiple levels. The 1986 album that many consider their creative pinnacle, The Queen Is Dead, has now been given the grand re-release treatment, expanding it from a single LP to five, adding to the remastered original album lots of alternative takes, b-sides, obscura and a live recording from a 1986 performance in Boston. There’s also a 2 CD version and a 3CD+DVD edition. Five-LP vinyl version: $90. Available from Amazon.

Digital Portable Player on Steroids

Sony has resurrected its once iconic Walkman in the form of the new Sony Walkman NW-ZX2 — a high resolution portable player that supports, not only the now ubiquitous MP3, but fuller sounding formats like WAV (the format used for CD's), FLAC, Apple Lossless and super high-resolution 24-bit files. It's by no means cheap, but for those truly serious about audio, it's worth a look. $1,199; Sony

Archival Pampering

The paper inner sleeves that came inside most albums for years come with some distinct disadvantages. Chiefly, they can cause 'paper scratches' to the vinyl LP surface, resulting surface noise during playback and damage to the record itself as well as the playback stylus. They can also create static charge as the vinyl disc is removed, resulting in dust particles being attracted to the grooved surface and inviting further damage. Ordinary paper also produces acidic residue as it deteriorates over time. None of that is ideal for long-term preservation. Audiophile recording company Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab offers a great solution at a modest price. Their Original Master Sleeves are the same protective, anti-static sleeves they use in packaging their high-end audiophile pressings. They are considered the standard among serious collectors for protection and archival storage of valuable vinyl. $20 (pack of 50); MusicDirect

His Aim Is True

Declan Patrick McManus, aka Elvis Costello, crashed headfirst onto the music scene in 1977, smack in the middle of the punk and new wave explosion, with his defining album, My Aim Is True. Since then he has proved to be one of popular music's most prolific songwriters and performers. Pegged early on (somewhat undeservedly) as an angry young man, Elvis has ultimately proved to be one of the rock's most charming, articulate and collaborative emissaries. The memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink was written entirely by Costello and offers a direct and clear look inside the life and mind of a genuinely fascinating artist. $20.40 (hardcover); Amazon

Traditional Essential

You may not have heard it, but you probably hear and feel its impact almost daily. The Anthology of American Folk Music was compiled by famed musicologist Harry Smith, drawn from 78 rpm discs from the 1920s and '30s, and first released on vinyl in 1952. Today it is considered one of the most influential releases in the history of recorded sound and has served as a wellspring of inspiration for the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Jerry Garcia. $78.98; Smithsonian Folkways

The Jazz Album, Expanded

The importance of John Coltrane's landmark album, A Love Supreme, can scarcely be overstated. The 50th anniversary of the milestone 1965 recording called for something special, and that came in the form of Verve Music Group's A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters (Super Deluxe Edition). Over three discs we hear the original album as performed by Coltrane's classic quartet (Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison) as well as previously unreleased recordings that offer insight into evolution of the suite and a live recording of the material made later in the year of the original release. $33.98 (CD); Amazon

Pictures On My Wall

It's not a new concept that album covers are themselves often works of art, and the 12"x12" format lends itself to visual display as wall art. A number of companies offer simple black frames that will allow you to create a visually arresting gallery wall using your favorite albums. Available from a number of sellers including IKEA and Michael's. Pro-Ject Audio offers the Play & Display system that allows albums to be easily removed from the frame for for playing. $149; Audio Advisor

Frankly Amy

Regardless of whether you're an avid Amy Winehouse fan or only casually acquainted with the troubled artist's music, career and controversies, this riveting biographical documentary, originally titled Amy: The Girl Behind the Name, likely contains things that will take you by surprise. From the unsettling details of her family life and public exploits to the endearing shyness and humility she displays when recording the duet "Body and Soul" with Tony Bennett, Asif Kapadia's searing film leaves you with the knowledge that there was a lot more to Amy than the tabloid persona. $12.89 (Blu-ray), $9.04 (DVD); Amazon

Bad Vibes

Audio geeks and tweakers know that vibration in the context of audio components is seldom a good thing. Unwanted vibration can degrade the performance of audio and video components in a variety of ways. There are quite a few gadgets and devices out there for dealing with this, in a surprising range of prices. One of the more affordable ones is the Vibrapod system. Praised and favorably reviewed, Vibrapod isolation feet and cones can be placed under speakers, turntables, CD players and other components to minimize vibration and improve sound definition, bass response, sonic imaging and soundstage. $24 (set of four); Audio Advisor

Turn It Up to One-Hundred-and-Eleven

Many audiophiles feel that the most critical element in the chain of equipment comprising an audio system is the speakers. So when it comes to components, deciding on speakers is probably the most important decision you'll make. So if money is no object, consider a set of Whisper XDS from Legacy. Each speaker stands 63 inches high and contains 11 drivers including four 15" carbon-composite subwoofers, four 7" silver-graphite midwoofers and dual air-motion tweeters. They can withstand amplification of up to 600 watts, but each contains an on-board 500-watt amplifier. Each one weighs 332 pounds. The Whispers are available in a variety of wood finishes that include rosewood, cabernet sapele pommele, birdseye maple and olive ash burl. The price depends on what finish you choose but take comfort in the fact that the Whisper has been favorably compared to speakers costing $75,000 to $100,000! $25,000; Legacy

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