Alan Lofft's Holiday Gift Guide

Shopping for gifts for the Holiday season is never easy, and it's sometimes made doubly hard for persons whose enthusiasms are concentrated in an area that remains mysterious to spouses and companions.

To make things easier for someone trying to imagine what would please the audio/video aficionado in the family, here's a well-considered Holiday Gift Guide that should make any particular home theater admirer or audiophile happy. In roughly ascending order of cost, they range from stocking-stuffer status to the unlimited budget category.

Home Theater Audio-Video Calibration DVDs

•  Avia Home Theater Audio-Video Calibration DVD. A fine home theater surround system and video display needs to be fine-tuned to extract the best possible performance. The “Avia Guide to Home Theater” from Ovation Software has all the elaborate audio and video test signals to do the job right. About $40. For absolute newbies, consider the easy-to-use “Sound&Vision Home Theater Tune-Up” DVD ($18), which also uses some of the Ovation Software test signals.

•  Radio Shack Sound Level (SPL) Meter. Available in analog ($40) or digital display ($50) versions, the Radio Shack Sound Level Meter is a genuinely useful device that measures the relative loudness of each speaker in a home theater system far more accurately than your ears can, enabling precise level set-up and a top-notch surround-sound experience. Check on-line to see which Radio Shack stores in your area carry them.

Logitech Harmony 520

•  Universal Remote Control. As audio-video gear proliferates, so does the population of remote controls on the coffee table. Lessen clutter with a good Universal remote control, which will consolidate all of your equipment functions into a single remote. You can pay as little as $75 or less for a decent RCA LCD touch-screen type, with backlighting, or go more upscale with the Logitech Harmony 520 ($99), which downloads the infrared codes for your components from its web site. Even more advanced is the Logitech Harmony 676, which gets high praise from PC World. I liked an earlier version of this remote, and the 676 appears to be improved. $199 or less.

•  Wideband Component Video Cables. A set of high-quality wideband HDTV-compatible component-video cables is always handy to hook up that new HDTV display or DVD player. Expect to pay $50 and up for high quality interconnects with gold-plated RCA connectors in lengths of 3 feet or more.

Shure E4C

High-Quality In-ear Headphones. The three mentioned here offer vastly better sound than the mediocre earbuds supplied with iPods and other portable music players. But get several sizes of flange and foam ear tips to try out because peoples' ear canals are different sizes. The fit to the ear canal is crucial to getting solid deep bass. At stocking stuffer level, Koss's The Plug (about $15) delivers remarkably full-bodied sound with good bass and clear highs. For the critical audiophile, depending on the fit, I'd rank the Etymotic Research ER6i ($139 or less) along with the Shure. The ER6i has crystalline sound and once the fit to the ear canal is tight, offers superb rejection of outside sounds, even noisy subway trains or jet plane interiors.

The Shure E4c ($299) offers good isolation and very fine sound quality with more deep bass than the ER6i. I found the Shure E4c fit my ear canal a little better than the Etymotic but this varies with each individual.

•  Speaker Stand Weights. In households with active kids and pets, a box of weights (usually in the form of steel balls) will add stability to any hollow metal speaker stand. About $75.

Axiom Audio Gift Certificates

•  Gift Certificates (for a pair of quality bookshelf speakers). A nice pair of excellent bookshelf speakers can bring harmony to a bedroom, den or other area in your house, and most A/V receivers will drive one extra set of speakers in a different room with no hassle. Look at highly reviewed brands like Axiom's M3ti or M22ti, Paradigm's Reference Studio 20, or PSB's Alpha series. Priced from $300 to $800 a pair.

•  Home Theater Projection Screen. If the videophile in your life is still using the wall as a screen for his video projector, a real projection screen will significantly increase contrast, color brilliance, and overall clarity. Choose from low-priced do-it-yourself (but outstanding value) screens from Goo Systems, medium-priced screens from Da-lite, or top of the line automatic electric models from Stewart. From $100 to over $1,000.

•  Upconverting or Universal DVD Player. Specialized DVD players that “upconvert” DVD images to images that come close to true HD picture quality are the obvious upgrade from an aging first-generation DVD player. For enthusiasts who want a taste of high-resolution DVD-Audio and SACD, the Pioneer 588 delivers good DVD video quality and plays both DVD-A and SACD hi-resolution audio discs. And it's a bargain—less than $150. More refined video images are possible with the Panasonic S77 ($250) or the high-end Denon 2910 ($679).

Axiom Epic80/600 5.1 Home Theater System

• Axiom Epic80/600 5.1 Home Theater System. This top-flight home theater surround speaker system gets spectacular independent reviews and includes a digital subwoofer that is both scary with blockbuster DVD soundtracks yet delivers tight musical performance with all genres of music. You could pay three to four times as much for prestigious British or American brands and get sonic quality no better than this Canadian overachiever will provide. $3,111 including free FedEx delivery anywhere in North America.