Photos by Jayme Thornton
Streaming All the Way
If you're looking to surprise that special someone with a complete stereo system that has a high-tech bent, consider the Philips Streamium MC-i200 micro system ($399). Besides a nicely finished control center that contains a CD player (which also plays MP3 files), an AM/FM tuner, and a wicked red display, you get a pair of smooth-sounding speakers and a palm-size remote. But what really separates this system from the micro and mini competition is its ability to tune into Internet radio stations. Connect its Ethernet port to a gateway router, which in turn connects to a broadband (cable/DSL) modem, and you're ready to explore the wonderful world of Webcasting. To help you sort through the maze of stations, they can be categorized by genre, country, language, and so on. You can also download PC-Link software from the My.Philips.com Web site, which lets you stream MP3 files from your PC to the MC-i200. Now that's cool.
Reindeer at 30,000 Feet
You wanted to get your friend a DVD player but found out she already has one . . . hmm. You say she travels a lot? That's a no-brainer, dude. She needs a portable DVD player! The Audiovox DV-1680 ($450) is half the price of upscale players, but it still delivers solid performance. The 6 3/4-inch LCD screen has a bright picture and vivid colors, and the built-in speakers do a decent job with stereo soundtracks (there's also an output for the supplied earbuds). The lithium-ion battery will give you juice for about 3 hours, and you can hook up the player to a home system or another device. And here's a nice touch: when you're using the player just for music listening, you can turn off the LCD to conserve battery power. There's also a car power cable in case your friend does more driving than flying.
Santa Gets Progressive
If you've got a kid brother who's been gazing with envy at your home theater gear, you might want to hook him up with the JVC RX-DV3SL DVD player/receiver ($450). JVC has elegantly combined a DVD player, Dolby Digital surround sound processor, AM/FM tuner, and five-channel power amp in a surprisingly trim component. It also has connections for a satellite receiver, a VCR, a TV, and more-you can even assign source names for both the analog and digital audio inputs. And besides DVD, you can play CDs with MP3 files or JPEG images. Standard setup options let you tailor the receiver's outputs to the size of your speakers, and you get a complete set of basic picture controls. Everything can be controlled by the supplied remote. Best of all, the combo delivers terrific performance. Video images are crisp whether you're using its composite-video, S-video, or component-video outputs, and progressive-scan images are as clean as a whistle. What more could you ask for?
Let's be honest: computer speakers can really suck. So if you've got a friend who relies on his PC for playing games, watching movies, or listening to music, check out the Monsoon PlanarMedia 9 speaker system ($100). The speakers' ribbon diaphragms are flat so the panels are less than an inch thick. And the subwoofer cabinet, which includes the system's power amplifier, has a punched-metal grille and a nicely styled port. Analog audio output from a PC sound card or videogame console goes to the sub, then to the main speakers. A wired connection from the sub to a small plastic pad puts volume and bass controls as well as a mute button at your fingertips. The knock on flat-panel speakers has been that they sound thin and lack bass. But the Monsoons provide robust sound that's a cut above many PC speakers, and the subwoofer pumps out plenty on the low end. Whether it's gaming, movie watching, or music listening, these speakers will keep you in the middle of the action.
Sony's MDR-DS8000 digital surround headphone system ($799) is the solution for anyone who wants to watch DVDs late at night at full volume without sacrificing the surround sound thrills. The processor has two sets of optical digital inputs for your DVD player, A/V receiver, or other digital component (there's also a stereo analog input). Select the input, the ambience effect (Cinema 1, Cinema 2, or Music), and the configuration (stereo or one of three virtual surround effects), and you're ready to listen through the infrared wireless headphones. It's not the same as hearing true surround playback through free-standing speakers, but the system does a convincing job of immersing you in the sound field.
Point and Shoot
There's probably more videotape rolling on Christmas morning than any other day of the year, so wipe off that lens! But not the lens of your dad's VHS camera. MiniDV camcorders are far less bulky than those VHS dinosaurs, and some models are surprisingly inexpensive. Case in point is the Panasonic PV-DV52 ($500). One of the cheapest DV cams around, it fits comfortably in your palm and weighs only about 1 1/4 pounds (without battery). It features a 2 1/2-inch color LCD screen that you can rotate 180°, 10x optical and 700x digital zoom, a built-in spotlight, digital effects, and RS-232 and FireWire computer ports. It can also operate as a digital still camera. (The stills don't have the million-pixel-plus resolution of dedicated digital cameras, but they're still decent.) This cam is easy to use, lightweight enough to stick in a pack and hike all day, and ready to shoot anything from sunrise to sunset with excellent clarity. Put an "Open Me First!" sticker on this little beauty so you can videotape the rest of the holiday fun. Just don't forget to buy some blank tapes.
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