2004 Electronics Holiday Recommendations- Electronics Guru Tested and Approved!

It’s a great time to buy electronics and home entertainment gifts- quality has never been better and prices keep coming down. Newer doesn’t always mean better, however. Rather than hype the latest products, this feature aims to simply recommend what’s best. Some products mentioned here are new, some are old standbys that still provide the very best in performance for the price.

Digital cameras are projected to be the one of the most popular gifts this year. Buyers on a budget should go straight to Canon’s excellent 3-megapixel A75 and 4-megapixel A85, $199 and $279 respectively.

Those looking for a fast-shooting pocketable camera will find what they need in Sony’s 5-megapixel DSC-W1, only $349 complete with rechargeable batteries.

Serious photo buffs will love the $599 Panasonic Lumix DSC-FZ20 for its 5-megapixel resolution and excellent 12x Leica zoom lens with optical image stabilization. It’s one of the hottest digital cameras on the market.

Have even more to spend on that serious photo buff? Check out the 8-megapixel Olympus C-8080, selling for $899, Canon’s 8-megapixel Pro-1, $799, and the Canon 6.3 megapixel Digital Rebel kit for $999. The C-8080 and Pro 1 have higher resolution and more versatile zoom lenses; the Digital Rebel offers interchangeable lenses, a better viewfinder, and much faster operation. All three deliver professional-quality images.

Know someone who is in love with their iPod and never puts it down? They’ll love their iPod (and you) even more if you give them a set or Etymotic’s 6i Isolator earphones, $149. Almost $150 may seem like a lot for bud-sized earphones, but they are as important to a portable music device as speakers are to a sound system. Etymotic’s earphones will transform the sound of any portable music player into a high-end sound experience.   The 6i Isolators can be seen purchased at www.etymotic.com.

For those who want to fill a room with sound and share the fun, as well as have the nicest clock radio imaginable, visit cambridgesoundworks.com and check out the SoundWorks Radio CD 740. Selling for only $299, it sounds far better than the ubiquitous B-brand radio that sells for $200 more. The CD 740 has an integrated powered subwoofer for superior bass reproduction, a RDS information display, and a CD player that plays regular CDs as well as MP3 CDs. It’s available without the CD player as the Radio 730, selling for $199. If you want the CD player in your radio but don’t have the $299, Cambridge also offers the Model 88CD table radio, designed by legendary audio engineer Henry Kloss. The 88CD sells for $199.

Looking for a DVD player? Your task is easy- it’s pretty hard to go wrong as almost all modern DVD players have outstanding video and audio performance. Many consumers will get the most satisfaction from buying a player made by the same manufacturer as their TV or sound system. That way the TV or receiver remote will work the DVD player without any inconvenient remote programming.

If you don’t have a sound system, buy the DVD player that matches your TV brand; if you have a sound system, get a DVD player from the same manufacturer as your receiver. Once the disc is playing, you won’t change channels, but you might want to change volume or surround settings with the receiver remote.

If you are after features and performance rather than ultimate convenience, there are a few outstanding values in the DVD player market. Pioneer’s DV578AS offers good video quality as well as the ability to play the new Super Audio CDs (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A) discs, as well as almost every other digital format available. It sells for only $129 and is the best value in a universal (CD, DVD, SACD, DVD-A) player.

Panasonic’s DMR-E55 DVD recorder will record DVDs as well as play them. It was not long ago that a DVD recorder sold for $1,500. At only $299 for this top-quality recorder, DVD recording is now within the reach of everyone. Panasonic has always delivered the goods in terms of DVD playback quality, as well; you won’t go wrong with this unit.

For those who want the best without breaking the bank, consider Onkyo’s $500 DV-CP802 universal player. It’s a beautifully styled and manufactured 6-disc carousel changer with all the excellent audio and video performance Onkyo is known for.

One of my top recommendations for last year is an even better buy this year. The Soundmatters MAINstage is a great way to add home theater sound to your television. It’s a single-piece component about the size and shape of a clock radio, but it produces room-filling surround effects. Place it on your TV, hook up your TV, VCR and DVD player with the included connection cables, and you are ready to go. I much prefer the sound of the MAINstage to inexpensive home theater in-a-box systems, and it is much easier to set up and use. There are no wires to run and operating it is a model of simplicity. I found the MAINstage to be a great buy at $329; at the current price of $199 after a $30 rebate, it’s a proverbial no-brainer. The difference between the MAINstage and even the best television speakers is very dramatic- if you have an HDTV but no sound system, get one of these right away! The MAINstage are also perfect for dorm rooms. For more information, visit www.soundmatters.com.

Those interested in something to improve their component systems will love Axiom Audio’s M2i bookshelf speakers. Sold direct from their manufacturer in Canada, the $280M2i has a beautiful, detailed sound that belies its low price. Many readers have purchased them at my recommendation and have been universally thrilled- “incredible”, “fantastic”, and “awesome” are some of the commonly used adjectives they use to report their satisfaction.

Axiom also makes by far the best budget surround-sound speaker ensemble I have heard, the $1,264 Epic Midi. Combined with a $300 Onkyo surround-sound receiver, the Epic Midi will provide a realistic home theater experience that must be heard to be appreciated. All prices include shipping and taxes. Reviews and more information are available at www.axiomaudio.com.

Audiophiles and radio lovers will be sure to appreciate Polk Audio’s new XRt12 XM Reference tuner. It’s the first audiophile-quality satellite radio tuner to be offered for use in component systems. The XRt12 is beautifully styled and finished and would be welcomed in anyone’s sound system. It’s available for $299 from www.polkaudio.com. XM radio subscription is additional.

Polk is currently offering a free powered subwoofer with Polk speaker purchases totaling over $499. This makes building a home theater with quality speakers more affordable than ever.

Rounding out my audio recommendations is a product I have owned and enjoyed for many years. For those interested in a unique and special sound experience, check out the Walsh series speakers from Ohm Acoustics, www.ohmspeaker.com. Ohm is a small manufacturer that has been producing audiophile speakers for over 30 years, some of their products achieving legendary status. They use a unique driver invented by Lincoln Walsh, a lead engineer in the project that developed radar for the United States. They produce a reach-out-and-touch-it realism that can be experienced throughout the entire listening room. Service is extremely personal- all speakers are handmade to order and can be configured with your room and listening preferences in mind. Ohm Walsh speakers range from $750 to $5,500 per pair and include a 120 day home trial period.

For the ultimate gift, what could be better than a new HDTV? Sure, lots of them are very expensive- but there are a few top-notch performers available for under $2,000.

Samsung’s 26-inch and 30-inch direct view (tube-type) widescreen TVs include HDTV tuners, allowing owners to enjoy HDTV for free with a simple antenna. They sell for $699 (26-inch) and $999 (30-inch).

If you want something bigger, a traditional CRT projection television offers the best value. They do not have the wide viewing angle or small size of the latest DLP and LCD sets, but they cost half as much and still have the most natural-looking picture compared to the newer technologies. For only $1,899 (and frequently less), the Mitsubishi WS-55315 HDTV-ready television has a sharp, colorful picture that looks especially good with HDTV sources and progressive scan DVD players.

Last but not least, for the ultimate in HDTV quality, programming and convenience, the Dish Network 921 HDTV satellite receiver/digital video recorder is unbeatable. The 921 is loaded with great features, HDTV video quality is outstanding and operation is flawless. The Dish 921 features two tuners so you can record one channel while watching another, or record two channels simultaneously. It can also tune over-the-air local HDTV stations with an antenna such as ordinary rabbit ears. I have one and could not imagine going back to anything else- and putting it in my own home theater is the best endorsement I can give any product. It may seem expensive at $999, but once you have experienced the 921, you will think it is a bargain!

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