If you don’t let your loved ones know exactly what you want for Christmas, there’s a good chance you’ll be spending December 26 trying to find out whether Urban Outfitters will give you a $215 cash refund for that nice Penfield Eska shirt jacket. Or if Barnes & Noble will give you a $54 refund for the boxed set of The Hunger Games that your girlfriend thought was so cool.
Stop such problems before they start by casually leaving a printout of this story on the breakfast table. Or accidentally on purpose send this URL to your whole family. “Oh, did I send that to you? Sorry, it was supposed to go to a buddy. Yeah, he asked me for a list of all the things I really wish I had.”
You get the picture. In any case, everything on this list is guaranteed to bring you joy throughout 2014 and beyond.
Sony PlayStation 4 ($399 USD): How good is the PS4? We don’t know yet, and that’s exactly what I love about the PlayStation program. Some PS3 owners complained about the constant updates. I love them. They put so much power into each new generation of PlayStations that any new software download can create a whole new world of innovative gaming. In fact, I’m not even sure the folks at Sony know all the ways a PlayStation can be used. What I am sure of is that their DualShock 4 controller is a welcome update that’s superior to the Xbox One’s controller. There’s no doubt that the PS4 is aimed more at gamers than at videophiles, but it’s also targeted at maximum streaming power. If Sony can keep their video and audio options at the state of the art, this may be a killer central media hub.
Microsoft Xbox One ($499): There’s one serious problem with the Xbox One: Microsoft. These are the folks who decided that we should rent Microsoft Office so that they can keep their revenue stream flowing. Now they want to force us to use the Xbox One as the hub of all visual and audible entertainment. They’re talking about integrating your Xbox with your Windows 8 everything. Will I have to make Skype calls on my Xbox? Actually, maybe all that isn’t so bad, but here’s the deal: If it’s good and I desire the change, that’s fine. But if I just want an easy way to play a Blu-ray or a game, I don’t want them forcibly inserting the Xbox into my system. Other than that, as of this writing, I haven’t had my hands on an Xbox One. As new games come on board, we’ll get an idea about which is the better gamer. I’d love to have either one. Or both!
Iogear Wireless 5x2 HD Matrix ($399): Hate long wires? Me too. It’s been a long time coming and has taken ridiculous amounts of technology and money, but finally we’re starting to see high-quality HD wireless transmission of everything usually carried by an HDMI cable. Glory hallelujah! Iogear bumps up the 5x2 HD Matrix’s usefulness by making it a full-matrix machine. Plug in as many as four HDMI and one component device, and you can then choose whether to send any of those inputs to either a wired HDMI output or a wireless receiver. I tried it a few ways, but what worked best was to send the wired output to my receiver and the wireless output to a projector or main monitor. Of course, more and more inputs are being added to modern receivers and A/V processors, and the multizone versions already create their own matrix. So, in effect, you end up paying $399 to replace a cable. The big smile on my wife’s face is worth that much.
JRiver Media Center 19 ($50) Audiolense 2.0 ($225): Does the name Bob Katz ring a bell? Audiophiles know him as the engineer behind several of Chesky’s greatest albums. For a good example of his skills, pull out a copy of Rebecca Pidgeon’s The Raven and listen to “Spanish Harlem.” Recently, trying to find something Katz had written years ago about ATC speakers, I ran across this statement: “Let me start by saying that the correction that I have gotten is the best sounding room correction I’ve EVER heard, analog OR digital, in my 43 years of professional listening! Which means it is now one of the best-sounding stereo systems I’ve ever heard!” Could it be hyperbole? I had to find out. I’ve downloaded the exact system he is using, a combination of JRiver’s Media Center 19 and Audiolense 2.0. The folks at JRiver have created an effortless way to drop in several different digital room-correction systems. Already on record as a huge fan of Dirac, in the near future I’ll send out a full review of the JRiver/Audiolense system and how it matches up to the Dirac. One thing I already know is that both systems dramatically improve the sound of music.
Sounds and images to soothe the soul
There’s much great music, and so many stellar films -- but you’re probably already bombarded with Best-of-Year lists. (My favorite Best-of lists for music are by Mojo magazine and NPR; check them out.) Here my recommendations go way past Best of Year, to Best Ever. These records will sound fantastic on your stereo, and these movies will educate and entertain.
This year I focus on just one type of music, now called Americana. Back when these records were first released, they were more likely called cosmic cowboy. What they have in common are small numbers of musicians, good engineers, and everyone playing in the room together -- there’s lots of bleed across mikes. They were also recorded with something of a dry acoustic; the sound will really pop out of the speakers of a good stereo system. All of these recordings are from the early 1970s, before overproduction became the norm.
First is the late John Hartford’s masterpiece, Aereo-Plain (Rounder 0366). Hartford was best known for his song “Gentle on My Mind,” a sweet little ditty that Glen Campbell turned into a top-ten hit. But Aereo-Plane showed off Hartford’s humor, his picking skills, and his ability to snag some of the finest backing musicians around: Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, and Randy Scruggs. Songs vary from “Boogie,” which would have fit nicely on a Frank Zappa album, to “First Girl I Loved,” a gorgeous love song. If these strike a chord, then look for Steam Powered Aereo-Takes, an album of outtakes from those sessions (Rounder 0480) -- and the true initiate will want Andrew Vaughn’s gorgeous book/CD about Hartford, Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain (StuffWorks Press, 2013, $49.95).
Waylon Jennings sold millions of records with hits like “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Amanda.” But despite all the No.1 hits, my favorite of his albums is the sadly obscure Honky Tonk Heroes (Buddha 99619/Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 779), a collection of mostly Billy Joe Shaver songs, stunningly recorded at RCA’s Nashville Sound Studios by Al Pachucki and Tom Pick. Listen to “You Ask Me To,” with Joe Allen’s thumping bass; and, in a rare overdub, ol’ Ralph Mooney duels with himself on Dobro in the left channel and silky steel guitar in the right. And for anyone who ever thought Waylon was just a stomper, check out his subtle singing in the gorgeous “We Had It All.”
Another gem from the period is B.W. Stevenson’s self-titled debut album (Collectables 2866). Again, everything is dry, crystal clear, and dependent on great picking and singing. Tracks 7-10 show off Buckwheat’s (i.e., B.W.’s) gorgeous tenor voice and crystal-clear picking. Pay careful attention to his harp player, Mickey Raphael, a guy with 486 credits on AllMusic.com. He got his start right here.
Finally, we need films for all those fancy home theaters. For those who like their entertainment with a darkly emotional edge, director John Cassavetes claws at his feelings as he tries to expose important truths. And he’s funny. The Criterion Collection’s boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films (five BDs, $90) brings together some of his most profound work. Cassavetes retained complete financial control over his work. He would star in a big-dollar film, like Rosemary’s Baby or The Fury, then use his paycheck to self-finance his own films. This set comprises Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night. Add a good copy of Husbands and you have a great collection of Cassavetes’s amazing filmmaking.
John Wayne’s westerns are some folks’ idea of heaven; others would rather have a root canal. If you’re in the former group, check out the six-film John Wayne: John Ford Film Collection (eight DVDs, $30), which includes The Searchers: 2-Disc Special Edition, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Throw in a copy of Rio Grande and you’ll get a good idea of Ford’s masterful way with John Wayne. If you’re not a Wayne fan, get a copy of the Ford at Fox Collection: The Essential John Ford Collection (six DVDs, $21). There you’ll find My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, and three others.
Finally, no director in history has ever made as many people cringe as did Alfred Hitchcock. No single box can cover Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but the limited-edition Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection (five BDs, $40) contains five of his finest: North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. Each is worth multiple viewings, and will give you a good idea why Hitch is so well loved.
. . . Wes Marshall