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Holiday Gift Guide 2020: High-End Audio Gear to Cheer Up Any Music Lover's Year

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Brent Butterworth
/
WBGO

What better way to liven up a lousy year than by amping up your sound?

Audio gear is always a great gift for yourself and others — and a solid investment, whether it’s improving on a current system, bringing music to more places, or providing more convenient ways to access more music from more sources. Of course, it can be tough to sort out the top performers from the average ones, but WBGO is here to help. We’ve picked out 20 of the best audio gifts for 2020, from practical to extravagant to just plain wow. (As an Amazon Associate, WBGO earns from qualifying purchases.)

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HiFiMan Deva Bluetooth headphones 

HiFiMan | Amazon

The rapid disappearance of headphone jacks from smartphones has many headphone enthusiasts rattled, but the Deva makes a transition to Bluetooth simple. It starts with a great-sounding, super-comfortable set of open-back audiophile headphones, then adds the snap-on Bluemini Bluetooth adapter, which has a built-in amp and lets the headphones connect wirelessly to a phone or tablet. The Bluemini adapter even includes all the latest technologies for getting better sound from Bluetooth, such as aptX HD and Sony LDAC. If you need a gift that the jazz fan in your life will truly cherish, this is the one.

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  PSB Alpha AM3 powered speakers

PSB | (not on Amazon)

For decades, audiophiles have praised PSB’s Alpha series bookshelf speakers for full, natural sound at reasonable prices. The AM3 brings the Alpha magic to a powered speaker, with a 3/4-inch tweeter and a 4-inch woofer that’s just big enough for acoustic jazz. The amps are built in, all you have to do is connect a turntable, a streaming audio device, or a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. The AM3 even includes aptX HD Bluetooth technology, which lets you get near-CD quality from most Android phones.

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  Schiit Audio Magnius headphone amp

Schiit Audio | Amazon

Most audiophile headphones need a dedicated amp to sound their best – a significant expense when you’ve already invested hundreds or thousands in the headphones. The Schiit Audio Magnius comes in at a reasonable price but has enough power to get the best performance from practically any headphone ever made. Hardcore enthusiasts will like that it includes a balanced headphone output in addition to the standard unbalanced headphone output.

Parasound NewClassic 200 integrated amplifier 

Parasound | Amazon

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If the jazz lover in your life has a pair of speakers they cherish, but also wants to step up to new technologies, the NewClassic 200 is the perfect solution. Its slim chassis takes up very little space but puts out an ample 110 watts per channel. In addition to the usual analog inputs, it has multiple digital inputs for connecting a computer, TV or streaming device, plus a phono input compatible with all standard cartridges, plus a subwoofer output that pumps all the bass to the subwoofer, thus protecting those precious speakers from even the most aggressive thumb-slapped electric bass solos.

Beyerdynamic T5 Third-Generation headphones 

Beyerdynamic | Amazon

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The latest version of the Beyerdynamic T5 has everything an audiophile would want in a headphone. First off, it seems to have the same intuitive sense of balance that a good jazz quartet does; every element of the music is readily audible, no part of the audio range sticks out, and you feel like you’re transported into the space where the recording was made. On top of that, they’re comfortable enough to last through an afternoon of listening, they’re sensitive enough to sound great plugged right into your phone, and they come with a nice travel case. The closed-back design gives you welcome isolation from your family and co-workers, too.

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  Focal Chora 826-D tower speaker

Focal | Amazon

The jazz world has rarely embraced surround-sound technology in the past, but with Blue Note reworking many of its classics in the new Dolby Atmos music format, jazz lovers may want in. Focal’s Chora 826-D is one of the best ways to get there. Not only is it an excellent tower speaker for the price, it also includes upward-firing Atmos speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling so you can get the feeling of being in Capitol Studio A, the Village Vanguard, or wherever the recording was made. Matching center and surround speakers are also available.

 

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   JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass soundbar

JBL | Amazon

Why would a jazz lover want a soundbar? Normally, it’d be to make jazz performance videos from YouTube and Facebook streams sound better. But the Bar 2.1 Deep Bass sounds good enough to listen to on its own, without video – which is easy to do because Bluetooth is built right in. The included 6.5-inch wireless subwoofer sounds much more defined and musical than most soundbar subs, so you can hear every note of Christian McBride’s wildest solos clearly. The Bar 2.1 Deep Bass offers very few adjustments, but it sounds so good right out of the box that you won’t need them.

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  AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC/headphone amp 

AudioQuest | Amazon

AudioQuest’s DragonFly series products combine a high-quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) with a headphone amp that’s got a lot more power than the ones in smartphones or tablets. Just plug them into a computer, or into a smartphone using an adapter, then plug in headphones or connect the DragonFly’s output to any high-quality  stereo system. The Cobalt is AudioQuest’s latest and greatest method for getting audiophile-grade sound on the go, but there’s also the $199.95 Red and the $99.95 Black, which are a little less sophisticated but just as recommendable.

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  Technics EAH-TZ700 earphones 

Technics | Amazon

The tiny EAH-TZ700 sure doesn’t look like it should be priced in the four figures, but it definitely sounds like it. Remarkably, this simple, discreet design is competitive with – and in most cases, superior to – any earphones on the market, even much larger models using four or five drivers per ear. The sound is clear, balanced and natural, with a just-right fullness that never obscures the little details that make the best live recordings so compelling. With just these little earphones plugged into a smartphone, you can get some of the best sound available today.

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  Pro-Ject Juke Box S2 turntable/amplifier 

Pro-Ject | Amazon

Probably every jazz fan who hasn’t gotten in on the vinyl record craze would love to, but many people don’t own an audio system that will connect to a turntable. Pro-Ject’s Juke Box S2 gives vinyl some of that convenience we’ve come to expect. It’s a true audiophile-grade turntable with a 50-watt-per-channel amplifier built in, so all you need is a set of speakers. Just turn it on, lower the needle and all that analog goodness is yours in seconds. If you want to switch over to streaming from your phone, the Juke Box S2 has a Bluetooth receiver built right in.

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  SVS SB-2000 Pro subwoofer 

SVS | Amazon

Most subwoofers do either music or movies well, but not both. The SB-2000 Pro is one of the few that handles the works of Ron Carter and Vin Diesel with equal skill. This 12-inch, 550-watt subwoofer sounds terrific right out of the box, but when used with SVS’s smartphone tuning app and an audio spectrum analyzer app (such as AudioTool for Android or Spectrum Analyzer RTA for iOS), it delivers some of the tightest and subtlest, yet most hard-grooving, bass we’ve ever heard.

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  Audioengine A1 powered speakers 

Audioengine | Amazon

With so many people now forced to carve out a little office space in their home, a super-compact, great-sounding little speaker set comes in very handy. At just 6 inches high, the Audioengine A1 system lacks deep bass power, but makes up for it with exceptionally clear midrange and treble. For fans of vocal jazz and lighter acoustic fare, the A1 makes wonderful company through a long day of navigating spreadsheets and e-mails. Bluetooth is built in, and there’s a subwoofer output if you decide you want to add a little more bass to the mix.

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  Mytek Brooklyn Bridge streamer/DAC/preamp/headphone amp

Mytek | Amazon

The Brooklyn Bridge packs a colossal amount of technology into a tiny box that’s only a couple of inches high. Its built-in digital streamer pulls in your favorite streaming services, including high-res audio from Tidal and Qobuz. Its internal digital-to-analog converter connects to computers and can even pull audio straight off a hard drive. There’s a phono input for your turntable, and a high-powered, audiophile-grade headphone amp built in, too. Add a great pair of headphones or powered speakers, and you’ll have state-of-the-art sound from a book-sized box.

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  Morel Högtalare Bluetooth speaker

Morel | Amazon

Jazz fans aren’t necessarily audio fanatics, and those who aren’t probably just want a simple system that’s affordable, easy to use and sounds good. The Högtalare Bluetooth speaker is all that, and with designer looks to boot. This simple speaker has a 6-inch woofer and dual tweeters, for a full, clear sound. It can be placed on a shelf or attached to a wall, and it’s sized to fit perfectly into IKEA Kallax shelving units. It’s available in four colors, and two can be paired for stereo sound.

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  Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 

Bose | Amazon

People have tended to buy Bose headphones more for the noise cancelling than for the sound, but the QuietComfort earbuds hold their own with just about any true wireless earphones on the market when it comes to sonics. As expected, they offer world-class noise cancelling that practically eliminates the droning of airplane cabin noise, and the noise cancelling can be adjusted in 10 steps so you get just as much as you need. The somewhat loose-fitting, proprietary eartips make them comfortable for hours.

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  Naim Mu-So 2nd Generation wireless speaker 

Naim | Amazon

Audiophiles look down on most wireless speakers, but not on the Mu-So, which combines Naim’s decades of expertise in electronics with Focal’s decades of expertise in speaker design. It can stream all your jazz favorites through Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay 2 or Google Chromecast, and it’s compatible with the Roon subscription-based music management service. With six speakers (two for bass, two for mids, two for treble), the Mu-So pumps out sound that’s clearer and more powerful than you’re likely to hear from any other wireless speaker.

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  Vivid Kaya S12 speaker 

Vivid Audio | (not on Amazon)

The Kaya S12 is the perfect gift to thrill the jazz fan you love truly, deeply and madly. It’s very pricey for a speaker with a 4-inch woofer, but it’s unlikely you’ll find a speaker that will make Ella Fitzgerald’s voice sound clearer. The curvaceous cabinet contains a complex tapered tube that absorbs the speaker’s resonances and leaves nothing but uncolored, natural sound. It’s available in black, ivory, oyster and custom colors, and larger, floorstanding versions with built-in subwoofers are also available.

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  Bryston 4B3 stereo power amp
Bryston | (not on Amazon)

Choosing a power amp for a serious music aficionado can be risky, because everyone has their own opinions about which is best. But it seems everyone respects Bryston, which is one of only a few high-end amplifier brands commonly found in recording studios. The 4B3 is one of the storied brand’s most impressive creations, rated at 300 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 500 into 4 ohms. Translation: It can get maximum performance from any speaker ever made. Like all Bryston amps, it carries a 20-year warranty.

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  Mark Levinson No 5101 SACD player/streamer/DAC
Mark Levinson | (not on Amazon)

The array of digital music formats facing jazz fans can be overwhelming. CD? High-res downloads? Streaming? Ripped files? The No 5101 is built to handle it all. It plays SACDs and CDs; connects to computers to play stored files or whatever streaming services your computer can access; and streams from hard drives connected to your network or straight into the No 5101. Unlike most network streaming devices, the No 5101 doesn’t require use of a smartphone or computer app to access media; just use the front screen and the included remote control.

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  DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speaker 
DeVore Fidelity | (not on Amazon)

Many of today’s audiophiles prefer simple, full-range speakers sensitive enough to deliver loud, full-range with small tube amps rated at around 10 watts per channel. The O/96 is to this crowd what the Selmer Mark VI is to sax players – perhaps the one speaker they can all agree on as a standard. With 96 dB rated sensitivity, the O/96 will break 100 dB sound levels on just 3 watts of power, and unlike many super-sensitive speakers, it doesn’t make a lot of compromises to achieve this high efficiency. A 10-inch woofer gives it plenty enough oomph even for intense fusion records, all on just a few watts of power.