ROAR Holiday Gift Guide - 2022
ROAR Gift Guide
A few years ago I saw a gift guide blog post on a woodworkers’ shop page while I was shopping for gifts for my brother. I liked that the woodworker wasn’t pushing products, just listing things he found useful throughout the year. Some were as little as $5 (a nice pencil) and some were in the $1,000 plus category. Given that record collectors are particularly hard to buy for (who can keep up with their loved one’s collection?), this list includes items that are *not* records at various price points. Rather, these are things that I’ve found make for a great listening experience and I think other record collectors will enjoy them. There are no referral links or anything like that. Since this is a casual gift guide, everything is under $225, with most items in the <$50 range. Nearly everything I’m recommending I acquired myself this year, so it’s fresh on my mind.
Both of these are in stock or on order at our former home, Little Professor Book Center on 65 S Court St in Athens! Drop in or call them at 740-856-2505.
Non-Fiction: A musical genius writes a book about what makes certain songs work. No, it’s not that Bob Dylan book. Instead, I’m recommending How Music Works, by David Byrne. Byrne’s written about everything from stagecraft to time signatures, and a lot about music production in general. It is not great writing, but it’s incredibly insightful and honest and talks about minutiae in a way that is not boring which is more than most music texts can say.
Fiction: White Tears, by Hari Kunzru. A group of obsessive vinyl collectors, magical realism, and beautiful writing about music. What else could you want from a work of fiction? This was shortlisted by many as a book of the year in 2017. Great to read while listing to everything from Blues to Dark Ambient House.
Cleaning Tools and Accessories or stocking stuffers/budget gifts:
Simple Brush: There are endless methods and opinions about the best methods for cleaning vinyl. We’re partial to our ultrasonic in the shop. But sometimes convenience wins and I reach for this little brush, which is the kind of thing you want as a stocking stuffer.
Cleaning Kit: Ok, I guess we will mention two things we do sell. First, a small kit that is also perfectly adequate for cleaning your albums. But we will also do the cleaning for you in the aforementioned-semi-magical ultrasonic machine, and throw on some archival inner and outer sleeves, for the low cost of $1 a pop. I was very skeptical about buying it, but it was a life-changing difference for us. Records come out like new, and more importantly, *sound* significantly better every time. It won’t fix scratches, but you’d be surprised how much dust can accumulate without you noticing. This is great for that record you find at the thrift store or a record fair, and want to improve before you put it on your nice clean table. (We have never publicized this service, but if you are interested, you can buy it here, select local pick up, and bring them in or print the receipt and put it in your collector’s sock. We’ll sort it out.)
Weight/Clamp: Whatever you call it, they’re silly looking and also fit in the category of magic because they are a help. People will try and sell you silly elaborate ones: the top google result is for $1,200! Don’t fall for it, any reasonably well-made one will do. I think the one I have at home costs $15. Here’s a link to a perfectly good one from Turntable Lab for $19.95.
Charity: Maybe you like giving to charity for your gifts, which is always thoughtful. Stuart’s Opera House is a non-profit and runs music after-school programs in our area. They are great! Your donation here helps with that.
A general note: I often think of the homebrew craze when I think about record collecting now. A ton of people bought one of those Mr. Beer kits or got one for Christmas, and then were disappointed when they didn’t get the results advertised, or much worse, skunked the whole thing. Then there were the people who went out and bought massive all-grain kits. They later became full-time brewers, which is also a choice. But for me, I think the sweet spot was the people who got a proper glass carboy and paid for an extract kit with some extras. They didn’t dump a fortune, got good results, and are most likely to pick it back up again and have fond memories.
For me, the Crosley is the same as a Mr. Beer kit; it seems like it’ll get you into the hobby, but realistically, you’ll hit the limits pretty quickly. The set that goes and dumps a ton on the top-of-the-line Linn turntable and MacIntosh stuff; they’re the people who want this to be their whole identity. Fine if you have a small fortune sitting around. But I don’t think you need to break the bank to get the proper turntable, amp, preamp, and speakers, that will set you up for life. If you’re a devoted thrifter and are patient, you can pull this off for $300-500, or you can get everything new for between $500-700. Yes, it’s 5-10x more than a suitcase player, but what you walk out with is significantly better and will reward you whenever you choose to listen. [And, crassly, it has some actual resale value, unlike a suitcase turntable].
In my view, the hierarchy of return for your dollar goes like this: Speakers > Turntable/Cartridge > Preamp > Amp. That is to say, a dollar put into speakers will do more than a dollar put into an amp, and so forth. That said it’s all fairly close and your system will only be as strong as the weakest link. But the biggest ‘wow’ change I’ve heard is from changing speakers. (I don’t mention wiring because I’ve never heard a change from cables/wire, and any hardware store has suitable speaker wire [Queue self-appointed ‘audiophiles’ coming into the shop to lecture me about cabling])
When I last did a major upgrade I spent way too much time on the internet looking at endless reviews, obsessing over tiny differences. This is not an exhaustive list, it’s the list is to help you avoid the hours lost by giving you 2 or 3 good options and calling it a day.
Speakers, Part 1--Bookshelf: For most people, a good set of efficient bookshelf speakers is all you need. When I was deciding, I ended up waffling between Klipsch and the Wharfedale’s. What sold me on the latter was a Reddit comment: “Both are great, the Klipsch are front row at a rock concert, Wharfedale’s are a cozy winter night by the fire”. The commenter was right. Wharfedale speakers are welcoming, and accurate, and they fill my whole house without effort. I am constantly surprised by how good they sound even rooms away or when I’m out on the porch. I love my Diamond 220s. My partner agrees these made the biggest difference to our enjoyment of our setup. Diamond 12s are very similar to 220s, typically $300, but can frequently be found around $200 this time of year. Here’s a link to such a sale.
[Also, apparently there’s a big deal on these JBL speakers, typically listed around $500 which are on sale direct for about $240, and under 200 with Rakuten. They’re also highly recommended, but I have not myself heard them, so consider it a soft recommendation].
Speakers, Part 2--Big floor-standing jobs: If you want to use speakers paired with a TV/AV receiver, surround sound can be game-changing, but the offerings are overwhelming (Wirecutter has 3 different long-form guides). I will shorten it to say that I recently bought a set of Fluance Reference speakers for my house. Listening to Sault’s “Untitled (God)” last night on YouTube (hardly a High Fidelity source), I was again reminded how great they can be and found myself backing up to repeat parts over and over, being impressed again and again by each sonic change. I’d imagine you’re safe with any of the Fluance products here, and there are many price points.
Preamp: This was up there with the speakers in terms of dramatic sound change. I’d written them off as unneeded, mostly because I didn’t want to buy more kit, and the idea sounded silly to me. Why amp twice? Then I got one as part of a bundled sale, and I’ve been blown away. This Schiit Mani opened up a whole new listening experience on some albums, the horns were less tinny and sharp and the piano on some tracks had that elusive ‘warmth’. Best part? It’s $150 and frequently found for $75 - $90 used. The lower-priced Magni 3+ (listed as a DAC/Pre-amp) is also a worthy option and currently even cheaper in B-Stock. I feel better with the Mani, and in a side-by-side comparison 4/6 people agreed, but both are excellent. I recently bought a Cambridge pre-amp which lists for more, but I’m about to switch back to the Mani. It’s a great sounding unit for well below the competition.
Cartridge: Cartridges also fall into the category of ‘things I don’t want to pay for but make a huge difference after all. I found a Nagaoka MP-110 on eBay and have loved it. You can find it typically in the $120-150 range. I also heartily recommend anything from Goldring such as an E3, or Grado. Each will usually run in the $150 range, but again, new and old stock pops up on eBay a lot in the $90-120 range and is usually worth it. Similar to the aforementioned Reddit review, I’d say the Goldring E3 is the warm fire, the Grado Green/Black 3 is a rock show, Nagaoka MP-110 feels like a jazz club. Each is great. I’ve certainly heard of folks who will keep three mounted headshells just to switch around for different types of albums. Nice if you’ve got the time and resources. I’d pick one that matches your desired primary listening. I’m in a jazz phase, so the 110 stays on, for now.
Alright, that’s my guide! Thanks for reading!
P.S. It’s been pointed out I didn’t recommend a turntable or amp/receiver, which are kind of essential. My excuse is I haven’t bought one this year. But honestly, it’s that the market is so flooded with mostly similar items that budget tends to decide. Here are some qualified recommendations:
Turntables: The Fluance RT turntable line seems promising, but I haven’t play-tested it. They do throw in a free preamp as their holiday sale, a nice bonus. Audio Technica turntables also are recommended. The AT-LP120 seems good, and the AT-LP60 is a great dorm starter. I’ve heard lovely things about the Pro-Ject turntables.
Amps/AV receivers: The Sony DH-190, recommended by Wirecutter, has performed well when I’ve heard it, but it’s frequently out of stock. I love my Kenwood KA-5700 amp, and my Denon receiver. The Kenwood was a random buy from the Facebook marketplace; they’re no longer manufactured but I enjoyed it so much I’ve hunted down two more similar models we now have for sale in the shop (ok, I guess I will sell three things). The Denon AVR-X1600H I bought refurbished here, for home theater, and paired with those Fluance speakers have been perfect for me, and do have a turntable input. I’m charmed by it, but it’s outside the promised price points.
Thanks again for reading this long-form guide, and please reach out with questions and comments! Let us know if this guide has been helpful or not so we can decide if we should do it again next year.