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HolidayBuyer's Guide

Lepai LP-2020A+ Stereo Integrated Amplifier ($22.80)

BBGN2, by BadBadNotGood (free, or pay what you want)

Muddy Waters, 'Folk Singer' ($3.99)

'To Serve and Groove' (Kindle edition, $6.99)

Firestone Audio Fireye Headphone Amplifier ($39)

David Byrne, 'How Music Works' ($15.99, Kindle edition)

'360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story Book' ($45)

Audio-Technica AT95E Phono Cartridge ($40)

Dayton Audio Sub-800 Subwoofer ($79)

Creative Aurvana Live Headphones ($100)

There's cheap, and then there's dirt cheap -- I'd put the Lepai LP-2020A+ into the latter category. For this kind of money you might expect a flimsy plastic thing, but no, the LP-2020A+ has an all-metal chassis and faceplate. It's tiny, just 1.5 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide by 4.5 inches deep. The 20-watt-per-channel design sounds decent, and I wouldn't rule it out for audiophiles looking for a budget amp for a bedroom or office system.
Caption by / Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET
CNET's Justin Yu turned me onto this intense jazz-rock band, and its music has been my constant companion for weeks. The band members are all under 21; you can download their MP3 or high-resolution FLAC files for free or pay what you want.
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A fierce studio recording of the blues master from 1963, and Waters sounds incredibly present and vital; no wonder "Folk Singer" is an audiophile classic. Amazon sells the CD for $3.99 and the MP3 download for $9.49. Get the CD.
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If you need a little help getting up to speed on computer audio, Oliver A. Masciarotte's book is a terrific resource. He starts with analog audio, progresses to digital, sampling rates, bits, converters, formats, downloads, lossless audio, and lots of other useful tidbits, all written in an easy-to-read style.
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Most so-called "portable" headphone amplifiers aren't small, but the Firestone Audio Fireye Mini is just 1.5 inches by 1 inch by 0.5 inch, and the soft-rubber-shelled amp weighs almost nothing, so you can hang it off your MP3 player or any device with a 3.5mm headphone output. Plugging in a headphone turns the Mini on and lights a bright-blue LED; unplugging turns the amp off.
Caption by / Photo by Firestone Audio
David Byrne was in the Talking Heads in the 1970s and 1980s, but he's also worked with in film, photography, opera, and nonfiction writing. He's still searching for new creative challenges, which is more than you can say about most aging rock musicians. Byrne's new book, "How Music Works," reads more like an autobiography than a how-to make it in the music business tome. "How Music Works" is a journey of sorts, with a knowledgeable guide chock-full of personal insights and charm. Don't miss it.
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Incredibly enough Columbia Records is 125 years old, and Sean Wilentz's lavishly illustrated coffee-table book documents the label's history. The photos of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Gould, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, and many more are a sight to behold. Wilentz delves deep into the history of the company and how it survives in the digital age. Amazon sells it for under $30.
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If you're new to playing LPs, here's a tip: the "needle" has a huge effect on the sound of your records. If you're unsure about the condition of your cartridge, or how old it is, I strongly recommend investing in a new cartridge, like this spunky Audio Technica that Amazon sells for around $40.
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I've written about Dayton Audio's astonishingly great B652 speakers ($45 a pair on Amazon) a number of times, but this subwoofer is no less impressive. It sports an 8-inch woofer and an 80-watt internal amplifier, but it sounds considerably more powerful than those numbers would imply.
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CNET's David Carnoy found a lot to like about the Creative Aurvana Live Headphones. He wrote, "These are definitely everyman's cans. The headphones offer a nice balance across the highs, mids, and lows -- you don't get a sense that there is any leaning toward a particular spectrum of sound, which is nice for the average listener."
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