Being sent out to play the youngest, skinniest-ever Santa at John Wanamaker was one of the first gleeful assignments I remember taking on as a fledgling Philly newspaper writer.
Flash forward 46 years and playing Santa (and Hanukkah Harry) is still one of my annual delights, though now it's about suggesting gadget gifts I've tested and found to be all they're cracked up to be.
Today's roundup may be my last covering big-ticket items, as I'm soon to exit this joint as a full-time staffer. Next week, I'll throw out one last lineup of small and less costly suggestions.
Cool alternatives. Headphones and earbuds are great for digging deep into music. But their enforced solitude often obscures the real world and sparks ear fatigue, as that close-in pounding of sound takes a wearing toll.
Bose's new alternative for personal audio — SoundWear Companion — offers a welcome and healthier option. SoundWear is a wireless, boomerang-shaped, personal sound system that sits comfortably around your shirt or jacket collar, and stays in place as you briskly stroll the planet or clean the house. Connecting wirelessly (via true "30-foot range" Bluetooth) to a mobile phone and a streaming music or podcast app, the device creates a lovely little cloud of semiprivate stereo sound that floats around your noggin. Music that feels natural and detailed with shockingly tight bass — as created with upward firing drivers and specially ducted, air-moving ports. SoundWear buttons are logically situated to shift volume, pause, answer a phone call, or ask Siri a question. Also interfaces well with Apple Watch touch-screen controls and runs a healthy 12 hours between charges. $299.99.
Gift shopping for someone who works in a noisy, distracting office environment? Consider the Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC — noise-reduction headphones optimized to eliminate idle chitter-chatter (as opposed to airplane and train engine hum). Also offers special wireless connectivity (with a dongle) to an office computer and substantial musical reproduction. $240 to $380.
The best smart speaker. Sonos smart speakers are a favorite for serving up streaming music, with stable multiroom connectivity, the most service options, and the sleekest app menu with content searching. Now Sonos is upping its game with a "Swiss-like" embrace of speech recognition and control. Out of the gate, the new Sonos One speaker ($199 in black or white) hears and talks the language of Amazon's Alexa voice-activation system — so you can verbally request music, ask for the weather forecast, change the setting of a Lyric thermostat, or remotely start the outstanding Behmor Connected Coffee Brewer (now $169.99). While a Sonos One is not yet capable of doing all things Alexa, it's getting there. And next year, this well-voiced, format-agnostic speaker will also wake up to "Hey Google" and "Siri" and all their associated devices.
The best soundbar. Enjoy the dramatic surround sound effects of movies, concert videos, and televised football but not all the home-theater clutter normally associated with reproducing such swirl-arounds? Hearing is disbelieving with the Yamaha YAS-207 — a simple yet magical two-piece combo of a soundbar and wireless subwoofer that throws those specially concocted sonic effects forward, overhead, and around you with a processing power (DTS Virtual: X) that's breathtaking. The system freaked out the cats (and me) when a smoke alarm went off everywhere in La La Land and green ghoulies mauled The Great Wall. Offers a switchable voice-clarification mode, too. A great gift at $269.99.
What a crock. While the Instant Pot is a sales sensation, I'd recommend the rival VitaClay Smart Organic Multi-Cooker, which likewise shares the traits of a slow cooker, digital steamer, rice cooker, and yogurt maker. VitaClay utilizes a natural, unglazed orange clay pot to enhance food flavor, neutralize the acidity in food, and hold heat much better than a conventional aluminum or glazed ceramic pot can. So this is, ironically, a faster slow cooker — in just five hours turning out a delicious pot roast that recipes predicted could take eight or nine. Available in 6-cup ($116) and 8-cup ($139) versions.
Gamesmanship. It's a major comeback year for game systems and especially Nintendo With the Switch. It has a nifty modular design that lets you play essential Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart titles on its built-in screen or on a connected big-screen TV (looking fine on the former, decent on the latter), with controllers attached or separated. Your call. $299.99
The brand-new, high-end Xbox One X ($500) goes for the gold with lifelike 4K resolution (and Ultra-High Def Blu-ray Disc playback, too). Fifa 18 and Forza Motorsport 7 road races proved especially spectacular blown up to 100-plus ultra-defined inches with the new and more affordable ($1,999) Epson Home Cinema 4000 Projector.