If you can tell when, exactly, Black Friday really started this year amid herds of consumers and retailers panicked about supply chain issues, pandemic hangovers, Postal Service challenges, and stout online competition, you’re a better calendar watcher than I.
Deals are everywhere already, if you keep a sharp eye honed on opportunities. And mostly likely, the best deals this year won’t even be finished by mid-morning on traditional Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) or Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving). That said, given the aforementioned problems affecting deliveries, it’s probably good to make your holiday purchases sooner than later, to ensure they arrive in timely fashion.
To help you make a proper start on the gifts big and small for the tech/entertainment/music fan in your life, below is a selection of electronic goodies, from TVs to musical devices, that I had a chance to test out and found to be among the best of the year, or (in the Xbox case), the best attainable.
The prices cited for each product below can change a lot this time of year, so check around, show a bit of patience, and maybe you can save some bucks while getting just the right thing for the person you love.
Sony Bravia XR A80J 4K HDR OLED TV. This set is just about at the top of the prodigious mountain of Sony TV models, thanks to an OLED screen that provides one of the best viewing experiences available at a (currently reduced) price that won’t leave you curled in a fetal ball. Sony turned to the increasingly excellent voice-controlled Google TV interface to do most of the onscreen management of your experience, your smart home devices, and easy playback from your smartphone. The A80J also features its own Bravia Core interface, which gives buyers free credits for five “IMAX Enhanced” movies from the Sony Pictures library and a year’s free streaming of dozens of other films, among other goodies. IMAX Enhanced, by the way, is popping up elsewhere, too, as Disney Plus just launched its own baker’s dozen of IMAX Enhanced titles.
The A80J is nicely future proofed, with Dolby Vision, Calman Ready (post-production pros care about that), Netflix Calibration to match the streamer’s exacting tech requirements, and a built-in tuner for over-the-air NextGenTV digital networks (Los Angeles already has more than 200 such channels, but you’ll need a digital antenna for best results). Bonus, the set provides 4K 120-FPS frame rates, giving gamers butter-smooth viewing of their next-generation console titles (presuming you’re actually able to buy one, which leads us to the next item). Price: a sharply discounted $1,800 for the 65-inch screen.
Microsoft Xbox Series S. It’s been one of those Dickensian best-of, worst-of years for console gamers, who this time in 2020 finally saw two new Xbox models debut near-simultaneously with two new Sony PlayStation models. But thanks to high demand, chip-supply issues, and shopbots that scooped up available machines for usurious resale prices seemingly milliseconds after they became available, no one could get them. Technically, of course, about 20 million new PlayStations and Xboxes have been sold, but demand still far outstrips supply. So, if you’re still desperate to get a new console this Christmas, take a run at Microsoft’s Series S, the less capable but still prodigious little brother of the flagship Series X. It’s also the least likely among all the new models to be unavailable. You’re giving up some tech specs and a disc drive for digital-only gameplay, but you’ll save $100 and you might actually find one this season for a reasonable price. Couple it with Microsoft’s excellent Xbox Game Pass Ultimate ($15/month, but signup bargains may be available) for a good gaming one-two punch. Game Pass Ultimate gives access to a rotating library of 100 games (with discounts if you want to buy a title for keeps). The pass provides cross-platform play on your PC, console or Android phone, and access to the EA Play library as well. One consolation for the past year’s difficulties: neither PlayStation nor Xbox had much in the way of next-gen game titles, so you didn’t miss much. But with Halo Ultimate arriving, you’d better mount up, Master Chief. Price (theoretically): $300.
WD_Black D30 Game Drive SSD Western Digital makes lots of different storage products, but the D30 Game Drive is a particularly nifty, compact and stylish one, with transfer speeds up to 900 Mb/s. That’ll matter because anyone who gets one of the new consoles will quickly notice their biggest shortcoming: too little storage for all the digital games you’ll want to download and have easy access to. The D30 also works with most PCs and setup is dirt simple. If you’re going Microsoft in your console acquisition, you might also consider the D30 Game Drive SSD for Xbox, which features Xbox-appropriate styling and a digital coupon for one free month on Game Pass Ultimate, for a slightly higher price. Price: $150 for 1 Tb of storage.
Fender Player Plus Stratocaster HSS. The venerable musical instrument company has been remaking itself for the digital age, and a pandemic-fueled resurgence in musical interest in guitar and bass among a younger, more diverse generation of TikTok-inspired creators. The Player Plus series revamps and updates seven of Fender’s iconic guitars and basses, including the Stratocaster HSS, which comes in four gorgeous new paint jobs too. The HSS features noiseless Stratocaster pickups, the company’s response to growing use of its guitars in digital recording, not just live performance, and a humbucking pickup when you want to roar. Most of all it’s a Strat, with a tone beloved by many. In recent weeks, Fender has also dramatically expanded its Fender Play lesson subscription service and online community, with a focus on the many beginners who’ve taken up guitar since the pandemic hit. Price: $1,029.
Vizio V-Series 5.1 Home Theater Soundbar. Vizio built its reputation on good-quality, affordably priced TVs from an American company, then profitably branched into accompanying soundbars, like this terrifically priced and compelling surround-sound system, which integrates easily into Vizio screens, but works just fine with other makers’ sets too. The main bar sits under most big-screen TVs, with its own remote control for tweaking audio settings. A separate 5-inch woofer connects wirelessly and easily to the main central speaker, and provides (long) wired connections to two small satellite rear speakers. The result, with Dolby Audio and DTS Digital Surround, can fill a room with plenty of boom for those stay-at-home nights we’re still experiencing, delivering a surprisingly immersive experience for not very much money. Bonus for those with less accommodating ears: the center channel and accompanying settings are designed to make dialogue as clear as possible. Price: $200.
Blue Yeti X microphone. Thinking of jumping into podcasting, live streaming, or even just want to take a resounding step up in your Zoom game (which you know will still be here in the hybrid work era to come)? Microphone maker Blue has a stylish and flexible option in the Yeti X, a wired condenser microphone with cardioid, bi-directional and omni-directional capsules, so you can choose the right setting for a specific use. It has an excellent dynamic range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, an on-mike LED peak meter, a control knob that switches modes, and Blue’s VOICE audio software that allows you to add an array of vocal effects to further improve and customize your sound, from classic to contemporary. Price: $140.
Moment Apple 13 MagSafe case is a bit pricey, but provides a grippy surface, a better-than-built-in MagSafe recharging magnet, a wrist strap connector for even more security, and easy mounting of Moment’s terrific ecosystem of lens add-ons that work with the company’s sophisticated Moment Pro Camera app. iPhone cinematographers love Moment’s anamorphic, macro, telephoto and other specialty enhancements. Beware that owners of the newest iPhone 13s can’t use those models new cinematic mode because it relies on its additional lenses for some of its rack-focus tricks. Price: $50.
Akai Professional MPK Mini Play 25-key Portable Keyboard and MIDI Controller. This inexpensive and flexible USB-powered keyboard and MIDI controller packs a lot of power for its modest size and price, making it a good choice for those getting into computer-based music making, or just wanting to take their music-making tools anywhere. It offers 25 velocity-sensitive keys, eight MPC-style pads, four assignable keys, and even a built-in module with 128 instruments and 10 drum kits. For real go-anywhere flexibility, it also runs on three AA batteries. Price: $139.
SmartIndex Fitindex smart scale. For the January resolutions just around the corner, SmartIndex’s smart body-fat scale costs as little as $15 with online coupons and tracks 13 body composition metrics. Even better for the digitally hip worried about their hips, it can relay your results by Bluetooth to apps such as Apple Health, Google Fit or Samsung Health so you can track your (of course!) significant progress toward swimsuit svelteness. The Fitindex comes with an integrated lithium-ion battery. Price: $27.
Stocking stuffers. If you’d like a simpler, more easily mailed and flexible gift for your tech or gamer person, think about gift cards for tech goodies from outlets such as Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, Dell (they own the excellent Alienware gamer PC maker), Samsung, Sweetwater, League of Legends, Fortnite or Roblox.
You also can find plenty of discounts from Amazon, Facebook/Meta and Google for their electronic devices like smart speakers and home streaming devices, especially during Amazon’s ever-expanding sales this year. As always with these ad-dependent companies, it’s good to review their privacy policies and your own appetite for allowing always-on devices to operate in your home.
Apple, for what it’s worth, is giving gift cards worth $50 to $200 to buyers of many of its less highly sought-after devices, from headphones to computers. That deal only runs for four days, though, from the “real” Black Friday through to Cyber Monday, but for traditionalist shoppers, it’s a deal that might net you two gifts in one.