Christmas Gifts: Great sounds and gizmos

"There is actually a hi-fi buying season," says Brandon, an assistant at The Cornflake Shop as he wrestles with some speaker cables like Captain Nemo overpowering a giant squid. "From about October to April, the days get shorter and people think about new hi-fi."

Despite its location on London's 37 Windmill Street, off Tottenham Court Road (0171-631 0472), most of Cornflake's reputation is spread by word of mouth. Film directors and supermodels call its experts in to install state-of-the-art sound and home cinema systems. But pay a visit, and you can pick a system ("midrange, about pounds 500 per box,") in the demonstration room. You can even book a session.

At London Bridge, Richer Sounds (enquiries: 0171-378 0345) seems at first as the McDonald's of hi-fi - fast sound done cheap. Fluorescent lights, floor-to-ceiling-racked black chrome boxes, shiny shoes, shiny shirts, shiny hair: "When they put in the boosters, it sounds like it should do anyway," a salesman explains to a bemused customer while Jimi Hendrix plays.

But Richer's 32 stores nationwide refuse to sell all-in-one mini-systems. Like Cornflake, they insist that hi-fi means separate boxes, and wire tentacles to join them up. Except no one goes to Richer to spend pounds 500 on a box. For that, they want - and get - lots of boxes, with many knobs on, flashing lights, and a remote control or three Charles Arthur

No snap, no crackle: Cornflake's demonstration room (below) where customers can test any combination of hi-fi units with prices from pounds 500 to pounds 20,000 and more. Bottom (far left): Musical Technology speaker, pounds 425 a pair, and, for control freaks, the ultimate gizmo, a Touchscreen Home Controller which operates hi-fi, video, hot water and even curtains and lifts from a single position. Prices from pounds 2,000 to pounds 5,000

Choice: Cornflake

Sennheiser HE 60 Electrostatic headphones, pounds 998; Naim NAT 01/NA PST radio tuner, pounds 1,730; XLO Type 1 Reference 1-metre connector wires, pounds 275; Mark Levinson No 31 CD player plus converter chip, pounds 24,450; Mark Levinson No 38 pre-amplifier, pounds 6,495; Pair of Mark Levinson 33H power amplifiers (1 per sound channel), pounds 19,395; ATC SCM 300 Active loudspeakers, pounds 15,000; QED 42-strand loudspeaker cable (per speaker per metre), 70p

Choice: Richer Sounds

Cambridge Audio handset ("control up to eight different products from this single handset"), pounds 79.95; Sony MDSJE510 Minidisc digital recorder plus player, pounds 179.95 (remote control, pounds 10 extra); KLH 970 speakers, pounds 39.95; Wharfedale Airedale Subwoofer speaker, pounds 119.95; Turntable flight cases (for budding DJs), pounds 59.95; Recordable 74-minute Minidisc, pounds 3.99; Umbrella: free with hi-fi purchase if it's raining

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