They burble, they babble, they plash. Really . . . they plash. Look it up. No matter how you describe the calm-down sound of water trickling over polished stones into a serene pool, Zen-inspired tabletop relaxation fountains--now available just about everywhere--are making a big splash this holiday shopping season.

Not since the Pet Rock, that infamous craze of Christmas 1976, has a top-selling gift featured, well, rocks. Or, stones, in this case--polished river stones, lava pieces, crystalline minerals, arranged on step-like levels of slate or other rocky slopes to create the pleasant murmur of a cascading brook while a small hidden pump recirculates water from the surrounding rock-filled reservoir.

Since about late summer, merchandisers as diverse as The Sports Authority, Smith & Hawken and The Discovery Store started promoting them as something of the antidote to the '90s.

And shoppers have shown such an unquenchable thirst for miniature fountains that they have gone from being a quirky, high-concept, impulse item to this year's top novelty gift.

Bed, Bath & Beyond recently advertised the $69.99 Relaxor Cascading Falls Calming Pool as creating "a calming, stress-free atmosphere." Hecht's was serving up serenity on the rocks last Friday for $10 off--knocking down the "Relaxor Asia Bowl" to $29.99, the HoMedics Rock Garden to $39.99, and the Pomeroy Quietude to $49.99. The Nature Center is displaying several makes and styles, from HoMedics's $39.99 models to hand-carved stone fountains priced at hundreds of dollars.

But relaxation fountains are nothing new. Outdoor rock gardens and gurgling fountains have long been meditational settings in Asian cultures, and artisans for years have crafted small, indoor fountains from natural stone and rustic metals that sell for works-of-art prices at galleries, garden centers and specialty stores. The difference this year is that personal fountains have coursed into the shopping mainstream.

Behind this new gush of popularity is HoMedics, a family-owned company based in the suburbs of Detroit, that makes home-care products such as massagers designed to soothe sore muscles, magnetic therapy products said to relieve aches and pains, and sensory relaxation systems that are supposed to relieve tension and promote relaxation.

Like the small fountains it started mass-marketing in August, many of HoMedics's products have come out of the alternative-medicine cabinet this holiday season and promise some sort of physical or mental relief--at an affordable price.

"That is our whole mantra," says Paulette Abraham, HoMedics director of marketing, of the company's six styles of tabletop Envirascape fountains, which range in price from $40 to $80.

HoMedics uses attractive river rocks and slate to place in the fountain's water, but substitutes cheaper resin material molded and painted to look natural in the fountain's base structure. And it made the installation a cinch: Fit the pieces of slate or jutting rock into the molded fountain, arrange the pretty stones, fill to the line with water, plug it in, and you've got a tabletop cascading stream.

Indeed, it's fair to say that HoMedics is to relaxation fountains what McDonald's is to burgers. While Abraham doesn't rush to that comparison, she does envy the McDonald's "Billions Served" claim. "I hope we can put the same little banner up," she says, adding that fountain sales have surged. "Retailers tell us they can't keep them in stock."

But why are shoppers so anxious to go with the flow? One reason is that manufacturers tout their fountains as wellsprings of wellness. While these fountains hardly qualify as whitewater, they do produce what psychologists call "white noise," a consistent, audibly bland, unintrusive sound that washes out the hard edges of consciousness and induces a relaxed state.

Even feng shui, the ancient Chinese study of creating balance, harmony and energy in the workplace and home, uses water elements such as fountains or pools to resolve "energy blockages."

"The sound of running water . . . helps to block out less harmonious noises, and if we focus on it, can also block out the unharmonious noises inside our own minds," reads one explanation from Rainbow Crystal, one of dozens of online vendors that sell a huge variety of relaxation fountains.

"The '90s have been such a decade of stress that the reason people are open to items like that is they are looking for new ways to take care of themselves," says Abraham, explaining that relaxation fountains were a natural extension of HoMedics's aromatherapy and sound-therapy machines. "They're the next dimension of therapy. This is the age of wellness, of staying well."

But are these founts really "the coolest present of the year," as they've been touted? Or are they just the next objet de discard? The newest dirty-clothes hanger alongside the unused exercise bike? The latest fondu fiasco appearing soon at garage sales everywhere? "It's not just a knickknack that you say 'What am I going to do with this?' People can actually use these products," declares Abraham, who maintains that fountainheads don't have to be granola-crunching, crystal-carrying, yoga practitioners to benefit.

Still, there has been some blissed-out backlash--specifically over the trigger-effect fountains can have on bladders. Seems the sound of running water makes some people run to the loo. "Like anything, you get conditioned so it doesn't become a factor. Most people enjoy the benefits without the downsides," pooh-poohs Abraham, who has heard the complaint before.

As Anonymous put it: "Some drink at the fountain of knowledge . . . others just gargle." Or something along those lines.