Digital opponent sounds a new tune
Cleveland Plain Dealer – Thursday, May 18th, 2006
Bill Lammers — Columnist
As the Digital Age marches on, many audiophiles remain true to their first loves: two-channel audio and vinyl long-playing albums. Surround sound and compact discs just don’t make it for this crowd. Too cold. Fake. Sterile. Harsh.
Flash! Here’s a headline for you: “Mr. Analog goes digital!”
A year ago, I wrote about Don Better, who sells high-end audio equipment from his Cleveland Heights home. A guitar teacher at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Music who once played with the pop group Pacific Gas & Electric, he has been a standard bearer for analog audio – vinyl records, turntables and cartridges, vacuum tube amplifiers and simple two-driver loudspeakers.
During an open house last week at his new listening room complete with angled ceilings and asymmetrical walls, Better confessed he has two new devices that have made him appreciate – if not totally embrace – digital recordings.
They are digital-to-analog converters from Wavelength Audio Ltd., a Cincinnati company that also makes amplifiers that boost a turntable’s fragile signal into one that can be used by the preamplifiers and amplifiers in a stereo system based on separate components.
Wavelength’s two digital-to- analog converters – the Cosecant sells for $3,500 and the Brick sells for $1,750 – combine with a lap top computer and outboard hard drive (together, less than $1,200) to deliver dig ital music to the amps. They do this job with better accuracy and handier features than many high-end CD players.
“This setup has replaced the $2,500 CD players – it’s absolutely killed them,” Better said. “For most people, the $1,750 product is so much better than they’ve ever heard before.”
The Wavelength devices connect between a computer’s Universal Serial Bus jacks – preferably the newer 2.0 version, but version 1.1 works as well – and the traditional stereo sound system. As you might imagine, a vacuum tube is involved in the process.
In addition to the quality of sound that the digital-to-analog converter delivers, Better said the convenience of a computer-based system makes this setup better than a traditional CD player.
“You can organize your CDs any way you want, and the sound is not going to be at the MP3 level,” he said. “It’s going to be the same as other CDs. You also can stream Internet radio and other Web-based sound sources in high definition.”
How did Mr. Analog stumble upon this combination of devices? It was music, of course.
“I was listening to the radio, a Charlie Haden song started playing, and I liked it,” he said. He bought the song by jazz bassist Haden and pianist Kenny Barron at iTunes – Apple Computer’s Internet-based music service – and was hooked on the immediacy of buying music online.
“I find myself using this not so much for serious listening – for that, I listen to records,” Better said. “But this doesn’t offend me.”
During Better’s open house, two guests showed how well their products worked with both digital and analog sources.
John DeVore, president and chief designer of DeVore Fidelity, showed his Silverback Reference speakers, which he said are designed to reproduce sounds at frequencies above and below most people’s ability to hear because those sounds still contribute to the listening experience.
“Our goal is to provide the most transparent window to everything upstream,” he said. “The difference is how big the window is. The Silverback offers the biggest window.”
DeVore explained how important it is to understand that the speakers combine with an amplifier to create a complete electrical circuit. Because of this, he designs speakers that do not return unwanted signals to the amplifier.
“Garbage comes back through the negative terminals,” he said. “Amplifier manufacturers buffer that, but it also isolates the amp from the speaker. Our goal is to get the speaker out of the way.”
The Silverback speakers sell for $15,000 a pair.
Jonathan Halpern, president of Tone Imports, described the line of Shindo Laboratory amplifiers that he distributes. Japanese designer Ken Shindo found a cache of new-old stock vacuum tubes in the 1970s and began designing an amplifier based on the design of an old Western Electric amp used mostly in commercial applications such as movie theaters.
Using those vintage tubes, his WE330B Limited amplifier was born, putting out 8 perfect watts of power. It sells for $28,000.
“The Japanese market is a very tough market because they’re not impressed by bells and whistles,” Halpern said.
As we listen to Johnny Cash sing “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” from his 1963 album “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” Cash’s distinctive voice transcends the occasionally corny arrangements and background vocals. When the clang of a sledge striking a spike rings out through the Cleveland Heights air and pierces our eardrums, we realize that clear, crisp stereo is as timeless as the singer himself.
Lammers is a Plain Dealer assistant news editor
© 2006 The Plain Dealer