Passion for music drives audio expert
Cleveland Plain Dealer – Thursday, February 10, 2005
Bill Lammers — Columnist
Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar, sounding as if it is being played underwater, warbles unpredictably as Richard Manuel strains to sing, lagging just behind what has not yet established itself as the beat. It’s “Tears of Rage,” the first song on the first album by the Band. The music was recorded in 1968, but it still sounds ancient and revolutionary more than 3½ decades later.
The record – yes, it’s a long-playing vinyl album! – is playing on a stereo – yes, just two loudspeakers! – in a bedroom-turned-listening room in Don Better’s Cleveland Heights townhouse. Better, 53, a guitar teacher at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Music by day and often a performing musician by night, sells high-end audio equipment by appointment from home.
The system that we are hearing this day includes a pair of Verity speakers, a Chord Electronics integrated amplifier, a Wavelength Audio phonograph amplifier and a Nottingham Analogue turntable with a platter so thick that it could double as the spare tire on a sport-utility vehicle.
“The Chord amplifier has two-hundred and twenty watts per channel, and they are the cleanest two-hundred twenty watts you will ever hear in your life,” Better says, “and if the speakers are efficient, that’s enough. These speakers can take 400 watts, and we’re listening to maybe a milliwatt.”
The Nottingham turntable has a motor so precise at maintaining exactly 33?revolutions per minute that the listener must give it a slight spin to get it started because a motor powerful enough to start from a stop would compromise its precision.
There is no doubt Better knows his audio technology, from how to control a speaker system that is too strong at 70 Hertz (in the high bass range) to why it is important to have tweeters placed slightly to the rear of the face on which the woofers are mounted. But he is not in the audio business to just talk technology.
“To me, it’s about the music,” he said. “If eventually I make money on this, it’s because of my passion.”
So, by request, we’re listening to the Band. This pressing of “Music From Big Pink” is a recent issue made of virgin vinyl. Many audiophiles prefer the warmth of vinyl records to what they hear as the harshness of compact discs, where music recorded by analog methods is forced to live in the digital world.
“Music is not meant for the background,” Better said, eschewing people who boast of distributed audio systems that can deliver soothing music anywhere in a house. “You need to pay attention. We have to slow down our lives a bit to enjoy it.”
It’s hard not to pay attention to Manuel’s singing. If ever there was an analog voice, it’s his.
“On a system like this, you can hear the difference between digital and analog,” Better said. “I would still rather listen to vinyl, and I don’t think it’s just because of my age.”
So it all comes back to the music, not the equipment.
“I’m really not trying to get the gearheads,” Better said of his clientele. “I want the people who love music.
“I like movies, but movies for me are a one-time experience,” he said. “Obviously, I have enough equipment here that I could have a tremendous home theater system. But audio for me is about recapturing the magic of the live recording.”
All this audiophile equipment with beautiful cabinetry and luxurious wood finishes does come at a cost. The system to which we are listening would run from $65,000 to $80,000; Better’s entry-level system runs about $2,000.
“Nobody would think anything about a guy who can afford it who goes out and buys a Porsche or Lamborghini,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money and not get superb sound. I simply have the best equipment in the world.”
The best equipment reproducing the best music – what could be more important than that? Perhaps our very civilization depends on it.
“The two things that human beings do well is music and literature,” Better said. “Those are the things that last from generation to generation. A hundred years from now, people may not be able to name the presidents of the United States. But they’ll be able to name Mozart, Bach and the Beatles.”
And, I hope, the Band, whose voices have now been silenced by the deaths of Manuel and Rick Danko and by Levon Helm’s throat cancer. If people in 2068 can hear “Tears of Rage” in the quality that I’m hearing on this winter day, they will never forget it.
Lammers is a Plain Dealer assistant news editor
© 2005 The Plain Dealer