Music Matters Returns to Definitive Audio Seattle

With the COVID-19–related cancelation of Munich High End and the postponement or cancelation of other national and regional audio shows, smaller, local events such as Seattle’s 15-year old Music Matters event, which returned to Definitive Audio Seattle on March 5–6, have gained importance—at least as long as they are able to avoid being shut down. This two-evening gathering featured six complete set-ups introduced by top industry designers, manufacturers, and distributors. Among the luminaries present were Dan D’Agostino of Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems (introduced in the photo by Hans Brackmann, Manager of Definitive Audio Seattle) and William (Bill) Low, founder/chief designer at AudioQuest.

MM15, which also celebrated the 45th year of Definitive Audio’s existence, took on a different format this year. Instead of an open-to-all event at which hundreds of audiophiles cued up in the long lines to attend 20-minute presentations (between noshing, checking out the headphone bar, and kibitzing in the lobby), MM15 was invitation-only, offering 30-minute presentations only to Definitive’s best customers. All MM exhibits will remain on display for the rest of March.

All seating, tables, and other surfaces were wiped down with disinfectant and food was dispensed by servers instead of being accessed by guests in finger–free-for-all fashion. Nonetheless, COVID-19 concerns almost certainly lowered attendance; it certainly made navigating Seattle’s usually busy traffic a breeze.

Before the show began, McIntosh Director of Sales Training Ken Zelin showed me a silent display of McIntosh’s MA352 integrated amplifier ($6500). Introduced last September, this distinctive, retro-looking analog-only baby, with phono stage, outputs 200Wpc into 8 ohms and 300Wpc into 4 ohms. What’s not retro is the ability to adjust cartridge loading from your chair.

Linn’s Ivor Tiefenbrun-designed top-of-the-line turntable, the Klimax LP12, has a new Karousel bearing. The third bearing since the table’s introduction in 1973—the table boasts the longest continual manufacturing run in the history of hi-fi—this single-point bearing is the turntable’s foundation. According to Linn Brand Ambassador Gordon Inch, the Karousel bearing “lowers the noise floor and elevates the performance of every one of the 100,000 Klimax LP12 turntables ever made.” Models with older bearings can be retrofitted with the new bearing along with a new inner platter, drive belt, and suspension rings for $975. From March 23–April 22, LP12 owners who spend $4000 on new Linn equipment will receive the upgrade without charge.

Also in the system: Linn Exact Active Akubarik speakers ($35,750/pair), Klimax DSM streaming preamplifier ($23,380), and Symbol Audio rack. I regret that I ran out of time before I could take a listen.

For the first time in its history, Music Matters featured not one but two home theater set-ups. The one billed as “The Ultimate for Music & Movies,” with an ultimate cost of $250,000 (divorce settlement not included), was built around Wilson Audio loudspeakers, McIntosh electronics, dCS digital gear, video components from Kaleidescape and Samsung, and Transparent cabling.

Coincidentally, both theater systems played the same fabulous sequence from Ford vs. Ferrari where Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) takes Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) for a joy ride. As former competitive race car driver Alvin Lloyd of Grand Prix Audio told me, elements of this movie are like pages from his life. The sound was surprisingly natural and lifelike—a far cry from what I heard in Port Townsend’s diminutive Rose Theater—with a beauty that I did not expect from a home theater system.

Wilson’s contribution centered around its most popular speaker, the Sasha DAW ($38,000/pair), augmented by two of its least expensive Watch Dog subwoofers (2 × $10,000), Mezzo center speaker with stand ($18,000), and, in the rear, Alida wall-mounted speakers ($13,900). Everything meshed thanks to Wilson’s new John Curl-designed Activ XO crossover ($4,500). In introductory remarks, Wilson’s Bill Peugh noted that the drivers in the Watch Dogs can match with those in any Wilson loudspeaker, regardless of price.

On a track by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Peugh demonstrated how the subs, which crossed over at 30Hz, helped define acoustic space, add gravitas to piano, and enable everything above the bass foundation to sound more natural, relaxed, and compelling. The effect was subtle but convincing.

Zelen also exhibited McIntosh’s C1100 preamplifier ($14,000)—“a tube preamp with no noise”—MC1.25kw monoblock amplifiers ($25,000/pair), MX123 Surround Processor ($8,000), and MC257 7-channel amplifier ($10,000); that last component can drive both a 2-channel system and multichannel home theater. Add the dCS Rossini DAC/Player ($28,500), Kaleidescape Strato C movie player ($5,000), Samsung QN98Q900R 98” 8K television ($70,000), and Transparent cabling, and you had a system that sounded smooth, relaxed, and compelling on excerpts from La La Land, Bruce Springstein’s Western Stars, and the aforementioned FvsF. I’d never heard a Wilson/dCS/McIntosh set-up before and was delighted by its musicality.

[NAD Dali 1 or 2]

For the first showing of DALI loudspeakers at Definitive Audio, David Carr of The Sound Organization & David Solomon of Qobuz had a ball with a $5000 system comprised of DALI (Danish Audio Loudspeaker Industries) Oberon 7 speakers ($1,500/pair), the NAD M10 Hypex NCore Class D streaming integrated amplifier ($2,750), and Transparent Audio’s 10’ Music Wave speaker cabling and Powerbank line conditioner. The DALI drivers use wood fiber pulp cones whose uneven surfaces help break up resonances. Despite the bleeding chunks demo, with bits of Illinois Jacquet, the infernal Dance of the Tumblers, Steely Dan, Janelle Manae and Dominique Fils-Aimé played just long enough to make me wish I could have heard more, I found the bass extremely impressive. Solomon noted that a Qobuz subscription now costs $15/month for streaming up to 24/192 resolution.

While the cynical might consider the “Sound as Art” billing of the $125,000 Sonus faber / Audio Research / dCS / Clearaudio / AudioQuest system to be hype, I found the sound the smoothest, most relaxed, most “I want to listen more and more” at Music Matters. That’s another way of saying that I fell in love with the system’s mellow midrange, which made delicious sound on the “Woodstock” track on the 2018 LP Here If You Listen by David Crosby with Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis and Michael League (of Snarky Puppy)—Stereophile’s Recording of the Month, I believe, from April 2019.

Horns were handled wonderfully on a Count Basie LP, with huge dynamics and powerful slam. Equal thumbs up for a track by Rickie Lee Jones. Hey, I even enjoyed Chris Jones’s well-worn—some would say “tired”—“No Sanctuary Here,” whose title speaks for itself. Without question, my favorite system of the evening—equally compelling on analog and digital—and a real coup for the debut of AudioQuest biwire speaker cables, entry-level Audio Research tube and dCS digital products, the complex Clearaudio front end, and the eye-pleasing Sonus faber Olympica Nova V speakers ($16,500/pair). Those speakers, which debuted last fall, mated well with the company’s Gravis III subwoofer ($2750), a new product.

Detailing the rest of this system gets rather complicated. It’s easy to note the Audio Research VT80SE amplifier ($9,500) and LS23 preamplifier ($8,500), dCS Bartok streaming DAC and headphone amplifier ($16,500), AudioQuest cabling, and Bassocontinuo Accordion rack. But Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings reports that there were different Clearaudio tables and phono stages for different tracks: “Clearaudio Innovation with Universal 12″ arm and Jubilee MC cartridge with Absolute Phono for “Woodstock” and Chris Jones ($38k complete); Concept with Satisfy Black, Maestro v2 MM cartridge, and Nano phono stage for Count Basie ($3,950 complete); and Ovation with Universal 9″, Stradivari MC, and Balanced v2 phono stage for Ricki Lee Jones ($18,250 complete).

Coming in around a cool million, Music Matters’ ultimate system paired Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX speakers ($325,000/pair); D’Agostino’s Relentless monoblocks ($250,000/pair), Momentum HD Preamplifier ($40,000), and Momentum phono stage ($28,000); dCS Vivaldi DAC, Upsampler, and Master Clock ($73,000) with the dCS Rossini CD/SACD disc transport ($23,500); HRS VXR Audio Stand ($63,000); Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable ($54,000), with its Innovation turntable stand ($14,000) and Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge ($16,000); and Transparent’s Magnum Opus balanced interconnects and speaker cables, Reference XL digital cables, and assorted power cables and power isolators.

Because Dan D’Agostino egged on Wilson’s Peter Mc Grath to turn the volume up and then up some more, the realization of that goal could be heard loud and clear, save when the music was so loud that I, who was seated in the first row’s sweet spot, had no choice but to put my fingers in my ears. A wirelessly streamed 24/96 MQA file of a 2010 performance by Hugh Masekela, released posthumously, nailed the timbre of the late horn player’s trumpet like no system I have ever heard. The bass on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” made me jump, and the volume of the theorbo on a baroque tack could have rendered a real theorbo gutless. (Paul Miller, Stereophile’s editorial director, measured, for Hi-Fi News, that the Relentless can output 11,750Wpc of output from the Relentless into 1 ohm.)

If the “ultimate” home theater system scored for power, finesse, and sonic beauty, the $100,000 “Music Lover’s Theater” scored on volume, brute force, and detail. Excerpts included most of the fabulous shake ‘em loose scene from Ford vs. Ferrari, Jack Malick’s eponymous Yesterday scene, and a dressed-to-the-hilt Michelle Williams knocking it out of the sonic ballpark in a scene from The Greatest Showman that was so romantically overhyped as to make the writers of Hallmark cards blush. But that’s no reflection on the excellence of the Bowers & Wilkins 804D3 speakers ($10,000/pair), HTM2D3 center speaker and stand, 805D3 speakers and stands, and CWM7.5 in-wall speakers; two JL Audio F113 subwoofers ($5000/each); Anthem AVM60 surround preamplifier and two MCA 525 5-channel amplifiers; Kaleidescape Strato C movie player ($5,000), Sony VPL-VW885 laser projector ($25,000), and Stewart Studiotech 140″ 2.35 Screen that took this system over the top.

With its combination of dedicated listening rooms and relative intimacy, Music Matters offers an experience that few audio shows can equal. Here’s to Music Matters 16, and to everyone’s health and safety between now and then.

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