Music Matters 2023 Dazzles

January 10, 2024 0 By JohnValbyNation

Music Matters, the mostly annual audio showcase from Definitive Audio in Seattle, made a welcome return March 8–9 after a two-year pandemic-imposed hiatus. Divided into two two-hour sessions, the 16th edition of the private, ultra-concentrated audio show in miniature saw invitees moving between 20-minute presentations in four rooms, with ample time left for visiting systems in two others and schmoozing with industry legends.

Between several national and regional product premieres, presenters at Music Matters 2023 emphasized the importance of Definitive Audio (with locations in Seattle and Bellevue) to their brands. As if to underscore the dealership’s centrality, star presenters include David Steven, CEO of Cambridge, England–based dCS, audio legend Dan D’Agostino of Arizona-based Dan D’Agostino Master Systems, Mike Latvis (aka Mr. HRS) of Buffalo, New York’s Harmonic Resolution Systems), and Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, which imports and distributes Clearaudio. Which is not to discount the importance of Will Kline of Sonus Faber, Bill Peugh and Dave Ellington of Wilson Audio, Ken Zelin of McIntosh, Gordon Inch—who traveled many miles from Scotland’s Linn Audio—Bob McConnell of Transparent Audio, John Giolas and Emron Mangelson of dCS, Bill McKiegan of D’Agostino, Brad O’Toole of HRS and Vandersteen, Kathleen Thomas and Russell Warnhoff of Sony, Mike Hickman and Jeff Davis of Bowers & Wilkins, Matt Denton of Cinematic, Tim Schafbuch of Kaleidoscape, Brian Powers of JL Audio, July Yepez from Stewart Filmscreen, and perhaps others whose names I didn’t catch but whose ire I may soon feel.

I began in Definitive’s Reference Theater space. While plush new seating is on its way—for now, folding chairs took its place—no speakers were visible. Instead, a massive Atmos array of Bowers & Wilkins CWM8.3D (7 of them), CCM8.5D (4), and CWM8.3D and CCM8.5D speakers (starting prices between $3200 and $5000each) was secreted in the walls and ceiling. Also hidden was the top-line, 10,000 lumen Sony GTZ380 projector (approx. $90,000) whose X1 Ultimate Processor has since trickled down into other Sony models. Also hidden was the fact that the wall paneling by Cinematic can move in and out. (I hope I got that right.) Please note: All prices are base prices.

Stereophile’s province is audio, but slumming in video land was a feast for the senses. A projector recalibration produced the clearest, most vivid, and most three-dimensional video I have witnessed. Major time devoted to Rebecca Ferguson’s slushy, over-milked segment from The Greatest Showman (fabulously sung by Loren Allred), a Lady Gaga scene from A Star is Born, and Tom Cruise hitting 10Gs in Top Gun Maverick. (Claudio Abbado’s version of Gustav Mahler’s heart-rending Symphony No. 5 ended, regrettably, mid-bar after only a few seconds of music.) Hollywood has come a long way since Fred Astaire danced up a wall and onto the ceiling. Or has it?

The system was rounded out by a Kaleidescape Strato movie server ($25,995), McIntosh MX180 surround processor with RoomPerfect room correction and 8K video switching ($17,000), two McIntosh MC257 multichannel amplifiers ($11,000/each), four JL Audio IW-F113 in-wall subwoofers ($6050 each), Hollywood on steroids, and who knows what else.

Next up was the exhibit labeled “Large Room / Large Footprint / Lifestyle array,” which included two major debuts: of the Sonus Faber Amati Tradition floorstanders ($36,000/pair) and the McIntosh’s MC3500 Mk II amp ($15,000).

Also heard: Linn Klimax Selekt LP12 turntable ($14,560) and Klimax Selekt dual mono Organik DMS Edition Hub ($12,940), McIntosh C22 preamp ($6500), two JL Audio F113 V2 subwoofers ($6000/each), and Transparent Ref XL series cables and line conditioner.

Kline, who doubled as an ultradiscriminating DJ with a penchant for subversive lyrics, was quick to note that the eye-catching aesthetics of Sonus Faber loudspeakers are a side effect of the materials’ sonic attributes. The new Amati Tradition uses the same natural cellulose/wood pulp, hemp, bamboo, and papyrus for both midrange and woofer to increase coherence. The speaker boasts a redesigned dual voice-coil woofer for better dispersion and control—there’s identical symmetrical flux on both coils—and increased dynamics.

Zelen noted that 2023 marks McIntosh’s 74th anniversary. The company’s redesigned, tubed MC3500 Mk II reintroduces an amp that, in its original version, powered Woodstock (the music festival; that was me in the Peanuts cartoon.) After pairing it with the C22 preamp, Zelen turned volume all the way up (with no music on) to demonstrate that the pairing remained absolutely silent. “It wasn’t the tubes that created the noise,” he said. “It was the internal wiring. So, we removed almost all of the wiring.”

Percussion on “Walking on the Moon” was fabulous: clear, tight, colorful, and exceptional musical. No small credit is due the JL Audio subs. Other tracks, from Highwomen and Morgan Hill, showcased McIntosh’s fabled midrange. Kline ended with a knockout track via David Solomon of Qobuz: Subway Gawdz’s “Warriors,” which, according to my dB meter, has huge amounts of energy at 47Hz (and likely lower). An excellent demo.

I was still catching my breath when I was ushered into the “Ultimate Destination” Clearaudio / dCS / D’Agostino / Wilson room headlined by the Northwest debut of the D’Agostino Relentless Epic 1600 mono amplifiers ($349,500/pair).

At the top of this system, which maintained color and transparency at surprisingly low volume, were the Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable with Goldfinger cartridge (approx. $72,500) and the three-piece dCS Vivaldi Apex Stack (Vivaldi Apex DAC / Master Clock / Upsampler Plus) with Rossini SACD transport ($121,000 total). Sticking to threes, the preamp was the mighty D’Agostino Relentless ($149,500) supplemented by the Momentum phono stage ($32,500). Two D’Agostino Momentum M400 MxV mono amplifiers ($79,950/pair), which I’m currently reviewing, powered a pair of Wilson Audio Subsonic subwoofers ($77,800/pair). The two Relentless Epic 1600 monos devoted all their power to a pair of gorgeous, one-of-a-kind “Four Seasons Summer” finish Wilson XVX loudspeakers (upwards of $349,000/pair). Add Transparent Magnum Opus cabling / line conditioner and a top level HRS VXR audio rack ($40,000+), and you’re well beyond the money-can-buy-you-happiness-at-least-for-a-little-while threshold.

Tonal color was spot-on natural, bass fabulously huge and all of a piece on the “Marche du soldat” from the SACD version of the Grand Suite from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat with Paavo Järvi conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. (The record is available in 24/96 on Qobuz.) The midrange sounded gorgeous on Lady Blackbird’s “Fly Blackbird,” and bass was superb, with natural colors, on Club for Five’s version of Dire Straits’s “Brothers in Arms.”

Steven noted that while dCS has much of the equipment in the room in its Cambridge headquarters / factory, the four companies showing together have no financial relationship. Rather, they work closely with each other because of their mutual desire for excellence. I don’t recall if it was Steven or I who inspired the quote, “I want to get as far into the music as I can,” which I wrote in my notebook, because either of us could have thought and said it.

Before playing a well-worn excerpt from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Leerer noted that he’s been listening to vinyl since age 4. A day short of 65 years later, he introduced D’Agostino, who noted that the Epic upgrade to the Relentless, which is performed in the field for those who already own Relentless amps, involves changes to every audio stage. Much of this technology has trickled down into the Momentum M400 MxV, the third iteration of the Momentum mono amplifier, the amp with which Dan D’Agostino launched the company.

From there to the Reference Audio room, with the smaller footprint Wilson Audio Alexia V loudspeakers ($67,500/pair) and three Linn Klimax products—the LP12 turntable ($30,970), Organik streaming preamp ($42,000), and Klimax solo mono amps ($29,340/pair). Latvis introduced the new, lowest price HRS EXR stands. Available in custom dimensions to fit individual components, the EXR stands are upgradable to the highest level via compatible add-ons. (Prices range from $7995 for the 4-shelf stand to $1575 for the amp stands and $695 for sets of four amp stand spikes). McConnell, in turn, touted Transparent’s “fully bespoke” cable system. A highlight of the room was the infinitely sweet sound of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin on Rey’s Theme from John Williams’s score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In the “Hi-Fi for small spaces” room, Mangelson treated me to a one-on-one comparison between the new dCS Bartók Apex DAC ($20,950) in its Northwest debut and its non-Apex predecessor. I’ll leave it to Herb Reichert, who is reviewing Bartók Apex, to provide specifics and only note that it, like Rossini Apex and Vivaldi Apex, is in every respect a major advance on its predecessor. Apex is anything but a “you need golden ears to discern the difference” upgrade; I expect that even folks with hearing aids can easily hear how superior it is.

Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4 loudspeakers ($38,000/pair) made the differences as clear as day … a day in Florida or Arizona—not in the Pacific Northwest or California this time of year. I unfortunately missed the debut of the Hana Umami Blue cartridge ($2500), which sang in the Universal arm of a Clearaudio Ovation turntable ($15,000) with outboard power supply ($3500).

I ended my tour in the dCS Lina lounge. There, I used the new, three-piece Lina headphone amplifier ($10,750) / DAC ($13,600) / Master Clock ($7700; $32,050, total) to compare the sound of Rickie Lee Jones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on four very different headphones: the Meze Elite, Audeze LCD5, the Abyss 1266, and the HiFiMan Susvara. For the latter two, which are far harder to drive, Mangelson upped Lina’s output from 2V to 6V. No sweat.

The treatment of Jones’s voice and accompaniment were completely different on the bass-heavy Meze Elite and ultra-transparent, vocally flattering Audeze LCD5’s. Bonus points for readers who can figure out which headphones I’m sporting in the photo. Given how ugly my mask is—hey, it has kept me safe on plane ride after plane ride and show after show—I’m only showing the rear view.

Back to the Lina. I only took a brief listen to the new dCS Crossfeed technology, which addresses the channel isolation endemic to headphones, but I heard enough to know that its potential contributions to the head-fi experience are major. There are three settings: Standard, Expanse, and Expanse 2. Headphone devotees will have a ball with this new portal to head-fi bliss.

Did I really do all of that in a bit more than two hours? With ample time for questions with designers and other knowledgeable company representatives, there’s nothing quite like Music Matters. With a huge thank you to Sean Skelley, Definitive Audio’s new CEO and owner, here’s to next year!

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