Definitive Audio's Definitive Music Matters 13

Having fun at Music Matters 13: Peter McGrath (Wilson), Josh Clark (Transparent Cable), and Stereophile's Jason Victor Serinus (photo, Peter McGrath).

Hailed as the finest public audio retailer event in the United States, Definitive Audio's 13th annual Music Matters event on March 8 drew a huge crowd to the store's Seattle location. Having now covered four Music Matters, I can state with certainty that the sound at MM13 surpassed that heard on previous occasions, and showcased equipment in the best possible light.

Everything looked ready as music lovers entered the 4-hour event as the clock struck 5. By the time the picture below was taken in front of the room where Magnepan's three-panel 30.7 Reference loudspeaker ($30,000/pair) was having its one-day-after world premiere, lines to get into the store's six fully outfitted and tuned listening rooms were immense.

With six 25-minute in-room demonstrations staggered to begin on half and quarter hours, and other listens possible at the store's well-stocked headphone bar, it was possible to take everything in, eat and imbibe, and still have time left over to share experiences with fellow audio lovers. The seriousness of attendees was reflected in the fact that not once during the demos was my concentration disrupted by people chatting away beside me.

There were multiple regional and worldwide premieres. Besides the mammoth Magnepan set-up, which company founder Wendell Diller had snuck out the gate at a Portland dealership the night before, Linn Managing Director Gilad Tiefenbrun unveiled the Linn Akurate DSM with Katalyst architecture ($10,500) and Linn PP12 with Urika II ($26,000). Naim Audio Electronic Design Director Steve Sells was on hand for the Pacific North West premiere of the attention-deserving Naim Statement amp/preamp combo ($270,000), dCS General Manager John Quick unveiled a prototype of the Rossini transport (approx. $22,000, coming to the Munich show in May), Josh Clark introduced the West Coast Premiere of Transparent Audio’s XL PowerIsolator ($7995), and Bill McKiegan, Dan D'Agostino Master Systems Director of Sales, displayed the mammoth meter that will grace the front of the company's Relentless megawatt amplifier ($TBD), to be unveiled in Munich. In addition, many attendees got their first listen to two Sonus Faber loudspeakers that were recently added to Definitive's impressive list of audio brands), and to the DS Audio Master One optical phono cartridge/phono stage ($22,000).

One of the coolest things at the headphone bar was Chord's relatively new Hugo2 ($2395), which can be used as either a headphone amp/preamp or a fixed output DAC. This little baby, complete with four filter settings, offers its own portable light show. As volume changes, the revolving volume button's color changes from red to white, with any number of colors in between. Filter settings also change colors. I tried to video Bluebird Music's Richard Colburn operating the unit as colors changed, but reflections from the overheard lights got in the way.

I also took my first listen to Audeze's LCD-MX4 headphones ($2995), the lovechild of the LCD-X headphones ($1200) I use. The extra bass and weight I heard in a demo by the company's Tony Hamilton left me wishing that I could have used these babies, rather than the LCD-X, in my forthcoming review of the LG-V30 smartphone.

Wilson Audio's Alexx loudspeaker ($109,000/pair) and Naim Statement combo (which outputs 746Wpc into 8 ohms) were paired with a full dCS Vivaldi digital system ($115,000), Clear Audio Master Innovation turntable with Goldfinger cartridge and Absolute phono stage, HRS RXR stand ($6000) and Transparent Opus cabling ($150,000 total). This system absolutely blew me away. Assembled by a team that included, from left to right in the photo, Quick, Sells, Clearaudio's Robert Suchy, and Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath and Bill Peugh, this system revealed subtle shifts in timbre, dynamics, and expressive nuance on some of my prized SACDs that I had never heard on any other system, regardless of price.

Thanks to multiple breathtaking revelations of detail—I do not invoke that adjective lightly—the extremely neutral of Jaime Laredo's violin in McGrath's recent live recording of the KLR Trio performing Dvorak's Dumky Trio was startlingly real. Instrumental weights were believable, the playing perfectly in tune and exquisite, and the emotions communicated by the musicians a joy to experience. Devoid of artificial sweetness and glare—I heard absolutely no distortion—but just a mite dry, the system revealed every intention of artist and composer. The bass foundation in Vadim Gluzman's performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto was perfectly conveyed, and the force of attack at the concerto's start was stunning.

That was in a pre-show audition. By the time of the event, where I saved this room for last, highs sounded more real, open and alive than in any other room. The soundstage was sensationally albeit not ostentatiously large, and balance between lows, mids, and highs seemed true-to-life. (No seductive albeit artificial midrange emphasis here.) On digital, everything from Marilyn Crispell/Gary Peacock jazz to Dire Straits to Jordi Savall sounded tuneful and compelling. Equally laudable was Peter McGrath's statement about the importance of honoring local dealers who can provide personal support. A star showing all the way.

From everywhere in the room—I visited twice—Linn's Akurate DSM digital system with 4th generation Katalyst architecture, Klimax LP12 with Ulrika II, Akurate 4200 amp ($7600), Bowers & Wilkins 803D3 speakers ($17,000/pair), Quadraspire stand and Transparent cabling delivered the best sound (albeit far too loud) I've ever heard from a Linn set-up at Music Matters. In direct comparison with its predecessor, the new Akurate digital delivered more bass foundation. The Klimax LP12 Ulrika II's digitally-enhanced processing of the RIAA curve lowered noise, and also delivered better tonality and significantly tighter and stronger bass than its predecessor on Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." Whether bass was too strong is something I'm unsure of. Owners of Klimax turntables made in 2007 or later will be able to upgrade to Ulrika II.

Thanks to Definitive's exacting speaker positioning expert, Gary Breustle, who also helped set up the Wilson Alexia loudspeakers in my own system, the Magnepan/D'Agostino Progression stereo amp/preamp combo ($22,000 each), dCS Rossini system ($32,000 with clock) and forthcoming Rossini transport, Clear Audio Innovation Wood turntable ($11,000) with AMG 12JT Turbo tonearm ($8500) and DS Audio Master1 optical cartridge/pre combo—as in all but two rooms, paired with HRS stand and Transparent cabling—sounded excellent. K.D. Lang's voice, as well as Adele's in MQA, sounded magical, and percussion was very fast.

After Quick explained how dCS distilled down its multi-box Vivaldi technology into the far less expensive single-box Rossini, he unveiled the forthcoming Rossini CD/SACD transport which uses a Denon mechanism (above). On a Deep Purple SACD, guitar and bass sounded great. Superlatives are also due the Clearaudio set-up, which conveyed the sound of steel-string guitar on a LP chosen by Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer with ear-opening veracity. Highs were extremely clear and beautifully presented.

Equipped with a Sony VPLVW885ES projector ($25,000) & UBPX100ES Blu-ray player ($700), Trinnov Altitude 16 preamp ($16,000) & two Amplitude 8 amps ($13,500 each), five Bowers & Wilkins 802D3 speakers ($22,000/pair), two JL Audio F113v2 subs ($4500/each), and Transparent cabling, the Jon Herron-tuned 5.2.4 system in the home theater room was a mini-version of set-ups found in mixing rooms at Skywalker Studios and Capitol Records. It made a good case for multi-channel audio reproduction.

Sonus Faber loudspeakers may be new to Definitive Audio, but they sounded right at home. In the smaller of two set-ups, Sonus Faber Guarneri Tradition standmounts ($16,000/pair with stands) mated with a Clear Audio Ovation turntable ($10,000) and Benz LP S cartridge ($6000), Transparent Ultra cabling (approx. $10,000 total), and Audio Research's PH9 phono preamp ($7500), DAC9 DAC ($7500) LS28 linestage preamp ($7,500), and VT80SE amp ($8900) to produce really nice, open sound with beautiful highs. For some reason, the speaker/room interaction sent high treble so high toward the ceiling that, on a Rickie Lee Jones track that included some bright tinkly instrumental effects, both the man next to me and I looked up on multiple occasions to try to figure out what was going on.

Although I didn't have time to take a photo of Roon's new Nucleus ($1398) and Nucleus Plus ($2498) music servers, their differences include the processor and size of RAM and SSD. As explained by the company's Steve Silberman, Roon allows for bit-perfect streaming, up-sampling or sample-rate conversions, and can even load a convolution filter (for room equalization) from sources such as Room EQ Wizard. Music streamed over Definitive's internal network, which was getting an intense workout all evening, sounded super.

Sonic dislocation aside, sound was drop dead gorgeous on a track by Sam Smith sourced through Roon, and notably spacious as well. Frankly, it was the best sound I've ever heard in this room. On my way out, I asked Audio Research's Dave Gordon to keep me in mind for a possible review of the new amplifier (above).


Next door, after Brad O'Toole touted HRS's isolation systems as " the only stand in the world specifically designed for audio," Sonus Faber brand manager Will Kline showcased their Lilium speakers ($70,000/pair) allied with the West Coast premiere of Transparent Audio's XL Power Isolator, and McIntosh's D1100 ($13,000) with MCT450 for digital playback ($4500), MT10 turntable ($10,500), C1100 preamp ($13,000)—"the quietest tube preamplifier known to mankind," we were told—and MC1.25kW amps ($25,000/pair). Did you know that that the Power Isolator addresses electrical phase shifts that affect tonality, and that McIntosh powered the Grateful Dead's Wall of Sound?

Sound was again three-dimensional. even more distinctive than next door in the midrange, and very strong in the bass department, with excellent slam. There was also less of that unfathomable high trebele upward throw. The system was ear-openingly fast with an excellent top and superb bottom, and easy on the ears at high volume.

Hats off to Definitive's owners, Mark Ormiston and Craig Abplanalp (left and right above), store manager Hans Brackmann, event master-woman Michelle Troupe, and the entire Definitive Audio staff for another great-sounding, smoothly run event. Here's to many, many more.

supamark's picture

how the cabling for a system could (or for any rational person would) be the most expensive part but for the small Sonus Faber system they were (Transparent Ultra, ~$25k). That's more than the combined cost of the Audio Research phono pre, line stage, and amps (~$24k). That cabling cannot possibly contribute more to the sound, or possibly cost as much to engineer and produce, as those fine AR components. Or those lovely speakers (which ain't exactly cheap, but recently well reviewed here!).

Swap out that Transparent cable for the lowest cost like AudioQuest or Kimber or whomever (still good stuff, under $1k total) and that system will still sound great, but swap out that equipment (keeping the $25k cabling) for like some low end Pro-Ject, Cambridge, and/or NAD stuff and it'll still sound pretty not very good no matter what cables you use.

This is, I think, a big part of why a lot of peope think ultra expensive cabling is ridiculous. $50 for one analog interconnect pair? Sure, okay. $5k? get outta here.

On another note, maybe more retailers around the US can do this sort of thing and fill in the "show gap" for most of the country.

PaulMG's picture

There is nothing to be understood when it comes to the sonic attributes of audio cables as long as the reflections are based on the most simplified theories and basic assumption about electrical wires. But there is a lot to be heard when comparing cables - especially power cords and speaker cables. Just had a demo with power cables from Ansuz staring with the “cheapest” model costing some 5 k$ and finally ending with the reference cable costing some 30 k$. The differences in sound quality were not marginal at all when listening to a highly resolving stereo system. A simple computer based music server was selected as sound source!

supamark's picture

the power of placebo. Let me tell you a story that every recording engineer who's recorded multitrack rock/pop/country/etc has experienced:

One day I'm recording a band, and the bass gtr isn't sitting quite right so I grab the EQ and start messin' with it to better situate it tonally in the mix. We all hear the sound changing, but it's still not right. I plugged in a 1/3 octave graphic EQ (instead of the mixer's semi-parametric) and again we all heard the sound of the bass change but it wasn't quite right. Turns out (and since we all heard it, we all laughed about it) the EQ wasn't engaged and the changes in sound were in our heads the whole time.

Moral of this story - spending $30k (or even $1k) on a power cable is not a good use of money (a decent power conditioner is a much better use), and what you think you heard wasn't actually happening. A $30k power cable is really no different than the Tice Clock (if you're old enough to remember that bit of silly).

PaulMG's picture

Indeed, that your personal EQ-story revealing the strong effects of your autosuggestion. But this doesn’t tell anything about my double-blinded cable test! :-)

RafaPolit's picture

I can appreciate the fact that a $30k cable was not subtly better than their own rendition of a $5k cable.

I'm more interested in your view (specially if you are THE Paul McGowan!) regarding how would you compare the 'entry level' $5k power cable to a more modest cable from other companies, or even to a stock power cable with just a ferrite hub. Is it really night and day? Would this be less obvious with 'lesser' hi-if equipment (amps in the $2k range) or is it in those lower equipment (probably more prone to being affected by current issues) where the differences would be greater?

Thanks for any insight, best regards,
Quito, Ecuador.

PaulMG's picture

No, I am not the CEO of PS Audio. The “M” stands for “Michael”. You put an interesting question I can only answer theoretically. It is common knowledge today that the quality of the mains (from an audiophile view of course) is heavily polluted by the gear all around sucking the current. Your stereo rack is filled with gear featuring too more or less noisy power supplies whose rectifiers or switching mode design emit a lot of distortion to the power bar distributing this unwanted “noise” backwards to all components. If a good power cable acts like a noise filter the effect on the sound quality should be audible even with less expensive components whose modest power supplies might radiate even more noise. The unknown element in the game is the speaker you have. But I strongly believe that there will be an effect. If this effect would will justify the expenses for the high quality cable that will be a most individual issue. The same question concerns tweaks as additional footers, a more expensive rack or platforms for each component all reducing resonance effects.

Audiohack's picture

Not wishing to be pedantic PaulMG, but Paul MCgowan is no longer the CEO of the company he co-founded. As for cables, I do believe that better systems can support better cabling. If you can afford ££££ on a top end system then why not enhance it with top end cabling? I certainly find musical enjoyment and no mains problems here in the UK with my desktop mac based system. My USB lead to my DAC is by Fisual and cost under £10 and I know that spending even £100 on a 'better' USB lead would be false economy.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Not that it change your opinion, supamark, but I was given the wrong price estimate for the cabling in the room with the smaller Sonus Fabers. The total was approx. $10,000 rather than $25,000.

Captain Stereo's picture

You are welcome to stop by one of our showrooms and we can loan you a couple different grades of Transparent Audio cables to compare and contrast. We never suggest that anyone should take our word exclusively over any other examination as it regards very expensive cabling. I would say that once you hear the difference truly superior cables make, you will be faced with one inescapable truth: cables can't improve upon the sound of the components they interconnect. They can only minimize signal degradation as the signal flows from one component to the other. So when you hear a cable make a significant and clearly audible difference? That is how much damage you have avoided. A lot of damage happens from amp to speaker. Anyway, not trying to convince in a comment after an article. But I think it is reasonable to suggest that before you dismiss an idea as absurd that you do due diligence and experience something for yourself. We are happy to help here and do so in a way where you experience it and are not "sold" a concept only. We want you to believe it. But once you hear it, you hear it. And there's no more pretending that it doesn't exist.

mrkaic's picture

"Linn Statement amp/preamp combo ($270,000)"

So "affordable". :)

Does the preamp perform better than the NE5534 op amp you can get for $0.99 on digikey? Just asking.

GromitInWA's picture

Of course it does, but not through any means of assessment as mundane as actual measurements ;)

supamark's picture

that opamp isn't going to provide line level inputs, source selection, or amplify a pair of speakers on its own, is it? What a silly, useless comment you made.

caphill's picture

I just want to clarify something that it was actually the Naim Statement moonoblock amps/preamp combo that retail for $270k, not the Linn. There's no such as a Linn Statement gears. Linn comes with 3 different line or series : Klimax, Akurate, and Magik. The Klimax is Linn's top of line series and do not retail for $270k. The new Linn Klimax DS with Katalyst DAC architecture retails for $30k whereas the Linn Klimax Solo Chakra 500 monoblock amps retail for $25k/pair. These are for the non-Exakt system or setup. The Exakt setup or system would cost more depending which Linn Exakt Aktiv speakers you're using.

Anyways, the Naim Statement gears, which are Naim's flagship and statement gears, are phenomenal sounding gears. I was at this Music Matters event at Definitive Audio in Seattle last thursday and I got to listen to that fabulous reference listening room that consists of Wilson Alexx speakers, Naim Statement monoblock amps + preamp, DCS Vivaldi stacks served as digital front end components and the Clear Audio TT with its phonostage. All cables were Transparent Opus. This was the best sounding room for sure.

Definitive is one of my favorite hifi store here in greater Seattle area as I do live here in Seattle.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for pointing out my slip-up. At least I got it right in subsequent mentions.
Yes, the Naim Statement does sound incredible. The whole room did.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The Linn Akurate DSM digital system will not be a Roon endpoint, per se. Rather, by the end of April, it will utilize Linn's Songcast Direct streaming to integrate with Roon.

PAR's picture

Such a young crowd. Why some even had hair!

Allen Fant's picture

Outstanding! coverage JVS
Beautiful pics as well. The people in the greater Seattle area are very fortunate to have a dealer/retailer like Definitive Audio.
I can certainly vouch for Transparent Cabling- the higher one goes up the chain, the sweeter the musical reward. And yes, I have heard the mighty OPUS MM2 series on several occasions. Highly Suggested!

Catcher10's picture

That this event falls on a date that I am booked and cannot attend. My desire is to hear some of these uber priced McSystems and either leave crying cause I don't have the winning PowerBall ticket or smiling because my current system is within a few clicks of reasonableness......

Trace's picture

I was at the event and could stay for a bit. I came to hear the Mag demo. I have been to this evnt before and it has always been overcrowded to the point of claustrophobia. I write this as an acclaim to Mr. Serinus' excellent review, He has appraisesd the rooms for which I did nor have time or the critical ear and picked up the nuances and features I overlooked, All this in understandable language without dumbing down. I reread it a few time so as not to miss anything. Definitve presented a good buffet table abd by the line and full plates others came to eat rather than listen. This review was much appreciated to supplement my lack of endurance and quality of hearing. I do hope he does more and to JVS thank you.