When I think about the biggest mistakes of my life, selling my records ranks just behind gambling against Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the 90s. Dumb with a capital “D”, on both counts. But I’m not one to look in the rear view mirror and long for the road not traveled (or for the Jazz to double team with 2 minutes in the 4th of game 6), so its about making the best of the path you’re on.
In my case, its digital. But “digital” is suddenly no longer simply about Redbook CD players; it can also include SACD, DVD-A, DVD-Video, and now even PC-based audio formats, such as MP3. While DVD-Video & MP3 are widely adopted formats, we sad audiophiles will rue the day that SACD and DVD-A fail for lack of market penetration, as they both are audibly superior to Redbook. So if you’re in the market for some new digital gear, what does it mean for you, dear reader? If you’re like me, it means that Redbook playback is the primary consideration when auditioning a digital player, whereas SACD and DVD-A playback are a “nice to have”; after all, you don’t buy a car unless you’re sure its fuel will be sold at the local station.
Which leads me to the subject of this review: the Muse Polyhymnia Multi-Format Digital Player.
Background & Specs
Little known to me, Muse Audio has been in business since 1989, based in southern California under the leadership of Kevin Halverson. Muse produces digital products, along with preamps & amps, and the Polyhymnia is the entry-level model of the MAP (Modular Audio/video Platform) digital product line.
This thing plays everything: Redbook CDs, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, and MP3 (though MP3, by virtue of its compression technology, is an audibly inferior format, which helps explain why there’s no audiophile-grade iPods). So, chances are if you have it on a standard-sized shiny disc, the Polyhymnia will play it. Better yet, the Muse Polyhymnia can be configured with the following options:
* A built-in volume control
* Analog inputs
* Multi-channel analog outputs
Collectively, these options enable you to use the Muse as a 2- or multi-channel preamp and go straight to your amplifier (my review sample didn’t have these options, and I really wish it did). It’s hard to imagine more features being built into such a svelte chassis.
Setup & Operation
Let me say right up front that I don’t care about video. My listening room has a TV but, in my defense, it’s an 11” jobber from 1983, and it’s tucked neatly into a corner so that it can collect dust in a most unobtrusive manner. Thus, the DVD-V performance of the Muse Polyhymnia was never a focus for me or a consideration for this review. (After all, would you like me to comment on picture quality while using an 11” TV from 1983?)
There’s really little to operating this player, as it automatically reads whatever digital format is loaded, but I’ll touch on a few points of interest. Build quality is perfectly adequate; its not over-engineered or (worse still) obvious that most of the manufacturing costs went into a pretty triple anodized faceplate; in fact, its very Plain Jane in appearance—maybe too plain for some who get off on aesthetics.
The unit has the “On/Off” switch on the back by the AC IEC, but once all initial connections are made, the unit is meant to be left “On” ad infinitum, though it will go into a “standby” state when not in use for about an hour (turns out this is quite relevant, as the unit takes about 2 days after initial connection before it sound optimal). Also, while the manual recommends to only use AC directly from the wall, I ended up receiving much improved sonics from my Silver Circle PP1 v 3.0 power conditioner. The distributor thought that there’d be no problems doing so, and there were none. While power cords & footers (Rollerblocks on a Bright Star Audio sandbox) make clearly audible improvements in transparency, focus & microdynamics, they don’t change the essence of the unit.
The Muse is a fully differential design, which means that theoretically it should sound better with the XLR outputs into a balanced system than it would with RCAs (the unit has both). I must say that when I did listening comparisons between the XLR and the RCA outputs, I had to really focus to pick up the differences, which invariably favored the use of the XLR outputs. The balanced outputs had less grit (similar to the effect that a power conditioner has in removing grit) and better defined bass vs. the single-ended outputs. Now, I was using the same Crystal Cable interconnects on both XLR and RCA, but the connectors were different (Xhadow for XLR and WBT for RCA); I cannot say if the difference in the sonics was a function of the unit, or the interconnects’ connectors, but I will say I doubt anyone will complain about the degree of difference between balanced and single-ended operation.
Finally, a word on the remote: while the one from Einstein “The Tube” preamp wins the award as the “World’s Cheesiest Remote”, it appears the Muse will take the overall title of “World’s Worst Remote”. The Polyhymnia’s remote is overwhelmed with microscopic buttons performing myriad functions that I’ve no idea of, accompanied by descriptive text in a font size of 2. At my count, there are 64, sixty-four!, buttons, all the size of the tip of a pen; even after using the unit for weeks, I always had to hold the thing 9 inches from my face to read the text under the button that would execute the proper command. Now, to its credit, the remote is definitely not short on build quality: In fact, it’s a lot like an elongated 4lb brick, but this has big downsides too. I remember one night while lying on the couch I grabbed the remote oddly and almost dropped it between my thighs. Yup, a 4lb, nut-crunching brick of a remote with enough buttons to launch Space Shuttle Columbia—so, for any would-be comers in the “World’s Worst Remote” competition, this is what you have to top.
I must say, auditioning digital gear is a challenge only exceeded by that from auditioning cables and (worse still) tweaks. I guess it is because, relative to other changes one can make, the differences between audiophile-grade CD players are one of degrees, and nowhere near as drastic as changing from a SET to a SS amp, or from planars to monkey-coffins. Those are night & day changes that exponentially expand one’s basis of experience about the possibility of reproducing the recorded experience in the home; good CD players generally sound more alike than different.
So, with that in mind, take my “absolute” statements in this review for what they are: I’m forced to magnify character, color, and personality of the Polyhymnia in order to convey its performance relative to other players, but a good digital player’s strengths/weaknesses and its overall impact on your system will be far less than were you to change amplifiers or speakers. And this is a good thing: with amps and speakers providing the most pronounced colorations (aka “character”) on the signal, source gear should serve its raison d’etre, which is: deliver as much information as possible with minimal signal colorations, which most high-end digital gear aspires to do. Granted, I recognize this is an ideal, and not possible in real life. Colorations are always present, be it from speakers or cables, even AC outlets, but we should strive for accuracy in the source, because if you lose it upstream, you can never get it back.
After a few days of much-needed warm-up, one of the first things I noticed was the change in the soundstage with the Muse Polyhymnia in place.
Rather than an expansive stage on which billowy performers were loosely defined, the Muse reined the stage in, seldom extending beyond the width of the speakers, but with much improved stage depth, along with a well defined placement and outlines of the performers. The Muse helps me orient non-audiophiles to our hobby; when a newbie is over, I put in a CD and can point to one specific spot in the front of the room and say “the tambourine is right here” and after listening for a few moments, it clicks for them, and they get it. This is high-end audio, and this is what staging is about through the Muse: properly-sized images on a well-focused stage.
Another aspect to the Muse Polyhymnia’s performance that stands out is its Pace, Rhythm and Timing (PRAT). A recent musical find that has terrific sonics of a band in its prime is the recent release by the Ditty Bops, Moon Over the Freeway. This is a band that has an early 20th century flipper persona to it, and the music relies heavily on precise timing between the musicians. The track “Aluminum Can” is an incredible example of a band that’s on, and the Muse captures the precise nature of the interplay between the musicians. CD players that are voiced to overemphasize one aspect to the playback, or those with inadequate power supplies will invariably compromise PRAT; you’ll find yourself turning up the volume trying to find that leading edge, and it never comes. The Muse is very good about not committing those sins, and its competence in PRAT is a testament to its ability to handle transient swings, both macro and micro, with ease.
A close cousin to PRAT is dynamics, and given the Muse’s competence with PRAT it should come as no surprise that it’s excellent on dynamics and snap. Now, if you’ve been following my prior reviews, you’ll be aware how keen I am on recreating dynamics and how difficult it is in the listening room. The Muse has an authority to its presentation that greatly assists in recreating the “live” experience. When listening to another great young artist that I’ve found named Luke Temple, I noticed during the song “Someone Somewhere” that the clarinet and acoustic guitar are launched into the room, whereas with other CD players the music simply rolls into the room. Swapping the Muse into the system reminds me of the effect of an upgraded power supply: there’s a more solid foundation beneath the music.
Furthering that foundation was the Muse’s way with the lower registers. Bass definition and delineation was given with greater pitch, attack, and a more realistic decay, as opposed to the over-ripe rounded bass that typically is found in tube-based components. Now, that over-ripe bass is a lot of fun, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s wrong. Additionally, the Muse presented an extended and clear treble, free from artifacts, glare or etch, which was a pleasant surprise. The treble of my Watt Puppy 6s is usually more inspiring of fear and respect than it is of admiration and love, and thus far my system was carefully tuned around the fear/respect aspects; with the Muse in place, the treble was a bit further towards the “love” end of the spectrum, (I exclusively reserve the unequivocal “love” euphemism for treble performance from the Ion tweeter found in the Accapella speakers). Also, I found the Muse to maintain its composure as the complexity of the music increased. On the Gladiator soundtrack, the performers of the “Battle” track never blurred with the Muse in the system.
I must say that the Muse is a very quiet player. Background noise is significantly beneath that of the Exemplar 2900, which comes as no surprise (as tubes are far more likely to experience background noise than solid state). A stereo’s noise floor is only known when it is improved upon: when you insert or remove an AC conditioner, you’ll hear a difference, ranging from the slight to the extreme.
The lower noise floor of the Muse allowed me to hear deeper into the recording the same way a good power conditioner (like the Silver Circle) will. With noise removed, the space between notes and musicians is more prominent, increasing the drama and the emotional involvement to the music. A terrific recoding that every audiophile should have is The Decemberists, Picaresque. In “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, the band will come to dead silence in parts, and instruments explode out of this silence; with the Muse in place, its hard not to be blindsided by the band restarting its performance, so real is the blackness and so sharp is the leading edge and transient snap.
The biggest nit I have to pick with the unit is the unit’s voicing. I found it to have coolness in lower mids, but in no way was it brrrr cold; it reminded me of walking outside in the morning and expecting 70 degrees, and finding it to be in the low 60s. Now, this is crisp & refreshing, and also implies greater detail (which the unit delivers), but it’s not the way some people (myself included) will prefer their digital playback.
My system is built around the somewhat etched Wilson Watt Puppy 6s, and given that digital is inherently a format prone to an artificially cool tone vis a vis analog, its been an effort to ameliorate the brightness in my system which relies primarily on CD playback through the Watt Puppy’s. Though that goal was accomplished with my reference CD player and choice of cabling/footers/accessories, that critical balance had to be readdressed with the Muse in the chain. However, even with this criticism of the Muse, it’s worth bearing in mind a couple factors: 1) the stock power cord didn’t exhibit this coolness (though it was also dull and inarticulate, so its replacement is recommended), 2) speakers that are not as etched as the Watts will not find this criticism nearly as relevant, and 3) per my review of the Einstein “The Tube” Preamplifier, tone is the easiest aspect to the performance to manipulate; all it takes is a different interconnect or footer, or even as little as a gold-plated AC plug, and this tonal objection is addressed, just as it was in my system.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the unit’s performance on hi-rez formats, namely SACD, in this case. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a DVD-A in my local independent record store — a fact that’s wholly consistent with my fear these formats will not survive.
In listening to some of the Rolling Stones’ SACD remasters, I was completely caught by the exceptional PRAT on display throughout Get Yer YaYas Out. Listening to this live recording, one gets a great sense of that seminal band at its peak, easily noting the interplay between Wyman and Watts, along with Watts’ terrific and vastly underappreciated drumming. Drum strokes attack with realistic/lightning speed, load the room, and move right along, providing a terrific underpinning for the tradeoff between Woods & Richards. I was ready to dance the goofy and play the air-guitar despite fears of heckling were my wife to catch me mid-windmill, and I think this is testament to the unit’s ability to convey the leading edge, dynamics, and gestalt of the Stones at their best. The additional resolution of low level detail, combined with the increased ease and flow of the music, reminded me of a vinyl system. Yup, those shiny discs can sound terrific and they can get the soul of the performance, but it’s usually in the confines of a high-resolution format, and of course requires a playback system as accomplished and competent as the Muse Polyhymnia.
Ultimately, my time with the Muse Polyhymnia Multi-Format Digital Player was thoroughly enjoyable and it is only with great trepidation that I remove it from my system. Although good CD players within the $6,000 price range are not that hard to find, what makes the Muse unique is that it provides the user the option to configure the unit with additional inputs and attenuated outputs, adding significant value to an accomplished universal player.
Here, in one box, you get a player that will generate very good sound (or video) of any shiny disc you put inside of it. The criticisms I have of it, in regards to the remote, midrange tone and stage width are relatively minor, whereas its strengths are numerous and serve the music above all else. If you’re in the market for a player with the Muse’s flexibility, you owe it to yourself to listen to the Muse.
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