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Product Review
 

Muse Model Eleven Universal DVD Player

Part II

September, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus

 

In Use


Muse supplies a substantial aluminum remote control that works with all of their players. The Model Eleven product manual, however, does not fully address its operation. Some of the buttons proved relevant to the Model Eleven, others not. It took me a few minutes to figure out which up and down controlled the built-in volume attenuator.

Most users with a home theater setup will opt to configure this player via their TV or monitor using the OSD (On-Screen Display). Since in my case that involved dragging the TV out of the corner and connecting it to my system, I opted to leave the monitor alone and use the player's default configuration for two-channel CD, SACD, and DVD-A. I didn't have to mess with the TV, which was a relief.

I could not locate a program button on the remote. Even if it's possible to use a TV monitor to program the player to play certain tracks in a preferred order, I much prefer to push a program button on a remote, select tracks, and hit play.

The other feature the Model Eleven lacks and this is a major gripe is a volume level indicator on the player itself. The Theta, for example, shows volume level (0 to 80) in the top right corner of its screen; the Muse does not seem to offer such an option. Maybe it can be seen on a TV screen, but who wants to watch a TV every time they adjust the volume of a CD, SACD, or DVD-A?

Without access to volume levels, performing comparisons between CD and SACD versions of the same material required matching volume levels via a Radio Shack DSP meter. Matching proved an especial challenge when comparing CD, SACD and DVD-A versions of the same material. Not only does the player reproduce these at different volume levels, but the difference in dynamic range between formats makes optimal matching a tricky affair.

Highs

My experiences with this player remained consistent across the board. While CDs had one sound, SACDs another, and DVD-As a third, there was a basic sonic signature common to all. This proved the case even with one of the outstanding Classic Records two-sided DVD-A discs - 24/96 on one side, and 24/192 on the other - that Scot Markwell of TheMusic.com sent me as an example of "DVD-A done right."

I heard several major components of the Muse's sonic signature. The first was high frequency extension. The Theta is exceedingly open on top, reproducing highs with an extension approaching that heard from the San Francisco Symphony in a prime orchestra seat in Davies Symphony Hall. (Other major halls in the Bay Area, including the War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theater, lack such openness). Its high frequency extension resembles that of a moderately dry hall, where highs rapidly decay as one moves farther from the source. The bright, vibrant highs that ring in the best halls were absent from the Muse's presentation.

This does not mean that the Muse's highs are ultimately less satisfying than the Theta's; they're simply different. Indeed, in my exceedingly live room, where the addition of room treatment would undoubtedly improve the sound but threaten the marriage, the Muse's highs sometimes proved easier on the ears than the Theta's. While they didn't engage me quite as much, I could turn up volume higher without encountering a lack of focus caused by room reflection.

Many listeners, including those with bright systems, will love the sound of the Muse's highs. They may be a bit less vibrant and open than I've become accustomed to, but they are quite fine.

CD

The Muse's CD playback was light years ahead of CD reproduction on the previously reviewed Integra DPC 8.5 universal player and the NAD 541i CD player. Although the Muse did not yield the optimal air and depth of the thrice-expensive Theta combo, it offered an invitingly large soundstage that went a long way toward compensating for a certain flatness of image and color.

High on SACD

I spent some time auditioning the Philips DSD hybrid SACD of Mozart Sonatas for Violin and Piano with the estimable Mozart pianist Mitsuko Uchida and violinist Mark Steinberg. This SACD will never win awards for sound quality; the piano is far too distantly recorded, with so much resonance surrounding it as to completely throw off the balance between piano and violin. The recording is also far too midrange prominent; at times, Uchida sounds as though she's playing the 9 foot monster that ate Mozart's fortepiano.

Playing the hybrid disc's CD layer through the Theta, it was easy to distinguish Steinberg's fineness of line riding atop the larger body of his violin's sound. I could distinguish a silvery (if not sugary) thread of sound rising above the resonant body of the violin. The Muse, playing the SACD layer of the same disc, tended to homogenize the violin's sound, with the silvery edge subsumed into the larger body of the instrument's tone. If one wants to speak of microtonal nuance a "money" phrase that is overly bandied about by people I'm not convinced actually hear such subtle differences the Theta definitely takes the prize.

Not only does the Muse downplay high extension, it also makes highs sound a bit less sweet than the Theta. The first time I played the Uchida-Steinberg recording, it was the SACD layer on the Muse. I could not help asking why such a great pianist would choose a partner with such a strident tone. It was only when I played the CD layer on the Theta that I realized that Steinberg's tone is less strident than piquant. His spicy edge actually provides a nice contrast with the piano's overly resonant tone. But it takes a source component that can realistically convey sweetness when it is there without making everything in the mix sound sugary sweet to fully convey what Steinberg is doing.

On SACD at least, the Muse also tended to emphasize the midrange over highs. If Uchida's piano sounded monstrous on the Theta, it sounded grotesquely out of proportion on the Muse. (This is one of those "what was that sound engineer thinking?" recordings).

It is frequently claimed that SACD excels in bringing out a midrange richness that CD cannot capture. Certainly the Muse brought out far more midrange than the Theta. But the Muse did not flatter this particular SACD recording. If it had brought out highs as much as it brought out midrange, it would have been another story. But given what I heard, I thought it best to move on to another recording.

SACD in All its Glory

If we're going to put this player to the test, let's think big. How about auditioning CD and SACD versions of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 - dubbed The Symphony of a Thousand because there were close to 1,000 people onstage for the premiere - and an SACD of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which we might dub a Choral Symphony of Several Hundred.

Let's start low and work up. Telarc has recently resurrected its classic 1982 recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Slatkin, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, and soloists Kathleen Battle and Maureen Forrester. The label recorded the performance in 50 kHz sampling rate Soundstream sound, which offered up to 25 kHz extended frequency response and greater detail than standard 44.1 kHz sampling rate. But because Telarc's final CD product had to be compressed down to 44.1 kHz sampling rate, the Soundstream process' extra response could not be heard by consumers. It is only on this SACD reissue, with the benefits of SACD's 100 kHz frequency response, that we can take full advantage of Telarc's Soundstream process.

Telarc knew (and still knows) how to record bass like no other label. I have NEVER heard a symphonic recording with timpani and double bass that remotely approaches the impact of this recording. And that includes DSD-native SACDs recorded in 2005. The bass on this recording is tremendous.

While there is a modicum of treble stridency on top, an unavoidable symptom of early digital sound, it is mild compared to most other early digital nightmares of the period. I try not to engage in hyperbole, but in remastered SACD format, this disc qualifies as a desert island paradigm of early digital recording art. Given its massive bass, however, be that your desert island isn't precariously perched on an earthquake fault line when you hit "Play."

This Telarc SACD sounds fantastic on the Muse. Bass is superb. Midrange, which I've already noted, receives the full treatment from the Muse, sounds absolutely right: rich, neutral, and true. And the Muse's lack of ultimate high extension is in this case a blessing. Stridency and room reflection are minimized, and detail emerges in all its glory.

What about the soundstage? Out of sight. The sound is everywhere: up, down, left, right, forward, back. Forget that standard albeit at times useful cliche, "the speakers disappear." Let's instead talk about no back wall, no side walls, and a realistic semblance of the depth and air you hear in a live hall resonating with the sounds of a huge Mahler orchestra and chorus. Thrilling is the word.

Leonard Slatkin, alas, is no Leonard Bernstein. The interpretation is somewhat prosaic. Failing to realize that a composer as neurotic as Mahler wrote music that calls for rhythmic freedom, Slatkin stays safely within the confines of the bar. Even as Mahler parts heaven's gates to reveal the glory of the Resurrection, Slatkin continues to count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc.

On the plus side, we gain the opportunity to hear soprano Kathleen Battle in the freshness of youth. On disc at least, it is hard to imagine finer singing of Mahler's soprano solos. The transcendent radiance of Battle's instrument (here magnified by Telarc's intelligent miking), and the magical aura of air and light that surrounds her singing elevate her performance to transcendent dimensions. For Battle and sonics combined, this disc must be heard on an SACD player at least as good as the Muse.

Glory Times One Thousand

My July 2005 Secrets CD/DVD reviews included a review of EMI's new Sir Simon Rattle Berlin Philharmonic CD of Mahler's Symphony No. 8. Although EMI does not anticipate a release in SACD format, the performance sounds quite fine as a two-channel CD.

Because the assembled forces produce such a bright and resonant sound, the CD gained a bit in focus and detail when played in my live room on the Muse. I missed some of Theta's high extension, as well as its admirable depth and air, but the flatter, plainer Muse performance was a bit easier to follow if ultimately less engaging.

Kent Nagano has released a contemporaneous recording of the work on Harmonia Mundi. Several months after it came out in two-channel CD format, HMU's hybrid SACD multi-channel version arrived on my doorstep.

Harmonia Mundi's engineers can't capture bass the way Telarc's engineering team did and do, but they can make a good sounding SACD. After playing the SACD version on the Muse, and comparing it to the CD version on the Theta, the SACD wins hands down. The difference between the two formats is striking: a huge, mammoth, breathtaking soundstage; greater depth and weight to the sound; and a far greater dynamic range. The Muse does a marvelous job with this SACD. (I only wish Nagano had chosen better soloists).

Listening to well-recorded SACDs on the Muse, it is hard to consider returning to CD versions of the same music, even when played through a DAC as superb at the Theta Gen. VIII.

DVD-A

At its best, when reproduced in two-channel, DVD-A can offer 24-bit, 192 kHz sound. Most of time, in multi-channel format, sampling rate does not exceed 96 kHz. Perhaps for this reason, DVD-A heard through the Muse (or any other player, for that matter) did not impress me as much as SACD.

Yes, DVD-A on the Muse is a big step above CD. But with SACD, we're talking Monster strides.

Perhaps part of the responsibility for my disappointment lies with the player itself. Most Universal players excel in one format rather than all. Perhaps the Muse simply does a better job with SACD than DVD-A. Perhaps it's a combination of factors, one being the sonic limitations of DVD-A, the other being the limitations of the Muse. Whatever the reason(s), I'd rather play SACD through the Muse than DVD-A.

Conclusions

The Muse Model Eleven Universal Player does a fine job with CD and DVD-A, and a stunning job with SACD. It has a definite sonic signature, one that in SACD emphasizes the glories of the medium's midrange, verisimilitude, and breathtaking dynamics.

The Model Eleven is certainly the finest Universal player I've heard in my home. I hope Muse doesn't ask for it back anytime soon. You've got to hear this thing.


- Jason Victor Serinus -

REFERENCE SYSTEM

Digital Front End
Theta Gen VIII DAC/Preamp
Theta Carmen II transport (on loan from Theta)

Amplification
Jadis DA-7 Luxe with GE 5751 Jan and Jan Philips 5814A tubes

Loudspeakers
Talon Khorus X speakers MK. II (with latest modifications and Bybee filters on woofers and tweeters)
Rocket UFW-10 subwoofer

Cabling
Nordost Valhalla single-ended and balanced interconnects
Nordost Valhalla balanced digital interconnects
Nordost Valhalla bi-wired speaker cable
Nordost Silver Shadow digital interconnect for DVD-V
Nordost Valhalla Power Cables
Elrod EPS-2 Signature
AudioPrism SuperNatural S2

Also on hand and sometimes used:
Interconnects: WireWorld Gold Eclipse 5 and Gold Starlight 5 digital, Harmonic Tech Magic One, Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II balanced, and Nirvana BNC-terminated digital.
Power cables: Elrod EPS Signature 2 and 3 plus EPS 1, 2, and 3; WireWorld Silver Electra 5, PS Audio X-treme Statement, Harmonic Tech.

Accessories
PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with MultiWave II
ExactPower EP15A (for subwoofer)
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet; PS Audio Power Ports
Ganymede ball bearing supports under all components and speakers
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks and Corner Tunes
Shakti stones on amp, Theta, and transport
Stillpoints ERS EMI/RFI sheets on most components
Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier, Audioprism CD Stoplight,
Marigo Signature Mat for use atop CDs, Ayre demagnetizing CD and the original Sheffield/XLO demagnetizing and break-in CD.

Room Size
25.5' deep, 37' wide opposite the speakers, 21.5' wide in the listening area. Ceilings are 9'2" high with heavy wooden cross-beams. Floors hardwood and carpet. Walls are a combination of plaster and wood. There is a large archway opening next to the right speaker.

 

Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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