Friday, May 2, 2008

Muse Polyhymnia universal player

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"I have something I think might interest you," said Elite AudioVideo Distribution's Scot Markwell. "Kevin Halverson has some, shall we say, different ideas about universal players."

We walked into Elite's dark demo room at last year's Consumer Electronics Show and Markwell stepped aside with a flourish, gesturing toward a quasi–industrial-looking, powder-coated box: the Polyhymnia universal disc player, from Halverson's Muse Electronics.

"Ta-daa!" Yes, he said it.

I must not have looked impressed. "Oh, I forgot," he said. "It's only fancy on the inside." And—as he quickly demonstrated—in performance.

Markwell cued up an SACD and pressed Play. It was like that hackneyed scene when the prim librarian takes off her glasses, shakes out her coiled hair, and stares into the camera. She is drop-dead gorgeous, after all.

Hubba, as they say, hubba.

Love passed, the muse appeared
Polyhymnia is the Greek muse of sacred song and lyric poetry, and the inventor of the lyre and harmony. Her name literally means "(singing) many songs," so it's an appropriate name for a universal disc player. The Muse Polyhymnia (as opposed to the muse Polyhymnia) is one of Muse's Modular Audio-Video Platform (MAP) components, which means that its four bays allow the end-user to add the features he or she might require. The Polyhymnia sings "Red Book" CDs, DVDs -Audio and -Video, SACDs, and MP3-encoded discs in two channels, with multichannel playback available as a separate $750 module.

My review sample, which Scot Markwell called "standard" in that it included the Ultra Performance analog output module and RCA and XLR stereo outputs, also included the optional multichannel output module (RCA), and an A/V output module (S/PDIF, S-video, composite video, component video). The fourth bay was empty, although a variety of choices, including an attenuator module, can be included. Price of the standard stereo model: $6400.

I said that the Polyhymnia's glamour resides within, but that's not to say it doesn't have its own kind of lab-gear butchness. A powder-coated case may not be as sexy as an anodized one, but the Polyhymnia is built like a brick and screams dependability. Think subdued Harley-Davidson: no chrome, lots of grunt.

The Polyhymnia is the sixth generation of Kevin Halverson's take on DVD. In fact, when Classic Records decided to take advantage of DVD's 24-bit/96kHz spec back in the format's infancy, it was Halverson who brought the news to Stereophile in Santa Fe: "Don't you get it? For the first time, audiophiles can actually own studio-quality masters!"

DSD and PCM are both handled by native conversion, using a passive reconstruction filter (a high-order Bessel topology) and, Halverson says, "a highly differential instrumentation-amplifier signal path. We find that this topology has the advantage of reduced spectral contamination and a low and spectrally flat noise floor."

The Polyhymnia's front panel looks almost bare. There's an IR window, two rows of three control buttons each, a disc tray, and a small illuminated display. Although a video display isn't required for day-to-day use, some functions are a lot easier to access if one is present—and a display is essential for setup.

The Polyhymnia is accompanied by the largest, heaviest, most solidly constructed remote control I've ever encountered. It weighs about as much as a red-clay brick and seems as durable—an important consideration, as users will be overwhelmed almost daily by the urge to hurl it against something solid.

Why? Because the Remote-2 has 64 buttons, all exactly the same size, many of them labeled cryptically in light gray letters on a slightly lighter gray background. I also found the buttons fiddly—or maybe it's the IR window. All I know is that the Polyhymnia ignored an awful lot of my commands. (Markwell tells me a much simpler remote for the Polyhymnia, called the Remote-1, which is easier to navigate, is now available as a $375 option. Seeing is believing.)

One additional note: The owner's manual states that "The Polyhymnia should never be connected to a mains source (power outlet) other than the normal domestic service. After market 'power conditioners' of the active variety (regeneration devices) can damage your Polyhymnia and should never be used." Now you know.

Fool, said my muse to me
Before setting up the Muse Polyhymnia, eat a substantial breakfast, preferably accompanied by enough caffeine to wake you thoroughly without giving you the jitters—those remote buttons are small and require a firm and accurate touch. Hook up your video display and be prepared for a trial by menu. You'll need to tell the Polyhymnia how to handle digital audio output (including Dolby Digital, DTS, linear PCM, MPEG, and video). If you're integrating the player into an A/V system, you'll need to establish the aspect ratio and assign S-video or component pathways. There are submenus for DVD playback mode (DVD-V or DVD-A) and DSD playback (two-channel, multichannel, or CD layer). There's a DTS downmix submenu, as well as an option to constrain the dynamic range of your discs (some people actually want this, believe it or not). There's more, but you get the idea.

Of course, one reason you have so many options is that the Polyhymnia can do so many things. I just set it up to play two-channel CD, SACD, and DVD-A. Then the video display went bye-bye. It turned out to be true that you don't need a display to play discs—unless you change your mind about whether you're listening to DVD-A only. If you want to hear the soundtrack on an occasional DVD-V, you'll need to fetch the monitor again and leave it there so you can switch the Polyhymnia back to DVD-A afterwards.

Livelier liquor than the muse
The Polyhymnia's On/Off switch is on its rear panel. For daily use, the player is left on; it lapses into Standby mode after about an hour of inactivity. And you might as well leave it on, because it sounds better after it's been on for a few hours. I offer no explanation for this, but I observed it every time I shifted the Polyhymnia from one system to another.

As a CD player, the Polyhymnia impressed me from the get-go. Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry (CD, Shout! DK-32278) was a revelation. Joan Osborn said that Gentry's voice is to women's voices as Sophia Loren's curves were to women's bodies: the epitome. The Polyhymnia captured that hyper-femaleness, setting it within baroque soundscapes that had width, height, and, most of all, depth. The bottom end was impressive, as was the top-end sparkle.

John Coltrane's Settin' the Pace (CD, JVCXR-020202) put a big tenor sax in the center of my room, spitting overtones at the walls as forcefully as, well, me spitting watermelon seeds at June bugs (it's good clean fun, trust me). The revelation, however, was the brilliance of Art Taylor's cymbals—they had a shimmer and a sizzle that approached live music.

Yes, the Polyhymnia was a very good CD player.

Its playback of DVD-Audio discs was also impressive. Generally, I prefer SACD, if only because DVD-A seems to force you to have a monitor in the system to pick a mix or a bass setting or some damn thing, and that crap just gets on my last nerve. However, having already told the Polyhymnia what to do when I set it up, now all I had to do was hit Play twice and listen to my DVD-As. I'd forgotten how good they can sound.

"Janie Runaway," from Steely Dan's Two Against Nature (DVD-A, Giant/Reprise 24719), had a slamming bottom end set against a sparsely populated band and those ethereal Steely Dan vocals. Everything was so well presented that I got lost in the detail: "Let's grab some takeout from Dean & DeLuca / a hearty gulping wine / you be the showgirl / I'll be Sinatra...Come to ol' blues eyes and tell me—who do you love?"

Hmmm. I think I liked that song better before I understood the lyrics.

However, there was no questioning the glory of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," from Both Sides Now (DVD-A, Reprise 47620). Oh, the smoky resonance of her voice, the silky strings, Wayne Shorter's vivid soprano-sax solo—has any promising youngster ever matured so thoroughly into a true artist as completely as has Mitchell? Curse you, DVD-A consortium, for screwing up this format so completely that I could have spent years without hearing this disc—and curse me for holding the format itself against such beauty.

SACD was impressive, too. Tierney Sutton's The Other Side (SACD, Telarc SACD-63650) had presence, body, and a silvery top end. Joe Beard's Dealin' (SACD, AudioQuest AQ-SACD1055) was all bluesy bluster, from Beard's propulsive guitar to Jerry Portnoy's blown-out mouth harp. And David Russell's Art of the Guitar (SACD, Telarc SACD-60672) was convincing in its three-dimensionality and delicacy.

Why does my muse only speak when I am unhappy?
My reference universal player, the Ayre C-5xe ($5995), seemed a logical benchmark for the Polyhymnia. The Ayre has no video output and is focused solely on two-channel audio, so the Muse does offer features that may tempt listeners who want to use the Muse in a multichannel or A/V system—and, of course, the Muse's modular platform makes it simple for any consumer to configure to his or her requirements. On the other hand, the Ayre's two-channel, audio-only focus made it so much simpler to use—which meant that my neighbors weren't disturbed by the foul language I invariably spat at the Muse when it didn't do what I thought I'd told it to. I'm sure most Stereophile readers will do a better job of mastering that blankety-blank remote than I did—or perhaps Muse's new "streamlined" remote will solve this minor annoyance.

The Ayre and Muse were more similar than different in their reproductions of CD sound. If the Muse had brisker pace and a tad more oomph on Bobbie Gentry's "Okolona River Bottom Band," the Ayre had greater air and breath on "Morning Glory." Perhaps the soundstage was larger with the Polyhymnia, but the Ayre's tighter focus was just as impressive. If pressed, I'd probably dance with the one what brought me—I'm used to the Ayre—but you might choose differently.

The Muse's brawn made Coltrane clearly the star of Settin' the Pace, burnishing his brash brass with a special luster, although the Ayre presented more of Art Taylor's cymbal overtones.

On Steely Dan's "Janie Runaway," I was again impressed by the Muse's slam and low-end power, but the electric piano and guitar sounded somewhat leaner and less present than when played through the Ayre. The C-5xe was a tad more laid-back. Your preference might well hinge on which you value more: energy (Muse) or coherence (Ayre).

Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" also revealed each player's strengths. The Polyhymnia had great momentum and the frequency extremes were superbly delineated, although the Ayre gave Mitchell's voice an extra dose of smoky breath. Through the C-5xe she was more prominent, while the Muse emphasized the instruments more. Well, a bit more—at this level, we're speaking of minor differences.

Through the Ayre, Tierney Sutton's voice in "Haunted Heart" had a touch more air, especially her head tones. Overall, I'd say voices had a touch more "glamour" through the Ayre. Again, the Polyhymnia's presentations of detail and separation were superb, whereas the C-5xe emphasized blend over detail.

That's one reason Joe Beard's Dealin' had such drive and rhythmic energy through the Muse. It flat-out rawked. The Ayre was a touch more restrained, although its more tightly packed soundstage was almost as impressive as the Muse's larger one.

David Russell's Art of the Guitar had a plummier midrange through the Muse, which was a surprise. The Ayre's timbre was somewhat leaner, and it presented more string noise than the Polyhymnia. On the other hand, the sense of a small instrument in a large, reverberant acoustic was greater with the C-5xe.

Did one player come out a clear winner? Actually, they both did—though I know some readers will think that's a cop-out. The fact is, I could live happily with either, especially without having the other one around to do A/B comparisons all the time. For slam and impact, the Muse would be my choice. For vocals and coherence, it would be the Ayre, probably.

Be thou the tenth Muse
It's not just either/or, however. Many factors go into choosing a universal player, and the Muse Polyhymnia is definitely a contender in the high-end universal-player sweepstakes. It's solidly constructed and meticulously designed. Its modular platform allows consumers to put it together to precisely match their requirements, which is no small consideration.

My only quibble with the Polyhymnia—and this is a nit I'm picking—was that I disliked its large Remote-2 control. Maybe that's a bigger deal for a guy who switches gear in and out of his systems all the time than it would be for a monogamous listener.

But given the Muse's performance with any type of digital disc I fed it, I'd be willing to forgive a lot more than an awkward remote. Under its utilitarian lid lurks one sexy, high-performance beast.

Hubba-hubba indeed.

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