Muse Polyhymnia universal player Page 2
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.