[SoundStage!]Home Audio
Equipment Review
June 1998

Muse Model Five CD Transport

by Dave Duvall

I’ve been spending some time recently re-evaluating why we audiophiles are so neurotic about the quality of sound at home, yet we’re more than willing to attend live concerts reinforced with sound systems and hall acoustics that can distort the hell out of an otherwise excellent performance. Many reviewers have implied that unamplified live classical music is the best reference, and if played in a hall capable of good acoustics, I would tend to agree. Certainly other forms of unamplified music (folk and jazz, for instance) can be used, but when I’ve listened to a live symphony orchestra or smaller chamber ensembles (which doesn’t happen often enough because my wife doesn’t care for classical music), I’ve walked away feeling the karma that only true timbre can deliver, the gratification of not having individual instruments lost in the electronic mix, and at the same time conveying a wholeness to the senses unlike what is conceived through our electrical outlets. On the other hand, amplified live music tends to sound worse than what I am accustomed to at home, yet it delivers an emotional attachment that’s hard to come close to even with megabuck electronics. It’s the energy of a live performance, the energy of the people in the audience, and the energy of the music itself that draw us to the less-than-optimal sonic conditions of most amplified concerts.

At home we settle for the middle ground: vocals and instruments that sound closer to an unamplified reality than they do through the mixing board and PA system at a concert (assuming high-quality, synergistic equipment being used at home), but lacking a bit in the energy and "visceralness" of the live performance. Let’s face it: when was the last time you stood alone in your listening room and applauded enthusiastically for an encore? The biggest rewards I get at home are the ability to fall into a trance-like state (though we used to be able to do this via smoking materials at concerts during the early ‘80s) and a big ol’ smile from ear to ear after hearing great music being reproduced well.

What’s all this got to do with the Muse Model Five transport? Nothing and everything. Nothing because for once I took the liberty of using my space just to throw out a few random thoughts of my own, and everything because the Muse Model Five transport is a high-quality, synergistic component that does improve the give and take of home audio.

Following on my review of the excellent Muse Model Two Plus DAC, I wanted to bring to your attention the other half of the Muse I2S story, the Model Five transport. When I first asked Kevin Halverson if SoundStage! could review the Model Two Plus, I wanted to be sure I would be able to hear it at its best, and that meant requesting the Model Five transport as well. Kevin designed the Five with the Two Plus in mind, and the fact that the two can be joined at the hip via the I2S interface utilizing the 13W3 connector meant the benefits I had heard with prior I2S-connected digital components could either be reconfirmed or questioned.

Taking a spin around the perimeter

The Model Five transport is aesthetically pleasing to look at. The 1/4"-thick brushed-aluminum faceplate adds a real touch of class and a welcome departure from the typical black-box look (especially if the transport is in silver). Of course, if you’d prefer black to compliment the rest of your gear, Muse will be happy to accommodate you. The Model Five measures 17 1/4" wide, 11 3/8" deep, 3 1/2" tall, and weighs in at roughly 15 pounds.

The CD drawer sits midspan of the faceplate, and its face forms an easy bow, as viewed from the top. There’s no space-age vacuum-lock, bank-vault-door thud when the drawer shuts, but on the other hand it opens and closes just fine. What more should you ask of it to do? Many products from different manufacturers use the same transport mechanism, and with price points considered, this would fall into the "function over form" category. The Pioneer stable-platter drawer of the Audio Alchemy DDS PRO has a little more inspiring feel to it when it shuts, but keep in mind that the disc has to remain on its "turntable" when playing, and not clamped to a spindle. To the left of the Model Five’s CD drawer is the LED readout window (cool-blue is the ONLY color that LED readouts should be allowed in), and to the right is an infrared eye for remote commands.

Across the bottom is a row of 12 buttons to handle individual commands. These control the open/close, stop, play, pause, track forward, track backwards, search within a track (forward or backwards), shuffle, time display, repeat (of individual or all tracks), and standby functions. Standby mode will shut down the Model Five’s display and disc play, while the master oscillator remains powered up; eliminating long warm-up periods (and necessitating removal of the power cord before replacing the fuse, and of course before opening the case). The buttons don’t offer significant resistance when pushed, and this certainly makes the transport easier to use if you put it up on cones, as it won’t slide around when the buttons are depressed. Those who really need to be stroked by a resistive feel to the buttons won’t get their jollies with the Five. Me? I’m cool with it. After all, when I sit down to enjoy music, what do I care about the feel of a button or the heft of a CD drawer? Tell me if it makes recorded music sound similar to real-world music—that’s what my hard-earned recreational time is for.

The rear panel contains the AC mains IEC receptacle for use with the supplied or after-market power cords, with the mains fuse connection on the right side. On the left side, the user is offered the option of using BNC 75-ohm S/PDIF, XLR 110-ohm AES/EBU, or 13W3 I2S output. Muse can supply the 13W3 I2S cable as an option.

A remote control is supplied, and most functions of the front panel are duplicated on it. I got a little excited when I noticed a polarity button, assuming it would work on the Model Two Plus DAC, but, alas, the supplied remote was designed to also work with a Muse preamplifier, and experimenting with polarity reversal from the listening position was not to be. Nit-picking a little, it’s also nice to be able to directly access a track by remote, but the Model Five remote only allows forward or backward tracking in sequence. However, when the "Track +" or "Track -" buttons are held down, you cycle through tracks rapidly, as opposed to a single push which moves you one track only. This monkey was easily trained to locate the play, pause, and stop buttons in the dark.

Tooling around the interior

Four circuit boards and the transport mechanism (Phillips 1210 front loader with CDM5 holographic unit) inhabit the body cavity of the chassis. The interior is cleanly laid out, and all boards are placed to minimize interference between the various stages.

The servo board is located under the loader/laser assembly, and its primary function is to handle the high-speed data and to direct the position and focus servos instantaneously. Most components are surface-mounted, and a socketed EPROM is used to control the dedicated microprocessor, allowing possible upgrades with future standards.

The display board handles all user interface functions. Two separate microprocessors are used for the front-panel controls, IR remote data, and display functions. The blue fluorescent display lets users know just about anything the Five could ever want them to know and looks damned sharp doing so. A socketed EPROM also allows for addition of future remote commands.

The power-supply board contains two separate transformers. One supplies the transport mechanism and digital logic, and the other handles the display and its filament. Four separate linear regulators handle the basic power requirements, with additional filtration and decoupling provided at each individual circuit board. The Model Five can be configured to select either 115 or 220 VAC at 50Hz or 60Hz, and over-voltage protection is supplied by metal-oxide varistors (MOV) on the primary-side windings of each transformer. A fuse connected in series with the transformer priamaries protects from over-current occurrences. A shielded mains cord is provided to supply the power-supply board, and on its own merit sounded fine, though I felt it was bettered by the Kimber PowerKord.

The master oscillator/output board is treated with extreme care, and passive power filtration is used for each stage. Critical timing signals are referenced and reclocked against the master oscillator to ensure the lowest levels of jitter possible by the design. Both TTL and the Muse proprietary differential latch enable master clocks are utilized, along with the word, data, and bit clocks. Separate output drivers handle the S/PDIF and AES/EBU interface, and the 13W3 d-sub connector is utilized for the I2S interface.

The players

While reading a list of associated components used during the review process may be even less fun than washing the dog, it’s paramount to understanding why a reviewer’s conclusions about a particular product are what they are. I’ll beat the word synergy into the ground before my reviewing days are over, but components that don’t compliment each other electrically (e.g., avoiding impedance mismatches) or sonically (e.g., multiple bright components) have you off on the wrong foot to start with.

CDs rotated on both the Muse Model Five and Audio Alchemy DDS Pro transports. Preamp duties were handle by an Audible Illusions L-1 (with Seimens gold-pinned 7308 tubes). A Muse model Two Plus DAC gets the honors of digital-to-what-your-brain-understands conversion, and amplifiers used were either a McCormack DNA-1 or a Power Modules Belles 150A. Interconnects were Cardas Golden Cross, speaker cables either Cardas Golden Cross or Kimber BiFocal-XL, and a system full of Kimber PowerKords starred in the role of the "provider." Moving air in the room was handled by the excellent-value PSB Stratus Gold speakers. Power conditioning was handled by the TAD Systems (Jack Bybee-designed) Power Purifier. Room conditioning was handled by either home-brew absorbers or Acoustic Sciences Corporation Tube Traps. Assorted Mod Squad Tiptoes, Sumiko Counterfeet cones, Iso-bearings, and a home-brew rack round out the credits.

OK, we’ve stared at it long enough. Time to spin some discs.

I began my listening tests comparing the Model Five against the Audio Alchemy DDS Pro. The good news is that the both transports are beaucoup capable of making beautiful music. The bad news is to compare them, I’m limited to S/PDIF single-ended RCA output. I can’t tell you if AES/EBU would have been better, as I didn’t have the requisite digital cable, so I apologize in advance if that makes this review any less complete than you expect from me. The Kimber PowerKord, the Audio Alchemy DST powered coax digital cable, the Muse Model Two Plus DAC, Mod Squad Tip Toes, and a home-brew isolation sandbox on top of a bicycle tube were constants with both transports.

Listening to "200 More Miles" from The Trinity Session by the Cowboy Junkies [Classic Records RTHCD8568], I found that the DDS Pro played Margo Timmins’ vocals (sorry about the ongoing obsession) with an excellent impression of realistic timbre. There was a warmth with the DDS Pro that puts the human touch to her voice. The Model Five has a leaner, more resolute sound than the DDS Pro in this regard. It’s also a little more edgy through the busier section of this cut, and slightly more hollow on the vocals. As the song gets a little more complex in the chorus and as the harmonica work kicks in, the DDS Pro got the nod in the "handled with ease" department, but the Model Five exhibited a better sense of atmosphere and dimensionality. On this song, the DDS Pro was preferred, but the Model Five was in no way less than very good in conveying the soul and space of the music.

Emmylou Harris’s rendition of "Goodbye," from the HDCD-recorded Wrecking Ball [Electra Asylum 61854-2], is an excellent test of resolution. Daniel Lanois’ thickish mix laden with heavy drum and bass passages, will certainly separate the big boys/girls (choose your favorite gender) from the wanna-bes. Harris’s voice cut through this mix fairly well with the DDS Pro, but found itself less discerned from the sonic soup than when played by the Model Five. Snare drum had more "snap" to it with the Model Five, in contrast to what appeared to be a softening of the initial attack with the DDS Pro. While both disc spinners demonstrated they could play this cut loudly and without fatigue and the annoyance of the hot sibilance dialed into the recording, the Model Five exemplified the term resolution. Precision without steeliness would describe this best, as any sense of steeliness or hardening on this cut results in an unlistenable experience. I preferred the Model Five for its transient attack, its better resolution of a difficult mix, and its ability to do so without overemphasizing the hot upper midrange and treble apparent on the recording.

The DDS Pro was one step removed from the resolution of the Model Five, but could be enjoyed hour after hour without this being a problem. Critical listening in a head-to-head fashion with the Model Five brings out differences that may not even be paid attention to when relaxing with music. Placing the DDS Pro upon Mod Squad Tip-Toes brought the DDS Pro’s resolution factor a little closer to that of the Model Five while sitting only on a sandbox, but with cones under both units, the resolution gap once again widened. The DDS Pro projected a slightly warmer sound than the Muse transport, but lacking in the depth and spatial departments. The Model Five was best in soundstaging, with the DDS Pro being less dimensional and open. Listening fatigue never became an issue with either transport.

In the end, I gave the Muse Model Five the "best at show" award. I preferred its overall resolution and openness to the Audio Alchemy transport. Truthfully, I could live long-term with either transport if S/PDIF were the only method of data transmission available.

But here’s what had Dave putting the DDS Pro up for sale. When connected to the Muse Model Two Plus DAC with the 13W3 connection for I2S output, everything clicks into place. The Model Five at this point showed me everything that was right about the Model Two Plus DAC. It’s the difference between when you just get the wax off a car’s gorgeous paint job and when you go back for the final buffing. It’s the difference of putting on your glasses if you’re a bit nearsighted. It’s the difference of that final turn of the camera lens that snaps you into just the right focus. Playing "T.B Blues" in HDCD off Otis Spann’s solo piano/vocal Good Morning Mr. Blues CD [Analogue Productions CAPR 3016], I could clearly hear his fingernails contact each key during sweeps. This detail is placed just to the right of his left-placed vocals, with the piano strings being struck at center, just as it would be if he were bluesifying right in my room.

Early one Saturday morning I grabbed the newspaper, a cup of coffee, and dropped Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of Also Spach Zarathustra [Sony Classical SMK 47626] into the Model Five. With the Model Two Plus and the I2S interface, I was pleasantly amazed at the soundstaging and dynamic capabilities of the Muse products. However, what was really surprising was that I had to put the paper down and enjoy the music because the Muse combo drew my attention—even with the volume very low. While the rest of my family was sleeping in, I was enjoying excellent depth, air, and dynamic swing without having to turn the volume up to more normal listening levels. The resolution of the Muse Model Five/I2S/Model Two Plus was very good, even at background-music levels.

And in summation, your Honor...

The Model Five may not be anything fancy in regard to its operation or cosmetics, but offering to play the somewhat compromised 16-bit/44.1kHz CD format from its I2S interface is truly the icing on the cake. Yes, you’ll need to have a DAC like the Muse Model Two Plus to utilize this, and yes, you are pretty much limited to using the digital cable that Muse provides as a $200 option (Kevin Halverson states that he has purposely designed out any differences that the wire itself has). But as a team, the Model Two plus DAC and Model Five transport will allow you to recognize readily the sonic benefits of investing in the two of them. The Model Two Plus DAC is excellent on its own, but is outstanding when connected to the Model Five transport via the I2S interface. Don’t hesitate to consider the Model Five if you are in the market for a transport to go along with your current DAC, but I’d like to suggest you consider changing out your digital front-end and experience what Muse has to offer with its package of digital separates. In this regard, I’d have to say that quality craftsmanship, solid engineering and proper implementation lead to outstanding musical enjoyment. The Model Five transport brings out the best in the outstanding Model Two Plus DAC, and the best of my music collection.

...Dave Duvall
dave@soundstage.com

Muse Model Five CD Transport
Price: $1,800 USD

Muse Electronics, Inc.
P.O. Box 2198
Garden Grove, California 92842-2198
Phone: 714-554-8200
Fax: 714-554-5643

Email: muse_usa@ix.netcom.com

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