Kevin Halverson, the man behind the Muse electronics, represents one of the unsung luminaries of digital development. Starting out nearly twenty years ago with a range of innovative amplification, many of the concepts that debuted in those products underpin his later digital designs. Whilst other companies and personalities have higher profiles (and bigger marketing budgets) the Muse products have consistently set superior standards of performance in both the audio and video fields, a duality that has reached its apogee in the MAP system architecture that characterizes the current range.
The acronym stands for Modular Audio/Video Platform and when Mr Halverson says “modular”, he means it. So, just as the casework, feet, and front-panel elements employed in the Erato II are identical to those of the Polyhymnia reviewed in Issue 54, the output configurations and options are also user definable. One glance at the back panel will show a series of terminal plates that constitute a card-case arrangement so that purchasers can incorporate the output modules they require – and only those. So, in the case of the Erato II, which is basically a CD and DVD A/V replay platform, the unit can be configured to offer fixed or variable, stereo or multi-channel analogue output on balanced or single-ended connectors. There are also digital video output options, including HDMI 1.2. So, you can include (and just as importantly, exclude) all the facilities that you do or don’t want. But even better, the machine’s capabilities can be adapted or extended to accommodate changes in your system (maybe a move from stereo to a multichannel, decoder based set-up) or its redeployment in a different role or situation. Finally, the output cards can be updated to reflect advances in technology or changes in standards, making the Erato (and the SACD capable Polyhymnia) effectively future proof, requiring minor hardware updates rather than wholesale replacement to stay abreast of the game.
With all those options, reviewing these machines is a little like trying to hit a moving target. But let’s keep things simple; many customers have no intention or requirement to put DVD sound or video images through their systems, so let’s consider the Erato II as a CD player only – albeit one with the not unattractive ability to extend into the realm of AV and multi-channel replay should you ever choose to walk that way. Configured with a single, stereo output card offering balanced or single-ended socketry (and basic DVD outputs) the Erato will set you back £4350. Adding an attenuated output would add a further £350. Of course, in a single source CD based system, the variable output option allows you to dispense with a conventional pre-amp although inexplicably, the Muse modules don’t offer input and switching options, which would really extend the player’s versatility and value, allowing you to employ its superior onboard digital conversion with external sources.
Externally, the MAP casework is finished in a distinctive (and extremely tough) pale grey epoxy coating. The buttons are deeply recessed and thus protected, and the whole effect, if not exactly graceful is definitely purposeful and reassuringly bombproof, further underlining the unit’s potential longevity. However, one thing I would like to see is clear labeling of the socketry on the output boards. With so many options and configurations possible I really think that this is essential and should be dealt with urgently.
But if the back panel of the Erato II can seem a little opaque, it’s sound is anything but. Indeed, the uncluttered clarity and wide bandwidth evenness that it brings to music can actually be slightly disconcerting at first, leading to lower than normal listening levels and a possible assumption that the Muse is one of those machines that puts detail and finesse ahead of music’s more physical aspects. Certainly, there’s detail and finesse a plenty, bringing space and texture to performances. But match levels carefully against a player like the superb and much more costly Audio Research CD7 and you soon discover that what (if anything) the Erato surrenders in terms of muscularity and physical presence is more than compensated for by its transparency and micro-dynamic definition, the more sculpted shape it brings to notes. It’s not so much that the CD7 has greater body or weight, just that the two players deploy it slightly differently.
They share something else too; the easy, unforced sense of pace and flow they bring to music.
Even playing the slow, bass-heavy tempo of the Cure’s Carnage Visors OST there’s no tendency to plod or meander, the Muse maintaining the musical tension and momentum while also effortlessly sorting through the layered bass textures and overdubs. The rounded and slightly woolly acoustic bass that so often bedevils early stereo jazz discs is handled with equal aplomb. That measured riff that opens Art Pepper’s ‘Las Cuevas De Mario’ ruthlessly uncovers any looseness or tendency to lag at low frequencies. The Muse lends the notes a lovely sense of shape, of pluck and release, keeping the line’s groove and gentle, dirty smooch intact. But open the throttle and the Erato is just as surefooted as it transits gracefully into ‘A Bit Of Basie’, the short jabs of the horns, their rapid runs and inversions anchored to the fast finger work on bass and piano, the sparsely figured drumming. It’s this ability to at once unravel complex and overlapping musical strands without destroying the delicate relationships that bind them that sets the really communicative digital players apart. The CD7 does it – and so too does the Muse. But within the top-flight the thing that really sets the Erato apart is its lack of a predetermined emphasis.