Integrated amplifiers continue to surprise and inspire me. Just when I think I’ve heard pretty much all there is to hear from this segment, along comes the Muse Model Two Hundred. And to look at it, you’d never suppose there was anything remarkable going on. Its chassis—a modular design known as MAP (for Modular AudioVideo Platform)—is less a classical beauty than an imposing 200Wpc edifice for conducting the business of music. The controls—tiny buttons on the front panel and the remote control—are inscrutable. The distinct lack of warm and fuzzy might be due to the fact that designer Kevin Halverson hails from the unforgiving pro ranks where utility and reliability remain job one. So yes, it’s a tool amp, but man, oh man, does it get the job done.
Generally I’ve found that most amps have a singular bold characteristic that stamps their identity cards from the first listen to the last. For the Muse Model Two Hundred, it’s the inside game of audio. A few bars of the duet of “Give Us Peace” (Yo Yo Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace [Sony Classical]) from bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile illustrate just how well the Two Hundred operates from music’s interior, gleaning details from thickets of notes. The feathered delicacy of Thile’s flat pick, the spatial relationship between players, the transition of tonal qualities as Meyer switches from finger-plucked strings to bow midway through the performance are all there in rich abundance. During pianist Evgeny Kissen’s performance of Glinka’s “The Lark” [RCA] his rat-ta-tat arpeggios and trills are superbly articulated. On a densely layered chorale work like Rutter’s Requiem [Reference Recordings] there’s an almost subliminal sensation that a soft light with a wider sweep and deeper throw has been cast into the deepest recesses of the soundstage. And as I listened to violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter (Tchaikovsky and Korngold Violin Concertos[DG]) musical images were pristinely focused and full-bodied. Harmonics were saturated with energy and the acoustics were immersive.
Unlike some electronics, the Muse hardly lays any of its own editorial slant onto the music; neither does it “colorize” recordings. There is a hint of coolness in its general tonality and a feeling of firm control being exercised, but not to the extent that the sound veers toward the analytical. Actually the treble is sweet enough to make you think that it must be modestly rolled-off, but it’s clearly not. It’s merely the lack of electronic glaze or etch that gives this impression. Although bass response is tight and controlled I didn’t step away from familiar recordings with the sense that the Model Two Hundred was mining new levels of extension or bringing sledgehammer dynamics to light like I did with the Pass Labs INT-150 or the MBL 7008. But this was par for the course for the Muse, which performs without drama or embellishment in all octaves. Tonally the Two Hundred doesn’t sound romantically tube-like nor does it have the hardened soul of early solid-state. Rather it strikes a middle balance that allows it to yield to the personality of the source, veering where appropriate to the warm or cool, the lean or rich, but never too far from center. The finest discs or LPs glow just a bit brighter, transcendent with beauty, while crummy recordings are reproduced in disastrous detail. This amp’s overarching appeal is its expression of openness and pure and unrestricted bandwidth.
In terms of dynamics and speed, I never caught the Muse Model Two Hundred napping or flatfooted. It’s quick out of the chute with no attenuation or rounding of transients. Micro-dynamic energy was as lively in the uppermost regions as it was in the lowest bass that my room will support. In one particular area, however, it revealed an interesting skill in the way it controls and holds onto low-level information in the bass octaves. I’ve heard k.d. lang sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (Hymns of the 49th Parallel [Nonesuch]) dozens of times, but until the Muse I’ve never heard an amp grasp the decaying low-level bass notes of this track for such a long duration. In fact, there were some moments of low-level resolution so quiet and subtle that I needed to confirm that there wasn’t something else in my room augmenting the sound. But it was truly the radiating ripple effects coming off the soundboard of the piano. Remarkable.
With a hefty 200Wpc and dual power supplies, the Model Two Hundred topologically stacks up like a monoblock in a stereo chassis. But it’s the modular design platform that makes the Muse unique in today’s market. Based on Muse’s own MAP (Modular Audio/Video Platform) this architecture permits a variety of versions, from a basic Plain Jane amplifier to a sophisticated integrated system. To understand the Model Two Hundred is to realize that it’s always changeable; the permutations are almost infinite and it’s designed to be future-proof. This is what Muse designer and founder Kevin Halverson envisioned when he first identified the advantages of modularity while designing instrumentation for the film-processing industry in the mid-70s. The motherboard/daughter-card approach in the then-nascent computer industry was ultimately the inspiration for his MAP architecture.
Halverson explained that this platform is really only constrained by the number of MAP slots (two in the case of the new Model Two Hundred chassis) and the physical space required by the type of connectors. “The nice thing for us as a manufacturer is that it is fairly easy to justify the development of a new MAP module, as the total costs are very reasonable. We have a fixed form factor (the MAP module format) and a well developed architecture.” Currently the typical Model Two Hundred ships in one of three versions. Fitted with a fixed input module it’s a conventional amplifier. With the analog input (RCA or XLR) and attenuator module, it’s the integrated amplifier reviewed in this article.
Changes are afoot for 2009, as well. The newest options will include both analog and digital modules, creating an all-in-one integrated amplifier/DAC. Also the front-panel display will increase in size as will the character size. Halverson added, “My personal approach has been to not just accept the fact that changes might occur, but to embrace them. Realize that change is not only inevitable, but also represents an opportunity for products to have an extended lifespan by designing them with modularity at their core. To date, over 60% of the products that we have shipped have had additional capabilities added by the installation of new modules. In fact, even our very earliest MAP products can be updated to a fully current product by the replacement of the necessary modules.”
To judge the Muse Model Two Hundred by its gray-flannel appearance is to underestimate the poetry of its sonics. With its flexible MAP architecture, Muse only asks how you want your music served up and then proceeds to dish out huge, complex sonic portions that couldn’t be more satisfying. The bottom line is that for my money this is high-end audio the way it was meant to be.
SPECS & PRICING
Muse Two Hundred integrated amplifier
Power output: 200Wpc into 8 ohms
Frequency response: 5Hz—200kHz -3dB
Dimensions: 18.25" x 8.4" x 12.5"
Weight: 47 lbs.
Muse Electronics, Inc
P.O. Box 2198
Garden Grove, CA 92842