Musse Audio Reference Two NF Loudspeakers
|Musse Audio Reference Two NF Loudspeakers|
Introducing The Maximonitor
8 June 2001
Enclosure type: 2-way ported design
Tweeter: One 1″ soft dome tweeter
Woofer: One 6.5″ carbon fiber woofer
Frequency: 35Hz to 20kHz +/-3db
Sensitivity: 87db @ 1m/2.8v
Impedance: 8 ohms
Rated power requirement: 50 to 200 watts RMS
Port tuning frequency: 29Hz
Equipped with two pairs of 5-way binding posts
Price: $5,000 USD per pair
Musse Audio Pte Ltd
151 Chin Swee Road
#06-05/07 Manhattan House
I have mixed emotions about the possible return of Michael Jordan to the NBA. Of course I’d love to see the guy play again – who wouldn’t? Even pushing 40, he’s probably still Da Man. But few things in sports remain as perfect as one’s memories of them. Secretariat and the 1980 Olympic hockey team come to mind. They made an indelible mark on the sports world as well as a good part of the rest of the world, and then they left with perfection intact. I feel the same way about Jordan; since icons like these are so few, I don’t want any of them to get spoiled. Jordan has already made one successful comeback to basketball, and I’ve got a sick sense that the third will not be a charm. I fear that one of those rare, perfect endings may become tarnished.
What got me thinking about this was a recent trip to North Carolina to visit my sister and her family. With the possible exception of Chicago, Chapel Hill, North Carolina could be considered the capitol of the Michael Jordan Empire – sky-blue 23s everywhere! And, of course, there’s Michael Jordan’s restaurant. The décor is pretty cool for what is probably nothing more than a tax write-off, and many of the seats are inside what amounts to a big basketball net with a huge, orange orb looming overhead. And then there’s the obligatory Jordan paraphernalia, which, if you’ve ever seen it, can be quite an experience. On one of the menus, there is an outline of Michael’s hand that makes girls laugh and leaves guys thinking their Y-chromosome must be lower case. And then there are those shoes. They’re in a glass case in the wall, and you can tell from far away they are pretty large, but as you walk closer, they just keep getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and yet more of your manhood slips away as you contemplate the size of your…feet.
What in the world could this possibly have to do with Musse (pronounced Moosey) Audio speakers. A lot, it turns out. I first saw the Reference Two NFs from across the room. They looked pretty large for stand-mounted speakers. Then I walked closer, and they kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger…. I thought that were I forced to have monitor speakers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these could go a long way toward restoring my manhood. These things are by far the largest monitors I’ve ever seen. I took some measurements. The NFs are shaped like a trapezoid, so I was forced to recall (read: fudge) some of my high school math to calculate the volume. I was amazed that the Musses are only 5% smaller by volume than my floorstanding Soliloquy 5.3s – quite moosey indeed!
The NFs made me think of another of Jordan’s aspects: he played even bigger than he looked. Same with the NFs. From the listening position, they appear to be a fairly normal monitor, but the output tells you that something much bigger lurks within. This illusion is created in part by the aforementioned trapezoidal shape in that you can’t see the top of the speaker in a sitting position. And if you tend to angle your speakers toward the listening position, as I typically do, you can’t see much of the sides either. From the listening position, you don’t have a visual clue to the 16 inches of depth that makes the Musses seem so big and no doubt contributes significantly to the NF’s overachieving output. The speaker fronts are solid black rectangles, which gives them a very stark appearance from the listening chair, kind of like the interiors of fine German automobiles. And like German cars, this stoic fascia indicates these speakers are about performance first, so we definitely have a form-following-function thing happening here.
In fact, these speakers were designed and built in – you guessed it (or looked at the headnote) – Singapore, that bastion of high-end audio. The concept is simple: take the best parts and technology available and execute. Easier said than done; otherwise, we’d be awash in perfect loudspeakers. And while I’m not willing to call any speaker perfect, the folks at Musse are certainly on to something. At $5000 per pair, the NFs are not cheap, but inspection reveals where the money went.
In general, this speaker feels and looks overbuilt. The cabinetwork is of the highest caliber: the review pair is in an attractive cherry exterior with a rich and glossy mahogany finish. The top, bottom, and sides are made from 1″-thick MDF, while the front and back panels are black and consist of an extremely inert 1.5″ sandwich composed of various materials that remain a mystery (it felt like rapping on solid steel). The unique trapezoidal shape, and, internally, a complex combination of angles, bracing, and damping are intended to eliminate standing waves and back reflections. All these design considerations account for each monitor’s weight: approximately 43 pounds. The only disappointments were the wimpy lockdown nuts on the otherwise beefy, gold-plated binding posts. The nuts look like glorified washers. If you’re using spade connectors, there’s just not enough surface area for a satisfying connection – a minor inconvenience, yet inconsistent with the speaker’s otherwise outstanding build quality. Better connectors are available on request.
Musse didn’t skimp on the components. The 6.5″ carbon fiber mid/woof and 1″ silk dome tweeter are high-quality units from Scanspeak, the ones you frequently see on “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” models. The speakers are arranged in a mirror-imaged pair with the tweeters on the outside at the top opposite a two-inch port, and the mid/woof is centered just below. Although the front panel is angled backward, this is not a fully time- or phase-coherent design, as the crossover is a third- and fourth-order combination that Musse felt was the best compromise in their two-way application. The end result is a relatively benign load that is said to be very tube friendly. Since the speaker was voiced mainly with valves rather than chips, Musse encourages tubed gear upstream.
Time to Let the Musse Loosey
With speakers, size does matter. A larger enclosure, all things being equal, has the potential to yield fuller, deeper bass. Parts quality is also critical. A good speaker designer can do wonders with mediocre parts, but he can do significantly better as quality increases. Frequently in audio, you gets what you pays for. But then we’ve all heard uncompromising speakers from top manufacturers that don’t get it right. That’s the essence and the art of making speakers, and Musse has done an excellent job.
After hearing a significant amount of audio equipment, you start to recognize quality immediately. Your personal tastes may not ultimately jibe with what the designer was after, but there are no indications that corners were cut. Everything is balanced. You don’t hear any mechanical noises, buzzes, or other errant sounds that shouldn’t be there. In short, you are able to relax and assess the equipment purely on its own terms – on what it brings to the table.
Right off, I was able to tell the NFs were of high caliber both in the quality of the parts and the engineering that brought them together. I had that wonderful experience where you forget you’re listening to equipment and are free to immerse yourself in the event unfolding in front of you. That, my friends, is how you know you’re getting to the good stuff.
But I needed to assess what I was hearing more critically, and so, out came the usual benchmarks and standards. What you’ve probably already inferred from my initial description of the NFs is that they are no slouch in the bass department, and I am intentionally not qualifying that by saying “for a monitor.” These things deliver a deep, tight and tuneful bass that puts many floorstanders to shame. I’ll call it the 90/90 rule: about 90% of the people who listen to these speakers would be able to play 90% of their music without feeling the need for a sub. An excellent track to test this is “Use Me,” recorded live, from Patricia Barber’s Companion (Blue Note/Premonition 7243 5 22963 2 3), which starts off with a meaty bass solo. The NFs not only preserved the individual notes but also revealed the full tonality of this weighty instrument. This was getting good.
Next up, Steve Coleman’s Def Trance Beat (Modalities of Rhythm)(Novus 01241 63181-2) to see what kind of punch this maximonitor could dish out. This is not what I would consider a reference recording, but the bass drum in “Dogon” really packs a wallop and is one of the few recordings that cause my 5.3s to object at relatively normal listening levels. The NFs objected similarly but were able to deliver the full punch of the kick drum, if not quite as much impact. Overall, I’d say the NFs are better in the lower octaves than any monitor has a right to be. This was one area where I clearly preferred the Musses over my floorstanding 5.3s. (Oops, there goes part of my manhood!)
Which brings us to the ultra-important midrange. Like a chain, a speaker is only as strong as its weakest link, and you really don’t want that weak link to be the midrange – too much vital information lives there, which is why the mids can often make or break a speaker. I’d have to say the Musse folks delivered the goods.
Instruments like saxophones and tom toms were extremely well fleshed out both tonality and with respect to detail. Often you can find speakers that are full of body and warmth but obfuscate the fine details, and vice versa; more rare indeed is the speaker that excels at both. If the speaker has the ability to reproduce them faithfully, this is especially true with drums, which came through with all their deep, resonant, hollow, woody sound intact, accompanied by their trailing decay. With the NFs, I didn’t feel as if I was missing anything in terms of fullness or accuracy. Check out “Miss Thing” from Cyrus Chestnut’s self-titled CD (Atlantic 83140-2), which, to my ear, exhibits one of the most lifelike portrayals of drums and cymbals around, and you’ll see what I mean. Played at realistic volume levels, the Musses put those drums in my room.
While we’re on the subject of drums, I’ll note that macro dynamics were better than you’d expect from a monitor, but the laws of physics also apply in Singapore, and a pair of 6.5″ drivers can do only so much. Again, in certain instances, size does matter.
As for the rest of the midrange, female vocals, even the deeper, more challenging variety, were clear and full of body and detail, with no hint of chestiness that frequently pollutes their seductive tone. Male voices were also clear, but I detected a bit of a cupped quality on more-prominently-recorded artists such as Keb Mo and Mighty Sam McClain. I cannot say for sure whether this was coming purely from the speaker itself or from an interaction with my square and untreated room, but it was there, and I could not reduce it meaningfully with changes in speaker placement. This could also be a function of a lack of synergy between my equipment and the Musses. Since the rest of the midrange was exemplary, I feel compelled to put an asterisk on this one. As mentioned, Musse does recommend tubes, and since I didn’t have any on hand, I’m more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Speaking of room interactions, I found the NFs to be exceptionally easy to position despite my room being an almost perfect square. (We may know a square is a rectangle, but sound waves don’t, and they hate squares.) Yes, bass response did change with distance from the wall and image focus and lateral dispersion changed with toe-in, but the changes were not dramatic, and I ended up liking the sound almost wherever I plopped them down. Chalk this up as a big plus for those with space/placement limitations, which is definitely not uncommon with those opting for monitor speakers. My guess is that Musse’s elaborate cabinet design is paying dividends here. I found that the NFs worked well from my normal placement position with the fronts about five feet from the wall and about six feet apart while toed in toward the listening position. This left them about six feet from my ears and about four feet from the side walls – plenty of room for the NFs to breathe and create a large, realistic panorama.
The Musses didn’t seem to be in my room. I mean, I just wasn’t aware of their presence. They have that wonderful ability to disappear. What also disappeared when necessary was the back wall. The sound also frequently ventured laterally beyond the speakers despite my penchant for towing them in fairly aggressively. Suffice to say soundstaging was as grand or as intimate as it needed to be – never more, never less.
Within the soundstage, there was a lot to like. The music never lagged, and when things got quick, the NFs would pick notes up and put them down exactly as needed. All aspects of the sound were seamlessly integrated and impeccably balanced, resulting in an overall level of coherence that is often a competitive strength among better two-way monitors. Imaging within the soundstage was also excellent, with each instrument or voice having its own, clearly delineated space. During my time with the NFs, I never had to think about where sounds were coming from. The Musses just let you sit back and effortlessly soak up the music like a big audio sponge.
I also found the upper octaves to be relatively effortless. The NFs were extended yet sweet enough to avoid any harshness on all but the most shrill recordings. The word natural comes to mind. One of the most common areas where speakers fall down in this region is with cymbals, which I am very sensitive to, having spent some time behind the drums myself. Crash cymbals are frequently transformed into flying nails and high hats into a nondescript hiss. The NFs are able to convey the extension and energy of these instruments without glare, but they are also able to capture and express the complex tonal shadings that individual cymbals are capable of given their size, thickness, and metallurgic composition. This is one of those important and defining aspects of sound that lets you know you are listening to a product of high quality – none of those exposed loose ends I mentioned earlier. Again, I’d recommend the Cyrus Chestnut recording as an acid test for cymbals, along with The Steve Davis Project’s Quality of Silence (dmp CD-522), a cymbal showcase exceptionally well recorded using Sony’s Direct Stream Digital (DSD) process.
Vocal sibilants are another upper-frequency nightmare that can easily be confused with ripping paper if not handled properly, but with the NFs they came through perfectly attached to their associated voices. In my book, if a speaker can do cymbals and sibilants, it is well on its way to earning an A+, but there’s more to be considered.
My preferred review format is to assess the performance of a component in the context of how it handles various types of music and individual recordings. I decided in this instance to work my way methodically through the various aspects of speaker performance to emphasize how impressive the NFs are in each area, my one asterisk notwithstanding. My hope was that on an objective basis, you would take away the understanding that there is very little wrong in any area of sound reproduction here – that those various aspects come together to form a very balanced and cohesive whole. It was important for me to lay that foundation because any reservations I have regarding this speaker may not necessarily be shortcomings to those whose tastes differ from mine. Put another way, and going back to an earlier statement, with high-quality and well-executed equipment, it often comes down to personal tastes and how they align, or don’t, with what the designer was after.
Returning to my Michael Jordan analogy, there is one quality that I do not find an overabundance of in the Musses: air. I prefer to think of it as extreme upper octave transparency, because that’s what I think it really is. The term air, while descriptive and relevant, is just a bit vague and thrown around a little too much for my liking. While the Musses are detailed enough to provide what many audiophiles like to call an “open window” on the performance, I would say in this case the window is about 98% open. Up to a certain level, you see everything very clearly and openly. There’s no apparent veiling or editorializing going on. That last 2%, however, is where I find the sky that provides a clear but endless backdrop enhancing my perspective on the total musical picture. It’s what lets me hear completely into the performance as well as the music.
To be more specific, these are subtleties and nuances that yield insights into such things as; the space in which the music was recorded: the way a musician plucks a string or a vocalist articulates a consonant. As I mentioned before, the NFs exhibit nicely detailed highs, but only up to that 98% point. The natural decay that continues outward to define the boundaries of the recording space are somewhat softened in the upper octave range so that those boundaries come across as a bit fuzzy and thus are not as easily perceived. I say perceived because these sounds are so subtle they often seem to be more sensed than heard. My initial impression is that this is going to be one area where the new hi-rez formats are going to differentiate themselves from Redbook CDs and even vinyl, given their superior level of information both below and above 20kHz. (I believe that we humans are capable of sensing, if not hearing, information in these nether regions and that this additional information will bring us a step closer to the actual performance.) When playing the 24/96 DADs I have on hand, this additional information was somewhat masked by the NFs, making it more difficult to discern the relaxed ease with which the increased resolution and detail were presented.
There were some other instances where things seemed to be a little softer than I thought they should be: the bite of a brass section, the ultimate snap of a snare drum, the sound of the piano hammer impacting the string. These are subtleties that lie somewhere in that 2% range that, for me, foster that last bit of acceptance and involvement. But I guarantee that many of you would argue that the NFs sound more natural, and you could be right. Remember, we’re talking about individual perceptions here. You’ll have to make your own decisions on some of these finer points.
For many people who need or want a monitor, and even for many of those who don’t, the Musse Reference Two NFs may well be the perfect speaker. It is built on par with the best I have seen. It has been thoughtfully and thoroughly engineered with parts of only the highest quality to bring everything together in a synergistic and musical whole. Those who thought they would have to resort to floorstanders or a subwoofer to enjoy more full-range sound reproduction should reconsider. Despite my few objections, I would still say that in many respects the Reference Two NF ranks among of the finest speakers I have heard. Obviously, at $5000 per pair the NFs face some stiff competition, mainly from floorstanders, but I would argue the Musses offer the frequency range of most of these floorstanders and, as monitors, they also disappear musically and aesthetically into a room as well or better than most of the field. Now, if we could only figure out how to get Michael Jordan a pair of these speakers, he might even think twice about leaving home to play basketball again.
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