Product review - Museq

Elysia - Museq

Stereo Class-A Equalizer

by Hannes Bieger
Sound & Recording (Germany) – January 2010

The name says it all: At this year's Musikmesse, elysia have presented an equalizer aiming at an especially musical control of the frequency range. „Music“ or „Muzak“? We'll see...

With their alpha compressor and mpressor, Ruben Tilgner and Dominik Klaßen have produced evidence that well-done high end solutions made in Germany are sought after in the world wide pro audio market. The story is no secret: Ruben Tilgner had worked many years for SPL where he developed the Transient Designer among many other products. Concentrated know how combined with the rare gift of coming up with really new circuits and concepts in order to walk new paths finally led to the foundation of elysia.

Words like “Couldn't we do this...?“ or “Wouldn't it be possible to...?” seem to float around with these guys quite a lot. I don't have any other explanation for three products of a relatively young company breathing high tech precision to the max, based on no-compromise designs and builds with some real novel circuit specialties.

Just as one example, the alpha compressor uses a control element which elysia have developed especially for this compressor – the so called PCA (Passive Current Attenuator), which transforms the incoming signal into a current which is then reduced controlled by voltage. elysia's first equalizer is another child of this no-compromise way of thinking, as it is packed with interesting, sometimes even innovative functions. The art of producing a “musical” audio processor lies in giving the user the possibility to play with it like a “real” instrument. Therefore, the handling has to be easy – but rough edges are appreciated by all means, as they are the basis for character!

Just like the alpha, the museq talks a clear language in terms of outer aesthetics: elysia's design is based on futuristic functionality, which distinctively separates them from most of the competition. This kind of design polarizes, this much is for sure, but it is a good thing as it helps to generate a unique profile. This stereo processor takes two U in the rack and it offers five bands per channel. The inner three bands have a peaking characteristic, while the outer filters are shelving types.

At first sight, this is a very straight concept, but when you read between the lines, you will start to discover the elysia-specific special features. The individual bands are overlapping quite broadly, and with +/-15dB per band they definitively offer enough amplitude to work with. However, there are just two switchable Qs available, which are both more on the wider side. Like the Curve Bender as another example, the museq is definitively not a surgical scalpel, but a tool for painting great pictures with the frequency palette. 

It is interesting to see that the gain controllers for each band only feature positive values for adding gain in the selected frequency range. Therefore, each band can be set into cut or boost mode by a specific switch, and this results in some specialties. A first benefit is that the range of possible settings is doubled and therefore finer in resolution. Also, problematic frequency areas can be easily spotted in boost mode and then eliminated by just switching the filter into cut mode. The special circuitry automatically 'deactivates' a band when its gain controller is set to 0 dB, so there is no need for a bypass switch per band in terms to meet audiophile demands. However, this concept does not allow direct A/B comparisons of single filter bands.

The two outer shelving bands can be switched to become cut filters, and this is also where the first real special trick of the museq can be found: In cut mode, the gain controller of the specific band sets the amplitude of a resonance peak on top of the center frequency of the filter. For example, you can use this feature to clean the ultra-low end of a sample and still boost the bass drum significantly – all with just one filter band! This promises to be a very intuitive option of forming the outer limits of the frequency spectrum.

The next special feature can be found in the master section, where right next to the bypass buttons there are two additional buttons for engaging the so called “Warm” function for each channel. This feature has a direct influence on the slew rate of the amplifiers in the output stage, so it controls the “speed” of the unit, or its ability to respond to needle-fine impulses respectively. When the museq operates in the somewhat more cozy “Warm” mode, there is a slight roll-off noticeable in the air band which is interactive with the amount of input gain. Also, the museq then operates with a higher total harmonic distortion value. While the THD of the museq usually lies in the per mill range, the combination of the “Warm” mode with a high input level can result in up to 0,5% THD+N. This is of course still far away from heavy distortion, but it offers some kind of a softer, more gentle tone compared to the more HiFi-like basic sound characteristic of the museq.

In order to understand what is unique about the elysia units it is important to have a look at the technical design, because it is absolutely flawless. Only top grade components are being used, the build quality is extremely clean, and the circuitry is laid out in a way that it even looks good. This is very far away from the inside of the already mentioned Curve Bender with its vintage approach, but certainly not in terms of quality, but in its basic philosophy.

The complete unit, including its power supply, is based on a fully discrete design. The power supply alone requires half of the available space inside the housing. The EQ circuitries are placed on 2 x2 stacked PCBs filled with high quality components, for example esoteric polypropylene film capacitors by Mundorf, or conductive plastic potentiometers which are built to elysia's specifications by Vishay Sfernice. These pots are selected and matched by Ruben Tilgner especially for the museq, by the way. The signal paths are kept as short as possible to honor the audiophile approach as well. There is not a single audio cable inside the unit, and all signals exclusively flow through the extra-thick copper layers of the PCBs.

But it is not only the electronic design that sets standards, but the mechanical build quality as well. In the positive sense, the museq is a true boutique product and a very good example why “German Engineering” is highly appreciated around the globe. The placement of the power switch on the back of the unit is maybe a matter of taste. Here, we can also find the pin assignments of the inputs and outputs printed, so nothing can go wrong in this regard.

In Use
Once the function of the gain potentiometers and the boost/cut switches has been understood, the rest of the unit is self-explaining. Just like with their dynamic processors, elysia has again managed to pack a mighty functional range into a pretty straight user interface. This is a good idea for reaching the goal of creating a truly “musical” use of the EQ.

While processing mono signals is a no-brainer, working with stereo sources requires some attention. Of course, the stepped potentiometers are a big help in matching the channels, but the scaling can only be read well from a shorter distance, which makes it a little bit difficult to comprehend what the unit is doing at a quick glance. But this is already the only downer I can think of, and in terms of sound, the museq has a lot to offer.

The filters operate very smoothly, which fits the audiophile approach of the manufacturer. This means that while the museq certainly changes the frequency response, it does not alter the character and basic tone of the original signal. The filters have a nice grip especially in the treble and presence range, while the sweeps still sound super smooth and - I really do not use this word often – silky. Low mids and the bass range always sound well defined and tight, but without becoming rocky/bony like the API modules, for example. The sound remains stable all the time.

The sound shaping capabilities of the museq are very exciting, and despite all efficiency they never cover the character of the signal. If this decent kind of elegance is not obvious enough, users can activate the “Warm” function. In this case, the museq still does not mutate into a honey-sweet vintage EQ, but the smoothing characteristic of this function can be a welcome addition in many ways. After all, HiFi transparency is not always on the agenda, and sometimes a smoother sound just fits in better. In this regard, a distinctive gain controller would have been a nice addition. As the influence of the “Warm” function becomes stronger on higher input levels, there can be the danger of overloading following processors in the chain (when they are not as excellent in terms of headroom as the museq certainly is).

The unit gets pretty warm during operation. This is absolutely normal for a class-A device with quite a lot of amplifiers, and elysia have provided enough ventilation holes to prevent the unit from getting too hot. You only have to take care not to cover these when placing the unit into a rack. 

With its technical and sonic qualities, the museq is recommended for engineers who are looking for transparency. The tone always remains silky and never fades into unattractive harshness. When clean elegance is the goal, the museq is the right tool. If you want to “open up” ribbon mics right during recording, if you want to embed vocals into the mix nicely, or if you are looking for a filter to fit into your mastering chain – the museq can do all of it, and much more. The museq is especially well suited for mastering applications, not only because of its transparent sound, but also because of the good recall-ability with high grade stepped potentiometers. The asking price is certainly not nothing, but quality without comprise always comes at a price. With the museq, you invest in a processor you will enjoy for a very long time.

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