Merlin Upgrade Experience
I recently had my (very late production) VSM-SEs upgraded to current status and thought I'd share my initial impressions on the change for anyone who might be interested.
Bobby tells me that pre-upgrade my VSMs were among the last SEs manufactured, and thus were quite close to the MM although not yet so badged.
My context for commenting on the VSMs includes both "in a vaccuum" impressions of their sound as well as comparison to other loudspeakers that I own and use regularly.
Until recently, I've owned 2 homes and thus the Merlins were the main speaker in town and my Verity Parsifal Encores served the same purpose at the beach. Additionally, I own a pair of Sonus Faber Cremonas which live in my living room. From time to time, I have been able to insert all 3 into my main system and they now all reside in a single, suburban residence (alas the baby arrived and beach house went!) more easily allowing for direct comparison.
My personal definition of the distinction between a music lover and a music loving audiophile is that the music lover wants all his records to sound good, while the audiophile wants his bad records to sound bad. By this definition, the VSM SE was a classic audiophile device, while the Creomna is more a music lovers device. Bad sounding records (and I own way too many) have tend to sound bad on the VSM SE and less so on the Cremonas. Conversely, the distinctions between any 2 records show up much more vividly on the VSM - for me, this is not a bad description of a phenomenon that many people like to call transparency.
IMHO, the likely cause of this difference is a measure of mid-bass warmtn and low bass wallop on the Cremona compared to some mid bass leanness and deep bass limitations on the VSM SE. The overall frequency response graphs of these speakers may not differ wildly, but there is significant difference in the octave to octave balance and resultant tonal signature:
The Cremonas have significantly more energy below the midband than do the VSM SEs. FWIW, the Verity - which in many respects combines the best of both worlds -- is voiced much closer to the Cremona. I suspect that most of the criticism of the VSM SE is due to people who either prefer a warmer voicing, need more ultimmate deep bass capability, or both. People with larger, less damped listening spaces probably highlight these issues in their environment.
THE UPGRADE PROCESS
Due to logistical issues on both sides, the process took longer than either Bobby or I would have liked. While his enthusiasm for his product may strike some as a "bit much", say this for the guy: He looks after his customers with unusual energy. He kept in regular touch with updates during the process and followed up multiple times after delivery. By any standard, in any business, this is a very high level of customer service.
I actually decided on this upgrade somewhat reluctanlty. Almost 2 years prior to pulling the trigger, I heard the then current VSM MX (MM?) at a local dealer. I was impressed by the warmer tonality and apparently unchanged mid band transparency, dynamics, imaging, and bass pitch definition. As far as I could tell at audition - the speakers biggest shortcoming had been ameliorated (though not eliminated) while its strengths had seamingly all been reatined.
However, an in-store demo is not dispositive, and I was still concerned that the speaker might lose some of its "magic". For as long as I can remember, much of my favorite mid band reproduction has come from speakers which (like the VSM SE) featured less than full energy below the mids (from earliest Quad through latest Lipinski). Hence my hemming and hawing. Ultimately, I went for it - though I remained a bit conflicted.
These observations must be qualified by the change in listening environment attendent to my move and the limited (2 weeks+) exposure to the new speakers. The listening room environmental effects are somewhat reduced by the continued
opportunity to compare the upgraded VSMs to the Verity and Cremonas.
In short - I couldn't have asked for very much more.
This upgrade is a VERY skillfull balancing act from Merlin. The most obvious difference is improved deep bass dynamics - which are immediately evident on tuned drums. Descending drum patterns on Peter Gabriel's Last Temptation no longer evidence rapidly diminishing power. Kick drum
and bass drum (Putttin' it Down, Out of The Cradle, Sinatra Live at The Sands, "E"'s Shine It All On) all showed greater impact up through significantly higher SPLs.
Meanwhile all else is right in the VSM universe. The mid-band is still SOTA for me;
voices on Sam Cook's Night Beat, Marti Jones' Unsophisticated Time, Joan Armitrading, etc. etc. were consistently as good as I've heard.
massed horns from the aforementioned Sinatra through Duke Ellington's Queens Suite and Intimacy of the Blues are still stunning.
Individual Horn timbre still amazes (The Hawk Flies High, etc.)
My take - this is the same speaker with obviously improved deep bass performance. My gut impression is that little adjustment was made in the warmth region (maybe tweaked up a smidge) but that the overall signature feels warmer by dint of increased energy below 60ish cycles. This is just a guess - no measurements taken.
Bobby likes to talk in percentage improvement. I can't say that I think that way and I would be at a total loss to attach a number. I would say that this is the same speaker with so much of its near SOTA capability retained and its most obvious shortcoming significantly redressed. If you liked the SE, I'm almost certain you'll love the cuurrent version. If you were lukewarm, you might find yourself convinced. If you REALLY didn't get the appeall of the SE, I doubt this new version will be your cup of tea.
Though true headbangers still need not apply - I suspect that just about everyone else will really like this speaker. FOR THE MOMENT, it has displaced the Verity P/E as my first choice for serious listening to high quality source material. It's new and that may change over time, but for me-for now- it's about as strong an endorsement as I can provide.
A Note; The speaker still seams amp friendly in a big way. They work like champs with Cary 805s (expensive) and Pancor Dyna re-issues (dirt cheap). Haven't yet had rthe chance to try my 300Bs.
Another note: Bobby uses BAX global which has about as good a rep as any shipper I know. Unfortunately, it seems that BAX subbed out the "last mile" in this case to a local company which, from the appearance of the crates, uses chain saws to move boxes. Notwithstanding serious damage to the cartons, the speakers arrived unscathed. Score on for for Merlin's packing/crating protocol.