Merlin VSM MM/MX Super BAM Upgrade

I'm posting this because I used this site to research and buy components for my system and found it helpful. I posted it yesterday on audio asylum and, while most comments were positive, I was accused of being a shill for Merlin by some disgruntled bozo. See for yourself and read my reply on asylum if you care to.


My speakers disappeared! It all began in the early 1970s when I was a full time luthier (musical instrument builder). A client who was picking up a mandolin I had just built for him, upon seeing my crappy stereo among all the great guitars and mandolins, gave me a pair of1960 Marantz Model 5 mono blocks and a nice set of speakers. The amps were my primary power until about three years ago when I blew a transformer and one of my audiophile friends offered to undertake the repair. He hadn’t been in contact with me for a few months and when I called he just said dejectedly, ”guess you want your amps back”. After some very reasonable offers that I declined, I auditioned the amps on his Merlin VSMs. What an experience to behold.

Being an instrument maker, collector of vintage Martin and Gibson guitars and mandolins, musician, and frequent concert attendee, I have a decent sense of the sound of live, high-end instruments. From Woodstock to Carnage Hall and many small venues in between, I’ve experienced a lot of live music and can distinguish great sound from average sound. I’m not an audiophile and prefer to play my own music or listen to masters in an intimate setting. The Merlins coupled with the Marantz amps replicated the sound that musicians seek; the speakers/amp combination reproduced a powerful bass in Marley music and subtle overtones of the acoustics instruments as is heard in the studio or in a live venue.

I purchased the ruby red VSMs with single ended bam, Audible Illusions pre amp and Audionote CD player and tried to duplicate the sounds that I heard at my friend’s house. While it was great, something was missing. My buddy had tweeked his system for years and I had to put in my time in research, testing and an attitude adjustment to accept the voodoo magic of cables, stands, room placement, treatment, etc, etc. Bobby Palkovic of Merlin was extremely helpful – “get rid of some of that sh.. and try XXX.” With audience Au 24 cables (after auditioning a half dozen or so) new tubes all around (thanks Kevin at VAC) and turning my living room into a studio with an impressive array of electronic toys, I was getting there. Now half of my cds sounded unbelievable, one quarter were great and one quarter sounded like crap. It wasn’t the system but the recordings.

I gravitated towards the best cds and was in audio heaven for a while, but I wanted more. I always liked the tight low base of the Merlins– they sound real to me and not contrived like so many subwoofers or gigantic systems. After my friend got Bobby’s new upgrade for his VSMs and spoke of the wonders of the improvements, I had to take the next step. I was so proud of my system and literally spent hours with all the blinds closed, TV and doors covered, lights down and volume up, but imagined it could be better – only because Bobby and my buddy testified to the upgrade.

A couple of days before I was to send the speakers and BAM out for the MM /MX upgrade and super BAM, an unnamed friend who had way too much to drink at our party, leaned into one speaker, and as it toppled over, I cushioned the speaker’s fall to my white oak floor with three fingers on my right hand, cleanly breaking the tips and seriously marring the impeccable finish on the speaker. For the several weeks while the speakers were at Merlin I had no stereo, couldn’t play music and had too much time on my hands. What the hell – tweek. With an electrician, I installed a new main panel and breakers with all the noise isolated to one side, two 10 gauge dedicated circuits, ridiculously expensive outlets and connected the dedicated lines to 160 pounds of balanced power transformers from Equitec. I burned in everything using the TV, fans and lights and waited.

I received the speakers in late December and over the holidays I set everything up and listened. I really don’t know how to describe sound the way that I have read in some reviews. All I can say is that it’s full, pure, balanced, dimensional and real. Now I’m only aware of the music and the tubes glowing in the dark. The speakers are gone and a huge 3-dimensional sound stage emulating from behind, in front of, between, and to either side of the speakers places me in the front row of the concert. They are so easy to listen to at any volume it’s mind-boggling. When I crank it up, I can still have a calm conversation from across the room. I don’t even have to sit directly in the center with my ears positioned in the perfect sweet spot – imaging and balance occurs everywhere in the room. The mids and highs were always sweet and now the bottom is more explosive, tight and lower. Terms such as deep, black, nuanced, natural, room filling and dynamic come to mind. 90 % of my CDs sound magnificent and 10% suck (due to the recording process) but are still enjoyable. I like a lot of David Grisman stuff and can identify individual historic instruments on his Tone Poems albums – its like tasting fine wines and knowing the vintner and vintage without looking at the label.

Voodoo. I don’t know how this all happens with just those two little speakers in a very heavy cabinet (my fingers have healed and Merlin’s repair of the dents and scratches is about as fine as any master violin restorationist can accomplish). I am now forgetting my stereo. If someone suggests Cardas Golden Reference, upgrades to my CD, Pre amp and room treatments, I’ll just smile. If they suggest modern amps, I’ll kick then out of the house. After three years (plus 30 with the amps) and some serious learning, my stereo system is in the same class as my 1922 Gibson F-4 mandolin, 1933 Martin OM 18 and 1938 Martin 000 28 instruments. Bobby’s approach seems to be similar to makers of fine stringed instruments – discover a great idea and keep refining it to near perfection. I have built guitars that some think rival my old Martins. Creating music and associated tools is one of the most rewarding endeavors I know of. In both these cases, the tools must be well designed and crafted using the finest materials, but in the end, it’s all about the music!

Thanks Bobby.
I have not had my MMs upgraded to MXs, but I did have my BAM upgraded and it is the real deal. Better in pretty much every way. Well worth the cost, which was not out of line at all, IMO. However, you may want to consider the GRs. They are the best speaker cables I have yet had on my Merlins. Better than the AU24s. Not nearly as much better as the Super BAM, but worthwhile. And the whole deal took little more than a week, door to factory to door.
My cousin added a pair of parts express subwoofers on his Merlin MXs. He has since had people coming over every night to listen to his system & leave in awe. He is no longer using his BAM at all & the added bass for the little bit he spent w. a near seamless transition is mind boggling. The Merlins are seeing the signal after the crossover, hence the woofer/midrange is working less than full range. Now my cousin won't pick up the phone. He is too busy listening. He, and everyone else who goes over to visit declares it to be one of the best systems they have ever heard.

In summary, I would suggest subwoofers before any upgrade.
your comments are most interesting and i am certainly happy that your cousin is so pleased.
but subs are not for everone. if an individual has a small room, subs may create more of a problem than a benefit. if the individual's system is made up of wires and components that have a neutral tonal balance and are not subtracive in this area, there will also be little need for a sub. most people that think that they need a sub are using electoronics and cables that are leaner in nature. if you indeed have the space to utilize a sub and are missing the bottom octave then by all means try or use one. but i strongly recommend that the bam still be used as it corrects and optimizes the bottom end of the vsm which no sub is capable of doing.
the mx and super bam mods cetainly increase the musicality and performance of the product. they also make the mx more continuous sounding so you will be able to play a wider variety of recordings and enjoy them to a greater degree. not the same thing as a sub at all.
have fun.
bobby at merlin