Review: Merlin Music Systems Master VSM Speaker
Merlin, the eXtraordinary Magician
Arthurian legend has it that Merlin the Magician was begotten of a virgin impregnated by an incubus. What an apt namesake for a loudspeaker system that mates heavenly purity with demonic authority.
Although Merlin of legend was a shape-shifter, the Merlin VSM line hasn’t shifted its shape (on the outside, at least) since its first incarnation 16 years ago. But while all VSM’s may have the same basic dimensions, each evolutionary change has pushed the envelope of what’s possible with dynamic two-way design.
My Personal Merlin Odyssey:
About three years ago, I started my quest to replace a pair of beloved two-way monitors, the Eires, manufactured by the now-defunct Shamrock Audio based in my home state of Oregon. Although not the last word in resolution, these speakers conveyed a natural timber that is rare at the price. I took home and auditioned seven or eight pairs of speakers as possible replacements -- a couple of them unfortunate back-breaking behemoths -- before discovering the relatively diminutive Merlins. These others were all highly regarded, but none of them grabbed me as possible replacements. They were either a little dry or boomy or aggressive or coloured or perhaps just a poor match for my moderate sized listening room (12’ x 19’). But most problematic was that none of them conveyed the natural timber of the Eires. Fortunately, I remained patient.
Then one magical day I wandered into Echo Audio in Portland and there was a used pair of VSM-mme’s for sale. I had never heard them before, but had certainly heard about them. Once I got them home, I knew immediately that these were my replacements. There was not even a moment of hesitation. They had a natural tonality and musical refinement that surpassed the Shamrocks. Yes, they seemed to be a bit lean in the bass, but I had resigned myself to the (false) notion that the kind of bass that I was searching for would remain outside of my wallet size for some years to come.
My first upgrade was replacing the old style “leaded” BAM to the lead-free Super-BAM (Google “Merlin BAM” for an explanation of what the Bass Augmentation Module does). This brought a further refinement to the sound and a more authoritative lower end.
I originally drove the mme’s with a pair of Jota SET’s from Art Audio. These are beautiful amps that sound beautiful, perhaps too beautiful paired with the Merlins. I find SET’s to be generally on the euphonic side. So when I replaced them with the 30 wpc integrated ARS-Sonum Filarmonia recommended and distributed by Merlin, the VSM’s sang as nature intended. The marriage between this amp and the Merlins is well documented, so I’ll just say here that the praise is well deserved.
In the fall of 2009, I became aware of a major upgrade that was available to the BAM and the RC networks. By replacing the capacitors with Duelunds, it took the speaker system to a new level. Others have reviewed this upgrade and I will only add my voice to the universal praise. If you have VSM’s and have not done this upgrade, you should consider it before all other upgrades to your system. If you do, I think you’ll agree that it’s a very big bang for the buck.
I told myself after the Master BAM settled in with my VSM-mme’s that if I wasn’t satisfied with these, I would never be satisfied. I could have lived the rest of my life with that version and enjoyed untold hours of listening pleasure.
As luck would have it, not long after this upgrade, I received word from Merlin wizard-in-chief Bobby Palkovich that he had designed a replacement for the top-of-the-line VSM-MXe, the VSM-MXR (R = “reference”). Perhaps it was curiosity or a touch of insanity. Or maybe the incubus made me do it. In any case, I decided to take the plunge. My trust in Bobby’s ear and design skills made it a no-risk decision.
After a frustratingly long wait due to supplier issues and a personnel injury at Merlin, I was presented with yet another delay, but this time I had a choice. Just at the time when my speakers were ready to be shipped, Bobby received some new wire from Cardas with identical geometry to the top-of-the-line Cardas Clear cable. If I were willing to wait, he would wire my speakers with this new cable, inaugurating the production of the Master VSM (MXM’s, for short). Excited about owning the very first pair, I bit the bullet and agreed to the additional delay. Having added a couple of runs of Cardas Clear to my system, I knew that the benefits would be audible.
In the meantime, I prepared the nursery for the new arrivals. I managed to significantly upgrade my front end by 1) upgrading the operating system of my Mac Mini, 2) installing the amazing Pure Music high resolution music server software, and 3) installing a John Kelly modification of the HiFace USB-to-SPDIF converter.
Finally, the twins arrived. The piano black finish is gorgeous. It’s a reminder that these are, above all, finely tuned and highly crafted musical instruments. As prototypes, these were well broken-in with probably close to a hundred hours on them. I know from experience that they will continue to improve for the next few hundred hours, but I feel that there’s enough time on them, and they’ve settled into my system enough, to give my impressions.
A word about proper setup: Proper setup includes 1) proper placement and leveling, 2) proper cabling, 3) proper acoustic treatment and 4) clean power.
1) Placement is critical. I suspect that 90% of the people who have complained about later versions of the VSM’s sounding lean did not have them placed optimally. Be patient and get it right. In my room, the Cardas formula just doesn’t work. I need more reinforcement from the walls. I have the front baffle 48” from the front wall. Seriously, if they’re not optimally placed, they will not be fully satisfying. An inch will make a difference. When you find the sweet spot, the cabinets “disappear” and bass should be neither lean nor boomy, but tight and tuneful. Leveling is also important. Dealing with the Z-feet is a pain in the butt, but patience pays off. Speaking of the Z-feet, I’ve discovered that in my room (carpet over concrete), four feet per speakers sounds better than three. Again, be patient and experiment.
2) Reasonable acoustic treatment will help bring the soundstage to life. Hanging some drapes on the front wall helps. Good, well-placed bass traps help as well, along with absorption/diffusion at first reflection points. Of course, the rule is don’t over do it.
3) As far as cabling goes, I suggest going with Bobby’s recommendations. I tried experimenting, and each time reverted to those recommended by Bobby. He has recommendations at a variety of price points. Right now I have a mixture of Cardas Golden Reference and Cardas Clear IC’s, and CGR speaker cables.
4) Finally, adding an Equitech balanced power unit will remove several veils of edginess, depending on the quality of your home’s power. These speakers deserve good, clean power.
The Heart of the Matter
It seems somewhat pointless to describe the Master VSM’s using all the usual hi-fi jargon. How does one explain a clearer window into the subtle nuances of a vocalist’s passion? I suppose it has to do with more low-level resolution and micro-dynamics. How about the sense of presence at the recording venue? Probably due to more accurate low-frequency information, macro-dynamics and, again, low-level resolution. But personally, I prefer to leave the technical language to the technicians. I’m an end user and for me it’s about enjoying music. Not only do the MXM’s make beautiful music, crystal clear and non-fatiguing. They create a palpable illusion of being in the presence of the musicians. This is a world class act fully capable of competing with the most expensive loudspeaker systems I’ve heard.
While the mme’s with Master BAM are excellent speakers, and the MXM’s do not put them to shame, there is no question that the latter are a more refined design. With the Masters you get more of the same, which is a very, very good thing. Put simply, they’re just more real.
Perhaps you’ve said this to yourself while listening to a particular musical passage on a good-sounding system: “Wow, THAT sounded real!” With the MXM’s, that thought doesn’t come to mind because on good recordings it ALL sounds real. It’s all just so coherent. It flows like real music flows. When I attend a live performance, I’m not usually straining to follow a particular line of music within a complex passage. It’s just not something I think about. With the MXM’s I find myself not thinking about it.
Now let’s get this out of the way. These speakers are not lean. Yes, some compressed pop will sound compressed on an accurate system. To feel chest-pounding bass in a dance club, their systems crank up the bass and drive it through giant subwoofers. An accurate system is not going to allow you to reproduce that experience. But well-recorded, non- compressed pop will sound deep and rich. Trip-hop electronica is one of the dance genres that I enjoy. Olive’s “This Time” on their “Extra Virgin” CD rumbles the walls.
I don’t care what people say about small drivers. When properly set up in a small to moderate sized room, two 6 1/2” woofers can provide natural, satisfying bass. Now, if you live on a rich diet of pipe organ music and simply must have the last half octave, then either move along, or wait for the subwoofer that Merlin is currently designing.
For me, the real test of a refined loudspeaker design is bowed strings. It’s very easy for violins to sound shrill and unmusical. Robert Carl’s “Music for Strings” is difficult and dissonant. I’ve heard it sound like an incoherent mess on less capable systems. But through the MXM’s the dissonance is meaningful. It comes from the composer’s intent, not from that nerve-grating glare that only poorly reproduced violins can generate.
That said, every once in a while I do hear a slight bit of glare. It’s nothing very distracting, but it’s there nonetheless. I’m convinced that I’m butting up against the limitations of my speaker cables. My next upgrade is swapping my Cardas Golden Reference Speaker cable for Cardas Clear.
My favorite acoustic instrument is the cello. Czech cellist Jiri Barta performs sonatas by Zoltan Kodaly and Vitezslav Novak on a brilliantly recorded CD. This is as close to the immediacy and presence of a live performance that I could imagine. The holographic detail is astonishing. I hear the reflection of the instrument’s resonance off the floor of the recording venue.
These speakers can also boogie. Peter Rowan and Tony Rice’s “Quartet’s” is one of my favorite bluegrass albums. “Moonlight Midnight” is a rousing romp through a landscape of prayerful pining. You wanna talk PRaT? This is the kind of excitement that people are looking for in a hobby.
My home town of Portland, OR has some good jazz venues. I’ve heard a good amount of live jazz. The MXM’s should be as close as anyone needs to get to the real thing, short of the real thing. Brian Bromberg’s double bass on “Wood II” is life-sized and the sound of his ensemble is enveloping, which is the way it sounds in a jazz club. Real soundstages don’t call attention to themselves. Yes, with the MXM’s there’s a clearly discernable soundstage in front of you with well-placed instruments. But it’s not something I find myself obsessing about.
More recordings and more musical genres sound exciting with the MXM’s. This is particularly the case with classic rock albums. The Who’s “Tommy” came to life with a dynamic range that was somewhat muted with the mme’s. Classic rock albums were engineered to be played back loud through high-powered solid state amps. Until listening through the MXM’s, I didn’t think that a relatively low-powered tube amp like the Filarmonia could rock very well, but through the MXM’s it can, and somehow without giving me tinnitus.
It’s a cliché, but my music collection has new life. In fact, it’s time to buy more music. My prayers and thanksgiving go out to all the brainiacs, present and deceased, who have figured out how to reproduce the joy and excitement of musical performances in people’s homes. Sound reproduction is still magic to me. How can four electronic motors mounted in two boxes generate the three-dimensional sound field I’m hearing? The Master VSM's are at the pinnacle of this magical world. Like their namesake, these Merlins are true tricksters: when you flip the switch, they disappear, and all that’s left is the music.
Mac Mini w/Drobo storage, iTunes/Pure Music, John Kelly Mod of HiFace, Altmann Attraction DAC, ARS-Sonum Filarmonia, Cardas Clear and Golden Reference cables.