Review: Merlin Music Systems Master VSM Speaker

Category: Speakers

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.

Associated gear
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.
Nice read. You have a career as a reviewer
Thanks. It's from the heart.
How dis you come to settle on 48" from the front wall? I imagine Cardas would have put you closer to 65"?
I had my mme's at about that distance. Seemed right. I don't know what it is about these -- maybe it's just easier for me to hear when they're dialed in -- but these are perfect where they're at now. Perfect combination of soundstage and bass reinforcement. I have low ceilings, so maybe that has something to do with it?
i would set them up the same way in your room. maybe at 52 inches. going to thirds does not do it for me. have you draped the wall behind them?
side wall, primary and immediate reflections?
thank you.
B, what distance would you try in a 11x18 room (mine)?
try 5' 6" apart tweeter to tweeter, 52" off the back wall and listen 10 feet.
wall drapes behind would be very good and side wall damping at the immediate and primary reflection points.
can also try the 5' apart to see which one you like more but that edges the dims closer to a square to the side walls and cancellation.

ok paul?
Thank you. I will try it tonight:) I'm not far from that now, but I often hear it said it can be a matter of inches.
matter of inches? that is when the room is not controlled for reflections. when it is right, i do not find it this way. when i do a show i go in the bare room with rich, triangulate the position and set it up.
we never move them once set up and look at the results and what has been said.
there should be very little to no reflected energy at the seating position.
then it won't matter.
best regards,
eg, rug on the floor, drapes behind speakers, and a small non reflective panel at the primary and immediate refection points relative to the seationg position and you are 95% there.
the rest of the room is live. do not over damp the room with merlin speakers.
echo tunes in the ceiling corners are also a good bet and now you are 98.5% there.
bobby at merlin
As far as diagonal set up goes, which I'm using, what would you suggest or recommend as far as isolation? Got the ceiling corners covered already.
one panel behind the speakers in the corner and 2 on the walls beside the speakers to the outside of them to knock down immediate reflections. this is one of my favorite set ups.
you are welcome.
nice to hear from you.

Thank you. Will definitely give it a try.

Hi Bobby. In my 11x18 room, I moved the speakers back from 66.7" (Cardas formula) to 52". I kept the tweeter centers 30" from side walls (6ft between tweeter centers). I was concerned about doing the 5 1/2 foot spread as that would put the woofer center almost equidistant from side wall and floor which I thought was a no no.

Imaging remains superb in depth, width, localization and space between instrument. Perhaps a bit more locked in as my seating distance increase from 9 ft to 10 ft. What is most noticeable is the room seems to be more energized by the bass region, in a perfectly natural way. Bass traps in corners, absorption panels for sidewall first refections.

Have not listened enough to pick up the all the nuances, but it seems all bit better focused and balanced. One thing I notice about audio is you sometimes you don't know what is missing till you hear it and you have an "ahah" moment.

Even if it sounded the same, I like have the speakers a foot closer to the wall and less into the room.
paul, you should notice a bit fuller and more expansive sound. more relaxed perhaps.
after all if the room is damped correctly you will have little reflected energy at the seating position and it should sound more right because of the speaker's power response.
it is not that the speakers are tough to set up but more that they are easy to set up because they tell you of small changes immediately. i think they are easy as pie.
is the wall behind the them draped or damped?
if so what you did is more right, imho.
best, b
"a bit fuller and more expansive sound" - that is precisely what I was trying to say, and if by relaxed you mean a sense of filling the room without strain that is what the change had brought - not night and day, it sounded superb before, but a bit more "right". As always, thank you for your advice.
it cannot be night and day paul.
but if it is more right then you have done well.
you are very welcome.
best, b

Don't forget, some of us have a bit more experience setting them up than others ; )

But I agree with the main point. They DO tell you when they're happy.

Just placed 2' x 2' x 2" panels at first reflection points. Before I had a couple of 2' x 4' x 4" "Abfusers." These sound better. Everything seems more "tame."
Which brand?
Don't know if they're the best, but they were really inexpensive. Seems like they're all pretty much the same thing: plywood, filling and fabric.
I use the bass traps 24"x48"x4", and first reflection panels 24"x48"x2" from Acoustimac (recommended by Agon Member - Clio9) - they are quite economical as they are intended for non audiophile - like studios, churches, etc. Maybe 1/4 of the price of audiophile label stuff, but same basic materials as far as I can tell. They made a huge difference for the better, perhaps more than any equipment changes - for a couple of hundred $$$.
What is the method for establishing the center of the first reflection point?
I just use the old mirror method. From the listening position, one will see the respective speaker when looking into a mirror placed flat on the wall at the first reflection point,.
I hang a cheap make up mirror on a wire hung from the top of the panel. Using a Maglite with the base placed at my ear I adjust until the tweeter is lit. Using this technique the wire and mirror can be slid easily and then the panel can be moved to center mirror in the panel.

Are you still enjoying the Merlins?
Enjoying them more than ever. Have been upgrading my computer front end in increments. Every step of the way, the Merlins reveal more and more. I can't imagine any other speakers I'd want in my home. I think they'll be my last.
I've come to the same conclusion, but never say never:)
Pubul57, Did you take the plunge and get the Master VSM's?
I got the Master BAM and RCs - I'm done with further iterations, if I change, it will be to another speaker, or no change at all.
too bad paul because the master may be the last vsm iteration and it offers the most profound improvement.
the master has a different cabinet material, the larger sand chamber with an extended front double baffle. it is also wired with cardas clear.
i hope you have a chance to hear it some day, maybe at the rmaf next fall. i am very proud of it.
I believe what you say is true, since every iteration has been an improvement, but I feel no need to go beyond what I have; there will always be something better! "You got to know when to hold'em..."

But I will be passing by at RMAF, ofcourse.
be good to see you again.

The latest upgrade involves a rewiring of the BAM with Cardas Clear wire. Merlin has hit another home run, IMO.

Here is what's even better:

- An even more natural presentation as far as sound-staging and spacial accuracy.
- More tuneful bass.
- Instruments have more natural weight and body. They are definitely more palpable. Feels like I can reach out and touch someone.
- More relaxed. Very smooth and non-fatiguing.
- More texture. Complex passages are even more coherent than before, with better access to all lines of music.
- Better macro dynamics. Lots more "slam." Feels more like the dynamic experience of live music.
- Seems "faster." Better control over attacks and decays. I think this gives the overall presentation a better sense of pace, rhythm and timing.

The old Maxell ad from the 1970's shows a dude sitting in a chair being literally blown away by his loudspeakers. Merlin apparently has a different philosophy. Rather than being "blown away" by a sound system, Merlin seems to believe that we should be drawn toward the music.

Cost of upgrade = $350 + shipping