Review: Merlin Music Systems VSM MMi Speaker
First of all, does this site really need yet another Merlin speaker review? I don’t have a lot to contribute to this site, but I do read a lot of the postings and have gained an enormous amount of useful information from Audiogon. So for what it is worth, consider this a small contribution in thanks and perhaps someone can gain from my experience.
I enjoy listening to different types of music from jazz, blues, folk, rock, some classical, and popular stuff, both analog and digital. I have had a pair of Dynaudio 1.3 mkII speakers for over 10 years. I fell in love with them on first listen. They were so natural and startled me with their realism. With each upgrade in electronics/cables, they got better. The Musical Fidelity M3 nuvista amp was a huge upgrade in 2004. Smooth, controlled, dynamic, effortless, with an enticing warmth that convinced me I was getting the full potential from these speakers. I also considered the M3 to be the last amp I would ever own.
I toyed with the idea of upgrading within the Dynaudio lineup since I liked the 1.3’s so much, I also read here and on other sites about speakers that used the Dynaudio drivers including the Merlins. I figured that if I liked Dynaudio speakers there was a good chance I would also like the Merlins. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to audition either either speakers. Several months ago, a used pair of Merlins came up for sale locally. I missed the sale, but in the process of emailing back and forth with Bobby at Merlin for information, found myself ordering a new pair of VSM mmi speakers. With various delays it took almost 2 months for the speakers to arrive. During the wait, I spent considerable time listening to some of my favorite music through the Dynaudios. Objectively, there were a few things about them I didn’t like. 1) They were missing some bass, but what bass they could produce was reasonably honest and darn good for their size. 2) They weren’t the best for low volume listening. 3) The highs had a certain energy or sizzle to them which made them exciting. I kind of liked that (or at least I thought I did) and it made some female vocals in particular stand out, but could also be fatiguing. But my quibbles were minor, and I began to have second thoughts about changing, wondering just what I was getting myself into.
The VSM’s finally arrived. The mmi have a handsome, tough matt black finish that I really like. I don’t have a dedicated sound room. My system resides in my living room, were a lot of ‘living’ goes on by me, my wife, the dog, cat, friends and family including crawling babies and running children. The mmi’s look great and are going to stand up to the activity around them without me having a heart attack every time someone goes near them. I used the toe in tool supplied with the speakers and set them up 74” apart, 114” from the listening position, and 32” off the back wall. That is a bit close to the back wall and once I make some changes to the room I might be able to pull them out a bit further. I put all four Z feet on each speaker, and they are solid. One note, if you follow the instructions on fitting the Z feet, I would suggest not installing the stick-on foam bits until after you have adjusted the level on all the feet, especially if your floor is as uneven as mine. It is a real hassle taking them on and off while leveling. Once everything is level, take the feet off one more time and add the foam pads and screw them back on.
With the super BAM, inserted into the Tape loop with new Cardas Golden Reference ICs, Bobby assured me that 50 hours would be enough time for the speakers to sing, with another 70 hours to fully settle in. In hindsight, it could be due to the new ICs, but things didn’t start sounding good until I came home after they had run non-stop for about 100 hours. As soon as I entered the house, knew that something good had happened while I was gone.
So, how do the Merlins compare to the Dynaudios? To get right to the point, no comparison. The upgrade was more then I hoped. Lets start with the bass. While I never felt I was missing much with the Dynaudios, the Merlins showed me just how much I really was missing. Instead of a thump, those deeper bass notes...are, well... notes... Paired with the nuvista amp however the bass is lean compared to the Dynaudios. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on. I fed the pre outs on the nuvista to a pair of atma-sphere M60s. Big difference. Full, rich, deep bass. As good as the nuvista is, it clearly isn’t the best match for the Merlins.
The Dynaudios throw a very wide soundstage and with proper set up, the speakers disappear completely, imaging is wonderful. The Merlins also do the disappearing act without being as critical with set up, soundstage is slightly wider, but significantly deeper. Definitely more 3D. What was particularly unsettling was how the mids and highs that I so loved about the Dynaudios and what attracted me to them in the first place, fell apart compared to the Merlins. The Merlins really showed how much the "energy" in the mid/highs that I had noted with the Dynaudios was harming the sound. This was really obvious on one CD where I actually used to think the vocals were deliberately processed to have a metallic tone (kind of fit the music). It was humbling when the Merlins showed that wasn't the case at all...oops.
Recently, we upgraded our 15 year old CRT tube TV for a flat panel HD with blu-ray. The TV came with a blu-ray disc that we popped in after set up and the difference between HD and the old CRT was eye opening. More resolution, clear, clean, more life-like, real, a veil lifted from the image etc etc. It is not like on the old TV, Angelina Jolie doesn‘t looked like Angelina Jolie, or Brad Pitt like Brad Pitt, but on blu-ray, it is like it really is them. The same reactions and words could use to describe what it is like upgrading to the Merlins. On a good recording it sounds like the musicians are in the room with you.
It is kind of funny, all the words I am using to describe the Merlins are the same I would have used to describe the Dynaudios in the past. Does that mean I was wrong about the Dynaudios? Ultimately, I guess so, but it is also relative. I can only compare with what I know. I have not had the chance to listen to many high end systems. Some that I have heard sound impressive, but instead of listening to the music, I find myself listening to the different sounds being reproduced. All very hi fi, but not particularly musical. Both the Dynaudios and to a greater extent the Merlins, play music.
Of course this is not intended to be a put down of Dynaudio. Comparing a 12 year old speaker designwith a current model speaker in a different price class isn’t really fair. As the Dynaudios were a major step up from the very first speakers I owned, the Merlins are a major step up again. And that is how it should be. What is the point of upgrading if that wasn’t the case? With the Merlins, I think I have now reached a level that trying to go any further will be a case of little gain for too high a cost for my budget. At some point we all have to reach some limit.
If you read the reviews of the Merlins on this site and others, you can’t help but be impressed with the components many people use, and you can come away with the impression that if you are not using specific copper litz wire and exotic tube amplifiers, you are wasting your time with these speakers. It was a major concern for me when I ordered the VSMs. Would I have to immediately change out the rest of my system in order for the speakers to sound decent? You will note that the rest of my system does not match the ‘standard recommended’ components usually associated with Merlins, ss amp and silver wire. However, despite that, they are still a major step up in a system that was not optimized for them. Am I getting the full potential from the Merlins? The answer is clearly, no. Same as I wasn’t getting the full potential from the Dynaudios when I first got them, but I follow the opinion of choose your speaker first and build around them. Since getting the Merlins I have picked up a older pair of Atma-sphere M60 monoblocks. At some point I will look for a suitable pre-amp once I have sold the nuvista. It is doubtful I’ll ever get cardas gold reference speaker wire ( I would need a 2 + 5 meter custom pair), but there are several alternatives. worth looking into. If anyone has experience with Wywires 8.5 AWG copper litz speaker wire, I would be interested, could be a good match. And I haven’t even gotten into the whole power cord thing yet. After not changing anything for years, there are going to be more changes in the next couple years before it stabilizes again. In the meantime I am enjoying music, confident that I am getting some of the best sound I can along the way, and that it is only going to get better.
Enough! The cat is looking for a lap to sit on, the dog is already curled up at my feet, my lovely wife is snuggled up beside me on the couch, and Keith Jarrett is getting ready to play for us. I and one very lucky guy.......
Musical Fidelity M3 nuvista amp
MF 3.2 CD player
Haddcock 242 incognito
Music Maker II