Merlin VSM-MX Review
It is my pleasure to write what appears to be the first review online of the new VSM-MX, the latest version of Merlin Music Systems’ acclaimed VSM loudspeaker. Although neither a professional reviewer, nor an English major, I’ll do my best to describe the VSM-MX(the X is in tribute to the tenth anniversary of the VSM line) and my brief, but instructive experience listening through it.
With over twenty years as an audio hobbyist and music lover, I’ve lived with all kinds of gear in all kinds of rooms. My ever evolving system began humbly with NAD electronics and Mission 70s, and has steadily evolved to the system used here:
Berning DH-270 amplifier, Joule Electra LA-150 preamp, Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck/Spacearm fitted with Shelter 501II cartridge, Metronome Technologies CD2V Signature tubed upsampling CD player, Pentagon PH-3 phono stage, Blue Circle Music Ring 800 power conditioner, Audience AU24 speaker cables, Audience AU24, Cardas Golden Reference and JPS Superconductor interconnects.
Accessories used include: VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine, Billy Bags rack, Neuance shelf, Walker Audio puck, DH Labs Golden Sound cones, ERS sheets, chocolate chip cookies (makes any system sound better).
In the past, I have owned components including BAT, Air Tight, Spectral, Air Tight, Krell, Sunfire, Bryston amps; BAT, Spectral, Audio Research, Sonic Frontiers, Classe, B&K preamps; Vandersteen, Thiel, Alon, Von Schweikert, Chario, Aerial, Mission speakers; too many sources & cables to mention.
Setup, Room Etc.
Unpacking and setup of the VSM-MX and the battery BAM bass augmentation module was straightforward, given the unusually complete nature of the instructions. The unpacking instructions were safely mounted on the box exterior; inside, the speakers themselves were in custom foam packing and also wrapped extensively with a special masking type tape that protected the clearcoat finish and eliminated all lint, etc. from adhering to the speaker. Sizewise, the VSM-MX appears the same as the prior generation VSMs. My pair are finished in a beautiful, dark, shiny Moss Green, reminiscent of the British racing green seen on many Jaguars, Minis, etc. A small wooden triangle and associated directions made it a snap to properly align toe-in. The easy to install adjustable Z feet were very sharp, and easily coupled to my carpeted floor. The small level provided assistance, as I adjusted the feet to compensate for the floors’ imperfections.
The RC networks(see Merlin’s website for an explanation) quickly slide onto the ingenious Cardas binding posts(the easiest I’ve used), and in my case, the jumpers for single wired speakers were also simple to connect.
The battery BAM unit can be inserted into the signal chain either between amp and preamp or in a tape loop. I tried both(more on that, later). It can be used 100%AC, 50/50, or 100% battery which will last about 12 hours. A rear switch dictates full AC or 50/50; just unplug it for 100% battery.
The room in use is a rectangle 14’w across front and rear walls, 17’long sidewalls, with 4’ wide openings at the rear of the right wall and the left edge of the back wall. Ceilings are 9’ drywall. A stone fireplace with slate hearth takes up most of the front wall from floor to ceiling flanked by standard windows on each side. The left sidewall also has three windows. All windows are covered with 2” solid wood blinds, which remain closed for all serious listening. Books and records provide diffusion along the right wall.
Initially, the speakers were setup using the basic instructions, residing approximately 5’ from the front wall, 3.5’ from side walls, 7’ between speakers, and the listening chair approximately 8’ from the speakers front edges. The chair is about 3’ from the rear wall. So far, the room doesn’t have any acoustic treatments. After tweaking placement as described below, I was able to use a Radio Shack meter and a test CD to measure almost flat response down to 30hz, with only mild peaks at 600 & 1250 Hz. This significantly betters the measurements of prior speakers in the same location. Although these measurements are far from perfect, they are indicative of what I hear.
As this pair is a demo pair, break in wasn’t an issue. Right out of the chute, the VSM-MXs grabbed my attention and pulled me into the music. Given that I’d been recently using Quad ESL 63 USA’s, I expected more bottom end punch and better dynamics, but I had no idea how much better. The surprising thing about my initial impressions was that the biggest improvement was in the highs. Cymbals, brass and tambourines exhibited a shimmer that was previously smeared by comparison. Hi hats had more speed; I could sense the air as they rose and fell.
The midrange was natural, without any sibilance on vocals. Transparency was uncanny. Bass was tight, but a tad on the lean side. This is not a bass heavy speaker. It portrayed acoustic bass with the natural tone that I associate with live jazz; not an over-emphasized bass that makes rock sound dramatic at the expensive of other more subtle music. Spatially, the soundstage was very wide, almost as deep, but was located initially from a point forward of center by a couple of feet to just at the rear wall. A little more forward than I would have preferred.
These initial impressions were with the BAM inserted between amp and preamp, with the speakers 5’ from the front wall, 8’ from the listening chair, and with JPS Superconductor connecting the LA150 to the ZH-270. All other cabling at this point was AU24.
After calling BobbyP(Merlin founder) for some further setup advice(from what I’ve heard, everybody calls him!), I did what I could to further tweak the sound to my ideal. I replaced the JPS with Cardas Golden Reference between preamp & amp. I also replaced one setup of the AU24 with Golden Reference between the phono stage and the preamp(vinyl is job1 for me). This is all the Cardas I can afford for now; hopefully sometime soon I will try their speaker cables. Next, I moved the BAM to a preamp tape loop, which Bobby stated would provide a “juicier” presentation, rather than the “cleaner” sound when the BAM is between the amp and preamp. Last but not least, I moved the speakers back one foot closer to the front wall, now allowing a full 9’ from speaker to chair, and then readjusted toe-in.
The resulting changes in sound were significant. The soundstage now had a more laid back perspective with most instruments emanating from a plane along or behind the speakers. Additional depth made rear staged instruments appear to come from far behind the front wall. On the occasional song that included it, musicians front stage reached far into the room towards me. Basically, the front third of the room became a stage, wall-to-wall-and-through-the-back. I was concerned that with the speakers a foot closer to the front wall, that bass would get muddier, but the concern was unfounded. Tonal balance was natural, allowing the music to maintain a relaxed vibe that keeps my mind on the music, not the sound.
Details and transparency are exemplary. I can focus on any instrument and single it out clearly, just as I might watching live musicians; regardless of the placement in the soundstage or the dynamic shadings of the instrument it is easy to follow the player of choice (e.g. a quiet oboe beneath a loud brass section). Yet, none of the detail is accompanied by the hard, etched leading edges of notes that I often associate with speakers that retrieve this level of nuance. Finally, I don’t have to choose between hearing it all, and hearing a PRAT-filled presentation that comes across with the unforced feel of live acoustic instruments. The borderline-harsh harmonics of a trumpet and the off-note sounds of hard pressed fingers sliding down a guitar string portray a sense of realism that’s spooky.
Granted, some of the system performance I hear must be due to the matching with components that many consider close to ideal complements to the Merlins. I’ve only used all the associated electronics with one other speaker system, the Quad ESL63USA. It isn’t really a fair comparison, as the Quads are limited in their dynamic abilities and somewhat rolled off at both ends. However, the Quad midrange and imaging have been an industry references for 20 years. In my room, the Merlins out-perform them in most every respect. They manage to portray vocals, piano and horns with the same speed that usually make electrostatics a superior choice for fans of small jazz combos and acoustic folk/rock.
In terms of other speakers I have owned, the Merlins provide many sonic similarities to the $14k Avalon Acoustics Radian HCs that I ran with Spectral & MIT components, and was written up as the “2C3D” system in Stereophile a number of years ago. That system excelled in portraying a dynamic whirlwind of sound in a huge 3D space. It’s downside was it caused great fatigue for me, where my mind wandered away from the music, and I was often less than relaxed after listening sessions that usually ended quicker than they should have.
This led me in a different direction, a return to tubes via Quads, Cary Rocket 88 and SLP-2002. This setup, had the PRAT and silky midrange that I longed for, but details were amiss, relatively speaking. With all the errors being ones of omission, it was musical, just a bit lacking.
The Merlins, accompanied by the Merlin/Joule combo, bring the best elements of both these systems; the dynamics, transparency, fast bass and spatial pyrotechnics of the Avalon/Spectral with the rhythmic timing, natural midrange and low volume coherency of the Quad/Cary system.
Compared to the VSM-M, Merlin claims the new version are more dynamic. I clearly hear no limitations; they play loudly and cleanly more than I’d ever need. With my 70 watt Berning, I still can’t get the volume past 12 o’clock.
One of my favorite demo pieces is “I’m Losing You” from Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s Heartbeats Accelerating CD. This song portrays a wide and deep stage of featuring a violin prominently in front of the outside edge of the R speaker, while an acoustic guitar plucks rhythmically far to the back left corner of the stage. The lead vocals are miked mid left center, with Rufus Wainwright’s harmony vocal close enough to make me wonder if they are sharing the microphone. Nonetheless, the voices emanate distinctly, full-bodied, even as they sing pensively with much restraint. The 3rd harmony voice further right and back calls little attention to itself, but complements the other two nicely. Piano notes linger with the pedal work, contrasting the quick decay of the banjo pickings. Many speakers fail to portray all the spatial cues on this recording, smear the lead and harmony vocals, and/or bury many of the instrumental details. The VSM-MXs get it right. All the emotion is there; the beauty of the song shines through.
A fun jazz tune that’s captured my attention lately is Charles Mingus’ “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, included on Mingus at Antibes and Best of Mingus. On my LP, the Merlins place the tenor sax solo right front stage, clearly well right of the loudspeaker. Meanwhile two sets of hand claps pace the solo from mid-stage outside the left speaker and the right, just behind the soloist. All the action takes place in front of altos and trombones clearly delineated from the rear center of the stage. I could go on and on, but the point is simple; upbeat tunes like this draw me into the music, and the Merlins convey the excitement of the recording in a natural way that makes me smile.
Critics of Merlins have previously described their products as being “ruthlessly revealing” and “too forward”. I can imagine that with associated gear that leans in this direction the VSM-MX might exaggerate the problem. A serious commitment to matching with the right gear is a requirement here; probably more so than with some other speakers. My old Vandersteen 2CI’s blended easily with anything I threw at them. I suspect that wouldn’t be the case here. However, if you match them with the right stuff, the rewards will easily outweigh the effort.
If big bottom bass is your thing, the Merlins don’t go all the way. The BAM filters out all the low frequency noise, and the speakers drop off to close to nothing around 28-30hz. Merlin is going to eventually put out a subwoofer to mate with the VSM series. For me, even low organ notes are reproduced with aplomb, but if bass you can feel, in a “home theater sense” is a top requirement, this speaker probably won’t be your top choice.
With them here just four weeks to date, I clearly haven’t learned all I can about the VSM-MX. What I can say for sure is that it has bettered anything I’ve had in my home and almost everything I’ve heard elsewhere. That covers every aspect of musical reproduction. What has been competitive, to my ears, comes with a $20,000+ price tag. The Merlins allow me to hear subtle changes with minor tweaks, and have the resolution that will allow me to justify further upgrades in source components down the road. For it’s price, the Merlins are a great value and a product to build your system around. A world class product, with no significant shortcomings. There must be some speakers that will outperform it in one aspect or another, probably mostly in very large rooms. But, in an average sized space, the Merlins are exceptionally easy to optimize in placement. They are tube-friendly and efficient. They come from a long-standing company with a fanatical dedication to customer satisfaction and upgradeability. What more can I ask for? So far, nothing. Associated gear Click to view my Virtual SystemSimilar products
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