Review: Merlin Music Systems VSM-MX Speaker
Merlin VSM-MX review by Steve Burton, April, 2005
The Merlin VSM-MX is an elegant speaker. Fit and finish is exemplary. Mine are Piano Black with a mirror smooth gloss finish. Wife acceptance factor (WAF) is at the high end of the scale. Well packaged in a single box they arrived with no damage to box or contents.
CD players: Audio Aero Prima, Cary 303/300, and Ultech UCD-100
Pre-amp: Aesthetix Calypso
Amps: Berning ZH270 and AES/Cary Sixpacs
Interconnects: Cardas Golden Reference
Speaker cable: Vampire Wire
Room: 14 x 15 x 8
Music: Jazz, Blues, and Classical
Over the years I have read numerous glowing reviews of the Merlin VSM speakers. Always wanted to audition them but never got the chance. Finally ordered them “sight unseen.” Easily the best audio purchase I have ever made.
The VSM-MXs took approximately 300 hours of play before they sounded their best. I have used the MXs with all the equipment listed above in various combinations. The Merlins are a clear window for the upstream components to shine through. Someone said they are like “sonic microscopes.” I agree. They are as clear as the best electrostatics I’ve ever heard, maybe more so. It’s kind of difficult to review the Merlins because what you are hearing is the upstream components with almost no color added by the speakers. Any upstream change makes an audible difference.
My most important listening priority is having the music totally separated from the speakers. When instruments appear to emanate from the speaker itself, for me, the illusion is broken. The Merlins pull the disappearing act as well as any speaker I’ve heard. The soundstage is very wide, very deep, with plenty of bloom. Images are precise and natural. Tonal balance is even. Instrumental timbre is natural and convincing. Vocals are spectacular through the Merlins. With the Berning amp in the chain the female vocals appear to be “in the room.” With the components listed above, the sound is rich, smooth, and refined, with absolutely no brightness. However, be warned, I have no doubt that they will convey the shriek of bright components in a heartbeat.
Okay, okay, I’m done with all the flowery prose. Not! Gotta tell you about the bass. The bass may be my favorite MX feature. There is no shortage of impact. The bass is full, tight, and articulate. No, it doesn’t have the lowest octave, but most listeners will never miss it. Driven by the Berning ZH270, these speakers can shake the walls with bass. It’s hard to get enough of it.
Most people already know the Merlins work well with the Berning ZH270 amp. I am happy to report the MXs also sound great with the AES Sixpac amps. The Sixpac/Merlin combo is rich and smooth, extremely easy to listen to. It produces a tremendous soundstage. With the Berning you get incredible resolution, more articulate bass, and more transient attack, yet the sound is still rich and full. Prior to upgrading my CD player, I thought the Berning was a bit lean. With the Cary 303/300 and the Audio Aero Prima the sound through the Berning is now warm and full. (That’s what I mean when I say the Merlins convey the upstream components.) The music is more “real” through the Berning. Though different, I like the presentation offered by both amps. If you want a different sound just change an upstream component, tubes, or wires. You’ll hear the difference. This is much easier than swapping speakers looking for a particular sound.
Is there anything to criticize about the Merlin VSM-MX speakers? Not much. The missing lowest octave I suppose. They do require the best sounding upstream components to sound their best, but fortunately that doesn’t always mean the most expensive.
I can’t complete this review without mentioning the great service, support, and advice I’ve received from Bobby Palkovic at Merlin. Bobby is one of the very few manufacturers that actually care about your success with their product. He goes out of his way to help you. He’s been making the VSM speaker for ten years now, refining them, honing them, into the best they can be. This approach appeals to me much more than manufacturers that simply toss out idea after idea, hoping for a “hit.” The Merlins are thoroughbreds. True classics.
Other speakers I’ve owned: Isophon, PSB, Apogee, Von Schweikert.
Other high-end speakers I’ve auditioned: Wilson, Magnepan, B&W, Innersound, Martin Logan, Eminent Technology, Scientific Fidelity, Acoustat, Totem, Focal JM Labs, Audio Physic, Fuselier, Vandersteen, Aerial, Alon, Infinity, Thiel, Revel.