Review: Merlin Music Systems VSM-MX Speaker

Category: Speakers

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.

Associated Components:
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.

Good informative review. I have had the last few versions of the VSM's (VSM-SE, VSM-M, and VSM-MM) and have been waiting for my pair of piano black VSM-MX to arrive any day now.
I agree with the theory that the Merlin speakers sound outstanding with the often recommended gear (Belles, Joule, CAT, etc.) that does not necessarily have to be outrageously expensive. Good to hear that the AES Sixpac also are a good fit.
You're right about the bass. I was listening to a SACD RCA Living Stereo of Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, last night and from the very low notes right up to the top was exhilarating!
Coupled with a ten (TEN!) year warranty backed by Bobby is more than just icing on the cake.

You were smart to discover the Merlins that far back. The MXs are the first, and only, Merlins I have heard. I feel like I have missed out on a lot of great sound. The other thing I like about the VSMs is their small stature. I find large speakers visually distracting.
I noticed you owned Apogees, & I think the Stages I once owned had a live & natural vocal reproduction that was absoultely remarkable & (to my ears & experience) has never been equaled. How do the Merlins compare?
I owned the Centaurs which were not as refined as the Stages, and it's been many years, so it's hard to make a definitive judgement. I do remember the Apogees were incredibly clear and detailed and made a lot of other speakers sound veiled. The Merlins are, as best I can remember, at least as clear as the Apogees and just as natural. They sound like whatever you put in front of them. This evening I'm listening with the Sixpac monoblocks. The sound is rich and full. Lush is a good term. Not as clear and articulate as the Berning but extremely beautiful. The difference is imediately noticed. My point is, if your upstream components produce natural vocals you will hear natural vocals through the Merlins.
Thanks for the comprehensive response!
The un-veiled sound you described is exactly as I remember the Stages. I enjoyed your well written review, too. One thing I noticed about the Apogees is that they performed very well even with very modest equipment (an Aragon 8008 amp & CAL Icon CDP in my case).
Hi Guy's,

I have been following this thread with some interest lately. I currently own Martin Logan Prodigy's, which as you may already know are quite large electrostats. I am thinking about changing my system and am looking for a speaker that gives me all (or at least many) of the qualities I so like in the ML's (big spacious soundstage, truth of timbre, and incredible imaging)but would be easier to drive, and have a smaller visual impact. I listenend to a pair of WP 7's at a local dealer some time ago and fell in love.......... but given my profession as an educator, I don't think a $25,000 pair of speakers will be in my near future.

My questions are: will these speakers be large enough for my room (16x20x11) and will they do rock, and large orchestral music well (how much impact, and weight/depth out of that smallish woofer)? Also, has anyone compared them with the Wilson speakers?

Thanks for the info. I would listen for myself but there are no Merlin dealers in my area.


Thanks for your input.
The Merlins will equal or surpass the MLs in clarity and imaging but not in bass impact. As I remember, the Prodigies really pump bass impact. I would say it depends on the type of music you listen to. The Merlins will give you truth of timbre if your electronics allow it. Soundstage will be different. Not sure which I prefer. It really depends on the music. The Merlins can play very loud and still maintain clarity while doing it. I haven't tried the Merlins in my living room yet (18 x 35). Not sure what to expect when I do. One thing I like about the Merlin is the 6 1/2 inch bass/mid driver. It delivers more midrange punch than a 3-4 inch midrange you find in a lot of 3-way designs. The 6 1/2 driver moves more air, making the speaker sound bigger than many larger speakers.