Review: Merlin Music Systems VSM MXe Master Speaker
I recently upgraded my Merlin VSM SE speakers (1998 vintage) to VSM MXe Master status. This was a 2-part upgrade: The VSM MXe upgrade (focusing on the cabinets, port modification, footing mod, wiring and cyro treatment) required sending the speakers back to Merlin. The Master upgrade (focusing on BAM and RC network changes and tuning including addition of the Duelund copper-foil caps) required sending just the BAM and RCs to Merlin. Back in May 2010 I posted a review of the MXe upgrade, thus this review focuses on the improvements noted from the upgrade from MXe to Master status. (A quick disclaimer: Current VSM production includes cabinet upgrades which my 1998-vintage speakers do not have. Thus, while the improvement to the speakers has been immense I certainly cannot claim that they sound identical to current production Master speakers. From talking to Bobby Palkovic at Merlin though they are "very close".)
While the MXe upgrade was very impressive this last modification to Master status almost completely transformed the speakers: The sound is more relaxed and easy to listen to - yet more expansive, more resolute and involving. The bandwidth is wider (especially the treble) and the tonality, linearity and pitch definition in the bass is dramatically improved. These are easily noticeable and if that was all this mod added I would have been pleasantly pleased. However there is much more -
I am amazed by the improvement in soundstage placement, density and focus of the images on the stage. The stage is larger, more holographic and real-sounding. With better image density and focus you will be able to better sense the space between the performers which leads to a more believable and realistic presentation. For example: Before this upgrade I might have heard a guitar vaguely over on the left and slightly behind the speaker . Now I can gauge how far back in the mix the guitar is and the exact left/right/front/back placement. The guitar is heard more distinctly and with less "sonic overlap" into the other performers on the stage. The harmonic overtone of instruments now is extraordinarily real sounding which likely contributes to the soundstage improvements noted. Hard-to-resolve recordings such as a group of singers - instead of sounding like one large mass are now much more easily heard as a group of voices, each distinguishable from the other. The center image/vocalist that is present on so many recordings now has a closer, more immediate, focused and involving presence. At the same time a small amount of brightness previously noted in the hard-to-resolve upper-midrange area (such as massed soprano) is now almost entirely gone.
I've had the BAM and RCs since the VSM SEs came out in the late 90s. In 2007 my original BAM was upgraded to the Super BAM, which yielded a nice improvement. The improvement from the Super BAM to the Master BAM/RCs however is huge and (to my ears) is the single largest improvement that Merlin has made to the speaker. It is easily equivalent to a major pre-amp, amp or front-end upgrade and is easily worth the cost.
For those of you with older model VSM speakers these upgrades are a no-brainer. For a very reasonable charge Merlin will dramatically transform the sound of your speakers. For those of you considering an upgrade to MXe status (but not Master status) please consider this: Including shipping costs the upgrade to MXe status is more costly than the upgrade from MXe to Master status. In my opinion however the MXe to Master upgrade is where the most dramatic improvement in sound occurs. For anyone upgrading the VSMs I highly recommend the final upgrade to Master status.
For those of you that do not currently own the Merlin VSM speakers please consider these points: The VSMs are a timeless, proven design. Read the reviews dating from the late 90s to current. The speakers are attractive and easy to incorporate into almost any room. VSMs are efficient and sound wonderful with modestly-powered tube (or SS) amps that don't cost as much as a car and don't consume as much power as your home air conditioner. Finally, consider Merlin's stellar reputation in the industry. Bobby Palkovic is a stand-up guy and his company offers superb after-the-sale support. Bobby takes the time to individually work with each of his customers, giving them invaluable tips and guidance on how to get the most out of his speakers.
I have been messing with this hobby for 30 years. The first 15 years were spent haphazardly buying/selling components trying to find the right mix to get the sound I knew "should be there". I like to think the last 15 years I have gotten a bit wiser - working with Bobby, and a couple of other knowledgeable and trustworthy people, trying to learn how to build a system of components that complement each other. The result has been very rewarding and I wish had started on this path earlier.
As you can tell I am very pleased with the Merlin VSM MXe Master speakers and give them my highest recommendation.
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