Review: Merlin VSM-MM

I've had my Merlin VSM-MMs with B-Bam well over a month, and I thought I should share my thoughts on them. As with all reviews, this is just one reviewer’s opinion; your milage may vary. Before I get started, I thionk it is worth giving a little background info on myself, as I feel it demonstrates Bobby Palkovic’s dedication and willingness to help potential buyers, or just those curious about his speakers. I’m a 23 year old medical student whose audio system evolved from an aiwa mini stereo system to a pair of PSB Stratus Gold i’s in the course of about 7 years. I view the Gold i’s as fantastic speakers and an incredible value to boot. However, over the course of 2 years, I began noticing some sonic flaws in them. The highs can be somewhat harsh, the bass a bit loose, and the imagining a lacking the last bit of refinement.

Deciding to upgrade I began looking for a speaker that could offer that last degree of refinement and musicality. I listened to the Paradigm reference series and most of the NHT models, but was not at all impressed enough to replace my PSBs with any of these models. Luckily, when I moved to town to begin medical school I moved very close to a B&W dealer. I have listened to every B&W Nautilus model except the 800s and have spent several hours with the 801s. I found these bright and was generally unimpressed, as I felt my Gold’s compared highly favorably, especially considering the 801s were well over SIX times the price I paid for the PSBs. After each session, I happily went home to my comparatively modest audio system.

After much research, I decided to purchase a used pair of Merlin VSM-M’s off of audiogon. I called Bobby Palkovic at Merlin Music to be sure the Merlins would be reasonably synergistic with my [then] current system. Bobby enthusiastically greeted me, and I clearly explained to him that I was going to buy a used pair of his speakers (and consequently not a pair from him) as well as the fact I was a 23 year old. Most any other salesman, much less the owner of a speaker company, would not have given me more than a few moments of his time. Bobby spent almost and hour on the phone with me explaining the design philosophy of his speakers, component matching, and answered all of my many questions. Bobby was so incredibly courteous I decided to purchase a pair of speakers with battery bam from him.

Current audio system (Home theater components not listed):
CD transport/SACD: Sony SCD-777es (modified by Richard Kern)
DAC: Audiomeca Enkianthus X DAC
Amp: Belles 150a Reference
Preamp: Joule LA-100 Mk. III
Interconnects: all Cardas golden reference interconnects
Speaker Cables: Cardas SE-9 single ended.

The speakers/b-bam arrived in two boxes, very well packaged. After unpacking them, I installed each with the 3 spike configuration, single RC network, and set the bam to full AC power, as I had not had a chance to charge its battery. I put in the CD “Randy Travis Live at Last.” While not an audiophile recording, it is a good one, and I thoroughly enjoy Randy’s voice. Within the first 15 seconds, my jaw LITERALLY dropped. My immediate observation was the unbelieveable imaging produced by the VSM-MMs. The image, soundstage, and sense of air made the PSB Gold i’s sound almost like a boombox. While I may be exaggerating somewhat, there is NO comparison between the two. I instantly heard things in the recording I had never heard before. The Merlins are as transparent a speaker as I have ever heard and seem to completely disappear; the music seems to come magically from the air rather than the speaker boxes.

The Merlin’s pinpoint imaging, huge soundstage, and sense of air between the instruments/voices vastly surpassed the PSBs as well as the B&W 801s. I heard in 15 seconds what I spent hours listening for in the more expensive, mammoth 801s. Far more so than the aforementioned speakers, the VSMs capture the decay of an instrument or noise seemingly beyond belief. Cymbals sound like cymbals, not only with the initial strike but also as the sound disappears into oblivion. While the microdynamics and decay of the Merlins are always apparent, I was startled with my initial listening test. Of all things I had an episode of Law and Order recorded on my DVR. Usually listening to my DVR with my CAL pre/pro in Dolby Pro Logic model, I had just happened to be listening to the episode in stereo through my PSBs. I was interrupted by a phone call as I was watching a scene that had the detectives investigating a priest’s death in a confessional inside a large cathedral. I rewound the scene and watched it again. Within 10 minutes of resuming the episode, my Merlins arrived. After installing them and spending some time listening to music, I began rewatching the Law and Order episode with my VSMs in stereo. When it came to the cathedral scene, I noticed a slight echo that persisted for part of the scene, disappeared, and then reemerged. Unclear as to its origin, I reconnected the Gold i’s and heard no echo. Connecting the Merlins again, I heard the transient echo, and then it hit me. When the scene was recorded in the cavernous church, the slight echo of the voices was captured, and in scenes inside the confessional, no echoes were created. The Merlins reproduced the microdynamic retrieval and decay of the echoes with startling effect, providing and unreal sense of realism and space. The PSBs, while truly wonderful speakers, are completely outclassed by the Merlins and provided no hint of the echoes.

I could go on for days talking about my initial observations. Instead, I will try to provide a review and my further observations and comments about the VSM-MMs’ sound.

Sound: Invariably in any discussion of the Merlin VSM series, concerns of the Merlins being bright and/or lacking bass are raised by those who have never heard them, heard them only briefly, or heard them improperly setup and/or using poor equipment/recordings. I strongly feel that neither of these concerns are justified when the Merlins are properly set up using compatible components and good recordings. Without a doubt, the Esotar tweeter is a work of art. The highs on the Merlin are smooth as silk, displaying absolutely no trace of grain or harshness. An instrument’s natural decay is carried into infinity giving an unparalleled sense of realism. Even at uncomfortably high volumes, no sense of distortion or breaking up is apparent. Poorly recorded sources will sound poor when played through any semi competent system; even so, the Esotar tweeter is incredibly non fatiguing to listen to, completely lacking in the mechanical harshess that so often plagues metal dome tweeters. It almost doesn’t bear mentioning that decent quality source recordings through the Merlins’ tweeters displays a sense of realism, air, and resolution that is completely non fatiguing, lacking all harshness, and utterly addictive.

Bass wise, the VSM-MMs produce an amount of bass that seems impossible for the 6.5” woofer. With the battery bam (all serious listening done in battery only mode), bass output is taut and exquisitely layered. The Merlins reproduce the amount of bass present in the source recording without adding a layer of coloration. Bass shy recordings are quickly revealed for what they are. With proper setup (Bobby P. is always ready to help with this aspect) and quality recordings, the Merlins produce deep (down to the bottom of the 30Hz-ish range) that is cleaner than any I have ever heard and lightning fast.

Imaging/Soundstage. The first quality of the Merlins that grabbed my attention was their pinpoint imaging along with massive soundstage. Instruments and vocals are clearly separated and defined in a soundstage that projects slightly forward and far behind the speakers as well as beyond their borders. The end result is that the Merlins completely disappear in the soundstage, a truly beautiful experience. I had a non audiophile friend listen to the beginning of a rendition of Carmen’s Toreador Song, which features a broad array of vocals at nearly every conceivable place in the soundstage, some in motion and some remaining still. With the VSM-MMs, the vocals were precisely placed within the enormous soundstage, far better than my PSB Stratus Gold i’s, and even considerably better than the B&W 801s. After listening, my friend asked me to play it with my center channel, and whatever other hidden speakers I was using, off. Using test track 4 of Stereophile’s test CD 2, the acoustic guitar solo, I asked a friend and guitar player to listen with the lights off. He remarked that he could be convinced that a real guitar was being played in the room. When I asked him to point to the speaker or speakers playing the music, he promptly pointed to the image and said the center channel speaker was the only one playing. When I informed him only VSM-MMs were playing, he asked me to repeat the track. Doing so, he still did not believe the Merlins could produce such a precise image and realistic sound, while themselves seeming to be completely invisible. Only after putting his ear to the Merlins to verify they were playing without the center channel’s help did he acknowledge his amazement.

Other Thoughts: The Merlins are incredibly beautiful and revealing speakers, and any weak links in the component chain become obvious. Sonically flawed components and poor recordings(I've hooked many of these up to my speakers just for kicks) reveal themselves and contrast with the seemingly perfect sound these speakers are capable of. Even with the flaws of a noticably weak link the merlins are capable of a beautiful sound that greatly outperforms my PSB Gold i's. The silky smooth tweeter and 6.5" driver remain cool under the less than optimal conditions of a poor source component, never becoming harsh or piercing due to the quality of the speakers' construction and drivers, though flaws can be heard. To ensure optimal performance, care must be taken to ensure compatible component selections are made. This is not to say that only expensive equipment is adequate. On the contrary, Bobby is eager to help a potential buyer or owner select high quality, relatively inexpensive components to maximize the Merlin experience. Anyone, regardless of musical tastes or budget, considering purchasing the Merlins or any owner who has never spoken to Bobby really owes it to his/her self to call him. Bobby is incredibly helpful in making component, placement, and setup suggestions to get the last ounce of enjoyment out of the speakers. I view these speakers to be one of the best purchases I have made, ever. They provide a level of realism I never knew was possible in a speaker. In the hour I spent talking to Bobby and the first 15 seconds I spent listening to his speakers, I have become a customer for life. This says more than this review ever could. I'll say what Michael Fremer couldn't quite in his Stereophile review; the Merlins are magical.

Well written description of the Merlin sound. The MX, even more so. You'll be happy for a long time.
No get out there and buy more music!

Cheers, Spencer
Great review Jason. You have a really nice, well thought out system. It must be impressive as well as very musical. Good job!
I have to say Jason I'm more than happy with my current Alon Lotus' but I was just suddenly gripped by an urge to call Bobby P. and get a pair of Merlins. Outstanding review, enjoy your speakers!