Review: Merlin VSM-MX

Category: Speakers

I posted this on but thought I would also post here as there may be some people who don't frequent both sites,

PS: (jump to the bottom to cut to the chase)

Just to get one thing out of the way, first this is my first review of anything on AA so I would appreciate a little understanding if it isn’t quite up to snuff. Second, if you’re not a fan of Merlin, just skip the balance as no one is obliged to tell me I’m a fool and such just because they don't like something I do. That being said, here goes….

About 12 weeks ago a large 200 pound single box showed up at my door. After some back and forth with the shipper, (they felt delivery meant getting the box to my house but not actually off their truck), said box was sitting in the middle of our dining room. Now space to unpack the speakers wasn’t a problem as we were mid construction with some long running renovations we were having done to pretty 75% of our ground floor. Those without a large amount of space inside might want to do the job in the garage. Inside the top of the box were some very explicit instructions on how to unpack everything to ensure the process goes smoothly. Yes the speakers are expensive but I’ve bought other luxury types of goods where the manufacturers did not exhibit this level of forethought.

Once the contents were unpacked I read the personally addressed note to me thanking for me on my patience during the wait for my pair to arrive and detailed instructions on recommended setup. The whole experience definitely conveyed the fact that this was a bespoke product assembled just for me. A nice experience to be sure and indicative of the excellent customer support that Bobby provides and most of you have heard about from others.

My pair were ordered in Piano Black and the finish was simply impeccable. The finish was mirror like as to be expected for a product of this price, (expected but I’m sure not necessarily delivered from all manufacturers). I did give the speakers a thorough once over, for example, I closely inspected the edges of all of the brass inlays for signs of overspray and noticed no issues whatsoever. Obviously great care is taken in ensuring a first rate product.

Setup involved assembling the 4 piece cones, attaching them in the desired configuration. I went with the recommended option of two cones in front and one centered in the back. While sufficiently stable, those with small children or pets running around the house, or small children riding pets around the house may want to go with a more traditional 4 cone per speaker setup. We have no kids and while our dog isn’t the worlds best behaved, he hasn’t managed to take out any of my audio equipment yet so I thought I’d risk it. I’ll admit that I didn’t change back and forth examining the merits of 3 versus 4. Once the cones were on I installed the BAM was hooked up and we were good to go.

To cover off my musical preferences, I listen mostly to vinyl now and lean towards mostly classical and jazz however newer releases, (Arcade Fire, The Killers, British Sea Power), seem to be creeping in more and more as well.

On to the Sound

Well, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the worlds best at conveying what I’m hearing verbally, (and thus in text), and certainly not the way that reviewers can pick apart the entire audio spectrum but I’ll do my best to convey the experience.

I had been waiting for some time, (OK some months actually), to get my hands on these speakers so the sense of anticipation had grown so completely out of whack that short of me dropping dead of a heart attack from being so completely and utterly blown away by the experience of what I was hearing coming out of those speakers, I was going to be a little under-whelmed. I turned my amp on, (an Antique Sound Labs KI22 Fox 22w single-ended integrated), and heard… music. Plain and simple music. No ear-gasmic death rays shot out and knocked me dead. What was going on? What about all of the raving going on by owners? I gave it some time and thought I’d let things break in. Yes, some people will think I’m a raving fool and that the only thing breaking in was me, not the speakers. They may be right but what I think was going on was actually a little of both.

The more I listened the more I started to notice things that I had not heard before. Particularly what I would describe as a much more tonally accurate representation of instruments. For example drums no longer sounded like a thud, (not that I recognised that as such before), but I really started to get the very obvious sense that there was a skin stretched over a wooden frame. I could hear it actually had volume in the drum. Other instruments had a similar effect and there was a much more realistic depiction of the actual instrument. It was an interesting experience because I hadn’t noticed the absence of it with my old system. I suppose it’s probably a case of me not getting exposed to enough live music, (maybe only once every couple of months unfortunately), to come home remembering that sound and noticing the absence of it in my system.

Another interesting thing is the resolving power of these things. I can hear all sorts of details that I was unable to discern before. For example I can much more easily follow Paul Motian’s brush work on the 45 reissue of Bill Evan’s Trio – Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Another impressive aspect is the decay of instruments. Some pieces of music have passages where I can hear instruments fading off into nothing for a very long time. All of that being said, the details don’t jump out at you in any forced sense. If you want to focus on picking apart the music you certainly can but nothing is flung in your face. I think that the presentation of very low level detail in such an unforced way simply adds to the believability of the experience.

To go through the audiophile checklist as best as I can:

Soundstage depth width and height is all very good. It seems to be true to the recording because some lp’s have minimal depth while others have excellent depth. These speakers don’t seem to be adding anything that isn’t there but they sure as hell seem to be passing everything that is.

Resolution is excellent. See my comments above. Another example is with my cd player. My Marantz SA-8260, (now arguably the weak link in my system), I was never able to blindly determine if the display was defeated or not. Now I can without exception. I don’t really know what this means other than to say that these speakers are capable of conveying very small differences.

Dynamics are very good. I’m sure they’re not going to compete with a pair of Avantgarde Trio’s in that respect but I certainly am not sitting listening to music and thinking that they’re lacking in that department at all.

Bass/Midrange/Treble – I’ll focus on bass mostly as that is an area where people seem to critique the Merlins. I never owned the pre-super BAM models so I don’t know how much better they’ve gotten over them but all I can say is that bass is excellent. On the track Karmacoma on my vinyl copy of Massive Attack’s – Collected, (their best of), the bass is truly prodigious and I personally cannot imagine wanting more. I’m not shoe-horned into a closet either as my room is about 14 by 22 with a 5 by 6 opening into another room of similar size. I would also characterise midrange and treble as excellent. Voices have a realistic quality to them and convey much more subtle expression than I am used to. An interesting distinction between my old speakers is that instruments like cymbals now stay planted back with the rest of the drum kit. With my previous Triangle Zerius speakers I’d hear the drummer playing away at the back of the soundstage with his cymbals coming straight out of the tweeters. Kind of spoiled the illusion.

I’ve heard the Merlin’s being knocked as harmonically lean. With either amp I completely disagree with that assessment. If the record is full sounding it comes out that way through the Merlin’s. If the recording is lean, threadbare and bright, it’s going to come out that way. All I would suggest for someone who feels these speakers are lean is one listen to Shenandoah on Bill Frisell’s Good Dog Happy Man CD. Any thoughts they had of the Merlin’s being tonally lean would vanish, or something else in there system must be broken. They don’t seem to be editorializing but just play what you feed them.

Finally, about two months into things my ARS Sonum Filarmonia SE integrated arrived. Bobby distributes this Spanish made integrated amplifier and I purchased it believing that Bobby knows what best suits his speaker design. All I’ll say for now is that that amplifier brought out everything I mentioned above in spades.

OK, I’ll wrap it up. I’ve spent a far bit of time dissecting, (OK, maybe trying to dissect is a better term), the Merlin’s but to do that is doing them an injustice. Their real strength is their ability to wrap all of their individual qualities together in a package that is very balanced and does a great job of presenting the music in a believable manner. I am now thoroughly love listening to music which is the whole point to all this equipment in my opinion. I’m not saying they’re the best speaker in the world but with my music tastes and in my room I am absolutely ecstatic with them and would recommend them highly for anyone to give a listen to if possible, or be daring, (some would say foolish), and buy them sight unheard as I did.

Finally for real this time, (is this my second or third “finally”?), I remember one person referring to a Merlin reviewer as drinking the coolaid. This was, I believe, a snide shot at yet another happy customer taking the time to comment on the pleasure of both the purchasing experience and the. Well then, I guess I’ve drank the coolaid and it tastes great. Cheers.

Yes! Merlins definitely bring everthing together, coherence is the name of the game here! Merlins are only lean if you use incorrect amplification, SET's and OTL's are spot on. The other nice thing about Merlins is that Bobby can help greatly in putting a system together, he knows what works. You can experiment, but in every instance I've found Bobby's suggestions better than my 'theoretical improvements'.
Thanks for your time and your excellent review. Your language was just fine,to me. I am happy that you're happy. That is what our hobby is all about. Around here there is always someone ready to trash so many different quality products. As a guess I assume you bought these to please yourself/ not them. I did own the VSM- MM's with the older bam; there's plenty to like with these speakers.___Enjoy !!!
Excellent review and tells what the speakers can do!
I've got an older pair (for sale here-got too many speakers!) and have not had the pleasure of the experience of the current model. Thinking about just having Bobby update them. Thanks again for the good words.