Joule Electra amps seem to work well with Merlin speakers. The Stargates are in your price range.
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I read your post as looking for an integrated with a future upgrade. If you only have two sources, you might consider the Berning ZH-270, which can operate as a two source "integrated". Well known to operate well with Merlins and you could add a pre-amp later if you want, since it can also be used as a power amp. has an upgrade path and is within your price range new or used.
When I owned my VSM-MX's, I almost went with the Berning ZH-270 myself, very hard to beat considering it's price point, and performance. I choose instead to go a different direction... Perhaps, in retrospect not the best move after all. Keep it simple, and enjoy the music. 8^) Also, ping Bobby P. about the Integrated amp he's been working on.
cheers, & happy holidays to all
p.s. Very nice system Mr. ArtG
thank you everyone. I have read that tube amps are a good match for the Merlins but in an effort to hear more recommendations I would also consider solid state amps if anyone feels these can be a good match. I have read the Berning website and it appears to be a fantastic product - unfortunately as I am based in Brazil any listening prior to sale is nigh on impossible.
I think any of the EAR amps would match quite nicely. All of them (well, I've heard two and own one) are slightly warm, properly detailed, and very musical. These are the qualities you need with Merlin speakers as they tend to be a bit on the lean and analytical side. That's why Bobby recommends Joule amps. The Berning can also be on the cool side of things so an audition is definitely a must.
I spoke to Bobby when I was ordering my VSM-MX's and ended up going with the integrated he started distributing, (ARS Sonum Filarmonia SE), thinking as others have stated that given he designed the speakers he should know what works best with them. That coupled with some very positive feedback from other users of the combo made me pull the trigger. Of course I've received neither yet, (should arrive in the next few weeks), so I don't have a clue how they'll sound together, (great I'm hoping). Cheers