Upgrading path from Merlin VSM black magic


Goal:
I have been tinkering with the idea of upgrading and investing in floor standers that are superior in every way compared to Merlins. What are the Merlin users upgrading to? budget is 25k or under (used market value).
My present system:
I am using my Merlins VSM Black magic with dual BAMs with Coincident tech Frankenstein mono block amps (300B SET) and coincident tech line-state and phono preamp. Whole system is wired with Cardas clear cables. Using EMM XDS-1 and VPI classic turntable. System was built around Merlins. I suppose I might have to pick electronics suitable for the replacement speakers and in that case will build the whole system again. Preferably, I would like to keep the front end electronics/amps/pre-amp etc.
My music taste:
I listen mostly Jazz, Classical and vocals. 
My room:
I had Merlins setup in 12x16x8 room which was fully treated. I have since moved to a larger-ish space 15' x 21' x 9'. The room is not treated yet but would be fully treated with absorption panels/diffusors etc in the near future. I setup speakers with ears and with RoomEq software. 
Why not Merlins .. ??
I have thoroughly enjoyed Merlins but sometime feel it can sound a little thin and won't reach the lowest bass. Larger sound stage is desired. Full scale classical music can have better depth, width and weight. I have been using various versions of Merlins since 2009 and have the last version produced (Black magic) with dual BAMs. I have purchased two Funk Audio subwoofers that I have not integrated with the system yet. Merlin is not very subwoofer friendly anyways.
What I am looking for:
Ideal speakers would get from "Merlin" its neutral, resolving, transparent, low distortion, dynamic character. On top would also deliver fuller sound (top to bottom), be a full range down to 20Hz, provide bigger sound stage and has a more organic / relaxing sound (..better emotional connectivity). Speakers should be tube friendly, (preferably SET or OTL).
Brands:
There are simply too many out there. These brands come to mind: dynaudio, magico, sonus-faber, mbl, B&W, wilson audio, rockport, jm-labs, dunlavy, wilson benesch.  I am sure someone who has owned Merlins and made a move can give their input. Even a short list to audition would be helpful. I am based out of Orlando area. Would be great If any local member has a system that they can allow me to audition.
Past experience:
Other notable speakers I have owned in past include original Flocal Utopias (mezzo to grand Utopia), B&W nautilus series, Quad 989 among others. Yesterday's nautilus 800, 802 were power hungry and sounded boxy. This may not be the case with the newer models.  I feel like I am out of touch with what is out there. Have been out of market for long. 
Thanks.



sstalwar
I was in a very similar position – I had a pair of Merlins at the time that I bought my Frankensteins and CSLS. I also went from a medium-small room to a large room.

I’m not surprised about your experience with your Merlins. Mine were a pair of VSM-MXe’s which were a couple of generations older than your Black Magics. The Merlins are rated at 89db sensitivity and 6-8 ohms impedance. That is not a good match with the 8 watt Frankensteins. That combo sounded exactly like you described - thin, lack of bass, and a restricted soundstage. You want speakers that have a high sensitivity rating and with high impedance to get the best out of your SET amps.

My other speakers at the time were Coincident Victory II’s, 93-97db sensitivity and 14 ohms. They were a good match with the Frankensteins; really, it was a night and day difference when compared to the Merlins.

The Victory II’s are no longer made, but have been replaced by the Super Victory which has an MSRP that is less than the MSRP of the Merlins. The Super Victorys do not go down to 20hz, but come close. I strongly considered them. Have you looked into them?

I ended up buying a used pair of of Von Scheikert speakers that are 99db and 8 ohms. Like you, it was important for me to get full range speakers and the Von Schweikerts go down to 21hz. They are hard to find, though, as only a couple hundred were made.

Most of the speaker brands that you are looking at are not appropriate for your SET amps. As for what would work, there are not many SET friendly speakers that go all the way down to 20hz. A few that caught my interest are made by Tannoy, Classic Audio Loudspeakers, and Avantgarde. They are kind of expensive, though.

Also, here is a good starting point for speakers that might be of interest to you that would work with your amps: http://www.high-endaudio.com/RC-Speakers.html#SET . You will need to do some research and sifting, as many of these do not meet your 20hz criteria.


By the way, I would keep the Frankensteins. They are very capable of giving you the traits that you are looking for, when paired with the right speakers.
Another option would be to keep your Merlins, which are excellent speakers, and find a more suitable amp. I used an 80 watt OTL amp with excellent results, and also tried a 22 watt push pull 300b amp that worked well..
Thanks for the thoughtful response. Frankenstein mono blocks I have deliver 20W (circuit is internally modified and thus can only take 300b xls and not regular 300b). For most part, I believe lack of power is not the problem. Most of my journey with merlins was with ARS Filarmonia and then with Gran filarmonia. I am definitely nick picking with the flaws of Merlins as they do sound great in a smaller room especially after endless positional tweaking. The weak point of Merlin was always evident to my ears irrespective of the amp choice. (..may be my reference was set by larger Grand utopia). My Eureka moment came by chance when I sent my Gran Filarmonia for service and while it took forever to come back, I purchased a low watt Cary SET amplifier (don't remember the name). To my ears, I had never heard a more purer & relaxed sound. Who knows,  may be it was rolled in the top but whatever it was doing, the sound was ultra clean and relaxing. Problem was evident that it lacked power. Everything you said is true with SET. I immediately realized I wanted SET but with adequate power. Finally got the 20W Frankenstein (not regular ones) and I got the power I needed plus the purity of the Cary. Any day better than Gran Filarmonia which I ended up selling. Needless to mention that I did endless tube rolling. But in the end, merlins are just not made for large scale sound stage and somewhat lack the weight overall and I believe this character is more evident in larger space. Having said that, I am addicted to Merlin as it is the most accurate, transparent and neutral speaker I have heard and don't miss grand utopia or Quad 989s (..both different w.r.t sound and $$ economics ). So Merlin has what I am looking for in my system. Just wanted to see if I can improve any further. That brings me to nick pick and the only aspect I could see improvement is what I described. 
Having said this, I totally agree that 99db and 8 ohms married to SET would be optimum. This is a good starting point to consider as I search my options. Which Von Scheikert model you have? Did you achieve all the Merlin and then some? What ways did you improve the sound? 
Thanks.
Okay, the fact that your amps are 20 watts clarifies things. Very cool tweak! Seems more of an issue of room/speaker interface.

Merlins are great speakers for smaller rooms, but in my experience, and apparently yours, they do lose a sense of scale in larger rooms. My room with the Merlins was 14 x 13. I tried them in my much larger living room and definitely experienced a loss of scale and soundstage size when they were in there.

My speaker model is called the "db99". It is the second generation of the speaker. It is no longer made. There was a pair for sale here last month, the first I have seen in awhile.

Both speaker models are capable of crystalline clarity and excellent soundstaging and imaging. My full range speakers offer more bass and fill my 24 x 20 room better, as one would expect.

However, it’s been two years since I sold my Merlins and I mainly experienced them with another amp and preamp, and a different set of cables. I never directly compared the Merlins and db99’s. I did briefly try the Merlins with the 8 watt Frankensteins and did not like that combo.

Also, I have changed cables and added tweaks like after market fuses and stands and a rack which I feel have made a positive difference with my system apart from the change in speakers. In other words, I am not able to attribute all of the sonic change I am experiencing solely to the change in speakers. I did buy my full range speakers before all of the tweaks and was thrilled with the speakers ability to fill my room with deeper bass while retaining the best qualities of the Merlins, at least in my mind, for what it’s worth.
Have you considered adding a sub or two? It might flesh out the mid/upper bass as well as open up the Soundstage without losing the attributes you like. Certainly worth a try. The Rels were always mentioned with Merlin. I too found the Merlins lean in that area regardless of what I tried, even using a custom tube BAM by David Berning which was a significant improvement over the super BAM. I wish I had tried a sub before moving on, just a thought. 
Look at the Dynaudio C2's or C4's.  They will give you everything your Merlins give you plus what you are looking for that the Merlins do not.  Plus, at least IMO they are gorgeous.  

I almost went that route myself (I have the Black Magic edition) but couldn't quite persuade myself to pull the +/- $15k - $20k trigger.  Based on your new room size the C2"s may do nicely (not sure about full scale orchestral) and can save you a tidy little sum over the C4's.

Good luck.
Caveat 20W will not do. 
Tubegroover: I bought two Funk audio 18.0 master/slave subwoofers that I have not integrated yet. Overall cumbersome with BAM in the chain. It would be interesting to see if this ends the quest.
To audition list: 
Von Scheikert
Coincident Tech line
Dynaudio (btw, what amp is preferred?)
..(to be contd..)
If you integrate the Funk audio 18.0 master/slave sub-woofers into your system you can do away with the BAM as the subs will take over the frequency band in which the BAM attenuates.  Have you looked at the Coincident line of speakers?
I agree with you brf. You can just lose that BAM with a properly integrated sub system, at least I would give it a try. I know this move would have been considered sacrilegious to Bobby. The whole idea to me IS the BAM being cumbersome, adding more in the signal path. It would seem subs might negate that need and give you a fuller more full range presentation without the need to trade "up". You have a fine pair of speakers with the Merlins. Yes they always had their weaknesses but it was due to a 6.5" driver not being sufficient for full range sound regardless of all the tweaking Bobby did to try to overcome that simple fact. They are simply lean in the mid/lower bass and produce little to no info at the lowest frequencies. Believe me for years I tried and was always told I needed to replace this component or update the speakers to get a "fuller more fleshed" out presentation. I came to the simple conclusion you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear. Those speakers require a subwoofer that integrates seamlessly.


Good luck sstalwar.
Thanks brf. I didn't think of removing BAM altogether. This seems simpler than I thought. I will give it a shot. Funk has one of the finest eq curves and digs deep. I never looked into coincident line and I would try to audition them. 
tubegroover. I could not agree more. Merlins are so perfect in every other way that it makes me nervous to change them and end with a different compromise. Funk seems like a logical path. 
Thanks.
The BBAM embellishes with augmentation well up into the mid-range region. You may find that removing it causes more problems than it solves. 
According to the manual, the BAM prvovides 5.2dB of boost at 35 Hz with a Subsonic bass roll-off below 27Hz.  Although Bobby M didn't like subs, he did recommend not using the BAM if using subs since the end user will be crossing the speakers over the effective range of the BAM. 

Audio Note AN/E it does everything you are looking for sounds great and is perfectly suited to your amps. Also well under your budget though you can upgrade internal parts and spend as much as you want. I have a pair of AN/J's on the way myself, the AN/E is a bit too large for my small room.
I have no doubt that the BBAM may effect subjective and measured performance of the speaker well into the midrange region. I’m not convinced removing it and adding a well integrated sub or better two would be a negative at least in my recent experiences with my current monitors where I noted a huge improvement across the board including the midrange and further improvement adding a 2nd sub well beyond anything gained by that BAM whether Berning's tube Bam  with 1k worth of premium VCAP and Vishays or Bobby's super BBAM. I only wish I tried a sub when I owned the Merlins, it may have been the answer to my frustration with that design aside from the positives. 
What could be the crossover frequency and slope for integrating Merlins with subwoofer? I have two funk subwoofers that I will try to integrate.
I will keep consolidating the recommendations for future reference. I am sure Merlin'ers would stumble upon these suggestions. 

Von Scheikert
Coincident Tech line
Dynaudio (..but not suitable for SET amplifier)
Audio Note AN/E

I used to have a set of AudioNote ANE's and would like to say they are not as efficient as AudioNote claims and you will need more power to get the best out of them then 8wpc. I also found the lower base regions to be some what one toned but that was in my room and set up.

I moved to Living Voice speakers and an very happy. but they will not give you much below 35hz so may not be for you.

Oh sorry missed that your amps are 20wpc that is more what the ANE's need.
I own the same speaker
Had the idea also.  I called
The man. B. P.  He said"" No""  with a hour of explaining  and talking about everything fun. He's missed  4 Shore.
He don't know this butt  i got some tin 6 strips  driled holes  attached it to each merlin cones then
Screwed other end in the
Wood floor.  There not moving  
Sorry, i miss read your problem. 
@glennewdick great looking system! Curious what you were driving the AN/E's with when you had them? With stuff like this I find it's often less about watts and more about a stiff power supply.
Interesting discussion! :-)

I can't add any info about alternative speaker choices (given my biases :-) , not that I can think of anything besides some of the speakers already mentioned which would approach close to full range or full range type performance with a 20W SET amp), BUT I can add some thoughts about using subs with VSMs . . .

Many are right, Bobby would not like using the VSMs without the BAM and subs. It can be done though - from what I have just read of the Funk subs on their site and some reviews, given its DSP and crossover point adjust-ability - integration should not be a problem (especially with two subs vs one in my experience). I would certainly give it a try.

Though with the BAM, I would like to point out you can get a very good sub-woofer - VSM system. It has been done.... I have a long time local customer who has owned Merlin VSMs (updated) for many years (With Joule-Electra preamp and a old pair of Joule OTLs). His system is set up in a huge space (the home is pretty much a open barn like space and not a small one - the volume is quite large). Years ago (still in use today with some minor changes) we set up this sub set-up: two large (physcialy twice plus the size of the Funk 18.0's mentioned in this thread) Infra-Sonic (I think that is the name, the company is long gone) passive subs powered by a large 600W/ch Crown Macro ref amp, with Bryston active stereo sub woofer crossover used to set the low pass (top freq roll-off) for the subs.

One output came from the preamp, to the BAM and then to the OTLs. The other output from the preamp went to the Bryston and then to the Crown amp. I did the fine tuning of the level and crossover point by ear (this was around 2000 - before such cheap handy DSP stuff and measurement tools were available!) I wound up running the subs up to around 40Hz. Yes, that meant a fair amount of overlap between the VSM/BAM and the subs in the 30 to low 40s range, but with things phased right the results were/are downright majestic. Whether a big full scale Orchestral work or something like FourPlay, this setup had/has wonderful impact and scale. Jerry's set-up is probably the only VSM based system I've heard that had that big a sense of scale (I'm sure the large size of the room/space has something to do with that).

BTW, in a larger room with stereo subs, I would also try pulling the VSM's wider apart (more so that the approx 6ft Bobby usually recommended) with a bit more toe in. The added fullness/weight added by the subs will help fill things in allowing the speakers to work better further apart - probably give a bigger sense a scale/stage.

Hopefully this tale provides some fuel for thought. I'd hate to see anyone sell their (Black Magic) VSM! :-) - Rich

A further thought about the BBAM.  It allows one 6.5" driver to act as a  time and phase coherent point source across a wide range from 2kHz down to 30Hz.  This(together with the superb silk dome Dynaudio Esotar tweeter) is part of the charm of the design.  For a time I tried a Velodyne DD-15 rolled in at 35Hz.  It vastly increased scale and impact, but I could never get the timing quite right, and eventually learned to live with the VSMs sub-less.

@tubegroover  My VSM and BBAM are both highly modified with premium caps, resistors, cabinet modifications, and a Paul Hynes SR7 power supply for the BBAM.  I wouldn't want to be without the modified BBAM.  The stock NiCad battery supply seriously limited performance of the BBAM.

@dgarretson At one time probably 10 plus years ago I had a customers Velodyne (single 15 inch model)  on hand... I tired like heck to get it to work well (with my VSMs) in my 11.3' by 20' by 7.5' room with zero luck... the room would just not cooperate. The sub was too big and always made its presence felt in the wrong ways. It takes the right (size) room, good affordable DSP available these days, and more than one sub (IMO) to get a sub and VSMs to play well.

BTW, the batteries in the BAM are not NiCad, they are NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride if I have it right). I do not doubt that a really good linear supply(s) (you would need two, one each for the positive and negative rails or multiply that by 2 if you want true dual mono power which would be best) bypassing the internal regulators in the BAM would be a improvement though would add substantial cost as well (I think a couple of good Paul Hynes supplies would probably run $1,000 or more, right?)

Cheers
Rich
@signaturesound Thank you for a very informative post. The coincident technology line stage (Preamp) has two single ended and one balanced output.  Manual mentions that two single-ended outputs allow for bi-amping. Does this mean that both single ended outputs are active simultaneously where one would go into BAM to amplifier and the other to Subwoofer? May be this is a question for coincident tech guys.
Also, do you recall where the subwoofers were w.r.t the walls and the merlins? 
I see light at the end of the tunnel. Hope funk fixes my issue. 
@dgarretson Can you share the schematics of the upgrades done to the BAM?
Also, anyone have any info on how to get the tube mod to BAM? 
This has been a valuable discussion. 
Thanks.
Charney Audio Concerto will fill your room with exceptional sound for $22,000!
Your electronics should work perfectly well with the Concerto and with the 3k left over you can treat the room accordingly.
Charney is in Somerset NJ a quick flight from Orlando to Newark Intl.
Contact Brian Charney and arrange for an audition...you'll be glad you did! :)


@rodge827 do you mind sharing your experience with Merlins and how the Charney Audio Concerto compares to them? How do you describe the sound? Would be helpful to know the general character; strengths and weaknesses, compared to Merlin and/or in general. Thanks.

@sstalwar & Rich

I don’t have a schematic for the BBAM. It’s a fairly simple circuit with capacitive filters and one AD744 op amp per signal phase. The Hovland coupling and filtering caps are easily surpassed. Replace them with best caps you can afford that fit on the PCB. I tried Mundorf SG and later switched to ClarityCap MR. You can also fit Duelund or V-Cap teflon. The stock Caddock MK-132 resistors are very good by high-end standards, but Texas Components TX2575 are more resolving and transparent. The stock AD744 is an excellent op amp. The big move is to re-power the AD744 with an external +/- 12Vdc bipolar linear supply like Hynes, Pardo, or Twisted Pear DIY kit. That means removing the stock batteries and 3-pin regulators from the PCB and running wires directly from the PCB to a panel connector. The current draw is tiny. Yes, a Hynes bipolar supply is >$1K. The others are much cheaper. IMO a well-powered op amp can rival tubes.

@dgarretson

I'm sure your mods helped a bunch... the Battery BAM is (obviously) built to a certain price level and to have certain features (like the choice of the external raw  feeder power supply used because of its performance, cost, and ability to work on any world wide line voltage), but it is interesting to see what you can make of it if you want to spend the time and dollars. :-)  

@sstalwar

My customers set-up with the subs is very unique and because of the (huge) room size/acoustics (for ex, the room is easily 3x of yours volume wise) and the subs in use, the positioning of the speakers and subs (even if I had those measurements) would not be of any use to you or anyone else. Most likely, both pairs of preamp outputs are in parallel in your preamp and are both active at the same time.

Berning's Tube BAM is his design... probably only Dave Berning has any idea of what the circuit/schematic is ... With enough time and money, anything is possible and can be built (i.e. a tube BAM), but I think has dgarretson has shown - some mods/improvements to what folks currently have in their hands is probably a more reasonable way to go.

Cheers
Rich
Rich, great that you continue to support the Merlin community. As good as the VSM series was/is, I wish that Bobby had carried the model forward with a serious update with slam for larger rooms. One idea would be to add a couple more 6.5" drivers to make a line array. Pretty much the same simple two-way second-order crossover, BBAM, and slim cabinet profile, but with increased output and headroom. Nice if you could explore it...
Dave, you are not the only person who wanted Bobby to make a bigger VSM. Your idea is not a bad one, alas I am not a speaker designer/builder... and the speaker manufacturing business is a very difficult and competitive one (not inexpensive to do either). Right now as well, I have my hands full with running my little retail business end of things, handling Joule-Electra support/repairs/upgrades, Merlin VSM/TSM/BAM support/repairs/upgrades, and also working on getting Ars Sonum integrated amps re-introduced to the American market. All this is taking up much time (and money - spare Esotar tweeters, VSM/TSM woofers, test equipment etc etc).

Something more in my bailiwick (with my EE background) is the BAM - and I have been looking into (its a long term project) some improvements for the BAM that would not be too costly and still work with the current BAMs enclosure, board, etc and make some good sonic improvements.

Cheers,
Rich
When I imagine a larger sounding version of the VSM speakers I think of the EgglestonWorks Andra. I own the Fontaines which, to me, sound similar to the VSM (without the BAT), and seem to have similar physical makeup. I thought the Fontaines sounded a little richer in comparison. The Andras even more so with terrific bass.  
@dgarretson and @signaturesound : thank you guys for valuable input on BAM. I will try to upgrade the BAM if I stick with VSMs. 
So here are the options mentioned so far in this thread. These are not necessarily suitable with SET or low power amp but that is a discussion for another day. So the list :
Von Scheikert
Coincident Tech line
Dynaudio
Audio Note AN/E
Charney Audio Concerto
EgglestonWorks Andra
I would also add Devore speakers and possibly the new Paradigm Persona speaker line. This is a newer line so not sure if it's compatible with medium powered tube amps but the specs are promising.