i'll start off by saying i've owned at least 4 iterations of the merlin VSM's. i've dutifully sent my merlins back for periodic upgrades over the past 8 years, as bobby has improved the VSM design and internal components and wiring. each upgrade has been satisfying, after the appropriate break-in period revealing a more refined speaker, a definite if sometime subtle incremental improvement over its predecessor.
so it was with no hesitation that i sent my MX-r's back to merlin to be upgraded to the MX-m's, expecting what i had gotten before with prior upgrades. long story short, when i got the merlins back with their Master designation, i was STUNNED. right out of the box they were WAY WAY more authoritative and dramatic, more energetic with a MUCH bigger sound and stage. to my ear, the speakers were "faster" and and more dynamic, no more fizzle or boom. i listen in a large wide open living room with a vaulted ceiling, and the speakers now energize and fill the entirety of my listening space.
where prior VSM-mx's sounded "more continuous," the Masters now sound tonally complete. "more neutral" has transformed into utterly transparent. the artifice of speaker has vanished. the Masters completely disappear in the room. the masters better all prior merlin designations by a LARGE margin. i've not heard it's equal PERIOD.
the merlin VSM-mx's have come a long way over the years, through bobby's tireless efforts and refinements. the jump from the mx-r to the mx-master is the most profound incremental improvement yet IMO. the end of the road for the VSM's? it's hard to imagine what else is left to extract.
How do you review or describe speakers to others when we are not sure we even hear the same. What we see is a common topic often discussed. But how something sounds is not commonly described in detail.
As a musician for almost 50 years and an audiophile for 30, this has often come to my attention. But we call ourselves audiophiles because we have, hopefully, trained our ears to hear differences as others see differences.
So here is where I can start to explain my own experience of listening to others given my own extensive training. Having spent countless hours playing drums in every situation from classical to rock to small rooms to large concert venues. In addition, I’ve spent too many hours to count in studio situations many of which are just a faint memory. I hope this background gives me some credibility when it comes to evaluating reproduced sound. Which, btw, can NEVER equal live music. The goal is to get as close as possible…obviously.
This description (review) is of a speaker. A speaker that has evolved based on a trained ear that desired more. For the seeing crowd, wanted a clearer picture. This speaker or picture has now reached True HD and 3D.
I started with the Merlin VSM-M and have ridden the upgrade train. Each time the picture got clearer. Now owning the final version created through an evolving process, the Master VSM, I’m seeing the best picture I’ve ever seen. The closes to live music I’ve experienced. Very close to hearing that “first playback” in the studio. The Merlin VSM Master is a speaker that behaves like an instrument. It has tonality like a Martin guitar or a set of DW drums. Each make of drums sounds different. As do each speaker make. You know when you hear an instruments tone that fits your ear. These speakers fit my ear. They have a sense of an additional dimension with soul and warmth, resolution and sound staging to spare. Nothing bright and zero fatigue. Listening is pure joy and can go on for hours. The difference between playing a set of overseas knock-off drums or the real thing. There is a difference and IMHO it is big and if your ears are trained, worth every penny. So if you care enough about music to understand the subtle differences of instruments and I’m referring to the maker of the instrument, then you really ought to experience a true instrument, the Merlin Master VSM.
Arthurian legend has it that Merlin the Magician was begotten of a virgin impregnated by an incubus. What an apt namesake for a loudspeaker system that mates heavenly purity with demonic authority.
Although Merlin of legend was a shape-shifter, the Merlin VSM line hasn’t shifted its shape (on the outside, at least) since its first incarnation 16 years ago. But while all VSM’s may have the same basic dimensions, each evolutionary change has pushed the envelope of what’s possible with dynamic two-way design.
These are my second pair of Merlins. Four years ago, I came across a pair of used VSM-mme’s. They provided the natural timber and coherence that I was looking for in speakers. I went through a few upgrades with them, the most significant being the upgrading of the BAM and RC’s to “Master” status by replacing the capacitors with Duelunds. It was stunning and I highly recommend this upgrade to anyone using the VSM’s.
Shortly after this upgrade, I received word that a new version of the VSM’s had been designed, the Reference VSM’s. Trusting in proprietor and wizard-in-chief Bobby Palkovich’s ear and design skill, I decided to bite the bullet. I would hold onto my Master BAM and RC’s, helping me keep my cost down.
After a frustratingly long wait, I received word that a crowning achievement with the VSM design would be upgrading the internal wiring and jumper wires with Cardas Clear wire, and that in appreciation for my patience, I would be the first customer to receive this new design, the Master VSM’s (VSM-MXM's, for short) at no additional cost to myself. See, good things come to those who wait.
Finally, the twins arrived. The piano black finish is gorgeous. It’s a reminder that these are, above all, finely tuned and highly crafted musical instruments. As prototypes, these were well broken-in with probably close to a hundred hours on them. I know from experience that they will continue to improve for the next few hundred hours, but I feel that there’s enough time on them, and they’ve settled into my system enough, to give my impressions.
The Heart of the Matter
It seems somewhat pointless to describe the Master VSM’s using all the usual hi-fi jargon. How does one explain a clearer window into the subtle nuances of a vocalist’s passion? I suppose it has to do with more low-level resolution and micro-dynamics. How about the sense of presence at the recording venue? Probably due to more accurate low-frequency information, macro-dynamics and, again, low-level resolution. But personally, I prefer to leave the technical language to the technicians. I’m an end user and for me it’s about enjoying music. Not only do the MXM’s make beautiful music, crystal clear and non-fatiguing. They create a palpable illusion of being in the presence of the musicians. This is a world class act fully capable of competing with the most expensive loudspeaker systems I’ve heard.
While the mme’s with Master BAM are excellent speakers, and the MXM’s do not put them to shame, there is no question that the latter are a more refined design. With the Masters you get more of the same, which is a very, very good thing. Put simply, they’re just more real.
Perhaps you’ve said this to yourself while listening to a particular musical passage on a good-sounding system: “Wow, THAT sounded real!” With the MXM’s, that thought doesn’t come to mind because on good recordings it ALL sounds real. It’s all just so coherent. It flows like real music flows. When I attend a live performance, I’m not usually straining to follow a particular line of music within a complex passage. It’s just not something I think about. With the MXM’s I find myself not thinking about it.
Now let’s get this out of the way. These speakers are not lean. Yes, some compressed pop will sound compressed on an accurate system. To feel chest-pounding bass in a dance club, their systems crank up the bass and drive it through giant subwoofers. An accurate system is not going to allow you to reproduce that experience. But well-recorded, non- compressed pop will sound deep and rich. Trip-hop electronica is one of the dance genres that I enjoy. Olive’s “This Time” on their “Extra Virgin” CD rumbles the walls.
I don’t care what people say about small drivers. When properly set up in a small to moderate sized room, two 6 1/2” woofers can provide natural, satisfying bass. Now, if you live on a rich diet of pipe organ music and simply must have the last half octave, then either move along, or wait for the subwoofer that Merlin is currently designing.
For me, the real test of a refined loudspeaker design is bowed strings. It’s very easy for violins to sound shrill and unmusical. Robert Carl’s “Music for Strings” is difficult and dissonant. I’ve heard it sound like an incoherent mess on less capable systems. But through the MXM’s the dissonance is meaningful. It comes from the composer’s intent, not from that nerve-grating glare that only poorly reproduced violins can generate.
That said, every once in a while I do hear a slight bit of glare. It’s nothing very distracting, but it’s there nonetheless. I’m convinced that I’m butting up against the limitations of my speaker cables. My next upgrade is swapping my Cardas Golden Reference Speaker cable for Cardas Clear.
My favorite acoustic instrument is the cello. Czech cellist Jiri Barta performs sonatas by Zoltan Kodaly and Vitezslav Novak on a brilliantly recorded CD. This is as close to the immediacy and presence of a live performance that I could imagine. The holographic detail is astonishing. I hear the reflection of the instrument’s resonance off the floor of the recording venue.
These speakers can also boogie. Peter Rowan and Tony Rice’s “Quartet’s” is one of my favorite bluegrass albums. “Moonlight Midnight” is a rousing romp through a landscape of prayerful pining. You wanna talk PRaT? This is the kind of excitement that people are looking for in a hobby.
My home town of Portland, OR has some good jazz venues. I’ve heard a good amount of live jazz. The MXM’s should be as close as anyone needs to get to the real thing, short of the real thing. Brian Bromberg’s double bass on “Wood II” is life-sized and the sound of his ensemble is enveloping, which is the way it sounds in a jazz club. Real soundstages don’t call attention to themselves. Yes, with the MXM’s there’s a clearly discernable soundstage in front of you with well-placed instruments. But it’s not something I find myself obsessing about.
More recordings and more musical genres sound exciting with the MXM’s. This is particularly the case with classic rock albums. The Who’s “Tommy” came to life with a dynamic range that was somewhat muted with the mme’s. Classic rock albums were engineered to be played back loud through high-powered solid state amps. Until listening through the MXM’s, I didn’t think that a relatively low-powered tube amp like the Filarmonia could rock very well, but through the MXM’s it can, and somehow without giving me tinnitus.
It’s a cliché, but my music collection has new life. In fact, it’s time to buy more music. My prayers and thanksgiving go out to all the brainiacs, present and deceased, who have figured out how to reproduce the joy and excitement of musical performances in people’s homes. Sound reproduction is still magic to me. How can four electronic motors mounted in two boxes generate the three-dimensional sound field I’m hearing? The MXM’s are at the pinnacle of this magical world. Like their namesake, these Merlins are true tricksters: when you flip the switch, they disappear, and all that’s left is the music.