|| MSRP: $10,000
Description:Two-way floor standing loudspeaker system with Bass Augmentation Module (BAM)
Reviewed by:turboglo (AudioPhile)
Review Date February 14, 2011
Overall Rating 5 of 5
Value Rating 5 of 5
Merlin, the eXtraordinary Magician
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 discernible 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 braininess, 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.