As Todd mentions, most of the changes to the VSM-SE are individually small, but Bobby Palkovic claims for them a "30% increase in overall sound quality." The speaker will have no new model designation or increase in cost. The changes are:
The VSM-SE speakers are really three separate items, the speakers, a BAM module and an external RC network. First, the speakers themselves.
The cabinets are 42" tall, 9" wide and 10" deep. The standard finish is black, but other optional colors are available (the $7000 Black Ice-finished VSM-SE is, along with the emerald Kharma Ceramique, the most beautifully finished speaker Ive seen). A two-way, ported design, the drivers are a 6.5" carbon-fiber Scan-Speak woofer and a 1" soft-dome Dynaudio Esotar tweeter, which is mounted above the woofer. The crossover point is 2.2kHz and is a highly modified second-order, which allows both drivers to be wired in phase. Just below the woofer is the front-firing 2" port. The speaker face is made from 1.5" MDF, while the rest of the speaker is made from 3/4" MDF. The 80-pound cabinet is heavily braced and very sturdy, hurt my knuckles in fact. Biwire Cardas jacks are on the back. These posts are a new design. Deceptively simple, but ingeniously engineered, they use pure, non-stressed copper (no threads!). Bobby claims they are the best posts hes heard.
So far this description differs only marginally from that of the Standard $4500 VSM. Where the SE significantly differs from the Standard VSM, besides the BAM module, is in the crossover. The design is the same but the parts have been upgraded. Among other parts upgrades, the SE uses custom inductors co-developed by Merlin and Holvand. Used without the RC network or the BAM, the VSM-SE speaker has a bass response that is -2dB at 45Hz, just as with the Standard VSM. In fact, you can purchase the VSM-SE exactly like this for $5200. According to Bobby, the $700 price difference between it and the Standard is well worth the extra cost as the crossover allows for greater purity than that offered by the VSM.
The second part of the SE model is the BAM, or Bass Augmentation Module. An outboard unit, it is built for Merlin by JPS Labs and is a modeled on the JPS Labs Golden Flute. The BAM boosts the lower bass frequencies with a custom-designed curve, and rolls off the lowest bass. A separate power supply gives the BAM flexibility. You can use it between your CD player and preamp, in a tape loop or between the preamp and power amp. With the BAM in the system, the -2dB point of the VSM-SE is lowered to 33Hz. The BAM comes in either single-ended or balanced models, with the single-ended being the standard version (in the $5950 package), and the one that I used for this review.
The third part of the SE package is an external RC network. In actuality the RC network is designed to compensate for amps that lack a Zobel network in the output stage and so may not be applicable in all setups. The network, a Hovland cap and a Caddock resistor in series, is placed across the positive and negative posts at the speaker inputs.
At the Warnke Mountain Lodge and Musical Spa, the Merlins spent most of their time in the main room. Associated equipment was a Theta Miles CD player, Balanced Audio Technology VK-3i preamp and either my Blue Circle BC6, Warner Imaging VTE-201S or an Assemblage ST40 amp. Analog thrills were courtesy of an NAD 533 table and the supremely funkaliscious Dynavector Karat 17DII cartridge. Power was conditioned by a VansEvers Model 141 conditioner and Golden Sound DH Cones were sprinkled liberally throughout the system. Power cords were by VansEvers and MIT. The Miles and BAT VK-3i were joined with balanced Audio Magic Sorcerer or Cardas Neutral Reference. The BAM spent time in the tape loop as well as between the preamp and power amp. It was hooked into the system with Cardas Neutral Reference and saw a brief stint with Nordost Red Dawn. Speaker wire was an internally biwired run of Cardas Golden Cross. (Space limits me from detailing all the cable interactions in this review, but let me add a quick note here. The Cardas wires, both the Golden Cross and Neutral Reference, had a special synergy with the VSM-SE. They outperformed everything I tried in their place and get my highest recommendation.) Last but far from least, due to the warm and long-lived summer here in Colorado, wine was primarily halb-trocken (medium dry) German Riesling in the early evening and a full but not overbearing Beaujolais after the sun went down.
Putting it all together
Lets start at the bottom. The BAMed SE has a claimed frequency response deviation of less than 3dB (+/- 1.5dB) from 36Hz to 20kHz (10 degrees off axis, the recommended listening angle). Merlin reports that at 33Hz, the bass is down 2dB, and at 30Hz down 4.5dB. Since the SE is ported, bass falls very rapidly below that point. As important as those specs sound, how the speakers sound is far more so. Because Merlin often exhibits at shows with Blue Circle Audio, and I have my very own BC6, I started the listening sessions with it supplying the juice.
With the Blue Circle amp, bass extension was everything the specs indicated. Deep. In fact, I heard more bass in my room than I had heard at any of Bobbys last three show setups. More important to me, the quality of the bass was outstanding. While just slightly less detailed than what Ive heard at shows, what I experienced was better than anything that has previously graced my room. Since Bobby often uses a pair of BC6 amps (in a vertical biamp configuration) at shows, I chalked up the small resolution difference to that configuration change. The bass boost in the BAM does ask that the amp you use have a sizable current ability, and while the BC6 is still my unrivaled favorite $2500-$5000 amp, it does have limits.
Turning to the 100Wpc Warner Imaging VTE-201S, bass was just as extended as with the BC6, but was also weightier, more dynamic and slightly more detailed. With the Warner amp in, I trotted out all my bass-jollies tracks. "You and the Night and the Music," a track from the newest Patricia Barber CD, Modern Cool [Premonition Records PREM-741-2], has some great bass lines that, while dryly recorded, are impressive (and yes, this is not just an audiophile disc, its great-sounding and good music). Another great, natural-sounding bass disc is Roy Hargroves Crisol Habana [Verve 314 537 563-2]. The opening track, "O My She Yeh," starts with a deep, throbbing heartbeat. This beat is similar to that in the Barber track, but "wetter" and in a larger location. The bass detail of the Merlins is such that the differences between these similarly pitched but very different-sounding and recorded bass lines were immediate and obvious. Small feat? No way. Too many speakers that reach deep do so by ignoring definition. The Merlins avoid this pitfall completely. Unlike the proverbial dreamer, their reach does not exceed their grasp.
As for the rest of the frequency spectrum, Ive already done my Eastern-mystic bit for the year in the Kharma review, but the Merlin VSM-SE brings to mind a variation on a Zen koan, "What is the sound of a speaker with no sound?" In more direct, Western style, the Merlin was pure, even, extended and accurate. The octave-to-octave balance was smooth with no highlighting anywhere that I could detect. Driver integration is as good as anything I know of. Treble was extended, and, no doubt reflective of the quality of the Dynaudio Esotar tweeter, grain free. What more is there to say?
Well, we can talk about staging, which, in a word, is holographic. No, wait. Its even better than that. The best holograms, at least those not on Star Trek, while 3-D, lack the solidity of the flesh and blood. Not so with the VSM-SE. Flesh and blood is the most apt way to describe the speakers staging skills. Images are not just arrayed right to left and front and back, they occupy real, 3-D space. I listen to a lot of jazz and blues, and live recordings of each were, dare I say it, as good as it gets. I could watch players move around the stage and hear the room as well, as if I were at a club -- with two exceptions. One, the drinks are cheaper at my house, and two, at home I dont have to worry about a designated driver (good thing too, with those cheap drinks).
Information retrieval is an area of the VSM-SE that requires special attention. To frequency response that is smooth and extended, and phase accuracy as demonstrated by the Merlins staging skills, the VSM-SE adds a quiet noise floor. The result is detail retrieval that is indeed special. It is one thing to be able to recall details accurately and another altogether to put those details into perspective and then into effective use. In audio terms, this second ability is resolution, and that's exactly what the VSM-SE does so well. In fact, thats what sets it apart from the crowd.
Metaphorically, detail retrieval is like a photographic memory. Recalling every detail is an interesting talent, but one best used to impress the opposite gender unless its coupled with the intelligence to put those recalled facts to use. Intelligence is the skill to put information into perspective and then focus that information into useful form. In the ideal world a person would have both photographic memory and intelligence. And in the hot house that is the high end, would that this were true as well. But all too often, detailed is nothing more than a polite way to say "ruthlessly revealing." Detailed is the photographic memory alone. The good news here is that the VSM-SE gets closer to the being a perfect combination of freakish recall and genius intelligence than any speaker Ive met.
An example. The ruthlessly revealing approach to speaker design so distorts the playback process that the recording is over-hyped. Over-hyped recordings mean that only "perfect" recordings can be listened to. Yet when we listen to live music it is often in less-than-perfect conditions. Under those circumstances, we easily hear through them to the musical performance underneath. The VSM-SE echoes this by resolving the difference between the recording and the performance. This means that bad recordings of great performances, such as the entire Springsteen back catalog (rumored to be in remastering as this being written) are just that, bad recordings that we can listen through to the performance that is underneath.
I think that a significant part of this ability is due to the length of time and the effort Merlin has put into designing these speakers. No sketch on a napkin, however brilliant, could be executed this well without fanatical attention to detail. In putting the VSM-SE together, Bobby listened to every component in it, even undergoing a two-year design process with Hovland to co-engineer the inductors used in the crossover. The laminating material used in the speaker was auditioned. The crossover is highly modified second-order that allows the drivers to be wired in phase. To be honest, I wouldnt be surprised if each speaker leaves the factory with a name and adoption papers instead of a warranty card!
Putting all this together resulted in sound that was detailed, resolved, extended, nuanced, and staged with great naturalness and accuracy. A great example was how the Merlins handled the excellent-sounding new MoFi release of Simon & Garfunkels Bookends [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 732]. Track-to-track recording differences were obvious, even from the other room, while the texture of the instruments and voices were always natural and relaxed. I could easily focus on recording information or musical information. Switching components upstream form the VSM-SEs changed the resulting sound of this disc, but in a way entirely consonant with the equipment change. Even though I know that the frequency response of the Merlins is not as flat as that of the amps I changed during this review, I often felt as the speakers were the purest part of the ssetup. Thats how good they were.
Bottom line me
OK, the bottom line. Everything Ive said to this point is meaningless unless these things move me. Do they? Oh boy, do they!
Ive used a lot of electrons up with audiogeek terms and descriptions. In part I do that so that you get an idea as to why these speakers are special, so that we have a common vocabulary to describe their performance. And in part I do it because Doug wouldnt pay me to say something like, "Damn, these things are freekin great. Im in love!" But the real story here is how good these speakers make me feel. Ive never had so vivid a recreation of music-making happening in my home. Ive never felt the presence of Van or Joni or Miles or Margo or the Vienna PO as totally and as believably as I do as when they are played through the VSM-SE speakers.
Ive thought very hard about why that is. Ultimately I think it comes down the remarkable clarity that the inhabits the Merlins. Rather than "balancing" the VSM-SE, Bobby has tried to "focus" it, to place components that speak with the same voice, or lack of a voice, into the box. This results in a design that is all of one cloth. If that cloth is pure, so is the result. Another metaphor to explain.
Say you have a camera lens that is slightly colored (a photographer wouldnt stand for that but audiophiles routinely do). To balance that coloration, astute application of a filter or filters can restore a neutral color balance but with a cost -- reduced luminance. In photography this can be offset by opening the aperture or using faster film, but both of these actions carry consequences, a reduced depth of field or larger film grain. Typically this is not going to affect a snapshooter, but these consequences could seriously impact, or at least limit the choices of a professional. Balancing an audio design carries similar costs.
To offset a particular coloration you can use a component with complimentary errors and get close to a neutral sound, but with reduced musical luminosity. The resulting sound, while neutral, has a reduced level of clarity and of musical and emotional dynamics. In a low- or medium-resolution setting, this is probably a non-factor, but in a true hi-rez, high-emotion, high-end system a balancing act is, in reality, a serious and audible compromise. The Cardas wiring and posts, special Hovland caps and inductors, Scan-Speak woofer and Esotar tweeter all have the same purity of tone. The result is a highly focused and neutral sound without use of a balancing act.
The VSM-SE totally and completely gets me there. The audiogeek in me is thrilled and amazed by what it does. Every change, every fluctuation in the system is laid bare. That which was different but subtle before is now obvious but still in proportion. The clarity of this speaker makes it the finest reviewers tool I know of. But best of all, these speakers play tunes, and that thrills the musicdude in me. While bad recordings sound like bad recordings, that class of information never intrudes on the musical performance. The VSM-SE resolves so completely that the differences between equipment, recording and performance are immediate and distinguishable. And it does this remarkable feat with such ease that I can concentrate of which ever parameter I choose. Turn the geek on, and I can hear the equipment and the recording. And then turn the real me on, the guy who worships Bruce, Joni, Van, John Lee, Shosta, Margo, JB and Mahler, and it is musical ecstasy.
Perfect? I guess that from reading this you might think so. Ive said almost nothing negative about this speaker. Perhaps that it doesnt remove the need for a real subwoofer. Or that it does need a bit of current in its amp partner. And after thinking about it even more, thats about all I can say. An amazing piece of work and one big load delivered. The Merlin VSM-SEs stand as my personal reference, and I can recommend them as the cheapest speaker that can be considered among the best.
After reading the preceding, SoundStage! editor Marc Mickelson e-mailed me and posed a few astute questions. First, are the Merlins tube or solid-state speakers? Short answer, with a minimum impedance of 6.5 ohms they certainly are tube friendly, although their 89dB sensitivity will preclude the use of single-digit SET amps. Long answer, the only tube amp I have on hand is the $699 Assemblage ST40, and while that 40Wpc, EL34-based amp is my favorite of any persuasion under $1500, it has neither the clarity nor finesse to thoroughly test the VSM-SE. Still, I did spend a week or so using it, and rather than the mismatch it might seem to be, they got along quite well indeed. All the virtues of the little Assemblage amp -- harmonic richness, good staging, smooth treble and the sparkle of real life -- came through unimpeded. Sure, the clarity, dynamics and bass control of the considerably more expensive Warner Imaging and Blue Circle amps were missing, but the Assemblage/Merlin combo made music far in excess of what youd expect of them on paper. Given a tube amp of matching quality and with the midbass and deep bass control necessary to extract all the low-end goodness of the VSM-SE, great things will result. In fact, Bobby often shows with Joule-Electra, maker of exquisite-sounding (and looking), medium-powered tube amps, for just this reason. A final word on the amp issue: I had great success with both the Blue Circle and the Warner Imaging amps. In the end, the Merlins partner well with amps of either flavor given that they grunt well in the bass and have a clean top end.
Marc also asked for a bit of mano a mano tween the VSM-SE and the Dunlavy SC-III speakers to clarify their individual strengths. First off, at their respective price points, these two speakers, in my experience, are the class of the field. The Dunlavy speakers are worth every penny of their $4000 cost. Very easy to drive and with, reportedly, a flat impedance plot and above-average 92dB sensitivity (several months ago I borrowed a friends Fi 2A3 amp for the weekend, it had no problem with the SC-III), the Dunlavys are the simply one of the most amp-tolerant big speakers out there. With their well-engineered time and phase alignment, and W-M-T-M-W point-source alignment, they are also very room tolerant. With smooth bass to their claimed 45Hz limit (-1.5dB) and an open, extended treble, they give a room-filling sonic picture that is fleshed out, precisely located and very detailed. Like I said, at their price point I know of nothing that is as sonically accurate and as easy to extract that accuracy from.
In the opposite corner, the VSM-SE has bass claimed to 36Hz (also -1.5dB). That extension requires an amp that has the strength to go deep with finesse because the quality and definition of the Merlins bottom end is superb. The VSM-SE also has clarity that is superior to that offered by the SC-III. An example, when I put a pair of Cardas Golden Cross speaker cables into the system I was shocked at how much of a positive and musical change they wrought in the system. Since I had previously used Cardas Hexlink 5-C for many years, I thought I knew what the Golden Cross would sound like. To check myself, I swapped back and forth between the two, and yep, the Golden Cross was that much better. For kicks, I then did the same swap with the SC-III speakers. While the differences were still obvious, they were not of the magnitude I had heard using the Merlins. Taking it a step further, I kept the Golden Cross in and swapped Audio Magic Sorcerer and Cardas Neutral Reference cables between the Theta Miles and the BAT VK-3i. Once again, while the differences were nicely rendered by the Dunlavy speakers, the increased clarity of the VSM-SE gave an even more precise picture of the cables respective sounds.
The Merlin, in spite of being a bit less sensitive, sounds a tad more dynamic than the SC-III. Its stage is also deeper and images are placed in the virtual concert hall with greater density. And lastly, that amazing resolution I was talking about is perhaps the most overwhelming and unmatched quality of the VSM-SE. Still, keep in mind that I have not heard the $5995 Dunlavy SC-IV in my home, and that that speaker, not the SC-III, is the natural rival for the VSM-SE. And yes, Id love the chance to do that shootout (throw in the Martin-Logan CLS IIz with a Muse Model Twenty-Two sub, and perhaps the Aerial Acoustics 10T and youd have the dream $6000, near-full-range speaker showdown).
At the end of the day, the VSM-SE is the speaker to beat. At the risk of sounding like a broken CD (gawd, would that sound awful or what?), these are the best speakers Ive heard in my house. They have bass, dynamics, an open and yet very smooth top end, tremendous octave-to-octave balance, harmonic richness, clarity, staging that is awesome, and detail that sets the standard. Nuff said. Im going to go listen to em.
|Merlin Merlin Systems VSM-SE Loudspeakers
Price: $5950 USD (BAM included)
Merlin Music Systems