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Equipment Review
November 1998

Merlin Music Systems VSM-SE Loudspeakers

vsm_big.jpg (9003 bytes)by Todd Warnke

Why? After Marc Mickelson had already covered the Merlin VSM Gen. III and then filed his own follow-up with the first review of the VSM-SE, why would I take on the VSM-SE again? Well, to start with, since Marc’s review, Bobby Palkovic has made several refinements to the VSM-SE, which, while subtle, have had a cumulative and powerful effect on the speaker’s performance, meriting new commentary (see sidebar below  for details). But more important, the Merlins have been one of just a handful of products that have genuinely excited me -- albeit under show conditions. So when Bobby approached with the opportunity to listen to the revised Merlin VSM-SE, I eagerly accepted in spite of having to follow a review and follow-up review -- you follow?

I wanted to take on the VSM-SE speakers for another reason as well. A two-way speaker design for $5950 asks serious questions of a reviewer. $6000 can bring home a solid system, so for a single component to offer reasonable value for that much cash, it has to display strengths both obvious and subtle. The search for those strengths is a lot of fun. And let’s start that search by defining what you should expect from a $6000 speaker.

First, and obviously, over the operating range of the speaker’s frequency response it should show little deviation. This is an accepted axiom, but it also ignores the more interesting question: Just what should that range be? More specifically, how low should it go?

I’ve fielded e-mails that unequivocally state that for $6000 you should get a full 20Hz-20kHz range. In my experience, this is asking the impossible. The best subwoofer I’ve heard, the Audio Physic Rhea, gets all the way through the bottom octave (and a bit more), but costs $6000 by itself. What it adds to music, not just home theater, is remarkable and well worth the cost, assuming you have the scratch. (I don’t, but if I did I’d pop for one today.) It also has a control and ease in the bottom octave that I’ve yet to hear from any full-range speaker under $25,000. So should you expect the bottom octave, much less subwoofer bass? I don’t think so. A more reasonable request is bass that is flat to below 40Hz and then extends from there to somewhere in the mid 30s. This gives you full bass response to the lowest limit of the acoustic and the electric bass. So, with that extension, unless you listen primarily to pipe organs and Bösendorfer grand pianos, you’ve got all the musically important basses covered.

You should also expect superb phase and time coherence, both of which are mandatory to achieving precise imaging and depth of soundstage. No doubt some will downplay the importance of this by saying that imaging is an artifact of the recording process and not a part of the actual listening experience, but they will miss a key point. In home audio reproduction, what we are reproducing is a recording as captured by a microphone, and if that recording has spatial information, a $6000 speaker had better reproduce it.

A $6000 speaker should also have the ability to resolve the information on a recording. Resolution is both something more and something different from detail retrieval. Like detail, resolution is the ability to recall the minute information on a recording. But unlike detail retrieval, resolution is the added ability to present that information in a coherent, cohesive, natural and balanced manner. (Added detail, in many ways, is one of the easiest tasks to accomplish in all the high end. Bump up the frequency response in the presence and treble regions and voila! Sure, it’s not accurate, but it is detailed.) Phrased another way, resolution is the ability to recover detail and then present that detail to you in such manner that you feel as well as hear it. In staging terms, it is not just the placement of a sonic image in a two-dimensional plane, but the solidity of that image, its girth and its density. Among other things, it is the ability to give Miles’ trumpet a pointed "bell" of sound while spreading the same volume of sound from Bill Evans’ piano over a wider and deeper space.

Your six grand should also get you a speaker that has been thoroughly thought out; a speaker that fully reveals all the ideas, ideals and goals of its designer; a speaker that is not an assembly-line or marketing product. What do I mean? Every speaker design involves, literally, thousands of decisions. Single driver, two-way, three-way, more-way? Dynamic, ‘stat, ribbon, something more exotic? First-, second-, third-, fourth- or even higher-order crossover? The same slopes in both directions? Single wire, biwire, triwire? Sealed, ported, slot-loaded, transmission line? MDF cabinet or concrete? Perhaps Corian? How thick? Cabinet size and shape? Silk- or metal-dome tweeter? Focal, Eton, Scan-Speak or Dynaudio drivers? How, or if, to customize them? Whose caps, resistors, inductors and/or coils to use? Values? Whose internal wire, binding posts? Control impedance? If so, how? And these are just some of the obvious choices. Your $6000 should get you a speaker whose designer has experimented with, mulled over, and played with each and every one of these variables, and a speaker that demonstrates answers for them all. In short, your $6000 should buy you a speaker where nothing has been left to chance.

A final item. $6000 must deliver music. All this technical and observational mumbo-jumbo aside, for this deep green I have to feel it as well as hear it. I need more than just admiration for a six grand speaker. I need to bond with it. I need to put Art Pepper’s Winter Moon [Fantasy 5140] on and not just hear the how and where of the recording, not just what type of reed Art was using and where he is standing in relation to the other musicians. I need to feel the anguish, the loss and the deep longing in his playing. The mournful tone needs to be as real as possible, but even more important, it has to feel real. In short, I need to be moved.

Quite a list for sure. And quite a load I’m putting on the Merlin VSM-SEs. Let’s see how they hold up.

A big load

What’s new?

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:

  1. A new Scan-Speak woofer, very similar to the original but made specially for Merlin.
  2. New MDF used in the cabinet. Merlin has changed from a "fibrous" type of MDF to one that’s "particalized," which yields a cabinet with a lower resonance frequency.
  3. New polyurethane, water-activated adhesive that never completely hardens and thus damps joints.
  4. New aluminum-alloy footers with lower resonance frequency. Work better with the new cabinet materials.
  5. More Dacron[TM] fiberfill around tweeter to damp its backwave.
  6. New proprietary driver fasteners (screws) that minimize edge diffraction.
  7. Redesigned port to reduce turbulence and port "huffing."
  8. New Cardas threadless, stressless speaker-cable connectors. (These do not allow the use of banana plugs, however.)
  9. BAM’s overall frequency response modified and power supply changed.

...Marc Mickelson

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 I’ve 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 he’s 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

Let’s start at the bottom. The BAM’ed 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 Bobby’s last three show setups. More important to me, the quality of the bass was outstanding. While just slightly less detailed than what I’ve 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, it’s great-sounding and good music). Another great, natural-sounding bass disc is Roy Hargrove’s 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, I’ve 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. It’s 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 speaker’s 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 don’t 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, that’s 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 it’s 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 I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 & Garfunkel’s 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. That’s how good they were.

Bottom line me

OK, the bottom line. Everything I’ve said to this point is meaningless unless these things move me. Do they? Oh boy, do they!

I’ve 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 wouldn’t pay me to say something like, "Damn, these things are freekin’ great. I’m in love!" But the real story here is how good these speakers make me feel. I’ve never had so vivid a recreation of music-making happening in my home. I’ve 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.

I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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.

Summing up

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 reviewer’s 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. I’ve said almost nothing negative about this speaker. Perhaps that it doesn’t 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, that’s 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 you’d 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 friend’s 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 Merlin’s 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, I’d 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 you’d 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 I’ve 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. I’m going to go listen to ‘em.

...Todd Warnke

Merlin Merlin Systems VSM-SE Loudspeakers
Price: $5950 USD (BAM included)

Merlin Music Systems
4705 S. Main St., P.O. Box 146
Hemlock, NY 14466
Phone: (716)367-2390
FAX: (716) 367-2685

E-mail: info@merlinmusic.com
Website: www.merlinmusic.com

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