as reviewed by Art Shapiro and Larry Cox
Although normally I am a taciturn individual, my equipment reviews have regularly been longer than those of my audioMUSINGS colleagues. Whether thats because I have more to say, or think I have more to say, or merely because others are better in distilling their thoughts onto the printed page is a matter for speculation, yet I will attempt to make this review more modest in size. Why? Well, theres only so much gushing one has to do for readers to get the picture; after a certain point it gets repetitious and tiring. In a nutshell: the Merlin VSM SE loudspeakers are magnificent products illustrating the highest pinnacles of the speaker builders art. But Im getting ahead of myself.
Ive been familiar with the Merlin line for more than ten years, thanks largely to a friend who owned a pair of Merlins in the 80s, when the audiophile community was less aware of the brand than it is today. Merlin has been an exhibitor at the last few Stereophile shows, and I have watched the VSM series gradually improve over the years. The reputation of this speaker is one of state-of-the-art engineering by Mr. Merlin, Bobby Palkovic, along with cost-no-object implementation of the design. The VSM is an attractive two-way tower system in which a 7" woofer and a small tweeter are mounted toward the top. A circular port sits in the middle of the tower, while the Merlin logo?three vertical parallel lines with the middle one slightly misplacedoccupies the bottom third above the nameplate at the bottom. The logo is also replicated on the top of the speaker. Finish is some sort of artificial substance, durable and extremely attractive. On the review pair, the color was black; other colors are available.
Instructions for setting up and positioning the speakers are elaborate, and there are enough possibilities for diddling to make the tweakers amongst us quite happy. My tenure with the VSMs did not allow me a huge amount of time for experimentation, once I found a location and alignment that resulted in what I perceived to be excellence of sound. The manual discusses toe-in, inter-speaker distances, leveling, and even the desired tiltback of the speakers to achieve optimal sound. Bi-wiring is expected, although mention of how to best single-wire is also discussed. The binding posts are most unusual. A single knob for each pair of binding posts simultaneously clamps the two sides, and theres enough heft to each assembly to ensure a tight connection. Three hands would be ideal for holding the two speaker cable leads and simultaneously tightening the knob. The mild hassle is compounded by the need to keep the supplied external Zobel networks in place during cable installation. Use of the networks, one for each pair of connections, is highly recommended.
The VSMs are medium-sized speakers, relatively heavy for their size. They do not overwhelm the listening environment. What turns the VSMs into SEs is a number of improvements to the crossover, already a formidable achievement in the stock product, and the addition of the Bass Augmentation Module, a small (hardbound book size) electronic bass equalization unit which extends the low-end response. The BAM is powered by internal rechargeable batteries and is intended to be left plugged in at all times. A rear-mounted switch selects between AC and battery power, with battery operation being the preferred mode of operation.
As I stated, Ive heard the VSMs at several audio shows, and have been consistently impressed. No, make that more than impressed. Ive long considered this product as the best speaker system Im unlikely to ever own. Tonal accuracy, my main criterion in assessing speaker excellence, has seemed spot-on. The VSMs have exhibited an amazing refinement of soundsophisticated yet not sterile. Frequency extremes have belied the modest size of the units; 7" woofers shouldnt be capable of producing the sound Ive heard. About the only quibble Ive had with the VSMs, and the reason Id probably never own a pair, is the fact that they physically cant move a huge amount of air with those small woofers. I gravitate toward big speakers and big sound; when one talks about "moving air," I think its less the mythical ability to blow the foam off ones latte than it is an overall bigness of sound and the ability to project a sense of effortless ease and power. I really havent sensed this with the VSMs, nor would I expect to, but in every other aspect of sonic reproduction that means something to me, the VSMs have struck me as stellar performers.
Installation of the VSMs was fairly routine. As I needed an extra set of interconnects to install the BAM, I usurped a pair of Monster Sigma 2000s from my rather underused phono gear. I used the Merlin guidelines for positioning and alignment, and after a minimum of additional manipulation was quickly rewarded with fine sound. My REL subwoofer was not used during the review period. My time with the Merlins served to confirm my previous impressions of the speaker system. It is unquestionably a superlative product. The tonal balance of the VSM is a joy, and the slight variations from the balance of my reference system are purely a matter of taste and aesthetic choice. For example, I perceived a slight emphasis in the midbass when compared to my normal ESP/REL combination. This provided a bit of a boost to the rhythmic fundamentals that are so important to Western music, be it orchestral or solo piano. An example of this might be in the Bach Secular Cantatas CD on the Dorian label that I consistently use as an auditioning vehicle. Baroque music is propelled by the basso continuoharpsichord and double bassthat provide a background rhythm, and the slightly enhanced prominence of these instruments through the Merlins added to my enjoyment of the music. Ditto for the deep sustained left-hand piano notes in a Vladimir Horowitz recording of a Chopin Nocturne on Sony; having these low bass notes slightly emphasized struck me as a valid and desirable tonal choice and improved the melodic flow of the Nocturne in the higher registers.
My second impression was of a slightly dry midrange, again entirely within the bounds of good taste and deliberate design. In the Coffee Cantata, for example, the orchestral violins were drier and slightly less resonant than with my existing speakers, and I might well opt for the ability of my reference speakers to ameliorate the slightly steely sound that most CD playback systems impart to massed strings. On the other hand, this is a two-way street. Enunciation of both male and female voices was astoundingly clear through the Merlins, yet never degenerated into stridency, harshness, or excessively analytical sound. I was extremely conscious of the German words being sung in the Coffee Cantata. Similarly, while enjoying the "Pie Jesu" track on the John Rutter Requiem on Reference Recordings, I was struck for the first time by the articulation of the sung Latin text, despite having little familiarity with that language. The great majority of my personal listening is to solo piano, a real bugaboo for many otherwise fine loudspeakers, and the VSMs excelled at the reproduction of that instrument. Because of the Merlins tonal balance, the clarity in reproducing rapid, complex piano figurations and runs was outstanding, all the while properly reproducing the complex fundamentals and overtones of the piano. I threw quite a bit of solo piano at the Merlins, and they rewarded me with consistently superior sound. I was deliberate in the piano selections I chose. I frequently mention an Ivan Moravec recital on Dorian, as its treble is slightly muted and just within the bounds of acceptability. To my surprise, I did not sense this failing through the Merlins, and they never showed any signs of boosted treble in any of my other auditioning. They just had an affinity toward music. A recording of the massive Scriabin Fantasy in f# Minor with Sergei Tarasov on Melodia features a live concert performance on an excessively reverberant and closely-miked piano. The midrange clarity of the Merlins was a decided asset to unraveling and appreciating the complexities of this work, while not losing a whit of the glorious power and resonance of the concert grand. Thumbs up! Ditto for the Chesky recording of Earl Wild recording his own variations on Gershwins Porgy and Bess. Once again, I lost nothing and gained the ability to hear much of the inner complexities of this superbly-recorded complex music.
Another impression of the Merlins was that of the abstract quality we term "musicality." They just seemed to draw me into the music more than might be expected. I cannot tell you how many times I intended to listen to the first two or three minutes of a piece, as my time with the speakers was limited. Id look up and the counter on my Wadia would be saying that Id been listening for more than eight minutes! This happened over and over again. The ability to properly reproduce vocalists, both male and female, was especially noteworthy. Treble presentation of the VSMs confirmed my impression of superb tonal balance. In the Coffee Cantata, there is a lovely section with soprano and flute, with the delicate strains of the flute floating wonderfully throughout the room. There is just a touch of sibilance with the female voice; if a system is too boosted in the treble the voice will get hissy and spitty, while a recessed treble will mask the sibilance. The VSMs passed with flying colors. The flute notes were gorgeous, appropriately delicate and resonant without shrillness, and the soprano voice was correctly portrayedpowerful without harshness, melodic, and just the soupcon of sibilance that I consider to be correct.
Perhaps it is due to the BAM, but the bass performance of these speakers is a hell of a lot better than one could possibly expect given the size of the woofers. Take the deep organ pedal notes on the Rutter Requiem. Im not going to tell you that the room shook from the bass power of these notes, but there was morefar morebass energy and extension than I would have imagined. This system appeared to legitimately and honestly go down below 30 Hz., and do so with plenty of power. Indeed, in my medium-sized, asymmetric, vaulted-ceiling audio room, the VSMs were easily putting out enough energy to impress me, and to render my original assessment of being unable to move much air as perhaps uncharitably unkind. OK, theyre not world-class in this respect, nor could one hope for them to be. But they are surprisingly decent. I could live with their bass response, and thats intended as a high compliment toward a speaker system of this size.
Perhaps this is yet another fortuitous byproduct of the enjoyable tonal balance in the lower frequencies, but I found the VSMs to be an unusually listenable speaker at low volume levels. So many systems seem to peter out when the volume is reduced, and there are times when most of us have to cut the volume to avoid bothering others in the household. The Merlins were amazing in this respect. I felt as if I were hearing all the music when I chose to lower the volume, rather than enduring a weak, anemic parody. On the other hand, the speakers could really put out when cranked. I have little non-classical music in my collection, but simply had to pull out the Bela Fleck Flight of the Cosmic Hippo CD. On the title track, the Merlins coped pretty well with the wallowing deep bass notes, and they were easily able to let it all hang out on the opening track, "Blu-Bop," on which the full electric complement of this bluegrass ensemble is going full tilt. Reproduction of the electric piano was especially noteworthycrystal clear yet melodic.
A last impression of the Merlins was that they possess an unusually wide dynamic range, making many speakers seem dynamically constrained by comparison. The soft portions of a piece could fade into almost nothingness, whereas the double fortissimos could shake the listening room. Coupled with this was a superior "jump factor" on sudden transients. There were many times when one or more of my cats (and, Ill admit, myself) would visibly start from the impact of a quick loud note. I tend to be relatively insensitive to spatial phenomena such as imaging, depth, soundstaging, and the like, both in real life and in audio systems. Still, I was quite taken with instrumental localization with the Merlins, assessing it as superior to most systems Ive heard. I suspect that my fellow reviewers may well rave about this aspect of the VSMs.
I need to say that, after having the pleasure of their company in my system, I appreciate
and enjoy the Merlins even more than I had expected based on prior show experiences? These
are world-class speakers. While anything but inexpensive, it is possible to spend far more
for a lot less excellence of sound. Do they have any competition in their price range?
Hard to say. There are certainly other superb speaker systems in the $6K ballpark;
products from JM Lab and Soliloquy come to mind. But were talking cream of the crop
here, and the Merlin VSM SEs can hold their own, as far as I can tell, against anything
remotely in this price range. Speaking as an audiophile whose carefully chosen speakers
run more than three times the cost of the Merlins, I hope my enthusiasm comes through when
I say I could easily live with these guys in my system.
Once youve met and spoken with Bobby Palkovic, you know that he couldnt build loudspeakers other than the Merlin VSMs. Bobby knows what he wants, he knows what he likes, and hes going to have it that way. The VSMs arrived as neatly, tidily, and carefully packed as Bobby Palkovic is thorough, determined, and certain to succeed in the audio industry. Everything, and I really mean everything, arrived buttoned down and thought through in advance. My only complaint was that the $7495 pair of speakers arrived in a 192-pound box that was awfully unwieldy and a little frightening to deal with. Heres something to engineer differently.
The VSMs are solid bricks. Like the heads on Easter Island, they stand firm and erect as though they are going to do so through the next millennium. Instead of the usual binding posts that stick out like a pair of stunted fingers, the posts on the VSMs are placed behind a single thumb-tightened device that clamps down on both the positive and negative terminals. Very easy, very nice, and this is just the sort of refinement that you want in a consumer product. Although the high end is tweaky, there is no need for components that look and function like they are cobbled together in someones garage. The Very Scary Monitors (hence "VSM") in their Special Edition (hence "SE") use separate boxes that incorporate a device called the BAM, or bass alignment module. This is an equalizer of sorts, which extends the bass response from the 40 Hz region down into the 20s. The iteration of BAM we received is equipped with battery operation, with three modes: mode one is all AC and no battery operation; mode two is AC and battery power; and mode three is all battery. This third mode lasts for up to 12 hours of playing time.
My impressions of the VSMs matched my impressions of the speakers appearance and the way they were packed for shipping (not to mention the way the manual is written and my impressions of Bobby Palkovic.) This is a finished product. With and without the BAMs, the sound of the VSMs was nearly seamless from top to bottom, in a sort of buttoned-down way. While "buttoned-down" might imply things being hidden, that would be inaccurate. George Cardas calls the VSMs microscopes with which to listen for things. Ill endorse that model. Little gear came near the Merlins that didnt have its sonic personality announced. If youre not into hearing every little thing going on in your system, you may want to look elsewhere. Some products approach transparency in such a way that their unintended signature is bright and scratchy. This, many audiophiles think, is transparency. Both the Merlin and my ATC 20s reveal differences by sounding different with each recording or change in ancillary product, and this, I think, is the way to go. Scratchiness or brightness isnt really a signal of transparency.
In a nutshell, the VSMs are improved with the BAMs. More bass, a fuller sound, more joy in Mudville! Certainly, the VSMs without the BAMs are fine, sounding remarkably similar in tonal character to my ATCs. The ATCs have a slightly warmer quality in the bottom end, and are perhaps a bit fuller sounding. I like that. The BAMs increased the VSMs frequency extension, and I liked that, too. It was fun to have more bottom end without having the speakers dominate the room. Ive said it over and over: I love music, I just dont want my room and life taken over by stereo.
The setting for pure AC wasnt as enjoyable as the setting for part AC/part battery. No surprise, then, that I preferred the all-battery sound the most, and that my critical listening took place with all-battery sound. Also, the battery worked well and gave quite a bit of time on each chargeat least ten hours, though I didnt measure. Certainly long enough for even an extended listening session. The manual states twelve hours. With the battery running, my system became quieter, with less noise interfering with the signal. Things that had been palpable became boldly palpable. When battery technology becomes better and cheaper, I expect to see more battery power introduced into audioit sounds like the ticket to me.
Two immediate impressions lasted throughout my listening period. One is that the top-to-bottom integration was among the best Ive heard from any speakers, if not the very best. The speakers sounded nearly like point sources. Frequency deviation was ever so slight; female vocals sounded a little recessed. I say "a little" because if it werent for the overall coherence of the speaker, I would not have noticed it. The second thing was that the VSMs are detailed. Youll hear stuff youve never heard before, especially in the midrange. Youll hear images placed PRECISELY in space, with clearly-defined edges and a very specific height. I was bowled over by how much the speakers disappeared in my room; it seemed that live performers were present and playing just for me, available every time I cued up an LP or CD.
The VSMs bottom end was quite tight and fast. Timbre was well communicated, so that, when appropriate, the vibrato from standup bass had a rich, "burred" quality. Initially I thought that the bass of the VSM/BAMs was slower than the bass on my ATCs, but its just fuller. I tested out this perception by popping in Pink Martini. Rhythmic sound was there, and the sound really was hopping in a VERY desirable way. The Merlins played as loud as Id ever want. My 2500 cubic foot listening room was filled with sound. There was lots to hear, and I never felt cheated. Bass pressurized the room and the top end never changed character, no matter the listening levels. I only listen as loud as is enjoyable. I dont like the idea of driving neighbors (and my hearing) away. These are speakers that perform equally well on all forms of music, from small, quiet combos to big orchestras to ear-splitting rock and everything in between, all with essentially the same equanimity.
One of my
impressions was that the sound was a bit on the analytical side. With my electronics, I
preferred my ATCs to the VSMs. Note, my ATCs arent romantic sounding speakers, but
they are a bit richer sounding than the VSMs. However, with more romantic or lush-sounding
electronics, the VSMs would be really appealing alternatives. As with all matters of
taste, I can imagine others not hearing these speakers as analytical; that could be
personal or it could be system matching. I think that the VSMs with the battery BAMs are
the first speakers Ive heard in a long while that could push my ATCs aside, but
Id want slightly more romantic electronics. If the VSMs are in your price range,
these are speakers to put on your short list. Their size is very liveable, their sound is
engaging, and with a reasonably-sized amplifier they will produce plenty of sound, enough
to keep you pinned to your sofa for a long time.
Merlin Music Systems