Merlin Upgrade Experience

I recently had my (very late production) VSM-SEs upgraded to current status and thought I'd share my initial impressions on the change for anyone who might be interested.

Bobby tells me that pre-upgrade my VSMs were among the last SEs manufactured, and thus were quite close to the MM although not yet so badged.

My context for commenting on the VSMs includes both "in a vaccuum" impressions of their sound as well as comparison to other loudspeakers that I own and use regularly.

Until recently, I've owned 2 homes and thus the Merlins were the main speaker in town and my Verity Parsifal Encores served the same purpose at the beach. Additionally, I own a pair of Sonus Faber Cremonas which live in my living room. From time to time, I have been able to insert all 3 into my main system and they now all reside in a single, suburban residence (alas the baby arrived and beach house went!) more easily allowing for direct comparison.


My personal definition of the distinction between a music lover and a music loving audiophile is that the music lover wants all his records to sound good, while the audiophile wants his bad records to sound bad. By this definition, the VSM SE was a classic audiophile device, while the Creomna is more a music lovers device. Bad sounding records (and I own way too many) have tend to sound bad on the VSM SE and less so on the Cremonas. Conversely, the distinctions between any 2 records show up much more vividly on the VSM - for me, this is not a bad description of a phenomenon that many people like to call transparency.

IMHO, the likely cause of this difference is a measure of mid-bass warmtn and low bass wallop on the Cremona compared to some mid bass leanness and deep bass limitations on the VSM SE. The overall frequency response graphs of these speakers may not differ wildly, but there is significant difference in the octave to octave balance and resultant tonal signature:

The Cremonas have significantly more energy below the midband than do the VSM SEs. FWIW, the Verity - which in many respects combines the best of both worlds -- is voiced much closer to the Cremona. I suspect that most of the criticism of the VSM SE is due to people who either prefer a warmer voicing, need more ultimmate deep bass capability, or both. People with larger, less damped listening spaces probably highlight these issues in their environment.


Due to logistical issues on both sides, the process took longer than either Bobby or I would have liked. While his enthusiasm for his product may strike some as a "bit much", say this for the guy: He looks after his customers with unusual energy. He kept in regular touch with updates during the process and followed up multiple times after delivery. By any standard, in any business, this is a very high level of customer service.

I actually decided on this upgrade somewhat reluctanlty. Almost 2 years prior to pulling the trigger, I heard the then current VSM MX (MM?) at a local dealer. I was impressed by the warmer tonality and apparently unchanged mid band transparency, dynamics, imaging, and bass pitch definition. As far as I could tell at audition - the speakers biggest shortcoming had been ameliorated (though not eliminated) while its strengths had seamingly all been reatined.

However, an in-store demo is not dispositive, and I was still concerned that the speaker might lose some of its "magic". For as long as I can remember, much of my favorite mid band reproduction has come from speakers which (like the VSM SE) featured less than full energy below the mids (from earliest Quad through latest Lipinski). Hence my hemming and hawing. Ultimately, I went for it - though I remained a bit conflicted.


These observations must be qualified by the change in listening environment attendent to my move and the limited (2 weeks+) exposure to the new speakers. The listening room environmental effects are somewhat reduced by the continued
opportunity to compare the upgraded VSMs to the Verity and Cremonas.

In short - I couldn't have asked for very much more.

This upgrade is a VERY skillfull balancing act from Merlin. The most obvious difference is improved deep bass dynamics - which are immediately evident on tuned drums. Descending drum patterns on Peter Gabriel's Last Temptation no longer evidence rapidly diminishing power. Kick drum
and bass drum (Putttin' it Down, Out of The Cradle, Sinatra Live at The Sands, "E"'s Shine It All On) all showed greater impact up through significantly higher SPLs.

Meanwhile all else is right in the VSM universe. The mid-band is still SOTA for me;
voices on Sam Cook's Night Beat, Marti Jones' Unsophisticated Time, Joan Armitrading, etc. etc. were consistently as good as I've heard.
massed horns from the aforementioned Sinatra through Duke Ellington's Queens Suite and Intimacy of the Blues are still stunning.
Individual Horn timbre still amazes (The Hawk Flies High, etc.)

My take - this is the same speaker with obviously improved deep bass performance. My gut impression is that little adjustment was made in the warmth region (maybe tweaked up a smidge) but that the overall signature feels warmer by dint of increased energy below 60ish cycles. This is just a guess - no measurements taken.


Bobby likes to talk in percentage improvement. I can't say that I think that way and I would be at a total loss to attach a number. I would say that this is the same speaker with so much of its near SOTA capability retained and its most obvious shortcoming significantly redressed. If you liked the SE, I'm almost certain you'll love the cuurrent version. If you were lukewarm, you might find yourself convinced. If you REALLY didn't get the appeall of the SE, I doubt this new version will be your cup of tea.

Though true headbangers still need not apply - I suspect that just about everyone else will really like this speaker. FOR THE MOMENT, it has displaced the Verity P/E as my first choice for serious listening to high quality source material. It's new and that may change over time, but for me-for now- it's about as strong an endorsement as I can provide.


A Note; The speaker still seams amp friendly in a big way. They work like champs with Cary 805s (expensive) and Pancor Dyna re-issues (dirt cheap). Haven't yet had rthe chance to try my 300Bs.

Another note: Bobby uses BAX global which has about as good a rep as any shipper I know. Unfortunately, it seems that BAX subbed out the "last mile" in this case to a local company which, from the appearance of the crates, uses chain saws to move boxes. Notwithstanding serious damage to the cartons, the speakers arrived unscathed. Score on for for Merlin's packing/crating protocol.
I agree with all that Jamesv says above. I recently bought VSM-MXe to replace my VSM-MX. Why did I make the change? Well, it seems to me that every update to this classic speaker has been an improvement. I love the Merlins, so if there was an improvement to be had, why not? The new speaker looks the same (got it in the same piano black), in reality, this speaker has basically looked the same for the past 20 years; the upgrades tend to be "behind" the scenes. In this case, as far as I know, the basic change was from a leaded to lead free solder - which may not sound like much, till you think about the fact that the entire music signal must pass through all those connections. This is a mature, evolved speaker with years of testing and refinement to wring out the best musical performance, or one man's vision of it.

I previously wrote a review on in August 2005, since what was true then remains so I will not repeat what I said then, but the speaker has indeed been improved. I find the new speaker is even more cohesive. By that I mean the integratation between drivers is even more seemless, like a single driver or electrostatic. But even more important, it is cohesive from bass to treble. There is no apparent emphasis on any particular part of the spectrum, it does not empahsize this at the expense of that. The speaker is spectrally neutral, neutral in the best sense of the word. It does not impose itself on the music. What do I mean? Is the speaker bassy or bass light? Does the speaker have a deep sound stage/ or flat? Is localization of instruments precise, or blurred? Are she speakers warm or cold? Does the speaker get timbre just right? or do altos sound like tenors? etc. The answer to all those contracdictory questions is yes. But the key is that these characteristic don't belong to the speaker. They belong to the recording, to the source equipment. This is what I mean when I say these speakers do not impose themselves. They open themselves to the recording and sources - they reveal. Every recording sounds different through these speakers, that is there gift. They let the music come through as recorded, with little sonic signature apparent from recording to recording, and so they will live up to whatever you put before them. A great recording, great source equipment, great amp and pre - well through the Merlins, very few speakers will sound better. The new Merlins are even better at this magical skill of letting what comes before it speak for itself.

The "new" speakers do everything a little better, but the one trait that seems most noticible is the ability of the speakers to disappear and release the notes. They are more effortless than before, and the bass, which is always found to be very good and satisfying is better yet - more natural, present, faster, more palpable. In short a great American, classic speaker has upped the bar yet again. Don't let the fact that there are just two little drivers fool you - that is part of their brilliance, with the BAM -these are in the upper echelon.

Many professional reviewers, when they really like something, will tell you they bought the review piece. Well, I'm not a professional reviewer, but I do love listening to music, and I bought these not once, but twice - well sort of. I've stopped looking, these speakers do it for me, and if you are a music lover, you owe to yourself to audition these speakers. If you own an earlier version, you should consider the upgrade. You already own a great speaker, MXe simply takes it even further.
I agree with everything Pubul57 said above especially the part about being neutral. To me the speakers have no personality of their own. You just get what was recorded with no emphasis on any particular frequency. Continuous from top to bottom like a one-way.
I cannot stress enought how tonally accurate the new "e" versions are to me. Just absolutely amazing and worth every penny for the upgrade. In fact I would have paid multiple times the upgrade cost based on what I'm hearing now.
i haven't sent my VSM-MX's back for the full lead-free upgrade. but i did just recently switch to the lead free power cord for the super BAM, and i changed my BAM battery cells to 230's.

what the hell?! . . . hard to believe that there was that much room for improvement. the whole spectrum is more continuous now from top to bottom. the stage seems to have more depth and resolution, and the bass is more authoritative. really, the speakers just seem bigger and fuller now, all the while maintaining their tonal neutrality.

had a huge party at my house over the weekend, and jaws literally dropped! also, the custom supports bobby made to prevent the speakers from tipping off the rear spike are worth their weight in gold, especially with a house full of guests.

Great review. I too have gone for the lead free power cord for the super BAM, battery change and new jumpers.

The change is not subtle, (and sometimes I think I miss more of the subtle changes). I would definitely agree with Nmanuel on the improvements. More continuous and the sound stage has more depth. Wider at the back of the stage, less V shaped if you will. The music is much more decoupled from the speakers. Occasionally I could get a sense of the music coming from the speakers. Now you can't even tell that they're on!

To all the people, (mostly over at AA), who squawk about how if the change is so good then they must have been crap before, that's obviously not the case. The speakers are great without this little upgrade but now they're even better.

Highly recommended.
Well, I've now gotten to 100 hours - they are better than I thought. While they were a bit better than the MX at first, I kept listening to/for audio ideas (bass, staging, clarity, blah, blah). I got to tell you, what I love about these speakers really has nothing to do with those things, though it does do those things superbly well, it is the fact that I no longer care about listening for those things. The musical message is so articulate, the meaning of the words or musical phrases are so direct and meaningful, eaily understood that I simply connect to the musicians and what they are doing and trying to say or communicate. Forget the audio traits, these speakers are not about bombast, these speakers bring the music into your home, and that, as they say is priceless. Thank you Bobby. Among other things, I never realized how great the CAT JL2 amp is. To say the least, the upgrade was well worth it to me. Thank you Bobby. How are you going to top these?