Merlin VSM-MXe Review

Category: Speakers

I took delivery of my new Merlin VSM-MXe speakers in mid-December, and though I wanted to review them almost immediately, I knew that I would kick myself for not allowing a proper break-in period. There’s no doubt in my mind now that they’re fully broken in, and I’m comfortable with both their sound and the knowledge that my comments will hold true for the long run....

After pairing the Merlins with several different amp/preamp/integrated amp combinations, I’ve settled on a solid state Belles 150A Reference amp, driven by a Bel Canto SEP2 single ended tube preamp. The preamp’s previous owner had it modified by Matt Cramer of Bel Canto to achieve maximum performance: "I was seeking a no-holds-barred purist 2 tube preamplifier (no phono ) WITHOUT the extra connections of an outboard DAC ( saves money as well as preserves the audio signal ). I also wanted the highest grade/purest parts in the signal path. I love digital displays, but I didn't want anything extra corrupting the purest of signal paths as well. Additional extras like custom feet/damping and tube rings were added, and all tubes were custom matched and numbered in terms of where they should be placed in the sockets themselves. Yes, fanatical, but that was me, and that was/is Matt Cramer at Bel Canto. The internals were modifed/upgraded to SEP1 standards by Matt himself to include the DAC2 factory hardwired inside, upgraded resistors (1% caddocks) and caps (Musicaps), an upgraded digital display (which can be taken out of the signal path with the push of a button on the remote) damping” etc., at a cost of around 1200.00 for parts and labor (not counting the DAC2 of course, which was around 1500.00). I only mention these details because I haven’t heard a stock SEP2 and don’t wish to misinform anyone on the performance level of a typical SEP2.

Needless to say, when I dropped the SEP2 preamp into my system, I breathed a collective sigh of relief in terms of not only the sound, but also the “eureka” of having finally found the missing piece to the “puzzle.” The puzzle had started with a BAT VK300x-SE integrated amp (great amp with my previous Tyler Linbrook Signatures, but it pushes the mids forward, causing a lack of perceived bass); followed by an Ayre AX-7e (brilliant sounding, but edgy and too dry for my tastes); then a YBA Integra (had the tape loop required to run the BAM for all sources, but again, the sound was not as natural as I knew these speakers were capable of sounding). Next was the Belles 150A Reference amp and a Cary SP-3 tube preamp. The Cary was not bad, but again lacked the final degree of smoothness and effortlessness that the lead-free Merlins can provide. The other pieces of the puzzle were already in place: Audience AU24 cabling (interconnects, speaker cables and power chord) and a McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe universal player. The UDP-1 Deluxe is the best sounding redbook player I’ve heard or owned, beating out my Rega Saturn, Audio Aero Prima Ref, and Naim CD5 players that preceded it. For good measure I recently added a PS Audio Quintessence, and the results were definitely noticeable. But enough about that…

In 1979, I heard a pair of Snell Type A speakers at a friend’s home in Daytona Beach (his father owned the hi-fi store in that area). They were by far the best speakers I heard in the 70’s. In 1989, I heard an Infinity Reference system at an audio store in Orlando driven by the top Krell gear available. They were the best speakers I heard in the 80’s. In 1991, I heard and purchased a pair of Acoustat Spectra 1100s. I kept these speakers for over 10 years, and to my ears, they were certainly among the best speakers from the 90’s. In 2001, I stumbled upon Merlin speakers – first the TSM-SEs and then the VSM-Ms. I loved them, but life events and curiousness about other speakers kept me churning through a maze of speakers, from Sound Lab Dynastats, to Gershman Avant Guarde 20s, to Triangle Zays, Maggie 1.6s, Joseph Audio RM25 MkIIs, and the entire line of Tyler Acoustics (from the Taylo, to the Linbrook monitors, the Ref 3 two piece and finally the Linbrook Signature). All very good speakers in one or more areas, but I actually wished I had kept the Acoustats….until now.

Bobby Palkovic of Merlin Music calls it “continuousness.” I’ve read other reviews of various speakers that use phraseology such as “cut from the same sonic cloth” or “single point source” or “speaks with one voice” – all apt descriptors that seek to describe a speaker’s ability to harness and translate the complete musical signal from top to bottom, with no sonic evidence or signature (if you will) of a loudspeaker even being in your presence! This sounds impossible, or at least improbable, until you hear the newest lead-free Merlin VSM-MXe. Bobby has refined this speaker to the point where it isn’t fair (or true) to even describe it as a typical loudspeaker. It is much more of a personal “music interface” where the listener becomes so engaged in the music that there are absolutely no loudspeaker-related distractions to intervene and disrupt the listening experience. You can certainly put checkmarks next to the usual list of speaker superlatives, such as utterly pure and natural highs, effortless and natural mids that span the width of your room, and supremely accurate and natural bass (down to the mid 30’s). Of course the word “natural” was used to describe each frequency range for literary effect. But in all honesty, it’s the best and highest form of praise you can offer to a loudspeaker, or any other component.

I listen to a wide variety of music, from Sade to the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ritenour to Eddie Van Halen, Manheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to Flim and the BBs, Sheryl Crow to Dianna Krall. In a moderately sized room, there is literally NOTHING this speaker cannot reproduce with all the verve, vitality, emotion, pace, rhythm, and gestalt of the original performance (ok, so maybe the cannon shots from 1812 Overture are sub-dependent). The sheer depth and amount of articulate bass coming from the BAM-controlled 6.5 inch woofer is amazing. How Bobby was able to sync up these two drivers to faithfully reproduce nearly the entire audio range is truly remarkable.

“Maybe I’m Amazed?” Yes I am.
Great review. I agree with you on the sound aspects of the Merlins but am unfamiliar with any of your electronics. I am using the Joule LAP-150 MkII preamp and the Joule Grand Marquis VZN-160 monoblocks and am thrilled with the performance. I just started playing my LPs again after tweaking them (I have thousands) and I find it difficult to go back to digital. Maybe it's just in my head. The usual disclaimers, no connection with Merlin or Joule
The Belles Reference 150A is similarly a great match with my VSM-MM's as well. I've used the combo with a lot of different pre's - right now I'm really liking the combo fed with good power and a Placette passive, transparency and dynamics in spades!