Review: Merlin Music Systems VSM-MXe Speaker

Category: Speakers


After a year of ownership I am more delighted with my Merlin VSM-MXe loudspeakers than ever. One could easily spend more and be left wanting. These accurate, engaging, and high quality transducers form an excellent basis for a high end system and are enthusiastically recommended!

I’ve just finished a three year project to put together a two channel (stereo) sound system that could satisfy me for years or perhaps even decades to come. I must confess to no small relief at having achieved this goal. Only a maniacally obsessive music lover who can relate to optimizing each piece of audio hardware to the point of having every note of several different reference recordings etched into one’s brain from relentless and repetitious comparisons can appreciate the feeling of freedom that comes with disembarking from the merry-go-round. I believe that no system is identical to a live performance (I have attended hundreds and play a couple of instruments myself) any more than a television can fool a person into thinking that they are in the scene but the system I have now creates a very convincing illusion rich with satisfyingly accurate detail, texture, and dynamics that provide a sense of realism palpable enough to be eerie at times.

While every component influences audio character and quality it is perhaps the speakers that, more than any other single component, define how a system sounds. Conventional wisdom is to put your money into the speakers and amplification. Regarding amplification I’ve had the BEL 1001 MkV for three years now. I had owned about eight others previously and have never been tempted upgrade from BEL (though I did get a second one so I could run monoblocks which brought me from merely excellent to truly world class in that department). My three year quest spanned countless changes but began and ended with a speaker upgrade as the intervening upgrades had rendered my Vandersteen 2Ce Signatures (a great value in their price range) the weak link in the system.

I ordered a pair of Merlin VSM MXe’s after exhaustive research and a long conversation with designer Bobby Palkovic. I had just auditioned another pair of speakers in the same price range and found that they fell a little short of my expectations. Like many high quality durable goods the VSM’s were made to order and it took a couple of months for them to arrive. Though they sounded fine and detailed straight out of the box, thorough break-in required a good 200 hours. After that the bass in particular was fleshed out and tonal balance more satisfying.

Bass took on even greater weight and realism after upgrading from a very good FET/tube hybrid preamp to the excellent Joule Electra LA-150 MkII preamp. The bass output (quantity and quality) this speaker design achieves with a 6.5” driver and SBAM bass EQ module is astounding and will cause educated listeners to look for side-mounted drivers or even a subwoofer, but it will not rattle your teeth like a 12” or 15” woofer. What you get instead is refinement, elegance, delineation between instruments and voices, imaging, and sound stage that add up to an intriguing sense of sheer credibility that is, for lack of a better term, fascinating. It’s detailed yet smooth, intriguing but not fatiguing, entertaining and toe-tapping. Female vocals are silky and seductive, and various instruments including drums, piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar, brass and strings all seem to sound just right. Jazz, classical, acoustic, and female vocal music all sound very realistic, drawing the listener in to *feel* the emotion behind the performance. Of course with electronic/highly processed music or distorted rock and roll accuracy can be difficult to judge but even there the speaker's resolution and imaging are spellbinding. Vocal harmonies are not all melded together but actually sound like distinct voices (another nod to the fantastic BEL 1001 MkV monoblocks is due here). Listening to these speakers in my system is truly a remarkable experience. They are not inexpensive given the componentry but in my mind the physical implementation is only a means to an end; a five-way speaker system for the same price that has more bass but sounds less convincing is NOT a better deal than this outstanding two-way in my humble opinion and by my yardstick these are a great value.

Finally this review would not be complete without giving due credit to Bobby at Merlin for his relentless and tenacious efforts in optimizing the VSM design over the past 15 or so years, his contagious passion and enthusiasm for music and its proper rendering in reproduction, and last but not least the patient, generous, and responsive coaching and sharing of wisdom that I sought out and which was invaluable in choosing an efficient path in optimizing the system upstream of the speakers. We agree on at least 90 percent of what we have both auditioned and I am forever in his debt for his having spent long, tedious hours auditioning all sorts of components, tweaks, and ideas so that I will never have to and can enjoy listening to music instead!

Associated gear
Transport: Music Hall CD25.2 w/Underwood HiFi T-mod
Digital Cable: Cardas Lightning 15
DAC: Audio Aero Capitole SE (tube output)
Preamplifier: Joule Electra LA-150 MkII (tube)
Interconnect Cables: Brown Electronic Laboratories (BEL) The Wire P1
Amplifiers: BEL 1001 MkV (solid state)*
* I believe these to be among the best sounding amps ever made, period.
Speaker Cables: Audience Au24e
AC Cords: Audience PowerChord & PowerChord “e”
AC Power: Dedicated 20 amp circuit w/hospital grade receptacles
Vibration Control (internal): Herbie’s UltraSonic tube dampers on all tubes
Vibration Control (external): lots of Symposium gear

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I have been living with the Merlin VSM-M since 2001 and have been quite happy. I would be interested in hearing your comparison with the Linkwitz Orion which I have been eyeing but haven't heard.
I auditioned the Orions in a friend's home and spent a weekend with a pair of Orions in the Linkwitz Honeymoon Cottage at Sea Ranch. What I liked about the speakers was their relative insensitivity to placement and the way they reproduced bass, which are closely related properties. There really is something special about dipole bass to my ear. My VSM-MXe's were rather new at the time and put it succinctly I left the Honeymoon Cottage without even a tinge of buyer's remorse. The midrange on the the Merlins is more refined and credible, and the imaging is also superior. Further considering the need for 8 channels of amplification for the Orions versis 2 for the Merlins and any temptation I might have had is thoroughly quashed.