Amongst all the great and many things that Albert Einstein and I share is the belief that things are best when, as he said, we "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler". All right - besides the hair the only thing Albert and I share is that I am willing to steal his line to prop up my belief that a great two-way loudspeaker, employed within its limits, will beat any three or more way loudspeaker within those same limits.
Lest you think this is some harebrained a priori hypothesis, like many of you I came into audio thinking that since I heard more bass from those old three, four and even five-way speakers in the neighbor's basement 8-track based system that they were obviously better then the two-ways in Uncle Bob's more refined reel-to-reel system. However, like a great many other theories of my youth (nice girls always choose the nice guy, talent trumps money, and wine can be both cheap and good) time has taught me the error of my ways.
Looking back objectively at every listening experience I've had simply confirms how right Albert is. As much as I enjoyed my long-term association with the three-way Dunlavy SC-III loudspeaker, every time I heard its little brother, the two-way SC-II, I felt a truer connection to the musical spectrum, well, except for the sub 60-cycle region where the SC-II was non-existent. More recently, I reviewed the Soliloquy 6.2 and the 6.5 loudspeakers. Of those two the 6.5 was the "better" speaker. It had more power and extension and played to much higher levels, but from about 80Hz to past 10kHz the 6.2 was consistently more captivating and believable.
Of course these two examples, besides suggesting the quality and integration that a well-done two-way can have, also point to their problems, namely limited bass extension and limited power. And this points to the reason for the qualifier -- within the same limits a two-way loudspeaker sounds better than more-than-two-ways. Of course, you can always obviate the need for that qualifier by taking one of two paths -- force yourself to be happy within the limits of the best two-way you can afford or find a two-way with broad enough limits that you can be happy. We, being the last of the true audio daredevils, shall attempt to find a speaker that follows the latter path.
The Merlin VSM-Millennium
I first encountered Merlin Music Systems and their VSM loudspeakers back in 1997 at the San Francisco Hi-Fi show. Bobby Palkovic, head of magic at Merlin, was standing in the corner of his room, graciously playing whatever anyone brought in. After listening to anemic Swedish jazz (as if!), contemporary folk and a well-recorded but boring chamber piece (unfortunately, a great many reviewers have unbelievably poor musical taste) I handed Mr. Palkovic a Stevie Ray Vaughan CD. After glancing at the album he quietly suggested, "Track 6?", the very song I wanted. And as we sat and listened I quickly found myself in "Tin Pan Alley". The loudspeakers were the VSM-SEs and they completely disappeared. Without doubt, that demo was the best I heard at that particular show, and remains one of the best I've ever heard. A review was quickly arranged, at the end of which I purchased the VSM-SEs and they became my long-term, sub $10,000 loudspeaker reference. Since my review of that version of the VSM, Merlin has continued to develop the design, adding a Battery operated Bass Augmentation Module (B-BAM) that boosts bass by 5.2dB at 35Hz and then quickly rolls off all bass below 27 hertz. The loudspeaker itself has also had a good going over, with a new wiring harness, new Cardas binding posts, a stiffer cabinet, new footers and revised drivers being the result. This newer model, the VSM-Millennium (VSM-M), is what we have before us for review.
If the VSM-M looks very much like a monitor loudspeaker mounted to an integrated stand, it's because that is exactly what it is. At 43 inches high, nearly 9 inches wide and 10 and 0.5 inches deep, it has the small footprint of a monitor. The cabinet features brass-tuning rods on both the front and top and sports a front mounted port, tuned to 37Hz, about half way down the cabinet. Below the port the cabinet is sealed and filled with sand, resulting in a loudspeaker that weighs 85 pounds. Besides adding mass, the weight at the bottom of the cabinet creates a very stable loudspeaker for its height. Sensitivity is rated at a slightly better than normal at 89dB while impedance is an 8 ohms nominal with a very tube friendly 6.5 ohm minimum. Set up for bi-wiring, the VSM-M uses the best posts I've heard, the patented Cardas, low-stress, single-hand posts.
The tweeter is the costly and rare Dynaudio Esotar D330/A. A 1" soft-dome, the tweeter passes signal over to a 6.5" custom Scan-Speak carbon fiber mid-woofer. The "highly optimized" 2nd order crossover is set at 2200 hertz and utilizes proprietary Hovland inductors, Hovland capacitors, Caddock resistors and Cardas wiring. Merlin supplies an optional, outboard RC network that also sources parts from Hovland, Caddock and Cardas. Lastly, the VSM-M comes with a very generous 10 year parts and labor warranty.
The VSM-Ms spent time being driven by the Manley Labs Neo-Classic 300B monoblock amplifiers, the Art Audio Gill Signature, the Sophia Electric 300B Mk II and the Blue Circle BC6. Pre-amplification was primarily my long-term reference First Sound Presence Statement monos. Sources included the Cary CD-303/200, Ayre CX-7 and a Dodson DA-217. Wiring was courtesy of Cardas, Stereovox, Acoustic Zen and Shunyata Research, while the latter also purified the AC.
Room setup with the VSM-Ms was a straightforward affair. In short order I tried three or four different locations but quickly found that the Cardas placement method was the best. After setting the loudspeakers 71 inches into the room, separated by 71 inches and 44 inches from the sidewall, I used the Merlin supplied toe device to set the final angle and that was that. As a side note, at audiogeekfests Mr Palkovic has often used a setup with the loudspeakers firing diagonally across the room to great effect. My longish rectangle of a listening room allows me to setup on either the long or the short wall, but the angles are too acute for this particular setup. Still, based on my experience with the Merlins at shows, if your room will allow for a crossfire setup, try it with these loudspeakers, as it can be stunning.
Like all two-way loudspeakers, the Merlin VSM-Ms have limits. According to the VSM white paper, without the BAM the VSM-M has a -2dB point around 50Hz. In my slightly over 2,900 cubic foot listening room (which opens in one corner to a 1,000 cubic foot dining room and in another corner opens into a kitchen of the same size) I found this to be optimistic by about 5Hz. Because I am a tad obsessive, as well as fair-minded, I moved the Merlins into my 2,000 cubic foot family room and recovered all those cycles plus a few more. In both rooms the bass was taut, driven and exceedingly tuneful.
My favorite Keith Jarrett Trio album (yes I know it's cheating) is the 6 CD set, At The Blue Note, The Complete Recordings [ECM 1575-80] and is a perfect bass test. Unlike the recent releases of multiple nights live recordings by Miles Davis and Bill Evans, wherein we hear many of the same songs refracted through different light, the Jarrett set has 38 tracks spread over three nights without a single repeat. Of those 38 tracks, my favorite is track 5 from disc 4, a nearly half hour opus that opens with a lovely and gentle treatment of the Styne-Cahn standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily", after which the Trio modulates into a meditative and subtly propulsive Jarrett original, "The Fire Within". The transition is breathtaking. Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gary Peacock on the bass along with Jarrett's powerful left hand redesign time, at first as gentle and drfiting and finally as a stately force of nature. Tonally, they have a lot going on, with DeJohnette holding the very bottom whilst simultaneously using the cymbals to comment on the very top. Peacock, one of the most agile and tuneful of bass players, spends much time in his mid and upper registers adding color and a floating background while Jarrett uses his left hand to move from ennui to masterful control. Through the Merlins this interplay, from 50Hz on up, exhibited exquisite detail, highly textured tonal shading and spot-on dynamics with bass performance that was simply wonderful.
Of course, with a cut-off point of 50Hz some bass was missing. Knowing that and having the battery operated BAM on hand I decided to explore its capabilities. Use of the BAM is straightforward. The preferred method in a single source system is to connect your source to the BAM and then connect the BAM to your pre-amplifier. In a system with more sources you can just as easily place the BAM between the pre and power amplifiers, while, alternately, you can hook it into a tape loop and so compare the sound with the BAM in and out of the electron flow. The only complication with the BAM, or rather with the battery BAM (B-BAM) is that there are three modes of operation. The B-BAM has a switch that selects either AC or battery operation. The least preferred method is with the B-BAM plugged in and with the switch on AC. The middle step is with the B-BAM plugged in and with the switch on battery. And, lastly, for maximum isolation the B-BAM can be set to battery and disconnected from the wall. In this last mode the B-BAM offers about 12 hours of operation and the cleanest possible signal. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the B-BAM contour filter bumps the signal by 5.2dB at 35Hz, and then rolls off all bass below 27Hz.
With the B-BAM in the system, bass above 50Hz was unchanged, that is it remained completely captivating, harmonically powerful and absolutely tuneful. Rather, that was the case with the B-BAM in battery mode and disconnected from the wall. In AC mode, the B-BAM added the absolute tiniest mist of electronic glaze over the low and mid-bass, though this mist was only perceptible with A/B testing. In either mode, bass response below 50 and down to the low 30s was raised to the level of the mid and upper bass. Taut, tuneful and powerful, the mid lower-bass integrated perfectly and, and least for most types of music I listen to, almost completely mitigated the need for a subwoofer. If you primarily listen to large scale classical you and if you have a large room, you may find that the B-BAM does not extend the frequency response quite enough. As for me, the B-BAM expands the limits of the VSM-M to a point that I felt extremely comfortable with.
The second limit of most two-ways is ultimate sound pressure level and in this area I found that VSM-Ms needed no help from electronic devices as I could twist the volume knob until Robin, the neighbors and the police all objected. Though it is not recommended, at least for long listening sessions, I enjoyed several 100 dB plus Led Zeppelin blowouts without hearing any compression at all. Even better, at high SPLs imaging remained stable. Frequency response was also largely stable with only a very slight added emphasis at both extremes. Again, for me, the limits of VSM-M in this area were well within my own. Actually, I'm stating that incorrectly as the VSM-M is quite exemplary in this regard as it has one of the most strain free, high SPL demeanors I have ever encountered.
As for the rest of the sound, starting up top, the soft-dome Dynaudio Esotar tweeter Palkovic uses in the VSM-M is, arguably, the finest in the world, and Merlin implementation of this driver, at least for me, removes all argument. First, the purity of texture gives even the smallest detail room to breath, and yet because of its balance, it does not have the harsh edge of other, high-resolution tweeters. Sure poor equipment and poor records sound poor, but they sound like poor gear and recordings and not like high-speed drills or a two-year-old unfairly deprived of his cookies (Miles is now two, so I know exactly what that sounds like).
Anyway, the high frequencies of the VSM-M are extended and amazingly clear. So clear, that in comparison with most other tweeters it is as if these operate with a far lower noise floor. I found that the treble left the subtle cues that allowed me to hear deep into the stage and follow the decay of instruments into the darkest midnight. Extended, delicate at low volume, penetrating at high SPLs but not sharp, detailed, brilliant and yet utterly non-fatiguing, this is what treble sounds like in real life.
Of course the measure of any speaker is the midrange, and here the VSM-M does not disappoint. I have used the word "clear" and many of its synonyms throughout this review, and, indeed, the midrange has that same clarity. But there is more here as well. Clarity allows for a distinct view of detail, and that is certainly a significant goal of the fundamentalist audiophile, and even of devout music-lover. In chasing this we swap cables that have barely measurable differences and compare DACs where the difference may be 120dB below maximum output. Now, I am not saying those things do not matter, they do and I hear the differences easily. But there is more to musical resolution than mere clarity. To get at the soul of music you must do more than clear away noise - you must also recreate the full detail, harmonic structure and dynamic interplay of instruments and this is precisely the unique thing the VSM-M brings to bear on the issue. Whether human voice, guitar, piano, saxophone or orchestra, the VSM-M took me a large step closer to the illusion than any other loudspeaker I have had in my room. More than mere clarity, the VSM-M has true high resolution.
To complete this product rundown, the imaging of the VSM-M was also first rate. The stage extended far outside the loudspeakers, and was deep and square as well. And, on well-done recordings, the stage also reached into the room with authority. Finally, the dynamics of the VSM-M are such that it is one of just a couple of cone loudspeakers that can both whisper and woof with equally convincing skill.
In the end, though, the VSM-M is not about the quality of these individual sonic threads, as fine as they are. Rather the VSM-M accomplishes an even harder task as it turns your attention from the details to the larger musical tapestry. It recreates an event in your room, or at least it did in mine. It was easy to turn my ear to a particular line, player or sonic spectrum and hear deeply in the detail - but it was hard to maintain that earpoint, as the loudspeakers kept forcing me to take in the gestalt of the experience.
Perhaps the best compare and contrast I can do is with the Soliloquy 6.5 loudspeaker. It is 10 inches taller, 5 inches deeper and 45 pounds heavier. A quasi three-way, it uses five drivers and reaches down to the low 20s. And, at right around $7,000, they are a natural price competitor for the VSM-M.
These two loudspeakers share several design criteria. Both are moderately efficient and both offer flat impedance, though the VSM-M seems to be a bit easier for tube amplifiers to drive. But after those details, these two loudspeakers diverge wildly.
The bass performance of the 6.5 is of subwoofer caliber. It is deep and powerful, and just like a subwoofer, needs very careful placement to avoid muddiness and to keep it from overwhelming the room. The top end is extended and clear but not as detailed as the Merlin. It is also dynamically powerful. These are mostly excellent traits, and in total, the 6.5 is an excellent loudspeaker. However, the VSM-M is considerably more detailed and resolving. From 35Hz out past dog-hearing range, the VSM-M is far more coherent and musical. And, while the 6.5 has subwoofer bass, maximizing bass response inevitably compromised response and imaging elsewhere. In a very large room this may not be an issue, though in most rooms the Merlin VSM-M is simply a better loudspeaker.
The Merlin VSM-M is used in recording studios as both a nearfield and a mixing monitor. It is used by reviewers to examine systems and their interactions. More importantly, it is also enjoyed by music lovers to relax, to engage the soul, and to learn. Sure, there are better loudspeakers out there. But they're not dynamic two-ways. And regardless of driver configuration they are not cheaper than the Merlin VSM-M. This does not mean the VSM-M is the "perfect" loudspeaker. Like all audio gear, it has limits. If you need to complete the bottom octave, the VSM-M is not for you. If you have a very large room and listen at above average levels, in all likelihood they will not work for you. And if you use an amplifier that puts out less than three watts, they might not work for you, though this is not set in stone as most any amplifier can drive the VSM-M, so room size and desired SPL is the limit here, not the loudspeaker per se. That is about the extent of the limits of the VSM-M.
In parting, Mr. Einstein and I share one more thing -- or rather Albert and the VSM-M share something. Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted". The Merlin VSM-M has many things that can be counted and that count. It has a very flat frequency response over its range. It is moderately efficient and quite easy to drive. And it plays the audiogeek games of imaging, staging and inner resolution with consummate skill. But its most significant aspect simply cannot be counted. It is musical soul. And the completeness of that soul takes it from an excellent loudspeaker into the realm of the truly special.
Type: Two-Way Floorstanding Loudspeaker Plus Optional BAM system
Frequency Response: 33Hz to 22 kHz (+/- 2dB, 1 meter on axis). 4dB down at 30Hz with BAM in circuit
Tweeter: 1 inch soft dome Dynaudio Esotar D330/A
Woofer: 6.5 inch paper carbon-fiber cone with csst aluminum basket and low diffraction rubber surround
Crossover: 12dB per octave with crossover point at 2200 Hz. Proprietary inductors, aluminum foil and polypropylene capacitors by Hovland. Caddock Micronox Film resistors and Cardas Cross wire.
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal (6.5 ohms minimum)
Power Handling: 200 watts
Bass Augmentation Module (BAM):
Loudspeaker Dimensions: 8.7 x 10.5 x 42.8 (WxDxH in inches)
BAM Dimensions: 6.75 x 8.75 x 2.25 9WxDxH in inches)
Warranty: 10 years parts and labor
VSM-M with B-BAM in Studio Black $7,475
Merlin Music Systems Inc.