Merlin Excalibur II loudspeaker Page 3
The Excalibur's faults were those of omission. Music always sounded clean and clear, but was a bit slow, slightly rounded, and somewhat less revealing than I prefer. Everything that was there sounded fine, but not everything that should have been there was there. An interesting example is the sound of people walking on gravel in the beginning sections of the Vollenweider recording. With the Merlins, these sharp, crushing sounds were softer and less attention-grabbing.
The biggest problem for the Excaliburs was the bass. The deepest bass was attenuated, which was obvious throughout the Delos organ recording mentioned earlier. This deep-bass shortcoming was inconsistent with the Excaliburs' big-speaker performance in other areas. While there is admittedly little information in the deep bass, it is often this very region that is of greatest interest to audiophiles in search of large loudspeaker systems. The Excaliburs will not satisfy anyone who is adamant about performance in the bottom octave.
While the deep-bass attenuation was intentional on Merlin's part, it was the Excalibur's midbass that frustrated me the most. It was mildly ragged, uneven, and lacked articulation. Certain notes were pumped up to an unrealistically high level, jumping out of their musical contexts. In addition, the lack of bass clarity detracted from pitch understanding and rhythmic integrity. Sustained notes through the midbass were particularly odd-sounding (eg, the bass line in Suzanne Vega's "Bad Wisdom," 99.9°F, A&M CDB 0005). The uneven levels and lack of definition sounded more like a combination of standing waves or resonances than elements of the music. However, the fault here may have been caused by interactions between the speaker and my room. Perhaps TJN and/or JA will shed some light on this issue after listening to the speakers in different rooms.
I did much of my early listening with one or two Jadis Defy-7 amplifiers. While Martin Colloms did not take the Defy-7s to task in the midbass area (Vol.16 No.4, p.196), they certainly do not exhibit state-of-the-art midbass performance. In an attempt to eliminate the possibility of the Merlins' midbass problem being introduced by the Defy-7s, I inserted a solid-state Octave Research OR-1 into the system. (JGH praised this amp's bass performance in Vol.11 No.1, p.106.) As I'd hoped, midbass clarity improved with the OR-1, though the frequency performance remained somewhat uneven. But the improved midbass wasn't enough to offset the loss of Jadis-level performance in other areas.
Since the OR-1 was an older design, I thought it might be better to use a solid-state amp that offered state-of-the-art performance in the bass but was also a better performer across the board. Dan D'Agostino came to my aid by loaning me a Krell KSA-100S, one of the very latest generation of Krell "Sustained-Plateau Biasing" amplifiers. This amp gave me the option of single-ended or balanced operation, plus dual outputs for bi-wiring. I was able to use it in various ways with the speakers to get to the bottom of the bass issue.
The Krell significantly improved the Merlin's bass performance in terms of clarity, but it was still mildly uneven in level. There were pluses and minuses with each amplifier, but the Krell proved to be a better match for the Merlins than the Jadis. I was still unhappy with the uneven midbass performance, though, and substituted a Pioneer PD-S95 transport for my Theta Data. Given the S95's lighter tonal character, the midbass unevenness was further smoothed (or at least somewhat obscured). Next to go were the NBS Signature interconnects, then the Cardas Golden 5-C cables, in favor of the Magnan Type Vi. These changes again lowered the relative level of the midbass, which diminished, but did not entirely eliminate, the uneven performance.
If I had had a solid-state preamp or a cartridge with a lighter balance on hand, they would have been the next changes. In a review published in Germany's HiFi Exklusiv, the reviewer felt the Excalibur's midbass was a little loose, but reported that he improved it significantly by using a complete set of German Acoustics steel cones. Merlin now supplies these cones with each pair of Excaliburs (presumably having recognized the midbass difficulties discussed above). K.W. Cheung's review in Hong Kong's Audio Technique also addressed what he called a slightly rounded bass. He partially disassembled the speakers and removed the foam inserts from the woofer compartment ports. I opted to bypass this alternative, but hope its possible merits are addressed in "Manufacturers' Comments."
Sum of the parts
The Excalibur II is the most refined and best-sounding product yet released by Merlin. It demonstrated superiority in virtually every regard over the Signature Four from which it evolved. Given its size and price, nothing less would have been acceptable. A big speaker designed for a big listening room, it is unlikely to perform optimally in an undersized room. In addition, it has been purposely designed for use in a live environment.
Despite the Excalibur's shortcomings, I traveled down an entirely pleasurable path with the review pair. No matter how the speakers performed under the scrutiny of a review, they were always easy to listen to, erring on the side of the musical. With the exception of the nagging midbass difficulties, the Merlins' faults were subtractive. They didn't reveal every nuance, but everything they did reveal was clean and clear.
The speaker's deepest bass has been intentionally attenuated and the highest trebles are also slightly attenuated. The area of greatest concern was the uneven midbass. With careful selection of ancillary equipment, especially the amp and speaker cables, I was able to tame these shortcomings but never entirely eliminate them.
The Excaliburs didn't explode into action with every transient. In fact, they tended to sound slow, round, and soft. They didn't re-create the full harmonic structures of the music, but what they did produce was warm, mellow, and smooth. The bottom line was a big, bold, powerful, smooth, clear, effortless, open, mellow sound that consistently involved me in the music. My listening notes were peppered with emotional words like "sorrowful," "uplifting," "exciting," and "beautiful." If that sounds appealing, you too might find the Excalibur to be a very special speaker. They aren't going to do the job if you want to clearly hear the drummer drop a stick or someone in the audience cough. But if you just want to get lost in the music, the Excaliburs may be just what you've been looking for.