Merlin Music Systems VSM Millennium loudspeaker system Merlin VSM-MX, January 2007
When I favorably reviewed the Merlin Music Systems VSM Millennium loudspeaker in September 2001 (Vol.24 No.9), I noted that Merlin's Bobby Palkovic had been tweaking and upgrading the two-way floorstander since 1994. Back then, seven years seemed a long time to stick with a product, given the competitive speaker market, though there are precedents: for example, Wilson Audio Specialties' WATT/Puppy series (since 1986) and Vandersteen's 2 (since, I believe, 1977).
Now five more years have passed, and while many other speaker designers have moved on with brand-new products, Palkovic is still poring over and tweaking his 1994 design. It was time to give another listen to the VSM, which was rated "Class A" in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" and has increased in price by more than 25%, from $8150 to $10,500/pair.
The latest Merlin VSM, the MX, looks identical to the earlier version I reviewed, and both the outstanding 1" Dynaudio Esotar D330A tweeter and Merlin's custom version of the 6½" ScanSpeak 854506 woofer (another version of which is used in the Wilson WATT), have been retained. But inside and out, much else has been modified or upgraded. Palkovic says his goals were to improve the VSM's top-to-bottom "continuousness," shift the spectral balance "a hair lower," improve pitch definition in the bass, improve micro- and macrodynamic response, and just plain make the speaker sound "more right."
Starting at the bottom and working up: The speaker's floor coupling and stability have been improved by changing the placement and arrangement of the threaded inserts for the feet, as well as their number: two in the front and three in the rear. This offers the option of two and one feet or two and two, depending on which sounds better in a given location.
Palkovic told me that, since I wrote my review in 2001, he has stopped making the cabinets of MDF and now uses "pan fiber," a heavier, more inert material whose higher proportion of wood pulp to binder means it rings less. (When I went back to my original review, I found that the change had already been made by then.) The adhesive was also changed to a new polyurethane glue that never completely hardens but is ten times stronger than the conventional wood glues used previously.
A small resonance below the port on the VSM's front baffle is said to have been greatly attenuated by extending the double-thickness front baffle below the port to the intersection between the cabinet and the base's sand chamber. A radius was milled on the inside edge of the port and its length recalculated, which was said to help minimize port turbulence and the "chuffing" that was interfering with the purity of the midrange response—and which flapped John Atkinson's pants legs from 10' away.
New proprietary inductors jointly developed by Merlin and Hovland over a three-year period are claimed to have very low equivalent series resistance (ESR), high power handling, and extremely linear operation. The result, says Palkovic, is lower distortion and cleaner, more organic sound. And he spent "years," Palkovic says, searching for just the right balance of cabinet primer/sealer and the top coat of automotive paint that would offer more rigidity but less energy storage. The cryogenic treatment of crossover networks, and critical improvements in electrical and mechanical damping, are claimed to further reduce the VSM's already low level of high-frequency "grain and grunge."
The speaker's Super BAM bass-enhancement module, which provides a boost of about 5dB at 35Hz, has also been totally redesigned, in part to make it EU-compliant. First the "wall wart" and matching overseas transformer were jettisoned, and replaced with a 500kHz switch-mode power supply that allows the BAM to work anywhere in the world at 50 or 60Hz, and from 100 to 240V. A 200kHz filter is said to remove the negative effects of the switching circuitry. The BAM's charging capacitors were replaced with Nichicon Muse series caps, and the voltage regulators were changed to enable the power supply to draw 20% more current from the battery pack. The new battery pack allows the BAM's running time to remain the same despite the greater current draw.
Setup and Listening: Palkovic and his assistant, Rich Brkich, set up the VSM-MXs where the VSMs had been located last time: well out into the room and much closer together than I'm used to, each speaker toed-in toward the listening position by 10 because the Esotar tweeter is best heard from that angle.
My review of McIntosh Laboratory's C1000 preamplifier (Stereophile, August 2006) was underway at the time, so Palkovic and Brkich inserted a balanced Super BAM into the preamp's processor loop (a tape loop will do). A supplied RC filter (Zobel network) with a corner frequency of 1.6MHz is intended to be placed across the tweeter terminals (the VSM-MX is biwirable). Thus is said to cut RFI- and EMI-induced distortion while providing the power amplifier with a stable 10 ohm load. However, if you're using a solid-state amp terminated with a Zobel network (ask the manufacturer), you're best off not using it, as the two networks in series will create a resonance-inducing "tank circuit."
Have the upgrades improved the sound? So much has changed in my system in the five years since 2001 that making definitive statements about peripheral upgrades made to a speaker whose cabinet and drivers have not changed is better left to pontificating audio gurus needing to assert their hearing acumen. That said, I think I heard an even better VSM than before, though the differences were subtle. That makes sense—the speaker was so well-voiced before.
The Dynaudio Esotar D330A, which is also used in the Rockport Antares, is one of my favorite tweeters. As implemented in the Merlin, it offered airy, ultradetailed, grain-free high frequencies and electrostatic-like resolution. Like the VSM Millennium, the VSM-MX's low-level resolution and microdynamic presentation were positively mesmerizing, resulting in "cascading reverberant trail-offs extend[ing] into seemingly impossible depths of time and space, exposing new layers of ultra-low detail from even the most familiar recordings," as I wrote in the original review.
Despite its awesome resolution of detail, the VSM-MX never sounded mechanical or fatiguing. For a two-way, its overall performance was impressively seamless, its midrange remarkably uncolored. It avoided a pronounced midbass bump while providing reasonably good, satisfying bass extension.
Having the speakers positioned so close together took some getting used to, but thanks to the Esotar tweeter's dispersion and the VSM-MX's ability to sonically "disappear," when the lights were out it was easy to think the speakers were much farther apart than they were.
The biggest improvement I think I heard was at the bottom end, though even with the BAM, the VSM is not a room-shaker. Although a pair of these speakers can fill a large room, bombastic performance, whether in terms of bass response or high SPLs, has never been what's attracted a crowd to them. Rather, it's the combination of nimbleness, rhythmic dexterity, and almost hypnotic microdynamic resolution that casts the VSM's spell.
The seeming improvement in weight, if not extension, at the bottom gave the VSM a greater sense of authority. But even if nothing had changed, it's no wonder this speaker has been universally well reviewed and always seems to be voted among the "best sounding" at audio consumer and trade shows. At such events the VSMs are almost always driven by tube electronics; I found the VSM-MX sounded best powered by the tubed Music Reference RM-200.
Conclusion: The increase in price to $10,500 from $8150 five years ago makes this two-way, two-driver design a bit of a harder sell (though the VSM-MM version, finished in what Merlin calls Studio Black, costs only $8200 with a single-ended Super BAM and $9400 with a balanced Super BAM). Merlin's VSM-MX/MM faces some serious competition—for instance, from the Vandersteen Quatro with powered woofer ($7000/pair, or $10,000/pair in wood finish). However, the VSM-MX continues to be a very special loudspeaker that's easy to drive and offers an exquisitely balanced sonic experience. The VSM-MX has limitations compared with larger, more powerful speakers, but the almost fanatical intensity and dedication with which it has been refined and tweaked over the years is what high-performance audio is all about.—Michael Fremer