Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 turntable

Record players and the average consumer enjoy an on-again/off-again relationship—happily, at this moment in time, it is very much on—but to high-end audio enthusiasts, the turntable has endured as an object of near-talismanic importance. I think that's not only because the turntable continues to give us so much pleasure, but also because it seems so understandable—at its simplest, it's just a motor and a rotatable platter, attached to a board that also has some provisions for fastening a tonearm. End of story. Who among us has not, at one time or another, considered the lot of the turntable designer and thought, I could do that?

Trouble is, such presumptions are usually ill-founded. Like the trout, the subtlest nuances of the modulated record groove are often coaxed out of hiding in ways that seem to make little sense—all the while, any number of engineering solutions for doing so have fallen flat: turntables that actively compensate for out-of-round records, tonearms that actively compensate for unflat records, even a very curious record player that lacked a platter. Forget that there may once have seemed technically sound reasons that those products would survive. They did not.

Yet survival seems to be a specialty of Memphis native George Merrill, whose phono career began in the 1970s, when he owned a hi-fi shop that sold the Acoustic Research XA turntable—which, when introduced in 1966, sold for the paltry sum of $78, tonearm included. Like other things that are made to a price, the AR XA responded well to third-party improvements, many of which Merrill devised himself, and eventually sold to enthusiasts the world over.

After a while, Merrill set about creating original turntable designs—sometimes on his own, sometimes with a collaborating designer. When reviews appeared, they were positive, but large-scale success remained elusive. Now, in light of the word of mouth surrounding the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 turntable ($7995)—a very credible buzz from music lovers whose opinions I tend to share—that may be about to change.


Think back to that original AR XA, regarded by many as the first suspended-subchassis turntable: Its tonearm and platter bearing were both fastened to the same rigid structure, itself suspended by springs from the turntable's base and drive motor. This had the effect of isolating the record and cartridge from mechanical disturbances, to the point that the user could bang on the base without making the record skip—something noted in AR's ads and public demonstrations of the day. But resistance to hammer blows, a phenomenon seldom encountered in normal playback (footnote 1), was not the design's raison d'àtre. The point was to ensure that whatever disturbances befell the platter—a considerable list, including motor noise, sound from the speakers, structural vibrations, footfalls, wind, and spurious excess energy given off by the process of transduction itself—would also befall the tonearm, so that there would be no relative movement between the two: The hand that shakes the one shakes the other. This was the principle that would guide such turntables as the Ariston RD-11 and its more famous progeny, the Linn LP12—and, in time, turntables from Thorens, Pink Triangle, Voyd, C.J. Walker, and others.

And yet: because the platter bearing throws off more unwanted energy than the tonearm bearings, and because tonearms can store and release excess energy in unpredictable ways, and because LPs themselves resonate during play, and for a hundred other reasons, the idea of isolating every element of a record player from all the others also has great merit. The question then becomes: How can all of those elements—platter bearing, platter, tonearm, motor, structural supports, etc.—be connected to and isolated from each other?

The solution devised by George Merrill and his partner in this project, the engineer Robert Williams, is a design that effectively splits the difference between the solid-plinth and suspended-subchassis approaches. The main structural component of the R.E.A.L. 101.3 turntable—for simplicity's sake, I'll call it a plinth—is a three-layer laminate: a 0.9375"-thick substrate of hard rubber sandwiched between 0.25"-thick top and bottom layers of phenolic. (R.E.A.L. stands for Rubber Elastomer Acoustic Laminate, footnote 2.) Apart from openings for the motor, platter bearing, and tonearm, and a roughly H-shaped channel containing a series of aluminum reinforcing struts, the substrate is a single continuous slab of rubber 17.25" wide by 13.75" deep, its left-rear corner trimmed to form a curve with a radius of about 6". Each layer of phenolic, however, is in multiple sections, separated by gaps that ensure that the phenolic doesn't make contact with the turntable's various subassemblies: the tonearm board, platter bearing, supporting feet, and motor assembly are fastened only to the rubber substrate. Thus, those elements—and, ultimately and most important, the platter and tonearm—move with each other and behave similarly in response to outside disturbances; yet, thanks to the natural damping abilities of the substrate's rubber, vibrational contamination among them is minimized.

Most of those subassemblies are themselves made with vibration damping or isolation in mind. Within the three machined-alloy isolation feet—height-adjustable pillars whose bases are 2.75" in diameter—are rubber-polymer hemispheres reminiscent of the tennis balls used in the isolation products made by Gingko Audio. The relatively large (2" in diameter) platter-bearing well is machined from lubricant-impregnated nylon—during setup, 2.5ml of synthetic oil is added to the well, to enhance damping as much as to ensure freedom from friction. The AC motor is damped with an even thicker oil, to be injected, also during setup, into an opening atop the motor housing. This housing is isolated from the plinth by means of channels cut into the plinth's laminations.


The 1.95"-thick platter is machined from polyoxymethylene, chosen for its high density relative to other machinable polymers, and fitted with a stainless-steel bearing shaft 0.75" in diameter, with a captured steel thrust ball at its bottom. Machined into the underside of the platter's outer edge are two rows of strobe markings, one each for 331/3 and 45rpm—reflected in a mirror built into the plinth. That mirror is illuminated by an LED driven by a Sutherland Engineering Timeline laser-strobe circuit inside the motor's outboard power supply, which is roughly the size of a 2-lb box of Domino sugar and sits under the left side of the plinth. The motor, an AC synchronous type, is controlled by a wall-wart–powered circuit that generates separate sinewaves for the two speeds, with separate on/off switches and control knobs for fine-tuning. (The LED has its own on/off switch—a nice touch.) The flat, elastomer drive belt loops around a hub machined into the platter's underside.

Affixed to the top of the platter is a record mat made of a compound of cork and rubber. The R.E.A.L. 101.3 is supplied with two record clamps: a 3"-diameter spindle clamp, machined from brass, finished in black, and damped with rubber O-rings; and a bronze rim clamp with an outer diameter of 13.25" and a single elastomer damping ring.

The makers of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 point with not-unreasonable pride to the fact that theirs is the first US-made turntable since 1958 to be issued a US patent. That patent, No.US 8,406,112 B2, was filed in 2011, in reference to an earlier version of the R.E.A.L. 101. Changes since that time, not reflected in the patent, include the use of polyoxymethylene instead of Bakelite as the platter material, the alloy housings used to conceal the hemispheric rubber feet, and other small details.

Installation and setup
Dan Meinwald of EAR USA, US distributor of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3, visited my home in April to set up the review sample. He did most of the turntable work while I watched—and I don't mean to diminish his skills by saying that none of it seemed at all difficult. The only challenge was getting the drive belt onto the motor's drive pulley, which is concealed beneath the platter: Oh, how we swore. The Merrill-Williams turntable is supplied with a stiff-wire hook meant to aid in this task—as I recall, a similar tool was supplied with the similarly challenging Voyd turntable—plus a wooden block for keeping the platter elevated while doing so. I lost track, but I think we finally achieved success on our 10th or 11th try (footnote 3). Outside of that, it was easy peasy.


Fig.1 Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3, speed stability data.

Fig.2 Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3, speed stability (raw frequency yellow; low-pass filtered frequency green).

Footnote 1: This, of course, did not stop AR from doing just that in their public demos; apparently, unquestioning audiophiles were impressed.

Footnote 2: In some portions of the manufacturer's website, this is expressed as Elastomeric.

Footnote 3: At the end of my listening, I began to dismantle the turntable—then remembered that I hadn't yet measured its wow and flutter with the iOS-based Dr. Feickert Analogue PlatterSpeed software (see figs1 & 2). As I reinstalled platter and belt, I realized that there are two tricks to it: 1) Just before installation, keep the belt low on the platter's drive hub; then, 2) spin the platter very slowly to settle the belt before switching on the motor. I got it on the third try.

Merrill-Williams Audio LLC
820 Herbert Road, Suite 109
Cordova, TN 38019
(901) 751-3337

Anton's picture

This caught my eye: I found that records were difficult to lift off of the platter, partly because the spindle seems very slightly larger than usual in diameter, and partly because my fingers found it difficult to get a purchase on the edge of the disc—this would be greatly eased by the platter's being a little smaller or a little larger in diameter."

Thanks for mentioning something like that, I fear it would disgruntle me over time.

dalethorn's picture

I'd almost be disappointed if there weren't a few quirks with this device, given the reasonable price for all that you get. Lots of folk will be interested in this, and when their dealers have the workarounds for those quirks in the bag, fait accompli...

Anton's picture

That platter spindle thing is my own idiosyncratic pet peeve. You are more right than I was.

I've always admired Merrill's work!

(Side note, my over under is 5 1/2, will explain later.)

Ortofan's picture

... (not to mention the additional cost for a tonearm) I'd instead be looking at the Luxman PD-171A - only $7K, including the tonearm.

In his review, AD called the Luxman 'table "an unassailably beautiful product that has joined the small, select group of record players I could live with quite happily."