Merlin Music Systems VSM Millennium loudspeaker system Page 3

The VSM excelled at expressing music's tactile and textural qualities. It got right to the sensual heart of fingered or picked guitar strings, of bongos and congas, drum brushwork, and bowed instruments. It communicated the metallic yet round and warm sound of brass instruments to perfection.

Well-recorded voices, such as Netania Davrath's on Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne (Vanguard VSD 2090/Analogue Productions APC002), were rendered with an eerie naturalness free of boxy hangover—or, on the other side, thinness and sibilance.

The speaker's combination of delicacy, speed, and apparent midrange accuracy (one always adds the "apparent" just in case the measurements aren't supportive) was responsible for this palpable performance, which has always been a highlight of Merlin's CES demos. Compared to the mechanical nature of many CES presentations, Merlin's rooms have always been an oasis of musical sensuality.

Small two-way boxes usually feature a midbass bump to make up for a lack of low bass, and can sometimes sound thin in the lower midrange. Not the VSM, which sounded full and complete. I didn't detect a midbass bump, whether by ear or by my (primitive) measurements. Despite the BAM, the bass was still rolled off in my room below 100Hz, though there was audible response down about -6dB at 31.5Hz. Yet the VSM never sounded bass-shy, as long as I didn't ask it for the lowest organ stops. The bass it did deliver was tuneful, harmonically well-developed, and nimbly timed. Because it couldn't do that last half-octave, it couldn't capture large spaces as well as some more extended speakers—but you can always add a sub if you need that. I found the Audio Physic Rhea an effective choice for that purpose, though I did all of my serious listening without it.

In terms of overall frequency balance, I found the VSM to be just about ideal. I'll bet John Atkinson's measurements will show the very top end to be slightly rolled off at the recommended 10 degrees off-axis firing line, and perhaps flatter directly on-axis. Whatever the measurements reveal, the tweeter's performance with the speakers positioned as described created a surprisingly wide and open soundstage, despite the VSMs being positioned closer to me than I'm used to.

The speakers effectively "disappeared" to leave a wide vista of a soundstage, all across which were spread well-focused and believable images. Image height, width, and depth left nothing to be desired; with live recordings, the VSMs maintained focus and dimensionality to the back of the hall. Add their superb low-level detail and ability to retrieve ambience and you can understand why listening to live recordings like Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSO-6006) or my old standby, Mel Tormé and Friends at Marty's (Finesse W2X37484), were so rewarding, despite the lack of "hall rumble" spatial cues on the Belafonte.

When I switched from the ultradetailed Cardas Golden Cross biwired speaker cables to Harmonic Technology Magic using a Merlin-supplied jumper across the terminals, I lost a bit of detail but gained some bottom-end weight. That meant a lessening of my ability to hear the movements of Belafonte's mouth around the front of the microphone, but an increase in the sense of the hall. It was a tradeoff.

What about dynamics and SPL capabilities from a small two-way? The VSM conveyed plenty of macrodynamic punch, though it didn't pack a really big wallop. When I played Classic Records' 45rpm edition of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the VSMs didn't throw me back in my seat, but there was plenty of visceral punch to the orchestral crescendos, and the timpani sounded more than satisfactory. This was at reasonably high SPLs.

But whatever they lacked in the macro department—in a room of normal size, not all that much—the VSMs more than made up for in the micro area. While the Merlins couldn't compete with most larger, more powerful speakers in terms of large-scale dynamic expression, the overall sensation of dynamics was similar, simply because the speaker's low-level retrieval was so outstanding.

You want loud? The VSMs played louder than I might have thought a small two-way could, but that wasn't the way to listen to them. While they didn't sound particularly strained or compressed when pushed, turning them up too high upset the balance in favor of the treble, which ruined their nearly ideal frequency equilibrium.

Bass equalizers can sometimes offer improved extension at the expense of high-frequency transparency and purity. That was not the case with the BAM, which proved to be essentially transparent. Switching the unit out with the tape monitor switch when using the BAM in full battery mode decreased bass weight but didn't otherwise change the sound in any meaningful way. When run from AC, there was a slight brightening of the sound. The sound when using a combination of AC and battery was closer to pure transparency. In other words, there was no downside to using the BAM.

When he set out to design and build the VSM Millennium, Merlin Music Systems designer Bobby Palkovic told me, one of his goals was to build a "device that controls its destiny"—in other words, a well-damped speaker that would be able to successfully react to a wide variety of acoustic environments. While my room is probably somewhat overdamped compared to the average listening room, and the VSM is designed to be overdamped, the combination yielded outstanding performance. A more lively room might offer somewhat better bass, but I have no complaints about what I heard during the month the VSM Millenniums resided in my listening room. The VSM is a highly evolved speaker capable of successfully handling every kind of music. It combined the tactile thrills of the Amati Homage with the linearity and detail of the Avanti III. That's a winning combo in any music-lover's book.

This latest and, probably, last iteration of the VSM—Palkovic told me he's "closed the development book" as of last July—is a graceful-sounding speaker that should offer any audio or music enthusiast years of listening pleasure, regardless of musical or sonic tastes. It impressed me whether playing softly or scaling the SPL heights, though it did its best at medium volume levels, where its tonal and dynamic balances were most effective.

Some speakers can play louder without strain and/or go deeper, but in terms of overall balance, the VSM Millennium's strengths would be hard to beat at any price. $8150/pair is a lot to pay for a two-way speaker, but with the BAM included, the VSM delivers everything but the very deepest bass in a sleek, compact package. This is one music-lover's speaker you need to hear, however much you're prepared to spend. The brand name doesn't lie: The Merlins are...

You'll have to finish that sentence yourself. I can't bring myself to use the m word.

Merlin Music Systems
4705 South Main Street
Hemlock, NY 14466
(585) 367-2390