Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 turntable Page 2

The 'table's two-piece tonearm board, made from acrylic and Delrin, attaches to the plinth's rubber substrate from below with three bolts whose machined-alloy thumbscrews were easy to tighten by hand. An armboard suitable for tonearms of average effective length (ca 9") is included; boards for 12" arms are available for $300 each. In either case, a board for the arm of one's choice can be machined at the factory, and for this review I decided to rely exclusively on my longtime reference, the EMT 997. I sent a couple of spare EMT collets to George Merrill with a request for a board that would yield a spindle-to-pivot distance of 294.56mm. The one I received was about 1.5mm off, and its center hole needed a bit of touch-up with a grinder before it would accommodate the tonearm pillar. This wasn't terribly difficult, and the slight discrepancy in mounting distance didn't bother me—I mostly used my EMT TSD 15 pickup head, whose spherical stylus isn't too fussy.

I ran a line from my EMT arm's ground lead to the ground lug on my preamp, per my usual practice, and all was well: I heard nothing in the way of hum or extraneous noise. My only concern was that the top surface of the armboard was 1.5" below the top of the platter, which meant that I had to raise the EMT's arm pillar much higher than usual to get the armtube parallel to the record during play. The arm wasn't so high that its pillar was beyond above the grub screws that secure it within its mounting collet, but it was getting there. Were I the sort of listener who likes having the rear of his tonearm elevated so that the cartridge's stylus rake angle (SRA) is drastically increased—and I am not—that wouldn't have been possible. Phonophiles who see/hear things differently, and people whose tonearms are not height adjustable, take heed.


I did most of my listening with the supplied center clamp, which secures the record with a snug but not too-snug friction fit. I tried the rim clamp but disliked using it—as with all such devices, I considered it a small hassle with a big potential for damaging records and/or styli, if used in haste. After a few tries, I gave it up. In any event, it seemed to make little audible difference.

My experiences of the last 10 or so years have taught me that high-torque, idler-wheel turntables are by far the best choices where the qualities of force and touch and momentum in LP playback are valued above all others. Listened to with that in mind, the belt-driven Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3, whose motor didn't seem to be all that strong, was something of a revelation: maybe there's more to drive than sheer grunt?

After Dan Meinwald finished assembling and setting up the R.E.A.L. 101.3, we had a brief listen to selections from the Ornette Coleman Trio's At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Volume One (Blue Note ST-84224) on my reference vintage Garrard 301 turntable with EMT 997 arm and TSD 15 pickup. Then, as briskly as possible, I transferred the arm and pickup from the Garrard to the Merrill-Williams, and we listened to the same tracks again. They sounded good—quite good—and surprisingly not as different from the Garrard as either of us had expected. (Meinwald owns a 301.) We left the motor running and went out for sandwiches.

On our return an hour later, we replayed the same LP, and were mildly startled by the change for the better. (I blurted out something to the effect of, "Yeah, there it is!") Charles Moffett's drumming throughout the album, especially in "Faces and Places," was breathtakingly impactful—the snare-drum stroke that begins the song, and those that soon follow, were especially convincing. In this regard, the Merrill-Williams 'table, if not quite as hard-charging as the Garrard 301, sounded like a member of the same pack. Not only that, but the sound of Coleman's alto saxophone was clear and uncolored, yet nonetheless colorful, with the same stunning sense of space I heard around Moffett's drums.

For the rest of the day and throughout the evening, as we listened to record after record, I was consistently impressed. After discovering that Dan Meinwald shares my fondness for Procol Harum, we played my original UK pressing of A Salty Dog (Regal Zonophone SLRZ 1009) and marveled at the force created by the combination of Gary Brooker's blocky piano chords and Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher's electric guitars in "The Devil Came from Kansas." The sound from the Merrill-Williams–based player was exciting yet poised, and the dense lyrics ("don't beg for silver paper," indeed) were as intelligible as I've ever heard them from this Abbey Road recording. Similarly, Trower's thickly sustained guitar fills and B.J. Wilson's remarkable drumming punctuated "The Milk of Human Kindness" every bit as effectively as when I play that record on my Garrard.


There came a time that evening when I went into the next room and left Meinwald to his own devices—and was coaxed right back in by the sound of "Mood Indigo," from the recent reissue on vinyl of Duke Ellington's Masterpieces by Ellington (Columbia Masterworks ML 4418/Analogue Productions AAPJ 4418, 331/3 edition). Although Meinwald was playing it with a stereo pickup—which led me to wonder how much better this mono LP would have sounded with a true mono pickup in place—the sound was lush and appropriately crisp in equal measure. And my return to the listening room made me all the more impressed by the decent sense of scale the music had through the Merrill-Williams.

Meinwald returned home to Los Angeles, and because I had to play catch-up with various work chores, my playback system, including the Merrill-Williams, went untouched for almost two days. When I resumed listening, beginning with the 2009 Neil Young Archives reissue of After the Gold Rush (Reprise 517936-1), the first song, "Tell Me Why," sounded less than great: In the choruses, sibilants and plosives from the backing voices were too crisp, and the lead voice and two acoustic guitars had a hollow, midrange-focused ring. I was not digging this.

As when Dan Meinwald was here, I was listening with the center clamp in place, but without the rim clamp. I decided to stop the platter and add the rim clamp—what the hell, right? That made the edge edgier and the hollowness hollower.

Hearing such a fail from a record-damping appliance made me want to get rid of both clamps, so I did. Then "Tell Me Why" sounded a bit better: some of the edge and maybe half the hollowness were gone. Not only that, but the images of instruments and voices were bigger, and I was actually getting a better sense of the force with which one of the guitarists—Young, probably—was thumping the heel of his hand against the top of his guitar as he strummed. I stopped for the night.

But the next morning, before doing anything else—even before walking the dog or making coffee—I switched on the Merrill-Williams's motor and let the platter bearing cook. Four hours later I played After the Gold Rush yet again, again without the clamps. It sounded astonishingly good. I listened to side 1 all the way through, then flipped the record to play the first track on side 2—Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me," a bit of Nashville Sound fluff that Young transforms into a strangely moving, gravitas-laden, 3:49-long masterpiece—and became even more convinced of the brilliance of the Merrill-Williams 'table. The arpeggiated electric-guitar chord that opens the song was a tactile delight—I could feel the plectrum being pushed through those strings—and Ralph Molina's simple but not at all wimpy drums had great kick and equally great tone. Wow, wow, and Wow.


Perhaps a week after that, during which time I occasionally left its platter spinning overnight, the Merrill-Williams ceased to need a warm-up period before sounding its best. I suspect that the platter bearing was what needed running-in, though there's no way to prove that—like so many things in high-end phonography, for designers and consumers alike, it's a matter of conjecture. No one really knows what's going on in that groove.

During the rest of its time in my system, the R.E.A.L. 101.3 never sounded less than colorful, impactful, present, and at least reasonably big. When playing a song from Donovan's Fairy Tale (mono, Hickory LPM 1276) at a modest volume level appropriate to late-night listening, the Merrill-Williams–based player was nonetheless full-voiced. With a recording of improvised music such as "Fish Scale," from The David Grisman Quintet (Kaleidoscope F-5), the turntable correctly understood that Job No.1 was to put across the daring and sheer exhilarating speed of those young musicians, and it succeeded handily. And with a record such as the Electric Recording Company's recent reissue of Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic's recording of Bruckner's Symphony 8 (EMI/ERC ASD 602/603), the Merrill-Williams didn't fail to remind me that the lush, spacious sound and mysteriously passionate music unfolding in front of me comprised an event that I was damn lucky to share in: As at the very best concerts, there were moments when I felt I was the only human on Earth hearing the record in quite that way.

What more could I want?

Flaws? The name of the R.E.A.L. 101.3 is a bit lame—a distinction that, in the long run, matters only inasmuch as such a thing might prevent someone from taking seriously so good a product. More to the point: 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. Also, the build quality of the power-supply housing was slightly less than I'd want from a $7995 product. Speaking of the price: If I were in the market for a new turntable, I'd prefer not having to pay for a rim clamp I have no intention of using.

None of those misgivings detracts overmuch from what I see and hear as this turntable's most appealing feature: It excels at aspects of playback once considered the sole province of players made by people long retired or dearly departed, and it does so while being of reasonable size. (Okay, make that its two most appealing features.) As someone who is often asked to recommend new turntables yet often finds that few come to mind, the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 is a pleasant surprise and an easy recommendation.

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."