AT THE COURT OF MERLIN THE MAGICIAN
From a country with a traditional propensity for interpreting well-known patterns and concepts in new ways, here is a brand new loudspeaker with a US passport but a heart that beats to the rhythm of Old Europe.
by Egidio Mancianti
Dont try to remember where you have heard the name Merlin, because without doubt even if the brand isnt knew to you, they were other products. If, instead, it seems you never heard it before, youre already on the right track, because this is something new, not only for us old-continent folks who are used to novelties coming from the States, but for American audiophiles as well, who at the most may have seen it or heard it at the last edition of CES in Las Vegas where it was presented for the first time. This loudspeaker possesses some clearly original characteristics, the first of which is that it has disembarked in Italy accompanied by no image or success story made to order in its country of origin.
Bluenote, distributor for the loudspeaker in Italy (and in Europe) is so convinced of the special quality of this system that it has started off in fourth gear, heedless of the current situation - and it is certainly not encouraging, even, if not above all, for those brands and products awarded the "state of the art" certification by the different specialist magazines, whether American or not. Lets tackle the most difficult question first - or at least the most difficult from the conceptual standpoint. I must confess that while the people at Bluenote were telling me about how these Merlins were built, all that came to mind was the troublesome questions posed by the yogurt ad, "But with all the yogurt thats on the market, did we really need Yoplait?", which obviously refers to Krafts latest as regards milk enzymes at work in plastic cups. This is a query that accompanied me for the entire first phase of testing while I was evaluating the loudspeaker in terms of what are the design canons for some time now in force in the States. And at this point I realized that the Merlins, due to some strange astral coincidence, for all that they were designed in America by an American engineer, Mr. Palkovic, dont fit any canonical classification. Not so much as regards their form and aesthetics, which are almost classical in European aesthetic terms, as due to their sound prerogatives, which seem to me that this system inaugurates a new type of loudspeaker, a category which until now was a void but which has been an object of desire for a long time by many music-lovers: that of loudspeakers capable of uniting the tone-color and the balance of the minis with the impact and the efficiency of the larger systems without inheriting the worst of both worlds, as has been the case heretofore, but taking only the best. I dont expect you to take my word for it. Quite the contrary, this test is intended only as a notice to those who are looking for a solution to the problem just mentioned.
The Merlins Under the Fine Tooth Comb
I have already had occasion to say that these loudspeakers, although appearing conventional to exterior, superficial examination, reveal a number of rather interesting ideas when we try to better understand the logic underlying their construction. Which, although resting on very solid theoretical and conceptual bases, seems to me to be liberally conditioned by ideas and solutions that are more empirical that those normally found in more traditional approaches and which only long experience and an ongoing acquaintance with certain problem areas can succeed in coalescing into a practical solution.
For simplicitys sake, I will tackle the problem in two separate parts, even though it might be a good idea to give advance warning that I am doing this solely for practical purposes, since the heart of the matter is not two, but one only. The two themes to be dealt with relate to the cabinet on the one hand and to the filtering section on the other, with the speakers representing a sort of thread linking the two.
Lets start with the cabinet, a decidedly vertical construction that at first glance doesnt seem very original. A closer look reveals a large volume apparently set aside for the not-too-large woofer (at 17 cm), especially if we remember we are talking about a tuned system. And it is there that there emerges one of the most highly original prerogatives of this system, and above all, the philosophy that inspired the design. The volume reserved for the woofer is only 2/3 of the total, since the lowest part of the cabinet is filled with sand. In other words, its as though the speaker, the size of a small bookshelf type (20 liters in all), were set on a special kind of stand integrated with the cabinet itself and filled with about 9 kilos of sand. It is well-known that sand possesses excellent properties as regards absorption and decoupling in virtue of its absolutely inelastic structure. And in fact the mechanical energy associated with vibrations (if any) is absorbed and transformed into thermal layers by means of a series of small collisions during which a small quantity of energy is lost every time.
The idea of using sand isnt a new one. In the 50s and 60s the unforgettable G.A.Briggs created wooden panels filled with sand for the Wharfedale loudspeakers. But to tell the truth, more recently the idea of resolving the problem in this manner hadnt occurred to anyone, if we exclude a few (I know of only a couple) manufacturers of stands who have done something along these lines. It is obvious that sand alone cannot perform miracles. If the rest of the cabinet has not been designed with the precise aim of keeping vibration down.
Thus, the panels of which the cabinet is made are in MDF; the front one is a whole 4cm thick. The tall, skinny form makes it possible to obtain a structure which is decidedly rigid and therefore intrinsically less subject to vibrational modes. Even the inside of the cabinet is designed with this in mind, dividing the internal volume into four distinct spaces (woofer, tweeter, crossover filter and sand chambers) both isolates each sector from the point of view of the sound waves that are propagated inside the cabinet itself and also assures greater rigidity thanks to the many physical dividers it requires. Another quite original means of increasing the rigidity of the cabinet and better distributing any vibrational modes is that of creating a hybrid structure. The front and upper panels show three brass bars, and they are not there for aesthetic reasons. The bars are sunk in the MDF and thanks to their different resonance frequencies provide the cabinet with further defense against panel vibrations. Merlins technicians assure us that this treatment of panels has represented a considerable improvement in terms of sound, and aspect that is difficult to evaluate in quantitative terms during our tests - but it must be said that the idea has its conceptual merits. The picture is completed by the connectors for the insulating spikes on the bottom panel, with a thickness of 13 cm. The connectors for the spikes are 5 in number; the user can choose between using three or four. According to the designers, there exists a clearly identifiable difference in sound between the two configurations, but during our tests we always opted for the three-spike solution. In short, all these choices at the design level make it clear what Merlins engineers primary aim was. The rest is business as usual, starting with state-of-the-art tuning, as shown in the Figure 1 graph of the response of the woofer and the tuning cavity. Let me remind you that the relative levels between the two ranges are qualitative, but in any case it is worth noting that the system is tuned at a rather low frequency (37 Hz).
In general, a designer insists on a cabinet with no resonance of its own when he wants nothing to superimpose or influence the emission of the speakers, since he has evidently counted heavily on the performance of the latter.
And, as we have said, these speakers are superlative and since they are precisely that they dictate some precise choices. The system is a two-way and different from analogous systems that make use of a first order configuration. The Merlins use second order networks in the filter section. This latter choice is less popular and decidedly less in fashion that the first-order network because of the fact that its great slope introduces more marked phase rotations (theoretically, 180 degrees) in the area in which the two channels overlap, with consequent heavy interference between the adjacent channels which may lead even to total cancellation of the response in certain frequency intervals. The remedies to this situation can take one of three different directions: use simpler networks and so forgo the great attenuation among the different sections; introduce a further 180 degree phase rotation by connecting the mid with the phase that is inverted with respected to the woofer; or try to optimize crossover through careful choice of crossover points. It is clear that at Merlin they chose the latter route, which involves careful choice of components and also accurate selection of same in order to keep tolerances very low, but which makes it possible to have the two channels of the system working in phase. It is not by accident that the rotation of the phase in the module curve and the impedance phase (Fig. 2) are very limited in the crossover area (within 36 degrees). Figure 3 show the filter network circuitry. As is apparent from the diagram, the circuit is as classical as can be, with no compensation points in order to allow the speakers to work "naturally." Figures 4 and 5 show the electrical responses of the single networks and the corresponding acoustic responses; and these provide us some interesting information. Theres not much to be said as regards the baseband section of the woofer: the network is classical, with a typically Butterworth progression and with the -3dB peak at approximately 1,300 Hz. The same holds true for the tweeter section, except that a slightly more resonant network, as is shown by the slight "hump" between 3,000 Hz and 5,000 Hz, is used. This choice is probably dictated by the need to introduce a steeper attenuation slope immediately above the tweeter resonance frequency. The crossover between the two channels is at about 2,000 Hz (acoustic crossover at ca. 2,100 Hz) with general characteristics that faithfully follow those of the filter section. The network is installed in a separate chamber of the main volume of the cabinet and is directly accessible from the rear panel; the circuitry is boardless with excellent quality components. Wiring uses Cardas cables, while the inductors are hand-wound in OFC copper and then impregnated with a vibration damping resin. The capacitors, in polypropylene wound on an aluminum foil are built to Merlins specifications by Hovland. Finally, the four Edison Price connectors (this is a bi-wiring system) are solid copper).
The first thing that struck about these Merlins was the choice of drivers. A manufacturer who builds a system equipped with the Scan-Speak 8545 and Dynaudios Esotar is presenting a very fancy calling card. For those who are less well versed in the more exquisitely technical problems, let me remind you that these two drivers, besides costing a lot of money (a pair of Esotars costs about a million lire), are true thoroughbreds featuring use possibilities that shouldnt be taken for granted. It is not easy to tame the DynAudio tweeter and as far as I remember there are only three companies in the world who use it in their loudspeakers; one of those is our Sonus Faber. Why are these drivers so special and why is it worthwhile to spend a little time talking about them? To say they are drivers that admit of no compromise seems a bit too synthetic. They represent the best that it is possible to obtain today in the field of transducers, aside from considerations of costs and materials. DynAudio makes only 1000 a year; these are drivers made for the most part by hand. In more detail, we can say that the Scan-Speak 8545 is a 17-cm woofer with a membrane in cellulose pulp and carbon fiber for increasing its rigidity.
The basket is aluminum and the external suspension is in neoprene; the profile is optimized to limit diffraction. The moving coil measures 5 cm: rather generous for a woofer of this size. The magnetic assembly is also oversized. The resonance frequency in air is very low, but the sensitivity and the power endurance are such that this driver can effortlessly generate sound levels on the order of 110 dB. The tweeter is a 28 mm domed component, and likewise features a magnetic assembly of enormous dimensions.
Differently from what happens with the almost totality of the products that come through the editorial office, the listening test was held not in our test room but in my living room, as it sometimes does in the case of the more prestigious systems. I must confess that, having absolutely no knowledge of the system (I had heard talk about it at the last edition of CES), the decision was dictated in the main by policy and organizational problems linked to the need to thoroughly evaluate the performance of the system without interfering for too long with the work of other collaborators, who were involved in running routine testing. If to this we add the admonition of the people from Bluenote that the loudspeakers require a rather long breaking-in period, the choice became, understandably, practically ineluctable. Again following the suggestion of the Italian distributor to use valve-type amplification, I used the Bruce Moore preamp and power amp (Companion and Dual Sixty, also distributed by Bluenote) that were still in the office, thus replicating the configuration that potential buyers will find at this sales point. Naturally, testing was carried out using other components as well, most of them solid-state, so as to get a general idea of the performance of the loudspeakers; without going into more detail, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the system be composed of an analog source LP 12 + Ekos + Troika, Bruce Moore electronics and Merlin VSM loudspeakers. The chapter relative to positioning can be dealt with quite quickly, since, as I explained better in the paragraph dealing specifically with the subject, the Merlins create no excessive problems on this front and it is sufficient to be able to count on having a little more space between the back wall and the loudspeakers (30-120cm) to be sure of finding a more-than-satisfactory position. A first important dot-on-the- "i" regards the so-called "breaking" in period, a term borrowed for the automobile industry to indicate that initial phase during which certain components have to be brought up to steady condition. Never as in this case has it been necessary to have patience in order to allow the suspensions of the woofer and the tweeter to lose that initial rigidity that keeps them from giving their best performance. Despite a dry and rather brusque low range and overly transparent and brilliant highs, it is apparent right from the start that the system has a definite plus with respect to others of similar class. You like it, but youre perplexed and unsettled by a series of features that arent quite aligned. After fifty hours or so, the miracle: the highs smooth out, but without losing even a drop of that analytical quality and transparency that characterized the system from the very first, and blend almost perfectly with the woofer emission, which acquires surprising depth and astounding clarity. I am harping on the breaking-in aspect of things because I myself was quite dubious during the first hours of operation. Once they get to steady state, the Merlins, above all in conjunction with those little gems from Bruce Moore jewels, gave me hours and hours of pleasure - and made going back to my old system somewhat of a problem.
These loudspeakers come through beautifully with even the most disparate genres, although they reach world record levels with chamber music or in general music for a few instruments and small ensembles. On these occasions what you really appreciate is the great coherency of the sound, and extremely pleasurable dilation of the sound planes and an absolutely realistic reconstruction of the concert stage. Drawn in perspective, the sound "scene" is in no way penalized by the presence of the loudspeakers, which remain there as physical entities but seem to e completely foreign to the process of emission. Close-ups that are very close to the listening point, but highly convincing scanning of those that follow. The quantity of the musical information supplied is remarkable both in the high range, thanks to the excellent Esotar which in this application expresses all its immense elegance, and above all in correspondence to the lowest extreme, which seems characterized by an unheard of clarity.
The low range is deep, perhaps not powerful; but the great firmness and granite-like quality of the sound lets us pick up a series of bits of information that are normally covered by the resonance of the cabinet or of the membrane and that contribute to the intelligibility of the message, reinforcing and "fixing" a whole series of sound attributes - not least of which the fullness and the depth of the bass. The question here, obviously, regards not just the quantity of the bass notes, although this too is important for this type of system, but above all their quality. Usually too light or overly sonorous, the lows are reproduced by the Merlin system very dryly but also with appreciable solidity, transmitting and even pointing up an entire series of tones that otherwise are submerged by the more marked details of the sound. The Merlins seem to be perfectly at their ease even with symphonic music, unsheathing amazing performance even with pieces characterized by a rather demanding dynamic architecture. Even in these cases, and almost despite their size, the Merlins succeed in reproducing not only the conduct and the proportions of the symphony orchestra but above all the proportion and extension of the full orchestra passages.
In saying this, I dont want to say that this system can compete with systems that are more generous as regards the quantity and the "violence" of the bass, but if we are talking about what is possible to obtain in a home environment, even a good size one... well, these loudspeakers come very close to what in my opinion is the highest level. If you want to embarrass them, put some rock on. A good test was that of letting my son (14, loves Guns & Roses and Pink Floyd, and prefers listening with the bass set a little high) choose what to listen to. His judgment was a lapidary but significant: "A little flabby but very enveloping." Not so much as to attempt an improbable translation from post-grunge Italian style, but rather to suggest how the expressive possibilities of the system handle this less congenial example. I must say that it is important to point out that it doesnt do complete justice to the fullness and the power that in a broad sense characterize this type of music; but it also minimizes many negative aspects, like the impossibility of following, at least in the calmer phases, the work of the various instrumentalists - with the Merlins, it can be heard and appreciated. If the rock is melodic and acoustic, instead, what was said above holds even more true. Voice reproduction is noteworthy. Soloists, choirs and small vocal combos acquire considerable naturalness and three-dimensionality. Useless to again stress the great richness of detail and shadings that this system allows you to pick up on easily. A word to combinations. At the electronics level we must confirm that which is written in the Merlin manual about their propensity for valve-type amplification. In no case (but then I havent had the opportunity to shuffle all the market has to offer), the best result is obtained with valve-type amps, but very good performance, perhaps a hair lower-quality in terms of transparency and breadth, have been had with solid state electronics characterized by sound quality approaching that of the valve-types. Among the cables I think we got best results with the Cardas, even though there is greater flexibility respect to that heard with the electronic types.
A last observation regarding the spikes. Merlin gives you a set of conical spikes to screw into the bottom. And they improve the cleanliness and solidity of the low range considerably.
It is difficult to sum up in just a few lines a problem as complex as that which emerged from this test session. I can say that in my opinion the Merlins represent a very interesting solution to the eternal problem of rigor-fullness in the bass ranges. It is a solution that sets some general conditions if it is to express itself fully; not least of these is your capacity and willingness to lay out a figure which is not excessive in absolute terms but in any case considerable, above all in relation to the current economic situation. In my opinion, if the general terms of the problem are clearly understood, the Merlins are one of the most intelligent and authoritative proposals for a long-term investment available among those (still) offering down to earth costs and dimensions.
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Copyright © 1997 Merlin Music Systems Inc.
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