According to a recent poll of our editors and reviewers (TAS 216), the AR XA was ranked as the most significant turntable in the history of analog playback. If you ever lived with the AR XA turntable or one of its successors (XB, XE, ES-1, ETL-1, EB101), you may well have installed some of the popular “Merrill mods” that helped lift the sonic performance of that entire turntable family. These ranged from enhanced speed controllers and motors, to acrylic-lead turntable mats, acrylic subchassis, center and outer clamps, and improved parts, among others. Thousands were reportedly sold, making them the most popular mods for those venerable belt-driven, spring-suspended classics.
While continuing to offer turntable mods and accessories, George Merrill designed the Merrill Heirloom in the late 1970s, an extension of his previous work and experimentation with AR turntables. Merrill claims that the Heirloom was the first ’table to use acrylics as well as a periphery clamping ring, and it also employed a dedicated motor controller for enhanced speed accuracy, fluid damping, and several other unique features to effectively control resonances and manage energy dissipation, including a one-piece acrylic subchassis. The Heirloom garnered high praise in these pages from both William T. Semple (TAS 43) and Jack W. English (TAS 51), particularly for its lifelike sound, transparency, and open midrange.
Having ceased manufacturing the Heirloom around 1996, George collaborated with Anthony Scillia in 2002 on the Merrill- Scillia Research MS-21 with Scillia taking Merrill’s Heirloom design to its most fanatical endpoint, with aerospace-grade materials, plus springs, machined from solid billets of hardened aluminum, that were the most exotic I have ever seen. All these improvements came at a steep price ($24,000), yet the MS-21 still looked quite pedestrian. However, I heard the MS-21 on several occasions, and was stunned by its remarkable performance, if not its physical beauty. When George told me that he thought his new MW-101 turntable “blew the MS-21 away,” it definitely piqued my interest.
The $5995 Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. (an acronym for Rubber Elastomeric Acoustic Laminate) 101 is a collaboration between Merrill and Robert Williams, an innovator in his own right as a co-founder of Memphis’ legendary Ardent record-mastering lab, in addition to his considerable experience in record pressing and loudspeaker design. What makes the MW-101 unique is its extensive use of rubber elastomers virtually everywhere that resonances might occur. I heard a pre-production model a few years ago at a trade show, driving Quad electronics and ESL-2805 loudspeakers, and was very impressed by its ability to reproduce Frank Sinatra’s voice and Nelson Riddle’s orchestra so naturally and with such sonic realism that I thought it was perhaps the most musically compelling sound I heard at that show.
Having lived with a current production model of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 (MW-101) in my own listening room for some time, my appreciation of its outstanding virtues has continued to grow. The MW-101 has many of the same beguiling sonic strengths as my reference front-end, the UHA-HQ Phase Six, coming surprisingly close to this reel-to-reel deck’s performance, particularly in transparency, midrange openness, fine detail retrieval, and top-end purity and balance on Antonio Lysy at the Broad: Music From Argentina [Yarlung Records]. No, it didn’t have quite the incisive bass articulation, micro- and macrodynamic intensity, and overall immediacy of the tape, but that may well be a function of the ’arm and cartridge (more on this later). Nevertheless, both analog sources have an uncanny ability to transport you to the recording venue, and they sound more alike than one might expect.
When I listen to Soulmates [Riverside/Acoustic Sounds] on the MW-101, the leading edge of transients, like those on Philly Joe Jones’ drums and cymbals, are crystal clear, without any blurring, and have amazing snap. Overtones soar without distortion orcompression, yielding a harmonic truth to all the instruments, like Ben Webster’s saxophone and Thad Jones’ cornet.
The MW-101’s lack of audible bearing or groove noise lets music emerge from a pitch-black background with near-reference-quality transparency and presence on well-recorded music, like the David Abel/Julie Steinberg performance of Beethoven and Enescu Sonatas [Wilson Audiophile], the Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass collaboration Take Love Easy [Pablo], or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon [Island Records]. On these recordings, everything is well-balanced across the frequency spectrum, without resonant peaks in the upper midrange or highs, a common source of aural fatigue, yet the music sounds alive. On more musically dense recordings like the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major [EMI] and Miklós Rózsa’s Quo Vadis [Decca], the MW-101’s wonderful clarity enables one to follow individual musical lines easily, and the soundstaging is broad, deep, stable, and precise.
How have Merrill and Williams achieved this remarkable performance? They had to start with a “clean sheet of paper,” because the Heirloom design had already been taken to its limits by the MS-21. Whereas the Heirloom and Merrill-Scillia turntables were spring-suspended, the MW-101’s elastomer plinth rests on three inverted hemispherical elastomer feet. George claims that by using this approach, the new ’table it still a suspended plinth, or more appropriately, an isolated plinth with energy rejection from the elastomer feet and the isolated feet posts that go up into the elastomer of the plinth.
The plinth of the MW-101 is not just a hunk of rubber sandwiched by aluminum but rather a well-engineered platform, designed as a laminate to dampen and dissipate energy. The motor, platter, spindle/bearing, and tonearm are isolated by breaches in the aluminum-rubber laminate (Energy Isolation Valleys), and the energy developed by each part is absorbed and dissipated by the 14-pound rubber-compound elastomer that forms the core of the plinth before it can affect any of the other operating parts. A support-truss system using seven struts within the plinth helps keeps it rigid.
The MW-101 platter offers yet another reported industry “first.” It is made of a Bakelite, cellulose, and resin compound resulting in a high-density, remarkably dead platter with a Q that is quite broad—plus the material is also extremely dimensionally stable. Its integral rubber-cork compound mat helps to minimize vibrations within the vinyl, allowing the stylus to trace the record better. It also has a very-low-noise bearing system as the hardened thrust ball at the end of the precision-ground stainless-steel platter-shaft glides with virtually no friction over a hardened surface in the oil-well bearing, manufactured from MDS-impregnated nylon—another industry first.
Merrill has worked on record-clamping systems for close to four decades, so one would expect the optional one for the R.E.A.L. 101 would be a honey—and it really is! The Merrill-Williams Clamping System comprises a center weight and periphery ring, and is designed for even down-force on the entire record. Energy radiated as the stylus traces the groove is absorbed by the damping inlay in the periphery clamp before it is reflected back into the groove area. The center weight, with its large rubber knob, also absorbs energy and helps eliminate resonant peaks. A rubber insert in the spindle bore decouples the weight from the record spindle. I consider the 101’s record clamping system to an indispensible option, increasing the system’s transparency, clarity, and ability to deal with warped records.
George Merrill was the first to introduce a separate motor-speed controller for a turntable, so it was somewhat surprising to learn that the motor-drive control unit for the MW-101 was designed by another industry veteran, Ron Sutherland, to Merrill-Williams’ specifications. The included Microprocessor Motor Drive employs crystal-controlled, adjustable dual oscillators to drive the two high-power, low-distortion amplifiers that power the motor. It not only allows the user to easily switch between 33 and 45 rpm play, but also to make minute adjustments to rotational speed even when the stylus is in the groove. Its strobe light is used in conjunction with the strobe markings on the periphery ring to set speed precisely under all temperature and humidity conditions. The controller also buffers the turntable-drive system from AC line variations, helping the MW-101 maintain accurate pitch stability, and also contributing to its outstanding clarity, resolution, and imaging precision. A Sutherland Timeline is used to certify speed accuracy on all MW-101s.
My MW-101 review unit was initially supplied with the Ortofon AS-212S, but the system took another step up in performance, primarily in clarity, transparency, and bass solidity and articulation, when mated with the new Ortofon TA-110 tonearm. The TA-110 has elastomer damping of the armtube, which is “in tune” with the resonance-management design philosophy of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101. George asserts that, although the Ortofon TA-110 is not as good as the top-ofthe- line Grahams and Tri-Planars, “it comes darn close at a lot less money.” (This is also true of the Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge and the MW-101 itself.)
While production delays scuttled my plans to mate the MW-101 with the latest Graham Phantom, I did have the pleasure of hearing a MW-101 with a Tri-Planar IV tonearm (coupled with a Dynavector XX2 MkII cartridge, Zesto Audio and GamuT electronics, WyWire cables, and TAD CR1 speakers) at T.H.E. Show Newport. I was really taken by the system, particularly with its noticeable improvements in midbass articulation and control, as well as micro- and macro-dynamics.
As good as the MW-101 is—and it is very good—it falls short of the best turntables in a few areas. The R.E.A.L. is much more attractive than the Heirloom and MS-21, but it doesn’t have the stunning looks and ability to accommodate multiple arms of many reference turntable systems, nor does it employ exotic technologies like magnetic drive, an air-bearing platter, or a seemingly impregnable, self-adjusting stand. While its speed stability approaches that of a direct-drive ’table, one can still see slight, minute variations in the strobe markings during each rotation (possibly due to belt slippage), although I never heard any pitch variation on sustained tones.
As one might expect from the man responsible for so many turntable innovations, George Merrill’s latest turntable, in collaboration with Robert Williams, breaks new ground in its approach to energy management by ingeniously and effectively damping and dissipating resonances wherever they lurk. Music emerges with such exceedingly low coloration and distortion that transparency, fine detail retrieval, openness, and clarity are surprisingly close to what one experiences when listening to a mastertape. The Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable should be a revelation to those who want to get closer to the sound of a live performance without breaking the bank. It’s easy to set up, and its modularity also allows for future enhancements, including an isolation chamber for the ’table, available later this year.
SPECS & PRICING
Dimensions: 17" x 10" x 14.5"
Weight: 42 lbs.
Prices: $5995 turntable; $1190 clamping system with damped center weight and damped periphery clamping ring with strobe
MERRILL-WILLIAMS AUDIO, LLC
820 Herbert Road, Suite #109
Memphis, TN 38108
UHA-HQ Phase Six Reel-to-Reel Deck; VPI Aries turntable (TNT V platter & bearing), Graham 1.5 ‘arm (w/2.2 bearing), and Koetsu Black cartridge; Esoteric SA-50 CA/SACD player; MFA Venusian (Frankland modified) and PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three preamplifiers; Musical Surroundings SuperNova Phonostage; PrimaLuna DiaLogue Seven monoblocks; Sonus faber Amatic future and Quad ESL-57 (PK modified) loudspeakers; REL G-1 subwoofer; Silver Circle Audio Pure Power One 5.0; Nordost Valhalla or AudioQuest Niagra interconnects and Meteor speaker cables.