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.