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.