For those of you of a certain age, Mr. George Merrill does not require much introduction. For all intents and purposes, his modest set of (then) high tech upgrades to the venerable Acoustic Research (AR) turntable in the 1970’s ushered in the era of modern belt drive turntable design. George’s extensive knowledge in sound reproduction and pioneering studies in plastics and sound engineering through energy management, first yielded the much heralded and critically acclaimed Merrill Heirloom turntable. Already the rock star of the high end turntable set, George Merrill’s story continued to evolve with a partnership with machinist Anthony Scillia. This partnership yielded a ”Class A” effort. the $14,000 Merrill-Scillia MS21 turntable. For many, the MS21 was considered the reference standard in sonic terms; the one to beat. Fast forward some twenty or so years, and once again George Merrill returned to the forefront, this time with a new design partner/machinist, a well-known studio recording engineer Robert Williams. The R.E.A.L. 101 turntable, a radical departure from George’s previous endeavors, once again set a new standard in the areas of sonic neutrality, isolation through a non-suspended energy management system, and speed accuracy. The REAL 101 soundly eclipsed the performance of the MS21 at roughly half the price. Now with patent approvals under their belts, Messrs. Merrill and Williams continue their good work on the R.E.A.L (rubber) turntable platform.
Meanwhile, George digs deep into the parts bins and revives, with some thoughtful tweaks, the very turntable that started it all. He calls it the Merrill ES-R1 Replica. The ES-R1 Replica without tonearm and in the standard nicely finished maple wood base retails for $995. The Merrill ES-R1 Replica can also be ordered with a pre-mounted Jelco SA-250 tonearm ($1495). The turntable can be upgraded to include a digital speed controller ($690) and hard dust cover ($139). My review sample came with the Jelco SA-250 tonearm pre-mounted. It is the subject of this review.
Installation and Set-up
As you would likely have already guessed, the new Merrill ES-R1 Replica is an enhanced revival exercise of the original Merrill Heirloom. As such, there is very little surprise in how it looks and functions. However, the enhancements are indeed significant.
The thrust of George Merrill’s work throughout the years has centered upon the control and elimination of mechanical energy and vibration throughout the record playback system. True to the original Heirloom ( and of course AR turntable) formula, the Merrill ES-R1 Replica sports a spring-loaded T-bar subchassis suspension and is belt driven with an AC synchronous motor. In fact, it is the very same AC synchronous motor (with slight modification) that was in the Heirloom as well as in the current Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable. However, this is where the use of the Heirloom’s parts bin ends.
George has updated the materials used in the sub-chassis, springs, as well as the bearing to reflect the latest in technology that goes beyond the acrylics and plastics that were utilized in the original Heirloom. For instance, the drive pulley is made of the same material as that employed in the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101. The motor is base is mounted and largely decoupled from the plinth as well as the entire sub-chassis and platter.
Both inner and outer platters are made of a poly material that is inert and, as I came to realize, does not cause any ill-effects to the life and dynamics of the sound as do other plastics. The outer platter is anointed with the superb rubber and cork mat that is used in the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable, as well as being sold separately as a GEM Dandy product (see http://dagogo.com/practically-priced-tools-for-the-lp-lover).
The turntable arrives pre-assembled for the most part. The major components are the base-with subchassis, wall-wart transformer power supply, drive belt, bearing oil syringe, inner platter and bearing, and the outer platter.
Power is supplied to the turntable via a small “wall-wart” transformer and connection is mounted in the rear of the base. The turntable base has also been pre-wired for use with standard RCA-style interconnects, should you choose to hardwire the tonearm to the turntable base. This affords a level of flexibility in using any high-end interconnect of your choice.
The thick polymer tonearm board is designed to be interchangeable which allows you to use whatever tonearm you choose. For the purposes of this review, the manufacturer chose to provide their standard offering, an excellent 9” Jelco SA-250 tonearm whose base was pre-mounted on the Merrill ES-R1 turntable review sample.
I chose to mount my superb vintage (and no longer NOS) National Panasonic EPC-205CIIL moving magnet phono cartridge for the purposes of this review.
As a veteran user of several iterations of Acoustic Research’s turntable as well as the excellent British Pink Triangle, set-up of the Merrill ES-R1 was a breeze and came as second nature.
Many have openly criticized Merrill designs in the past for their cosmetics. Those who were dissatisfied with the look of the superb Merrill Heirloom and the Merrill-Scillia MS21 turntables will find no solace here. The Merrill ES-R1 Replica is every bit the “kissing cousin” of the vintage Merrills in terms of look and feel. I, for one, am comforted by that fact and am not at all perturbed by it. .
The reference system utilized for this review period included the:
Zesto Andros PS-1 tube phono stage
Pass Labs XP-20 Line Stage
Melody Audio P2688 Tube Line Stage (full review forthcoming)
Pass Labs X350.5 Power Amplifier
Eficion F300 speakers
MIT Styline Matrix 70 speaker cables
MIT Matrix 36 Balanced and Single-Ended interconnects
National Panasonic 205CIIL phono cartridge
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