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Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 Turntable Review

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Suspended Plinth

Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101

Coping with airborne vibrations is a particular problem with turntables, as any exposed components are subject to being affected by such energy. The R.E.A.L. 101 tackles the problem in several ways. True to its acronym-based name, the R.E.A.L. (Rubber Elastomeric Acoustic Laminate) 101 achieves isolation through several different fronts. The layered plinth laminate successfully manages any energy away from the primary components of the turntable playback system. The decoupling of these components as well as the internally trussed plinth itself aids in achieving complete isolation. The final piece to this strategy are the ingenious multi-component feet that support the entire plinth and isolate the turntable plinth from external surface vibrations coming from the rack or platform the turntable rests on. Yes, there is no doubt that they look fairly strange, but they certainly are effective at achieving their goal.

The final touches in this fully fleshed out system are the optional center weight and outer clamp. These are meant to assure optimal performance regardless of the flatness of the LP being played. Here too, the attention to detail in design and execution is truly impressive. The center weight, while highly unusual in looks and even somewhat whimsical, utilizes rubber for vibration control and the large rubber ball also make the weight extremely easy to grip and place on the record.

With the weight in place, naturally there needs to be a rim clamp to assure that the outer edges of the record do not lift when the weight is used. Here too, the attention to detail is extraordinarily well thought out. The 2-speed controller supplied with the turntable comes with a strobe light wand that lights whenever the turntable is running. The strobe markings are located on the platter and speed is meant to be set without the record on the platter since these markings are not visible when the record is in place. Adding the optional center weight and outer rim clamp also gets you very large and readable strobe markings, silk screened onto the top of the machined outer rim clamp. This allows you to assure that speed continues to be dead-on even with the additional weight of the clamp center weight, as well as the stylus’ drag.

Set-It and Forget-It Simplicity

The R.E.A.L. 101 came to my home complete with a pre-mounted tonearm base for an Ortofon TA-110 tonearm. The R.E.A.L. 101 is actually sold without tonearm. However, for the purposes of this review, it was suggested by George Merrill that I evaluate the turntable and Ortofon tonearm as a package. After hearing this combination already at AXPONA, it took very little convincing. I will not go into great detail in describing the Ortofon TA110 tonearm at this time because it proved to be quite competent and as such really merits a wholly separate review of its own. Suffice it to say that it was more than up to the task and was an excellent match for three of my reference cartridges.

Turntable set-up of the R.E.A.L. 101 was entirely too easy. As a turntable set-up geek it was almost depressingly simple and straight-forward. The complete turntable with speed controller comes packaged in a single master carton. Assembly was dead simple and very well documented in the accompanying user’s manual. Literally, all that was involved was to lubricate the bearing well, drop the platter in place, loop the belt onto the motor drive pulley, level the turntable, plug in the speed controller, and tuck it neatly under the turntable. This takes all of 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time for the challenge of mounting the cartridge, installing the tonearm and adjusting VTA and SRA. Fortunately, Merrill Williams will pre-drill the tonearm mounting structure for whichever tonearm you wish to use. If you have a 12-inch tonearm, a special board is also available.

Given the turntable’s promise of absolute isolation from its surroundings, I abandoned any such notion of tweaking with platform material. For the first time in many, many years, I just placed the turntable atop my audio rack and didn’t attempt to tweak a thing.

A Disappearing Act

OK, so enough of this geeky turntable stuff. How did the R.E.A.L. 101 perform?

It has taken the better part of 2 months to fully grasp everything that the R.E.A.L. 101 achieves and brings to the table.

Let’s start with bass. Over the course of this past summer, I have played hundreds of LP’s of different genres of music, including “audiophile” records such as original 1st generation Direct-to-Disc Sheffields, trying to ascertain whether there is any limit to the capacity of the R.E.A.L. 101/Ortofon TA-110 turntable playback system in the way it exerts absolute control in low-end authority and output. The answer is no, there is seemingly no limit whatsoever. Time after time, record after record, the force, the power, detail, and sheer weight and impact of the low-end extracted from the vinyl far exceeds any such analog playback system that I personally have had the pleasure of hearing. In fact, so much so, that for the first time, the well-known “paunch” in the low-end that my reference ASR Mini Basis Exclusiv phono stage adds to the music emerged as a clear negative when combined with the R.E.A.L. 101/Ortofon TA-110/Accuphase AC3 combination.

The term “black backgounds” is a term I frequently like to use as a way of describing when the full stage of sound is quiet and free from any unwanted noise or haze. Over the course of these 12 weeks, I can definitively state that in terms of analog playback, the Merrill Williams R.E.A.L. 101 redefines just what “black backgrounds” actually means.

The music now emanate from what appears to be a silent but defined soundspace due to extraordinary levels of ambient information that is surfacing above the remarkably low “grunge floor”.

Moving up the frequency range, once again this system proved to be a show stopper in articulation, emotion, and sheer absence of resonance-related distortions that you would not necessarily even know existed until they are finally vanquished. In some cases, such as when listening to my original Island recording of Cat Steven’s Catch Bull at Four, it was like hearing Cat’s voice reproduced correctly for the very first time. The same can be said for the delicacy of cymbals and the plucking of strings on acoustic guitar.

In fact, any piece of music I played that was dense in percussion instruments or strings, came across with a level of sweetness and effortlessness that was simply an unexpected delight.

Live records in particular took on this effervescence and immediacy of the live performance. This is no doubt due to the incredible amount of ambient information coming through unimpeded by system resonances and energy intrusion, as well as the dead-on speed accuracy of the R.E.A.L. 101.

I couldn’t possibly go LP by LP and cite how its sound improved because of the Merrill Williams R.E.A.L. 101. However, there were some real standouts during my listening sessions. These were mainly “Live” LPs, such as Pat Metheny with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez Day Trip/Tokyo Day Trip Live on the Nonesuch label. I never really considered this recording to be at all veiled. However, playing it back through the Merrill Williams R.E.A.L. 101 resulted in so much more of everything; sense of recorded space, high frequency extension, pace and timing, clarity, and low frequency impact that it transformed the listening experience.

Another such surprise was when I played E.C. was Here by Eric Clapton. This is a great UK-pressed live recording from the 70’s on the Polydor/RSO label. This is not an intimate club setting like the Metheny album, but a full sized live rock concert. The Merrill Williams really nailed the “live” quality of this recording with an effervescence, drive, coherence, and impact, that simply was not present to this extent in any other analog playback system on which I have heard this record, mine included.

Summing it ALL Up

There is so much that can be said about how this turntable that it has shattered my personal beliefs as to what influences a turntable’s sound. I am now completely sold on the fact that all vibration is bad and must be exorcised from the entire analog playback system. The R.E.A.L. 101 design achieves this with seeming simplicity. All of the tweaking, isolating, configuring, mass-loading, and placement changes in the world do not meet that design goal so completely and so elegantly as the Merrill Williams R.E.A.L. 101. Add to that a state-of-the-art 2-speed motor drive that proves its muster even under the rigors of the Sutherland Timeline device (designed by the same Ron Sutherland), and what you have is a set-it-and-forget-it record playback system that defines the art in sound, industrial engineering, simplicity, and in compactness of footprint. The fact that the MSRP is $5,995 for the turntable and another $1,190 for the clamping system, chump change compared to many lesser turntables on the market, makes the R.E.A.L 101 a turntable that commands the attention of any serious vinylphile. This, my friends, is what I call a game changer.

I have already restored my VPI TNT to its stock form, abandoned the external drive system I developed for it, and have packed it away. I couldn’t possibly allow the Merrill Williams R.E.A.L. 101 to leave my home. As such, I am buying my review unit. Yes, it’s R.E.A.L. good. My thanks to doug for the hand-off! Congratulations to George Merrill and Robert Williams for their extraordinary effort and contribution to the art of record playback.

3 Responses to Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 Turntable Review


    Salve necessità replacement motor turntable PRINCETON 15 V 300 RPM 3W
    For turntable MERRILL H + AL 33/45


    PRINCETON 300 RPM 12 V 60 HZ 3W

  3. Ray Seda says:

    Saluti Fabio,
    George Merrill mantiene ancora un inventario di tali motori, nonché di altre parti per sostenere i suoi giradischi più anziani.
    Prega di contattare direttamente il Sig. Merrill e sono sicuro che sarà in grado di aiutarvi con le vostre esigenze.
    Buona fortuna.
    Ray Seda

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