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Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 turntable Review

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Introduction

I can scarcely believe that it has been seven years since my introduction to the original Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101. Since that time, the 101 has not only been my reference, but has always proved to be the under-stated silent star in the sound of my analog system. It was therefore quite surprising when earlier this year I received word from co-designer and turntable legend George Merrill that he and Robert Williams had made some refinements to the R.E.A.L. 101. I was then offered the chance to review the new fruits of their labor as soon as the summer months. I emphatically agreed and awaited its arrival.

George Merrill’s latest endeavor together with design partner Robert Williams, an engineer, is the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3, the subject of this review. Yes, this is actually the third iteration of their R.E.A.L. turntable design. To me, the 101.2 offered convenience features and cosmetics, but no substantial benefit to the sonic performance of the design. The 101.3 offers significant design updates while remaining modestly priced at $7,995 including the clamping system; a price that is virtually the same as the original REAL 101. Standard is an undrilled tonearm platform. Drilled platforms are at a cost of $85-$185 depending upon complexity. A tonearm platform to accommodate 12” tonearms is available at $300 plus the drilling costs.

 

Rubber Elastomeric Acoustic Laminate and Energy Management

For Dagogo readers who are unfamiliar with the R.E.A.L. acronym, it is the basis of the bespoke design, a plinth that is a laminate consisting of a rubber elastomer that is flanked by two phenolic plates. The rubber elastomer is hard and stable enough to be precision machined as well as any plastic or metal.

Unpacking the R.E.A.L. plinth and having a gander at the owner’s manual gave me the full visual of how far Messrs. Merrill and Williams have taken the idea of managing and draining away energy from the key sources within and external to the turntable construct. For instance, the original REAL 101 suspended the motor within the R.E.A.L. plinth and was isolated in a virtual island unto itself through the shaping and machining away of much of the contact area from the rest of the plinth. This yielded a very quiet operation in my estimation. The 101.3 goes further and provides an oil bath for the motor in an effort to harness and dissipate the energy emanating from the motor to even lower levels.

The turntable’s feet have been changed. Some may mistake this as purely an esthetic change. They certainly are easier on the eyes than the original, but as is the case with this Merrill-Williams design from the beginning, this clearly was not the primary goal. The aluminum sheath that enrobes the original hemispheric feet acts as an additional energy shielding when presented with outside (environmental) energy, such as from a pair of speakers. As such they do a superb job of suspending the turntable’s plinth.

These new adjustable feet, in conjunction with an integrated bubble level on the plinth, make for a system that greatly simplifies the process of leveling the turntable as well as isolating it.

The next most obvious change or upgrade to the Energy Management System of the REAL 101 is the tonearm platform. It is now a laminate of two different plastics, which likely was found to enhance even further the energy dissipation properties of the construct through improved coupling with the tonearm base. In fact, the entire tonearm management system has changed. The new tonearm platform can now handily be made to accept 12” tonearms and even the 14” tonearms from the likes of Kuzma. Another great feature that has been added, I am told that my long term usage of this turntable and frequency of tonearm changes for reviews actually inspired this change, is that the entire tonearm platform assembly is now a quick release system that allows for fast replacement. This means that, for instance, if you have two tonearms, each being pre-balanced and set with a cartridge and mounted on their own Merrill-Williams tonearm platform, you can do a fairly quick swap of tonearm/cartridge assemblies in the same listening session in no time at all; a very cool feature to be sure!

The material used for the single piece platter has been changed to polyoxymethylene, a non-resonant acetal that is nonconductive, dimensionally stable, and heat resistant. As in previous iterations, the platter is heavily machined and has an inner rim which is actually where the belt rides to the motor pulley. The relatively small diameter inner platter rim optimizes usage of the small motor’s torque and the resultant valleys in the underside of the platter are designed to effectively dissipate any residual energy that may be present from the motor and bearing away from the vinyl surface. The superb cork and rubber platter mat is also retained to interface with the vinyl. While there may be a slight change in color, the most visible change to the platter versus the original REAL 101 is the absence of the strobe markings in the center. These have been migrated to underneath the platter and along the outer rim. This change allows for monitoring speed and performing fine adjustment with the platter fully laden with LP, center weight, and drag of the stylus without having to utilize the rim clamp. Speed is now very easily monitored and adjusted via a prism viewer mounted on the plinth that reflects the markings from the underside of the platter rim, giving the REAL 101 a nice retro flair! A switch is provided on the motor controller to turn off the strobe light when not in use.

The microprocessor motor drive has been improved and now sports a speed accuracy of 2 parts per million. This yielded the specified resulting wow and flutter of .02%.

As in prior models, the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 is very straightforward to assemble regardless of how experienced you are at such things. The motor and platter bearing are pre-mounted on the plinth. The three leg structures are preassembled and simply need to be mounted to the plinth. Merrill-Williams provides the necessary Allen wrench for that process. A pre-filled syringe with damping fluid is included and you simply empty it where indicated in order to further dampen motor vibration. A second syringe is provided along with a small bottle of a graphite-based lubricant. You simply draw the required liquid into the syringe and shoot it into the platter bearing well.

Lowering the platter and bearing into the bearing well, looping the belt to the motor pulley, and plugging in the motor controller is the last of it and the turntable is ready for action.

The tonearm and cartridge mounting and set-up are performed as you would on any other turntable. The newly added hand wheel type bolts are a great addition and do make the tonearm install and swapping process much simpler.

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