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

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For the purposes of this review, I utilized once again the Ortofon TA-110 tonearm and the superb Nakatsuka-San designed ZYX Yatra phono cartridge. The phono amp is the excellent Zesto Audio Andros PS 1.2. Zesto Audio has in fact utilized the Merrill-Williams turntables for years as their reference and at all of their exhibits on the US audio show circuit.

Rounding out the rest of the system are:

Pass Labs XP-20 Line stage
Melody Valve HiFi MN845 vacuum tube monoblocks
Pass Labs X350.5 solid state stereo amplifier
Eficion F300 speakers

Cabling includes Enklein David, Enklein Aeros, Enklein TRex, and MIT jumpers and power cords

The Sound

As is usual, my listening sessions were mostly performed on weekends, typically Sunday afternoons. Regardless of the punishing heat of the Florida sun and having an all-tube amplification set-up in my system, I can typically get about 3-4 hours until the room becomes unbearable! Therefore, the first thing Sunday morning, I typically go into my sound room and start the platter motor. That way, the bearing oil is warmed and the turntable is at its quietest by the time it’s ready to play some tunes. For the same reason, I usually flip on the Zesto phono about an hour before I go up to the room to listen.

Then when it’s finally time, I also play a record side, so the cartridge suspension is good to go. During that time I’m usually pulling whatever records I’m in the mood to listen to that day. If this all sounds like it’s a bit crazy, the proof is in the experience. All of these things do make a difference in the performance of the system and the overall listening experience.

In the case of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3, the more I listened, the longer the sessions got. I even managed to pull an all-nighter one Saturday night. Thanks to my automatic Saeco Exprelia Evo, there was plenty of espresso on hand for bursts of energy!

The presentation of the sound from the 101.3 is notably smoother than its predecessor, revealing a slightly more detailed space and yet more dynamic, an almost contradiction. Playing very dynamic recordings with lots of percussion revealed these differences consistently. At one point, I listened to a Brand X LP and experienced greater dynamics, bass depth and the concussive feeling of a closely miked bass drum from this LP than ever before. Acoustic recordings, such as the live in the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s “Scratch my Back,” revealed an almost eerie in–your-room presence that easily exceeded that of the previous iteration of this turntable.

These types of observations remained consistent regardless of the LP. Indeed, it was almost as if I had upgraded phono cartridges.


Absence, Validation, and Summary

This past week, after taking copious listening notes, I packed up the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 and sent it on its way to the next. Today, I went through those notes after popping my reference Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.2 back into my system with the pre-mounted tonearm/cartridge combo that I had just utilized on the review table.

It really only took a couple of LP’s to validate my notes regarding the 101.3. Indeed, the improvements are there and, in some areas, I feel that they are dramatic. In full disclosure, I did not have a 101.2 version of the new tonearm board that was drilled for the Ortofon tonearm. I therefore continued to utilize the current tonearm board that comes with the Merrill-Williams 101.3. I cannot be sure that by doing so, I may have lessened the overall sonic gap between the two turntables, but nevertheless, it is clear that the Merrill-Williams 101.3 pulls a disappearing act that exceeds, if not far exceeds, that of the previous iterations of this design.

To summarize, Robert Williams and George Merrill have enjoyed much success with their R.E.A.L. turntable design. In the daring substantial rethink in the form of the 101.3, they have exceeded the performance of the original design and have kept the price virtually the same, a rare occurrence. The field of turntable design has suddenly become a crowded one with the resurgence of the popularity of vinyl. In that field are plenty of very serious designs as well as those that extend into the stratosphere in terms of price and sometimes offering something less than optimal performance. Few offer a full turntable and vinyl management system as does the R.E.A.L. 101.3. At a price of roughly $8,000US, you get a turntable that is complete with clamping system and a high performance digital speed controller. In fact, for many that do not have an endless supply of cash to spend on turntables and audio in general, the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 would be perfectly suited as a basis for a bucket list turntable, since it now accommodates tonearms of any length and it will allow any tonearm and phono cartridge pairing of your choice to perform at or near their optimum. There are turntables well above that price that do not even contemplate the importance of speed accuracy, let alone energy management. For this, I applaud Messrs Merrill and Williams for setting aside the not-so-important glamour and focusing on performance and retaining an understatedly simple yet elegant exterior. The Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 is indeed the real deal and as such it is highly recommended.

Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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