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Merrill-Scillia MS21 Turntable Review

Jack Roberts experiences a level of analog excellence in the $24,000 turntable

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Merrill-Scillia MS21 Turntable

Introduction

This is a long and at least for me at times, an exhausting review. So let me say up front that some of you may want to skip down and read the section on SOUND and then the CONCLUSION; then decide if you want to read all the rest. It is difficult to get to hear some of the more exotic equipment, and I feel a responsibility with a product of this magnitude to give you all the information I can. Who knows, you might be considering purchasing it and that might require you to make the effort to go and hear it. So, I have made every effort to convey to you the essence of this special product.

“There is also something that can be said for functional beauty, the beauty that comes from a product, where the form comes from the pursuit of perfecting the function of the product.”

I found it refreshing to review such an expensive product that wasted very little money on appearance alone. My son the philosopher took exception with me that it could ever be wasteful to make something aesthetically pleasing, and as a lover and smalltime collector of art by current Russian painters, I have to admit I agree. Yet, it seems in high-end stereo we have sometimes become preoccupied with eye-candy. There is also something that can be said for functional beauty, the beauty that comes from a product, where the form comes from the pursuit of perfecting the function of the product.

Even the designers of the MS21 admit that it is far from being just an eye-candy. I would go so far to say that in some ways it’s downright homely, but it is functionally incredible. The workmanship, as well as the fit and finish, are without peer. I swear that with time I even came to think it looked quite nice when the dust cover was on it, or maybe it’s just so beautiful to listen to that its looks grow on you.

A turntable has a basic job to do and it doesn’t have to look like a work of art to be one. A turntable’s job seems quite basic: It’s simply to turn and support the LP at a precise speed, and not to add any sound of its own while doing so. Why would it matter what manner it does this in, as long as it does it precisely without adding anything? Why-oh-why do idler drives have so much drive and organic wholeness to their sound? Why do mass loaded belt drive turntables have such incredible dynamics and slam in the bass? Why do direct-drive tables, that to do the very best job at precise speed, never seem to get the timbre, harmonics, and spatial information quite right? Then, to the question of the day for this review: Why do belt driven tables with sub-chassis floating on springs get the flow, the decay, and the nuances of music so right?

I have owned and setup lots of turntables. It all started with Dual changers, and then one day while in college, one geek suggested his $87 AR turntable was better than my Dual 1219. I looked at it and laughed; not only was it ugly, it also shook like a bowl of jello. I was up for a challenge. Both table’s arms had the same Shure in them so we played them both through the KLH 5’s with Dynaco tubes driving them. Sure enough, the ugly duckling AR let the music flow like I had never heard. There were things I liked about the Dual and pride made me insist on it being called a tie. I mean honestly, both were better at some things and worse at others. What I should have realized was that we were comparing apple and oranges even if they both were turntables.

A few years later, I purchased an Ariston and then a Linn Sondek. I owned the Linn until I moved into a house that had floors too unstable for a Linn. I replaced it with a VPI which was a fine table, but I never thought it sounded as life-like as the Linn. Since then, many advancements have been made in turntables, but the basic AR design is still a contender for the best way to build a turntable.

Heritage

To truly appreciate the Merrill-Scillia Research MS21 turntable, you need to know a little about the 35-plus years of research, modding, and desire for the best table one could build regardless of price or looks. It is worth noting that at no point along the way did AR, George Merrill, or Merrill-Scillia waste any money or compromise performance to make the table look better, or for that matter, to make it easier to use. To these designers, it’s worth the sacrifice of looks and convenience to hear LP’s sound their best.

When the AR table came out in 1961, it only retailed for $57.00. Ten years later, it still only cost $87.00 and lots of used ones were available for less than fifty bucks. The AR was a belt driven table that had a three-point, spring suspended sub-chassis. The metal sub-chassis supported the spindle, platter and tonearm. The platter was a two-piece aluminum platter with a smaller drive platter that the full platter was set over. The motor was an AC synchronous type. This system was an attempt to isolate the arm, platter, and LP from the motor, the base, and other vibrations. It was rather homely looking, but the engineering was revolutionary for its time.

AR sold a few hundred thousands of these tables, it also became the standard for American and British turntables. Just think of the Ariston RD11, the Linn Sondek LP12, the Pink Triangle, the Oracle, and the Roksan, just to name a few.

With so many of these having been sold they became a modder’s dream, and lots of people offered mods for the AR table. The most successful of all of the modders though was a gentleman from Memphis, Tennessee: George Merrill. After doing thousands of mods to the AR table, he brought out his own table in 1982. The Merrill Heirloom was an all-out-assault on the basic AR design with lots of new innovative ways to control resonance. My audio bud Steve Woolsey owned one. If memory serves me, it had the first periphery clamping ring I had ever seen, the first spindle weight I had seen, as well as the first lead platter mat. It kept the two-piece platter, but did it differently with the larger platter sitting on top of the drive platter. It also had some fluid damping if I remember correctly. It was homely and industrial looking. It was awkward to use, but man did it sound great.

The Dream Continues

Let’s move forward to this century, and along comes self professed vinyl addict Anthony Scillia from Connecticut. Anthony had the engineering, the polymer resin, and 3D modeling expertise to make an all-out-attempt at a state-of-the-art turntable. The way he put it to me was that, during the day they made helicopter parts and other military equipment, then at night, they worked on the dream turntable. He also said he researched and listened to all the turntables he could, trying to decide the type of table he wanted to try to build. His decision was to work with George Merrill and make the ultimate version of George’s Heirloom table.

From this work there came two products at this time; the MS21 turntable that retails for $24,000 and the MS2 for $8,000. It is the MS21 that I have had the pleasure to use for the last few months. It uses the latest Co and Ter polymer resins, and all the other expertise that Anthony’s engineering company brings to the table.

The Design Goals

Like the AR that George Merrill so loved to mod, the MS21 is a spring suspended sub-chassis design. It might be said that it is a Merrill Heirloom on steroids and brought into the 21st century. It’s basically a large, plain looking, black box machined out of copolymer resin. While it surely is not all that attractive, almost everything about it screams quality. I said almost, because while the feet work well and seem to be somewhat costly to make; they look ugly and cheap. They are adjustable though, which makes leveling the base easy. It would take a whole white paper to state the design goals and you can go to their web site for that. I will just to try to hit the high points.

Energy Absorption was always one of George Merrill’s major design goals and the M21 take this to a whole new level. It should be obvious to everyone that two things have to touch to play a record; the stylus and the record. The energy of the stylus is controlled by the cartridge and tone arm. While we may not think about it, on most tables, the record and the tone arm are controlled by the turntable. According to the web site, there are four key ingredients to absorb and dissipate: arm release energy, record resonance energy, airborne acoustic energy and low self generation of noise.

The design goal of the MS 21 is that the turntable becomes an entity within itself not sensitive to tone arm, cartridge, and platter. Then it becomes the sub chassis’ job to support and isolate the tone arm and the platter.

The most important design goal is to absorb and release energy from the tone arm. This is attempted by rigidly coupling the arm mount by making it a non-removable part of the sub chassis. This eliminates any possibility of an energy transfer. The MS sub chassis and bearing housing is manufactured from only one compound, a type of Ter plymer, a material that will absorb energy in the audio band.

Resonant Tuning is another major design goal of the MS turntable. It was designed to have approximately equal effective mass distribution above and below the spring suspension points. The ingenious new springs utilized at all 3 points on the sub chassis are able to do this with a new ease of set up while keeping an equal compression rate for the springs. This tuning system is capable of shifting weight to any spring in order to achieve total equilibrium of the sub chassis and maintain a constant resonance.

The Platter System’s design goal is to damp record resonances, and absorb any energy transmitted through the spindle. The MS turntable uses a two piece platter system; a drive platter with bearing spindle and the record support platter that sits on top of the drive platter.

The designer believes there are three reasons for using this type of platter system. First, the two pieces when placed together, damp each other. Second, the platter system when driven by the record support platter has an inherent problem. Impulse energy generated by the motor is transmitted through the belt and in turn transmitted directly into the platter carrying the mat and record. By driving an inner platter, a platter system can be designed to absorb and dissipate belt transmitted energy before it reaches the outer platter that supports the mat and record, thus giving a much lower intrusion of impulse energy noise into the musical signal. To further damp the platter system, a lead coupling weight is used to couple inner part of the record and a peripheral weight for the outer edge of the record and platter.

The third reason the MS employs this two piece system is so that the drive platter can be cast from a proprietary aluminum resin compound that is more stable through a wide temperature range. Also, having a smaller diameter, there is less change. The main platter is made from a Co polymer compound for optimum energy absorption, then a double coating of lead is applied acting to absorb even more energy from the record. Lastly, a thin coating is applied to the lead.

One of the biggest design successes are the springs. Here is the explanation from the company:

 

After extensive experimentation with extension springs and compression springs, we chose the compression type for two reasons: 

(1) Unlike the extension type, the compression spring’s rate of progression is much higher. This fact helps our design to damp unwanted oscillations of the sub chassis. And    (2) access to the sub chassis and complete set-up are all easier.

 

This being said, there are still many inherent problems that plague spring suspended turntables throughout the industry.  These problems include:

 

(1) The need to rotate the spring to find the level spot when leveling the suspension.

(2) Side deflection due to uneven loads.

(3) Coil bind due to excessive loading of the suspension.

(4) Uneven and non repeatable compression rate.

 

We have chosen to solve these problems. And with further experimentation using 3 D modeling and spring geometry software, we have devised a new concept in spring design termed – a “Machined Spring”. These springs are manufactured from solid round stock. The coil thickness and diameter are calculated to support a certain amount of weight and compress evenly and repeatably which translates into a spring that emits a consistent HZ frequency. The springs are guaranteed not to experience coil bind at full compression with a min. gap of .015″ between coils. Side deflection is eliminated by utilizing dual start coil geometry. The ends are flat and parallel to each other as they are a machined surface so this in effect eliminates rotating the spring to find it’s flat spot in relation to leveling the suspension.

 

The MS has a unique record clamping at least as far as I know. It uses an outer periphery, gravity clamping ring over the outer edge of record. This design both absorbs energy and keeps the record flat. The inner clamp is a very heavy screw down clam and is designed to be used in conjunction with the outer clamp. They claim this combination of inner and outer clamps allows for equal distribution of force across the entire record. I don’t know how to prove this but I can hear a big difference if I leave either or both clamps off.

I must comment on the springs and the weight that hangs under the table. They are a major advancement.

Springs may be great at isolating the platter, arm and cartridge and dissipating energy, but anyone who ever owned an AR or Linn can tell you how aggravating they can be. They are difficult to impossible to get set up so they will stay set up correctly. One of the things you probably noticed is that springs aren’t all that stable in the horizontal plane. With the MS21 we get a completely new kind of spring. Instead of the usual coiled wire springs, you get springs machined out of a solid billet of metal. They claim these new springs do not change tension when the spring is compressed; so that the properties of the springs remain the same however tight or loose the springs are. Because of this they are far more stable in the horizontal plane.

If you have ever set up a Linn, Ariston, or Oracle table you will be blown away with how much easier this is and again what a simple, if rather high tech solution it is. By the way, the suggestion in the instructions to use a table that you can take the leaf out of for setting up the turntable is just genius, why did I never think of this before?

Of all these design successes, the most amazing one to me is the simple way the MS21 handles cable routing. This used to be such a problem on the Linn, and how simple the solution used on the MS21 is. It’s always great to me when pure simplicity solves a problem. The clamping system also works amazingly well, though admittedly it is a little inconvenient and I wish the peripheral ring had a white or silver inner circle so you could at night more easily see where the ring ends and the lead out groove starts.

Unpacking & Setup

Anyone who pays over $20,000 for a turntable should expect it to arrive safely and for a dealer to come out to set it up for them. The MS21 comes packed in two outer boxes. One box about the size you would expect for a preamp. The power supply/speed control is in it. The second box is about the size of a small refrigerator. It has three more boxes inside of it; one for the dust cover; one for the platter assembly; and one for the base unit. Each of these is inside a special molded foam holder in the box. I take the time to mention this because as we all know shipping is the most dangerous time for any equipment, and my table arrived in perfect condition even after being shipped ground from one coast to the other.

While I said I think a dealer should set it up for you, I want to mention that I set the review sample up myself. Yes I have had experience with setting up this type of table, but it had been years ago and I still found that by going by the excellent instructions, it was straight forward and took less than an hour. That’s a huge improvement over what it used to be like to set up a Linn for example.

Use & Ergonomics

A turntable/tonearm combination is a hands-on, get-involved piece of equipment. It’s not like playing a CD. My MS 21 came with Tri-Planar’s newest tonearm, review to come on this great arm. The sub-chassis is pre-drilled for just one arm and if you want to change arms, a new sub-chassis is $800.00. The use of the MS21 is pretty straight forward, but there are some significant differences between using it and my Clearaudio Ambient turntable. The following is a comparison of use and not of sound, but I thought it might be worthwhile if you are considering the MS21.

My memories of my friend Steve’s Merrill table had me dreading the thought of using the peripheral ring, but I like it so much I got one from Clearaudio for my Ambient table. The two rings are about the same to use, but the MS is weighted better and it’s nice that there is room under the MS to put the ring when changing records.

The Clearaudio deluxe center clamp is surely easier to use than the MS’ screw-down clamp. I think the time it takes to use this clamp is the thing I like least about the MS21. Why does it take so many rotations to clamp a record?

I really like that the MS comes up to speed so much more quickly at either 33 or 45 rpm than the Clearaudio. It might take a little familiarization period to get used to the movement of the MS if you are using a table like the Clearaudio. The belt on the MS is also much easier and quicker to put on the platter than the three round belts on the Clearaudio Ambient. I did find the speed selection and power selections a little quicker and easier on the Clearaudio because with it they sit right next to the table instead of the shelve below. If the MS had toggle switches instead of the push type, it might be just as easy, but it would still take up an extra shelve on the rack. In the end, I’d say the comparison of their ease of use is about equal, but I shared it to let you know of some aspects in the use of the MS21.

Sound

Warren Gregoire, the designer of the Ikonoklast speakers and the technician who does the VSEI Mods on the west coast, came over to help me set up the tonearm and get a listen. When we got around to listening he said to me, “that’s a lot bigger difference than I was expecting”. I asked how he would describe the difference. He thought a minute and answered, “It’s hard to put into words, it’s more relaxed and more detailed at the same time, and I’m sure it sounds more like real music.”

Well, that about sums it up, but you and I want to know more than that, so here it goes. I’ll try to tell you what it sounds like and what it doesn’t.

Let me start by saying that I did most of my listening with the amazing Benz Ebony TR cartridge, review to come, because that’s what I had been listening to for the last three months. I wanted to change as little as possible in the system so I could be sure I was hearing the MS21. The rest of the system I used for most of the review was the Shindo Masseto preamp, the Wavac EC 300B, and the Ikonoklast model 3 speakers. All three are the best I’ve ever had in my home regardless of price. With the addition of the MS21 and the Tri-Planar arm, the retail cost of the system without digital, cables, stands, or power conditioning comes to $75,000; so it had better sound pretty special.

‘…the MS21 has the best silence I have ever heard, or “ever not heard”.’

First, the MS21 has the best silence I have ever heard, or “ever not heard”. Sounds don’t come out of blackness, they come out of nothing. It’s very hard to put in words, but this quality makes the system very listenable. I had thought that the magnetic bearing upgrade to my Clearaudio table had taken the system about as far as it could go in being quiet, but this isn’t just a new ball game; it’s a whole different ball game.

I must also mention the very positive effect it has on record noise. The MS21 makes record noise something you never think about on most records that I have. This combined with the overall quietness of the table and you have a whole new kind of silence.

Second, it has the ability to not let the music get out of control.

On the Louis and Ella LP, there are places where the trumpet starts to get really loud and I’m thinking, “this is getting ready to hurt my ears”, but it doesn’t. It just gets really loud. I don’t mean it doesn’t have realist bite. No, it just doesn’t quit sound like a trumpet and start to sound amplified. These two qualities get at the essence of the sound of the MS21. The rest of what I’m going to say will help you understand how it sounds in ways we are used to talking about, but these are the two things that are at the heart of its sound.

“…I don’t think I actually heard anything I never heard before; no I just heard it much easier, much more naturally, and with all the transparency one expects not from a high-end system, but from a musical performance.”

The MS21 lets you hear inner detail in a more revealing way. You hear more nuances, and more layers of the music than you knew were there. An over-used phrase in audio equipment reviewing is “I heard things that I had never heard before.” Well, I don’t think I actually heard anything I never heard before; no I just heard it much easier, much more naturally, and with all the transparency one expects not from a high-end system, but from a musical performance. Plucked strings, fingering work, as well as bowed strings all came through gloriously. The MS21 never over-emphasized sibilants in voices, yet it always let you hear the nuances of the singer’s voice and the air of the hall.

I’m sitting here as I write, listening to the wonderful 45s of Ella and Oscar and this album makes one of the most wonderful things about the MS21 so obvious. It is that it allows recorded music to sound more lifelike. This is a quality that is very difficult to put into words. It’s about how music flows effortlessly, how natural it sounds, and how pretty the piano sounds. While I may be laboring to describe this, it’s not hard to hear.

Even slightly improperly setup, the Linn or Ariston will sound overly warm in the mid-bass, and the detail will become blurred. This was never a problem with the MS21. It certainly would never be called a cool or analytical sounding table, but neither is it overly warm. It is on the naturally warm side of things, but it is never bloated, boomy, or slow sounding. On the contrary, I thought it had the best bass definition I had heard from any record playing system or SACD player.

As I listened to Willie Nelson’s Stardust album, I was impressed by how his voice had a pleasing warmth yet kept Willies’ kind of rawness. The voice was full bodied, while the guitar was quick and clear.

Prat & Drive

When I first begin to listen to the MS21, this was the area that seemed most confusing to me. The tonal balance is so right and so rich, yet it clearly did not have the drive I was used to from either my Clearaudio Ambient or especially the Shindo Garrard 301. It flows so well, that it is not quite as good as either of these tables when it comes to drive. I don’t want to overstate this, because the longer I listened, its other strengths so enthralled me that I begin to think I was mistaken about the lack of drive. When I told Steve about this, the first thing he said was, “you always make a big deal about this”, and he’s right. All the same, the minute I put my table back in the system, there it was; more drive to the music.

Now, most often I find that PRaT and Drive go hand in hand. In fact, I think the reason that the lack of drive did not bother me so much was how wonderful the MS21 is at getting the pace, timing, and rhythm of a performance so right.

Dynamics

I never once thought the dynamics were lacking and often I felt the dynamics were incredible, sometimes the best I had ever experienced in my system, but I did sometimes find the overall sound a little soft, at least to my taste. The MS21 was so wonderfully musical, this softness is not pervasive and on many recordings I did not even notice it, but I did notice it in the end. It was even more noticeable when I put the Clearaudio back in the system.

This sound that I’m calling a softness, I would guess, is just one of those basic differences between suspension turntables and mass loaded turntables. If it is sort of the nature of the beast, then I’m convinced that John and his engineers will conquer this, too. Why do I believe this? Well that’s simple; it’s because they have been so successful at taking the suspended table way beyond anything before it.

Bass

In the matter of the bass, it’s a question of whether you want quality or quantity.

If you are looking for the most bass with the biggest slam, then the top echelons of the mass loaded or idler drive turntables will give you that. If what you want is better slam and deeper bass than all but a few tables out there and at the same time you want the best, most lifelike bass you’ve ever heard: then I suggest you give the MS21 a listen.

What do I mean by the best bass? I mean bass that’s full and lifelike, bass that breathes, bass that lets you hear the air around the instruments, bass that lets you hear the wood bodies of cellos and basses, bass definition that lets you hear the nuances, timbers, and rhythm of real music. This table, combined with electronics such as the Shindo’s or Wavac’s, will give you bass that is startling and startling real. No, they won’t give you the slam and impact of a the best VPI table used with the big VTL’s and the Wilson Maxx speakers, but personally I prefer the quality and life of the MS21 and great SETs.

I’m not belittling or even saying that those who prefer the more powerful sound are wrong. There is plenty of room for personal taste in this hobby. I’m just trying to let you know what the MS21 sounds like and to tell you that it made wonderfully lifelike music in my house.

Midrange and Highs

These are the areas that the MS21 has no peers. It has that Wavac or Shindo way of letting you hear deep into the music, and having incredible detailed while never sounding etched or strained. The MS21 has: A. the most detail, B. the best detail, C. the most lifelike detail, and D. the most relaxed sound all at the same time.

“It is my experience that if one is used to a sound that only gets the leading edge right, then when they hear a system that gets it all, they almost always think this balanced sound is missing the leading edge.”

I know there may be some who say the MS21 doesn’t get the leading edge as good as the mass loaded table do, but I disagree. It is my experience that if one is used to a sound that only gets the leading edge right, then when they hear a system that gets it all, they almost always think this balanced sound is missing the leading edge.

Soundstage and Scale

Music played on the MS21 produced the best soundstage I’ve heard at my house or anywhere else. With this turntable, I was able to achieve both the organic whole soundstage I look for with the kind of width that extended sound way outside the speakers and way behind them as well. What amazed me and pleased me was the MS 21’s ability to do this without making the instrument or people sound like they were floating in space, but still be part of a real coherent soundstage like you hear with live music.

Because of the incredible silence of this table, combined with its ability to draw out inner detail and make those details easier to hear; you could easily hear the sides, the stage floor, and the top of the soundstage. With the MS21, the instruments within that soundstage possessed greater weight and more presence than I have ever heard from recorded music. Add how palpable those images are to the big picture, it begins to explain why this table gives one such a sensation of listening to live music.

Comparisons & Conclusions

I did what I could to be sure what I was hearing was the table and not other things. So along the way I got the perimeter weight for my Clearaudio Ambient turntable; I used the same Benz Ebony TR cartridge, and I even tried the Tri-Planer arm on my table. In the end, let me tell you the MS21 table brings about the bulk of the improvements, next the perimeter weight, and then the tonearm. I will definitely purchase the Clearaudio perimeter weight for my table, but what I wish is I could afford the MS21.

The comparison that I wanted to make, but did not get to, was the MS21 verses the Shindo turntable, arm, and cartridge. I know that the Shindo has more drive than my Ambient, so it would have more than the MS21. My auditory memory tells me though that the Merrill-Scillia and Shindo share the relaxed, organic characteristic, and the ability to sound so much like live music. My memory also tells me the MS21 would edge out the Shindo in inner detail and soundstage. Again, I wish I had heard them head to head, but I gave out of time and, well, that’s life. I know these are the two best turntables I have ever heard and I have heard a few that cost even more.

Let me make one more comment about these two tables. They both start with turntable designs that were the best of their kind in their day, and then refine them beyond what anyone could imagine either the Merrill or Garrard 301 ever could be taken. They are both also head and shoulders more musical than many of the reference tables of today.

Is the Merrill-Scillia MS21 the best turntable in the world? I don’t know, but I know it’s one of the very best. I also know it is without a doubt the best turntable I have ever heard in my own system. It is one of the two most musical turntables I have ever heard anywhere.

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