In this category we’re looking for a complete system, or most of a system, which simplifies your purchase decision by giving you everything in one place. And in the middle of 2015, UK hi-fi company Musical Fidelity delivered the Merlin, which could have been tailor-made to fit our requirements. We get excited just remembering how this package got everything right — the mini amplifier and the two oval-fronted speakers came in their bright red finish (silver and black are also available), the amp is weighty, the speakers too, and impeccably finished — those red cylinders are metal, not plastic; their speaker terminals are full-sized binding posts, while the speaker baffle behind the solid grille is interestingly shaped and stepped around the 76mm balanced-mode radiator speaker at its centre. (Musical Fidelity calls this a “diffraction multiplier”, saying it allows a “huge but accurate stereo soundstage” — which it did.)
The amp itself is small, and from a first glance at the back panel you’d think its connections would be minimal given only a few square centimetres of space for them to the left of the power socket and the speaker terminals. But squeezed in there are a Bluetooth antenna, a micro-USB input that connects with your computer, a minijack analogue/optical combo input, and a single pair of RCA phono inputs which can take an analogue line-level signal or, via a small DIP switch, a turntable input; an earth terminal sits alongside.
So that’s six options available for the four inputs, most likely quite sufficient for the modern home — you might connect your TV to the optical minijack input, your computer to the USB, and use the Bluetooth for ad-hoc music from your smart device, leaving the RCA phono sockets free for the turntable which Musical Fidelity has released with the system as an option.This is called the ‘Roundtable’ (it has curved corners, but it’s a long way from being round), with a felt-matted MDF plinth and a low-resonance nine-inch arm fitted with an Audio Technica 95E cartridge. As with all the Merlin units, it’s finished beautifully and reeks of quality.
The characteristics of the Merlin system at close range — an airy lightness which lends clarity to everything — perfectly serve the usual softness of Bluetooth. Via computer USB, even better — sensational clarity, vocals centred in their own little world, while the bass sounded natural, realistic, clear and balanced. We had wondered if bass would be a weakness given the system’s size, and there are limits — the BMR radiators weren’t perfect at mating deep dance bass with high-frequency detail. But the clarity of delicate recordings was marvellous, revealing, for example, the the mega-church reverb applied to Brian Wilson’s vocals on ‘On An Island’. And the turntable is wonderful (it has much in common with Pro-Ject designs).
Merlin it may be named, but there’s no inexplicable wizardry going on here — just an excellent idea for today’s living, a compact and attractive system implemented with an experienced eye and audio regard to high-quality design. And prices have reduced since we reviewed it — double happiness! Now amp+speakers $1299, turntable $999, or amp+speakers+turntable $1999. More info: www.audiomarketing.com.au