An Interview with George Merrill, September, 2005

An Interview I Conducted with George Merrill, September, 2005

As you read, imagine a soft-spoken man with a slight Tennessee accent. A man easy to laugh and eager to share what he knows about turntable design. A man filled with a great deal of satisfaction with how he has spent his life.

~What is your educational background?

I am basically self-educated in audio systems. I did attend the State Technical Institute for electrical engineering, but I left when I got married.

~How did your interest in audio equipment develop?

Like many in the late fifties/early sixties, I was attracted to the audio kits on the market. When I was fifteen, I had made tube kits for a preamp and power amp. I also designed and built my own speaker, using existing drivers. Those kits were my first hifi mono system.

~How did you come to open Underground Sound?

My father-in-law owned the space where the store now sits. When he died, I closed his old store and re-opened as Underground Sound. I had been doing quite a side business of servicing audio equipment, and it seemed like a natural thing to do. One of the first major brands I carried was Altec Lansing speakers, and I was the major dealer for Sony Betamax.

~Was that when you really started to get into higher end audio?

I was always into getting the best equipment I could afford. Before the store even opened, I owned a Thorens TD-124 turntable and a Dynaco SCA-35 Integrated Amp. I also owned a pair of AR-4X speakers.

~How did your interest in turntables develop?

I was always trying to better my equipment through trying one thing or another. With turntables, these variables seemed to really make a difference. One thing that really got me thinking was the appearance of the Linn Sondek. It introduced a large armboard to a suspension table. Up to that time, most armboard assemblies were petite. I wanted to know why that table sounded so good, and I started experimenting with different size armboards and different materials.

~Where did you conduct your experiments and how?

There was one section of the service area at Underground Sound where I did my work. I actually mounted on a board a platter assembly, a motor, and a tonearm. The tonearm was a Grace 707 that had just some out, and the cartridge, I don’t recall what it was, but all of the variables were kept the same except for the armboard material. I tried different sizes, materials, and weights. I used a Distortion Analyzer and a 1000hz tone recorded on an lp. I kept data on all of these changes, and what I discovered was that acrylic was the material that allowed the least amount of distortion. Acrylic was best at absorbing the tonearm energy and causing it to dissipate; this is what I call “Tonearm Release Energy.”

~What did you do with that discovery?

Once I figured out that acrylic was the material to use, I set out to replace the AR XA subchassis with an acrylic one. I got a local guy who worked on cabinetry to cut them and do the precise routing. He did that in his own shop. I would order several dozen at a time. I was advertising the mods with small ads in Absolute Sound and Hi Fi news, and they sold pretty well. I didn’t keep exact numbers, but I figure I sold 3000 kits. Many included spring kits and motor upgrades. Eventually, when AR introduced the ES-1, I began selling the kits to fit those, too.

~Did you ever patent any of your turntable ideas/upgrades?

The prospect of patenting the ideas was expensive. Not only that, the ideas, to me anyway, seemed almost too simple to patent. I would have spent a lot of time fighting similar ideas that had already been patented. For me, this was never about money anyway…I truly wanted to help bring people closer to their music. That’s more satisfying to me than money.

~Let’s move on to the development of the first Merrill Table.

I believe it was around 1982 that I decided to put all of my discoveries about what makes a good turntable into one unit. That table was known simply as the Merrill Turntable. It featured the acrylic subchassis, of course, and the use of other materials to deaden the sound as much as possible. For example, the top was a mix of layers of lead and formica layers. I even worked on a balsa wood tonearm for the table, but I ended up leaving that idea, and offered the table without an arm attached.

~Can you describe the arm?

Well balsa wood is a very dead material, so I took a length of that and cut a ridge down the center for wiring. Pretty simple, really. I liked the sound but it was a nightmare to assemble. Around the same time, I also designed a hydraulic on-the-fly VTA adjuster. I decided that was also too complicated to put in the first turntable.

~How did you market the first Merrill tables?

Again, through small ads in the audio equipment magazines. Plus I had begun to establish a network of dealers. A couple here, a couple there. I also used to sell them from my store. In fact, in my store, for years I advertised the fact that if you brought your turntable into my store and we did an a/b comparison with the Merrill turntable, if you didn’t think the Merrill table was better, I’d give you one for free. I never had to follow through with that. People always bought my table.

~Did you ever have reliability problems?

Never. I built the table with this in mind: the person who bought it should be able to fix it themselves easily with a basic set of hand tools you would find in your home. My goal, and it sounds kind of funny, was to never have to look at the turntable again once I sold it.

~Do you have any idea how many you sold?

I never was one for keeping track of that stuff, but I know I used to order 50-70 bases at a time from a local man. I know over the few years there were several orders of that size. You have to understand, my tables were not the prettiest or flashiest to look at. I was competing at that time with tables designed mostly with looks in mind. My tables were cumbersome, difficult to pack, and once you had it set up in your home, a pain to move around. I knew all that, yet I knew that my main goal was a solid and reliable table that incorporated everything I knew about making a good-sounding turntable. Some manufacturers could care less about the sound, all they wanted was something that looked good. I wanted a table that sounded good.

~Speaking of the bases, what woods were used?

At that time, walnut and light oak were the most popular, but we also sold some in rosewood and bobinga.

~I saw a photo of one that appeared to have a painted bottom. Did you sell those too?

Yes, a few. Sometimes we painted it, and sometime we sold it unfinished.

~From the first Merrill tables, how did the Heirloom develop?

Though there are Mark II and Mark III designations, the Merrill tables, including the Heirloom, were constantly being refined. New models were not introduced, rather improvements drifted into the tables as they were produced. A good example is the outer ring clamp. Some tables didn’t have it, then they were introduced but machined out of aluminum. Later, they were die-made, and formed from a magnesium and aluminum compound. First these were chromed, but later they were finished in a black textured paint. Likewise, the motors changed, along with their pulleys. When I obtained an improved part or improved material, I just added it into the table.

~Were there any constants in the turntables? Something that didn’t change in basic design from the first Merrill to the last of the Heirlooms?

The main platter bearing system stayed essentially unchanged. It was an oil well bearing with what I felt was an indefinite life span.

~Let’s go back to your statement about the diecast outer clamps. Where did you have those sourced?

I didn’t. I bought that casting machine for twenty-two thousand dollars and paid on that loan for a good long time. (Laughs.) It weighed 900 pounds. In today’s market, a machine like that would be seventy-five thousand or more.

~And your statement about the pulley. How did that change?

It began as aluminum, and then I changed to a crystaline polymer. The cost of the polymer, at that time, was extremely expensive. I would have liked to have made more of the table from it, but just a small amount of it was costly. The cost has come down quite a bit now (2005) and parts of the new Merrill-Scillia table that I couldn’t afford to make of the polymer then, are now reasonably affordable.

~Can we talk about the new table now?

Sure. Let me start by saying physics hasn’t changed. What makes a good turntable hasn’t changed fundamentally. What HAS changed, are the materials, the way they are manufactured, and their availablity. The new turntable has no acrylic whatsoever, except the dustcover. It’s been replaced by polymers that are the “deadest” out there. These new materials excel at dissipating energy. Likwise, the base is no longer wood, it too is a polymer material. The bearing well is about the only thing to remain a constant, except that contemporary machining techniques have made it possible to achieve tighter tolerances.

~What is the working relationship between you and Anthony regarding the new table?

Anthony is in charge of all of the machining and the assembly, and I am primarily a consultant on the design. I keep him aware of possible mistakes. Mistakes that I made. (Laughs.)

~Will the table be offered with a tonearm?

Most likely not. The table will be machined for the specifications of the tonearm of your choice.

~How will you market the table?

I still have my connections to a series of dealers across the country, and some places in the world. (I’ve sold quite a few Merrill tables in Italy.) Besides that, the table will also be offered online, most likely through the Underground Sound website.

~Do you still own a Merrill turntable?

I do. In fact, I and a special group of friends still have listening sessions at the store after we’re closed some nights.

~What arm is on yours?

I use a Mission 774. I’ve used dozens of arms in my lifetime, and that is my favorite.

~As we wind down the interview George, what are you most proud of in your accomplishments?

As I said earlier, my goal has always been to bring people closer to their music. I still get goosebumps when I hear a special passage of music. My aim, and I think I reached it, was to bring the listener closer to the music and the musician. I’m proud of that. One thing I now for sure, Bill Gates is not sitting at home shaking in his boots over the money I’ve made. (Laughs.)

Copyright Vinyl Nirvana, September, 2005. No unauthorized use.

A link to an interview with George Merrill, January, 2006 by Eric Whitacre of Sound of the Wood.