I do have a couple of my patented old audio guy stories about George Merrill, the legendary turntable designer who now makes the GEM Dandy PolyTable Signature turntable. (Website here.) The first isn’t really a story—I first heard of Merrill many years ago, when he was known for his modifications on AR turntables. I had an AR ES-1 ‘table back then, during my apprenticeship as a card-carrying audiophile, and I always had a plan for getting it in for a facelift. (Upgrade fever was a constant battle for me in the ‘90s.) When I hear Merrill’s name come up in audio discussions, even now, I always think back to that AR and how I should have kept it and tweaked it into a Merrill masterpiece.
Another one that got away? I have dozens of those stories now.
The more involved George Merrill story goes sort of like this: I’m still an importer-distributor, and I’m trying to convince one of my dealers to carry one of our turntables. He listens politely, nods his head and then, when I’m finished with my spiel, he points to a turntable in one of his showrooms. It’s a Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable.
“Why would I carry that,” he said, pointing toward the brochure that never left my still-outstretched hand, “when I have THIS?” His point was that no one would buy my turntable after they heard the 101, and sure, it was rudely put—I almost got up and left after that. But ultimately he was right. He invited me to sit down and listen to the Merrill-Williams, and he was totally right about everything he said.
I’ll always remember the sound of that turntable, such a superb and refined sound for such a seemingly modest-looking ‘table. I’ve heard it a few times since, mostly at high-end audio shows, and it never fails to impress.
Decades later I’m exchanging emails with George Merrill for the first time in my life, and amazingly as the Editor-in-Chief of Part-Time Audiophile. His latest turntable, the PolyTable Signature, is made under the aegis of his new brand, GEM Dandy. I told him those two George Merrill stories, and he said he would be honored if I could review the GEM Dandy PolyTable Signature, and I just don’t get tired of telling these “full-circle” audio stories around the campfire, kids.
That was my first question, right out of the gate, when I opened the box. What is this company named GEM Dandy, and why is its logo all over the place? I thought I was getting something from the esteemed George Merrill. Hmmm.
George Merrill does have a habit of doing his work under different names—Underground Sound, Merrill-Williams, Analog Emporium, etc. GEM Dandy is the brand name of the products that George Merrill designs and he sells them at Analog Emporium, his storefront in Cordova, Tennessee. GEM Dandy offers many other products than the PolyTable turntables—the line includes all sorts of accessories like cleaners, record weights and clamps, mats and even replacement parts for AR turntables. Gotta stick to your roots.
The GEM Dandy PolyTable turntable line includes three models starting with the PolyTable Standard (which starts at just $1495 with a blank tonearm mounting platform) to the PolyTable Super (which adds the Digital Motor Drive and the fluid-damped motor for $2495) and this model, the PolyTable Signature, which comes in at $2995. George Merrill recommends the Sorane TA-1L 12.7” tonearm with the GEM Dandy PolyTable Signature, which is included for an additional $1875.
The GEM Dandy PolyTable line shares common features such as a two-piece platter system with Damped Drive Platter, a custom precision motor, and a plinth designed to minimize energy flow with no metal or glass in the energy paths. Merrill says the primary resonance of the GEM Dandy turntables is 19 Hz, which is “away” from the resonances of the arm and the cartridge. The Signature resonates at 16 Hz.
The new GEM Dandy PolyTable Signature expands on that design with the following features, as per the website:
“The PolyTable Signature is a new two-tier Energy Management Design Model. The platter bearing and the tonearm are located on a plinth isolated from the base. The Fluid Damped Motor System (damps torque impulse peaks) sits on its own isolated base. The motor is operated via the DMD, accuracy 3 parts per million. The PolyTable Signature uses a two-piece decoupled platter system. with a bonded RCC mat.”
The GEM Dandy PolyTable Signature, once assembled, looks a little more substantial than most plinth-less or “open architecture” turntables out there. It’s a striking design when viewed straight on, almost impossibly tall with its Jenga-like platforms and long, sinewy legs. I’ve had a lot of nifty high-end audio equipment on hand over the last couple of months, but nothing has commanded attention in the room like the GEM Dandy with the Sorane TA-1L tonearm. It’s a looker.
Sorane TA-1L Tonearm
Sorane is the new name for the Japanese company that once did business as Abis. I’ve heard Abis arms before and even used one in a room share at a high-end show—it was mounted on the Gold Note Mediterraneo turntable and it performed like a winner.
Despite one small issue I’ll detail in a bit, I absolutely fell in love with the Sorane. It was super-easy to install on the GEM Dandy—I didn’t even have to consult the owner’s manual because everything seemed obvious. (Don’t you hate it when you look at a new arm and have to ask questions like “where’s the thingy for adjusting anti-skate?” or “why can’t I get the armrest out of the way of the cuing level?” With the Sorane, the knobs and the numbers are easy to navigate, the overall design is simple and pleasing to the eye, and the 12.7” length is just as elegant as can be. I loved how the arm stretches out so far out into space without looking vulnerable to passers-by. The GEM Dandy is already a very three-dimensional object, and the Sorane enhances that illusion of size—this is a rig.
Plus, you know, those bearings are very smooth. I don’t always notice smooth tonearm bearings. I did this time. It’s not often that a 12” arm is so smooth and easy to maneuver.
I encountered two small issues during set-up—one with the GEM Dandy, and one with the Sorane TA-1L. I found that the soft, pillowy Sorbothane damping pads placed under the feet of the GEM Dandy were curiously thick. That’s the idea—the weight of the turntable should cause everything to press down on the pucks and flatten them and absorb all that energy. It’s a strong idea in theory, but in practice it requires an extra bit of care when you center each puck and affix it with the adhesive. If you don’t center them perfectly, the weight of the turntable—which probably isn’t perfectly balanced across the three isolation feet—starts to shift over time and you can see the puck start to roll off to the side.
That, of course, means the GEM Dandy is no longer level. Good thing there’s a bubble level built into the plinth, because you’ll want to check it on a regular basis. Yes, I found that table needed to be re-leveled once or twice during its stay. Not a big deal, but it does make you want to try other solutions. In fact, the spongey pads are affixed to a smaller, flatter and harder pad on the actual foot, which works, but you might be missing out on something. Be patient, vigilant and alert.
The lone issue with the Sorane arm also seemed to be an easy fix but still worth mentioning. The counterweight seemed a little loose on the arm tube. I’m used to something a bit grippier, something that doesn’t slide so freely. Yes, I once lifted the tonearm up a little too high while cueing up, and I watched—sensed, really—that the counterweight slid ever so slightly backward, and then, of course, the tracking force was wildly out of range. I feel like a dab of something inert on the point where the weight meets the tube should do the trick. Just gum it up a tiny bit.
I had a handful of cartridges to use on the GEM Dandy/Sorane rig, but I went with my reference ZYX Bloom 3 first. In fact, this was the period when I decided to upgrade the Bloom 3 to the new ZYX Ultimate Airy X, so most of my observations on the differences between the two stablemates were conducted on the PolyTable Signature. For most of the review period, I listened to the GEM Dandy/Sorane combo with the Airy, and for phono stages I employed the Pureaudio Vinyl, the Pass Labs XP-17 and the HP phono card in the Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amplifier.
After only a few days with the GEM Dandy and Sorane combination, I got that feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve only felt twice before, when I reviewed the Palmer 2.5i turntable and the Audio Origami PU7 just last year and with my current reference, the Technics SL-1200G. It’s a feeling of solidity, coupled with the reliability that comes from using a product that, once set up properly, will continue to operate flawlessly for who knows how long. Eons, maybe.
What does that have to do with sound? I think it’s connected. Some of the more complex and fiddly analog rigs out there require a bit of focus when it comes to getting it right—everything from constantly changing alignment and tracking force and VTA and azimuth, to being ultra-steady while cueing because one false move can destroy the stylus on a five-figure cartridge. The GEM Dandy and the Sorane, however, seemed to get dialed in with uncommon speed and ease. Since it’s so easy to get great sound with such little effort, you start to relax. You stop worrying about messing with parameters, because this sounds so right.
It won’t take long for you to figure out that music always sounds better when you are relaxed. There should never be a single component in a high-end audio system that inflicts stress or worry about its operations. I feel like George Merrill gets that. He knows that effortless feeling that comes from elegant engineering isn’t accidental.
That might be the lone reason why I loved the Palmer table so much, that single isolated feeling of trustworthiness. I loved the sound of the Palmer, which is why it’s so shocking that the GEM Dandy costs one-fourth as much and still thrills me in the same way.
Listening to the GEM Dandy PolyTable
Over the last few analog reviews, I’ve gravitated toward using a particular LP as an ultimate reference: PureAudioProject’s Music Odyssey—China. It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed it, and on a lark it was brought back into the rotation and now I’m just astonished by its beauty and its sound. I’ve discussed my growing obsession with Chinese music before, and this album—a remastered selection of tracks from Rhymoi Music—seems to be an unusually apt summary of what I specifically love about these musical genres.
Music Odyssey—China has become a vital evaluation tool for me over the last few weeks, especially with all of the changes that have been going on in my system. It’s a touchstone recording, a way to zero in on each change. On the GEM Dandy PolyTable Signature, the clarity of the timbres of the various traditional Chinese string instruments was remarkable, with the physical movements of the strings and the fingers stepping ever so closer to the listener. Here’s what I heard that I haven’t heard before—the sound of a string moving in space, nearer to the wooden bodies of the instruments.
Movement, as in the finger pushing the string into the fretboard. No more than a millimeter in space. I swore I could see it. It was eerie, and I’ll never forget that sensation. The music was always alive with movement in space.
The GEM Dandy always had the poise so I could hear those little sounds, the swift feeling of air swirling, an individual texture that you don’t often hear unless you’re listening to a much more expensive analog set-up. It was a master of detail only because it was so unperturbed, so determined to get the job right.
Reviewing a George Merrill turntable? Check that off the list. It was everything I hoped it would be.
Despite my limited exposure to the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable, I knew it was the real deal, and that George Merrill knows how to use simple, elegant engineering and knowledge of material sciences to get the little things done, the things that make sonic differences—even with an “entry level” line like the PolyTable models, which still employ many of the same energy management principles as the MW. (You can still buy the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.3 from the website for $8995 and up. That is also a great price for that level of performance, in case you were wondering.)
The GEM Dandy PolyTable surprised me with its locked-in sound and its sure-footed operation. The high-end audio marketplace is full of outstanding performers at the $3K price point—the last three turntables I’ve reviewed cost around that much, and each one convinced me that meaningful design innovations can still occur at this level. With the Sorane arm, this package comes in under $5000, and the rig lunges over $8000 with the ZYX Ultimate Airy X. (It’s back to $6000 when you go with the ZYX Bloom 3, which is perfectly sublime as well. Heck, you can save more by going with an OEM Rega arm.) It’s a dream rig, and I’d be happy to spend a few decades with it.
“Please compare the PolyTable Signature to the 100K plus or ANY other turntable,” it says on the GEM Dandy website and sure, we see claims like that all of the time in the high-end audio industry. I’m not telling you to do that.
But I will say this. I kept having one thought, over and over, with the GEM Dandy PolyTable while I used it: “I can’t believe it’s only $3000.” That’s why I’m giving it my Best Value Award.
(Oh wait! Stop the presses! I finally get the whole GEM Dandy name. “GEM.” Get it?)
Yeah I get it. Even a knucklehead like me figured that one out right away ;~). I think I can amplify your thoughts on Merrill longevity. All this mention of George Merrill product history and no mention of his first “Signature” turntable the Heirloom, with lead imbedded in the acrylic platter. Ya can’t get that anymore. I got one of the last ones he produced with a serial number that George confirmed was May of 1986. It had been sitting in the storage of a (former) authorized dealer here in Atlanta for over 10 years when I purchased it in the late 90’s with a Fidelity Research FR-64fx tonearm installed by the dealer. I have a high output just tuned up Blackbird that I use, and this is still my only turntable rig. The mm phono section of my 22 year old VAC Avatar Special Edition works really good (I could use a little more gain), and it now has all the tubes replaced (only one went bad at the 20 year mark but it has all new matched Mullards). I have talked to George twice about the table and he said other than digital speed control that nothing will make it sound better, so it still even has the original belt. Super big soundstage on “normal” well recorded vinyl. Early Savoy Brown with Chris Youlden, yipes…. And a big ol’ heavy periphery ring. Voila!!