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July 2007
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Merlin TSM-MME
The sound of thought.
Review By Todd Warnke
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Merlin TSM-MME Speakers  Way back in 1967 a Cosworth DFV engine won the very first Formula One race it entered, with the legendary Jim Clark behind the wheel of a Lotus 49. Fifteen years later the same basic engine powered Keke Rosberg in a Williams to the Formula One World Championship against a field of largely turbocharged competitors. And on United States soil the sister engine made for the United States open wheel series, the Cosworth DFX, continued to win Indy titles with Bobby Rahal all the way through the 1987 season. Why mention this in an audio review? Because a great audio design, like a great engine design – or for that matter, any great design – is a thing that can and should have a long life when it is looked after with thought, care and a constant eye to improvement. In audio there are a few examples of great designs that have stood the test of time even as they have continually evolved to meet new demands – Cardas wire and the Williamson tube circuit are two that make my case. Another just may be the Merlin two-way speaker design, which in one form or another has been around for over a decade.

Now I don't want to get into a genealogy lesson here or a ritual recitation of begats, but the basic topology of the TSM-MME dates back to the original VSM design of 1994 with the TSM debuting in 1996 (by the way, rumor has it that VSM stand for Very Scary Monitor and TSM stands for The Small Merlin). The basic design is damped, uses a second order crossover, employs only the highest quality parts and has an extremely rigid cabinet. The larger VSMs have been ported and floor standing, while the TSM has been sealed and stand-mounted. Another significant feature of the Merlin loudspeakers has been that they are easy to drive and have smooth impedance curves and so have been employed in traditional solid-state and tubed systems as well as in many low-powered tubed setups. I have used my reference Merlin VSM-Ms with singled-ended triodes as well as with 300-watt solid-state beasts with equally great results.

As for the current iteration of the TSM, the TSM-MME, its genesis was sparked largely by the European Union regulation concerning lead-free content in electronic components (the "RoHS" standard has affected many other companies as well, for example Nikon recently dropped many of their older lenses and are replacing them over the next several months with RoHS compliant versions). Since many of the components Merlin uses are sourced from Europe and were already subject to this regulation, the bulk of the redesign centered on the crossover components and the wiring and solder. Bobby Palkovich, the head magician at Merlin, points out that this is was no easy thing to accomplish as each and every part in the TSM design had already been examined for its individual sound as well as its additive effect in the overall design. Hence, a tweak here always means a change way over there. With a newish design that could lead to a lot of tail-chasing, trying to account for all the subtle changes, but since Mr. Palkovich has been working with the TSM for more than decade the re-design was able to focus on far more than compliance with the RoHS standard and, according to the folks at Merlin, remarkably improved the sound across the board.

 

The Details
Enough talking around the TSM-MME, let's get to the details. First, the price of the new TSM, at $2800, has stayed the same as the old version, as have the general specifications. Each loudspeaker is 16 inches high, 8 inches wide and 10.5 inches deep and each weighs a rather hefty 26 pounds. The tweeter is a hand-made 1-inch soft-dome is a version of the Morel MDT30 that has been customized by Renaissance Audio exclusively for Merlin, while the woofer is a pulp, 6.25-inch MW164-08 from Morel. The sensitivity as reported by Merlin is 87dB/W/m, and the impedance is 8 Ohms nominal with a 6.5 Ohms minimal rating. The two-way design uses a second order crossover, wired in phase. On the rear of the unit are two pairs of Cardas binding posts to facilitate bi-wiring (Merlin supplies a pair of hand-made Cardas jumpers for the single-wirers among us). Also, besides using lead-free drivers, Merlin has gone to great lengths to remove all residual lead in just about every component and solder joint in the entire loudspeaker. In addition, many of the key components are cryogenically treated, both in the loudspeaker itself and in the RC filter which attaches to the Cardas binding post (the RC filter uses parts from Cardas, Caddock and Hovland and is designed to Q align the frequency response and filter out high frequency hash as well as to provide unterminated amplifiers with a 10 Ohm load at 100kHz – I consider it essential to getting the most from the TSM-MME).

The power response of the loudspeaker, like most other VSM/TSM designs, has been optimized for 10 degrees off axis listening, and Merlin supplies a slick and simple little protractor to ensure that anyone can set up the loudspeaker with the proper degree of offset. The sealed, damped design means you can place the TSM-MME closer to rear walls than you can with a ported design, but my experience says you shouldn't as they are very linear and appreciate the room to prove that. In my room I used the same placement setting as I use with the Merlin VSM's and other full-range loudspeakers that come in for review – namely a Cardas "Golden Ratio" setup (see the Cardas website, Insights section, for full details).

 

Plays Well With Others
In reviewing the Merlin loudspeakers it saw time with every significant piece of my review setup, though it spent most of the time with the higher quality bits as it quickly demonstrated that only the highest test stuff would reveal its limits. So while it spent time with the recently reviewed Conrad-Johnson CA200 it spent more time seeing my reference First Sound Presence Statement preamplifier and Blue Circle BC6 power amplifier. It also saw the in for review Superphon Revelation III preamplifier as well the ModWright SWL 9.0 preamplifier – both with the Blue Circle as well as with an Art Audio Carissa. Comparison loudspeakers were my reference Merlin VSM-Ms and a pair of Devore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8s. Source digital components were a Cary CD-303/200, a Berendsen CD1, a CEC CD-3300, a Blue Circle BC501 DAC and my extremely customized Assemblage DAC1. Cabling was from Cardas (primarily), Acoustic Zen, Audio Magic, Stereovox and Shunyata Research – the last of which also supplied power conditioning.

 

Sounds
As with any two-way using a 6.25-inch mid-woofer, the first thing most folks wonder about is the bass response. Me too. So let's start this out at the bottom by dropping Tab Benoit's Nice and Warm [Justice JR 1201-2] in the CD player to see if the opening Hammond B-3 on the title track can conjure up some Louisiana ooze in the listening room.

Well...?

Sorry, I can't talk (or write) with Dirty Rice in my mouth. Just a second...

Ok, first off, the bass of the TSM-MME is remarkably dense, but not in the lumpy, thick or slow manner of many ported two-ways. Rather it is rich with tonal shading, nuance and power, and, coupled with wonderful and natural quickness, right up to the 50Hz or so lower limit, the bass of the small Merlin is absolute world class. On the Benoit track this results in a powerful opening section that filled my mid-sized listening room with thoroughly believable music. And the lack of a port means that the perceived extension is greater than the actual extension, such that I did not feel a loss of power or impact.

Moving up the scale, I spun the classic Blue Train by John Coltrane [Blue Note CDP 7243 8 53428 0 6] and turned to "Lazy Bird." The opening, with Kenny Drew skittering across the top of the piano is followed by the rest of band jumping in. There is a lot of musical space in this track and through the TSM-MME each player had their own aura, tonal palette and reach. This is something quite special as it allows the feel of musical interaction to flow unimpeded. Or at least it does for me as the Merlin allowed me to find and follow individual lines just easily as I do in a jazz club (actually, easier since most clubs tend to have crappy sonics). Better still, the way the midrange stacks on top if the bass is seamless – that is it has the same tonal density, matched with impeccable dynamic speed and punch.

Moving to the top of the scale I turned to my favorite recording of Arvo Pärt works, Fratres, by the Flemish orchestra I Fiamminghi [Telarc CD-80387]. With seven variations of the title work, each recorded in the same, lively Basilica of Bonne Esperance, there is plenty of opportunity to listen for tonal shading as well as to the reverb from the massive church walls. The variations – which run from just past 8 minutes to just over 12 and include various combinations of percussion, strings, woodwinds and piano – depict a group of monks approaching the listener, drawing equal and then passing on. In other words, the piece moves in a stately manner from crescendo to diminuendo. While listening with the TSM-MMEs the shape and size of the recording location was laid bare as never before, with the procession of religious brothers an almost physical thing. This was due to two factors. First, the high frequency response of the Merlins is extremely flat so that no particular tonal region exerts undue power on the listener, and that allows one to peer deeply into a recording and see only truth. And second, just as with the midrange, the treble aligns perfectly on top of the rest of the sound coming from the loudspeaker. This creates the feel of a frequency response curve (at least at the 10 degree off axis position that Merlin has designed into the loudspeaker) that responds with linearity at any point along its extension. This is an exceedingly rare skill and is something Bobby Palkovich calls "continuousness," and that I would call tonal continuity. But whatever you call it, the way it sounds and feels is like the mythical linear point source that is the holy grail of loudspeaker design.

As for the rest of the TSM-MMEs characteristics, most have already been mentioned in passing. Dynamically, the little Merlin, when used within its limits, is superb. It breathes gentle life into folk music with swift and subtle micro-dynamics, and can turn right around and give you a solid thump between the eyes when playing some driving rock (though it does punch more like a welterweight than a heavyweight). And the TSM-MME images, as you would expect, in an expansive and yet natural manner. The stage is wide, deep, layered and stable. And images upon the stage are solid and three-dimensional. Lastly, the build quality of the TSM-MME is first rate, though some may find the standard black finish a bit plain. Fortunately, for those who do, Merlin offers several stunning painted finishes.

 

What About The Other Guys?
Ok, with a review like this, is there any competition? Good question, and the answer is, "of course". But I will say this right now, from my perspective there is no real competition at the same price point as the TSM-MME. While I have not heard everything there is in the circa 3k range, I have heard a lot and nothing in my experience combines the range (upper 40s through 20k cycles), evenness, dynamics and tonal purity of the Merlin. Some, like the Magnepans, have many of the subtle virtues of the Merlin, but lack its dynamics. Others, like several British mini-monitors, have certain of the Merlin's dynamics, but lack the smooth, even response. So stepping up in price I compared the TSM-MME to the Devore Gibbon Super 8, a small floorstanding two-way priced at $4000 that I reviewed last year.

In that review I commented on the "organic," "natural" and "involving" sound of the Devore loudspeaker as well as how easy it was to drive and its deep and tuneful bass. A year later all those comments still apply and the Gibbon Super 8 remains one of my long-term favorites. Up against the TSM-MME the Devore clearly adds about an octave of bass reach. It is also an easier to drive loudspeaker and with those two virtues remains my first choice for ultra-low powered SET amplifier set as well as for folks who want a musical and relaxing loudspeaker with deep bass on a realistic budget.

That said, to my ears and with my tastes the TSM-MME is a better loudspeaker in just about every other way. The two most significant ways are linked and directly address the two largest failings of the Gibbon Super 8. First, the TSM-MME has a more even frequency response, most especially through the bass where the port of the Devore adds depth but at the cost of tonal continuity. When playing a disk like the Material album Hallucination Engine [Axiom 314-518 351-2] with massive bass lines laid down by Bill Laswell, "Space Bass" by Bootsy Collins and Hammond B-3 courtesy of Bernie Worrell the greater extension of the Devore is obvious. But when switching to the TSM-MME, its considerably more even bass adds up to an enhanced sense of musicians jamming together in real time. Ultimately I found that the latter sonic viewpoint was the more enjoyable one as well.

Second, my largest concern with the Devore was that it gave up a bit inner detail when compared to my reference Merlin VSM-M loudspeakers. Well, considering that I find that the new TSM-MME out resolves my old VSM-Ms, it quite logically follows that the small Merlin takes a real and significant lead over the Devore in this area as well. A quick example can be found when listening to "A Secret Silken World," the opening track of the David Baerwald disk Triage [A&M 75021 5392 2]. The song is a highly creepy, deeply atmospheric political commentary using the metaphor of power, sex and sin and features a beautiful trumpet solo by Herb Alpert(!). Though the TSM-MME the production was both laid bare and made more involving while the trumpet had more bite and greater tone. Keep in mind, through the Gibbon Super 8 this track was excellent, but with the Merlin it was unforgettable.

 

Merlin's Thoughts On Sound
Though brought into existence by a change in EU regulations, the TSM-MME is clearly not a quick, one-off response to changing law. Rather it is the sound of Bobby Palkovich's thinking over time. Over the life of a well-conceived original design that has been cared for, explored, and tweaked until it has evolved into a remarkable pure result. Even better, rather than just showing the results of Palkovich's thinking, the evenness and resolving capability of the Merlins allows you to hear the sound of musicians thinking and playing in as natural a manner as I have ever encountered.

With all the listening I did with the TSM-MME, perhaps no single piece demonstrates what it can do better than the Bach Cello Suites as performed by Mistlav Rostropovich [EMI D 273269-1]. While I play this album with regularity, Rostropovich's death in April led to several complete listening of it. Though rated to 50 cycles in the bass, through the TSM-MMEs, there was tight, controlled but dense and tonally joyful bass. The mids were fast, life-like, lush and accurate – while the highs were blessedly free of grain, open, vivid and complete. So much so that a listening session that started out in an elegiac mood turned into a delightful opening of my soul by a still living and breathing master.

Comments like that aside, no audio component is or can be perfect, and the TSM-MME has flaws, though they are more a result of physics and market issues. The bass cannot reach 20Hz (physics) and though the VSM gets down to the low 30s through use of a larger and more expensive cabinet as well as the Bass Augmentation Module (BAM), those advances come at a literal price. Also, while the TSM-MME can fill a mid-sized room, it does not belong in a large one. But those things aside, the Merlin TSM-MME is flat from its lower limit on up past where I can hear. It creates a startling clear audio window through which pours out pure music (or impure depending on your musical selection) and does so with all combinations of equipment. At this point, if you have the correct room, I know of no better way to spend $3000.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High-frequencies (3,000Hz on up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape width front

Soundscape width rear  
Soundscape depth behind speakers

Soundscape extension into the room

Imaging

Fit and Finish

Self Noise

Value for the Money

 

Specifications
Type: Two-way monitor loudspeaker

Drivers: 1-inch soft-dome customized Morel MDT30 tweeter and Morel MW 164 6.25- inch damped pulp cone midrange/woofer.

Frequency Response: 55 to 20kHz (+/- 2dB), 1 meter on axis. 10dB down at 35 Hz
Acoustic Phase Shift: Less than 10 degrees
Impedance: 8 Ohms nominal, 6.5 Ohms minimum, and 14 Ohms at crossover point
Sensitivity: 87dB/W/1m
Power Handling: 30 watts minimum with 120 watts maximum 

Crossover: Optimized 12dB per octave with crossover point at 2150Hz. Parts include the use of Hovland Aluminum foil and polypropylene capacitors 
Caddock Micronix Film resistors (impedance corrected), and hand-wound/potted inductors.

Bi-wireable via Cardas "no-stress" binding posts
Dimensions: 8 x 10.5 x 16 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 23 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years parts and labor
Price: $2800 on up depending on options

 

Company Information
Merlin Music Systems Inc.
4705 Main Street, PO Box 146
Hemlock, New York 14466

Voice: (585) 367-2390
Fax: (585) 367-2685
E-mail: info@merlinmusic.com
Website: www.merlinmusic.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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