I am having an acute sensory conflict. My eyes are telling me one thing and my ears are reporting something completely different. I clearly see the Merlin TSM-MMe loudspeakers sitting on 22” stands. And there is music in my room. The problem is that the music is so completely disconnected from the speakers that it creates some confusion about the source of the sound. However, I am getting used to this discrepancy, and liking it.
The Merlin TSM has been in continuous production since 1996, evolving over the years. They originally sold for $2500 and now the cost is $3080. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation should cause the current price to be about $3500. The TSM is a very solid sealed-box design with a 1½ inch thick front baffle and high quality components. The woofer is a Morel MW164 pulp cone, and the tweeter is also Morel, their long standing MDT30 silk dome unit. Crossover components include Caddock, Cardas, and Hovland, which are some of the finest available today.
The review TSM-MMes carry serial number 3993, and were shipped to their original owner by Merlin in mid 2008. The speakers were auditioned in a system which included Marantz MA-9S2 and Jones Audio PA-M300 monoblock power amplifiers, Marantz SM-11S1 stereo amplifier, Dali Euphonia RS-3 stand mounted loudspeakers, Dali Mentor 5 speakers, Velodyne Optimum-12 subwoofers, various preamplifiers, Prism Orpheus Digital Interface, SOTA Cosmos IV turntable with TriPlanar VIIu2 tonearm and Miyajima Shilabe phono cartridge. Interconnects are all Mogami and single-wire speaker cables are Audience Au24 e and Element Apollo. Power products include Audience PowerChord e, PS Audio AC-12 and Juice Bar II, and Jerry’s DIY power cords. The listening room is approximately 12′ x 19′ x 8′.
Three main factors contribute to the inability to hear the speakers as the source of the music. First, the enclosure is black hole, silent as a tomb, dead. There are no audible resonances coming from the enclosure to confuse the sound produced by the woofer and tweeter drivers. Second, the crossover is completely undetectable. Bobby Palkovich, the designer and owner of Merlin Music Systems, has tweaked this crossover until it does exactly what it is supposed to do and nothing more. There are many, many speakers on the market today, some very expensive, which have problems in the crossover region(s) precisely because the crossover is audible in some way. And third, the speakers are extremely low in distortion. They track the audio signal very accurately and then let go of each note as quickly as it started without hangover, ringing or any added sound. These are boxless box speakers, producing sound that is completely free of their physical constructs.
A secondary factor is the 2-way design which eliminates any possibility of a crossover in the midrange. The human ear is especially sensitive to musically discordant anomalies in the midrange. Most 3-way speakers hand off the sound from a woofer to a midrange driver in the range of 200 to 500 Hertz. When you consider that middle-C is 262 Hz, the requirement for an inaudible crossover for this very key frequency range becomes apparent. 2-way speakers eliminate this requirement. The trade off is that the small woofer/midrange driver cannot produce the lowest bass notes.
The TSMs do not warp the laws of the physical universe by producing loud and low bass from a small enclosure. A big box is still needed for this. However, a sealed box speaker has a slower or shallower roll off than a ported box although it might not go as deeply before that rolloff begins. The result is that the useful bass from sealed-box speakers is often spec’d at their -10dB response rating and here the TSMs have useful response all the way down to 35Hz! You might not need, or want, a subwoofer to fill in the lowest bass – especially in a small room, although the bass power and impact decreases along with frequency. Since the lowest note on a string bass is at 41 Hz, and even the lowest note on a piano (rarely heard in music) is at 27.5 Hz, the TSM is quite capable in the bass. I would not expect them to “do” King Kong in a home theater system, however, and neither should you. The TSMs go noticeably deeper than the more expensive, and also sealed-box, Dali Euphonia RS3 speakers.
While I usually listened with a pair of Velodyne Optimum-12 subwoofers, it was interesting to turn them off and hear the TSMs on their own. The bass power increases noticeably when listened to on-axis instead of with the mild 10 degree toe-in recommended by Merlin. The trade-off is that imaging precision is harmed along with the even response in the upper frequencies. I often missed the extra bass from the powered subs, but the TSM were generally satisfying sans augmentation. The bass quality was excellent: fast, nimble, and detailed. A sealed box speaker has much lower phase shift than a ported speaker which can enable a better match with subwoofers. I found the TSMs to blend seamlessly with the Velodynes. The TSMs may never compete in the bass against a large floor-standing speaker, but what bass is present is both highly accurate and musically consonant.
This accuracy, or truthfulness to the incoming signal, continues into the midrange. The Merlins have no preference for male or female vocals. Often speakers (and other components) favor the lower midrange and sound better with male vocals, or they accentuate the upper midrange and force female vocalists to take center stage. A good test of this is listening to Mark Knopfler and EmmyLou Harris on All The Roadrunning, Mercury CD 9877385. Where some components can make it seem that these two seasoned professionals are competing for top billing, the TSM-MMe speakers offer compelling duets from artists who are sharing their love of music.
The TSMs do not have the level of upper treble air and sparkle that the Dali RS3s or Mentor 5s, or, very late in the audition, YG Acoustics Kipod Main Modules speakers easily provide. This can be adjusted somewhat by listening on-axis, but again, this configuration has negative effects in other parts of the audio frequency spectrum. There does not seem to be a lack of extension into the upper treble, but the resolution of the finest details and soft, impulse sounds such as a wooden stick gently tapping on a cymbal are not as clean and articulate as sounds in the lower treble. On “Go Your Own Way” on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors LP, the sound of the guitar pick bumping over the strings was largely absent. These micro-impulsive sounds are very high in frequency. This character makes the Merlins a better match for the more-forward sounding Marantz SM-11S1 amplifier than the more linear MA-9S2s or the Jones Audio amplifiers. Overall, the sound of the TSMs paired with the $4,500 Marantz SM-11S1 amplifier came very close – in enjoyment if not for absolute quality – to the over $21,000 combination of the Dali RS3s and either mono amplifier. $7,600 vs. $21,000+…interesting. The extra expenditure buys an increase in overall refinement especially in the upper treble, a deeper soundstage and an easier ability to hear individual singers in a chorus. Is this a night-day difference? No. More like a dusk-midnight difference.
The sound stage is very wide, completely ignoring the physical locations of the speakers. This makes acoustic recordings, those captured outside of the studio, particularly enjoyable because the sense of the recording space is unusually apparent. The depth of the stage, while nicely layered and satisfyingly deep, is not quite as adept and accurate as the width of the stage. This matters not at all for electronic music. There is no mistaking reverb added in the studio for natural ambience in a large concert hall. The TSMs have the resolving power to clearly render even very small musical – and non-musical – effects and artifacts.
The Merlins have extraordinary note-to-note and octave-to-octave coherence. This linearity gives all music a convincing sense of natural flow and energy which reduces the feeling of listening to a recording. This is an inherent character of the TSMs and brings the listener closer to the sound of live music. Brass instruments, always challenging to reproduce accurately due to their complex tonal signatures and varied harmonic structures, have a strong sense of solidity and presence. Likewise, the dynamic performance is excellent. At any volume short of overloading the 6.25 inch woofer, the speakers offer a cohesive wave launch with an absence of overhang that gives the music a great sense of punch and impact. The feeling of excitement from upbeat music is very enjoyable.
In some speakers, which are capable of good impact (macro-dynamics), the harmonic resolution and micro-dynamics can be lacking. The Merlins do not suffer from this deficiency and present very long lasting harmonic trails and fade-outs with excellent resolution as they disappear into silence. The low distortion of the TSM is also apparent in this excellent harmonic character. The drivers are fast with minimal signatures of their own, especially the midrange which has exacting definition and which welcomes performers into the listening room.
The Merlin TSM-MMe speakers are underpriced for the level of accuracy, construction quality, and musical enjoyment they consistently provide. They are easy to drive and easy to place in a listening room, blending well with both the décor and other components. If I were looking at the next upgrade to this venerable loudspeaker model (knowing next to nothing about the business of manufacturing loudspeakers), it might be interesting to try one of the newest tweeter designs. As they are today, the TSM-MMes are speakers that offer excellent overall performance and outstanding factory support at a reasonable cost.
Overall Rating: 8.5 LPs
I have re-read the review about a half dozen times and think it a very thoughtful and accurate description of the tsm mme’s performance, sound and construction. That being the said, I have only a few things to mention. The tsm mme is a de-tuned version of the mxe which offers slightly wider bandwidth, is a bit more continuous sounding and resolved in character. The mme was designed around leaner sounding tubes and ss so I wanted it to be a little more forgiving yet still be a thoroughbred in what it could present in a musical manner.
Newer production offers a re-milled tweeter face plate that reduces diffraction while increasing the size of the dome’s opening to make the device sound more open and extended. The body of the tweeter is no longer a Morel mdt 30 but a hand made version made by Renaissance Audio. It is now called the Rennaissance mst 30.5.
It is my feeling that use of a copper litz speaker cable would improve the hf extension and micro definition. This is the type of cable I used in the development of the tsm.
My special thanks,
Bobby A Palkovich
President of Merlin Music Systems, Inc.