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Positive Feedback ISSUE 13
may/june 2004


merlin music systems

TSM-MM loudspeakers

as reviewed by Gary Beard






Merlin TSM-M monitors on 24" Osiris stands with an REL Strata III subwoofer.

First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II preamplifier with Amperex 7308 PQ tubes, George Wright WPP100C phono-preamplifier with Amperex 6ER5, and RCA 12AU7 tubes. David Berning ZH270 amplifier with Brimar 12AT7 black plate, GE 5 Star 12AV7, and cryo'ed Sylvania 6JN6 power tubes. 

Cary 303/200, Marantz CC-65-SE, Sony DVP-7700, and a Technics SL1600 Direct Drive Turntable.

Cardas Neutral Reference bi-wire speaker cables, Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference, Kimber Silver Streak, Kimber and Hero, MIT 3 interconnects. Acoustic Zen MC2 digital cable. Shunyata Sidewinder and homebrew Belden/Hubbell/Marinco powercords.

Richard Gray Power Station 400 power conditioner, Final Labs Daruma 3II isolation, Vibrapods, DIY "Flexy" equipment rack, DIY points, ceramic cable supports, and various isolation tweaks.


The Evolution of the TSM: The Merlin TSM-MM Loudspeakers with Magic Mod

I have owned Merlin TSM speakers for several years, first the SE versions, then the Ms. Because I love what they do—or rather don’t do—with music, they have been the cornerstones of my system. They do not call attention to themselves either sonically or visually (unless you are fortunate enough to have one of the premium finishes), but do their job at the highest level and look handsome doing it.  

Of course, the TSMs have a sound of their own. It is not a "listen to me" sound, but one focused on reproducing the musical signals they are fed. I like components that don’t impose too much of their own character onto the music. I like a natural sound, in which timbre and tonality are as correct as possible, but with just enough warmth to make a jazz quartet sound cozy. I want some "jump factor" too, as my musical tastes include serious rock and roll. I also like detail, resolution, and high frequency extension, but not so much that musical coherence is lost, or that hot recordings make the tweeters sound like mutant air horns. The Merlins give me all of this and more, including subtle tonality, solid soundstaging, and incredible imaging. I love great bass too, and while the TSMs are no slouches in this respect, Merlin obviously decided to do the best job it could with the lower octaves, cutting them off when it just ain’t gonna happen anymore. The result is taut and tuneful bass down to 55 Hz (down 10 dB at 35 Hz). While I could easily have lived with the bass that the TSMs dealt me, I added a REL Strata III subwoofer that integrates nicely into my room. I think the Merlins and the REL are a match made in audio heaven. 

A little history

Bobby Palkovic, the sorcerer responsible for the Merlin magic, and cabinet builder/designer Bill Hooper, developed a successful audio business by putting all of their design efforts into two basic product lines—the TSM series mini-monitors, and the flagship VSM floorstanders—that have been undergoing constant refinement since their inception. The TSM-SE was introduced in 1996, and Merlin’s passion for improving its designs can be seen in the TSM-M Millennium series, which debuted in 2000. 

While it has been some time since I listened to a pair of TSM-SEs, I remember how much truer to the music they were than my B&W CDM-1SEs (which, in my opinion, still sound very good). The Merlins’ silky treble extension and uncanny imaging were simply astonishing to me. When the Millennium versions became available, it wasn’t long before they were sitting on my fine 24-inch Osiris speaker stands. (Osiris is sadly now out of business, but I believe new pairs can still be had.) I still recall my jaw dropping to the floor when I first heard them. The differences might not have seemed that great to some people, but to me they were substantial. The redesigned Ms, while they never wavered from the natural sonic flavor of the original TSMs, had a more relaxed and effortless presentation.  

Feeling that the TSM-Ms were very special, I made every effort to ensure that they would sound their best, including finding components and cables that would give them every opportunity to shine. Cables have run the gamut from homemade cat 5, Kimber, and MIT to the current combination of Cardas Neutral Reference bi-wire speaker cable and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference and Final Labs Speed interconnects. I have partnered the TSM-Ms with amplifiers by McCormack, Audible Illusions, VAC, Final Labs. The current configuration includes the fantastic Berning ZH270 amp, the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II preamp, and the Cary 303-200 CD player. This configuration gives me by far the finest sound I have heard in my listening room.  

I should make a few observations. First, the TSMs have sounded at least really good with every piece of gear I’ve tried, except one. The only amp that struggled with the TSMs’ 87dB sensitivity was a very well known 15-watt 300B SET that just didn’t have the juice to drive them properly. Secondly, every time I have added a more refined component, the little Merlins have given me even more refined sound. While we all know that there is a point of diminishing returns, the TSMs seemingly unlimited capacity for better sound makes them very attractive for audiophiles with the endless upgrade bug. Lastly, like all audio equipment, the TSMs—in the SE or the M version—sound their very best with only a few partners. Cardas speaker cables certainly made a substantial difference, and while the McCormack amp’s warmish take on solid state sounded very, very, good, tubes really bring the TSMs to life.  

In my opinion, only two things about the TSM-Ms have ever needed even the least bit of improvement. One is the limited bass extension (though what can you expect with a 16 x 8 x 10.5-inch stand- mounted monitor with a 6-inch woofer?). The other is a slight tendency toward midrange leanness, especially with more neutral electronics and cables like mine. However, when I partnered them with a warmly-lit amp like the VAC Renaissance 30/30, I never noticed any leanness at all. Weeks prior to sending me the TSM-MMs with the Magic Mod, Bobby Palkovic told me that one of the improvements I could expect was a fuller sound. That sounded like a perfect fix for the lean mids. I wondered if he had added a bigger woofer, but decided that while he may have worked a little Merlin magic, only a sorcerer’s apprentice would muck with a great design just to add boomy bass.  

The original TSM-M is now a thing of the past, and all TSMs in the standard finish now come with the Magic Mod (MM). There is also a new model, the TSM-MX, which includes a premium finish and the Magic Mod improvements, plus even more internal refinements that put the MXs at the top of the TSM food chain. I’m jealous. Now that the TSM has added the opposable thumb and started walking erect, it’s time to unveil the latest stage of Merlin speaker evolution. 

POOF! The TSM with Magic Mod!

Another wet-your-whistle comment by Bobby Palkovic regarding the TSM-MM was his claim of a 30% improvement over its predecessor. Okay, that is the designer talking, so a grain of salt was taken, but how did the MM fare in my system? I can’t do percentages (I missed that day in school), but it is clearly better than the M. The TSM-MMs are not exactly cheap at 2800 Georges per pair, but even factoring in the cost of a great sub like the REL, I find their sound so captivating that they almost seem like a bargain. If I ever hit it big in Vegas, I’ll step up to the plate and order a pair of VSM-MXs, but until then, this latest version of the TSM is right where it belongs—in my room, crankin’ out the tunes.  

After setting up the MMs in the same location as the Ms, I sat down to give a preliminary listen. My immediate response was that the sonic attributes that made the TSMs so special had not changed, yet the MMs clearly sounded better. As I continued to listen during the next few days, I found that the new speakers had significantly more resolution than the Ms. During the past few months, a number of upgrades have increased my system’s ability to resolve inner detail, and the TSM-MMs extend that ability. What makes them better? One reason is that they are quieter. There is very little noise without a signal present. Lyrics are easier to follow, complex passages unravel, and the recording venue becomes more obvious. This additional resolution is a double-edged sword. At its worst, it clearly shows a recording’s weaknesses, but at its best it buries me deeply into the soul of the music. That, my audio friends, is what we are all about, isn’t it?  

Bobby Palkovic has also addressed the TSM-MMs’ slight thinness in the upper midrange in the MMs, which have a slightly richer, denser take on the upper mids. I noticed it first with the vocals and guitars of John Mellencamp’s Cuttin’ Heads CD, which were more fleshed out than with the previous models. The new Merlins give the midrange more body and substance, and an even more realistic tonality. But it wasn’t just guitars and Mellencamp’s raspy voice that got the star treatment, cymbals had less zing, more sheen and sparkle, and again, more realism. All iterations of the TSMs have been soundstaging champs. That has not changed in the MMs, and while I haven’t noticed an increase in width, I have noticed slightly more depth. More impressive is the additional image density. The TSMs have always had pinpoint imaging when correctly placed, but the MMs offer an even more 3D quality. 

While loving the music on Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy CD, I’ve never been a big fan of its overproduced electronica. The Merlins allow me to hear the music though the purposeful haziness. McLachlan’s voice is front and center, more clearly delineated than before, as the backing instrumentation and vocals ebb and flow around her. The additional resolution serves to give the murky sound new life.  

On (my interpretation of) a well recorded CD, such as Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth, the TSM-MM’s are truly in their element. The clean production is only overshadowed by the fab performance of Lyle and the supremely talented band recruited to back him. Eerily quiet in places, beautifully passionate in others, yet with high energy cuts like Church keeping the dynamic bursts of Lovett-ness alive. I have heard enough live saxophones in my own home to die a happy wind instrument lover, and I can assert without hesitation, that Plas Johnsons’ great sax work on All my love is Gone has the lovely burnished signature of the tenor written all over it—no guessing necessary.

I want to reiterate something that I stated earlier. Every time I have made a positive improvement to my system, the TSMs have given an ever-higher level of performance. As with any gear, matching is the key to getting the most out of them, and there must be good partners at all price levels. Do your homework and ye shall be rewarded! There is no question that the TSMs love top notch gear and accessories, but the older versions worked wonderfully with my older, more modest components, and I have every reason to believe that this is still the case. 

The TSM line of speakers has been on an evolutionary track for some time. With the TSM-MMs, Merlin has managed to push the envelope forward once again. Will the wizard of Hemlock, New York continue to wave his magic wand and improve his design? Probably, but if you are interested in the Merlin TSMs, I wouldn’t wait for a proclamation by the king. I’d order a pair now and be happy. 

I don’t find myself listening to my equipment anymore. I just listen to music. In my system, the Merlin TSM-MMs provide a more convincing reproduction of music than ever before. Are they perfect? Perhaps, but I can’t say they’re for everybody. While they will play wonderfully with a variety of gear, they require careful partnering with a great source, excellent electronics, and the right cables to sound their best. When those criteria are met, they can sound stunningly real and connected to the very soul of the music. The rest of the time, they’re merely wonderful. I guess you could say that is a five-out-of-five-star rating. Gary L. Beard

TSM-MM loudspeakers
Retail: $2800

Merlin Music Systems
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