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Merlin Music TSM-MM

Isn't she lovely

[Merlin Music TSM-MM - red finish]
[Italian version]

Product: Merlin TSM-MM - standmount loudspeakers
Manufacturer: Merlin Music Systems Inc. - USA
Approx. price: 2800 $
Availability: official distributors worldwide or factory direct (where applicable)
UK dealer who supplied the test sample: HiFidelity Audio - UK
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Published: May, 2005

Perhaps the brand Merlin Music Systems Inc. says almost nothing to newbies but seasoned and expert audiophiles know Merlin loudspeakers pretty well. The TSM and the VSM models have earned a very high reputation among fine audiophiles and audio critics worldwide. Personally, I've been a VSM floorstander lover since day one.
Unlike many other HiFi Companies, Merlin Music Systems manufacture two models of loudspeakers only. Yes, just TWO models, nothing else. Instead of offering dozens of useless different models, they prefer to concentrate all of their efforts and expertise on designing and manufacturing a floorstander and a standmounting speaker (plus some different "edition" of these). Few things, done right. Damn right.

Description and tech specs

The TSM-MM monitor under test is, for several reasons, a pretty unusual and unique design. First of all, it is a closed and sealed box, no reflex ports, no transmission lines, no vents, just a rock-solid compact cabinet built like a tank. The already bomb-proof enclosure has been made even more rigid by means of brass reinforcement bars on front of cabinet.
The front baffle, 1 " thick, is heavily braced to prevent resonancies while the whole enclosure is internally and externally damped. Rounded edges and corners allow to keep sound diffractions low.
The woofer used on the TSM-MM is the Morel MW 164, a 6.25 inch damped pulp cone unit with cast aluminum basket, low diffraction neoprene rubber surround, 3" voice coil and rear vented motor. The tweeter, still from Morel, is the well known and highly praised MDT 30 (1 inch soft dome, liquid cooled). The two-ways crossover has a 12 dB/octave slope, centered at 2150 Hz. It makes use of very good passive components such as Hovland aluminum foil and polypropylene caps, Caddock Micronix film resistors while internal wiring is made by means of Cardas Crossfield cables. The circuit is impedance corrected and offers a so-called "electronic damping". Binding posts are still from Cardas, of the "no-stress" kind (a single nut locks the binding posts simultaneously, see pic above).
These are the main claimed tech specs.

I've had the chance to evaluate the Merlin TSM-MM's over an extended period of time, thanks to the patience of the UK dealer, Mr. Paul Letteri. I've tested them with many different amplifiers (at least 4 integrateds and two pre-power combos) and two different speaker stands: Acoustical (62 cm, aluminium, from Italy) and Atacama Nexus (72 cm, steel, from UK). Actually these are the stand heights recommended by Merlin, depending on listening height. The ears should be in axis with the midpoint between woofer and tweeter.

Isn't she lovely

[Merlin Music TSM-MM - black finish]

Merlin Music Inc. defines the TSM-MM's as "mini-monitors". We Europeans may have a different idea on what a mini-monitor should look like, size-wise. ProAC Tablettes, Rogers LS 3/5As, Linn Kans, Diapason Micras, Sonus Faber Minimas...these are "mini"-monitors, according to our "Old World" habits. I'd rather classify the TSM-MM's as "monitors" or "bookshelf" loudspeakers. Hence, though not exactly "mini", these speakers are "monitors" without any reasonable doubt. Indeed, what a "monitor" should do? Monitor, of course! As my Oxford dictionary reports... to monitor: observe and check over a period of time; maintain regular surveillance over; listen to and report on. Right! A "monitor" speaker should tell you exactly what's happening "behind" it. It should reveal every nuance, any tiny-weenie detail, every fault (or virtue) of its ancillaries (sources, amplification and cables).
If this is what you're looking for your listening pleasure....STOP! And look no further. These units are among the most accurate and revealing loudspeakers I've ever come across. They can reveal virtually anything that reaches their binding posts (the good, the bad and the ugly). It is not a surprise these speakers have been chosen by many HiFi reviewers worldwide. They can make reviewing other components extremely EASY. A snap.

Tonally neutral, a bit dry in the bass, perhaps, the Merlin TSM-MM's are high precision (musical) instruments. It is IMPOSSIBLE not to fall in love with them...unless you are in search for a coloured, highly "subjective" and personal musical reproduction. Actually, many audiophiles don't want something close to reality, they simply need an artificial and deformed picture of the real event. Silky strings (though they are made out of steel), wooly drums (though they are made out of stiff leather) and so on.
The TSM-MM's simply tell the truth. And truth isn't always pleasant, you may object.
Here I tend to disagree: the way these speakers deliver Music is so natural that it never hurts the ears. You can detect every fault in your system (or recording) but the way these faults are "exposed" is seldom irritating. Part of this "magic" is probably due to an extremely refined crossover design and implementation or to the intrinsic high quality of the drivers and cabinet. I don't know. The point is that these speakers are better than the simple algebraic sum of their parts. The Morel MDT 30 tweeter is well known to me but NEVER - I say never - I've heard it sounding so good, so natural, so unbelievably real.
Voices and acoustical instruments possess that touch of finesse that makes every listening session a pure pleasure. And even when pushed hard with electrified Music these speakers stay in control, sounding precise, mature and convincing.
Being a rather small sealed enclosure one can't expect either extremely deep nor powerful bass. 55 Hz are down at -2dB so bass freaks are warned. These speakers won't shake the walls and the floor. BUT! They know well how to let you follow a bass line with ease: just "click in" and listen. While pipe organ lowest fundamentals are missing (35 Hz are at -10 dB) the whole performance in the bass can still be considered adequate, especially in small rooms.
The UK dealer recommends using them paired with a subwoofer...I'd prefer to have a pair of VSM floorstanders instead :-)
If asked for a preferences list, I'd rate the mid and the mid-high ranges very high, in absolute terms: electrostatic purity matched to extreme dynamic coherence and precision. Bass and mid-bass simply can't reach - for obvious reasons - the same level of quality, accuracy and realism.
Transparency is perhaps their best quality overall, in the sense they remain "transparent" to every signal variation. Just perform a negligible change "behind" them and they'll reveal it, effortlessly, be it a new mains cable, a new set of damping feet or even, hear hear!, the different position of the speaker cables on their binding posts! Let me tell you a little bit more about this.
Merlin recommend using their own RC network between amplifier and speakers. It is, actually, a Zobel network that should help amplifiers in staying "stable" under load and/or be more cables-indipendent. Merlin claim most amplifiers don't have a built-in Zobel network and this is the reason why one should use an external one. In my experience, most amplifiers DO have a Zobel network, only few ones don't (Naim, for example). Anyway, you can refer to the complete owner's manual for details about connecting the Merlin Zobel network to your system. This network (a wire with a cap and a resistor) should be connected to the TSM-MM's binding posts (eventually to the amp's binding posts). You can connect the speakers cable to the binding posts and THEN connect the Zobel network or viceversa (before the network and THEN the speaker cables). Electrically, there shouldn't be any difference. Theory notwithstanding, the Merlins are so transparent and revealing that I was able to hear the difference between one way of connection and the other!!! I couldn't believe to my ears. Simply stunning.
Oh, before you ask, with the amplifiers I used, the Merlins sounded better WITHOUT the Merlin Zobel network: more precise, detailed and natural. With the network in place, the sound became a bit shut-in and confused. Anyway, not a night/day difference. Your mileage may vary, as usual.

Summarizing, the Merlin TSM-MM's are stunningly transparent, precise and communicative. They hide NOTHING but still can sound very natural. If this isn't magic, please tell me what it is. Not the ultimate in bass response and drive, but considering the size and type of the enclosure, the performance in this area is still very good.

Dynamics

As any seasoned audiophile worth his weight in gold plated connectors would tell you...if you want fast bass, search for an acoustic suspension enclosure. Vented cabinets are often referred as boomy and slow in the bass. Though this isn't 100% true (and perhaps not even 50%) the Merlin TSM-MM's are actually very fast, tight and rythmic. Bass isn't explosive but dynamically accurate: variations are delivered with "in scale" accuracy and correct timing. No goose-bumps and wall shaking dynamics, though: all you get is a correct, mature and self-controlled dynamic performance. Rockers and headbangers may find this attitude a bit too "shy" but, dudes, these are high precision monitors, not "fight for your rights to party" speakers.
After all, claimed max SPL is just 104 dB (at 1 meter, I assume) so, though they can sound loud enough to easily upset your neighbours, they are not your best weapon for house parties. Anyway, do not forget 104 dB of sound pressure is something you can barely tolerate in the long run. Above 100 dB level, talking with a friend seated next to you can become difficult, just to give you an idea.
Microdynamics performance is astounding, instead. If it's there, they'll tell you. No lies.

3D soundstage

Welcome to the pleasuredome, guys. 3D imaging from these babies is something an audiophile should experience at least once in a lifetime. The image these monitors can create is stunning even after a "casual" positioning but it really becomes something "magic" when you find the perfect height and orientation. Once found this "sweet spot" the speakers simply disappear. You can stand up and walk close to or around them and find it hard to believe the sound is coming from those small boxes. Move to the left or to the right, things don't change: it is the air surrounding them that sounds, NOT the speakers.
I've had a similar experience with just another bookshelf loudspeaker, the Aliante One Zeta. You can detect the speaker is connected to your system only when the distance approaches 1 meter or so, then the sound from the drivers becomes self-evident. Otherwise...nothing! If you wish to impress your friends, place a second pair of speakers behind the Merlins, leaving it unconnected. Then ask your friends to determine which pair is playing. I'm pretty sure everyone - regardless of the listening seat - will choose the pair behind the Merlins. And don't get me wrong: I'm not simply saying the sound or the stage is placed "behind" the speakers. This is easy to get with many other products. No, I'm saying it is the air surrounding them to vibrate while the speakers remain silent. I know it is hard to believe until you experience it by yourself. So, ask for a (serious) audition and...smile.

This is the most fascinating aspect of these monitors: a huge, extremely detailed, pin-point focused. holographic soundstage which extends above and beyond the space between the speakers. Stable as a marble slab, so unmistakably real to seem unreal. After all, high fidelity is all about mystification!
If you want to monitor the work of a recording engineer, these are the speakers to use: you can detect - with extreme precision - the position of every instrument or singer, left to right, top to bottom, back to forth.

Some advice

Read the owner's manual from cover to cover. An alignment tool is supplied to properly toe-in the speakers in your listening room (best angle: 100 degrees). AVOID bookshelf installation like the plague and choose the speakers stands carefully: the ear should be aligned with the midpoint between woofer and tweeter. In my listening room I've achieved this result with the Atacama Nexus stands (height: 72 cm). Your mileage may vary.
Choose rigid stands with spikes, if you have a carpeted floor. Perform your own experiments with and without Merlin Zobel networks as your findings may differ from mine. Thanks to the extreme transparency of these speakers, finding your favourite option will be extremely easy. Remember: they unveil everything. Choose the best ancillaries and partners you can afford, the performance gets better at each upgrade you can make, regardless of price.
The manufacturer claims these are a "friendly" load for the amplifier. I'm not 100% sure. First of all the 87 dB sensitivity requires quite powerful amplifiers, unless you listen at moderate levels and/or in a small room. Secondly, despite the electrical claimed data I have the feeling these TSM-MM's aren't so "easy" with the amplifiers. Anyway, quality first, then power.
Finally, plan some serious break-in, I'd recommend at least 100 hours. The woofers definitely need some time to perform at their best. Right out of the box, the bass range is extremely dry and lightweight.

Complaints

Manufacturing and finish. Hard to find something wrong here, these speakers are a work of art. Beautifully and sturdly crafted, the TSM-MM's may not suit everyone's taste but many different finishes are available (check the Merlin website for details). There's one thing I somehow disliked: the Cardas binding posts and their "locking" system. Only bare wire or forks are accepted and that locking nut isn't the most user-friendly device one can think of.
The owner's manual is really "cheap" looking. Several Xerox copy A4 pages hold together with a snail. Something better should be supplied, considering the tag price.
The warranty on these speakers is a reassuring 5 years on parts and labour.
Are they pricey? Not exactly inexpensive, I admit, but considering the quality of the components and of the whole design, I find it adequate. And once you listen to them, you tend to forget their price, quite easily.
Sound. Any reviewer's dream: a speaker that makes finding differences between HiFi components extremely easy. Just connect and listen. Some will find these speakers a bit on the dry side, with lean bass and limited frequency response. Some others would find the TSM-MM's too revealing and unforgiving, especially if familiar with sluggish and woolly speakers. Me? Just give me more bass (depth and slam) and I'll love these babies forever.

Conclusions

Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea, these Merlin TSM-MM's are a true acoustic masterpiece. Their performance in certain areas - precision, transparency, tonal accuracy and soundstaging - is simply outstanding and WAY ABOVE their price range. If you want to (really) know what's been recorded on your discs...ask a Merlin dealer for an audition test. The truth can be shocking, but once you discover it, you will find it hard to look back.

© Copyright 2005 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com

Manufacturer's comment

Dear editor,
this review was a very pleasant surprise because I did not know that the review was being compiled. It is obvious that you spent a great deal of time with the speaker system and that that you are an expert in your field. But better yet, IMHO you have done an exceedingly good job of conveying the essence of the speaker to your readership. My sincere thanks to you for this commentary and you considerable efforts. If I may, there are a few points that I would like to clear up in the form of a manufacturer's comment.
The TSM Millennium was taken out of production in February of 2004. It was replaced by the TSM MX (pictured at the beginning of the review) and the TSM MM (pictured in the later on).
The TSM speaker system is a sophisticated/modern, high Q design. We have spent 8 years refining it to a point where all of the resonance and distortion have been damped out of the system. So, when you turn up the volume, you are amplifying the music and not the customary noise, distortion and color. These damped designs will sound better with tube amps with a higher output impedance or solid state amps with a lower damping factor and mosfets in particular.
It is also a good practice to listen to them farther away as the farther you get from them the fuller they sound (9 1/2 feet is optimum). When placing this type of design on a stand, do not decouple the speaker from the stand. Place it right on the pedestal so that energy can pass easily from the enclosure to the stand. If you are concerned about safety, a little blue tack/poster putty on the bottom of the speaker will hold it securely in place.
The bottom end of the TSM is really quite remarkable IMHO. It is -2db at 55hz, -3db at 50 and -4db at 45. It is still producing usable bass down to 35hz. Although it does not produce the lowest octave, it does accomplish exactly what it was designed to do. Smaller rooms can not support deep bass anyway. Deep bass has a very long bass wavelength that needs to be propagated and this cannot be accomplished in smaller rooms.
In North America, most amplifiers do not come terminated with a Zobel network. It is for that reason that we offer an outboard rc network. The RC will provide an unterminated amp with a 100 ohm load at 100 khz. It also acts as an ultrasonic filter of rfi and emi at 1.6 mhz. If your amp is terminated with a Zobel network and you use our RC also, the sound will suffer because you have created a tank circuit by using 2 filters in the same circuit with inductance between them. You will not hurt the amp by trying this. But if the amp is not terminated you will notice a very large improvement in the sound.
The presentation will become more uniform, clearer, smoother and show more spacial cues. A sense of false brightness will disappear and the sound will be more relaxed and fleshed out.
I was extremely pleased by the comments you made about the Morel tweeter sounding so real. This by the way is the Morel USA version. The new cryogenically treated crossover networks have improved the sound so much that the TSM MM/Morel MDT-30 combination actually sounds better than the VSM M/Esotar. This is quite a bold statement to make but it has been said by many and not just me.
Of course, the the new VSM MM and MX are better again. The point I am making is that the drivers are very important but the way they are implemented is even more so. And last of all the terminals. These terminals are a brilliantly designed piece because they rid the connector of two serious problems, those being metal stress from over tightening and the threads.
Threads cause skin effect and a general smearing of the HF and metal stress causes a pinching or stressing of the sound.
IMO, this is evident in almost every other conventional binding post. Bananas do not sound good and you can clearly hear their resonance through our speaker designs. The issue of their user friendly nature, well, after you get used to them and use them for a while you'll find a way of accomplishing what you need that is far easier than conventional posts. Plus, you can tighten them as hard as you can without deforming anything which is a must for heavy/awkward cables.
I agree with your description of what a monitor is and what it should do. Because of the nature of the design, bass energy and extension will never rival larger floor standing models. But this increased energy cannot be used in small rooms anyway because it will just beat on the room resonant frequency. However, the mid and high frequencies can be as good as products costing many times more so these properly executed monitor designs can provide some of the best value in sound reproduction.
Many thanks again Lucio for you consideration and kindness.
Bobby A. Palkovich - President of Merlin Music Systems Inc.

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