Merlin TSM-SE Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Just before I sat down to write this follow-up review, I looked around my storage area and gazed at the number of bookshelf-type speakers Ive already reviewed. The ones in the storage area are in limbo, waiting to be shipped back to manufacturers. Others have already gone back, and a few others are still waiting to make their way to my listening room. These speakers are priced from a few hundred to a few thousands dollars, and Ive listened to quite a number over the last couple of years -- dozens and dozens if you include the ones at shows. The Merlin TSM loudspeaker is one I reviewed well over a year ago, and now it is interesting to revisit the latest incarnation of this speaker, the TSM-SE.
Going all out
The TSM-SE, priced at $2300, is definitely not a low-priced speaker. In fact, some people may wonder how such a little speaker can cost so much. The answer is simple if you look at the parts quality and the attention to detail in the speakers construction. While there are some very good lower-priced bookshelf monitors that cost anywhere from a couple hundred to anything under what these cost (of course, there are plenty that cost much more), these speakers usually show signs of cut corners. This means the designers must make compromises for their product to come in at a certain price point. Although some audiophiles are skeptical of the prices manufacturers charge, I have to believe that the TSM-SE is priced fairly based on its construction and parts quality alone. No other bookshelf-sized loudspeaker Ive auditioned priced less than $2000 has the quality of components -- which includes names like Hovland, Edison-Price, Morel, and Caddock -- or the level of fit and finish that the TSM-SE displays. In fact, there seems to be something magical about the $2k price point. Its here that manufacturers can start to go all out to make the very best product they can. I have the $2200 Mirage MRM-1s slated for review next, and their build quality is outstanding too.
Ive learned over the years that Merlin is not only fanatical about their designs and subsequent attention to detail, they are fanatical in their rapport with customers. Anyone who phones the Merlin factory will probably talk firsthand to Bobby Palkovic. And if the person owns Merlin loudspeakers, more than likely Palkovic will have had a hand in the creation of that exact speaker -- partially because Merlin is a fairly small company, but mainly because I hear that he personally inspects every speaker that leaves the factory. Given the price of many high-end components, including little speakers like this one, I believe complete customer care should be paramount. Its there in spades with Merlin.
The TSM-SEs under review werent born that way. My original TSMs were upgraded to full-fledged TSM-SE status. The price for the upgrade from TSM to SE status ranges from $180 to $450 depending on whether or not your vintage of TSM needs the newer drivers (check with Merlin to find out for sure). The full upgrade involves replacing the existing Morel woofers and tweeters with the same models from that company, but new and improved versions. Some of the improvements in the newer woofer include an improved suspension and a reduction of the mass of the cone; the result is better excursion capability with lower distortion that reportedly results in more kick and oomph to flesh out the bottom end. The new tweeters mounting plate is thicker and covered with a polyurethane coating. Some of the crossover parts have been modified as well, but according to Palkovic, the most critical improvement is in the damping of certain crossover components -- resonance control some will call it. The result, according to Palkovic, is a slightly cleaner sound that eliminates any fizzies and improves resolution.
The speakers sensitivity and impedance remain unchanged. Merlin rates the sensitivity as 86dB, which is on par with most sealed-box speakers about this size. The impedance is rated between 6 and 8 ohms, which makes it a pretty easy load to drive. All tallied, this means it will take a bit of power to get up to appreciable volume levels, but the rather easy load means the TSM-SE wont require a real gutsy amp. Tube amplification is definitely a possibility. I had outstanding results with the original TSM and the 55Wpc Sonic Frontiers Power 1. Id say a good amplifier between 40Wpc and 100Wpc at 8 ohms, tube or solid state, should suffice.
Its fairly easy to plunk the TSM-SE down and get reasonable sound, but youll need to play around with them for a while to get the most out them. Ive visited Richard Brkichs Signature Sound store near Syracuse a number of times. Rich has sold Merlin speakers for many years, and Ive noticed he has a definite placement strategy that is common for all Merlin speaker models he sells. Richs main listening room is a little longer and narrower than most, so, he pulls the speakers way out into the room so theyre about eight to ten feet from the rear wall. With the speakers out in the room, the listening chair is about eight to nine feet from the speaker plane, which still leaves a few feet behind the listener to the back wall. Having such a long room is a luxury many people don't have. With this type of placement, Rich gets a huge soundstage with an incredible amount of depth. I dont have as long a room as the one at Signature Sound, but I still like to have the speakers a reasonable distance from the back wall. In my room, I ended up with the speakers about five feet from the rear wall. Some people may choose to go closer, which will help boost the bottom due to room reinforcement; however, this may be at the expense of some soundstage depth.
At my place, the TSM-SEs get placed atop 26" Osiris Audionics stands (which are no longer produced but still available from Audio Odyssey and Signature Sound) in my reference system consisting of Theta digital components for source and Blue Circle Audio electronics. Wiring between all components is by Nirvana Audio, with the exception of the jumper wires for the binding posts (I run the speakers single-wired). The jumpers were supplied by Merlin and made from Cardas hookup wire. Should you need jumpers, these are a very good way to go.
The TSM-SE is an evolutionary step up from the regular TSM. From the first listen its easy to discern that the basic character of the speaker remains the same with some improvement in the bass region. There is better kick in the bass, the bottom end sounding subjectively deeper. What you get, then, is a further refinement of the TSM sound, which I characterize as fast, precise and extremely detailed. This is still not a speaker for large rooms, but it does flesh out nicely in small to medium-sized rooms.
The improvement in bass response was first noticed through various recordings with instruments that reach into the low end. While the lowest frequencies, below 40Hz or so, are shelved off, whats above that region is tight and well-controlled and has improved detail. Bass guitar and the low end of a piano have more control and better weight. Large-scale dynamics and the ability to play really loud are still not the TSMs forte, but overall dynamics for a small speaker are good and the microdynamics are extremely good. As mentioned before, closer placement to walls will help reinforce the bass in most rooms.
While the TSM was not a speaker I would say exhibited any type of congestion in the midrange, the TSM-SE does have a slightly cleaner quality that gives vocals and instruments that dominate the midrange frequencies a slightly more stark and distinct presence. Its not a big difference, mind you, but one that surfaces when listening very closely to high-resolution recordings through really good electronics. I would have to say that any improvement in the high frequencies is slight but apparent. The highs are just a tad bit cleaner, and this characteristic is also assisted by the improvement of the midrange region. The overall result is a speaker that can sing with stunning clarity.
Overall resolution is increased just a notch, which is particularly noticeable through the midrange and bass regions. There is just that slight bit more texture and ability to hear into a recording. When I first accustomed myself to the original TSM, I felt that it would make an ideal nearfield recording monitor. Sure enough, Palkovic had told me that he designed the speaker to be a vocal monitor. Without a hint of chestiness or hollowness that plagues many lesser speakers, along with the ability to portray voices with uncanny realism, the TSM-SE would, without a doubt, be a valuable monitoring tool.
Like the original TSM, the SE version has the ability to project a soundstage with excellent specificity and incredible depth. I chalk this up to the very good driver integration and the exceedingly high resolution that this speaker is capable of. The TSM-SE renders the musicians beautifully in a three-dimensional space with depth that extends far beyond my rear walls (of course, this depth must be inherent in the recording). I know some people who have never heard a great sense of depth in their systems, and when they hear these speakers, they turn slack-jawed.
Competition runs fierce
These days the biggest competition to any bookshelf-sized loudspeaker entering my room comes from the $1599 Cliffhanger Audio CHS-2 loudspeakers (there is an optional sub for this loudspeaker called the W-2). The CHS-2 is a smooth, almost liquid performer with a silky midrange and very good bass extension. Its great value at its price. From a construction standpoint, the Cliffhanger model is not up to the standard of the TSM-SE in terms of fit and finish, which undoubtedly counts for some of the price differential. The CHS-2 is well built, but the TSM-SE is outstanding with nice touches like the Edison-Price Music Posts on the back.
Sonically, the two speakers are somewhat of a different breed. The CHS-2 has a slightly bigger cabinet, extends lower in the bass and has the ability to play a bit louder. There is a smooth and leisurely quality to the CHS-2 that makes it seductive on a wide variety of music. Furthermore, it has better slam and control for higher-volume rock recordings. On the other hand, the CHS-2 does not have quite the resolution and texture of the TSM-SE. This is most noticeable on vocals and with instruments that have bite and attack. The TSM-SE gets into every nook and cranny to extract detail and presents it with great neutrality and transparency. In this regard, the TSM-SE is closer to the excellent Shamrock Eire loudspeakers (priced from $2995 depending on finish). The Eire is a larger bookshelf monitor that uses the venerable Scan-Speak 8545 woofer found in some very good loudspeakers including Merlins own VSM-SE. Both of these speakers are capable of outstanding resolution.
Imaging is comparable between the CHS-2 and TSM-SE, and both can be considered champs. The CHS-2 can float an image that is liquid and smooth as anything and has rock-solid placement with almost touchable palpability. The TSM-SE is a little drier, but portrays better depth and gives more air around the performers. Both speakers are noteworthy for their outstanding tonal balance. Instruments like piano are rendered with impressive realism through both speakers, but again, there are differences to their presentation. The CHS-2 is a tad more laid-back with that seductive, smooth presence. The TSM-SE is a little more incisive and immediate with a more stark presence. The smallest nuances and air around an instrument are just slightly more distinct through the TSM-SE.
Make no mistake, despite their differences, all these speakers I mentioned are wonderful performers. Used within their limits in appropriately sized rooms, aspects of their performance equal and sometimes surpass much more expensive floorstanding speakers -- Im talking MUCH more expensive speakers. As Ive always said about bookshelf loudspeakers, you give up a little (deep bass extension, large-scale dynamics and the ability to play really loud) to gain a lot in terms of neutrality, transparency and price.
Merlin builds speakers that I consider true monitors. Both the VSM-SE and TSM-SE dont pretty up a sonic picture or caramel-coat the sound. They are highly revealing of source components and will deliver outstanding resolution that will allow listeners to see into recordings. Ive heard many say that very few speakers can equal what the Merlins do in terms of vocal presentation and resolution, and I have to agree -- this applies to both the TSM and VSM series. As a result, each speaker requires careful setup and attention to detail to match them to appropriate high-quality components. Once mated properly, they can portray music with uncanny accuracy and neutrality.
The TSM-SE will appeal to those looking for an extremely refined bookshelf monitor able to extract minute details from music. This is not a speaker for people who want really deep bass or the ability to play really loud, but will appeal to people looking for outstanding resolution, high transparency and sonic neutrality that will fit perfectly in a small to medium-sized room. If you are an owner of the TSMs and already like what they do, then the upgrade to SE status is definitely worth the money. Although the basic character of the loudspeaker remains the same, there is a step up in terms of refinement and resolution, particularly in the bass and midrange regions. While $2300 is certainly not cheap for any loudspeaker, in this case it buys one of the finest minimonitors around.
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