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Equipment Review
September 1998

Merlin TSM Loudspeakers

by Marc Mickelson

Family resemblance: good or bad? Good if Cindy Crawford is your mom, bad if [insert name of aesthetically challenged person here] is. In the case of audio components, rarely do two products from the same manufacturer sound radically different -- even those that function differently, an amplifier and CD player for instance. Companies do have a house sound, and the real story is when what they produce one year sounds very different the next -- or when two current products sound unlike each other.

The Merlin VSM Gen. III RC and VSM-SE speakers that I’ve previously reviewed share a number of similarities, including the fact that they look identical, and as I’ve come to discover, the Merlin TSM minimonitors are also very similar to their bigger brothers. All three speakers come in basic black (waaaay cool optional colors are available at extra cost) with brass accents, use the fine Edison-Price all-copper binding posts, and include the RC networks that attach to the binding posts. They also have the Merlin sound -- treble extension without intrinsic grain or hardness, tremendous midrange clarity, the ability to disappear in your room. Thus the TSMs retain many of the fine qualities of the VSMs and VSM-SEs and cost less than half of their prices, making them in my mind an even better buy than the other Merlin speakers (which are no slouches in terms of overall value).

First, a bit of homage to the original SoundStage! review and reviewer. Doug Schneider covered all of the ins and outs of the TSMs’ construction and use, so I won’t repeat this information here. I will reiterate Doug’s plea for the use of good stands with the TSMs. He used a pair of BBC SS-24 stands, but I found the well-made and attractive Osiris stands to be absolutely ideal sonically and visually for the TSMs.

Doug also mentions that the TSMs, like the other Merlin speakers, love tubes. Thus, he had great results with the Anthem Amp 1 and Pre 1L. I would say that if you really want to hear what a pair of Merlin speakers can do, use them with Joule Electra electronics, period. I was lucky enough to hear the TSMs with a Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III linestage and VZN-80 Mk III amplifier, which together cost almost $10,000. Although this was not a realistic combination in terms of price, the sound was stunning and only cemented in my mind that Jud Barber of Joule Electra and Bobby Palkovic at Merlin are somehow cosmically linked. Another component that worked well was the Mesa Tigris integrated amp, which allows for a great deal of adjustment and thus tailoring of the sound to suit your overall preferences or mood for the day. In terms of speaker cables, Doug used Nirvana S-L, a single run; I, on the other hand, biwired with JPS Superconductor and DH Labs Silver Sonic. Overall, I preferred the JPS cables because of their added fullness, especially in the bass. The DH Labs cables, however, are much cheaper and performed very well overall.

A few weeks ago, Doug said to me "I like minimonitors." He should -- he’s Mister Minimonitor, having reviewed a number of pairs of them, and with more to come. And who can blame him -- there are things that generally minimonitors can do that big speakers like my reference ProAc Response Fours can’t -- like disappear sonically. Minimonitors often, but not always, are two-ways with simpler crossovers than their floorstanding counterparts. Thus, what they may lack in bass extension, they can make up for in tonal purity. And, of course, if you have a small room, you have to use small speakers or live with the constrained performance of your cramped bigger speakers.

Doug praised the TSMs as an "exceptionally detailed and revealing monitor -- one that favors quality over quantity." He goes on to add that "I have heard speakers that impart an attractive, larger-than-life-size dimensionality, but it seems to me that the TSM is truer to the live rendering of a performance." I can’t disagree. The TSMs would certainly be at home in the recording studio, where they would be prized for their neutrality and ability to reveal musical nuance that other speakers might gloss over. However, I would not say -- and I think Doug would agree with me here -- that they are so revealing that only your very best recordings sound good through them. The TSMs share the ability of the larger Merlin speakers to reveal naturally, without adding unpleasantness of their own. You’ll still know that your bad recordings are bad, but you’ll know it because they are bad, not because your speakers intensify anything about them.

In fact, the TSMs are just a bit sweeter than VSMs and VSM-SEs, probably due to the different tweeters -- the VSM’s/VSM-SE’s costly Dynaudio Esotar versus the Morel tweeter in the TSM (both are soft-dome units). The VSMs and VSM-SEs offer a touch more air, and because they are 90dB efficient, they can also impart the power of the music more aptly than the 86dB-efficient TSMs can. And Doug nails it on the TSMs’ ability to reproduce voice: "Time and time again I was amazed how accurate the TSM sounded on well-recorded human voice." The nicely presented Janis Joplin boxed set on Columbia [Columbia/Legacy C3K 48845] is scary over the TSMs -- straight up, no prettifying.

Although I agree with Doug that "the TSM can’t be expected to rock your room’s foundation," I didn’t find the TSMs to be obviously shy of bass. However, I didn’t listen to them in comparison to the array of minimonitors that Doug had on hand. Instead, I just put on discs, sat back, and enjoyed what they did. No, the TSMs will not charge your room with low-frequency information, but in my opinion they do a credible job down low. I listened to "Misguided Angel" and "Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)" from the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session [BMG 8568-2-R], and Doug is right -- the bass is only "hinted at." But it is there, along with everything else, and doesn’t sound out of proportion to my ears (until I listened to the same tracks on the big system, where everything was more pronounced).

I’ve now heard the entire Merlin family of speakers, and I’m fond of them all. The VSMs and VSM-SEs certainly perform beyond their prices, but given that the TSMs offer so much of the quality of the larger and more expensive Merlin speakers, they have to be considered the biggest bargain of the line. If you covet the Merlin VSMs or VSM-SEs but don’t have the room or money for them, listen seriously to the TSMs. After months of use with a great deal of different equipment, the TSMs have proven to be just another part of the Merlin family.

...Marc Mickelson

Merlin TSM Loudspeakers
Price: $2,100 USD per pair (stands necessary)

Merlin Music Systems
4705 S. Main St., P.O. Box 146
Hemlock, NY 14466
Phone: 716-367-2390
Fax: 716-367-2685

E-mail: info@merlinmusic.com
Internet: www.merlinmusic.com

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